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Hamilton Take2: Keys to Sabres ending the playoff drought

The Sabres are set to open a 56-game season Thursday night against the Washington Capitals and look to end a nine-year playoff drought.
Credit: AP
Buffalo Sabres forward Jack Eichel (9) carries the puck during the first period of an NHL hockey game against the Montreal Canadiens, Thursday, Jan. 30, 2020, in Buffalo, N.Y. (AP Photo/Jeffrey T. Barnes)

BUFFALO, N.Y. — The Sabres are about to get it going on Thursday, and if I’m being honest, I didn’t think owners would actually play without fans or the promise of fans.

The Sabres have had to change divisions because of COVID, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s impossible to make the playoffs. Two things that I’ve said on the air many times MUST happen.

They must improve their special teams. Being ranked 30th on the penalty kill and 20th on the power play isn’t going to cut it.

As he constructs the power play, Ralph Krueger has to understand that teams are going to take away Jack Eichel and Victor Olofsson shooting one-timers from the circle. Rasmus Dahlin will have the responsibility at the point to quarterback the whole thing and make use of Sam Reinhart in front and Taylor Hall in the high slot.

Rasmus Ristolainen will QB the second unit, and having Eric Staal out there should help. The problem is Ristolainen plays the game the way he thinks it should be played and it doesn’t always work. Staal will also have Jeff Skinner with him, but two youngsters have also been on the ice during practice in Dylan Cozens and Tage Thompson.

Both those kids intrigue me this season, and for the Sabres to be in contention, they’ll need Thompson to hit his stride. Playing a regular shift with Eichel and Hall should help him.

Olofsson was not a good 5-on-5 player last season, and he only had nine even-strength goals and 25 even-strength points.

Skinner lost his chance to play on a line with Staal because Ralph Krueger said he wasn’t playing within the principles of the team. Does that remind you of something? How about Sammy Watkins and Marcell Dareus being shipped out of town by Sean McDermott of the Bills because there wasn’t a buy-in.

Skinner had the most Grade-A chances on the team last season, yet only scored 14 goals. Somehow fans want to make that Krueger’s fault. How about holding the player accountable for his own play for a change?

Players were brought in to help the penalty kill. If you can get into the top 10 in the league, you’ll cut 14 goals against off the Sabres total last year. That has to do with everybody.

First, they wouldn’t get the big save. Second, the defensive coverages led by Ristolainen wee horrendous. And third, the players up front didn’t seem to know who they should be on which led to gaps with the D. Kevyn Adams made no changes to his goaltending and no changes to his top-six defensemen, so if nothing improves here, that’s on the new GM.

I agree with the decision to bring Dylan Cozens along slowly. It worked for Chicago last season with Kirby Dach and by the playoffs, he was off the wing and playing center doing a great job. Dach was the third overall pick in 2019 while Cozens was seventh overall.

So hockey is back in Buffalo after a 10-month absence. Fans won’t be able to be there, but it’s just nice to have the distraction of a season.