The time for winning is now. After years of losing and going to the bottom to acquire superstar talents like Sam Reinhart and Jack Eichel, the Buffalo Sabres are looking to at least be in the hunt this year. However, for the Sabres to make the playoffs this year certain things will have to go right.
The Kids Keep Progressing
Last year the prospects and young talent made a big jump for the Sabres. If they want to keep the playoff dream alive, that will have to continue again this year. Eichel is coming off of his 24 goals, 56 point season is going to need to expand on that this year. Look for Eichel to shoot more this year to try and reach 30 goals this season. Also, Eichel should make a nice jump in year two and lead the team in scoring this year. Having a top line of Evander Kane, Ryan O’Reilly, and Kyle Okposo should take pressure off of the second line and Eichel. Another reason Eichel should see an increase in year two would be because of who his projected linemates are this year. Having Tyler Ennis and Reinhart on his wings this year should be a big help. Sam Reinhart had his breakout year last year. After being drafted second overall in 2014 Reinhart joined the team and did not look like he was ready for the NHL. The former Kootenay Ice center burst onto the scene last year putting up 23 goals and 42 points. He and Eichel seemed to click nearing the end of last season, so if they stay together this season it could lead to some major production. On defense, Rasmus Ristolainen will look to do even more this year as the team’s franchise defenseman. Once Ristolainen gets his contract and is locked up, he will be looked upon to play big minutes in pressure situations. Based on last year and the World Cup of Hockey this should be no problem for him. The other key young defenseman that needs to progress off of last year is Jake McCabe. The Sabres front office is very high on McCabe, and it is part of the reason they were able to trade away Mark Pysyk. McCabe ended the season very strong while being paired with Zach Bogosian. McCabe will need to continue the success of the end of last season and start to step into his own to keep a steady second pairing for the Sabres blue line. It is not just the kids on last year’s team who will need to progress this year either. Justin Bailey will look for a full-time roster spot on the team this year. After a good year in the AHL last year Bailey should be able to make the jump and start his NHL Career.
Buffalo did add some new pieces this year in the offseason. They will need to see some much-needed production from the new faces on the team, and not necessarily just on the scoresheet. First, the biggest pickup of the offseason was UFA Kyle Okposo. The Sabres were desperately needing another top six forward entering the offseason and they found theirs in signing the top free agent to hit the market. The 28-year-old Okposo has been a steady 20 goal around 50 point player throughout his career. His game should fit nicely on the top line of the Sabres with his type of size and skill. If the Sabres do enter the season with the top line of Kane, O’Reilly, and Okposo it will be a difficult top line to play against for other teams. Adding Okposo to this team helped solidify the Sabres top six forwards. The next big piece added to this year’s roster is Dmitry Kulikov. Kulikov, who was added via the trade with the Florida Panthers, looks to be Ristolainen’s partner as the top pairing. After last season it became obvious that Josh Gorges, although still a good defender, can no longer be a top pairing defenseman at this point in his career. In saying this, Kulikov may not be the long-term answer for the Sabres as Ristolainen’s pairing, but should be able to take pressure off of Ristolainen this coming year. Most importantly Kulikov is more of a big body defensive defenseman, which should allow Ristolainen the ability to play his game offensively, taking the puck up ice and going to the net. Kulikov was brought in to give Ristolainen help even if is only for the one year left on his contract. Lastly, we have Anders Nilsson. Not much here besides your Tim Murray typical big goalie who will look to mostly backup Robin Lehner for this season. If Lehner goes down for any extended time, expect Linus Ullmark to come up from the AHL and be the Sabres starter.
Health is always an issue for every team throughout the season. For the Sabres to make the playoffs this year, individual players will need to avoid being shelved for any extended period of time. Here there are two players in mind besides your obvious top guns of Eichel and O’Reilly. First, was just touched on in the last section and that is Robin Lehner. For the Sabres to find success this season, Lehner is going to have to be good, but more importantly, he is going to have to be healthy. Lehner ended last season with a .924 save percentage, but only in 21 games played. Ullmark needs another full year in the AHL, so if Lehner goes down again this year it could derail the entire season. However, if Lehner can stay mostly healthy throughout the season, he could be a big reason for the Sabres to make the playoffs this year. The second important player is Tyler Ennis. After having major concussion issues and missing most of the last season, Ennis is a big factor for the Sabres this year. When the team was tanking Ennis was easily the best player on the team. Now with the Sabres on the up-swing Ennis could find a niche in this “new” top six and excel. Paring Ennis with Eichel and Reinhart could be a solid line of speed and skill. Ennis did go through a lot over this last year recovering from his concussion, so it may take him some time for him to get back into game shape. Eichel and Reinhart are a good pair to help expedite that process.
Last year was all about instilling Dan Bylsma’s system and gaining chemistry with all of the young talents. There were not expectations last year except to see the team grow and show some progression towards the future and away from the losing ways of the past. While the team did improve and the young players did show flashes of the superstars they can become; the team lacked consistency. If the Sabres are going to make the playoffs this year, the are going to need to find consistency in their lines and production throughout the lineup. Bylsma seemed to be changing the lines almost by the period last season. Until the end of the season, it seemed as if lines changed on a nightly basis. Lines will have to stay somewhat consistent this season for players to start to get the chemistry going with one another. One thing that Bylsma said that should be a clue that this will be the case this year is that he does like his “pairs” when it comes to the forwards. For example, Okposo and O’Reilly as well as Eichel and Reinhart should be expected to stay together for most of the season. The second part of finding consistency this year would be scoring throughout the lineup. Last year over half of the Sabres scoring came from four guys: Eichel, Reinhart, O’Reilly, and Kane. Okposo and Ennis will help this, but more will be needed from Marcus Foligno, Zemgus Girgenson, Johan Larsson, and Brian Gionta this season. The infusion of some younger talent in the bottom six should help with this issue as well. Having someone like a Justin Bailey in place of Matt Moulson who hit a wall last year should help propel the team towards the playoffs.
Streaky and Close Games
The Sabres only had a three or more game winning streak twice last season and both were only three game winning streaks. Comparatively, only the Vancouver Canucks and Winnipeg Jets were worse with only one three-game winning streak and one four-game winning streak respectively. The Columbus Blue Jackets and Carolina Hurricanes tied the Sabres, but every other NHL team had more or longer winning streaks last season. The Sabres will obviously need to put some longer winning streaks together this season to make the playoffs. The Sabres had issues in close games as well last season. Most NHL games will be close and the Sabres were 16-25 in one-goal games, which was 25 of their 47 total losses. The final thing was the Sabres need to improve is after regulation time. The Sabres were 4-4 in overtime and 3-7 in shootouts last season. Kyle Okposo should be able to help in the shootout department and hopefully, Eichel should see a lot more time in three on three overtime this season.
The upcoming campaign is a “make the playoffs” year so look for the Sabres to make deadline moves to improve the team, as needed. The postseason has been unheard of the last couple years as the Sabres have been a team looking to move guys out, not bring in additions. It wouldn’t be surprising to see General Manager Tim Murray move out some picks (Sabres have two second round and two third round picks) to make a push especially if the team is in the hunt.