Buffalo Sabres

Buffalo Sabres ’15-16 Outlook

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The Buffalo Sabres made huge strides this offseason, yet they may still fall closer to historic ineptitude than they will to playoff contention in 2015-16.

That’s not meant as a slight to GM Tim Murray’s work this summer; instead, it’s a reminder of just how bad that team really was last season.

By just about any measure, the Sabres were the worst team in the NHL. Honestly, it was probably wiser to compare them to the sorriest teams in recent history rather than last year’s Arizona Coyotes or Edmonton Oilers.

That said, Murray enjoyed an offseason that was so strong, he thought he might have consumed some fungus, so maybe a playoff trip isn’t so far away after all?

A host of improvements

Jack Eichel brings in the hype of a “generational player,” while Ryan O’Reilly is the sort of sturdy two-way center who can make life easier for his teammates. (Eichel can be sheltered as he gets used to the NHL game thanks to O’Reilly and perhaps David Legwand.)

Evander Kane will play his first game as a Sabre in 2015-16, too. Young players such as Sam Reinhart may take significant steps forward while vets like Matt Moulson could rebound next season.

Sabres fans might not be particularly excited about Robin Lehner, but Murray sure is. Most believe that Lehner will need to be outstanding to cover up what projects to be a putrid defense.

Read more about the pressure Lehner faces here and Buffalo’s defensive question marks here.

For all the improvements Buffalo made – and Dan Bylsma’s impact should not be dismissed, by the way – the smart money is on the Sabres missing the playoffs. Really, it’s not outrageous to imagine at least one more cellar-dwelling year before things get sorted out.

Feel free to disagree in this poll, but despite a strong offseason, it ultimately seems like Buffalo still has a long way to go.

Poll: How soon will the Sabres make the playoffs?

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Buffalo Sabres GM Tim Murray is so happy with the moves he made this offseason, he almost thought he was hallucinating.

Murray was beside himself in drafting Jack Eichel while trading for Robin Lehner, Ryan O’Reilly and Evander Kane.*

When you combine those acquisitions with possible developmental gains for the likes of Sam Reinhart, the Sabres’ outlook gets awfully interesting. Of course, it’s also valid to note that this team has a lot of room for improvement. The Sabres weren’t even close to competitive in 2014-15, after all.

That actually leads us to Buffalo’s poll question: how long will it take for the Sabres to return to the postseason?

If you need a push either way, consider some of the posts from PHT’s Buffalo Sabres Day extravaganza.

Under Pressure: Robin Lehner

Looking to make the Leap: Sam Reinhart

Buffalo’s big questions on defense

* – Technically they acquired Kane during the 2014-15 season, yet his injury-shortened campaign makes it feel like a move that came during the summer.

Sabres’ biggest question: Defense

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As much as the Buffalo Sabres have improved lately, it still seems like they’re going to struggle on defense.

Honestly, there are strong odds that they’ll struggle a lot.

You can trot out the simplest stats (Buffalo allowed a league-worst shots on goal average of 35.6 per game, two more than second-worst Toronto) or go a little deeper (the Sabres’ Fenwick Close was downright ghastly), but the bottom line is that Buffalo was atrocious on D. Their offensive firepower was meek in 2014-15, yet the Sabres’ work in their own end was the leading reason people described them as “historically inept.”

Just look at the dregs of NHL.com’s “SAT” stat and you’ll see just how much worse Buffalo was than the rest of the worst:

26. Columbus: -365
27. Toronto: -515
28. Calgary: -839
29. Colorado: -984
30. Buffalo: -1,789

Yikes.

GM Tim Murray made this team better in many ways – and certain facets should benefit Buffalo defensively – but the personnel is still lacking.

Even if Dan Byslma’s a big difference-maker, it’s difficult to imagine him working many miracles with some combination of Rasmus Ristolainen, Zach Bogosian (pictured), Josh Gorges, Mike Weber, Matt Donovan, Mark Pysyk, Jake McCabe and Carlo Colaiacovo.

