Welcome to Puck Drop Preview 2017-18, where LastWordOnHockey.com gives you a detailed look at each team from around the NHL leading to the start of this hockey season and offers our insight and analysis. Make sure to stick around until the end of the series, where we’ll offer our full predictions for the standings in each division, and eventually our 2017-18 Stanley Cup pick. You can check out all our articles on our Puck Drop Page. Today the series continues with the 2017-18 Buffalo Sabres.
Puck Drop Preview: 2017-18 Buffalo Sabres
The Buffalo Sabres have been in a major slump this decade. The last time they made the playoffs, or won 40 games in a season, was 2010-2011. Last season was yet another disappointing effort. With a 33-37-12 record, the team finished last in the Atlantic Division, 15th in the Eastern Conference, and 26th in the whole league. The 2017-2018 Buffalo Sabres must turn things around.
Before the season even began, this team started off on the wrong foot. Star centre Jack Eichel suffered a gruesome ankle injury on October 12th, on the teams last practice before the regular season began. The injury kept him out until November 29th, and the team suffered. The Sabres saw themselves in 28th in the standings and only 38 goals for in 21 games without the 19-year-old. Even though Eichel would go on to have a great season and lead the team with 57 points in 61 games, it was too little too late.
At the end of the season the Buffalo Sabres were clearly not happy with where they finished and the frustration showed through some of the players. Near the end of the season, Eichel described his opinion on the teams performance quite bluntly saying “It sucks. That’s the best way to describe it. It sucks. We should still be playing hockey and we’ve got two games left and then the season ends and you hit the summer. It sucks. We didn’t make any improvement from last year,”. He wasn’t the only disappointed one, Ryan O’Reilly didn’t mince words about his feelings either. “I’m sick of losing. It’s getting exhausting and it’s not fun. It sucks the fun out of the game.”
The team finished poorly in both goals for (199) and goals against (231) compared to the rest of the league (24th and 21st respectively). They didn’t make things easy for the goaltending duo of Robin Lehner and Anders Nilsson, allowing the most shots per game in the entire league at 34.3/game. However, there was one area that the team dominated in, and it may surprise you. The Sabres had the top powerplay in the entire league with a 24.5% success rate. Even more surprising, Matt Moulson led the way with 11 powerplay goals, tied for seventh most in the league.
New Front Office
The Buffalo Sabres franchise must have heard their two star players complaints loud and clear because they wasted no time in making serious changes in the off-season. On April 20th, the team announced they had fired head coach Dan Bylsma and general manager Tim Murray. There was a lot of hope when Bylsma arrived after he had such success with the Pittsburgh Penguins and their young superstars. Things just didn’t work out for him or Murray in Buffalo though.
The Sabres again looked to the success of the Penguins franchise and announced the hiring of Jason Botterill, the former general manager of the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins AHL team, in May. The team then hired former Sabre and hall of fame player, Phil Housley, as the new head coach. Housley was an assistant coach for the Nashville Predators for four seasons. Nashville’s defence core is one of the best in the league and with Housley’s help, they reached the Stanley Cup Finals last year. The Sabres are hoping their new hirings past success will translate to success in Buffalo.
For the second year in a row the Buffalo Sabres selected eighth in the draft. With their first pick they selected centre Casey Mittelstadt from Eden Prairie high school. Mittelstadt was named All-USA Player of the Year for a second straight season and Mr. Hockey as the best senior boys high school player in Minnesota. This is the fourth time the Sabres have selected a centre with their first pick in six years. With the way the NHL’s top teams are building teams, having depth at centre is a valuable asset. He has committed to the University of Minnesota for next season.
Swap with Wild
On June 30th the Buffalo Sabres swapped a pair of players with the Minnesota Wild. Buffalo sent off Marcus Foligno and Tyler Ennis in exchange for Marco Scandella and former Sabres captain, Jason Pominville. Ennis showed flashes of potential with three 20-goal seasons throughout 2010-2015, but has since plummeted in points. The past two seasons he notched only 24 points in 74 games total. With two more years at $4.6 million, shipping the 27-year-old off was a good move. Foligno was a true power forward, at 6’3″ and 228 pounds. He led the team with 279 hits, and had a career high of 13 goals and 23 points.
