The Buffalo Sabres 2015-16 season should look drastically different from anything Buffalonians have seen since...2005? 1995? 1975? However far back you want to take it, this season marks the beginning of an exciting new era in Sabres hockey, one based on speed, depth, youth, and (mercifully, finally) talent.
But just how well this Sabres evolution can perform this year will hinge on a few key questions, mostly focused on the team's recent acquisitions in the draft, through trades, and in free agency. Without further ado, let's take a look at three of the biggest questions facing the Buffalo Sabres this season.
1. Can Jack Eichel possibly live up to the hype?
Our SBNation NHL Preview (go check it out!) featured this great line about Eichel from Stephanie Delio - "We've really sold ourselves on this Eichel kid winning the Sabres a Stanley Cup this season and possibly even bringing the Buffalo Bills a Super Bowl win (because he's just that good)". Sabres fans have been hoping/dreaming/foaming at the mouth for Jack Eichel since this time last season, and now that he's finally here, what should we expect from him?
If the preseason is any indication, this kid is gonna make waves in this league, and he's going to make them soon.
Jack Eichel's stat line after 3 preseason games: 5 pts (2G+3A) +5 8 shots on goal 2 PIMs 21/42 on faceoffs (50%) 17:35 avg TOI— Buffalo Sabres Stats (@SabresStats) September 30, 2015
Impressive, right? Did we mention that one of those goals was a shorthanded beauty that showed his killer speed, great sense of timing, and lightning-fast release? No? Well feel free to watch it here courtesy of the NHL's Twitter feed:
Look, I'm not saying that Eichel will be an instant superstar right off the bat, or that he's better than Connor McDavid (though he's arguably a better fit for the Buffalo region thanks to his personality, nationality, and draft position) but he will be an impact player for the Sabres this season, and will show flashes of the talent that will one day help him become that American superstar a la Mike Modano that many people think he can be.
He should get plenty of chances to play in the top-six and on the powerplay, and if I had to offer a prediction for this season, I could see something like 22-38-60 being within reach in year one. Regardless of his final stat line, Eichel will bring something to Buffalo that Western New Yorkers haven't seen since Dominik Hasek left and Jim Kelly retired - a true superstar player.
2. Which version of Robin Lehner will the Sabres get this season?
Sabres GM Tim Murray made a number of bold trades this past season, but perhaps none was so bold as to trade a first round pick in a loaded 2015 draft to Ottawa from yet-unproven goaltender Robin Lehner. Murray knows Lehner well from their time together in Ottawa, and trusts that the 6'4'' Swede can grow into the #1 goalie that the Sabres are still lacking.
However, Lehner will need to show significant improvement over his last two seasons to even come close to claiming the Sabres crease as his own. In each of his last two season, Lehner has posted a GAA over 3.00, and last season his save percentage was a sub-par .905. His campaign last year was shortened thanks to a concussion and the emergence of the Hamburglar late in the season, and Lehner has been slowly playing his way back into shape this preseason.
After a bit of a rocky start, the young netminder posted a shutout of the Leafs this week and brought hope to a fanbase that scares easily when it comes to bad goalies - after the past two seasons, you'll pardon our skittishness. And at just 24 years old, Lehner is still in the beginnings of his professional career. If he can get back to the form he showed from 2011-13, where his save percentage hovered around .935, then the Sabres can feel confident they've found their #1 goaltender for the next decade. If not, they won't give up on Lehner, but it will certainly dampen the talk of a possibly playoff push in Buffalo.
3. Just how much better can the Sabres be this season?
Jack Eichel, Sam Reinhart, Ryan O'Reilly, Evander Kane, Cody Franson, Jamie McGinn, Robin Lehner, and Mark Pysyk. These players range from above-average to superstar status in the NHL, and none of them played (a significant role) for the Sabres last season. Add in the continued growth of hopeful studs like Rasmus Ristolainen and Latvian pop sensation Zemgus Girgensons, and the replacement of former mayor of Latvia Teds Nolans with former Cup-winner Dan Bylsma, and there's no doubt that the Sabres will be much improved this season.
But will it be enough to make the playoffs?
That will be a tall order, but not impossible. The Sabres finished with 54 points last season, a mere 44 behind 8th place Boston. If we can assume that this year will show a bit more parity in the league thanks to the McEichel tanking race being over, let's say that 94 points puts you in decent shape to make the playoffs. Can the Sabres be 40 points better than last season? Can they win 20 games more than last season's 23-51-8 record?
I believe that it's possible, though I wouldn't necessarily predict it. 43-31-8 is almost exactly the same as Calgary's record last season, a team I think the Sabres could emulate this year. But with the league's new playoff format, the top three teams in each division make the dance, and with a fairly weak Atlantic Division behind Tampa Bay and Montreal, the Sabres could sneak into 3rd with some help. The most likely outcome is, I think, to see the Sabres chasing the playoffs all year only to fall short at the end with something like 85 points, which would still be a massive improvement.