The Sabres rebuild has taken longer than expected but there is suddenly a lot of talent in the lineup. Just don’t expect a push toward the playoffs this year.
THN is rolling out its 2016-17 Team Previews daily, in reverse order of 2015-16 overall finish, until the start of the season. Today, the still-rebuilding Sabres.
THN’s Prediction: 6th in Atlantic
Stanley Cup odds: 50-1
Key additions: Kyle Okposo, RW; Dmitry Kulikov, D; Justin Falk, D; Anders Nilsson, G
Key departures: David Legwand, C; Cody McCormick, C; Chad Johnson, G; Mark Pysyk, D; Matt Donovan, D
-When will the Sabres be good? Not this year, but probably next year. That’s the thing about rebuilds; they take longer than you’d expect. Just ask Los Angeles and Chicago about that one. The Sabres will improve in the standings a third straight season, but the bar was so low it’s practically inevitable. Consider 2016-17 a transition year, where Jack Eichel, Sam Reinhart and Rasmus Ristolainen continue to grow while the team’s brass figures out if Robin Lehner can be a legit No. 1 goaltender. They could scrap for a playoff spot, but it’s all about learning for the future right now.
-Who will lead the team in scoring? Eichel. Sophomore slump be damned, the second overall pick in 2015 gained steam as his rookie season went on, ending with a five-game point streak. Not only that, but the addition of Kyle Okposo and the return to health of Tyler Ennis will bolster the Sabres’ depth. That means Eichel and Ryan O’Reilly (who will take on tougher competition assignments) will have even more talent to work with on their wings.
-Does Evander Kane end this season in Buffalo? When you’re literally taken into Central Booking during the summer, it’s not a good look. Kane’s arrest for trespassing, harassment and disorderly conduct – all stemming from an alleged incident at a Buffalo nightspot – once again took the focus off his hockey talents. While he pleaded not guilty, his list of career distractions is getting long. For a team on the rise, he may not be the right fit in the long term, and trades have already been rumored for the power forward.
Player projections are based off a three-year version of Game Score (which you can read about here) weighted by recency and repeatability and then translated to its approximate win value (Game Score Value Added or GSVA). Team strength was derived from the combined value of every player’s GSVA on a team. The season was then simulated 10,000 times factoring in team strength, opponent strength and rest.
Many believe that after last season’s big jump the Buffalo Sabres are ready to take the next step toward contention. This model disagrees. According to Game Score, the Sabres are poised to be the league’s worst team.
That seems hard to imagine, but it’s because of the severe stench of their 2014-15 campaign, the season where the team tried desperately (and succeeded) to be as bad as possible. Many of those players were a part of that team and this model – because it uses data from the last three seasons – hasn’t forgotten about it.
Whether that’s fair is in the eye of the beholder. On one hand, that team was downright awful and this team has a lot more talent now which boosts the entire team as worse players aren’t in over their head. On the other hand, those players that did play on that horrific team were the ones making those on-ice results a reality.
The real answer lies somewhere in between the two extremes. The Sabres will likely be better than projected here, but they’re still not ready for primetime. Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart have real first line potential and a big breakout from one or both should push this team up the standings. The top six is decent, it’s the bottom that needs work though, especially the fourth line which doesn’t feature any above replacement level talent.
But the real issue is on the back end, which looks dire. Cody Franson is spared from the Buffalo Effect so that’s probably why he comes out on top here, but he’s also underrated and underused on a team where most guys are below replacement level (keep the Buffalo Effect in mind though).
The team’s number one D-man is Rasmus Ristolainen and while many are optimistic about his progress due to his point totals last seasons, his underlying numbers were atrocious. That’s been the case for his entire NHL career so far. Think about how bad Buffalo has been the past few years; they’re even worse with Ristolainen on the ice.
He’s still young and can blossom into a very effective D-man, but what he’s shown so far in terms of play-driving ability hasn’t been good enough to be considered a top D-man. That needs to change in order for the Sabres to progress and will be the key to a successful season.
Up next: Montreal Canadiens