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31 in 31

Inside look at Buffalo Sabres

New coach Housley tasked with improving defense

by Joe Yerdon / NHL.com Correspondent

NHL.com is providing in-depth roster, prospect and fantasy analysis for each of its 31 teams throughout August. Today, the Buffalo Sabres.

The Buffalo Sabres are starting over after a disappointing season.

Coach Phil Housley and general manager Jason Botterill are now in charge, hired to replace Dan Bylsma and Tim Murray after the Sabres had 78 points last season, a three-point decrease from 2015-16.

Fortunately for Botterill and Housley, a former Sabres defenseman, the rebuilding phase of getting them into the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since 2011 was underway before their arrival and the process of improving the roster started immediately.

 

[SABRES 31 IN 31: Top prospects | 3 Questions | Fantasy breakdown | Behind the numbers]

 

Buffalo's biggest weakness, its defensemen, was addressed when they acquired Nathan Beaulieu in a trade with the Montreal Canadiens for a third-round pick in the 2017 NHL Draft, on June 17. The Sabres then acquired defenseman Marco Scandella and former captain Jason Pominville from the Minnesota Wild in a trade for forwards Marcus Foligno and Tyler Ennis.

The Sabres also signed defenseman Viktor Antipin out of the Kontinental Hockey League to add to a group that includes Rasmus Ristolainen, Zach Bogosian, Jake McCabe and Josh Gorges.

Housley, a Hall of Fame defenseman who was hired by Botterill on June 15, will try to improve a defense that allowed the most shots on goal per game in the NHL last season (34.3).

Video: 31 in 31: Buffalo Sabres 2017-18 season preview

"Definitely adding those two guys (Scandella and Beaulieu) and the depth we have back there, I think it's going to be important we have the depth," Housley said. "Knock on wood; we don't have those injuries, because in an 82-game schedule there's going to be injuries. I really like the depth of what we have right now."

The addition of Scandella, 27, gives the Sabres a left-handed defenseman who can pair with Ristolainen.

"[Scandella]'s a fierce competitor," Housley said. "He was playing behind some guys [in Minnesota] and he wanted more minutes and he wanted a new opportunity, and luckily for us, we got him. The way he can skate, he's mobile, that's going to be a big part of our team is mobility back there, and he brings that."

An improved defense should help goalie Robin Lehner improve on a strong season. Lehner had a .920 save percentage, played an NHL career-high 59 games (58 starts) and had two shutouts. Lehner, a restricted free agent, signed a one-year contract worth $4 million on July 25.

Buffalo also signed forwards Benoit Pouliot and Jacob Josefson, and goalie Chad Johnson, who played for them in 2015-16 and spent last season with the Calgary Flames, each to a one-year contract.

"We were really excited to make a couple of trades there, and some of the players we were able to get on July 1 from a depth standpoint for our organization," said Botterill, who was hired May 11. "My guess is things will heat up a little bit more come fall time and we'll see how our players perform in rookie tournaments and main camps. We're also in a situation where we could have some NHL contracts still available. We still have [salary] cap space available (about $8.5 million, according to CapFriendly.com), so we'll certainly be looking out for our team."

Even though those additions will make the Sabres deeper, the core is in place for success if it can avoid injuries. Center Jack Eichel, who missed the first 21 games of the season with a high ankle sprain, had 57 points (24 goals, 33 assists) in 61 games and led them in scoring. Center Ryan O'Reilly, who missed 10 games, had 55 points (20 goals, 35 assists) and was their most effective two-way player. Wing Evander Kane missed 12 games but led them with 28 goals.

Video: TOR@BUF: O'Reilly nets SHG with beautiful wrist shot

Wing Kyle Okposo, who missed 17 games, including the final six because of a concussion that required him to be admitted to intensive care in April, had 45 points (19 goals, 26 assists), fourth on the Sabres.

There were concerns Okposo's health would be in question heading into the season, but he played in Da Beauty League in Minnesota on July 19 and wrote an open letter to fans on the Sabres website that stated he's healthy and feeling great.

"I know I can play and not worry about hitting my head, which is a major hurdle for someone who's dealt with this," Okposo said. "If I didn't feel 100 percent right now, that probably wouldn't be the case."

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