Heading into the 2015-2016 NHL season, the expectations for the Buffalo Sabres and General Manager Tim Murray will move up a few notches. Given the rebuild and historically poor finishes during the past two years, an improvement is definitely within the realm of possibility.
The Sabres have a combined regular season record of 44-102-18 over the past two seasons. Nearly all of the teams that qualified for the playoffs this season had more regular season wins in 2014-2015 than Buffalo has won in the past two seasons. An expectation that Buffalo should qualify for the playoffs in 2015-2016 might be a stretch but to expect some kind of improvement over their consecutive last place finishes is a reasonable goal.
Tim Murray has a host of issues to address in what should be a fun offseason for Sabres fans. Buffalo has an impressive stock of young talent, a wealth of draft assets, and plenty of cap space which gives the Sabres a lot to work with to transform the roster. The two biggest questions for Tim Murray this offseason, however, are the coaching and goaltending positions.
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Who Will be the New Bench Boss in Buffalo?
Despite his critics, Ted Nolan played an important role in Buffalo during the rebuild. Nolan was a nostalgic hire for many Sabres fans. The team didn’t win much during his tenure but Nolan helped keep fans about as engaged as humanly possible through some difficult times.
Had the club kept former head coach Ron Rolston as the bench boss during the rebuild, the relationship between the Sabres and their fans would look a lot different. Nolan didn’t have a ton to work with talent-wise. However, he soldiered on and gave a decent effort which helped hold things together during the rebuild.
The final page has turned on Ted Nolan’s second chapter with the Sabres and GM Tim Murray is now in pursuit of his next head coach. The early target is current Detroit Red Wings head coach Mike Babcock. Babcock met with the Sabres brass last week touring the Harbor Center and the team facilities. He also met with the Toronto Maple Leafs and he reportedly has at least one other meeting in the works. A decision is expected from Babcock on his future later this week.
The Sabres’ organization no longer has any financial roadblocks when it comes to luring in the NHL’s top candidates. Terry Pegula has demonstrated that he has the financial power to outbid most other organizations in the NHL.
The offer the Sabres make to Babcock will be competitive if not more lucrative than any other offer that he may have received. The decision on whether or not Babcock will join the Sabres will not hinge on finances but it will boil down to what makes the most sense for himself and his family.
San Jose Sharks scheduled to speak with Mike Babcock this week. Expectation is Babcock still wants to decide his future by Wednesday
— Pierre LeBrun (@PierreVLeBrun) May 17, 2015
Babcock clearly is the targeted candidate at the moment for the Sabres and he is a coveted head coaching candidate for several other NHL clubs. If the Sabres fall short in the Mike Babcock sweepstakes, the organization definitely has the resources to land a strong candidate to be their next head coach. With Todd McLellan reportedly about to join the Oilers, some have suggested that Dan Bylsma or Luke Richardson could be potential candidates for the Sabres’ head coaching vacancy.
Who Will be the Sabres’ Starting Goaltender?
The Sabres entered the 2014-2015 season with two pending unrestricted free agent goaltenders on the roster in Jhonas Enroth and Michal Neuvirth. Despite a lack of talent around them, both goalies performed well in an overall sense during their time in Buffalo.
While some thought that one or both of these goaltenders would reach a new deal with the Sabres, both ultimately departed from Buffalo. Enroth was traded to the Dallas Stars while Neuvirth was dealt to the New York Islanders. Their departures left Buffalo’s goaltending position wide open.
In 16 games with the Sabres, newcomer Anders Lindback won just four games but he managed a 2.76 GAA and a .924 save percentage with Buffalo. Matt Hackett appeared in just five games for Buffalo this past season logging a 4.32 GAA and a .884 save percentage. Both Hackett and Lindback will be free agents this summer.
Chad Johnson is the Sabres’ most experienced goaltender under contract and he has yet to play a game for Buffalo. Johnson served as backup for the Bruins during the 2013-2014 season and for the Islanders last season prior to his trade to the Sabres. He is a serviceable backup but the Sabres will need to explore their options to find a more seasoned starting goaltender.
Lindback wants to re-sign in Buffalo http://t.co/SgRNYz4mSx
— NBC ProHockeyTalk (@ProHockeyTalk) April 29, 2015
One possibility is the return of either Enroth, Neuvirth, or Lindback to the Sabres. Each of these goaltenders performed relatively well for the Sabres last season. Murray never ruled out re-signing any of these goaltenders and their familiarity with the organization makes them potential targets in free agency.
According to Spotrac.com, other goaltenders hitting the free agent market include Antti Niemi, Devan Dubnyk, Viktor Fasth, and Ray Emery. Acquiring a goaltender via trade or through an offer sheet is also within the realm of possibility for the Sabres. With the organization transitioning from their rebuild, Tim Murray will do his due diligence to bring in the right goaltender to help move his club to the next level.
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Tim joined The Hockey Writers in July 2013. He began his tenure with THW by covering the Minnesota Wild and he now writes on the Buffalo Sabres. Tim completed his undergraduate and graduate work at the University at Buffalo. In addition, he is a published historian and a Baltimore Orioles Contributing Writer for LegendsOnDeck.com. Tim’s work for THW has been featured on sites such as Yahoo.com. Follow him on Twitter @TOHockeyTHW