Despite all that’s going on in the world, hockey is still coming and that means it’s time to take a look at what’s to come in 2017-2018. This time, we’re talking about the illustrious Buffalo Sabres.
Things haven’t gone well for the Sabres in a while and the franchise cleaned house and is starting over after yet another disappointing season. Head coach Phil Housley and general manager Jason Botterill are hoping to turn things around from the truck fire that was Dan Bylsma and Tim Murray, but the new bosses will have their work cut out for them.
They’re inheriting a team that seems in perpetual rebuild mode, but things are looking up. Defenceman Nathan Beaulieu was acquired in a trade with Montreal, while defenceman Marco Scandella and Jason Pominville were obtained in a swap with the Wild. Defenceman Viktor Antipin was signed out of the KHL, too.
Does this mean the Sabres are ready to contend? Meh. But it does mean that Buffalo’s blueline could finally improve after allowing the most shots against per game in the entire league.
Jack Eichel missed 21 games in 2016-2017, but he still amassed 57 points in 61 games. He led the NHL in shots on goal per game and had two dozen points on the power play. The Sabres are looking for the 20-year-old to improve on those numbers, which should set him up for about a point a game in 2017-2018. If his health isn’t a factor once more, look for Eichel to eclipse 30 goals.
Ryan O’Reilly is the team’s second-best bet for points. In each of the past four seasons, dude’s had at least 55 points and has cracked off at least 157 shots on goal. He can play centre or wing and once scored 28 goals with the Avalanche. There’s no reason to assume he couldn’t hit the same mark in Buffalo, especially if the club’s defensive issues get sorted.
Like it or not, Evander Kane can be a potent part of the Sabres’ offence. The Vancouver native has great instincts and put up 28 goals in 2016-2017. The book on him is that he still “lacks maturity” for the NHL game, but there are other issues at play here. Kane can shoot, skate, hit, score, and pass the puck. That should be enough to put him in fantasy consideration. He’ll be knocking on the door of 30 goals once more, too.
With Eichel, O’Reilly and Kane potentially scoring 30 goals apiece, it’s nice to have a guy like Kyle Okposo around. He’s a nice fit at right wing and had 19 goals in 61 games in 2016-2017. Durability is an issue and his health concerns may create trouble for the team, but Okposo is expected to be set for camp.
Buffalo’s blueline starts with Rasmus Ristolainen because he’s one of the best players on the team. The 22-year-old was one of the best power play producers in the NHL in 2016-2017 – and not just among defencemen. He averaged 26:28 a game and registered 186 shots on goal, plus he can transition to shutdown hockey when and if the occasion calls for it.
Jake McCabe had a respectable 20 points in 2016-2017 and averaged 20:42 of ice time a contest, so he might be worth a secondary look if you’re into a guy with physical upside and slick puck-moving skills. The Sabres like his work ethic and he could be a team leader at some point in the near future. The downside is that he doesn’t like to shoot the puck all that much.
Antipin will be getting a long look in Buffalo in 2017-2018. The Sabres brought him in from the KHL, as mentioned, and he’ll have every chance to show that he’s worth more than a one-year contract. He’s been earning comparisons to Nikita Zaitsev and had 24 points in 59 games with the mighty Magnitogorsk Metallurg last season. He’s mobile. He blocks shots. He logs minutes. He’s…a little on the small side at 5’11, 179 pounds.
Robin Lehner has a year to prove himself as a Buffalo Sabre. He signed a one-year deal with the club in July and will have every chance in the world to establish that he’s more than just a “potential” goalie. He won 23 games last season and posted a goals against average of 2.68 with a .920 save percentage. He’s been shelled a lot of times in his Buffalo career, but this season gives him an earnest defence and those numbers should get better. With a point to prove, Lehner could play some of his best hockey.
If that plan falls through, Chad Johnson is on deck. No, we’re not talking about the guy from THE BACHELORETTE. The Saskatoon native was signed as a free agent and went 18-15-1 in 2016-2017 with the Flames of Calgary, plus he saw 52 minutes of playoff action and allowed a goal. He’s a perennial backup goalie and should supply Lehner with adequate support.