Evander Kane

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.

It’s Buffalo Sabres Day at PHT

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Throughout the month of August, PHT will be dedicating a day to all 30 NHL clubs. Today’s team? The Buffalo Sabres.

Since the Sabres’ debut in 1970, Buffalo has finished with a points percentage (points divided by maximum possible points) below .400 just three times and two of those incidences were in 2013-14 (.317) and 2014-15 (.329), so it’s not a stretch to say that their last two seasons have been a statistical low-point for this franchise.

Very little was expected of the Sabres going into the 2014-15 campaign and right from the start they couldn’t subvert expectations. They didn’t even possess a lead in a game until their fourth contest of the season on Oct. 15. They didn’t win a game in regulation time until Oct. 25. At no point during the season did they have own a winning record.

Buffalo did enjoy a stretch from Nov. 15-Dec. 15 where the squad went 10-3-0, but any hope that it would be the part of a march towards the playoffs was quickly dashed as the Sabres fell apart once more. The team only had two winning streaks (each just two games in length) after that point.

Their offense was a particular problem as they didn’t have a single 50-point player and only Tyler Ennis reached the 20-goal mark. Buffalo ended up recording just 1.87 goals per game, making it the second straight season that it was the lone sub-2.00 team.

Off-season recap

And yet there is a sense of optimism in Buffalo and it’s not unjustified.

With the second overall pick in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft, Buffalo was able to take a potential generational talent in forward Jack Eichel. Combined with their acquisitions of Evander Kane in February and Ryan O’Reilly in June, the Sabres’ offense isn’t looking so anemic anymore.

They also surrendered the 21st overall pick in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft to pry goaltender Robin Lehner from Ottawa. Lehner is coming off of a rough campaign where he posted a 3.02 GAA and .905 save percentage in 25 contests, but he’s still just 24 years old and has a lot of promise.

On the coaching front, Buffalo fired Ted Nolan and replaced him with Dan Bylsma. While how much Nolan should be blamed for the Sabres’ shortcomings last season given the roster they had is debatable, Buffalo is gaining a head coach that has won the Stanley Cup and owns a 252-117-32 regular season record.

Buffalo hasn’t transformed itself into a major contender, but it’s easy to look at what they’ve done and come to the conclusion that they’ve taken a meaningful step forward this summer.

Owner Pegula: Sabres have gone through ‘two of the most successful seasons we’ve ever had’

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Statistically speaking, the last two seasons have been among the worst in Buffalo’s history, but Sabres owner Terry Pegula sees great value in those painful years. In fact, he would list them as “two of the most successful seasons we’ve ever had,” per the Associated Press.

Obviously, those losing records allowed the Sabres to draft second overall in back-to-back years (having lost the draft lottery both times). They used those picks to select Sam Reinhart and Jack Eichel, but general manager Tim Murray was also able to get plenty of other pieces for the rebuild over that span. He also acquired the likes of Evander Kane, Ryan O’Reilly, and Robin Lehner in trades while moving other players like Ryan Miller and Thomas Vanek to get future assets, including first round picks.

A couple rough seasons in the service of a long-term goal can make sense, but the success of the Sabres’ rebuilding effort will be measured by how they do going forward. They don’t have to look any further than the Edmonton Oilers to know how hard it can be to transition from a rebuilding phase to a competitive one. Having a generational talent like Eichel on the roster certainly helps, but he and the Sabres have a lot to prove.

Given that, we can’t call the last two seasons successful for Buffalo in terms of on-ice accomplishments, we’ll have to let history judge if the off-ice moves are as beneficial as Sabres fans hope.

Related: Gionta: Sabres’ offseason ‘excites guys in the locker room’

Sabres lock up O’Reilly through 2022-23

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Ryan O’Reilly won’t have to engage in another contract negotiation for a while. The Buffalo Sabres have given him a seven-year extension, locking the 24-year-old forward up through 2022-23.

O’Reilly’s cap hit next season will be $6 million, per the two-year contract he signed with Colorado last summer. For the next seven seasons after that, it’ll be $7.5 million, according to Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman.

It was the failure of O’Reilly and the Avalanche to agree on a long-term deal that led to him being traded to Buffalo last week. He’d reportedly asked Colorado for an eight-year, $64 million contract. Ultimately, that was too rich for the Avs, who felt they had no choice but to trade him.

In Buffalo, O’Reilly will be the Sabres’ highest-paid player. Evander Kane’s cap hit is $5.25 million, Zach Bogosian’s is $5.14 million, Matt Moulson’s is $5 million, and Tyler Ennis’s is $4.6 million.

O’Reilly’s contract is also structured in a way (see: David Clarkson’s deal) that makes it difficult to be bought out:

Related: Jack Eichel signs entry-level deal with Sabres