Jack Eichel Image by: Gregg Forwerck/NHLI via Getty Images
The Sabres have made big changes in the front office and on the blueline, so if they stay healthy, can they be a threat to make some noise in a potentially wide-open Atlantic Division?
A potential deal with Zemgus Girgensons notwithstanding, the Sabres two-year, $4.8-million pact with Nathan Beaulieu on Monday, a deal struck to avoid arbitration with the rearguard, all but put the finishing touches on what has been an awfully busy off-season in Buffalo. So, with almost all the pieces in place, all eyes in Buffalo now shift to whether the Sabres have done enough to turn a disappointing team into one able to compete for a playoff position.
And Buffalo has done quite a bit, to be sure. Since their campaign came to a close in early April, the Sabres have been one of the league’s most active teams, shuffling the deck in almost every regard since failing to make the post-season for the sixth-straight season. And it all started off the ice.
In the days following the season, the axe fell on GM Tim Murray and coach Dan Bylsma, the former somewhat shocking while the latter could have been seen coming with the team’s continued failure over the past two campaigns. In order to fill the vacated roles, the Sabres turned to the Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins and plucked away assistant GM Jason Botterill, then looked to the Stanley Cup runner-up Predators for their new coach, giving now-former Predators’ assistant Phil Housley his first shot at stepping behind the bench.
But it’s the moves made outside of the front office that stand to make the most impact on a Sabres team.
Where Buffalo started was on the blueline, and for obvious reasons. The Sabres surrendered the 19th-most goals in 2016-17 and were one goal against away from falling into the bottom third of the league. Buffalo has worked to address those issues, though, and it started even before Botterill could settle in as the club’s architect.
The first move the Sabres made was courting Victor Antipin, a KHL standout that was drawing serious interest throughout the league, and signing him to a one-year, $925,000 deal. The 24-year-old had previously suited up for Russia at three World Championships, more than holding his own in the international competitions, and the move instantly brought the Sabres one more promising rearguard with which to work. The moves since then to bulk up the blueline have looked fairly savvy, too.
First came the acquisition of Beaulieu from the division rival Montreal Canadiens, a move which brought the Sabres a young, promising rearguard with offensive upside who can slot into the lineup on the second or third pairing, but the follow up move, one to land Marco Scandella from the Wild, is the move that really solidified the defense.
Scandella, 27, had long been considered a trade target, but it was Buffalo who stepped up, shipping Marcus Foligno and Tyler Ennis to Minnesota to land Scandella and former Sabre Jason Pominville. Adding Scandella to the blueline gives the Sabres a bulked up top four that also includes last year’s standout Rasmus Ristolainen, Jake McCabe and Zach Bogosian, with additional options in Beaulieu, Antipin and Josh Gorges.
coming aboard to fill Murray’s spot and Phil Housley, previously an assistant coach with the Stanley Cup finalist Nashville Predators, slotting in behind the bench.
But the Sabres didn’t stop there. After nabbing Beaulieu and Scandella, Buffalo continued to bulk up defensively by adding a smart, two-way forward through free agency in Benoit Pouliot. While he’s coming off of a down year and subsequent buyout in Edmonton, the 30-year-old is a tremendous possession player who can help Buffalo bulk up both in a physical and depth sense on the wing. Then, the Sabres went out and added Jacob Josefson, as well.
Neither Pouliot or Josefsen stand to make great impacts on the offensive end, however, and it’s not as though the Sabres can afford to have a repeat of this past season’s production if they have their sights set on competing for a playoff spot. And while some may look up and down the list of the Sabres’ off-season moves and be underwhelmed by what has been added offensively to a team that finished 24th with 199 goals in 2016-17 — Pominville might be the only 15-goal scorer the team has added — there’s reason to believe this team can have a much more potent offense. That has to start with the team’s health, though.
Just between Kyle Okposo, Evander Kane and Ryan O’Reilly, three of the more capable offensive threats in Buffalo, there was a total of nearly 40 games lost. Okposo was sidelined 16 of the final 18 games between rib injuries and a hospitalization following a concussion, Kane missed 11 games at the start of the season with a rib injury and O’Reilly was sidelined for one five- and one four-game stretch. And losing those three of the team’s top scorers for the equivalent of nearly half a season no doubt took a toll on Buffalo’s attack.
But the most impactful injury was that of Jack Eichel, of course. Before the season could even start, Eichel went down with an ankle injury that cost him 21 games, more than a quarter of the campaign. Even still, Eichel had a career year with 24 goals and 57 points, and that could be a sign that he alone could be the catalyst that propels the Sabres’ offense out of mediocrity.
In nearly every game Eichel played in, he was an impact player, capable of putting points on the board with consistency that few players in the entire league had this past season. While his accomplishments may have been somewhat dwarfed by the fact Connor McDavid, who went No. 1 to Eichel’s No. 2 in the 2015 draft, won the Hart, Lindsay and Art Ross Trophies, it shouldn’t be overlooked that Eichel finished with .93 points per game, the 11th-best rate of any player to suit up in at least 60 games. And maybe that can mean that this coming campaign is Eichel’s chance to drive the Sabres forward, just as McDavid did for the Oilers this past season.
Some may doubt that given the fact Buffalo only increased their points percentage from .452 to .484 when Eichel entered back into the lineup, but the difference he can make with another year under his belt could be enough to put him into the conversation with some of the league’s best offensive talents. If that’s the case, and he becomes a 70-point threat this season, Eichel’s production alone could be worth a few extra points in the standings.
And when adding Eichel’s potential for an even greater breakout season to the defensive improvements and chance to compete in what looks like a rather wide open Atlantic Division, there’s reason to believe that if everything goes right for the Sabres, they could find themselves in the conversation for a post-season spot.
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