Thursday, October 8, 2015

Buffalo Sabres 2015-16 Season Preview

Reprinted with permission from
There was anticipation when new owner Terry Pegula took over the Buffalo Sabres in 2011 with deep pockets and a commitment to winning. Likewise when he opened up his wallet that summer to bring in the best free agents available. Granted it was a thin market that year and things blew up in his face, but Pegula followed through with his declaration that he’d be taking off the financial chains and moving an organizational mandate from “just break even” to “the Buffalo Sabres’ reason for existence will be to win the Stanley Cup.”
The loose, three-year time-frame that Pegula put on making it to their ultimate goal took a bit of a Griswold detour featuring a comedy of errors lead to an extensive overhaul for the franchise. From team president on down, very few were spared. Three seasons and four drafts later this incarnation of the Buffalo Sabres, one that’s filled with high-draft picks and young veterans just beginning to enter their prime years, will hit the ice for the most anticipated season in years.
Sabres fans expectations have invariably pumped to the point of sheer frenzy in the past, and in every occasion the prize was out of reach. One need to go no further back than the first quarter of the 2015 NFL season to see a Buffalo Bills fan-base get stoked to the point of ponying up for a franchise record-breaking 65,000 season tickets only to have their team get embarrassed twice in front them.
When the Sabres hit the ice at First Niagara Center tomorrow night, fans will be in tizzy as two years of “suffering” are now in the past and the future begins now. It's the beginning of "the Next Chapter” in the book that is the history of the Buffalo Sabres, but it’s only the first paragraph of the first page. Win or lose, fans know (or should know) that there’s a new coaching staff and a revamped roster featuring 12 players 24 yrs. old or younger. New head coach Dan Bylsma will be guiding the youngest team in the league, according to at an average age of 26.230 yrs old, and there will be growing pains.

