Out with the old, in with the new.
It may not have yielded the playoff berth the Sabres were looking for but 2016 was still a year of marked improvement in Buffalo.
The city put its finishing touches on Harbor Center, Canal Side and Buffalo RiverWorks, infusing energy and excitement while revitalizing a long lost downtown waterfront district that was proudly put on display as Buffalo played host to the 2016 NHL Draft in June.
Meanwhile on the ice, the Sabres showed a significant jump as an organization, winning 35 games and totaling 81 points last season after securing just 23 and 54, respectively, the previous campaign.
While the best is yet to come, let’s take a look back at the year in review:
Jack Eichel, blue and gold’s first round pick in 2015, delivered to the tune of 24 goals and 32 assists as a rookie living up to and exceeding any and all expectations set for him after capturing the Hobey Baker Award as college hockey’s top player at Boston University.
With 31 goals (including seven game-winning goals) and 68 points through his first 96-career NHL games, Eichel has made the transition to the pro game a fluid one. His ability to bring the crowd to his feet has brought excitement back to Buffalo after several seasons of disappointment. He has been as good as advertised and represents the bright future of the franchise.
— Buffalo Sabres (@BuffaloSabres) November 30, 2016
While Eichel didn’t start off the second half of 2016 on the right foot after suffering a high-ankle sprain in October, he showed resiliency, overcame the injury and is back on track producing at nearly a point-per-game level with seven goals and five assists for 12 points in 15 games this season. The injury unfortunately derailed a promising season before it started but Eichel and the team will be a better long-term with the experience of it.
The face of the franchise rebuild in Buffalo, Eichel is the Sabres’ savior. He had missed all of one game in his career before suffering the freak injury during the team’s final practice of the pre-season on October 12, but the fact remains the Sabres are a different team with him on it. He opens up the ice for the rest of his teammates. Eichel’s innate ability to go from zero to 60 in split seconds opens up lanes and draws in the opposition’s defenders before allowing him to find the open man with the puck. When he is in the lineup, the Sabres are an even .500 with a 41-41-14 record. Without Jack, they are just 7-10-5.
Game of the Year
The date: March 12, 2016. The scene: Overtime at First Niagara Center. The opponent: Cam Ward and the Carolina Hurricanes with the score all tied up at 2-2 at the end of regulation.
— Buffalo Sabres (@BuffaloSabres) May 19, 2016
“Oh, how do you do? One second remaining on the clock, Jack Eichel wins it in ooooovertime.” — Rick Jeanneret
As the final seconds ticked off the clock in sudden death, Evander Kane’s deft rink-length clearing pass led Eichel in all alone. It was the fresh-faced freshman’s time to shine as he deked Ward five-hole, showing patience and wisdom beyond his years as he slipped the puck between the goaltender’s legs with just one second remaining to the delight of the sellout 19,070 on hand as the Sabres skated off with the 3-2 victory.
Buffalo Hall of Fame broadcaster Rick Jeanneret delivered the memorable call which undoubtedly goes down among the best Sabres game of 2016. It was Jack Eichel’s second goal of the game and first-career game-winning goal in overtime. And by good fortune the Saturday afternoon 1pm matinee was also my 4-year old daughter’s first-ever NHL game. Not a bad start.
Rasmus Ristolainen the Norris Trophy candidate? For Buffalo Sabres fans it could be sooner rather than later for their standout Finnish defensemen.
Taking everything thrown his way, Ristolainen proved he was ready for the show as he made the transition from the Finnish Elite League to the National Hockey League a seamless one. Absorbing every second of ice time he could handle, the Sabres’ first round pick in 2013 took the next step in 2016. A true star in the making, Ristolainen is averaging an astounding 26:42 of ice time, which ranks him fifth in the NHL in that category. And with 25 points in 36 games played, including 12 points in his last 11 games, he is tied for fifth in scoring among all NHL defensemen.
Okposo ➡️ Ristolainen
— Buffalo Sabres (@BuffaloSabres) December 17, 2016
With two of his three goals this season coming via the game-winning, overtime variety, Ristolainen is garnering respect around the league as well and is certainly making a strong case for himself as its best defensemen.
Robin Lehner, Anders Nilsson, Chad Johnson, Linus Ullmark, Jason Kasdorf.
The Buffalo Sabres utilized five different goalies in 2016 after using five completely different netminders in 2015 in Jhonas Enroth, Michal Neuvirth, Anders Lindback, Andrey Makarov and Matt Hackett. The goaltending carousel has left a lot to be desired as a majority of them were traded away, released or left unsigned following lackluster performances.
Though none have successfully seized the reigns, Sabres coach Dan Bylsma is giving Lehner every chance to be his number one in 2016 and beyond. Lehner, however, is just 13-21-10 with a 2.50 goals-against average and .922 save percentage through his first 47 games with Buffalo.
Anders Nilsson has shown flashes in spot duty with a 5-3-3 record to go along with a 2.47 goals-against and .925 save percentage but the search for the team’s first unquestioned number one since the days of Ryan Miller is still on.
Twenty-nine other clubs from coast to coast received first class treatment as the Queen City hosted the 2016 National Hockey League Draft on June 24-25. Buffalo rolled out the red carpet for teams, out-of-town media and prospects alike to everything from first class entertainment and accommodations to batting practice with the Buffalo Bisons and a charter vessel on the Maid of the Mist at Niagara Falls.
Toronto Maple Leafs fans came down the QEW in droves and flooded First Niagara Center on Day One of the NHL Draft to see their team select Auston Matthews with the first overall pick. Only the requisite boos for Commissioner Gary Bettman outweighed those that rained down for the Leafs by the sold out crowd which witnessed Buffalo’s first draft party since hosting it in 1991 when the Quebec Nordiques made Eric Lindros the first overall selection.
After the Winnipeg Jets drafted Patrik Laine second, the Columbus Blue Jackets tabbed Pierre-Luc Dubois third. With the eighth overall selection, the Buffalo Sabres tabbed Alexander Nylander with their first round pick.
The Best is Yet to Come
Do you remember the Sabres’ slogan marking the team’s 10th anniversary in 1980? “The Best is Yet to Come.”
After a 35-36-11 finish in 2015-16 — their fourth straight losing season — and a 13-15-8 record through December 31st, Buffalo is once again on the outside looking in on the NHL playoff picture. And while Santa Claus did not bring Sabres fans its first playoff berth since 2010-11, Buffalo has a strong foundation of talent with which to build its future around.
For the Sabres and its fans, truly the best is yet to come.