Zach Bogosian

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The Sabres, who could use a spark offensively, recall Justin Bailey

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It’s been a brutal start to the season for the Buffalo Sabres.

They’re off to an 0-4-1 start. Jack Eichel, their star forward who recently signed an eight-year, $80 million contract extension, has voiced his displeasure with the team’s consistent losing.

While there was promising news earlier in the week regarding defenseman Zach Bogosian, who hasn’t played a game this season because of a lower-body injury, the Sabres moved him to injured reserve on Sunday and recalled right winger Justin Bailey from the American Hockey League.

“Zach is doing quite well. He skated again today,” Sabres coach Phil Housley recently told the Buffalo News. “He’s making really good progress. He’ll continue to go on the ice and work on his game and hopefully that will mean he’s playing soon.”

The Sabres, who were also without Kyle Okposo last night due to illness, desperately need a spark on offense and Bailey may be able to help provide that.

Through five games, Buffalo has just 11 goals, which puts them in the bottom third of the league in that category. The aforementioned Eichel has been one of the few bright spots with seven points through five games, including two points in each of the first two games on this road trip through California and Las Vegas.

Bailey, Buffalo’s second-round pick in 2013, has been productive in each of his first two seasons in the minors, reaching the 20-goal plateau both times. He started this season with two goals in his first three games in Rochester. While the goal production has been there for him in the minors, it hasn’t yet translated into the NHL, with two goals in 40 games with the Sabres.

The Sabres continue their road trip tonight, when they visit the Anaheim Ducks.

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Cam Tucker is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @CamTucker_Sport.

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Sabres’ salary cap outlook with Jack Eichel’s massive extension

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PHT already discussed whether Jack Eichel is really worth $80 million over eight years for the Buffalo Sabres. Although the short answer is “Yes,” there’s room for debate, so click here for more.

Fair or not, many hockey fans will judge Eichel based upon how the Sabres fare as a team; if they remain also-rans, big numbers might not save Eichel from taking the heat for his $10M cap hit.

Really, though, Eichel will need some help. Let’s take a look at the structure of this Sabres team to see where the strengths lie, the big decisions ahead, and the red flags waving in front of our faces.

This is part of a running series at PHT, so click here for more salary cap breakdowns.

Long-term commitments

Eichel’s contract extension won’t kick in until 2018-19, so the Sabres get one more year of rookie-deal savings before they pay up. His extension expires after 2025-26; the Sabres own Eichel’s prime years, so it will be fascinating to watch the ups and downs.

Eichel joins a few other lengthy commitments. Ryan O'Reilly, 26, isn’t cheap with a $7.5M cap hit. He’s a borderline Selke-worthy two-way forward who’s still in his prime, and it’s unlikely that he’ll regress sharply during this current deal, which runs for six more seasons.

At worst, “ROR” is a “$5 shake.”

Kyle Okposo, 29, carries a $6M cap hit through 2022-23. It’s tough to beat up too much on the winger considering how comforting it is that Okposo is OK after his health scares. Okposo’s a solid guy right now, assuming he’s healthy, but that could be a problem deal.

Rasmus Ristolainen ($5.4M for five more seasons) is a fascinating case. On one hand, he scored 45 points at the ripe age of 22. On the other hand, he’s framed as a disaster in his own end; TSN’s Travis Yost listed him as a “dud” from an analytics standpoint. You might not find a better case of perception … unless “eye test” types aren’t impressed, either?

The Sabres boast two other mid-range guys with expensive, three-year deals: Zach Bogosian and Marco Scandella. That’s almost $10M in debatable defensemen (though they both could help, even if one or both might be overpriced).

Off the books soon

Jason Pominville ($5.6M) and Matt Moulson ($5M) are two aging wingers whose contracts expire after two more seasons. Pominville has more to offer going forward, but you’d think that management is keen on transferring many of those dollars to younger players.

Josh Gorges only has one year remaining on his $3.9M, so as much as Eichel adds to the bottom line, Buffalo is ridding itself of some problems soon.

You almost wonder if Buffalo might accept a bad expiring deal or two if this season goes wrong, just to gain riches soon enough?

Big choices

Robin Lehner can be a scary dude. The 26-year-old has also shown flashes of serious brilliance as a goalie. He’s in a contract year, so the Sabres must decide if the intimidating netminder is a part of the future or not.

Chad Johnson backs him up with a one-year deal of his own.

Evander Kane, 26, faces quite the crossroads in his career, as his $5.25M cap hit will expire after 2016-17. Kane is on the short list of players who future value is difficult to determine; seriously, what kind of contract do you expect for the power forward? Years and term both stand as tough to determine.

