The 2016-17 NHL season is only days away. This time of the year is prime season for people to make their league, team and player projections; I’m here to bring you some Buffalo Sabres predictions. These won’t be your conventional predictions, though. Instead, I’m bringing you some bold ones that I hope you enjoy. Feel free to comment here or on social media.
Prediction 1: Robin Lehner Will Be an All-Star
It doesn’t need to be stated how important this season is for Sabres goaltender Robin Lehner. The team is relying heavily on the 25-year-old to stay healthy throughout the year and give him 55 to 65 games. If Lehner can stay healthy, he’ll be in Los Angeles representing the Sabres at the All-Star Game.
No, not as an injury fill in but a legitimately picked All-Star. The Eastern Conference is loaded with elite goaltenders like Henrik Lundqvist, Carey Price, Brendan Holtby, Roberto Luongo and Ben Bishop. I believe the big Swede has the potential be one of the top goaltenders in the conference and perhaps the league if he can play a full season.
In 21 games last season, Lehner posted a 2.47 goals-against average and a .924 save percentage. Those numbers are good considering the circumstances: the Swedish native played with a bad ankle. Now in training camp, Lehner is noticeably leaner and looks quicker in the crease. He’s played with a lot of confidence throughout the preseason, allowing only two goals against in two games.
As long as Lehner can stay off injury reserve, the Sabres should expect big things from their starting goaltender.
Prediction 2: Rasmus Ristolainen Will Be a Norris Finalist
First things first, the Sabres need to get Ristolainen under contract before he can start his career year. Once that’s done, the 21-year-old will take another big step in his development. Last year, Ristolainen scored a career-high nine goals and 41 points in 82 games. He stepped up as the quarterback on the first power-play unit, recording 21 points on the man advantage.
The Finnish defender will have another season under his belt and will also be playing alongside the best partner he’s had throughout his career in Dmitry Kulikov. Ristolainen has developed into the organization’s unquestioned No. 1 defender, despite playing with players like Josh Gorges and Andrej Meszaros, who are not top pair blueliners.
Kulikov should provide Ristolainen with the ability to take more chances offensively and give him support in the defensive zone. Ristolainen’s possession numbers should jump in a positive direction, playing with a legitimate top-pair partner.
The advanced stats on him have not been great over the last few seasons — people around the league have questioned Ristolainen’s legitimacy as a top-pair defender. However, understanding the circumstances of the roster and his partner go a long way in explaining them.
A parallel can be drawn between Ristolainen and the jump PK Subban made in his third full NHL season. Subban scored 38 points in 42 games during the lockout season of 2012-13 and went on to win the Norris Trophy at the age of 24. The former Montreal defender recorded similar numbers to Ristolainen’s 2015-16 year, the season prior to winning the Norris (seven goals and 36 points).
The other connection that can’t be overlooked is how Subban benefited from the return of veteran defender Andrei Markov. In Subban’s Norris season, Markov played his first full season in two years. Markov only played in 20 games combined over the previous two seasons. Ristolainen is seeing a similar situation unfold this season with his new defensive partner in Kulikov.
My full stat-line projection for Ristolainen this season is 13 goals and 60 points in 80 games.
Prediction 3: $8 Million Will Play Less Than Half the Games
The two players I’m referring to here are Matt Moulson and Cody Franson. Moulson makes $5 million for the next three seasons, while Franson makes $3.3 million this season.
I’ll start with Moulson. Coming off of a very poor season, the 32-year-old is trying to prove in training camp that he still has something left. The issue for Moulson is that he’ll have a hard time cracking the Sabres’ top-six forwards that seem to be pretty locked in. In order to have a hope of returning to at least a 15- to 20-goal scorer, he’ll need to play a top-six role.
Also working against Moulson is the emergence of players like Hudson Fasching and Derek Grant. Both have shown they can fill a bottom-six role in training camp and have performed better than Moulson up to this point. I believe the Sabres will give Moulson the opportunity to play, but if he can’t show his scoring touch again in the first 20 to 25 games, he could find himself in the press box or playing for the Rochester Americans of the American Hockey League.
#Sabres Bylsma said Derek Grant is earning himself an opportunity to make the team. He's had four good days in a row to open camp.
— Andy Young (@AndyYoungTV) September 28, 2016
Franson is another player who struggled last season. He signed with the Sabres late last summer and never impressed on the blue line. His lack of speed showed up time and again, making him a defensive liability. That was expected when he was signed, but the hope was that his offensive upside would counter his defensive deficiencies. It didn’t. The 29-year-old recorded only four goals and 17 points in 59 games last season.
Thus far in training camp, Franson seems to have been surpassed by a younger player: Casey Nelson. The 24-year-old Nelson signed on with the Sabres late last season as a college free agent. He performed well, scoring four points in seven games. Nelson has carried the momentum over into training camp this season. He’s caught the eye of head coach Dan Bylsma and continues to score points. His hockey intelligence allows for him to make up for mistakes that come from inexperience.
With Franson projected as the seventh defender on the roster right now and Moulson being passed by, a lot of money may be sitting in the press box this season.
Prediction 4: The Sabres Will Finish Third in the Atlantic
It’s clear to see the top two teams in the Atlantic Division are the Tampa Bay Lightning and Florida Panthers. The other teams in the division outside of Toronto appear to be pretty even. The Leafs will be in the mix soon enough but I don’t think this is their year.
The path for the Sabres to make the playoffs this year may be to secure third place in the division. The wild card for the East is likely to come out of the tough Metropolitan Division. Outside of the two top dogs in the Atlantic, the division is wide open.
The Detroit Red Wings lost an important player in Pavel Datsyuk this summer and the roster continues to get older while the goaltending continues to be a question mark for the Wings. Is the youth on the Detroit roster ready to take over as the new core and keep the playoff streak alive?
The Boston Bruins are still led by big-name forwards, but the defense is a huge question mark. The Ottawa Senators are a difficult team to figure out altogether. They could be good, but they could also be very bad.
The Montreal Canadiens are the team that I believe the Sabres will really have to wrestle with for that third position in the division. The Habs are getting back Carey Price, but also traded away their best defenseman in PK Subban. Shea Weber is a good defender, but not of Subban’s caliber. Weber is also 32-years-old and has shown signs of slowing down. How well will he be able to keep up with the speedy teams within the division? The Montreal offense has struggled over the past few years and remains the same outside of newly acquired Alexander Radulov.
Now we get to the Sabres. The group coming back is pretty much the same outside of a few key additions, one being Kulikov and the other is top-six winger Kyle Okposo. The former New York Islanders forward will round out the Sabres’ top six and provide support in the defensive zone.
Buffalo played at a 94-point pace over the last 41 games last season as they became more familiar with Bylsma’s system.
A lot of new faces were added a year ago and it took some time for the club to gel. Combine that with a fully healthy Lehner and the Sabres certainly have the potential to shock some people and secure that third spot in the division.
I hope you enjoyed my bold predictions for the Sabres’ season and don’t forget to comment below or on social media.