Buffalo needed to rebuild, but it went beyond just bottoming out in the standings for the first part of the season. Coach Ted Nolan arrived in November and at least helped make the club's losses more competitive.
For Nolan, success next season might not be defined by wins or points, but by how some of the franchise's top young players develop at the NHL level. In an effort to help those young players, the Sabres added several veterans while expunging some bad contracts.
Matt Moulson and Brian Gionta will be leaned on as much for their work ethic and the examples they set as their ability to help revive an anemic offense. The Sabres missed out on the No. 1 pick in the 2014 NHL Draft but still grabbed a potential franchise center in Sam Reinhart at No. 2.
Josh Gorges and Andrej Meszaros will be counted on eat minutes and help the young players on defense. Gorges and Gionta in particular were considered two of the key leaders in the Montreal Canadiens dressing room.
The current Sabres aren't going to like it, but unless they drastically exceed expectations the names of top 2015 draft prospects Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel are going to come up a lot this season in Buffalo. The mission in 2014-15 is simple: develop young players, identify players who can be part of the next great Sabres team and be more competitive than they were at the start of last season.
There are lots of players in the system who could help revive Buffalo, and there are more early-round picks coming. Optimism will return, and the wins might as well, but more patience might be needed.
Here's a look at the projected 2014-15 lineup for the Sabres:
The Sabres could be patient with Reinhart, especially if Zemgus Girgensons and Mikhail Grigorenko look ready for regular roles in the middle during training camp. He could spend another season in the Western Hockey League and join the Sabres next season along with someone like McDavid or Eichel, much like Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane arrived at the same time with the Chicago Blackhawks.
How effective Reinhart, Girgensons and maybe Grigorenko can be will go a long way to determining if Buffalo is going to score more goals, because there aren't a lot of other options behind Cody Hodgson at center. The Sabres have a slew of prospects, and Joel Armia is another touted young forward who could push for a place on the roster.
Players like Marcus Foligno and Drew Stafford probably can't drive the proverbial bus but still could be key role players as the younger prospects hopefully evolve into stars. Hodgson and especially Tyler Ennis could earn more recognition if they have more help around them.
While the Sabres' offense was historically impotent, only five other teams allowed more goals last season. And that was despite Ryan Miller's excellent work in goal in the first half of the season. Not only will the defense corps not have Miller to bail them out, there also will be some new faces, as well as some older ones earning larger roles.
Tyler Myers will have another chance to unearth the form that made him one of the top young defensemen in the League earlier in his career. If he can't, he could be somewhere else when previews for the 2015-16 season are being written.
Andre Benoit and Meszaros could help strengthen the depth of this group, but they could also be pushed aside by the younger players.
Jhonas Enroth has been waiting years for his chance to succeed Miller, but now he'll have to compete with Michal Neuvirth for playing time. The Sabres traded Miller to the St. Louis Blues for Jaroslav Halak and then Halak to the Washington Capitals for Neuvirth, and it could be an interesting competition.
This could end up being one of the most even two-goalie splits of any NHL team.
Undervalued: Cody Hodgson -- After breaking out with 34 points during the lockout-shortened season, Hodgson disappointed last year with 20 goals, 44 points and a minus-26 in 72 games. However, Hodgson, 24, is one of the Sabres' top centers and should continue to receive ample power play time (3:08 per game last season). He's in line for a solid bounce-back season, and you can expect 25-plus goals, 60-plus points with at least 25 power-play points. Just know his plus/minus could hurt you.
Overvalued: Matt Moulson -- For years Moulson was an undervalued fantasy player, but most of that value came from playing wing alongside John Tavares on the New York Islanders. When Moulson landed in Buffalo he struggled with 11 goals, 28 points and a minus-8 in 44 games. He was traded to the Minnesota Wild, where he had six goals and 13 points in 20 games. Now back with the Sabres, Moulson likely will return to something close to the production he had in those 44 games last season. He might finish with about 20 goals and 50 points, but his substandard rating will make him nothing more than a bench forward in most leagues.
Sleeper: Sam Reinhart -- Like last year's Calder Trophy winner, Nathan MacKinnon, Reinhart possesses all the tools needed to become be an NHL star. The question is, when will that happen? For MacKinnon, things evolved quickly, and if Reinhart can make the opening-night lineup, there's a chance the forward could take home some hardware in June. Reinhart had 36 goals and 105 points in the WHL last season and is worth a pick late in your draft based on his tremendous upside.
-- Follow Matt Cubeta on Twitter: @NHLQubes
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