Thursday, October 13, 2016

Buffalo Sabres 2016-17 Season Preview

Published by, 10-12-2016

Pundits and hockey "experts" from around the league pretty much have a consensus opinion concerning the Buffalo Sabres this upcoming season--the Sabres will be better, but aren't quite there yet. Most are still placing the Sabres at the bottom of the division, conference or league with TSN's Scott Cullen yesterday putting them at 28th in their power rankings to start the season. Cullen says expectations are high and that the Sabres did add to a "promising forward group." However, he believes the defense is suspect and "needs to improve," while that questionable defense will put pressure on an unproven starting goalie "who has shown flashes of talent" but has never played more than 36 games in a season.

Sabres fans stand on the precipice of the Buffalo's 2016-17 NHL season with negativity still prevailing despite the club making huge strides last season to the tune of a 50% year-over-year points increase and definitive, yet limited, upgrades to the roster this past off season. Yet, regardless of the pundits, analytics and definitive Canadian homerism labeling Buffalo as a doormat to the league, fans in Sabreland will have a lot to look forward to this year. After two seasons in the tank and another one of major adjustments, the grubby little street urchin is poised to rise further in the standings. Just how far the Sabres rise--as in a playoff berth or not--is to be determined.

A quick look at past teams with high draft picks in the early stages of their builds.

There are four teams we can look to that have gone in the tank for at least a couple of years only to rise from the ashes to become a force in hockey. Three of them, the Pittsburgh Penguins, Chicago Blackhawks and Los Angeles Kings--have won the Stanley Cup at least once. The Florida Panthers have not, but it seems as if their Stanley Cup window has been thrust open with a strong 2015-16 campaign.

The Hawks and the Kings both finished at or near the bottom of the league for two consecutive seasons and picked high in the draft. Chicago drafted Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane back-to-back and in their first season playing together (2007-08) they helped the Blackhawks go from 71 to 88 points. Los Angeles finished with 68 points in '06-'07 and drafted Thomas Hickey then finished with 71 points before drafting Drew Doughty second-overall. Although Hickey was no where to be found, Doughty joined Dustin Brown and Anze Kopitar--two exceptional mid first-round picks from 2003 and 2005, respectively--and in '08-'09 they upped their point total to 79.

The Pittsburgh Penguins took a little longer with their rebuild but they did so with multiple first and second-overall picks in consecutive seasons--Marc-Andre Fluery, Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby and Jordan Staal. After Malkin and Staal joined Crosby, the Pens went from 58 points to a whopping 105 points in a shocking turnaround.

As for the Florida Panthers, they're the latest team to rise from the abyss. After a weird year where they had two high draft picks they finished first in a soft Southeastern Division, then plummeted back to the bottom to draft Aleksander Barkov and Aaron Ekblad in consecutive seasons. Ekblad joined sophomore Barkov, third-overall picks Eric Gudbranson (2010) and Jonathan Huberdeau (2011) plus fellow first rounder Nick Bjugstad (2010, 19th-overall) in 2014-15 and and the Cats went from 66 to 91 points just missing out on the playoffs.

All four teams had a core of young players and surrounded them with veterans and role players that were either drafted, signed or traded for with all of them contributing greatly to the success of their respective teams. With this in mind, there are plenty of similarities between those teams and what the Sabres have heading into this season.

The Forwards

Buffalo has two highly skilled second-overall picks in Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart and they will both be entering their sophomore season together. Reinhart and Eichel were one of head coach Dan Bylsma's forward parings last season and they'll continue as such this year. Both are top-six players with Eichel getting a definitive nod as a top-line center while the underrated Reinhart is not far off from being a top-line forward. As rookies last season 19 yr. old Eichel lead the team with 24 goals while 20 yr. old Reinhart was second with 23. They also finished second and third in points, respectively.

After tearing down the old core and amassing a bevy of picks and prospects, Sabres GM Tim Murray used many picks and prospects to land young-vets Ryan O'Reilly and Evander Kane in an effort to ease the burden of the many young players he'd be icing in the near future. O'Reilly, who lead the team in scoring last season despite missing 11 games, is a bona fide top-six center and is one of the best two-way players in the league. He aptly played the role of top-line center last while Eichel got his feet wet and the duo are legit as the team's top two centers.

