The anticipation is almost. The preseason is over, and the Buffalo Sabres season officially opens Thursday night at home against the Ottawa Senators.
After an eventful Sabres offseason, it was the first opportunity to see the newest Sabres acquisitions, and the future of the Sabres organization take the ice together.
The preseason began with the debut of Jack Eichel in Minnesota against the Wild, and what a debut he made. With the Sabres and Wild tied at two, and Buffalo shorthanded in the third period, Eichel got loose and scored the game-winning goal on a breakaway. The 18-year old kid also impressed the Minnesota crowd with his speed and skill on the ice. Eichel also had an assist in the contest in 17:26 of total ice-time playing on the top line with Matt Moulson on his left and Zemgus Girgensons on his right.
Two nights later, two of the newest Sabres took to the ice for the first time in blue and gold. Evander Kane and Ryan O’Reilly, along with Tyler Ennis on the right wing, made their Sabres debut and looked impressive even in a 5-2 loss. Kane scored two goals in the contest, one on the powerplay and one shorthanded, while O’Reilly recorded an assist on each of Kane’s goals. Ennis also registered an assist on Kane’s powerplay goal. What was more impressive was that the top line combined for 12 of the team’s 42 shots on goal.
After the loss to the Senators, the Sabres would go on a three-game winning streak to improve its preseason record to 4-1-0. In that three-game streak, the Sabres scored 16 goals while only giving up eight, and put up a total of 96 shots on goal in the three wins.
The team would rest most of its starters against the Wild in their second matchup of the preseason, and it truly showed how this team could be without its top talent. The Wild would hammer the Sabres 6-1, out-shoot Buffalo 42-11, and beat down the Sabres with a 62-21 Corsi-rating.
In the preseason finale against the Columbus Blue Jackets, the Sabres were completely absent in the first two periods, going down 5-0 to a Blue Jackets team composed mainly of American Hockey League talent. However in the third period, the Sabres came alive and storm back for four unanswered goals in 8:51 to bring the game back to within a goal. In the end, Columbus would hold on for a 6-4 win, but looked completely outmatched in the third period.
In the end, Buffalo finished the 2015 preseason with a 4-3-0 record and with a lot of positive vibes heading into the preseason.
Buffalo’s newest acquisitions were playing to the caliber the organization had hoped to see heading into the 2015-16 season.
Evander Kane finished his preseason with a team high in goals with four in his four games played. Kane also led the Sabres in shots on goal with 16, and also averaged the most ice-time of any forward with 20:31. More importantly, Kane played with an edge to his game while still producing on the offensive side of the ice. Kane had 20 hits, and also played a lot of time on the top special teams units.
As for Ryan O’Reilly, he was also impressive this preseason with a goal and three assists in his four games played. Unlike Kane, O’Reilly was making more plays with the puck to create chances rather than shooting the puck on net as he only registered five shots on goal. O’Reilly did average the most ice-time of all the centers on the depth chart with 20:27 of average ice-time per game. O’Reilly was also one of the most active players on the special team units this preseason playing alongside Kane on the powerplay and penalty kill. More importantly, O’Reilly finished the preseason going 50.6-percent on his face-offs, which was best on the roster.
And who could not notice the play of Jack Eichel this preseason? The 18-year old, second overall pick at the NHL Draft this year finished the 2015 preseason as the team’s leading scorer with six points in four games. Eichel’s both goals came while the Sabres were shorthanded, and both goals were the eventual game-winning goals in each game. Eichel also had four assists while spending some time as the top line center and second line center. Eichel was active on both sides of the ice, putting the puck on net 10 times this preseason, and also spending some time on the top powerplay unit and the penalty kill.
On the defensive side of the puck, Cody Franson was a busy work horse in his five games in the preseason. Franson was second on the team in average ice-time per game with 22:09. Franson was also busy with seeing a ton of time on the powerplay, and even some time on the penalty kill. Franson finished the preseason with just two assists, but led the defense with 12 shots on goal and lead everyone on the Sabres with a plus-12 rating. Franson got off to a rough start in terms of Corsi, however he rebounded nicely and finished the preseason with a plus-6 Corsi rating. Franson was one of only three players (Sam Reinhart and Jake McCabe the others) to play five games this preseason.
