Now that the 2015-16 season for the Buffalo Sabres has ended, we can take a step back and reflect upon it. Was it a perfect season? Of course not. Was it a step in the direction for the franchise? Absolutely.
Early Season Struggles
The Sabres made a 27 point improvement in the standings over the previous season. After a slow start that lasted through Christmas, the club turned it on in the final 41 games of the season. They played at a 94 point pace, which would put them in the playoff race if they kept that pace up over 82 games. It was expected the Sabres could struggle early in the season with seven new faces entering the lineup. Combine that with five players playing in their first or second full NHL season, the Sabres had a lot of early obstacles to overcome.
Along with all of the roster changes, General Manager Tim Murray didn’t get to see his expected full lineup play one game together. Buffalo had 346 man games lost to injury, which is the 5th highest in the NHL according to mangameslost.com. The injuries included significant time missed by important players like Tyler Ennis, Robin Lehner, Ryan O’Reilly and Evander Kane.
Impactful New Additions
O’Reilly and Kane were two big new additions to the Sabres roster. In their first season in Buffalo, the two had very successful seasons. O’Reilly led the team in points with 60 in his 71 games played. He led all forwards in the NHL in time on ice per game. O’Reilly played in all situations, took huge face offs on a nightly basis and was an excellent leader off the ice. He represented the team in the All-Star game and was the club’s MVP. Buffalo has finally found their number one center and O’Reilly is likely the future captain for the foreseeable future after next season.
Kane on the other hand had an up and down season. He started off extremely slow, but found his game as the season went on. By the end of the season the former first round pick ended up with 20 goals and 35 points in his 65 games played. Kane plays a hard game and is a difficult player for the opponent to play against. Like O’Reilly, Kane gives it his all every shift. When Murray was hired he stated he wanted to build a team that was difficult to play against and he’s done that with the additions of Kane and O’Reilly
The future of the Buffalo Sabres came to the forefront this season as well. Second overall picks Sam Reinhart and Jack Eichel had excellent rookie seasons. While 2013 first round pick Rasmus Ristolainen took the next step into becoming a true number one defenseman and greatly improved his offensive production.
Reinhart was the biggest surprise of the aforementioned trio. He struggled in his brief NHL stint with the Sabres last season. You really didn’t know what to expect from Reinhart heading into the season. What the Sabres got was surprising and excellent news for the future. Reinhart showed great improvement in his skating and proved he could survive a full season in the NHL. He recorded 23 goals and 42 points which is among the top statistics among all rookies this season. The combination of skill and hockey IQ is what makes Reinhart a special player. Reinhart and Eichel have the potential to be a very dangerous duo for years to come.
Speaking of Eichel, he lived up to all the hype coming out the NHL draft. He scored 24 goals and recorded 56 points in his rookie season. Both of those were second among all rookies. The 19-year-old center was a special player this season. He had more highlight reels plays than I can count. The Sabres have not had a player with his talent and skill set in a very long time. If it weren’t for the outrageous season by Blackhawks forward Artemi Panarin, Eichel, could be the favorite for the Calder Trophy.
Lastly, the future top defenseman of the Sabres had a breakout season. Ristolainen scored nine goals and recorded 41 total points. The former 8th overall pick was excellent this season. He cemented his role as the organizations top defenseman. Ristolainen not only brought his offensive game to the next level, but brought an edge to his game this season. Again you’ll start to see a pattern here, he became a much harder player to play against. He didn’t back down from the star forwards and played with confidence. Ristolainen, Eichel and Reinhart are three excellent cornerstone players the Sabres have in place.
The Final 41
After the slow start as I mentioned earlier, the Sabres really came together in the final 41 games of the season. They were 20-14-7 in the second half of the season. The Sabres were fourth in the Atlantic division in points accumulated over the final 41 games behind Tampa Bay, Florida and Boston. If the Sabres would have played at this pace all season they would have been in the playoff race, which would have been an unbelievable turn around from one season to the next. The team started to gel and find chemistry. It appeared that the system from new Head Coach Dan Bylsma started to become more clear as the season went on. Opponents scoring opportunities were down and Buffalo was a much improved possession club.
Next season is a very interesting season for the Sabres. They built the groundwork this season and now next season will be about making the playoffs. I’m very confident Murray will make one or two large improvements to the roster in the offseason. The 2015-16 season was a step in the right direction. Now, the goal is to build off that success and get back into the playoffs.