With the start of the regular season less than a week away, we continue to look at each team’s offseason and preview the upcoming year. Today, we focus on the Buffalo Sabres.
Last Season: 35-36-11 record (81 points), 7th in the Atlantic Division.
Remaining Cap Space: $7.6MM per CapFriendly
[Related: Sabres Depth Chart from Roster Resource]
Players To Watch: C Jack Eichel – Last year’s 2nd overall draft pick lived up to expectations by potting 24G and 32A in 81 games. The Sabres are hoping that Eichel does not suffer from the dreaded sophomore jinx, but the young center’s World Cup performance has to make Buffalo nervous. While he managed 1G and 1A in three games, he did not display the elite playmaking he was known for last year. He’ll be expected to carry a bigger load this season, and those expectations could have a detrimental effect on a young player.
Buffalo will need Eichel to improve upon his rookie season if they hope to challenge for a playoff spot this season. He’ll most likely center the second line as Ryan O’Reilly will take first line duties. As the 2nd overall pick, Eichel will also be constantly compared to Connor McDavid, the same way former Sabres David Legwand was compared to Vincent Lecavalier throughout his career. He’ll have to handle more scrutiny than any other Sabre, despite his young age.
RW Kyle Okposo – Kyle Okposo was the Sabres’ prize free agent signing this summer, inking a seven-year, $6MM a year contract. This is an opportunity for Okposo to escape John Tavares’s shadow, and silence critics who consider him solely a beneficiary of Tavares’s skill. Last year Okposo racked up 22G and 42A in 79 games, and another 2G and 6A in 11 playoff games. He’s scored more than 50 points in each of the last three years, so he should produce even if he doesn’t wow. Playing with Eichel, O’Reilly, and Evander Kane, however, may be enough to treat fans to some world-class highlights.
Key Storyline: The Buffalo Sabres are poised to break free from their rebuild and reap the benefits of prospect development. Last season saw a 27 point jump in the standings, a welcome sign after years of bottom-dwelling. Despite the improvement, however, the Sabres face the toughest part of any rebuild: the shift to a competitive team. This next step stymies rebuilding teams all the time because drafting elite talent with lottery picks is easy—constructing a competitive cap-compliant team and surrounding them with skilled veterans is much more difficult.
A playoff spot may not be attainable yet, but they have to be in the mix until the end for this upcoming season to feel like progress. Anything less would be a setback. Luckily, the Sabres have made strides to improve. They brought in the hottest free agent this year in Kyle Okposo, and traded for an above-average defenseman in Dmitry Kulikov. Couple that with a healthy Robin Lehner and you should see an improved Sabres squad. It may not be enough to challenge in the Atlantic Division, but it will makes things a lot closer than last season.