For a few years now the Buffalo Sabres have been up for contention as the worst team in the league. The team has six straight seasons without a playoff appearance, along with back to back seasons as the NHL’s worst team in 2013/14 and 2014/15. The Sabres have also been last in their division four out of the last five years. The last time the Sabres have won a playoff series, it was 2007.
The Sabres are looking to make this season a turnaround. During the offseason, the Sabres switched both their general manager and head coach. Now former head coach Dan Blysma was noticeably unsuccessful with this team. There were rumors that the Sabres’ star player Jack Eichel went to the team’s management suggesting Blysma be fired. Tim Murray, the now former GM, was not as noticeably bad at his job as Blysma was, but he made some questionable decisions ultimately deemed as mistakes by owner Terry Pegula.
The team them hired two former Sabres players to fill the two open roles. Jason Botterill was hired away from his job as associate GM of the Pittsburgh Penguins, and former Sabres defenseman and member of the Hockey Hall of Fame Phil Housley will serve as the team’s new head coach.
On the player side, the Sabres improved their roster significantly. One of Buffalo’s biggest issues the past few seasons has been their defense. By acquiring both Nathan Beaulieu and Marco Scandella in June trades, the team received an immediate upgrade to the their top four defensive core. The Sabres also signed Russian KHL standout defenseman Viktor Antipin to his first NHL contract.
Along with Rasmus Ristolainen, who has proved his top pairing ability despite being only 22, Zach Bogosian, Jake McCabe, and Josh Gorges, these new acquisitions will make the Sabres’ defense one of the best in the Atlantic Division.
In terms of the team’s forward core, they have not done much to improve over last season. The team traded away Tyler Ennis and Marcus Foligno, but they brought nothing that cannot be replaced by the free agent signing of Benoit Pouliot, and the addition of former Sabre Jason Pominville.
Younger players like Sam Reinhart and Zemgus Girgensons will be expected to step up their game from last season. The Sabres will also expect the continued success of Kyle Okposo and Ryan O’Reilly. Evander Kane is due for what should be his best year since his first season in Winnipeg when he scored 30 goals. On top of all that, a hopefully injury-free season for Jack Eichel will be the biggest asset to the Sabres. With 57 points in 61 games last season, the 20-year-old Eichel is already the best player on the Sabres roster, and his health and production are key.
With all of the improvements the Sabres have made, including signing Chad Johnson as the backup goalie behind an underrated Robin Lehner, the team should do better than last place in the Atlantic Division once again. While the Atlantic is one of the most even division up and down, the Sabres should at least compete for a Wild Card spot until the end of the season. If not, and the team stays at the same level as the past two seasons, there will be serious second looks at how this Sabres roster is built. Three consecutive 80 point seasons is not where this team should be after tanking their team for two straight seasons.