The season is almost here. As the Detroit Red Wings prepare for their final season at Joe Louis Arena and a 26th consecutive appearance in the Stanley Cup Playoff, We look at how they’ll stack up against the rest of the division. Winged Octopus got together with different blogs who cover the teams in the Atlantic Division to put together a proper preview of the Atlantic Division.
Today we swing on down to Buffalo to look at an upstart Sabres team. We’ll have Chris from Two in the Box to give us a real in depth look at the Buffalo Sabres.
The bottom of the Atlantic Division (and the league for that matter) gets cold after a while. Luckily the Sabres appear poised to break through and begin pushing for playoff positioning after working through a rebuild over the past few seasons.
Jack Eichel will obviously be the centerpiece of this year’s squad but Tim Murray has built a roster around Eichel, giving the Sabres the depth they’ve been lacking in recent years.
Climbing back into playoff contention won’t be an easy feat for the Sabres as the Atlantic’s top clubs are still heavy with impressive talent while the Metro will be favored to produce both wild card teams. Buffalo’s strength is their forward corps but where the season’s fate lies is along the blueline and in goal.
Kyle Okposo is the shiny new free agent signing who will slot in alongside either Eichel or Ryan O’Reilly this season. Based on the way the season wrapped for the Sabres, Okposo seems destined for O’Reilly’s right wing while Eichel will likely remain with Evander Kane and Sam Reinhart. That puts Okposo alongside O’Reilly and likely Tyler Ennis depending on his health and production – two aspects of his game which suffered last season.
2016 first round selection, Alex Nylander could be an option for left wing with O’Reilly and Okposo but it seems a safer bet that Nylander will spend the year in Rochester growing into a more complete professional talent. Beyond the top-six, which certainly shows promise, Dan Bylsma will have six spots to fill with upwards of eight bodies depending on how you break down the depth chart.
The line of Johan Larsson, Brian Gionta and Marcus Foligno impressed Buffalo’s head coach last season and it would be a shock if they were broken up. That still leaves Zemgus Girgensons, Nicolas Deslauriers, Matt Moulson, Cal O’Reilly, Cole Schneider, Hudson Fasching, Justin Bailey, William Carrier as possible options for the fourth line. It’s a fair bet that Fasching, Carrier and Schneider will start in Rochester with Girgensons, Bailey, Moulson and Deslauriers being the obvious choices for Bylsma and the Sabres.
Finding secondary scoring is the key here. The top-six is fairly fleshed out. But is there a proper top-nine? If Girgensons can find his form from two years and Justin Bailey breaks out on his right wing, the Sabres could be in great shape. But it’s never safe to bet on a rookie stepping into their first full NHL season, especially one who isn’t a sure bet for the opening night roster just yet.
Rasmus Ristolainen didn’t have a new contract by the start of the World Cup but he’ll be a happy man before the season finally begins. He’ll be Buffalo’s minute eating defenseman this year and it’s looking like he’ll pair with Dmitry Kulikov to start.
Zach Bogosian and Jake McCabe are the odds on favorites for the second pairing while Josh Gorges, Cody Franson and Casey Nelson will see time on the bottom pair. That’s the obvious set of blueliners for the Sabres to start the year, but it wouldn’t hurt to see McCabe take a big step forward and slot in next to Ristolainen on Buffalo’s top pair.
That’s a risk for the Sabres as both are still young and that’s quite a bit of responsibility to place on one young defender, let alone two. However, don’t be surprised if that’s how things shake out by year’s end.
Where things could really shake up is if Brendan Guhle earns an audition out of camp. He very nearly got one last year after being drafted but a preseason injury kept him from his nine game start. Guhle is a terrific skater and puck mover who could certainly steal minutes from the trio pushing for a bottom pair role to start the year.
What Buffalo lacks on the blueline is proper consistency. Ristolainen is the horse but Kulikov isn’t a true top-pair defender. Bogosian and McCabe make for a solid second pair but McCabe isn’t quite ready to take another step just yet. That lack of proper consistency could give the Sabres trouble this year, if this unit underperforms at all, it could lead to Buffalo’s postseason hopes unraveling.
Tim Murray’s oddest choice this offseason was trading for Anders Nilsson. I highly doubt the Blues would have matched even the lowest offer for the goaltender and sacrificing a pick for him seems odd since his NHL numbers are below average.
Perhaps Murray wants to give Robin Lehner the proper opportunity to take the starting job and run with it. He was the undisputed starter last year before his year was derailed by injury. He’ll be the x-factor if he can stay healthy this year. If he gets hurt again the Sabres will almost certainly be drafting in the top-10 again.
Lehner’s play, when healthy, was terrific last year. What changes this season is the lack of a truly effective backup. Maybe the plan is to let Linus Ullmark see most of the time if Lehner is out. Even if that isn’t the case, Buffalo’s netminders hold the keys to the season.
I have more faith in Lehner than most, however and I’m thinking he does enough to elevate the Sabres into the playoff conversation.
We would like to thank Chris for his help. You can check out his website Two In The Box. You can also follow him on twitter @2ITB_Buffalo