The Buffalo Sabres enter their 2016 season with legitimate playoff expectations for the first time in a long time. And they rightfully should - a bevy of young talent that should only get better along with the addition of Kyle Okposo and Dimitry Kulikov in the offseason adds up to a skilled, exciting team that needs to prove to the rest of the league that they’re ready to take the next step.
We believe that these three questions will determine more than anything else the fate of the Buffalo Sabres in the 2016-17 NHL season.
1 - Can goaltender Robin Lehner live up to the organization’s lofty expectations?
The biggest question facing the Sabres this year is in net, thanks to goaltender Robin Lehner’s injury history and the price it took to acquire him from the Ottawa Senators.
The Sabres dealt the #21 overall pick in the 2015 draft for Lehner (and David Legwand!) expecting him to emerge in the coming season as a true #1 goaltender. Instead, Lehner, who was coming off of a concussion the previous year, injured his ankle in the season opener and missed much of the 2015-16 campaign.
When he was healthy last season, Lehner played well, posting a .924 save percentage in 21 games. He’s been in Buffalo all summer working out and has dropped somewhere between 30-40 pounds, which should make him much more nimble in the crease. Whether he can still handle the rigors of being an NHL starter remains to be seen, but if the Sabres can get top-15 goaltending and a healthy season from the 6’5’’ 25-year old, it will go a long way toward legitimizing them as a playoff contender.
Should Lehner struggle or get hurt again, the underwhelming Anders Nilsson is the only real option, as all the Sabres ‘tending prospects are a year or more away (Note: This is to be taken very literally) from being ready for the NHL. Here’s hoping ol’ crazy-eyes and his offseason workout program can maintain a high level of play all year.
2 - Will Jack Eichel, Sam Reinhart, and Rasmus Ristolainen all take the next step toward stardom?
The Sabres have one of the most promising young trios in the game, with future #1 center Eichel, future #1 winger Reinhart, and
future right-now #1 defenseman Ristolainen all playing in 2016 at age 21 or younger. Last year, these three all made a significant impact on the Sabres season, and in this upcoming year, the team will need each of them to take the next step toward true stardom in order to compete.
The Sabres last season had a handful of very nice players on their roster, but no true superstars. Every team would love to have a Ryan O’Reilly, or a promising youngster like Jake McCabe, and Evander Kane’s athleticism can’t be denied, if you can stomach everything that goes along with it.
But the Sabres lacked a true capital-S Star (go away, Dallas, we still hate you) to strike fear into the hearts of their opponents, and each of these players have the potential to be just that.
The Sabres don’t need Eichel to be someday compared to John Tavares, they need him to become John Tavares. Same with Reinhart and Rasmus Ristolainen and their All-Star comparables. Guys who take over games and force their opponents to game plan around them. That will elevate their linemates and defensive partners, and will help create more space for Buffalo’s other top lines in the process.
Plus, it’d be nice to get someone in the All-Star game without having to bribe the entire country of Latvia.
3- What kind of contribution will the Sabres get from the bottom half of their roster?
Last season, the Sabres were a very top-heavy team, led on offense by players like Ryan O’Reilly, Eichel, Reinhart, and Kane. Other players expected to contribute in significant ways, like Tyler Ennis, Matt Moulson, and Zemgus Girgensons were basically invisible for most or all of the season.
As we saw in last spring’s playoffs, the best teams in the NHL are the ones with depth at least through their top nine, and with at least two very solid defensive pairings. The Sabres don’t just need improvement from their young stars, they need players like Ennis and Moulson to rebound and give them some sort of meaningful contribution so that the entire season isn’t riding on the shoulders of three or four guys.
In the same vein, the Sabres need their bottom four defensemen to be more reliable this season. Jake McCabe is a burgeoning stud, but solid years from Zach Bogosian, Cody Franson, and one last good run from Josh Gorges will be essential to keeping players like Ristolainen fresh for an entire season. Anders Nilsson will also need to step his game up in net as the team’s backup.
In short, if the Sabres continue to be as top-heavy as they were last year, they’ll have a much lower margin of error for making the playoffs as they will if they can get some nice bounce-back years from a handful of high-priced veterans.