Sabres fans are ready for the Jack Eichel era to start in Buffalo, but the additions of Evander Kane, Ryan O’Reilly and Cody Franson could have just as much impact in 2015-16. The Sabres aren’t likely to be a playoff team quite yet, but the offense promises to have some punch for the first time two seasons.
2014-15 Record: 23-51-8 (54 Pts.)
THN’s Prediction: 7th, Atlantic Division
What To Expect: Between 1979 and 2009, 10 teams drafted in the top two in consecutive years. Five of them reached the Stanley Cup final within eight seasons and three won the Cup. Buffalo, after bottoming out for two straight second-overall picks, hopes to join the list. The ascent begins in 2015-16 with the seasoning of
Jack Eichel. He won’t have to shoulder the offense alone, as GM Tim Murray acquired No. 1 center
Ryan O’Reilly minutes before drafting Eichel. Murray also dealt for
Evander Kane last season, and Kane will be ready to debut in October after shutting down his year for shoulder surgery.
The man to guide the bolstered Sabres is Dan Bylsma, who last coached the Penguins from 2009 to 2014. He coached Eichel at the 2015 worlds, at which Eichel impressed with seven points in 10 games. In one off-season, Buffalo added two star centers in Eichel and O’Reilly, and it potentially has another in its back pocket in
Sam Reinhart. Goals-for and puck possession will take a big leap forward. Wingers Kane and
Matt Moulson will be expected to break 20 goals, possibly 30 for Kane, who reached that mark once in Winnipeg. The D-corps remains a major weakness.
Josh Gorges and
Zach Bogosian will be forced to play top-pair minutes but are better suited to supporting roles. Rasmus Ristolainen, 20, enjoyed a productive end to the season. The Sabres see him as a cornerstone. The new No. 1 goaltender is
Robin Lehner, acquired from Ottawa in June. Murray drafted Lehner and believes the 24-year-old can shoulder a starter’s job. Given the number of important players added to the lineup, special teams units will be made over. The Sabres now have weapons to deploy. Bylsma’s PK units in Pittsburgh finished in the top five three times in his five seasons. Finally, Sabres fans will root for wins instead of losses as the team climbs toward respectability. They’re still a bottom-10 club, but the playoffs aren’t too far off.
Best-Case Scenario: The Sabres have assembled a good offense but the work necessary on the defensive side of the roster will hold them back from being a playoff team this season. That doesn’t mean they can’t challenge for the post-season, though. With the firepower of Eichel, Kane and O’Reilly, the Sabres offense will be better than the league-worst it has been over the past two seasons and the Sabres can take a small step towards the future.
Worst-Case Scenario: Things can’t really get worse for the Sabres and the worst-case scenario for the Sabres has to do purely with individual performances. One big focus of the season will be Lehner’s play between the pipes. If he can’t handle full-time starting duties, that leaves the Sabres looking for a long-term solution in goal.
Who To Watch: Contrary to how some may feel, Connor McDavid isn’t a lock for the Calder Trophy and Eichel stands to be his top competition. The 18-year-old Eichel is coming off of a Hobey Baker Award-winning, 26-goal, 71-point season in 2014-15 with Boston University. In Eichel’s first campaign in the NCAA, he shredded the competition. He was a Frozen Four all-star, Hockey East all-star and was college hockey’s rookie of the year. For the second straight season, he’ll be making his debut in a new league, but that — along with playing against older competition in the NCAA this past season — could give Eichel an edge for the Calder heading into 2015-16.
What The Numbers Say (by Dom Luszczyszyn):
Click here for more detail on these predictions. There’s a lot of optimism around the Sabres this season after a major off-season overhaul, but the team still has a long way to go before reaching respectability. The playoffs will be a huge longshot as the Sabres are still likely to be the worst team in the Atlantic – yes, even worse than the Leafs – but the gap is much smaller than it was last season. Last year the Sabres had a possession rate of about 36 percent, which is the lowest mark since the stat has been recorded. The next worse team isn’t close either. A lot of that fell on the defensive side and it’s easy to see why from looking at the depth chart where three players from last year’s team contribute a negative win or more each. That could be a systems issue, though, something that new coach Bylsma should help with. Bylsma is just one of many new faces for the team that should help speed the rebuild process along for the Sabres. The new additions are a huge step in the right direction for the team, even if they won’t be enough to put Buffalo in the playoff hunt.
The Sabres added about five wins of talent to the roster this season which is the most of any team. It’s a huge injection of skill, but what it really shows is just how terrible Buffalo was last season. Take five wins off their current projection and you get a true-talent 69 point team. Most teams fall within the 80-to-100 point range, so a number below 70 is shockingly low. That’s the hill Buffalo has to climb to get out of the NHL’s basement and while this season is a good start, there’s a lot of mountain left for them.
THN is rolling out its 2015-16 Team Previews daily, in reverse alphabetical order, until the start of the season. Check out our ‘Previews’ section to see other team breakdowns.