Not only did the newest players look impressive, but some of the returning cast of players looked poised to do some good things come the regular season.
Tyler Ennis should be excited for the cast of players he is expected to play with on the top line. Ennis looked as though he had an extra step to his game, and he looked electric in his four games. The game of the preseason for him was the game against the Senators in Ottawa when he scored a hat-trick and added an assist to cap off a four point evening. Ennis has been paired with Evander Kane for all of the preseason, and has played with both O’Reilly and Eichel at center. Ennis only had another assist to finish the preseason with five points, but had 10 shots on goal and averaged 19:59 of total ice-time.
19-year old Sam Reinhart came into development camp and training camp determined to make an impact at the NHL level to start the 2015-16 season. He came in skating stronger and looking physically stronger on the ice, and it has been seen at the NHL level this preseason. Reinhart finished the preseason with five assists in five games played, and spent time at center and on both sides of the wing. At center, Reinhart was 62.5-percent on his face-offs in two games played at center. Reinhart also had eight shots on goal and averaged 15:36 of total ice-time in his five games.
One player whom many did not expect to be a top-six forward for the 2015-16 season was Sabres captain, Brian Gionta. After four preseason games, Gionta could very well be playing as a top-six forward to begin the season. The 36-year old winger won the battles, and was efficient in his four games played by scoring a goal, adding three assists, registering nine shots on goal, and averaging 17:26 of total ice-time.
All together, the Sabres finished the preseason with 26 goals scored and 67 total points in seven games. The team also finished the preseason with 196 total shots on goal, five powerplay goals, and five shorthanded goals (all in the first five games).
However, there have been some causes for concern for the upcoming Sabres season that was evident in the preseason.
The first concern is the amount of injuries that the defensive group has faced this preseason.
Rasmus Ristolainen missed the first four games of the preseason with a upper-body injury, but certainly did not look himself in the final three games he played. Ristolainen did lead the team with an average 23:42 of total ice-time and had eight shots on goal, but he went pointless, was a minus-5, and had a minus-26 Corsi rating in his three games. Ristolainen looked weak on his feet and did not look physically fit as we have seen him in the past. A nice break before Thursday should help Ristolainen, but his lack of physical stature should be concerning.
Zach Bogosian is another defenseman who is hurt, and he is not expected to be ready come Thursday. Bogosian did not play in one game this preseason due to a nagging lower-body injury, and is currently listed at week-to-week.
Another defenseman that has not seen any action during the preseason is Bobby Sanguinetti. The offseason acquisition from the Vancouver Canucks organization has not even practiced at all in training camp due to a lower-body injury. His timetable for his return is unknown at this time.
Josh Gorges was banged up as well this preseason, but managed to play one game against the Senators in the second game of the preseason. Gorges was held pointless in the game, and was a minus-1 in 18:09 of total ice-time. Gorges has been at practice skating with his teammates, and is expected to be ready for the season opener.
Perhaps the biggest surprise this training camp has been the play of 18-year old, second rounder in this year’s draft, Brendan Guhle. Guhle was playing some very good hockey before suffering an upper-body injury against the Toronto Maple Leafs in the fifth preseason game. In his four games played, Guhle had two assists and seven shots on goal. Guhle could get a short NHL stint if the Sabres see it worthy to him, however he may not even be ready for the first game of the year. If he is healthy, he may get sent back to his junior club, the Prince Albert Raiders of the Western Hockey League.
Another concern for the Sabres going into the regular season is the play of the goaltenders in the net.
In four games started this preseason, Robin Lehner has struggled mightily at times in the goal crease. Lehner went 1-2-0 in the preseason with a 3.32 goals-against average and a dreadful .884 save-percentage. Lehner did have a shutout against the Maple Leafs at home, but has looked very shaky at times in the other games. Lehner was acquired at the NHL Draft to be the starting goaltender the Sabres have looked for since Ryan Miller was traded back in February of 2014. If Lehner continues his struggles into the regular season, it could make a rough start to the Sabres season.
