Last year started off with a really bad omen when Jack Eichel went down in the final minutes of practice on the eve of the puck dropping on the season. The Buffalo Sabres never really seemed to recover from that point on. Eichel went on to miss the first 21 games of the season. They started off slow and even after the star center’s return they were unable to put any consistent hockey together in the 2016-17 campaign.
The pressure was on general manager Tim Murray and head coach Dan Bylsma to have the club take the next step towards being a playoff competitor. A season of disappointment and locker room turmoil ended up costing both Murray and Bylsma their jobs in April.
Now, new management is at the helm in general manager Jason Botterill and head coach Phil Housley. The duo is taking over a team that is hungry to prove that last season was a fluke and are looking forward to a fresh start.
Team 2016-17 Record: 33-37-12 (8th in the Atlantic Division)
Marco Scandella (Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports)
Key Roster Additions:
Key Roster Losses:
Forwards: Earn Your Spot
Evander Kane – Ryan O’Reilly – Kyle Okposo
Justin Bailey – Jack Eichel – Sam Reinhart
Benoit Pouliot – Johan Larsson – Jason Pominville
Zemgus Girgensons – Jacob Josefson – Hudson Fasching
Extra: Nic Deslauriers, Matt Moulson
We all know about the big names in the forward ranks of Ryan O’Reilly, Sam Reinhart, Evander Kane, Kyle Okposo and Eichel. They’ll all be relied on heavily to carry the offense for the Sabres. Eichel is looking to establish himself as a dominant player in the league. After being nearly a point per game player last season, he has the potential to end the season in the top five in scoring.
Kane was surrounded by trade rumors in the summer and that’ll likely continue all the way up to the trade deadline. The 26-year-old is entering the final season of his contract and at this point looks unlikely that he’ll be back in Buffalo next season. Kane should be motivated to have a big season to make him a high commodity come next July. After leading the team in goals last season, if he can still healthy there’s no reason he can’t score 25 to 30 goals.
Evander Kane (Photo: Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)
The early focus of the season will be in the battle that will start in training camp between Justin Bailey, Nick Baptiste, Hudson Fasching, Alex Nylander and CJ Smith for one or possibly two roster spots. The evaluation has already begun in the Prospects Challenge that began this past weekend. All of the aforementioned players have had their moment in the tournament except Nylander who only played in one game and was pulled as a precaution for a minor injury.
The most interesting part is that the position up for grabs appears to be in a winger position in the top six. The player that wins the job out of camp will be expected to be productive or management may not hesitate to bring the next man up from the minors to get their crack at holding down the spot. Justin Bailey is the expected front-runner, but 2016 first round pick Alex Nylander has started to build a case that goes back to prospect development camp. He’s added a lot of bulk to his frame and at the same time maintained the speed that has made him an intriguing prospect.
Benoit Pouliot (Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports)
The Sabres struggled to get the secondary scoring in the bottom six of the roster last season. They hope they’ve addressed that with the additions of veteran wingers Benoit Pouliot and Jason Pominville. After a very bad year with the Edmonton Oilers, Pouliot signed a one year deal in free agency and should be motivated to get his career back on track.
Pominville, on the other hand, was part of the Scandella trade and has two years remaining on his contract. At 34-years-old he’s not the same player he was during his first go around with the Sabres. However, he still will have an important role on the team this upcoming season as a leader, penalty killer and two-way forward that can produce to take some pressure off the top guys.
Marco Scandella – Rasmus Ristolainen
Nathan Beaulieu – Jake McCabe
Victor Antipin – Zach Bogosian
Extra: Josh Gorges
The revamped defense group will be a big part of how well of a season the Sabres have. Scandella, Beaulieu and Antipin enter as replacements for Kulikov and Franson. Scandella is the big addition to the blue line. He’ll presumably be the partner that Rasmus Ristolainen has been without during his entire time with the Sabres. The 27-year-old former Wild defender will have to prove he can go from playing second pair minutes in Minnesota to being on the top pair in Buffalo. If Scandella can step into the new role without a hiccup it’ll take a lot of pressure off of Ristolainen having to be the guy to eat all of the minutes on the back end.
