The scene and culture in the city of Buffalo, albeit it’s still 2020, is now looking bright for sports fans. The Buffalo Bills for the first time since 1995 clinched the AFC East Division, dethroning the hated New England Patriots from where they sat for so long. Buffalo sports fans for the first time in a decade have reason to feel optimistic that one of their teams is on the cusp of a championship season.
Then we go from the happenings in Orchard Park at One Bills Drive, to Downtown Buffalo at 1 Seymour H. Knox III Plaza. This season marks Jack Eichel’s sixth with the Buffalo Sabres, and his third serving as the team’s captain. Under new general manager Kevyn Adams, there are a few new faces in the locker room. The first major move Kevyn with a “Y’ made was trading for a former teammate with the Carolina Hurricanes, center Eric Staal. Staal’s resume speaks for itself and unfortunately, we Sabres fans know all too well his highest achievement from 2006. But Staal does fill a void left by Ryan O’Reilly at the second-line center when he was traded just two years ago, which is another sore subject. Staal has shown that he still has the ability to contribute at 36 years old when he scored 47 points in 66 games last season for the Minnesota Wild. Most speculate he will be on a line with another former teammate Jeff Skinner. Skinner who was one year removed from a career-high 40 goals in 2019, is looking to have a bounce back season after a disappointing 23 points in 59 games.
The biggest move by Adams though is that of course the free-agent signing of star winger and former league MVP Taylor Hall. Hall, who will almost certainly start the season on the left side of Eichel. If the duo connects, this could give Buffalo one of the most dangerous top lines in the league.
Regardless if it’s Sam Reinhart, Victor Olofsson, or Jeff Skinner skating on Jack’s right side, the addition of Hall gives Buffalo something it’s been lacking for a very long time. Personally, I think it should be Skinner – the 9 million dollar man.
It also gives them something else it’s been lacking…..depth.
Having Hall on the roster gives Sabres Head Coach Ralph Kreuger the ability to spread out talent. Which is a luxury he didn’t have this past season in his first campaign behind Buffalo’s bench. He even received a lot of criticism for taking forward Jeff Skinner off the top line with Eichel and Reinhart for most of the season. I do understand Kreuger’s logic in dropping the former 40-goal scorer off the top line. You can’t put all your eggs in one basket. You have to spread the wealth throughout all four lines, on a team that struggled so much to score last season, many would agree to put the struggling Skinner back with Eichel and Reinhart should have been the sensible move.
In comes center Cody Eakin. The former Vegas Golden Knights center signed a 2-year deal worth 4.5 million this past offseason and is expected to fill on on the third line. While the departure of their previous third-line center Johan Larsson does hurt the team in terms of defending against other team’s top lines, he lacked the ability to contribute offensively. A trait that Kreuger, Adams, and the rest of Sabres fans hope Eakin will give their third line.
Other additions of defenseman Matt Irwin, forward Tobias Rieder, and goaltender Dustin Tokarski. Rieder’s defensive skill is expected to improve Buffalo’s putrid penalty kill, which is something he takes pride in. In an interview with Sabre.com, Rieder explains what needs to be done to be successful on the penalty kill:
“… Be aggressive, read the game, and just outwork the other guys on the ice. Yeah, I’ve done that for a bunch of years in the league, and I really take pride in that. So, it’s fun, especially when you score on the PK with one less guy on the ice. It’s something I’ve loved to do ever since I played hockey.”
Then we get to the main character of this story, captain Jack Eichel.
‘Captain Jack’ has been surrounded by both speculation and controversy in regards to his frustrations with Buffalo and the direction of the team. To state that things with this team have been miserable since he was drafted 2nd overall in 2015 would be an absolute understatement. And who can blame him for being frustrated? He’s a competitor and wants to win. That’s why you play the game; to win a Stanley Cup. If that isn’t your ultimate goal then you shouldn’t be wearing the “C” on your chest.
Many critics believe that if things don’t turn around this season, that Eichel wouldn’t hesitate to request a trade and get the hell out of Buffalo. According to Paul Hamilton with WGRZ, that’s furthest from the truth. Hamilton writes:
“Eichel loves it here and he wants to be part of a solution that brings a championship to Buffalo. He’s sincere when he talks about the fans here. He admires how they show up despite all the losing.”
When trade rumors surrounding Eichel back in September surfaced via tweets from insider Bob McKenzie, they were quickly put to bed. McKenzie after hearing rumblings of trade talks between the New York Rangers and Buffalo, McKenzie reached out to Eichel’s agent, Peter Fish, who denied such rumors. “I hear that (trade talk) a lot,” Eichel’s agent Peter Fish said. “Jack wants to win, he’s frustrated (not winning) but, no, he doesn’t want out. Jack is preparing to head to Buffalo at some point here and prepare for the season, whenever that may be. That’s all he controls.”
Imagine my surprise when I started making calls today and heard Jack Eichel trade rumours, including unverified chatter he may have at some point recently requested a trade out of BUF and that NYR were amongst interested teams. This, of course, required further investigation.
— Bob McKenzie (@TSNBobMcKenzie) September 28, 2020
It’s hard not to admire this fanbase either. We’ve seen what’s transpired with BillsMafia this past year as I stated earlier. How this city will stick with its team through thick and thin. Through good times and bad. And if Jack Eichel has the same competitive spirit as Josh Allen, which I believe he does, the Sabres will see the same better days. I’ve said it so many times, when this team is good, the walls in that arena can shake. You can’t turn a corner anywhere in Buffalo without seeing someone wearing blue and gold. Someone yelling “Go Sabres”, or “Let’s go Buffalo”.
With Kevyn Adams at the helm, building what he has so far and hopefully more to come, I want to believe this franchise is going down the same road that both Brandon Beane and Sean McDermott took our beloved Bills. It starts there with management. The people in charge of making the decisions in hockey-related matters. The on-ice product. Putting the right pieces in place around your franchise players. No fans know more than those here in Buffalo that it doesn’t happen overnight. Twenty-five years to finally win their division. I was 8-years old the last time the Bills sat at the top of the AFC East, and I hope to still be only 33 when we can say the same about the Sabres.
It’s an uphill climb, that’s for sure. With the new division realignment in the NHL’s “Return to Play”, Buffalo has been put into a division with Boston, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Washington, New Jersey, the New York Rangers, and the New York Islanders. But that uphill climb will make victory all that much sweeter. Our Buffalo Bills thrived on having the underdog moniker, and maybe the Sabres will too. Maybe on May 8, 2021 (projected end of the regular season), we will see Marty Biron toasting Rob Ray at center ice while smoking a stogie, celebrating a playoff birth for the first time since 2011. The season begins on January 13th, 2021. This means we’re only 127 days until the start of playoffs on May 11, and maybe this is just that crazy optimist in me, but……let’s get Cup Crazy Buffalo…..Thanks…..I’ll hang up and listen.