Growth areas

The Sabres have some interesting guys on two-year deals: Zemgus Girgensons, Jake McCabe, Nathan Beaulieu, and others could be key fixtures or short-term guys.

Naturally, the Sabres also have some other young players, with Alex Nylander and Sam Reinhart being make-or-break types. Buffalo’s been enjoying some strong draft picks while adding some potential foundational pieces; the crucial thing, then, is to actually develop some of them into difference-makers.

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Cap Friendly places Buffalo’s 2018-19 cap spending at $56.56M with Eichel’s deal in mind. That provides some serious room to maneuver, even if the ceiling remains flat at $75M.

Despite this huge investment, the Sabres’ new management has room to operate. They have some nice pieces and a worry or two. Some crucial decisions and serious progress (or failed developments) may determine if Buffalo can really contend.

Housley focused on making Sabres ‘an aggressive team’

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The Buffalo Sabres haven’t been a playoff team in quite some time, but the organization is hoping that their major offseason changes will help them take a few steps in the right direction.

One of those major changes came behind the bench, as the team hired Predators assistant Phil Housley to be their head coach.

Housley did some terrific work with defensemen like Ryan Ellis, Roman Josi, Mattias Ekholm and P.K. Subban last season. A big part of Nashville’s attack came from defenders pushing the pace from the back.

“We want to be an aggressive team,” Housley said, per NHL.com. “I think everybody we’ve talked about playing aggressive offensively but we need to play aggressive defensively. I think defense gives you a chance to win every night and they’ll understand that we want to be fast and aggressive. The days are gone when a guy wants to make a breakout pass and the [defense] just watched the rush go up and play; they have to get up in the play not only to maybe join the rush and add to the attack, but to be in the offensive zone, being able to keep pucks in, or else you’re going to start playing defense.”

The Sabres could use an offensive boost from their defense (or anyone really). Last season, Jack Eichel collected 57 points in 61 games, which comes out to an impressive 0.934 points-per-game. But Unfortunately for the Sabres, no player topped 60 points in 2016-17.

Buffalo changed the look of their defense during the summer, as they acquired Nathan Beaulieu from Montreal and Marco Scandella from Minnesota. Both guys are capable of moving the puck, which should help Housley execute his plan.

Also, it’ll be interesting to see if Housley can take Rasmus Ristolainen‘s game to the next level. The 22-year-old has surpassed the 40-point mark in each of the last two seasons. He’s also served as the big-minute guy on the Sabres blue line.

“We’re here to learn from him and pick his brain, he was a [heck] of a player in his day,” defender Zach Bogosian said. “He gets the game. He’s played for a while, he’s coached for a while, he’s been around forever.

“Guys are looking forward to playing that style.”

Housley back in Buffalo, eager to put up-tempo stamp on Sabres

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BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) The Sabres’ new-look blue-line is already making a good impression on rookie coach Phil Housley even before Buffalo opens training camp.

“I thought I hit a long drive on the long-drive hole, and I was 10 yards behind Ryan O'Reilly,” Housley said Thursday, a day after the team’s annual golf tournament. “But I found out that Marco Scandella blew one past him. That was good to see a D-man hit a long drive.”

No offense to O’Reilly, a forward. Housley retains a soft spot for defensemen.

The Hall of Famer spent 21 NHL seasons playing the position in a career that began in Buffalo in 1982. And it was his work overseeing last season’s Stanley Cup finalist Nashville Predators’ play-making group of defenders that helped clinch Housley’s return to Buffalo after being hired in June.

“It just gives me chills,” Housley said, of wearing the familiar Sabres’ blue-and-gold logo a day before the team’s first practice.

“I’m really excited to get on the ice finally and do something meaningful,” he said. “We’re hopefully going to write a new chapter in the Buffalo Sabres organization.”

The Sabres are leaning on their past in a bid to usher in a more promising future for a franchise that has veered off course. Buffalo hasn’t made the playoffs in six years and hasn’t won a playoff round since reaching the 2007 Eastern Conference finals.

Replacing Dan Bylsma, who was fired after just two seasons, Housley becomes the Sabres’ fourth coach since Lindy Ruff was fired during the 2012-13 season. And Housley was hired by another ex-Sabres player, general manager Jason Botterill, who took over after Tim Murray was also fired in April.

While Botterill spent the offseason reshaping the roster through a series of trades, it’s now on Housley bring focus to a group that under-achieved last season.

