A year ago the Sabres lost their Number One goalie, Robin Lehner for three months with a high ankle sprain suffered in Buffalo’s season opener.
This year, coach Dan Bylsma‘s sextet if off on the wrong foot again; even before his skaters play their first game.
An ankle injury threatens to sideline their prize forward Jack Eichel for a chunk of the early season and, as the Buffalo News headlined it: SEASON HANGS IN THE BALANCE.
What this means is that a lot of offensive pressure will be on Kyle Okposo, the club’s prize offseason acquisition.
“I really believe that we can win and that’s what sold me on coming to Buffalo,” says the ex-Islander. “You play the game to win a Stanley Cup; to win a championship; to raise banners. This team has the ability to do that.”
More easily said than done but, then again, a lot has been done with owner Terry Pegula‘s money. Try these names on for size:
Eichel, Ryan O’Reilly, Rasmus Ristolainen and Sam Reinhart.
This is the core of Buffalo’s New Breed featuring speed, savvy and spirit.
Eichel’s loss will be felt because he 19-year-old the demonstrated his skill under pressure in his rookie season. The second overall draft pick in 2015 NHL Entry Draft collected 24 goals and 32 assists, averaging 19 minutes of ice time.
Jack was second on the team in scoring; only bested by center Ryan O’Reilly, who tallied 60 points (21-39) playing 10 fewer games than Eichel. Consistency is Ryan’s middle name.
Having averaged 0.88 points per game over the last three seasons, Okposo not only is in his prime, but bolsters the right side which also features Reinhart. The latter racked up 23 goals last year as a rookie. Right behind on the right side is captain Brian Gionta, the Mighty Mite who plays a strong two-way game.
From the back line, Ristolainen should be an offensive force. The 21-year-old ranked among the Top-25 among defensemen playing a full 82 games good for nine goals and 32 assists. Plus, he averaged over 25 minutes per night.
The big “Ifs” include Tyler Ennis, who played 23 games due to a concussion, but who has to return mint condition to be an asset. Likewise, Evander Kane must prove to the team, and fans, that he has found the straight and narrow path. Matt Moulson, who critics say was poorly conditioned last year, must find his offensive game from past years.
While there’s no question that Ristolainen leads the Sabres’ blue line corps, talent-wise, GM Tim Murray added a winner in Dmitry Kulikov from the Florida Panthers. A plus-8 last year, Kulikov will work alongside Ristolainen, giving coach Dan Bylsma a formidable pair.
That’s not bad for starters when you consider that dependable Josh Gorges, Zach Bogosian and youthful Jake McCabe offer sufficient assets to crow about. There’s also reasonable hope that college free agent Casey Nelson will bloom.
If there’s any concern, it would be the lack of depth in the system to back up what looms as a formidable group.
Here we may have issues. When Robin Lehner is good, he’s very, very good. Then, there’s the other side. A severely sprained ankle in last season’s opener ruined the Swede’s season forcing Chad Johnson into a decent backup role. But Chad’s now in Calgary.
A surgically repaired Lehner could be the answer since he posted a .924 save percentage when he was healthy enough to go between the pipes. Really, a playoff berth is possible with Lehner playing most of the games because backup Anders Nilsson is not as dependable as Johnson was last semester. A last resort in the crease would be Linus Ullmark, who played 20 games and posted a .913 save percentage.
One thing that can be said about Buffalo goaltending is, “uh-oh!,” but there have been more surprising surprises before.
GENERAL MANAGER AND COACH:
Tim Murray is a wonderful quote and quick on the trigger, if nothing else. All signs indicate that he’s molding his franchise the right way. “He’s got them on the cusp of contending for a playoff spot,” asserts The Hockey News.
As for coach Bylsma, he did win a Cup in Pittsburgh and not many others can make that statement. He did as well last season with what he had to inspire hope this time around.
Okposo figures to help a power play already benefiting from Eichel and O’Reilly, who helped the PP to an 18.9 percent success rate, 12th in the league. Penalty-killing was even better and finished ninth in the NHL, however, it might not be as strong without David Legwand.
Right wings Justin Bailey and Hudson Fasching could make the varsity with a strong training camp. Otherwise, a year in Rochester would be sufficient for futures.
A galvanic offense has the potential to put Buffalo into the playoffs. It will happen if Lehner stays healthy and Bylsma gets the most out of his defense.
“There’s certainly reason for optimism,” concludes Toronto Sun critic Mike Zeisberger. “The young talent is reason enough for that.”