Buffalo sports fans are consistently some of the most cautiously optimistic in the world, and going into the 2016-17 NHL season, things were no different.
Fans were excited to see what Jack Eichel could do in his sophomore season on a line with fellow budding superstar Sam Reinhart. The Buffalo faithful were anxious to see offseason acquisitions Kyle Okposo and Dmitry Kulikov take the ice in the Sabres’ blue and gold for the first time. They wanted to see if Ryan O’Reilly could follow up his sensational 2015-16 campaign with an even better outing.
Unfortunately, things didn’t get off to a great start. Jack Eichel suffered an ankle injury with just minutes remaining in practice the day before the new season commenced, an injury that kept him out until late November. Kyle Okposo and Dmitry Kulikov missed the team’s opening game with injuries, an injury that has limited Kulikov to just 12 games this season. Ryan O’Reilly has also missed some time due to muscle spasms.
The first quarter of the season is already over, and injuries have prevented the Sabres from making the impact many thought they would. The team currently sits at 9-10-6, last in the Atlantic Division. The team is having trouble putting the puck into the net, which could be the biggest contributor to their poor record. Buffalo is currently averaging just 2 goals per game, the worst in the league.
However, the sky is not falling on the City of Good Neighbors. In fact, the sun is starting to come out from behind the clouds that have loomed over the team for the past number of years. Recent performances show that the team has some life left in them and that the Sabres may actually be ready to take the next step towards becoming a playoff contender.
The Eichel Effect
Jack is back, and he is better than ever.
The 20-year-old suffered a high ankle sprain in practice on October 12th and didn’t make his season debut until the team’s November 29th game against the Ottawa Senators, a 5-4 win. The Boston-native shined in that game, picking up a goal and an assist in the team’s much-needed win.
Eichel would continue to prove that the hype is warranted, as the former second-overall draft pick scored both the game-tying and game-winning goals in Buffalo’s 4-3 win against the New York Rangers on December 2nd. Eichel has been a game-changer for the Sabres since his return and has re-energized a Buffalo team that had been lackluster for the majority of the season.
Fans were frightened during the December 5th game against the Washington Capitals when the team’s franchise player seemingly re-aggravated his high ankle sprain during the second period of the team’s 4-3 loss. However, Eichel returned to the game, with the injury having little effect on his play. The former Boston University Terrier will continue to play, and will likely continue to be a difference-maker.
Eichel says he's fine, good to go tonight.
— Buffalo Sabres (@BuffaloSabres) December 6, 2016
In just four games this season, Eichel has four points. He is often the best player on the ice and is easily identifiable by his skating or how he handles the puck. The center also appears to be making those around him better, as a number of players have benefited from Eichel’s return.
Sam Reinhart is on a hot streak since his real life roommate returned to the team, as the 21-year-old has scored three points in the four games on Eichel’s wing. Evander Kane, who has had a tough time recording points since his return from a rib injury in early November, has also benefited from Eichel’s return. The Vancouver-native also has three points in the four games Eichel has played, one of them being his first goal of the season.
Eichel has been dynamic for Buffalo since his return. Although the team doesn’t have a great win-loss record as of right now, Eichel has the ability to single-handedly win games if he stays healthy, something that will propel the Sabres up the standings.
Defense Will Rebound
Buffalo’s sixth defenseman, as of right now, is Erik Burgdoerfer. That’s how bad the Sabres’ injury situation is.
Burgdoerfer, a career minor leaguer who just recently made his NHL debut at the age of 27, is just one of many Buffalo d-men that have unexpectedly laced up with the major-league club this season. Taylor Fedun, whom the Sabres’ signed in the offseason, was expected to spend the season with the Rochester Americans but was called up due to injuries to Zach Bogosian and Dmitry Kulikov, two of Buffalo’s better defensemen. It was actually an injury to Fedun, who was exceeding expectations, that resulted in Burgdoerfer’s call up.
The 2016-17 season has also seen Brendan Guhle join the team, perhaps Buffalo’s most promising defensive prospect. The 19-year-old, who had been playing for the Prince George Cougars of the WHL, was called up in place of Josh Gorges, who will miss the next couple of weeks with a foot injury.
Unfortunately, Buffalo is missing a number of defensemen who were projected to be strong pieces, resulting in the Sabres filling their absences with a number of different players, from career-AHLers to promising prospects. Fortunately, this won’t last forever.
Zach Bogosian, who has missed some time with a sprained knee ligament, will be returning in the next week or so. Kulikov has been skating for the past two weeks and plans to join the team’s practices in the coming days. Should Gorges’ foot heal properly, he should be joining the team soon.
That’s three of Buffalo’s more talented defensemen that will be returning in the coming weeks.
Buffalo’s back end lineup has been a carousel due to injuries, but thankfully, the team should receive some defensive stability soon. Once players such as Bogosian, Kulikov and Gorges return, the Sabres will have one of the more talented defensive cores in the Atlantic Division, something that will help the team keep the puck out of their net.
When Kyle Okposo signed a seven year, $42 million dollar contract with the Sabres this offseason, the team expected him to produce offensively – and that’s exactly what he’s done.
The former New York Islander is currently leading the team in points, with eight goals and nine assists in 24 games. Okposo has been arguably the team’s most consistent player offensively, something that the team wanted from him when they gave him his monster contract.
The 28-year-old has been able to stand out as one of the more talented offensive threats on a team that lacks offensive punch. Now that a number of the team’s star players have returned/will be returning from injury, Okposo has the opportunity to go from star player on a subpar team to a key piece for a playoff contender.
While the 2016-17 season hasn’t been the most exciting for Buffalo fans, it is nowhere near over. Eichel’s return combined with Okposo’s production makes the team a threat offensively moving forward, and the team will be getting help defensively in the form of Bogosian and Kulikov relatively soon. This team has the opportunity to turn their season around, and could potentially sneak into the playoffs as a wild-card team.
If you’re sleeping on the Sabres, it’s time to wake up.