2017-18 Buffalo Sabres Season Outlook
The high ankle sprain that caused Jack Eichel to miss 21 games was just the beginning of the problem for the Sabres last season. The 20-year-old center nearly scored at a point-per-game pace (57 points in 61 games) but did not receive a lot of support from his teammates.
Buffalo finished 26th in the NHL with 201 goals and had only three 20 goal scorers (Evander Kane with 28, Eichel with 24 and Ryan O’Reilly with 20). Newcomer Kyle Okposo was effective as a top six winger, but missed 17 games with two separate injuries. Sam Reinhart struggled at times in his sophomore season, dropping to 17 goals from his rookie total of 23.
Marcus Foligno and Tyler Ennis were traded to the Wild in a deal that brought back Marco Scandella and former captain Jason Pominville. With team captain Brian Gionta not being re-signed, his departure may have spurred Botterill to bring back the fan favorite Pominville, who scored 47 points (13 goals, 34 assists) at 34 years old.
Zemgus Girgensons will get a chance at a larger role after struggling under former coach Dan Bylsma. Johan Larsson was re-signed for two years after missing half the season with a dislocated elbow and wrist. Veterans Benoit Pouliot and Jacob Josefson were signed as free agents.
Rasmus Ristolainen led the Sabres in defensive scoring with 45 points (6 goals, 39 assists), but was overworked. The 22-year-old blueliner finished in the top five of the league in average time on ice (26:28).
Jake McCabe was also elevated in the lineup in his sophomore season, often partnering with Ristolainen on the top pairing.
The Sabres attempted over the summer looking to bolster a defensive corps that played shorthanded most of the season due to injury and underachieved when it had all hands on deck. With veterans, Zach Bogosian, Cody Franson, Josh Gorges and Dmitri Kulikov missing significant time, journeymen Taylor Fedun and Justin Falk were forced into extended action.
Kulikov and Cody Franson left via free agency. New GM Jason Botterill acquired Nathan Beaulieu from Montreal for a draft choice, swapped with Minnesota for Scandella and signed free agent Viktor Antipin away from the KHL.
The key for Buffalo will be to get more of a contribution from Bogosian, who has been injury plagued and a disappointment since being acquired from Winnipeg and makes $5.1 Million the next three seasons, and the 33-year-old Gorges, who is entering the final year of his contract.
Robin Lehner statistically appeared to give the Sabres everything they would want from a No. 1 goaltender (2.68 GAA, .920 save percentage), but there are still doubts about whether the 26-year-old can handle the workload and stay healthy for a full season, even though he played a career-high 59 games last season.
Lehner was signed to a one-year, $4 Million extension this summer, which shows that Buffalo is still unsure if he is their goalie of the present and the future. Botterill brought back veteran backup Chad Johnson as insurance, who can play effectively in long stretches if called upon.
Looking ahead to trade deadline – if sellers who could be on the move. If buyers, what area might they need to improve? Kane will be the center of trade speculation until the February 26th deadline because it is doubtful that the Sabres will re-sign him with numerous off-the-ice incidents in his past.
Pouliot, Johnson, and Gorges are all UFA’s and could attract interest from teams look for veteran rentals.
Buffalo has nearly $7 Million in available cap space, which gives Botterill options to add scoring or help on defense if new head coach Phil Housley has the Sabres in competition for a playoff spot.
What rookies could make the team? After six years in the KHL, the 24-year-old Antipin has a chance to make the Sabres out of training camp. With the additions on defense, 20-year-old Brendan Guhle should be given a full year in the AHL to gain experience, but he could be called upon if injuries strike once again.
Forwards Nick Baptiste and Hudson Fasching also have a chance at seeing significant NHL time.
Which player could take a step forward this season? Eichel has the motivation and talent to put up big numbers in the final year of his entry-level deal, which would put pressure on Sabres management. Reinhart scored more points in his second season than as a rookie, but there is disappointment that he has not shown the growth that Leon Draisaitl (selected one pick after him in 2014) has in Edmonton. Reinhart has excellent hockey IQ and should take a step forward in his third season.
Which players could regress? There is no reason to believe that anything will change with Bogosian, who could be a buyout or trade candidate if he does not bounce back after a pair of mediocre years. Matt Moulson increased his goal total from eight to 14 in 2017, but the 33-year-old is slowing down and also could be a buyout option next summer.
Are there any training camp battles expected? Depth forward battles between Justin Bailey, William Carrier, Baptiste and Nicolas Deslauriers. Antipin is expected to have a similar impact coming out of Magnitogorsk that Nikita Zaitsev had in his rookie season with Toronto last season. If that is the case, then a veteran like Gorges could be sitting in the press box.