The Buffalo Sabres will enter next season with new expectations and goals. Over the past two years, the team wasn’t expected to win games. The goal was to bottom out and bring in young talent. Next season however the expectations shift to winning. The pressure will be on the Sabres to show that the plan is headed in the right direction. No longer will management or fans for that matter be ok with a basement dweller team. Projecting out into next season, not only can Buffalo show improvement, but a big jump in the standings isn’t out of the question.
The New Faces
The Sabres will enter next season with three new key players to the forward lines. It’s no secret the Sabres struggled to put pucks in the net with a league low of 161 goals this season. For most of the year the Sabres put a team on the ice that featured a good number of AHL players. Those roster spots will be filled by legit NHL talent next season.
The first big addition to the roster will be the likely number two overall pick in the upcoming draft, Jack Eichel. The Boston University center will step right into a top six role with the Sabres. Eichel will provide scoring and strong play down the middle
that Buffalo has lacked for years. As an 18-year-old it wouldn’t be out of the question for Eichel to be in the Calder Trophy discussion at the end of next season.
More help at the center position should come in the form of 2014 2nd overall pick Sam Reinhart. After failing to stick with the Sabres last year, Reinhart went back to Kootenay to work on his game. He needed to add more size to his frame and work in his skating ability to be NHL ready. I expect Reinhart to fall into a 3rd line role with Buffalo next season. Reinhart likely won’t provide the same impact as Eichel, but will be to provide secondary scoring. The playmaking ability Reinhart has can also help what was the league’s worst power play last season.
The final big addition to the lineup will be star winger Evander Kane. The 23-year-old was acquired from Winnipeg in the trade deadline blockbuster. Due to his shoulder injury Kane didn’t dress for the Sabres all season. Next season Kane will step in as the Sabres top winger and provide scoring on wing they haven’t had in years. To go along with his skill Kane will provide excellent size and grit as a legit power forward.
Kane has averaged 25 goals over an 82 game stretch throughout his career. If you combine Kane’s career average with a conservative projection of 15 goals from Eichel and 10 from Reinhart; the Sabres will add 50 goals to the roster in just those three players. If you included those 50 goals to this seasons total, the Sabres would have jumped up to 24th in the NHL in scoring with 211 goals. The Sabres are also still likely to add another top six forward to the roster via trade at the NHL Draft that could improve the scoring on the roster.
Out With the Old…In With the New
To go along with the struggles to score, the Sabres also had difficulty in their defensive zone. Players like Andrej Meszaros, Tyson Strachan and Andre Benoit were a combined -62 this season. Those three defenseman will not be back with the team next year. Rasmus Ristolainen and Nikita Zadorov will see a bigger role next season coming off their first full seasons. Mark Pysyk will also jump into the lineup next year. Pysyk seemed to be NHL ready this season, but played most of the season in Rochester. The biggest addition to the blue line will be a full season of Zach Bogosian. Bogosian was an impact player for the Sabres in only 21 appearances with Buffalo last season. The 24-year-old will likely be the Sabres top blue liner along with Ristolainen next
season. Bogosian is a very difficult player to play against and his style will hopefully be infectious with the rest of the team.
The last factor that shouldn’t be overlooked will be a new coach behind the Sabres bench. Ted Nolan didn’t really have a chance last season with a very bad roster. Nolan is known as more of a motivational coach than a guy who believed in X’s and O’s. He preached hard work over everything else. No matter who the next Sabres coach will be, he’ll likely bring a system that relies on more than just effort. That coach will also help speed up the development of some of the young players on the roster.
It’s not unreasonable to expect a large jump in the standings. It wouldn’t be out of the realm of possibilities to see the Buffalo jump up the standings by roughly 25-30 points. That would still leave the Sabres out of the playoffs next season, but be a great sign that the team is headed in the right direction. It’s difficult to see Buffalo contending for a playoff spot next year, but a season close to what the Panthers had this season will bring about optimism going forward.