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Sabres hope turnaround begins tonight against Capitals

AP File Photo Jeff Skinner may be the Buffalo Sabres’ second-highest paid player, but his linemates to start the 2021 season don’t make it look that way.

High hopes and low expectations.

The Buffalo Sabres season must be close.

Ralph Krueger’s team will begin its 56-game 2021 campaign tonight against the Washington Capitals at KeyBank Center.

Already there are question marks around the team.

The biggest surrounds Jeff Skinner. Just 10 months after trading for the high-scoring winger, then-general manager Jason Botterill signed him to an eight-year, $72 million extension. That was on the heels of a 40-goal season playing predominantly alongside Jack Eichel.

AP File Photo Tage Thompson, pictured, will get one of the coveted winger spots alongside Jack Eichel to start the season for the Buffalo Sabres.

But last season, Skinner’s production fell off under Krueger, the team’s new head coach, to the tune of 14 goals and nine assists in 59 games.

And now it appears he’ll begin the season in the doghouse, practicing on a line with bottom-six forwards like Curtis Lazar and Rasmus Asplund.

A contract is just a number, but in today’s NHL your highest-paid players need to play like it and be treated like it.

Skinner’s best production with the Sabres came with the help of Eichel and that’s where he should stay. Right now, Tage Thompson is playing in a top-six forward role with Eichel and Taylor Hall while Eric Staal is centering Victor Olofsson and Sam Reinhart.

It seems like there should be a fit somewhere in there for Skinner.

AP File Photo Tage Thompson will get one of the coveted winger spots alongside Jack Eichel, pictured, to start the season for the Buffalo Sabres.

Top prospect Dylan Cozens is the X-factor. The seventh overall pick in 2019 is coming off a tremendous World Junior tournament and wants to prove he belongs in the NHL.

If he can anchor a third “scoring line” for the Sabres, it could make them that much more dangerous.

GOALTENDING

One issue with the Sabres underperforming last season was their goaltending and they didn’t do anything to change that situation in the offseason. Carter Hutton was a career backup who was signed to start in Buffalo and to date he hasn’t performed up to that status.

In two seasons with the Sabres, Hutton is 30-39-9 with a .904 save percentage and a 3.07 goals against average. Those numbers just aren’t good enough in the NHL.

His backup — who will likely get a bulk of the starts this year — is Linus Ullmark and he outperformed Hutton a season ago when he went 17-14-3 with a .915 save percentage and a 2.69 goals against average.

The Sabres and their fans are hoping Ullmark takes another step forward this year and takes control of the Buffalo crease. He looks to have the size and athletic ability to be an above-average NHL goaltender and at his age of just 27 years old should be coming into the prime of his career.

As can be the case with most goaltenders, his play can very well make or break the Sabres’ season.

DEFENSE

Buffalo looks to have a good mix of veterans, players entering the prime of their career and youth on the back end, but they still need to play better if the Sabres expect to make a jump in the East Division standings.

Former No. 1 pick Rasmus Dahlin is still just 20 years old and, hopefully, on his way to becoming one of the best defensemen in the league. He put up 40 points in 59 games last season and was only a minus-7 on a pretty bad team.

He’ll be joined by former No. 8 pick Rasmus Ristolainen, who has been the subject of trade talk multiple times in his young career, but at 26 years old can still be a dominant force for the Sabres with his 6-foot-4, 218-pound frame.

Brandon Montour was a shrewd acquisition by Botterill and is playing on a one-year “show me” contract that should force him to put his best foot forward for the Sabres this season.

Throw in Henri Jokiharju, Colin Miller and Jake McCabe, and the Sabres look to have at least a solid defensive corps to help out Ullmark and Hutton.

PREDICTION

With COVID-19 forcing the NHL into a new divisional alignment to keep Canadian teams on their side of the border, the Sabres will compete in a fairly tough East Division this year.

The New Jersey Devils look like the only pushover team in the division and with only four of the eight making the postseason, Buffalo has its work cut out.

With a top-six forward group of Eichel, Hall, Reinhart, Staal, Skinner and Olofsson, the Sabres seem like they should be able to make a jump in the standings.

If Dahlin and Montour can produce offensively from the back end and Krueger can discover some kind of lockdown pair between Ristolainen and the other three blue-liners, things could be looking up at KeyBank Center.

I’ll be optimistic and say the Sabres squeak into the playoffs as the East Division’s No. 4 seed, which hopefully is enough to convince Hall to sign a long-term deal with general manager Kevyn Adams next offseason.

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