Over the span of six weeks, we’ll be taking a quick look at each of the 30 NHL clubs — examining their major storylines, pivotal players and the most important questions they need to answer heading into the 2016-17 season.
By the time we’ve hit every team, it will be mid-September. And that, of course, means it will be time for training camps to open. Perfect timing, really.
Today, we begin week three with the Buffalo Sabres…
The Buffalo Sabres haven’t won a playoff series since 2007, and have only qualified for the postseason twice since then. The last time they made it out of the regular season was 2011, and the last three years, in particular, haven’t been pretty.
A wealth of high-end prospects have raised optimism levels in Buffalo though. To the point where this group might actually be able to sneak into the conversation for a playoff spot as soon as, well, now.
This is still a work in progress, so it’s not as if anyone is going to have a meltdown if the Sabres miss out on the postseason one more time. Well, Tim Murray might — but Tim Murray is an emotional guy. The bottom line is, this group is trending in the right direction. As long as they keep building on that, the optimism will continue to grow.
Is there enough goaltending to finally make a playoff appearance?
Buffalo has showed patience in stockpiling young talent up front. And, while the blue line isn’t exactly elite, it’s at least improved over where it was a couple years ago. In net, however, there are still some question marks.
It’s not like the Sabres are fielding an All-Star team or anything, but they at least have the pieces to make things interesting in the wild card hunt if a couple breaks go their way. And they might get them, too, in the Atlantic Division, where there are a number of teams with questions of their own to answer.
The biggest obstacle could be in net though. Chad Johnson was sort of forced into the No. 1 role a year ago, and he’s in Calgary now. Robin Lehner is expected to be the man, but he’s never started more than 30 games in a season.
Is he going to stand on his head and steal them games on a nightly basis? That sure seems like a stretch. But could he be decent enough to allow them to compete most nights? That’s certainly possible, though far from a given at the moment.
NOTABLE SUMMER ACQUISITION
Kyle Okposo (from NYI)
Yes, Buffalo wanted Steven Stamkos. So did everyone else. And no, Okposo is not Stamkos. Few are. It is worth noting that they each posted 64 points last year though, and Stamkos only played in two fewer games.
Of course, there’s no guarantee that Okposo will produce to the same level with the Sabres that he did with the Islanders. After all, John Tavares didn’t come with him to Buffalo, and it sometimes takes pricey free agents a little time to find their groove in a new environment.
But all of his numbers weren’t completely tied to Tavares. He’s proven to be a pretty prolific scorer over the last three years, regardless of who he’s skated with — notching 184 total points over 210 contests in that stretch. And, at age 28, there shouldn’t be a drop-off anytime soon.
On top of all that, the fact that Okposo chose the Sabres while he was being pursued by a number of other clubs is a pretty nice indication that players around the league are taking notice of what Buffalo is building.
Alexander Nylander (drafted: No. 8 overall in 2016)
Over the past four years, the Sabres have picked eighth, second, second and eighth overall at the draft. Rasmus Ristolainen (2013), Sam Reinhart (2014) and Jack Eichel (2015) are all already doing some damage at the NHL level though, so the prospect pool isn’t really loaded anymore.
Which is where Nylander comes to the rescue. He was one of the top performers at the 2016 World Junior Championships, then proceeded to carve up the OHL with 75 points in 57 games for Mississauga. He’s a supremely skilled, playmaking winger with a ton of offensive upside and some room to grow on the defensive end of the ice. Which sort of sounds like Buffalo as a team.
BIGGEST CAP HIT
Ryan O’Reilly ($7.5 million)
O’Reilly quietly led the Sabres with 60 points in 2015-16, and has now averaged a solid 59.7 points per season over the last three years. At 25 years old, he’s actually a “vet” compared to some of the guys on this roster. But 25 is still only 25, meaning he has some room to evolve if all goes well.
2017 UFA TO KEEP AN EYE ON
It’s not like Buffalo is depending on Gionta for statistics. His 12 goals and 21 assists a year ago were fine, but they’re not going to make the difference between this club winning or losing.
The Sabres are definitely relying on him for leadership though. The 37-year-old wears the “C” on his sweater for a reason, having taken on a similar role for many years in Montreal. The question is, will Buffalo have room for Gionta to stick around past this season? Or is someone else ready to step up?
As a unit, the defense is really the x-factor here. But that sort of felt like a cop-out, and there isn’t necessarily one specific player on the back end that stands out in that regard. So we’ll go back up front and look at Reinhart.
Expectations are obviously high for the man who was selected right behind Aaron Ekblad in 2014, so it’s not like people will be stunned if Reinhart starts stacking big seasons. It’s just a matter of how soon — and consistently — he can do it.
He poured in 23 goals last season, which was just one behind Eichel for the team lead. If he could do that again, the Sabres would be pretty happy. But this is why he’s the x-factor: at just 20 years of age, a sophomore slump is entirely possible. Or he might take the next step and blow right past 23 goals.