After an impressive tank in 2014-15, the Buffalo Sabres started the 2015-16 with rookie Jack Eichel as the centerpiece, Ryan O’Reilly as a significant offseason addition, a healthy Evander Kane and expectations … rather low. An injury to goalie Robin Lehner lowered them even more. But new coach Dan Bylsma squeezed out a 35-36-11 record, finishing just one point behind the Montreal Canadiens in the Atlantic.
O’Reilly (60 points) led the team in scoring, while Eichel led with 24 goals. Sam Reinhart contributed 23 and Evander Kane had 20 in 65 games. Defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen to the leap offensively, as the 21-year-old tallied 41 points in 82 games.
Off the ice, O’Reilly was charged and then found not guilty of impaired driving, after a crash into a Tim Hortons in Ontario last summer. Evander Kane, meanwhile, was arrested on four counts of non-criminal harassment, one count of disorderly conduct and a count of misdemeanor trespass after an incident with two women and a bouncer at a Buffalo nightclub. He pleaded not guilty and is awaiting trial.
2015-16 Season, In One Picture
Did They Get Better, Worse, Or Are They About The Same?
Kyle Okposo (signed through 2022) is a perfect addition on several fronts. First as a potential linemate for Eichel, after he proved an effective wingman for John Tavares on Long Island. But he’s also versatile and can play down the lineup. Eichel told us this week that Okposo’s character is also an asset.
Dmitry Kulikov was a Tim Murray favorite. He adds physicality on the blue line, and one assumes he’s going to be on the top pairing on the left side. He’s an upgrade.
Alas, Jimmy Vesey decided to sign with the New York Rangers, despite the Sabres owning his negotiating rights and Eichel’s presence. And Steven Stamkos didn’t sign either. But he also snubbed Toronto, so that’s OK.
Five Most Fascinating Players
1 – Jack Eichel
Eichel had 24 goals last season, and showed the potential for much more with his nose for the net and nasty shot. He’s got every tool to become a star in this league – the skating, the hands, that shot. If he lines up with Okposo, watch out.
2 – Rasmus Ristolainen
He faded a bit in the second half, including an awful January and February (14 points in 49 games and a minus-22). Once his contract gets sorted out, it’s going to be fascinating to see how much higher the ceiling is for him offensively. The Kulikov acquisition seems geared towards maximizing that potential.
3 – Robin Lehner
Can he be a No. 1 starter? The most Lehner has played in a season was 36 games in 2013-14, and ended with a 3.06 GAA. He appeared 21 times for the Sabres in his injury-plagued debut. He’s dropped some pounds in the offseason. He has the confidence of management, fort he moment. And due respect to Anders Nilsson and Linus Ullmark, the crease is his to lose.
4 – Evander Kane
What a mess. Kane’s had two run-ins with the law in Buffalo, both involving alleged violence against women; the second incident resulted in his arrest. He has two years left at $5.25 million against the cap. The Sabres want to move him out; is there another team that craves 25 goals so badly that it’ll swallow the bile (and carry the baggage) that arrives with Kane?
5 – Zemgus Girgensons
The former NHL All-Star (thanks, Latvia!) may be on his last chance with the Sabres under Bylsma, signing a one-year deal that has “show us something more” written all over it.
Mascot Hijinks Video Break
Can We Trust Them At Even Strength?
The Sabres had an adjusted Corsi of 46.75 percent at 5 on 5 last season, sixth worst in the NHL. Reinhart was one of the few forwards to have a strong possession year (50.27 percent), and Mark Pysyk – traded for Kulikov – ranked highest for defensemen (51 percent, adjusted).
Much of the improvement at 5-on-5 needs to come from the continued maturity of young players like Eichel and Ristolainen, better play from the blueline overall. Can Jake McCabe and Zach Bogosian give you more as a second pairing? Will Josh Gorges get even slower? Will Cody Franson play more on the power play than at even strength.
You can’t really trust the Sabres until we see if the younger players have filled out their games defensively, but you can trust this: Okposo will help. In the last three years, he was second to Tavares on the Islanders in even-strength points (149).
Can We Trust Them On Special Teams?
The Sabres were No. 12 in the NHL on the power play at 18.9 percent. O’Reilly (22), Eichel (22) and Ristolainen (21) led in points by a wide margin. Can they get more out of players like Tyler Ennis, Matt Moulson and Franson (who had just seven points, despite his pedigree)? Sam Reinhart scored 10 of his 42 points in the power play last season – expect more. And again, Okposo will help.
The Sabres were ninth on the PK (82.6) last season. The leader of that effort at forward, David Legwand, wasn’t re-signed. Does that mean an increase in ice time for Girgensons, with O’Reilly as the top center on the PK? Expect Kulikov to see copious ice time on the kill, as he did in Florida.
You can trust the kill; you hope you can trust the power play.
Can We Trust Their Goaltending?
Not really. As we’ve season, it’s wait-and-see with Lehner. He could turn out to be great. He could turn out to be part of the solution rather than the solution. Or he could turn out to be a former Sabre after this season, as an RFA.
Player Mostly Likely To Be In Vegas Next Season
While the answer is more likely Josh Gorges, the Sabres would no doubt like Evander Kane to pick up his money phone and answer that call.
Coach Hot Seat Rating (1-10, 10 being scorching hot)
One. Bylsma is still playing with house money at this point. Ask us again in Year 3.
As much as we’re dying to see Jack Eichel play meaningful games and Tim Murray’s master plan show results, we just don’t think the Sabres are there yet. Although one can never be sure of anything in the wishy-washy Eastern Conference. OK, we can be sure that Cody Hodgson is enjoying cashing those buyout checks. But that’s it.
2016-17 Season Preview