Welcome to Puck Drop Preview 2016-17, where LastWordOnHockey.com gives you a detailed look at each team from around the NHL leading to the start of this hockey season and offers our insight and analysis. Make sure to stick around until the end of the series, where we’ll offer our full predictions for the standings in each division, and eventually our 2016-17 Stanley Cup pick. You can check out all our articles on our Puck Drop Page. Today the series continues with the Buffalo Sabres.
Puck Drop Preview: 2016-17 Buffalo Sabres
The Buffalo Sabres didn’t finish where they would have hoped last season, placing seventh in the Atlantic Division. A major contributor to the unsuccessful season was a lack of all-around depth. The Sabres struggled with depth in every position, forward, defense, and goalie. The Sabres also had a problem with age. They had five players over the age of 30, and only one of them scored more than 25 points last season.
The top point-scorer was new center Ryan O’Reilly, who netted 21 goals and 39 assists for 60 points in 71 games. Jack Eichel (56) and Sam Reinhart (42) placed second and third in the points column. This represents the Sabres pretty well. Reinhart and Eichel were rookies last year. After years of acquiring top prospects, Buffalo is going to have to start relying on players under the age of 25 for success on the ice.
Team captain Brian Gionta is also nearing his retirement. The 37-year-old has played in the league for 14 seasons and has one more year on his contract. It’ll be interesting to see if he retires next off-season, or if he tries to sign a one- or two-year deal, either with the Sabres or elsewhere. He has the ability to keep playing in the NHL, notching 33 points last season and 35 in 2014-15, but his age will start to affect him soon. If he’s able to continue to put up points, the Sabres will be a lot more willing to look past his age and re-sign him. He brings a good deal of leadership and experience to a team mainly comprised of young players, which is very valuable to their development.
The Sabres did exactly what they needed to in the off-season. In fact, they arguably had the best off-seasons in the league, with a number of notable acquisitions.
Kyle Okposo signed a seven-year deal with Buffalo on July 1. With a total value of $42 million, it’s obvious the Sabres want to keep him around for a while. Okposo has proven to be a dominant force in the league. Last season he totaled 22 goals, 42 assists and 64 points in 79 games. Paired with O’Reilly or Eichel, Okposo could be very dangerous.
The team also re-signed Marcus Foligno, who played in a career-high 75 games last season, but only notched 23 points (another career high). He only got a one-year deal, as the Sabres are looking for more before committing long-term. Foligno plays an important two-way role, but there is some question if he is more than a bottom six player. He will be looking to increase his numbers in order to earn a more lucrative deal next summer.
In trades, Buffalo added Anders Nilsson, who should start the year as Robin Lehner‘s backup. They also added Dmitry Kulikov, who will play a big role in the Sabres defence. Both players signed have one year remaining on their contracts.
The Sabres snagged a few good prospects in the draft. Alexander Nylander is the most notable. The eighth overall pick had 75 points in only 57 games with the Mississauga Steelheads of the OHL last season. The 18-year-old has signed his NHL entry-level contract and might be asked to make a few NHL appearances this season.
Despite all the successful signings, Rasmus Ristolainen is still unsigned. The Sabres need to get their best defencemen under contract before the season begins. Fellow restricted free agent Zemgus Girgensons just signed a one-year contract. Both players under performed last season. Girgensons only netted 18 points in 71 rgames last season. Ristolainen’s points were where they needed to be (41 in 82 games), but he didn’t do nearly as well in the defensive zone; with poor overall possession numbers. The 21-year-old mainly played on the first pairing, averaging over 25 minutes a game. He did play tough matchups and high defensive zone starts, but even those don’t excuse his possession numbers. He is young and needs to continue to work on his defensive game, and getting the puck out of his own end.
With the changes this off-season, the Sabres lines are a bit of a guess. While Okposo was this year’s big off-season addition, its hard to split the Eichel and Reinhart combo that was so successful last season. Tyler Ennis is back from injury and could provide the two youngsters with some added skill. Okposo and O’Reilly could be a lethal combination of skill and power. If Evander Kane can bounce back it could be an excellent line.
The third line will be expected to play a large two-way role. With Girgensons, Foligno and Gionta all being capable at both ends of the ice. They could face some tough opposition and zone starts this year.
The fourth line, however, will almost be an experiment for the Sabres. Matt Moulson got big minutes last season, but did not produce. Its unclear who he displaces in the current top nine and he may need to bide his time waiting for an injury. Larsson had a good second half and should centre the line. He started very slow last year, and most avoid that this season.
The final spot is a bit of a question. While Nicolas Deslauriers is the incumbent, players like Joshua Bailey, Evan Rodrigues, Hudson Fasching and William Carrier are all pushing for a spot on the team. Deslauriers spot is most vulnerable to being grabbed by a youngster.
