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Sabres look to stay positive as second half begins

Commentary

Tonight, the Buffalo Sabres return from their week long break for the 2020 All-Star Weekend in St. Louis and for the first time in a while I am satisfied where the Sabres currently stand headed into the second half of the season.

Usually at this juncture, the Sabres have already played themselves out of a playoff spot and you can tell that there is nothing positive happening with the team. But this year the Kruger coached squad has me feeling different. Now by no means are the Sabres in a perfect spot — sitting 10 points back of Florida for third in the Atlantic Division — but considering the circumstances of this season, Sabres fans have a lot to be happy about.

The top line of Eichel-Olofsson-Reinhart can certainly have the case be made that anyone could coach that line to success with the generational talent Eichel driving it, but the fact of the matter is both Eichel and Reinhart are having career years and Olofsson was having a monster rookie campaign before getting injured.

Ristolainen was notorious for being defensively irresponsible with his laughable career plus/minus of (-141), but under Kruger he is a (+2) which is an unbelievable improvement considering last season he was a (-41). Without completely limiting Ristolainen’s time on ice — as he still leads the team with 22:46 oppose to last year’s 24:38 — Kruger has somehow gotten the blueliner to figure out many of his defensive issues that made him the subject of trade talks this offseason.

In net, sometimes coaches give players way too long to prove their chance and sometimes a players chance is gone before you can blink, with the Buffalo goaltending controversy I think Kruger waited the right amount of time to make Linus Ullmark the starter.

The biggest knock on Kruger would be the low production of Jeff Skinner who GM Jason Botterill shelled out nine million per year to for his 40 goal campaign last year. The easiest way to fix Skinner’s production would be to slot him right back with Jack while Olofsson is injured, but that will cause issues when the rookie returns and I am all for giving the rookie the best chance to succeed and forcing the highly paid guy to figure it out. So what should be done is separate Eichel and Reinhart and put Reinhart with Skinner and Johansson, while Eichel can play with literally anyone from our entire organization top to bottom and still produce because of how talented he is.

If people closely watch they will see that Reinhart is our smartest player, while not being the most talented he is certainly capable of driving his own line as he can slide into any role a line needs whether it’s a puck getter, distributor or goalscorer he can do it all and would fit well with Johansson and Skinner.

Skinner will return to the lineup tonight against Ottawa after missing the last 10 games due to an upper body injury sustained against the Bruins on Dec. 27. It won’t be surprising if Skinner nets a goal against the lowly Senators to hype Sabres fans up about his return, but he will continue to have a lackluster year if he’s not on a good line.

As every coach has them it is obvious Kruger has missed on some things, but the consensus is he’s had a good first year, while most of Buffalo’s complaints have been directed at Botterill. I understand that Botterill has done things that will make you scratch your head, like overloading our system with NHL ready defensemen that created a controversy that has made people consider Kruger’s control of the room because some players (Zach Bogosian) complain about ice time and request trades.

Many people think that if we don’t make a strong playoff push then Botterill should be fired. I could not disagree more. If we fire another GM, then we’ll have to bring in another one who will likely want their own coach and their own prospects because everyone’s vision is different. Everytime we reset the clock with another GM or coach it resets the success clock.

In Botterill’s defense, a couple of his prospects are coming along nicely, which should be cheerful for Sabres fans because our roster clearly has some gaping holes in it. The reason we’re not a playoff team is because we have one scoring line and the pieces that will change that in the future are Dylan Cozens and Casey Mittelstadt.

Cozens (7th pick, 2019 Draft) turned out to be a bigger piece in Canada’s WJC Gold Medal squad, helping them in a big role with nine points in seven games. At Lethbridge in the WHL, Cozens has been on fire with 59 points in 35 games for a league best 1.69 points per game.

Mittelstadt (8th pick, 2017 Draft) has been crossed off many people’s list after showing flashes of greatness the year after being drafted. Mittelstadt was rushed into the lineup by a terrible coach in Phil Housley and stayed there when he was clearly struggling. It just seemed like the former Minnesota High School star in Housley wanted the same success from Mittelstadt. Since being sent down to where he belongs in Rochester, Mittelstadt has been adjusting well and is continuing to find more success in transferring that dynamic offensive game we saw at the World Juniors to the pros.

As the year moves along, give patience to the Sabres. We are in the best division in hockey where four teams have legit shots at winning the Cup — Boston, Tampa Bay, Florida and Toronto — so don’t get caught up in missing the playoffs just look for the continued growth. And next time you think about firing a GM or coach we’ll just be one step closer to officially becoming the Cleveland Browns of the NHL.

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