For those of us in Sabreland, Christmas came a little early this year although we didn't quite know just how great a present Buffalo general manger Jason Botterill gave us when he traded for Jeff Skinner over the summer. In doing so Botterill added a player that constituted 1/3 of Sabres top line that would be amongst the potent in the NHL.
Head coach Phil Housley still has work to do with his middle-six forwards, but for now he's got a top line that's carrying the load and it begins with the captain.
Jack Eichel--Not only did Botterill and the Sabres receive over the summer, he also gave in the form of Ryan O'Reilly, whom he traded to the St. Louis Blues. Although the return for O'Reilly was three players and two draft picks, the most important aspect of the deal right now centers around Eichel, who was drafted as a franchise center but for various reasons was never able to call the Sabres his team. After dealing with drama and injuries his first three NHL seasons, Captain Jack is coming into his own and has been every bit the player who was drafted second overall in 2015 reaching an overall maturity-level that has catapulted him towards his full potential. He started out this season being a deft distributor of the puck while leading the team with a full 200' game and recently rediscovered his shot (after changing to a stick with a little less flex, according to reports.) He heads into the Christmas break tied for seventh in the league in scoring with 48 points and is on pace to become the first Sabres player to record 100 points in a season since Pat LaFontaine and Alexander Mogilny both did it in 1992-93. Eichel's 34 assists rank him tied for fifth in the NHL and his main benefactor has been...
Jeff Skinner--When Botterill mentioned Skinner's scoring at even strength, he wasn't kidding. The three-time 30-goal scorer is presently second in the league with 26 goals with 21 of them coming at even strength, which is also second in the league. Skinner already beat his 24 goals from last season and he's on pace to shatter his career high of 37 set in 2016-17. The guy most definitely has a deft touch around the net but the most fascinating part of his game might be his skating. Skinner learned figure skating as a young lad and as we've been lucky enough to see through 37 games in the Blue and Gold, he uses those skills to advantageously square himself to the play. In the offensive zone it's proven to be deadly. The chemistry between him and Eichel is unmistakable and the big question moving forward is, how long will be a Buffalo Sabre? Skinner is a pending unrestricted free agent but there's said to be a mutual interest in him re-signing with the club. After watching him game-in, game-out most in Sabreland want him re-signed yesterday and unless something weird happens, he should end up in the Blue and Gold long-term.
Sam Reinhart--He's been called the "Forgotten One" in these blogs on more than one occasion and even though he's on pace to put up career numbers, again, Reinhart still doesn't seem to get full recognition for the skills he brings to the ice. Housley had moved him around a bit in the lineup but in a November 13 game against Tampa, Housley stuck with him on the Eichel/Skinner line and the trio has combined for 30 goals and 72 points over those 20 game with Reinhart wielding a stat-line of six goals and 18 assists over that span. Although his skating is well behind that of his linemates, Reinhart is a very heady player who gets the puck where it needs to go and he's been a top-notch compliment to Buffalo's dynamic duo. Botterill re-signed Reinhart to a two year bridge deal this off season for a team friendly cap-hit of $3.65 million and it might be safe to say that we won't be seeing numbers remotely close to that with any new deal he signs.
Casey Mittelstadt--The mid-six in Buffalo's lineup has been in a constant state of flux this entire season as Housley can't seem to find the right mix, at least on a consistent, long-term basis. Having said that, the most skilled of those players is Mittelstadt. The 20 yr. old rookie has been thrown into the fire somewhat with the trade of O'Reilly, Buffalo's No. 2 center, and the failure of various players, including vets, to fill that spot. Mittelstadt isn't lighting up the scoreboard as he only has 10 points (5+5) in 37 games, but Housley has raved about him at times while calling attention to his focus upon playing a 200' game. As of late Mittelstadt has really been showing off some of the skills that made him a 2017 eighth-overall pick and we've seen him skating and stickhandling with much more confidence after getting acclimated to the speed of the NHL. He's done pretty much everything but consistently hit the scoresheet all while playing with a surprising amount of grit and dogged determination that belies his baby face. Some of his scoring woes can be traced back to little or no chemistry on a line that's facing tough competition on a nightly basis while some of it also has to do with the lack of time and space he's yet to adjust to. Mittelstadt has been finding himself in good spots on a consistent basis, especially as of late, but his trigger needs to be a touch faster and once he gets that, we should see his numbers spike upward.
Kyle Okposo--We all know about Okposo's contract, his health issues and his struggles scoring. The Sabres could be getting the same production of 15 points (5+19) and a minus-4 rating through 37 games from a player with a cap-hit much less than Okposo's $6 million but they're stuck with that for four and a half more seasons. It's the type of contract that could haunt Buffalo in the near future as Skinner, Reinhart and defensemen Rasmus Dahlin will all need new, and lucrative, contracts within the next two years. Buffalo desperately needs a No. 2 right wing that can score on a consistent basis and Okposo was supposed to be that guy. Outside of some solid, but somewhat modest, numbers in his first season with the Sabres that type of top-six production hasn't materialized and Housley's been forced to play him up and down the bottom-nine. Okposo is a player that's easy to pull for as he's overcome adversity and exudes professionalism on a daily basis, but there comes a point in time where said player needs to step up his game and help this team move forward. That time has come.
Conor Sheary--Botterill needed to bolster the left wing position and his first move was to acquire Sheary from the Pittsburgh Penguins. Sheary was a known quantity as Botterill had 10 years in the Penguins front office prior to becoming Buffalo's GM. He knew Sheary brought speed and was tenacious on the puck and he also was familiar with a player who could play along side a superstar like Sidney Crosby and light the lamp for 40 goals over two full seasons. Sheary was on the outs in Pittsburgh as his stat-line dipped and Botterill was happy to bring him aboard. Although Sheary is always in overdrive, he runs hot and cold in the scoring department. He was solid out of the gate with six goals in 16 games but has only one in his last 17 games. The Sabres need some consistent production at left wing outside of Skinner and it was hoped Sheary could be that guy. He still could be, but we're really not sure.
Jason Pominville--The 35 yr. old is in his 15th NHL season and is far removed from the days where he was scoring at least 20 goals and 60 points on a consistent basis. At this stage of the game Pominville is looked to for leadership on the ice and wisdom off it as he's is really beginning to show his age. The adrenaline of a new season has worn off and the long grind of the NHL season has set in. Like last season, Pominville started out strong scoring eight goals and adding seven assists in his first 16 games but has only one goal and two assists in his last 17 games. He went into the Christmas break on an 11-game pointless streak before being sidelined with a what looks to be a concussion for the last two games. The last time the Sabres made the playoffs was in the 2010-11 season, Pominville's last full season in Buffalo before getting traded, and this year they're in the driver's seat for a playoff appearance which would bring Pominville full circle. And probably make for a nice sendoff whenever their season ends.