Both Beaulieu and Antipin are low-risk high reward type players. The Sabres acquired Beaulieu from the Canadiens for the low price of a third round pick after a season that didn’t meet expectations in Montreal. The 24-year-old will be out of the spotlight of filling the shoes for the Habs that were vacated by PK Subban. He’ll be placed into a position as a fourth or fifth defenseman on the roster. Beaulieu fits the mold that Housley looks for his defenders. A good puck mover who can also skate to get up in the offensive rush.
Antipin also fits those same criteria. The former KHL defenseman is a little bit of a mystery heading into this season. We won’t know the type of player he can be in the NHL until we see him in game action. Nonetheless, he’s an interesting player to see develop and if he can play like Nikita Zaitsev did for the Toronto Maple Leafs last season, the Sabres will have themselves a steal.
Goaltending: Prove It
Robin Lehner (Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports)
Robin Lehner made it through his first full season as the Sabres starting goaltender playing in 59 games. Depending on who you ask, the reviews on his 2016-17 season are mixed. He ended the season with a .920 save percentage behind one of the worst defense groups in the league. That was good enough to rank him tied for seventh in the league among goaltenders who played in at least 40 games.
Lehner was given a one-year “prove it” contract by Botterill over the summer. The big Swede will have another opportunity to show management and the fan base that he can be the starting goaltender for at least the next few years.
Chad Johnson was brought back to Buffalo after spending last season with the Calgary Flames. Johnson is also still looking to prove that he can be a starter in the league. The 31-year-old will push Lehner, but make no mistake the crease belongs to Lehner to start the season.
Breakout Player: Sam Reinhart
After a disappointing season, Reinhart should bounce back to look more like the type of player we saw during his rookie year. He’ll be given a fresh start under the new management group and is playing for a big pay day come next summer when he’s a restricted free agent.
The 21-year-old bounced throughout the lineup last season and struggled in the defensive zone throughout the year. He’s one of the smarter players on the ice, so his mental lapses were a real surprise in the previous campaign. Some of that can be chalked up to not seeing eye to eye with Bylsma, but that excuse won’t hold water this season. If Reinhart can put it all together he has the potential to have a huge breakout year heading into restricted free agency.
Player with Most to Prove: Zemgus Girgensons
Last year I went with Girgensons as my breakout player, but that certainly didn’t come to fruition. The former first round pick struggled again to produce offensively and on a lot of nights played some of the fewest minutes on the team.
It’s not a hot take to say that Girgensons didn’t fit under Bylsma’s system. He found himself in the dog house early and at times seemed confused on where he was supposed to be. This caused him to play hesitant and not rely on his instincts. Under Housley, he’ll have an opportunity to re-establish himself as an important piece of this roster. A strong training camp from Girgensons could afford him the opportunity to see some top six minutes to start the season on the wing. Another poor season and we could be talking about a young player who could never reach his potential that needs a change of scenery.
Don’t Sleep On: Zach Bogosian
I had to slip this in real quick because I considered Bogosian for the previous section. Now before you start yelling at the screen, hear me out. The big defender has had an up and down career with the Sabres that has also seen a lot of injuries hinder his play. Bogosian has the tools that could make him a good fourth or fifth defenseman in the NHL. He’s big, physical and an above average skater. Where he gets himself into trouble is hockey sense. He’s always been a step or two behind the play that has resulted to the puck ending up in the net.
(Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports)
Under Housley (catching a theme here?) and with the other additions, he’ll be in a role that doesn’t rely on him as a top pair or potentially even a top four defenseman. Bogosian will have one of the best defensive coaches in the game helping him to understand the system he’ll be playing in and it could eliminate those slow reaction mistakes. The contract will never suit the type of player that Bogosian is, but there’s nothing that can be done about it at this point. If he stays healthy and that’s a big if. Bogosian has the ability to have his best season we’ve season while with the Sabres.
Season Outlook: Wide Open
At the end of the day, the Sabres are really surrounded by a lot of question marks. Things go their way they could conceivably compete for a top three spot in the wide open Atlantic Division. At the same time if they don’t get some key production from certain players they could find themselves in a similar position as they finished last season.
I’ll take the middle ground in my prediction. I believe they’ll be an improved hockey club, but just not able to break the playoff drought and get back into the postseason. This season sets up as one that’ll be the next step towards the franchise being an annual playoff competitor again.
Team 2017-18 Record Prediction: 41-35-6 (5th in the Atlantic Division)