COACH: Dan Bylsma
2014-15 RECORD: 23-51-8, 54 points (eight in Atlantic, missed playoffs)
VITAL SIGNS: 1.87 goals-for per game (30th); 3.28 goals-against per game (29th); 13.4 power play pct. (30th); 75.1 penalty kill pct. (30th); PDO: 98.5 (27th); Corsi For pct.: 38.0 (30th); Fenwick For pct.: 39.2 (30th); face-off pct.: 44.9 (30th)
PROJECTED DEPTH CHART
Evander Kane – Ryan O'Reilly – Tyler Ennis
Matt Moulson – Jack Eichel – Zemgus Girgensons
Marcus Foligno – Sam Reinhart – Brian Gionta
Nicolas Deslauriers – Johan Larsson – Jamie McGinn
Josh Gorges – Zach Bogosian
Jake McCabe – Rasmus Ristolainen
Mark Pysyk – Cody Franson
OUTLOOK: So much for a patiently executed rebuild.
GM Tim Murray threw out the traditional draft-and-hold approach and charted a more dramatic, and risky, path to contention that included trading away picks and prospects for young, established players. On paper then, this team is far superior to the one that ran up the white flag last season.
It all starts down the middle. A center corps that was historically inept last season (remember Phil Varone on the first line?) looks considerably more potent now with Ryan O'Reilly, Jack Eichel, Sam Reinhart and Johan Larsson. Zemgus Girgensons and Tyler Ennis also are capable of stepping in if needed, giving the Sabres a depth of talent they haven’t had in more than a decade. That could be important. O’Reilly’s impaired driving case has yet to be resolved and there’s a chance it could become a factor this season. Assuming he’s available, the Sabres’ entire top-six has been significantly upgraded. The new-look first line featuring O’Reilly, Evander Kane and Ennis can play at a high tempo, and has the creativity and jam to adapt to any defense. Their success, and by extension, their ability to draw top assignments, will be key to freeing up Eichel as he takes his first steps toward superstardom. He’s been dynamic during the preseason, and while there’ll be calls to mute expectations, this is a special player and 70 points is certainly within his reach, especially if Moulson rebounds from his frustrating 2014-15 campaign.
Keep an eye on Reinhart. He’ll have a sizable learning curve to manage, especially when playing without the puck. When he has it, though, his intelligence will make him a dangerous weapon. He should see some power play time this season.
The defense, though rejigged, remains a work-in-progress. It still lacks a legitimate No. 1 although Zach Bogosian, acquired midseason from the Jets, is a solid No. 2. Cody Franson has something to prove after being left to twist in the cruel winds of free agency almost the entire summer. He could slot anywhere at even strength but should be a real asset on the power play. Rasmus Ristolainen is an exceptional young talent but he’s still vulnerable to mental mistakes. Beyond that? New coach Dan Bylsma will be hoping that Josh Gorges can provide some stability and Jake McCabe is ready to make the jump from the AHL.
Murray gambled heavily on Robin Lehner as his new starting goaltender. The deal that brought Lehner over from Ottawa received mixed reviews but Murray, who scouted Lehner while he worked for the Senators, obviously believes in him. If he can stay healthy, Lehner could staunch the bleeding ... and with this defense, there could be a lot of long, bloody nights.
That’s alright, though. The Sabres will be a better team in 2015-16, and certainly more entertaining. And the playoffs are a whole lot closer than they were this time last season.
PLAYER TO WATCH: Evander Kane
Now that Kane has his love life on fleek, he’s ready to get his hockey life back in order. Fully recovered from the shoulder surgery that delayed his Sabres debut for eight months, the 24-year-old winger has found quick chemistry with his new linemates and flashed the speed and finishing touch that made him the fourth pick in 2009. He’s said that he’s capable of scoring 40, maybe even 50, goals. He just might be right.
PREDICTION: 74 points, seventh in Atlantic