October review: What we've learned about the 2015-16 Sabres
The first month of the season is in the bag. What do we know about the Sabres at this point?
The 2015-16 version of the Buffalo Sabres started the year with so many questions. New players, new coaches, and a new organizational mission meant that we had much less of an idea of what to expect this year than other, more established teams. So with the first month of the season in the bag, and the Sabres sitting at 5-7, what have we learned so far?
Jack Eichel is the real deal
Yes, he was drafted #2 overall. Yes, he came in with a ton of hype. But until you see it on the ice at the NHL level, there will always be a tiny bit of doubt that a rookie won't live up to the expectations. Well, through his first twelve games, I think we can all agree that Eichel has proven that he can handle the NHL, and even dominate at times at just 19 years old.
While he's still waiting for his first assist (and we're still waiting for the first JACK EICHEL IS A SELFISH JERK column) Eichel's first four goals have all been high-skill efforts that have turned defenders and goalies inside out. He's playing big minutes, taking important faceoffs, and while there are certainly aspects of his game that can and will get better, we've already been given a glimpse of his generational talent, and boy is it fun to watch.
More shots = good
File this under the "duh" category, but the Sabres sharp rise up the standings over the past few weeks has correlated with a sharp rise in their possession statistics. The Sabres are taking far more shots and allowing far fewer than last year, which has translated to more wins and more competitive losses. After posting two of the worst Corsi numbers of all time over the past two seasons, the Sabres are in the top half of the league in possession stats this year. Chalk that improvement up to both an improved roster and Dan Bylsma's new system.
Ryan O'Reilly is a beast
When the Sabres traded Nikita Zadorov, Mikhal Grigorenko, JT Compher and a draft pick for Ryan O'Reilly and Jamie McGinn, many fans cried that the price was too high for a complementary player. Here we are 12 games into the season, and O'Reilly is seventh in the NHL with 13 points. He's won 59.3% of his faceoffs (a better percentage than guys named Toews, Crosby, and Bergeron) and has been the first man on the ice on both the power play and penalty kill.
O'Reilly has done it all and done it all very well. While this pace may not continue, and while its certainly too early to call the trade analysis finished, O'Reilly has been not only Buffalo's best player, but one of the best in the entire NHL this season.
The defense is completely different in both personnel and ability
Last year's Sabres team was full of slow, plodding defenseman who struggled to complete passes or get shots through from the point. This year's group, led by Rasmus Ristolainen, Mark Pysyk, and Jake McCabe - three young, smart, mobile defensemen - are jump-starting the offense with quick, accurate breakout passes, getting up and down the ice with speed, and growing together. The addition of Cody Franson has provided another blueliner whose passing is better than anything we saw with last year's dumpster divers.
Only Josh Gorges and Mike Weber are relics of the old, slow, one-sided defender that's fallen out of favor with many NHL teams over the past decade, and once Zach Bogosian returns from injury, one of those guys will head to the bench. The Sabres blueline was one of the biggest questions coming in to the season, but so far they're proving that things are certainly different than last year, and trending in the right direction.
Ullmark has earned his shot
The Sabres found their goalie of the future this offseason, or so they thought until Robin Lehner went down with an injury that will keep him out for another few weeks. Enter Linus Ullmark, another candidate for goalie of the future, but one tat we though was years away.
Instead, Ullmark has played three games and looked good in two of them, helping the Sabres reel off their first back-to-back wins of the season. He's earned the right to be named the Sabres starter of the moment over the struggling Chad Johnson, and if he continues to play this well, could give the Sabres some pause to hand the job right back to Lehner.
Playing with better players makes everyone look better
This might be another obvious point, but one I think we all need to be reminded of every now and then. Has anyone else thought that guys like Marcus Foligno, Nicolas Deslauriers, Johan Larsson, and Matt Moulson have looked better this season? Don't chalk it up to coincidence, chalk it up to playing with Eichel, O'Reilly, Evander Kane, and Cody Franson rather than guys who should be in the AHL. A rising tide lifts all boats, as they say, and the rise of the Sabres has benefited plenty of rookies and veterans alike this season.
What did you think of the first month of the Sabres season? Did we miss anything big from October? Sound off in the comments.