Scandella is a solid left-handed defensemen that will slot in nicely beside Rasmus Ristolainen. The 27-year-old has 89 points in 373 NHL games, all with the Wild. Pominville will help the bottom six take some of the offensive load off the top six. Last season he had 47 points in 73 games, making him a much better offensive replacement for Ennis’ departure. The 36-yea- old will also help replace some veteran leadership that left with former captain Brian Gionta.
It was no secret this team needed help on the back end after a disastrous season with a negative 32 goal differential. They traded a third round pick to the Montreal Canadiens for Nathan Beaulieu. He had 28 points last year, and has 60 career points in 225 games with the Habs. Beaulieu was promptly signed to a two-year deal worth $2.4 million annually.
The Sabres will take a low risk flier on Benoit Pouliot in a one-year deal for just over one million dollars. Pouliot is coming off a bad year of registering only 14 points in 67 games. In the three previous seasons he finished in the mid-30’s point range. If he can get closer to those totals he will be a decent depth piece at a cheap price.
In mid August Zemgus Girgensons re-signed a two-year deal worth $1.6 million annually. Girgensons was drafted by the Sabres 14th overall in the first round of the 2012 NHL Entry Draft. He is a gritty forward with good net presence and a few flashy plays up his sleeve. In 2014-2015 he had a career year with 15 goals and 15 assists.
The Sabres will have a very familiar pair of goalies in the crease this season. It’s the same combo as the 2015-2016 season, Robin Lehner and Chad Johnson. Lehner re-signed for a one-year deal of $4 million after his second season in Buffalo. He had a career high in games played with 59. Johnson returns to Buffalo after a solid year with the Calgary Flames in 36 starts.
Sometimes to get ahead you have to think outside of the box. The Sabres were able to sign a puck moving defensemen named Viktor Antipin to a one-year entry-level deal. Antipin has spent six seasons with Metallurg Magnitogorsk, playing 266 games with 98 points. With two KHL Gagarin Cup Championships, and a trip to the finals this year, Antipin comes with a championship pedigree. He will likely be a bottom pairing defensemen, but does have the ability to play some powerplay time. He could be an interesting piece to an already successful powerplay team.
2017-2018 Line Combinations
Matt Moulson – Ryan O’Reilly – Sam Reinhart
Benoit Pouliot – Zemgus Girgensons – Jason Pominville
Evander Kane had a big year in Buffalo last season, leading the team with 28 goals in 70 games. He is a guy that brings size and a scorers touch to the top line. Eichel and Kane had great chemistry with each other and were a dominant pair. It’s very obvious that Kane needed the superstar centremen with him to create offence. Eichel didn’t play until November 25th due to his ankle injury, and it’s no coincidence that Kane did not even have a single goal in 11 games without him.
Similar to Kane and Eichel, O’Reilly and Reinhart really worked well together last season too. O’Reilly is a smooth centremen with great playmaking abilities and can create space for his young winger. Long gone are the days when Moulson was hitting 30 goal seasons with the New York Islanders, but his scoring upside is better than Pouliot’s. Moulson is also very familiar with the top six players because he was a big part of the Sabre’s league best powerplay.
The third line will provide some grittiness and much needed depth scoring. Pominville is a great addition to this team, especially since he was a fan favourite in his previous time in Buffalo. If he can stay in the 30-40 point range he can replace the offence left by Ennis and Gionta. Girgensons has been given an oppourtunity with his new two-year deal to replace Foligno’s role of a power forward. The 23-year-old Latvian may not be as physical as Foligno, but he has much better hands.
Deslauriers brings a real physical edge to this bottom six. In just 42 games, he had 109 hits. That’s about all he brings to the ice though, with only two assists last season. His best season was 2014-2015 where he played all 82 games, had a career high 15 points, and led the team with 261 hits. A third rounder from 2013, Nicholas Baptiste could be ready for an NHL role with the big club this year. He got a chance to play 14 NHL games last year and scored three goals and added an assist. The last right wing position could also be shared with Justin Bailey.
Marco Scandella – Rasmus Ristolainen
Nathan Beaulieu – Josh Gorges
Having Phil Housley as the head coach will do wonders for this defensive core. The addition of Scandella bolsters the top pair nicely. Scandella was a part of a solid group of defensemen in Minnesota and may be a great partner for the surging Ristolainen. Ristolainen continues to improve each year and had a career high of 49 points, including 25 on the powerplay.
The second pairing is a shutdown pair. McCabe was second on the team in blocked shots with 117, and Bogosian was fourth with 97 despite only playing 56 games. Bogosian may be overpaid at over $5 million for the next three seasons, but he is a great example of a stay-at-home defensemen to tutor the young McCabe.
