In some sense of things, the Buffalo Sabres seem to be improving. They’ve missed the post-season five straight seasons and have been in an official rebuild for three seasons, but their point totals seem to be on the rise. In 2015-2016, the Sabres posted 81 points – 27 more than 2014-2015.
This slow slip up the standings is partially the doing of head coach Dan Bylsma, whose first year of coaching in Buffalo was marked by enhancement and whose game plan seems set to bear fruit. He’s united with general manager Tim Murray, too, who marked his drive toward a more competitive franchise by acquiring Kyle Okposo and defenceman Dmitry Kulikov in the off-season.
There are some issues, like the off-ice troubles of Evander Kane and the potential signing of Jimmy Vesey. For the most part, however, the Sabres seem prepared to weather any storms and may finally be ready to rumble.
The Sabres started the business of the off-season by picking up the 28-year-old Okposo on the first day of free agency. They inked him to a seven-year deal, signifying their intentions going forward. Okposo will factor in big time and Buffalo is banking on his contributions. He had 64 points in 79 games last season and is a brilliant scorer, even if he doesn’t always realize it.
25-year-old centre Ryan O’Reilly holds it down on the top line, giving the Sabres the sort of defensively-responsible pivot they need to balance out more audacious forwards. O’Reilly had 60 points in 71 games last season and is capable of producing a point a game without giving up much ground. He should be a top contender to play with Okposo and Kane, but Tyler Ennis may have something to say about top line combinations.
In the case of Kane, the Sabres have a choice or two to make. The book on the 25-year-old is that he’s a high maintenance guy off the ice. Summer legal troubles seem to confirm this, as there’s always somewhat of a negative buzz around the winger. But if he’s on-point and gets his game going, Kane can put the puck in the net. He had 20 goals in 65 games last season and is capable of so much more.
Naturally, Jack Eichel is thrilling. The 19-year-old is coming off a 56-point season and knows how to hold on to the puck, with an excellent reach and persistence beyond his years. Eichel will continue to grow in Buffalo. He’ll put up big numbers in 2016-2017. Ennis, too, could be up for some big numbers. After missing most of last season with a concussion, the Edmonton native will have something to prove.
People often inexplicably sleep on Rasmus Ristolainen, but the 24-year-old is a big defenceman with a booming shot and a quality skating game. He had 41 points last season with 202 shots on goal. He’s a restricted free agent, which means he’ll be looking to give his numbers a kick. He’ll see plenty of power play time, with four goals on the man-advantage last season.
The acquisition of Kulikov also gives the Sabres a boost. The 25-year-old Russian had 17 points in the regular season and added four points in six playoff games for the Panthers. He’s an offensive player and likes to jump in the play.
Zack Bogosian gives the Sabres complexity and mobility from the back end. The 26-year-old is also in possession of a heavy shot, which lent itself to seven goals last season. He averaged over 22 minutes of ice time and will be back for more. The same goes for veteran Josh Gorges, who topped 20 minutes a game and managed a dozen points. He’s a shot-blocker without fear.
The Sabres are hoping Robin Lehner can prove himself. He entered last year’s camp with conditioning issues thanks to a concussion, plus he went down with an ankle injury in the first game of the season. He played 20 more games before the club shut him down, but he seems ready now and should be on the way to a bounce-back season. He covers plenty of the net and has plenty to prove.
The insurance policy is Anders Nilsson, who the Sabres acquired in a trade with the Blues. Like Lehner, Nilsson is a big goalie. He can challenge shooters, even if he is prone to over-commit. He went 10-13-2 last season and posted a 3.12 goals against average. If he doesn’t pan out, it could come down to fellow Swede Linus Ullmark. He was 8-10-2 last season for Buffalo and should be ready to slip in when needed.
The Sabres have a pretty solid collection of NHL-ready talent in the prospect pool and there is considerable depth down the middle and in goal. The wing situation isn’t terrible either, with first-round draft pick Alexander Nylander among the most discussed. The 18-year-old spent last season with Mississauga in the OHL, where he produced 75 points and won the admiration of general manager Murray.
Winger Justin Bailey could make for a top-tier power forward in the NHL. The 21-year-old debuted in the big leagues last season and impressed in July’s development camp. He’s a good-sized player, but he doesn’t rely on it to make plays. Scouts say he is difficult to contain, especially coming out of the corners.
The Path Ahead
The Sabres are an exciting hockey team. They possess considerable depth and seem balanced at most positions, though there are a few question marks in goal. They are defensively sound in terms of propelling an attack, but they lack the responsibility in their own end to properly cut down on goals-against. Still, 2016-2017 should represent another big step forward for the team. The playoffs? Maybe not.