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Behind The Bench: COVID already a factor in the Sabres early season schedule

The Buffalo Sabres have started the year losing three of their first four games. But their next opponent may be missing a few players due to COVID as Buffalo heads to Washington Friday. Sabres reporter Bills Hoppe updates us on what’s next for Buffalo, goaltending concerns and more.


You can read Bill Hoppe's articles at his Buffalo Hockey Beat website and at BuffaloNews.com. Follow him on Twitter at @BillHoppeNHL.

Nick Lippa: Buffalo has a lot of questions heading into Friday's game. And it's not just about them. It's the fact that the Capitals have four players, including star Alex Ovechkin, who are on the COVID related protocol absences list. So the Capitals are going to put a roster on the ice that is down a couple of key players and that could benefit the Sabres as they started off 1-3 this past week. So they're looking for some wins. How are they looking so far?


Bill Hoppe: Well, they've probably been better than their 1-3 record indicates. And I know people aren't happy. You hear people just voicing their disappointment already just a week into the season. And I get it. They've seen this before. They've been through about a decade of losing. They're probably saying here we go again. But there have been some bright spots. It's only a week of the season. Yes, they're in last place. But there's still 52 games left. And if you want to examine each of the games, you look at last Thursday's opener. It wasn't a good game from them. There are some pockets of decent play. They came back. But you kind of give them a mulligan because it was 10 months between games. They have six or seven new faces. A short training camp. You're not going to come out and be the team you want to be most likely. The second night they bounced back. They were pretty good against the Capitals. They clamped down defensively. They generated a lot of offense. They couldn't finish (goals) but it was a good bounce back effort. And I think it planted the seed for Monday's effort against the Flyers. I mean, that 6-1 (Monday) win was the best win in a long time. Probably their most complete win under coach Ralph Kruger. I mean, they were tenacious. They were tight with the puck. They were just so aggressive. They created on offense. It was up and down the lineup, from the first line from Jack Eichel and Taylor Hall. To the fourth line of Jeff Skinner, Curtis Lazar and Riley Sheahan. They were good. And the Sabres haven't had a lot of depth over the last several years. They haven't had a lot of scoring depth and that was kind of a peek into what you could be able to see possibly from this team. And Tuesday's game, a 3-0 loss against the same Flyer team. You don't like the result but within it, they pump 40 shots on goal. Yes, they didn't finish any (score goals) and that's concerning. But for most of that game, it was a 1-0. So yes, they are in last place, but within those games, they've been okay.

NL:One of the big issues we've seen being discussed across, I guess you could say the twitterverse and the NHL community, is the Sabres goaltending. This was one of your biggest concerns coming into the year. You've had Carter Hutton step into a larger role than expected with Linus Ullmark missing some time. They already called up their third goalie from the taxi squad, who ended up playing in a game he didn’t start. And I think it's safe to say, it hasn't looked like a strong point for the Sabres so far. What’s happening in net for the Sabres?

BH: Well goaltending was a question mark and in my opinion is still a big, big question mark. The goalies so far, they've been average. They haven't stolen the game. I don't think they've been bad. Carter Hutton gave up some goals opening night, but I would pin that more on the defensive breakdowns rather than him. That said, he didn't make any big saves to bail out his teammates, and that's kind of something we've seen from the past from him, where he doesn't make that big game changing stop. Linus Ullmark was decent Friday night, but again on Tom Wilson's winner, maybe it's a shot he should have stopped. He wasn't a huge difference maker. And Carter Hutton was pretty good in Philadelphia. But now Carter Hutton has some questions about his health. Ullmark has missed two games for personal reasons. And they're down to the third goalie who was on the taxi squad a couple days ago in Jonas Johansson, who's a solid NHL prospect, but it's not an ideal situation. So it's an unclear picture. We don't know about Carter Hutton's health. We don't know when Linus Ullmark might be ready to play again. 

