The 2014-15 NHL season is here and as the puck is set to drop at First Niagara Center, a number of questions surround the Buffalo Sabres.
Are they really trying to finish last in order to draft Connor McDavid? Will the goaltending hold up? How long will Sam Reinhart be kept up? Did they improve enough – or maybe too much – in the offseason to move out of the league’s basement?
All of the questions work off of last year’s 30th place finish that eventually led Tim Murray to the selection of Sam Reinhart at the 2014 Draft. The Sabres were historically bad in 2013-14, scoring the fewest goals in the league by a wide margin, trading away the fact of their franchise and even working through an ugly internal divorce only weeks after bringing in a new management team.
Whether you’re talking about the on-ice product, the hockey department or even the Twitter account, the 13-14 season was one to forget for the Sabres.
Things started turning around once Ted Nolan and Tim Murray were brought on. Nolan brought about a noticeable change in attitude from the players while Murray was the hard lining general manager that fans had pined for. Murray didn’t take long to make his presence felt, shipping off Ryan Miller, Steve Ott and Matt Moulson at the trade deadline and bringing back an extra 2015 first round pick along with a host of additional assets.
The next stage of the rebuild is now on his doorstep as Moulson is back on a five-year deal, Brian Gionta is back in Western New York for three seasons and Josh Gorges spurned a move to Toronto and waived his no-trade clause to come to Buffalo. Chris Stewart is healthy and Reinhart will play at least nine games in Buffalo before returning to junior. Murray also signed Andrej Meszaros to give his blueline even more depth this season.
But where does this leave the mission to draft a generational talent in this year’s draft? It might not have made as big of an impact as some think.
The Sabres are no doubt a better team on paper than they were last season. That improvement will be reflected on the ice as well. However, they are now without a goaltender in Ryan Miller who anchored the team with goaltending that was five percentage points above league average. That’s nothing to scoff at, and while Jhonas Enroth and Michal Neuvirth are more than capable NHL goaltenders, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see a slight decrease in the department.
Another factor to consider is the sheer amount of ground the Sabres need to make up compared with the rest of the league. They were a full 14 points worse than the 29th place Florida Panthers and scored 39 fewer goals than those same Panthers. While the offseason moves Murray made were strong, I’m not sure if they’ll account for seven more wins and 40 goals.
What is undoubtedly true is the improvement the Sabres have undergone on the blueline. Tyler Myers will likely pair with Gorges to start the year while Meszaros will pair up with Buffalo’s blue chip prospect, Rasmus Ristolainen. The bottom pair will likely be some combination of a possession savvy Mark Pysyk, Andre Benoit and Mike Weber. Compared to last year’s top six which prominently featured Weber, Jamie McBain and Henrik Tallinder, the Sabres should see a great deal of improvement from this unit.
Gorges isn’t truly a top pairing defenseman, but he should maintain the steady veteran presence that has allowed Myers to thrive in certain situations. Putting Myers in a situation to succeed is an important factor for the season as there are still a few steps left before he can be considered and elite defenseman. Ristolainen will be an interesting case as he’ll get a full dose of NHL action this season. He showed well in his professional debut last year but didn’t come out of his shell until he spent a lengthy stint in Rochester. Now he’ll be playing a top-four role alongside another NHL veteran who should provide some stability as he continues to blossom.
The rest of the defensive corps is going to be interchangeable. Pysyk is a victim of circumstance in some ways as his skill set certainly lends itself well to a more prominent role. However, continuing to give the former first round pick minutes is the true key for the young defenseman. Weber and Benoit will likely be the primary pair of rotational players depending on the lineup Ted Nolan is looking for on a night-to-night basis. Keep an eye out for Jake McCabe and Tyson Strachan to work in as well depending on injuries or even merit-based promotions. Nikita Zadorov is in Buffalo for the start of the year, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see him return to London after nine games.
Up front the Sabres boast some promising forward lines. Moulson has shown tremendous chemistry with Tyler Ennis and Drew Stafford and that trio will be expected to carry the load offensively. Reinhart is starting the year between Cody Hodgson and Brian Gionta but once his nine-game audition is over any number of players could step into that role; including Mikhail Grigorenko.
Zemgus Girgensons could also fill in for Reinhart once he’s set back but he’ll start the year on a very heavy line, centering Marcus Foligno and Chris Stewart. That line has the potential to play a strong role in Buffalo’s offensive attack and Girgensons offensive progression playing in a slightly more beneficial role is worth tracking.
Buffalo’s fourth line will be a combination of a number of names that’s likely to change on a near weekly basis. Brian Flynn, Torrey Mitchell, Cody McCormick and Nicolas Deslauriers are the four most likely to battle for playing time but once Patrick Kaleta and Johan Larsson are healthy, things could change quite quickly.
Without doubt, the Sabres are a better team today than they were at any point last season. But is a full year of Moulson coupled with the addition of Stewart and Gionta enough to make up that 40-goal deficit from last year? In turn, is the duo of Enroth and Neuvirth enough to at least keep the team’s goals against and save percentage at the same level or better? Or perhaps will the two factors negate one another?
I expect Sabres fans will have a pretty good idea of where their team stands once the calendar hits November. The team is certainly going to be better. But will they be good enough to climb out of the basement