However, Chad Johnson has not done anything in net to give people confidence in the goaltenders. Johnson went 1-1-0 in the preseason in three games with a 4.50 goals-against average and a .871 save-percentage. Johnson was acquired last season at the NHL Trade Deadline, but did not see any game action after that due to an injury. This is the first good look at Johnson since being acquired by the Sabres, and he has to be better in net when he is called upon.
With the preseason finally over, and the regular season just days away, the Sabres still have some roster moves to make to get the roster below the 23-man limit. Here is what the roster could look like for Thursday night’s game against the Senators:
Evander Kane – Ryan O’Reilly – Tyler Ennis
Matt Moulson – Jack Eichel – Brian Gionta
Zemgus Girgensons – Johan Larsson – Sam Reinhart
Nick Deslauriers – David Legwand – Marcus Foligno
Jamie McGinn, Cody McCormick (injured)
Josh Gorges – Rasmus Ristolainen
Carlo Colaiacovo – Mark Pysyk
Mike Weber – Cody Franson
Matt Donovan, Brendan Guhle (injured), Zach Bogosian (injured)
Robin Lehner – Chad Johnson
Linus Ullmark (injured)
At forward, after the top two lines, it is a battle for a roster spot on the third line between Girgensons, Larsson, McGinn, and Reinhart. All four player have played well this preseason, but there can only be 12 starting forwards.
In four preseason games, Girgensons finished with two goals and two assists, while registering eight shots in 16:42 of average ice-time.
Larsson had a goal, an assist, six shots and was 48.1-percent on his faceoffs in four games this preseason. Larsson also averaged more ice-time than Girgensons with 16:54 of average ice-time.
As for McGinn, he had two goals and an assist with eight shots in 14:51 of total ice-time in four games.
With Reinhart looking NHL ready, and Larsson looking ready to step up his game, it comes down to Girgensons and McGinn to battle for the final roster spot.
Both players could fill in for the left wing position, but McGinn is more of a natural left winger than Girgensons. It will be a tough decision for Sabres head coach Dan Bylsma, but Girgensons would probably be the favored player to insert into the lineup.
On defense, with Bogosian injured, the team will have to keep another player or two on defense until Bogosian is ready.
Guhle could be ready for the season opener, but returned to practice Sunday sporting a red, non-contact jersey. If Guhle is ready, he could play the opener and get his chance at a nine-game tryout.
If Guhle cannot go, then Carlo Colaiacovo would take the left side with Mark Pysyk on the right.
As the other defenseman sticking with the team, it would come down to Matt Donovan and Jake McCabe for the final spot. Both players have NHL experience, but the Sabres may want to send McCabe to the AHL to get some more time with the Amerks. Donovan would likely stay with the Sabres for now.
In net, Lehner will start, Johnson will backup, no conflict there.
With the preseason over, and the roster all projected out, what can we expect out of the Sabres for the 2015-16 season?
The schedule opens up with a three-game home-stand, followed by another three-game home-stand after a two-game road trip to the Sunshine State. In October, seven of the eleven games are in the confines of the First Niagara Center.
The Sabres will also have seven games at home in the month of November, with another three-game home-stand later in the month. The Sabres take its first Western Conference road trip with meetings with the St. Louis Blues and the Dallas Stars.
The Sabres have a split of home and away games in the month of December.
The Sabres travel to Edmonton to take on the Oilers on Sunday December 6. This is the first matchup between the top two picks of the 2015 NHL Draft with Connor McDavid hosting Jack Eichel and the Sabres. That game is the first of three games out west with trips to Vancouver and Calgary following Edmonton.
Also in December, the Sabres have another three-game home-stand, with the final game against the defending Stanley Cup Champions in the Chicago Blackhawks.
The final game of the 2015 calendar year comes on New Year’s Eve when the New York Islanders pay the Sabres a visit.
