The 2017 NHL Season has quickly came upon us. It’s been six full years since the Buffalo Sabres have made the postseason, so let’s outline six things that can get them there in 2018. It’s been a rough go for the organization since the Pegulas took over in 2011, and although the last two years have shown glimpses of hope, it hasn’t been enough to remove them from the basement of the Eastern Conference.
Even with the learning curve that comes with a first year general manager and head coach, this team will still be expected to compete and yes, make the playoffs. Now in an eight season playoff drought, the Carolina Hurricanes are the only team worse off in that department than the Sabres. If Buffalo would like to change that, here are a few things that will need to happen along the way…
1) Phil Housley is the real deal…and players buy in
Phil was one of the best defensemen to ever play the game, and now he comes home to coach in the city that he became a Hall of Fame player in. That’s a lot of pressure, but he helped shape one of the best d-corps in league the last few years in Nashville, and should hopefully garner the respect and attention he deserves from his players. And to that point, this is as much on the players as it is the coach. I don’t agree with how Bylsma was run out of town, but it ultimately contributed to an incredible opportunity for a new coach to take over a solid young roster. In order to even think about competing, there are a number of players who need to mature a bit this year and learn to play much better as a cohesive unit.
2) Playoff Caliber Goaltending
In almost any deep playoff run for any team, a hot goaltender is usually front and center to the success. The last two Buffalo goalies to be in the playoffs were Ryan Miller and Dominik Hasek. While Robin Lehner won’t be required to have the MVP like seasons that those two had, all eyes will be on him this season and he will need to build on the good from last year, while forgetting the bad. Because there was a a ton of both. Too many soft goals and while not always his fault, it seemed Buffalo got scored on a lot in the final 5 minutes of tied games. Combine that with his shootout woes and it points to him having trouble under pressure. Lehner’s contract is set up so that he must prove his worth for a potential payday, and if that motivation can get him to focus and be the elite goalie many projected him to be, the Sabres will be in a very good spot to push for a wildcard in the East.
3) Eichel Explosion
This will be his third year in the league and it’s clearly killing him to watch his peers Connor McDavid, Austin Matthews, and others get into the playoffs while he’s on his parent’s couch in Massachusetts. 24 goals and 57 points in 61 games last year. Certainly respectable numbers but not on par with what you’d expect from a player as highly touted a prospect as him. I completely agree with Jack’s recent quote admitting he had proven “nothing”. His leg injury to begin last season didn’t do him or his team any favors.
I’m looking for Jack to hit the 40 goal mark this year and eclipse 80 points and finally establish himself a top Center in the NHL if he can stay healthy. Only Crosby, Matthews, and Kucherov scored 40 last year, with Tarasenko and Marchand netting 39. If Eichel wants that big contract and to be considered among the elite, he’ll need to score with the best. (For those wondering, McDavid put up 70 assists last year, but “only” 30 goals.”). If Eichel can take his game to that next level, Buffalo should be competitive each and every night.
4) Offense from the Defense
Good teams get scoring from their defensemen, and towards the end of last year you started to see some guys chip in a bit more from back end for the Sabres. I don’t have the exact stat but I remember Buffalo went weeks if not months to begin the season last year without a goal from their D until Ristolainen scored perhaps 20 games in. Botterill has really revamped this defense, and should see some immediate impact by way of some production from Antipan and Beaulieu. And while Marco Scandella isn’t going to light up the score sheet, he should provide some stability and toughness on the blue line. There’s been a lot wrong with the Sabres over the last six years, but quality defensive play seems to have been hard to come by since the glory days of Lydman and Tallinder. Admit it Sabres fans, you miss then. Andrej Sekera, too.
5) Young Forwards Need to Step up.
If the Sabres intend to make some noise this upcoming a season, they’re going to need some of their youngsters to step up and prove their ready to contribute. Now. Nick Baptiste, Justin Bailey, Hudson Fasching and Evan Rodrigues are all expected to step up and play their respective roles. Alexander Nylander appears to still be a year in Rochester away, but should still get a good look with the big club. Not saying any of these guys will have all-star seasons, but with depth players like Ennis, Foligno, Gionta gone, the success and development of these kids will likely tip the scales of Buffalo’s playoff chances.
6) Continue Power Play Dominance
One of the few bright spots for the Sabres last season was there power play. Netting 57 power play goals equated to a 24.5% success rate, good for #1 in the entire NHL. In many cases, their man advantage goals were the only offense the team would put out in a given night. Until this team improves and succeeds in some of the five areas listed above, maintaining their power play expertise will be imperative to their competitiveness. Housley will have his own plays and systems, but he’d be wise to leave well enough alone with the entire first PP unit returning from last year.