Rodrigues has two points in two NHL games, he spent most of his first pro season with Rochester, putting up 30 points in 71 games. He might be another year away. Justin Bailey is a big forward, and the Sabres top prospect. He put up 45 points in his first pro season and will come to training camp looking to make the jump to the NHL.
Carrier is also a “maybe” for the NHL. He has proved his worth in the AHL with the Rochester Americans. The winger had 30 points in 56 games last year. If he can do the same in the NHL, he could be the type of gritty two-way winger the Sabres need. He’s only 21 as well, which gives him more than enough time to improve offensively and defensively, over the next few seasons. Hudson Fasching signed with Buffalo after finishing his college career at Minnesota. He played in seven NHL games and picked up a goal and an assist. He is another two-way power winger.
Dimitry Kulikov – Rasmus Ristolainen
If Ristolainen is re-signed before the start of the season, he will most likely play with a mixture of everyone to see who he gels most with. Although McCabe would be a good fit, he could play with a more matured defender like Kulikov or Gorges. both should help Ristolainen improve defensively. McCabe and Bogosian could see a lot of minutes on the second pairing. The Sabres defence continues to add depth.
Lehner will take his spot as starter again, but Nilsson should get the backup spot, over Linus Ullmark or Jason Kasdorf. Nilsson went 10-13-2 last year playing with the Edmonton Oilers and the St. Louis Blues. After only three games in a Blues jersey, Nilsson got moved to Buffalo in exchange for a fifth-round pick in 2017. He was one of the KHL’s top goalies before coming to the NHL last season.
Players to Watch
The Ryan O’Reilly Line
With the addition of Okposo, the Sabres top six is really starting to show strength. Reinhart and Eichel have proven to work well together. Okposo should be joining veteran O’Reilly to give the Sabres two strong units. This move adds a lot more power and maturity to the second line. The return of Ennis adds speed and skill to the first line. It could create some real match-up issues for other teams.
O’Reilly, Eichel, and Reinhart led the team in points last season. If they all stay healthy, they should be able to continue scoring. This is exactly what Buffalo wanted when they drafted both Reinhart and Eichel: An NHL-ready player who can come in and make a huge impact on the team, and the league. At the rate they’re both growing, they’ll be elite players soon
Players on the Rise
Obviously Eichel and Reinhart will be on the rise for a while, but Buffalo has a few other young players who could prove to be major assets to the team soon. Although he’s not talked about much, Carrier could be at the top of this list. Carrier put up 30 points last season in the AHL, and has proved himself NHL-ready. Although he probably won’t play a critical role this season, some NHL experience could do him very well.
The Sabres also have Eric Cornel, who’s had a few amazing seasons in the OHL, but only played in six AHL games last season. He spent the majority of the season with the Peterborough Petes, playing in 68 games. In those 68 games, he had an impressive 83 points. He will move to Rochester full time this year to continue his development.
Bailey, a western New York native, had a solid rookie season with the Rochester Americans of the AHL. He scored 20 goals and added 25 assists for 45 points. A versatile forward, Bailey spent most of his time at right wing this season. He played some centre in junior as well. Bailey is the son of Carlton Bailey who went to three Super Bowls with the Buffalo Bills.
Players on the Decline
The most notable, declining player is Moulson. In the 2014-15 season, Moulson did what he needed to do to prove his worth with the Sabres. In 77 games, he had 41 points. Although it’s not jaw-dropping, it proved that the 31-year-old still had what it takes to play in the NHL. However, last season he only had 21 points, even though he played in 81 games. If he doesn’t come back with another stellar season, he might find himself struggling to find a spot in the lineup.
He’s lucky though, being signed until the end of the 2018-19 season on a one-way contract that also has a modified no-trade clause. If Moulson doesn’t come back with at least 30 points this season, it wouldn’t be shocking if Buffalo shopped him around to teams not on his list. If the team tried to release Moulson via a buyout, they’d still have to pay him $800,000 until the end of the 2021-22 season.
Another significant player is Gorges, who only had 12 points last season. He’s the same age as Moulson (32) and signed through the 2017-18 season, but if he became a 7th defenseman, it could open the way for others like Brady Austin to finally see what playing in the NHL is like. The addition of Kulikov doesn’t help out Gorges at all either. This makes his job that much harder, if he wants to keep his spot as a top six defenseman in Buffalo.
Buffalo needs to rely heavily on their young players, and new addition Okposo. If the top two lines can come through, Buffalo should land a playoff spot. Eichel, O’Reilly, Reinhart and Okposo should lead the team in scoring, each getting at least more than 45 points.
Buffalo’s defenders will also have to have a strong season, if they want a chance at going on a run this year. The addition of Kulikov should be very beneficial. He’ll gel well with the rest of the defense and should have a good season.
Overall, Buffalo will have to work hard, but has a good chance of pushing into the playoff race. With such a young team, they’ll also be interesting to watch during the trade deadline, as they might be trying to add a few more additions to strengthen their bottom two offensive lines and make that final push into the Stanley Cup Playoffs.