What Sabres GM Tim Murray did with the roster up front this calendar year is remarkable. He went out and got two top-six forwards and added a possible franchise center with the 2nd-overall pick at the draft to bolster a lineup who's lack of offense challenged post-Original Six historic lows. Although he may be smiling internally at the players he was able to land and is as excited as anybody else, Murray's also keeping things in perspective. “I’ve said all along I think we’ve improved on paper, but until we do something on the ice there’s no point in really talking about it,” Murray told Jon Vogl of the Buffalo News. "“I personally have high expectations, but I just don’t want to get the cart ahead of the horse."
The Forwards
The overhaul of the forwards came at the expense of defense. One bona fide top-four defensemen went out in one trade while another potential top-four d-man was sent in another one. Tyler Myers finished last season with Winnipeg playing at a top-pairing level, while Nikita Zadorov, on his good nights, has top-pairing potential written all over him. Murray paid a hefty price to bolster his forward group. It's a near-term hit with possible long-term consequences if the Sabres once deep prospect pool on defense doesn't reach expectations.
Although trades of that magnitude constitute a gamble, perhaps Murray's biggest gamble was in net as he traded a 1st-round pick for a 24 yr. old with 86 NHL games to his resume' then backed him up with a goalie who's play performance seems to be directly related to the team that's in front of him.
All-in-all it should be a fun year for Sabres fans--offensively. Bylsma coaches an aggressive, up-tempo game and he has speed to burn in the forward ranks, beginning with 2015 second-overall pick, Jack Eichel.
Eichel's speed and explosiveness is something that hasn't been seen in an American-born player since Mike Modano and the cool part of this year's Sabres roster is that he'll have any number of top-six players who will able to keep up with him. On that list is highly skilled left wing Evander Kane who came from the Jets in the Myers deal. Kane's a former 30-goal scorers who's turning the page in his own book. Also in the mix is a very underrated forward in Tyler Ennis who has plenty of speed, finish and chutzpah.
Murray sent Zadorov as part of a package to land Ryan O'Reilly a top-notch two-way forward and leader who's hard on the puck. Zemgus Girgensons, another underrated forward, plays the same game as O'Reilly but is three years younger.
Any of the five mentioned above can be effective on the top line for Buffalo.
The Sabres head into 2015-16 with some seasoned vets in captain Brian Gionta and associate captain Matt Moulson, who's a three-time 30-goal scorer, as well as top-nine forward Jamie McGinn who scored 19 goals in his last full NHL season (2013-14.)
Rounding out the forward ranks are youngsters Johan Larsson, Marcus Foligno, Nic Deslauriers, and 2014 second-overall pick Sam Reinhart as well as veteran David Legwand, a former 2nd-overall pick himself.
The Sabres averaged less than two goals per game last season, easily the worst amongst any team in the NHL. The upgrade in the forward ranks was substantial and should prove to be very fruitful although inconsistencies should plague them as the adjust not only to a new coach and system, but to new, and constantly changing linemates.
Where the Sabres will be suspect is from the blueline back.
The Defense
As mentioned, Murray purged his d-corps to bolster the forwards and unless something remarkable happens, they could be in for a rough season.
We can look no further than the top defenseman as 20-year old Rasmus Ristolainen will be leaned on to play that role. No doubt Ristolainen has all the tools plus the internal drive to be that guy, but the question of when comes to the fore for this season. After him top-four defensemen Zach Bogosian and veteran Josh Gorges will be vying for the top-pairing role alongside Ristolainen. Either player can hold the fort but both are probably more suited to a #2-3/second-pairing role.
Recently acquired Cody Franson would be a possibility except for the fact that he's right handed and readily admits that he can't play the left side. That wouldn't be too much of a problem save for the fact that the right-handed Ristolainen struggled mightily this preseason playing on the left side. So it's second-paring for Franson.
A wild-card in the mix is 23 yr. old Mark Pysyk who's been paying his dues with AHL duty for the better part of two years. Pysyk is a heady, steady, right-handed d-man who plays very well on the left side. At some point it wouldn't be surprising to see him line up opposite Ristolainen.
The Sabres look to be carrying eight defenseman this season and with Bogosian out for a couple of weeks, it opens the door for one extra to be here until his return. Veterans Mike Weber and Carlo Colaiacovo will see #6/depth duty while Matt Donovan will be looking to stake a claim to that role.
Another wild card in the mix is 21 yr. old Jake McCabe. Expectations for McCabe were high coming into camp but have been tempered as he's struggled at times. The injury to Bogosian opened the door for McCabe to see some regular season ice time and, perhaps, impress. The great part about the youngster is that he rebounds from a bad play, period or game nicely. A lot is being thrown at him in this his second pro season and he'll probably spend most of his time learning it at the AHL-level.
Compounding matters below the blueline is having a goalie-tandem that hasn't played a regular season game since February due to injury.
Robin Lehner, who was acquired from Ottawa on draft day morning for the 21st pick in the draft, is coming of a concussion-shortened season. It was painfully obvious during the preseason that he wasn't quite where he needs to be and one can see it taking him quite some time to get up to speed. At 24 yr.s old he barely beginning his prime and he has plenty of upside as the learning curve for goalies is a long one. Although some are quick to judge, it may be a half a season before he can start showing his potential.
The problem with that amount of time is that Lehner's backup, Chad Johnson, has proven to be a product of the team around him. He was lights-out on an exceptional Boston Bruins team while being below-average on an average NY Islanders club. One would thing that he'd be wildly inconsistent at best on a young Sabres squad with an average, at best, defense.
The coaching staff is new beginning with Bylsma and his up-tempo style. He coached Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in Pittsburgh so he's accustomed to coaching and mentoring top players. Which is a good thing as his Stanley Cup ring should garner respect from every player in the locker room. Veteran Terry Murray leads a group of assistant coaches including Dave Barr, Dan Lambert and goalie coach Andrew Allen. It should be noted that the team had a banner preseason on special teams scoring five powerplay goals and five shorties. Allen will have some pretty big shoes to fill as he replaces the departed Arturs Irbe.
Irbe did a masterful job with his goalies last season especially with last years post-trade deadline starter, Anders Linback who's time with the pitiful last place Sabres spanned 16 games. He went 4-8-2 with a 2.76 gaa and a .924 sv. %. If the Sabres want to even think of being a mere playoff-bubble team, the tandem of Lehner and Johnson need to have goalie numbers in that area.
The Outlook
For the season ticket holders who suffered through the last two seasons getting a hockey return that equaled pennies on the dollar, this looks to be a fun season. With the offensive firepower Murray amassed, the up-tempo game Bylsma will employ and the speed with which this team will attack, visions of the 2006-07 "Ferrari Sabres" will be dancing in their heads. Unfortunately, with an average defense and questions in net, the Sabres will be giving up their fair share of goals.
Will the fans in Buffalo be able to stomach a bevy of losses while their team scores at an increased clip? You betcha. After watching the boring mess that was the last two years, 6-5 and 4-3 losses will be welcome with open arms.
Fans are smart enough to know that this edition of the Sabres isn't a Stanley Cup team. Nor will Buffalo vie for eastern conference or even division supremacy. They've also been reminded time and again that the Sabres finished in last place for the second consecutive season. Their 53 points was 45 points out of a playoff spot and in order for them to reach playoff contention, they'll need to add over 20 more wins this season.
It's hard to see that happening.
The forward ranks are stocked with plenty of depth touching the second line in Rochester, but when injuries hit the defense-corps, it will take it's toll. Add in the fact that it'll take some time for their goalies to get up to speed and that there will be plenty of growing pains and we're looking at a team that might be able to add 20-25 points this season.
A 73-78 point finish means a sure bottom-10 finish with the possibility of being bottom-five.
One can easily see them seventh in the division ahead of a rebuilding Toronto Maple Leafs team and 13th in the conference ahead of the Carolina Hurricanes and the NJ Devils. It's possible they could finish higher than the Philadelphia Flyers, but other than that, every other team in the conference is stronger than Buffalo.
Meeting expectations as tempered as these would make for an excellent season in light of the two dismal ones the team just went through. A record better is great while a record worse means a better shot at one of the top-three picks in the 2016 draft thanks to the ne lottery system.
Regardless of what transpires in the win-loss column, this team is going to be fun to watch.
It's a win-win for the Buffalo Sabres and their fans this season.


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