The Buffalo Sabres made arguably the biggest splash of the offseason with the signing of forward Taylor Hall to a one-year, $8 million contract, but the divisional realignment forced by the COVID-19 pandemic appears to have made the Sabres playoff aspirations more of a long shot.
New GM Kevyn Adams made a number of changes after just finishing outside of the playoffs, trading for veteran center Eric Staal, re-signing Sam Reinhart, Victor Olofsson, Zemgus Girgensons, Curtis Lazar, Brandon Montour, and Linus Ullmark, and adding Hall, Cody Eakin, and Tobias Reider in free agency, but it appears likely that the NHL’s Return to Play four-to-six player taxi squad will be utilized by Adams and head coach Ralph Kreuger to further the development of the club’s top prospects.
Buffalo will be playing 56 games in the eight-team East Division, playing eight games against six clubs from the Metropolitan Division (NY Rangers, NY Islanders, New Jersey, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Washington) and Atlantic Division rival Boston. With the uncertainty that the American Hockey League will have a season, a sizable portion of the ECHL opting not to play, and questions about the CHL resuming play without fans in 2021, the NHL deemed it necessary for the 31 clubs to have extra players on hand and available in case of positive COVID cases or injury.
The Sabres after all of their moves are almost $3.5 million under the $81.5 million salary cap, which means that they will not have to use the taxi squad to bury salaries as teams like Tampa Bay, Vegas, and Toronto will be doing all season. What Buffalo will likely do is keep their prospects around veterans like Staal, Hall, and Jack Eichel to give them a positive influence and possibly a taste of the NHL.
The RTP rules stipulate that a total of three goaltenders have to be on either the roster or taxi squad. Ullmark and veteran Carter Hutton will likely start the season as the NHL tandem, but it is possible that the Sabres will opt to have prospect Ukka-Pekka Luukkonen with the club after the 21-year-old split time between the ECHL and AHL Rochester last season and played with TPS of the Finnish SM-Liiga this year.
Defensively, Adams has the cap space to add an unsigned free agent or veteran on a tryout with three blueliners on expiring contracts (Montour, Jake McCabe, and Matt Irwin), they could keep journeyman Brandon Davidson on the taxi squad for added depth, but could also have 24-year-old Will Borgen in the mix to step in if the Sabres fall out of the playoff race and begin shopping their rentals.
2019 top pick Dylan Cozens was expected to get a nine-game tryout before the Sabres made a decision to keep the 19-year-old in the NHL, but it is likely that Buffalo will keep Cozens, 2018 top pick Casey Mittelstadt and 2020 first-rounder Jack Quinn close to home.