(Seriously, take a step back and ponder that group for a moment.)

Look, players like Ristolainen could very well make significant strides in 2015-16. Buffalo is also likely to enjoy better two-way play from its forward group, as Ryan O’Reilly and David Legwand both possess some defensive chops. Again, Byslma’s systems could at least drag the Sabres closer to respectability, as well.

If you dial down the optimism to more reasonable levels, the Sabres are likely to put a ton of pressure on Robin Lehner and Chad Johnson next season, as that defense stands as a work in progress … at best.

Looking to make the leap: Sam Reinhart

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All eyes in Buffalo will be on Jack Eichel during training camp, but it would be a shocking turn of events for him to be left off the team’s opening game roster, so let’s talk about the Sabres other second overall pick because he arguably has a lot more to play for during the preseason.

Reinhart earned that high 2014 selection after scoring 36 goals and 105 points in 60 contests with WHL Kootenay in 2013-14. He managed to secure a roster spot with Buffalo out of training camp, but was given just 10:21 minutes of ice time per game and returned to the juniors after registering one assist in nine NHL contests.

Despite that setback, he went on to record 65 points in 47 WHL contests before heading to AHL Rochester where he registered three assists in three games. On the international stage, he helped guide Canada to a gold medal in the World Juniors by scoring five goals and 11 points in seven contests.

By the time this year’s development camp rolled around, Reinhart looked like a matured player, as Mike Harrington noted for the Buffalo News:

When most of you last saw Reinhart, he looked lost. He was overmatched through his nine NHL games, failing to score a goal, when the Sabres mercifully sent him back to junior hockey. He returned to Kootenay of the Western League needing to work on his skating and, most of all, on his conditioning.

Early returns are very good. Reinhart looks more chiseled. His skating appears eons better, with strong, confident strides and sharp turns. Every step had a purpose. No energy was wasted.

Eichel is the Sabres’ top prospect now and so much of their aspirations rest on his shoulders, but there isn’t a player in this league that can single-handily carry a team. Buffalo needs a core that extends beyond Eichel and Reinhart has the potential to be a vital part of it.

Under Pressure: Robin Lehner

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If you want a hockey example of “be careful what you wish for,” look no further than Robin Lehner.

He’s getting what he likely pined for during his time with the Ottawa Senators – the No. 1 gig – yet he’ll face a challenging situation in Buffalo.

It doesn’t help matters that Sabres fans cringed at the cost of acquiring Lehner.

Lehner cost a first-round draft pick in a loaded draft while the Senators also managed to unload David Legwand’s contract. The 24-year-old may need to do a little convincing early on.

A bumpy 2014-15 season

Whether it was crafty veteran Craig Anderson or fast-food sensation Andrew Hammond, Lehner couldn’t snare the starting gig in Ottawa, and things only got worse when concussion issues ended his season altogether.

It’s easy to forget that Lehner sports a perfectly respectable career save percentage (.914) because his 2014-15 season was so unsightly: 9-12-3 with a mediocre .905 save percentage.

Long story short, Lehner has plenty to prove after a bumpy start to his NHL career.

source: AP
Via AP

A big opportunity, but a huge challenge

That said, he’s definitely getting a fair shot with the Sabres and GM Tim Murray. Murray was nothing if optimistic about acquiring the big Swede, as the Ottawa Sun noted after the trade.

“I think Robin needed a change of scenery,” Murray said. “I think he’s a very talented, big strong, young man that is just scratching the surface and, hopefully, we can bring the best out of him.”

Some might roll their eyes at the idea of a change of scenery making a difference, yet it’s not without precedent. Steve Mason’s resurgence in Philadelphia argues that a struggling netminder can thrive after a career Etch-a-Sketch shake.

Granted, it won’t be easy; Lehner’s essentially going from a holding pattern in Ottawa to a trial by fire with Buffalo. What do you think: will he sink or swim?