Despite off-ice troubles, Kane is a north/south force on the ice. If he can ever get his off-ice desires out of the way of his God-given talents and his extremely strong on-ice work-ethic, the left winger could be in the 30-goal conversation, consistently. Unfortunately, until he gets his off-ice antics under wraps his legacy may be more about his off-ice, narcissistic tendencies than anything else.

The big signing for Murray this season was right wing Kyle Okposo. The three-time 20-goal scorer is coming off of a 64-point season (22+42) with the NY Islanders and signed with Buffalo because of the potential he sees with the club. Okposo looks to be on O'Reilly's wing to form Bylsma's other top-six forward pairing although both right now are nursing injuries.

Forward Tyler Ennis heads into this season after a dismal 2015-16 campaign and looks to be the final piece to the top-six puzzle. The diminutive jitterbug with greazy moves and plenty of moxie is a joy to watch when he's on his game, but when he's not, he's reminiscent of a couple of by-gone players who did a whole lot of chopping with no chips a flyin'.

Five of those six players scored 20 or more goals last season while Ennis' season was shortened to 23 games because of injuries. Prior to that, however, he did have 20 or more goals in back-to-back seasons and also has three total for is career. It's a group that will be relied upon to not only score goals, but to do so against the best goalies and strongest defenses in the league. They'll have a true test right off the bat as Buffalo opens up the season with a home game vs. one of the best goalies in the league, Montreal's Carey Price.

Ennis will be one of the keys to Buffalo's success moving forward as will two other players who had pretty rough seasons last year--22 yr. old Zemgus Girgensons and 32 yr. old Matt Moulson. Both played in a top-six role last year with Moulson dropping all the way down to the fourth line while watching his minutes cut to nearly half of what he started with. He easily had the worst season of his nine-year NHL career. Although Girgensons stayed in the top-six for various reasons, he struggled mightily also for various reasons. "The Latvian Locomotive" still has upside, but perhaps they're looking at him as a two-way contributor in a third-line role right now and one would think he'll respond well there.

Ennis, Moulson and Girgensons, three players who were right in the thick of things during the plummet to the bottom, have seen quite a bit of change and although Buffalo's success doesn't hinge directly on any one of them, if all three have poor seasons again, it could be detrimental to the team's stated goal of making the playoffs. Conversely, if they can up their contributions it will greatly enhance Buffalo's drive to make the playoffs for the first time since 2011.

From 37 yr. old Brian Gionta to 22 yr. old rookie Hudson Fasching, and all points in between, there's an array of forwards in the bottom six who'll bring a little something different to the table. Gionta brings leadership and veteran savvy, Fasching has size and a strong net-front presence and Johan Larsson is a junk-yard dog that can annoy the hell out of the opposition while playing strong defense and contributing on the score-sheet. Marcus Foligno is a big body who's becoming very comfortable with himself and his role on the club, which should translate into more points, and Nicolas Deslauriers is seemingly ready to hit the ice with that crazed look and a penchant for laying out the hits.

The wild card of the bottom-six is 26 yr. old Derek Grant who forced his way on the team with an exceptional training camp. The 6'3" 202 lb. center is entering his seventh professional season with only 40 NHL games and zero NHL goals to show for it. Should he be able to bring a highly successful preseason into the regular season, he'll be able to add not only his size and defensive prowess to the team, but he also may be adding some offense in a secondary scoring role.

This is not a Stanley Cup forward group but Buffalo has a very talented group of stars and team-first role players that places this group firmly in the middle of the league when all's said and done. We shouldn't forget either that nearly every forward is in the second year of Bylsma's system and they should fully know what's expected of them. Whereas last season they were thinking of where to be and what to do, this season it should almost come as second nature. And that bodes well for building upon what they laid down last season.

The Defense

If you've read the predictions, everyone is pointing to the defense as a distinct weakness on the team yet one counterpoint is that, just like with the forwards, most of the defense-corps will be in their second season playing Bylsma's system. Overall the youngins are a year older, the vets a year wiser and Murray did add a veteran presence to the corps in the off season.

There's no question that as of right now, Rasmus Ristolainen is the only top-pairing d-man on the team. Yet in spite of the fact that there's no bona fide No. 2 d-man on the team, Buffalo has a support group made up of top-four defensemen, some of whom have been more than capable in roles higher than their skill-level.