The Sabres begin the 2016 calendar year with two games at home with the Detroit Red Wings and Florida Panthers coming to town. Then it is off to the west again with a three game road trip with the Blackhawks, Minnesota Wild, and Winnipeg Jets. Buffalo spends most of the month on the road with seven of the team’s 12 games away from Buffalo.
Same story for the month of February with eight of the team’s 13 games will be on the road. The team takes its final trip out west at the end of February with a three game road trip along the California coast.
To open up the month of March, it is round two between McDavid and Eichel with the Sabres hosting the Oilers as part of the first of two three-game home-stands in March.
Finally in April, three of the four games are on the road with the Sabres closing the season in Brooklyn against the Islanders.
How will the Sabres do in the standings?
It is fair to say that the Sabres could have a 30-point increase in the standings from where the team finished last season.
After projecting the Buffalo 2015-16 season, the Sabres will finish with a 38-32-12 record and 88 points.
The questions on defense and in net will certainly have an impact on the season’s turnout, but to improve from 54 points in 2014-15 to 88 points is an incredible step in the right direction.
The Sabres could very well be in playoff contention come the month of March, but the team will finish outside of the playoff picture in the end. Buffalo will finish sixth in the Atlantic Division, and will end up picking ninth in the 2016 NHL Draft (that is without the draft lottery).
What else could we expect to see with this Sabres team over the course of the season?
Expect to see the top line of Kane, O’Reilly, and Ennis to be one of the most productive lines in the NHL this season, and heading into next season. We could see Kane, and possibly Ennis, score north of 30 goals this season with Ryan O’Reilly possibly adding another 15 to 20 goals.
As for Eichel, he will be in contention for the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s Rookie of the Year with McDavid in the running with him. It will be a neck and neck race for the Calder Trophy right up until game 82 of the season for the two young superstars.
How about Reinhart? Well he could very well be in the running for the Calder Trophy as well. If Reinhart finishes the season between 30 and 40 points, it would be a successful year for the 19-year old forward.
Players like Moulson and Gionta could see an improvement in their point totals this season, especially if they play on a line with a play making forward like Eichel.
Larsson is another forward who we hope to see have a breakout year with the Sabres. Larsson will have to establish himself as an efficient shut down center who can be reliable on both ends of the ice. If Larsson can be stronger on his defensive game, while posting 20 to 30 points, Larsson could earn himself a nice seven-figure bridge contract at the end of the season.
On defense, we hope to see Ristolainen begin to flourish into the two-way defensive threat he is projected to be. First off, we hope that he is healthy enough to play to his full capabilities in the beginning stretch. As the season goes on, we hope Ristolainen has a similar year that Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman, Victor Hedman had. Ristolainen is only 20-years old, but if he has a season similar to Hedman with 30 to 40 points, he could be up for a huge pay-day come the end of the season.
As for a guy like Pysyk, he is ready for the lime-light of the NHL. Many had argued that he was ready last season, but this year is a chance for Pysyk to prove that he can be a solid two-way defenseman behind Ristolainen. We hope to see Pysyk be continue to skate well, move the puck well, and make smart plays on the ice. We hope to see Pysyk register anywhere between 20-30 points on the season playing on the second defensive unit.
And as for Lehner in net, we hope that he can firmly establish himself as a starting goaltender in the NHL. We hope that Lehner can remain healthy all year long, and also be able to fix his positioning issues and crease presence as the season rolls along. If Lehner can get the Sabres 30 wins this season, the team could be in a comfortable position in net for the next couple seasons.
Even though the Sabres may not make the playoffs, the 2015-16 season could be the most anticipated season since the 2006-07 season when the Sabres won the President’s Trophy as the team with the best record in the NHL.
Over the course of the next three to four years, we hope to see this Sabres team become a dominant, powerhouse team in the NHL that can contend for the Stanley Cup every single season. With players like O’Reilly, Kane, Ennis, and Eichel, and with the expected rise of players like Reinhart, Pysyk, and Ristolainen, this team should be right up there with the best of the best teams in the NHL in that time frame.
For now, just give this team time and enjoy the ride that will be the 2015-16 Sabres season.
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