To be able to slot Beaulieu on the third defence pairing is a blessing for the Sabres. He finished with a career high 28 points last season and is a sound puck moving defensemen. Gorges won’t do much for you on the score sheet but he provides value to a young Buffalo team. He only tallied six points in 66 games last season, but the assistant captain was third on the team in both hits and blocked shots. Antipin is a great option for a seventh defenseman. However, he provides a very similar skill set as Beaulieu and may need time to adjust to North American hockey.
Robin Lehner deserves a more credit than he is given. Being a number one goalie for the team that gives up the most shots on average per game is a tall task. At 6’4″ he did a good job standing up to the challenge. He played a career high 59 games, with a 23-26-8 record, a 2.68 goals-against-average, and a .920 save percentage. His save percentage puts him in the top five for goalies playing over 50 games. Since he is on a one-year deal this season will be a chance to prove to the Sabres or other NHL teams that he is worthy of a starting position.
Since Lehner has only played more than 40 games just once in his career, having a back up that can handle major minutes was a must for the 2017-2018 Buffalo Sabres. Johnson started 36 games for the Calgary Flames last season and 40 for the Sabres the season before. If Lehner faces another injury, starts to falter, or fetches the right trade offer, the Sabres have a solid back up ready.
Players to watch
Okposo’s season was over on March 27th due to concussion issues. In today’s game it’s become clear just how serious concussions can be. Fortunately he has had a full off-season to recover and should be ready for the 2017-2018 Buffalo Sabres roster. In a letter he penned to let people know about his condition, Okposo wrote “I know I can play and not worry about hitting my head, which is a major hurdle for someone who’s dealt with this. If I didn’t feel 100 percent right now, that probably wouldn’t be the case.” That’s good news for the team as he was a big part of their dominant powerplay, his 23 powerplay points were more than half of his points. If he can stay healthy he is sure to put up more than 20 goals and about 50 points.
Drafted eighth overall in the 2016 NHL Entry Draft, Nylander has a lot to prove before he can play in the NHL. The 19-year-old played 65 games with the Rochester Americans in the AHL and finished with a somewhat disappointing 28 points. The good thing is he is young. He has lots of time to improve and gain size. At 6’1″, 180 pounds it can be tough to go up against grown men. The Sabres did give him a chance to play in the NHL, and in four games he tallied one assist. Don’t expect Nylander to make the jump again this year, but expect him to improve on only ten goals and 28 points in the AHL.
Players on the Rise
Although Buffalo missed out on the chance to draft Connor McDavid in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft, they ended up with a pretty sweet consolation prize in Eichel. Eichel has the potential to be one of the Sabres best players ever. What he was able to do in 20 less games than his rookie season shows his potential is still rising. In 61 games least year he passed his rookie point total by one point (57) and added five more powerplay points. His biggest weakness is probably his ability in the face-off dot. His 39% success rate will need to improve, especially as the team’s number one centre. If he stays healthy, look for him to pass 30 goals and 70 points for the first time in his career.
Players on the Decline
Bogosian had a great season in 2015-2016 with 24 points in 64 games. He took a big step backwards last season though with only 11 points in 56 games. The 27-year-old only had 59 hits compared to 86 the year before. As a veteran with over 500 NHL games, he is still a sound defensemen, but his main purpose may be mentoring the up and coming defense core for this team.
2017-2018 Buffalo Sabres Season Prediction
The Buffalo Sabres are trying to start a new era of hockey for their fans and they are on the right track. With new faces on the bench and in the front office, this will be an interesting year for the club. Players on this team are beginning to let frustrations show, so an improvement this year is crucial for the club’s morale.
With so much young talent in guys like Eichel, Reinhart, and Ristolainen, and mid-career veteran help from O’Reilly, Kane, and Scandella, this team can focus on getting out of the rebuild stage and pushing for playoff contention. The Eastern Conference is no joke though. Cracking the top eight will be a tough task for this team. With additions to the blue line in Beaulieu and Scandella, a healthy Eichel, and new head coach, they are better off than they were last year.
Final Prediction: This team still needs time to mesh together and isn’t ready for the post season just yet. That being said, they no longer belong in the very basement of the Eastern Conference anymore. If the core of this team can remain healthy, they will finish around 10th-13th in their conference.