The Buffalo Sabres have to be wondering what could have been.
MAY WE PRESENT:
NICK COUSINS SCORING THE OT GAME-WINNER TO SEND US TO THE ECF pic.twitter.com/ZAWWC60uJF
— Florida Panthers (@FlaPanthers) May 13, 2023
The Florida Panthers finished one point ahead of the Sabres at the end of the season and have gone on to upset the Boston Bruins and Toronto Maple Leafs to reach the Eastern Conference Final. On Friday, the lowest-seeded wildcard slammed the door on the Leafs with a 3-2 overtime victory in Game 5.
The Sabres do not have a bulldozer power forward like Matthew Tkachuk or an established Vezina Trophy winner like Sergei Bobrovsky, but the Panthers success reveals that the perennial top trio of the Atlantic Division is beginning to show vulnerabilities.
Bruins In Transition
Boston had a regular season for the ages but were worn down by Florida’s physicality in a gruelling seven-game series loss. GM Don Sweeney used a sizable chunk of draft capital to add deadline rentals Tyler Bertuzzi, Dmitri Orlov, and Garnet Hathaway. The Bruins still have a solid foundation with David Pastrnak, Brad Marchand, and Charlie McAvoy, but there is a lot of doubt going forward if one or both of Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci retire.
Tampa’s Playoff Runs Taking Their Toll
Tampa Bay showed the wear and tear of playing nearly an extra season’s worth of playoff games over the last three seasons. The Lightning dominated Toronto at times in their six-game series loss, but could not finish off the Leafs, losing three home games in overtime. GM Julien Brisebois exhausted what remained of his draft capital to acquire Tanner Jeannot from Nashville. Although Tampa has been able to replenish and replace over the last few years, age, injury, and lack of cap flexibility could limit the Lightning’s ability to remain competitive.
Toronto In Turmoil
Toronto finally broke through with a first-round win over Tampa, but they were exposed by the Panthers as a club too heavy on skill and too light on the intangibles needed to win in the playoffs. There is a storm brewing in Leaf land that at the absolute minimum will see one of their core group being moved out to change team chemistry. That may have been overdue based on their lack of postseason success, but it may take down GM Kyle Dubas and/or head coach Sheldon Keefe.
The Sabres are accumulating young talent using high draft picks, player development, and trade/free-agent acquisitions. It could be only a matter of time before they catch the Bruins, Lightning, and/or Leafs, but that depends on whether Kevyn Adams can make the right additions to his improving club this summer.