Buffalo was within three points of a playoff spot entering its bye week in mid-February before spiraling out of contention by going 2-7-2 over its next nine games. Instead being a team on the rise, Buffalo went 33-37-12 in finishing with two fewer wins and three fewer points than the previous season.

“I understand that this team last year was close before the mid-break,” Housley said. “I just tend to try to move forward. Whatever happened last year, we’re coming in with a clean slate, a fresh start for these players.”

Spending the past four seasons working under Peter Laviolette in Nashville, Housley was credited for helping devise an up-tempo, attacking-style approach that relied on defensemen joining the rush. It’s a system that had the Predators finishing among the NHL’s top-two teams in goals by defensemen in each of Housley’s four seasons.

It helped that the Predators featured a talented core of blue-liners, including last year’s addition of P.K. Subban.

It’s no coincidence that Buffalo’s back-end is transformed under Housley with Scandella (acquired in a trade with Minnesota ) Nathan Beaulieu, (acquired in a trade with Montreal) and the free-agent signing of Victor Antipin, who previously played in Russia. They join a group that includes youngsters Rasmus Ristolainen and Jake McCabe, and veterans Zach Bogosian and Josh Gorges.

Buffalo also has speed at forward, starting with center Jack Eichel.

“The way that Phil wants to play is right up my alley,” Eichel said. “I’m excited for it, you know, D down the walls, D in the rush. That’s me. That all sounds good.”

The Sabres last year had difficulty clearing their own zone and sustaining pressure in the opponent’s end. Though Buffalo finished tied for fourth in scoring 57 power-play goals, the team ranked 28th with 126 goals in five-on-five situations.

Housley can only do so much to transform a team which Sabres owner Terry Pegula criticized for lacking discipline and structure.

The returning players also bear responsibility after many acknowledged there was a lack of accountability inside the locker room.

“We definitely need to mature as a team,” forward Kyle Okposo said. “We have a lot of young players, but they have the ability to play older, to play a more mature game. And I think that was something that was just lacking a little bit.”

 

Poll: Will the Sabres snap their playoff drought?

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This post is part of Sabres Day on PHT…

The Buffalo Sabres haven’t been to the postseason in quite some time. In fact, the last time they played playoff hockey was in 2011 when they were eliminated in the first round by the Philadelphia Flyers.

Since then, the Sabres have undergone a massive rebuild that has tested their fans’ patience.

As bad as they’ve been for most of this decade, there seems to be a little more optimism surrounding this group of players.

It all starts with landing Jack Eichel in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft. Sure, they may have wanted Connor McDavid instead, but Eichel has proven to be an effective NHLer already.

They’ve surrounded him with some good forwards like Ryan O'Reilly, Kyle Okposo, Evander Kane and Sam Reinhart. Those players might not be perfect, but they’re capable of being part of the supporting cast.

As good as each of those players can be, they’ll need to be better than they were last year. Okposo’s first year in Buffalo didn’t go as planned. It took him time to get used to his new surroundings and he’s also dealt with some injury scares.

Evander Kane is playing for a new contract, so he’ll need to be a little more motivated than he’s been in the last few seasons. Kane has all the physical tools to be a dominant power forward, but like a lot of his teammates, consistency has been the biggest problem.

They’ve been pretty thin on the blue line over the last few seasons, but Buffalo has a quality defenseman in Rasmus Ristolainen. New general manager Jason Botterill made it a point to surround his young rearguard with more talent, as he acquired Marco Scandella from Minnesota and Nathan Beaulieu from Montreal during the offseason. Youngster Jake McCabe will also be back in 2017-18. Veterans Josh Gorges and Zach Bogosian are also back in the fold.

But the biggest addition to the team’s defense wasn’t a player, it was a coach. After they let go of Dan Bylsma, the Sabres decided to hire Predators assistant Phil Housley, who has worked with many great defensemen during his coaching career. If he can help bring this young group to the next level, it would go a long way in helping the team get back to the playoffs.

Goaltending has also been a huge question mark for the Sabres. They paid a first round pick to get Robin Lehner from the Ottawa Senators a few years ago, and that trade hasn’t worked out. Buffalo clearly believes that too, as they were only willing to give Lehner a one-year contract this summer.

Chad Johnson, who is back in Buffalo after a stint in Calgary, will be competing for starts with Lehner. Neither goaltender is a proven starter at the NHL level, but one of them will have to figure out how to find a certain level of consistency.

Alright it’s time to vote. The Sabres have made changes to the roster, front office and coaching staff, but is it enough to get them out of this rut? On top of voting, feel free to leave your opinion in the comments section below.