One of the keys to Buffalo's defense is whether Ristolainen can tighten up his play in all zones. The 21 yr. old made the jump to a top-pairing, all-situations shut-down defenseman who finished top-10 in the league in minutes played. Bylsma played him against the top players in the league and save for some rough patches mid-season, Ristolainen played very well. Some of those patches may have been a result of mental and/or physical fatigue and Bylsma has indicated that he'll be paring back Ristolainen's minutes somewhat this season. When all's said and done, what the Sabres are getting with Ristolainen is a skilled, driven defenseman who'll move a mountain to be the best he can be and there's no reason to believe he won't move forward this season.

Defemseman Dmitry Kulikov found himself at odds with an analytics drive in Florida and the seven-year vet found himself on the move to Buffalo at the NHL Draft. The player he was traded for, former Sabre Mark Pysyk is an analytics darling whom Florida was very interested in trading for as they revamped their blueline with possession players. Although Kulikov doesn't have extremely poor fancy stats like Ristolainen, the Panthers are intent upon upgrading through analytics.

That said, amongst Kulikov's fine skating and limited offensive upside are his great first pass out of the zone and his mean streak. The 25 yr. old spent ample time playing in a top-pairing role along side Florida's Ekblad and according to Murray was relied heavily upon in every situation during the playoffs.

Once Zach Bogosian returns from injury, which could very well be on Thursday for the opener, he'll take his spot on the second-pairing again. Bogosian didn't have a great 2015-16 campaign but he did come on pretty strong in the second half after fully recovering from an injury that lopped off the first 17 games of his 2015-16 season.

His partner last season was Jake McCabe, a 21 yr. old rookie at the time. Save for some down periods during the grind mid-way through the season, McCabe was pretty impressive. He's a very forceful defenseman whether he's battling in front of the net, battling in the corners or standing a player up at the blueline. His defensive positioning was real strong, although not perfect, and he lead the team with a plus-six rating in 77 games played. McCabe is very smart at the point in the offensive zone and he earned himself some powerplay time during camp. It looks like he might get an opportunity to get some PP time this season and if the past is indicative of future results, his penchant for getting his shot through and on net will help him increase his 14 points from last season.

Josh Gorges played a top-pairing role last season along side Ristolainen and acquitted himself quite well. Although analytics might tell a different story, he held his own while being a notch (some would say two) above his skill-level. We're not looking for much of anything from an offensive perspective but we will at the defensive-defenseman's expertise on the penalty kill. With Gorges and Ristolainen anchoring the top PK unit, the Sabres went from 30th the prior year to ninth last season.

A well-travelled Cody Franson is in the final year of a two-year free agent contract he signed with the club. Franson is not known for his skating, nor is he known for defensive prowess but what he is (or was) known for is his puck movement and powerplay acumen. Unfortunately, that PP role diminished last season as the year progressed. The Sabres have two young players who can now man the point on the powerplay and have Ristolainen and Bogosian as the top two in that role so it would seem as if there's little need for a powerplay specialist. Franson is not a bad defenseman but it seems as if he really needs to find an ideal situation for him to be productive and I'm not sure that situation exists for him in Buffalo.

Casey Nelson signed with Buffalo out of college last year and was impressive in a seven-game stint to end the season. He came back and had a very strong camp thus earning him a spot on the opening night roster. Nelson has great hockey sense, is good NHL skater and he knows how to work the point. Hard work, training camp production and a little bit of luck may have combined to put him on the roster despite being a slightly undersized rookie. With the Sabres having injuries to Bogosian and Kulikov and a three-game Western Canada on the horizon after the opener, it's not surprising that a smart, steady d-man like Nelson is on the team as opposed to a tweener like Justin Falk or a youngin like Brendan Guhle, both of whom were sent to their respective leagues yesterday.

Bylsma looks to be adopting a "defense by committee" approach this season, albeit with Ristolainen as his clear-cut No. 1 defenseman and a group of five looked upon as top-four defensemen. A lot of their success, as well as the team's success, will depend upon the forwards peeling back to support them and the defenders hitting the forwards for a breakout. It's a system defense and as long as they can play as a five-man unit, their demise might be greatly exaggerated.


