New-look Buffalo Sabres seek to put past woes behind
Having endured two of the worst seasons in franchise history, Weber had difficulty wiping the grin off his face after welcoming the large collection of fresh, young talent brought into Buffalo as part of a top-to-bottom franchise overhaul.
''It's a huge weight lifted off your shoulders,'' Weber said. ''You guys have seen the frustration, the pain, the misery that has been our last two seasons. And to finally walk through these doors in a different atmosphere, a different mindset - I can't stop smiling.''
With the additions of new coach Dan Bylsma on down to rookie center Jack Eichel, the Sabres no longer have the appearance of a patchwork team of mostly journeymen and castoffs who spent the past two years losing an NHL-high 102 games, scoring a league-low 303 goals.
Having completed their lengthy purge of high-priced veterans, the Sabres prepare to host Ottawa on Thursday with a lineup that has the potential of featuring as many as 12 players who weren't in Buffalo for last year's season opener.
The list of newcomers begins with Eichel, the Boston University center who was selected with the No. 2 pick in the draft, who has already begun shown flashes of why NHL scouts and team executives regarded him to be ''a once-in-a-generation'' talent.
Other new additions include center Ryan O'Reilly (acquired with forward Jamie McGinn in a trade with Colorado), goalie Robin Lehner (acquired with veteran forward David Legwand in a trade with Ottawa) and free-agent defenseman Cody Franson.
There's also hard-hitting, playmaking forward Evander Kane, who was sidelined by a season-ending shoulder injury in February when Buffalo acquired him and defenseman Zach Bogosian in a trade with Winnipeg.
''We finished 30th and we're trying to improve. And I think on paper we have improved,'' general manager Tim Murray said. ''I'm quite confident we're going to get a lot better. I'm just not quite sure what that means yet.''
Some things to look out for from a team that's missed the playoffs for four consecutive seasons:
THEY LIKE EICH
At 18, Eichel has made a quick impression with his effortless skating style and playmaking skills. He led Buffalo with six points (two goals, four assists) in four preseason games with both goals scored short-handed. Eichel has a chance to ease into life in the NHL after accepting an offer to live with veteran teammate Matt Moulson and his family.
DAN'S THE MAN
Bylsma is back behind the NHL bench following a year hiatus, and after five-plus seasons in Pittsburgh where he led the Penguins to the Stanley Cup in 2009. In Buffalo, Bylsma gets to place his own stamp on a new-look team after inheriting the Sidney Crosby-led Penguins midway through the 2008-09 season. He replaces Ted Nolan who was fired after last season, and becomes the Sabres' third coach since Lindy Ruff was fired in February 2013. The Sabres turned their attention to Bylsma after losing out on landing former Red Wings coach Mike Babcock, who elected to go to Toronto.
BETWEEN THE PIPES
The Sabres gave up a first-round draft pick to acquire Lehner in June in a bid to settle a position that's been in flux since Ryan Miller was traded to St. Louis in February 2014. Lehner has a 30-26-15 NHL career record and went 9-12-3 with Ottawa last season before being sideline by a concussion. The 24-year-old Lehner is familiar with Murray, who was the Senators assistant GM when the goalie helped Ottawa's AHL affiliate, Binghamton, win the 2011 Calder Cup. The Sabres have had seven goalies start at least one game since Miller's departure.
O'Reilly and Eichel will center Buffalo's top two lines, allowing Tyler Ennis and Zemgus Girgensons to shift to the wings. Eichel spent time in the preseason on a line with Moulson and Girgensons. O'Reilly was playing alongside Ennis and Kane.
Buffalo lost 51 games in each of the past two seasons - both franchise lows. The Sabres scored 150 goals in 2013-14, the fewest in a season (minimum 74 games) since the NHL expanded from its Original Six teams in 1967. Buffalo scored 153 last year, the third-lowest total behind 151 goals scored by Tampa Bay in 1997-98.