NL: Let me ask a follow up. Sabres have a new GM in Kevyn Adams. In the offseason he gets Taylor Hall. He trades for Eric Stall. Is there a scenario from your perspective where the Sabres look to address this issue? Potentially, they have some young forwards right now that are not playing, but are in the prospect pool. It's kind of like they're stuck in limbo. But could they trade one of their young forwards to get a goalie who would be an immediate starter to help right now and compete this year?

BH: I mean, they could. We don't know much about Kevyn Adams yet. He took over in June. He's already swung some trades and he's sort of putting a stamp on this team, but we don't know how he operates within a season. We don't know a lot about what he values and what he doesn't value yet. We have an idea. And he was willing to go with those guys coming into the season. But if this progresses and the Sabres goalies aren't difference makers or someone's out a long time, a trade could definitely materialize. Now that said, it has to be the right deal. It's harder to make trades these days because of everything that's going on. They have some good young forwards that I'm not sure I would want to part with. But if the season goes on and the Sabres look like a legit team and goaltending is that one missing piece-- yes, something could definitely materialize. 

NL: And it's worth mentioning too that waivers might be an option this year. Right? So many teams are cash strapped, correct? 

BH: Yes. And we've already seen some goalies claimed on waivers. Edmonton claimed one. New Jersey, which has been having some goalie problems, claimed one so that could be a route. But the Sabres also have the Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen, who is their top goaltending prospect coming to Rochester. And he spent part of the year in Rochester last year. He's considered by many to be the Sabres goalie of the future. So I think a lot of people would maybe point to him as an option if if the goaltending continues to be a question mark. But he's in his second year as a pro. He hasn't played even that many AHL games. So he could potentially be an option but realistically, he needs more time to develop.

NL: How do the upcoming scheduled games for the Sabres look

BH: Well, this is a really grueling, relentless schedule for them. They're in the toughest division, the new East Division. They have a lot of heavyweights in that group. And they just lost two games to the Capitals and now they have two road games coming up against the Capitals. And the Rangers are a pretty upstart team. I don't think they've had the best start, but they have to play the Rangers twice next week. And then they have to play New Jersey twice next week and New Jersey is a pretty good young team coached by (former Sabres coach) Lindy Ruff. They're pretty upstart. They have a lot of nice young pieces and I think they could morph into a contender here in a hurry. So the schedule basically doesn't let up for the Sabres. You're getting these teams two nights in a row and from top to bottom the whole division is pretty much filled with teams. You would probably consider a playoff team caliber team misses out this year.

NL: Sabres don’t look like they have the luxury of falling too far behind in the standings this season. They will need some key players to step up. Who has stood out to you so far? Who's impressed you the most?

BH: Well, obviously Taylor Hall and Jack Eichel. They've had nice starts. Eichel doesn't have a goal yet, but he has six assists. Taylor Hall has six points and it has been very noticeable, but you expect that. But one of the things that's really stood out to me so far has been the play of the fourth line. The Sabres depth up front has been non-existent for a while. And now they have a fourth line that they can put up against really any line that can contribute on offense. I've been impressed with that. And Ralph Kruger mentioned that the other day that now with the center depth, they can put any line out against the opponent's best and that's something they couldn't do in years past. And you saw Curtis Lazar chip in a couple of goals the other night. Jeff Skinner, who's really not a fourth liner, but he's there right now. And he doesn't have any goals yet, but he's been very noticeable for a few games. And if he keeps playing like that, I think he's eventually going to break out. And then Riley Sheahan is a guy that they signed to a training camp tryout and I think he's fit in very nicely. So the Sabres depth upfront has been pretty impressive so far. And that'll be a big question mark down the season line. We mentioned before young forwards, they will be mixing and figuring out which ones really gonna stick into the lineup for the long term.


Nick Lippa leads our Arts & Culture Coverage, and is also the lead reporter for the station's Mental Health Initiative, profiling the struggles and triumphs of those who battle mental health issues and the related stigma that can come from it.