How Will We Do This Year?
By Kevin Sylvester
As I approached the checkpoint desk at Buffalo Niagara International Airport, the TSA agent asked me “How are we going to do this year?”. I asked if he was talking about the Bills or Sabres? He said Sabres, you’re the Sabres guy. I used to be the Sabres guy (11 years with the organization) and am still flattered by the all of the fans that tell me they enjoyed my work on the team’s broadcasts. I enjoyed it too. Some people think I still host the broadcasts. I don’t tell them its been five years because I know what they really mean. They are selectively remembering the good times, when the Sabres were a playoff team. Believe it or not, it’s been six years since the Sabres appeared in the NHL Playoffs. That’s still nearly one third of the Bills drought, but sobering nonetheless.
Back to the TSA agent’s question, “how are we going to do this year?” My answer was that the team will be a wildcard team. It was easy to say, and I think easy to believe. This team has improved it’s defense by acquiring Marco Scandella. You can say Victor Antipin and Nathan Beaulieu will help too, but my experience tells me not to get too excited, yet. Scandella is a horse that has averaged nearly 20:00 minutes of ice time per game (19:49 for the sticklers). I know Josh Gorges and Zach Bogosian are coming off of poor campaigns, and have been plagued by injuries, but I trust that Phil Housley knows how to handle those two. Less ice time for both players may lead to more quality play.
The forwards are a talented bunch, led by Jack Eichel and Evander Kane. Ryan O’Reilly should continue to bring his high quality overall game, and a healthy return of Kyle Okposo will be good news. This is a big year for Sam Reinhart. The former 2nd overall draft pick amassed 47 points last season with 17 goals and 30 assists. He needs to produce more goals at even strength, as 9 of his 17 goals came on the power play. That’s good, but this team needs help scoring 5 on 5, and I think he can be a catalyst in that area.
There will be opportunity at forward with the trade of Marcus Foligno and Tyler Ennis to Minnesota. Jason Pominville returned to town in that trade, but is not nearly the player you remember when he was traded to Minnesota in 2013. However, no need to worry, the former captain will put in an honest effort every time he hits the ice. The same can be said for Matt Moulson. He has been a disappointment since signing a huge free agent contract to return to Buffalo in 2014 (after being traded to Minnesota to finish that season). Moulson has scored 35 goals in 239 games under the current contract. Don’t expect more than 15 from him, but do expect an honest effort. While on veteran forwards, Benoit Pouliot is a great skater, but don’t expect a ton of production from him.
The opportunity exists for Justin Bailey, Nick Baptiste, and old man Zemgus Girgensons. Girgensons is not really old, but it seems that way when you realize he has been on the team through the lean years. When I speak of opportunity, I mean in terms of earning a roster spot and ice time. Girgensons can earn more, and Bailey has an NHL body with some scoring touch (23 in Rochester last year). Speaking of that, Baptiste is a goal scorer, potting 25 in 59 games with the Americans. Sabres 2016 first round selection Alexander Nylander deserves a mention here too. The left-winger has a shot if he can prove he belongs on one of the top two lines, but a 10 goal season last year in Rochester indicates he probably needs more time in the AHL.
The biggest reason I think this team will be a wildcard team is the big goaltender, Robin Lehner. The Swede re-signed for one year at a reasonable price of $4 million bucks. He’s entering the prime of his career at 26 years old, is in great shape, and will be motivated to play great for his next contract. That contract could be huge if he can improve on his numbers from last season, which were not bad considering he face the third most shots in the NHL. His save % was .920, needing a slight improvement to .923 to crack the top 10. With a better defense, from both the forwards and blue line, shots faced should drop. That should result in a better save percentage and more wins (23 last season) for Lehner. I love his passion, and look for him to have his best season yet.
Phil Housley has a lot to prove in his first year behind the bench. Not to the me or the fans, but to his roster. He has to bring structure, leadership, and simpler way of playing. Talk to anyone close to the skaters last year, and they will tell you the players hated the system, the meetings, and the overall coaching style. It showed on the ice. Housley has to make it different, and will. He’s a Hall of Fame player that was credited with turning the Predators defense into the slick unit that thrust Nashville into the Stanley Cup Finals in June. Sabres fans will settle for a wild card berth to start.