The Buffalo Sabres had every excuse to start slow this season. A new coach forced the players to learn new systems and there isn't enough time in training camp to practice the power play or penalty kill.
However, the Sabres (4-0-1) were sitting atop the Atlantic Division entering play Sunday, and they wrap up this homestand Monday afternoon against the Dallas Stars. With Conor Sheary still out, Buffalo recalled forward Curtis Lazar from Rochester ahead of the team's three-game road trip to Anaheim, Los Angeles and San Jose.
The roster move is the latest example of the Sabres' improved depth at forward. With that in mind, let's start my latest mailbag with a reader's question about Buffalo's success on offense through five games:
Mike: Is the current group of forwards capable of producing more or do the Sabres need to add another piece?
Lance Lysowski: This group is capable of producing enough offense to win games. The Sabres entered play Sunday tied for sixth in the NHL with 20 goals through five games and their power play remained first, despite the ugly showing against Florida. They're getting production out of Johan Larsson's line, and the offense will come for Casey Mittelstadt's group, particularly Jimmy Vesey.
It's also important to remember that offense in the NHL often starts with your defensemen and General Manager Jason Botterill has done an outstanding job building a formidable group on the back end. I'm sure fans would prefer a more skilled player such as Tage Thompson to play with Jeff Skinner and Marcus Johansson, but Vladimir Sobotka's forechecking can allow them to use their creativity in the offensive zone.
The Sabres beat the Florida Panthers, who many analysts picked to make the playoffs, without receiving a regulation goal from either of the top-two forward lines. Buffalo will need to stay healthy to continue to produce at this rate. However, in my opinion, Krueger has the personnel to remain competitive this season, and Botterill has shown he won't hesitate to add to the group. The Sabres have the depth to make a significant trade at the deadline in February, or perhaps a few months in Rochester will help prepare Thompson to make a significant impact in Buffalo at some point this season.
Carter: Do you expect Carter Hutton and Linus Ullmark to share the Sabres' net if they continue to do well?
LL: Krueger likely will use a tandem in net, much like his goalie coach, Mike Bales, did last season in Carolina. Kruger, Bales and the rest of the coaching staff meet prior to each game to decide which goalie will start. Bales offers his recommendation and the group comes to a consensus. The Sabres will continue to pick the starter based on the matchup and which of the two goalies is better equipped to face a certain type of team or situation.
Both goalies have performed much better so far this season. Ullmark seems to have rediscovered the confidence he lost last March and appears to have cleaned up some technical issues. Hutton, meanwhile, has proven to be a capable goalie in the National Hockey League. But the Sabres' defensive-zone coverage is the primary reason behind the early success.
Consider this: Among goalies to start at least two games entering play Sunday, Hutton and Ullmark rank in the top eight of furthest average shot distance faced, according to NaturalStatTrick.com. Hutton also ranks first in rebound attempts against among goalies with at least three games played, and the Sabres have allowed the third-fewest high-danger scoring chances against.
The Sabres' defensemen have done an excellent job retrieving pucks after an initial shot attempt and defensive-zone pressure has forced opponents to shoot from the perimeter. We've seen that Buffalo has the goaltending to succeed as long as neither Hutton nor Ullmark are asked to stop a barrage of shots from dangerous areas. We won't have to talk about which goalie is the "starter," unless this team manages to make the playoffs. They'll likely share the net throughout the season.
Liam: Why is Rasmus Dahlin getting the fifth-most ice time among Sabres defensemen?
LL: There seems to be a considerable amount of angst among fans after Dahlin sat for the final 9 1/2 minutes of regulation Friday night against Florida. After all, he has one goal among seven points through five games and could have provided a spark offensively in a game in which the Sabres needed an insurance goal.
However, Dahlin's puck management and defensive-zone coverage have been a liability at times. Remember, he's only 19 years old. He's not remotely close to reaching his potential. Krueger's job is to win games, and he's building a culture of accountability. In case you missed it, Dahlin struggled during his final shift of regulation Friday. He'll learn from the experience and be a better player because of it.
We shouldn't be surprised. A number of people I spoke to from Edmonton, including former players, told me Krueger did not hesitate to sit young players such as Taylor Hall and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins following a bad shift or period in the 2012-13 season. This isn't Krueger picking on Dahlin, either. Marco Scandella didn't play for the final six minutes of regulation last Monday in Columbus.
The Sabres are trying to put Dahlin in the best position to succeed. At the moment, it's clear Dahlin is placing too much pressure on himself. The best way to handle a young player's development is to be smart about usage. He's not ready to play more than 20 minutes a game. That time will come. For now, Krueger will continue to put Dahlin in situations to help build confidence. Part of that is protecting him during close games. You'll continue to see Rasmus Ristolainen average more than 24 minutes a game until Dahlin is ready for a more prominent role.
Ed: What will the Sabres do on defense once Brandon Montour, Lawrence Pilut and Zach Bogosian return from injury?
LL: Your guess is as good as mine. Seriously. My answer a few days ago would have been simple: Henri Jokiharju gets sent to Rochester once Montour is ready to return from the hand injury, and the Sabres will figure out the rest once Bogosian returns. Well, Jokiharju has been told by Sabres management to find a place to live in Buffalo. The 20-year-old defenseman will be sticking around for a while and he deserves that opportunity.
Though Jokiharju has yet to record a point, he has been excellent in the defensive zone, particularly on the breakout, and quickly earned Krueger's trust. The Sabres are unlikely to trade Ristolainen at this time because they'll be asking for a king's ransom in return. They could try to send Montour to Rochester for a brief conditioning assignment to buy some time but that's a temporary solution. I doubt Buffalo wants to risk losing John Gilmour on waivers, either.
Pilut will be sent to Rochester once he's ready. He'll need to play quite a few games down there to prepare himself for a return to the NHL. That's not a knock against Pilut. It's just difficult to miss all of training camp and the start of the season. He also needs to work on his play in the defensive zone. Bogosian, meanwhile, doesn't have a timeline to return after he experienced multiple setbacks this summer.
A trade seems inevitable. The question is with which defenseman do the Sabres part? They're in an advantageous position. Last season, Buffalo was forced to use Matt Tennyson for four games and had to rush Pilut up from Rochester.