How many times can a pundit point out that Buffalo's No. 1 goalie, Robin Lehner has a career-high of 36 games played.

Lehner came into the league with a multi-headed goalie beast in Ottawa before they started peeling away their goalies. Lehner yo-yoed between their AHL and NHL teams for his first three seasons before sticking with the Senators in a three-goalie rotation. In February 2015 Lehner suffered a concussion that kept him out the second half of the season and he was traded to Buffalo at the NHL Draft that year. He hit the ice in Buffalo but sustained a high-ankle sprain in the very first game of last season.

It was about as rough a start with a new club as one could have and he soon gained the moniker of "injury prone." Yet Lehner took the misfortunes of the prior season to heart and focused heavily on off-season conditioning which, according to Amy Moritz of the Buffalo News, included MMA training. Lehner came into camp slimmer with some saying he lost about 20 lbs. and in great physical shape. He opted to stay in Buffalo working with Sabres goalie coach Andrew Allen this summer and he came out of preseason with three wins and a .959 save percentage.

We can expect the same intensity that we saw from him last season in a trimmer body with better foot work. What we can't predict is how many games he'll play. Are 50-60 games a possibility? The Sabres hope so and if he can carry over his 2.47 goals against average and .927 save percentage from last year, the Sabres will be in good shape.

Not much is expected of Anders Nilsson as he's been raked over the coals because of his poor numbers in parts of four NHL seasons. The 6'5", 227 lb. former Islander's pick is at the teetering point of respectability for his NHL career thus far as he carries a 3.07 gaa and .900 save percentage into this season in Buffalo.

The Sabres have had remarkable success with goaltenders and one need look no further than the year Chad Johnson had for Buffalo in Lehner's absence last season. Hopefully Allen will be able to work some magic with Nilsson. Either that or the Sabres will need to open things up with him in goal.

The Outlook

There's looks to enough character and veteran leadership on this team, as well as outright skill, to keep Buffalo from taking a step back. Even a little one The competition in the Eastern Conference hasn't changed all that much and in fact some might say that the Atlantic Division as a whole has gotten a little weaker outside the top teams like Tampa and Florida.

This is a Sabres team that has improved, at least on paper, with the additions of Okposo and Kulikov and their top-end roles will allow other players to fall into a more comfortable spot on the roster. As talent drops down to the lower levels, the depth becomes better and it showed this preseason.

I'm not sold on the negative premise that a solid group of top-four defensemen joining Ristolainen in a system that is based upon five-men-as-a-unit is a bad thing. Do I want a Duncan Keith/Brent Seabrook shutdown pairing? Who wouldn't? But in lieu of that, defense by committee should do the trick and there's enough savvy and intelligence with that group to keep shots to the perimeter and enough skill to get the puck where it needs to be.

Nor am I really worried about Lehner and/or his health. Should he go down, the Sabres will probably bring up Linus Ullmark who showed plenty of good things as a rookie last season. I wouldn't even discount Nilsson contributing in a positive manner. About the only thing that's really troublesome in goal is Lehner in the shootout, but hopefully it won't get that far too often.

The key for the Sabres this season, and for seasons to come, is being able to score, especially against some of the top goalies in the league. They've loaded up on talent via the draft, trades and free agency and they need to improve immensely in the scoring department. Last year they were near the bottom of the league as a team in shooting percentage coming in at 8.2%. The talent is there but chemistry may be the key to more quality opportunities. With Eichel/Reinhart and O'Reilly/any top-six forward, it looks as if they'll be able to carry over some of the production from last season.

Buffalo made a huge leap going from 54 points in 2014-15 to 81 points last season and they're due for another jump although not quite as pronounced. Going back to what we began with, in Kane and Toews' second year together in Chicago the Hawks upped their point total from 86 to 104. In a second year of Doughty, Kopitar and Brown, the Los Angeles Kings went from 79 points to 101 points. It took four seasons for the Cats' youngins to gel but last year they made the playoffs with 103 points, which was 12 points higher than the previous season.

Based upon the precedents set by those teams and what Murray has been able to build over the course of the last two years, it looks as if the pieces are in place for the Sabres to make a leap into the lower-90's this season, possibly hitting the 95 points Bylsma targeted for them. Finishing on the high end of that scale will take health, chemistry and a little luck but it's within reach this season.

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