BUFFALO -- For the Buffalo Sabres, finishing the season 35-36-11 and in seventh place in the Atlantic Division was a vast improvement.
The Sabres were the 30th-ranked team in the NHL the previous two seasons, and improved 27 points in the standings this season to finish 23rd in the League.
The differences between this season and last season were evident from the start with the additions of Ryan O'Reilly, Jack Eichel and Evander Kane. Even though injuries kept Kane, Tyler Ennis, and goalie Robin Lehner off the ice for parts of the season, the Sabres scored 46 more goals and gave up 56 fewer than they did in 2014-15.
The high points lend hope for next season and beyond. O'Reilly led the Sabres in scoring with 60 points (21 goals, 39 assists). Eichel was the second leading scorer among rookies in the NHL and on the Sabres with 56 points and led the Sabres in goals with 24. Fellow rookie Sam Reinhart scored 23 goals and Kane scored 20 despite missing 27 games due to injury. Defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen broke out and was fourth on the team in points with 41.
The downside for the Sabres was injuries. Ennis and Lehner were limited to 23 and 21 games respectively. Matt Moulson and Zemgus Girgensons each had the worst offensive seasons of their careers; Moulson had eight goals and 13 assists, and Girgensons seven goals and 11 assists.
Still, the Sabres have reason to be optimistic.
WHAT THEY SAID: "I think we do have a bright future. And the young talent … It's there and if we decide to work together and still not be satisfied with anything and demand the best of ourselves, we're going to have success. It's definitely not going to be easy. You look at the teams that are in the playoffs; every time all those teams playing against them, it was tough no matter what game it was. It's not easy getting into those playoffs and competing. We have a lot of work to do, but the talent is there and if we commit to each other and continue to work together, we're going to be in a good spot." - center Ryan O'Reilly
THE BURNING QUESTION: Can the Sabres make the playoffs next season? The time for rebuilding came to an end once the Sabres drafted Eichel and acquired O'Reilly and Lehner at the 2015 NHL Draft. This season was all about growing together and learning a new system under coach Dan Bylsma. Now that they've shown marked improvement in virtually all areas, the goal is to make the playoffs in 2016-17.
INJURIES: Ennis missed the final 45 games of the season with a concussion sustained against the Washington Capitals on Dec. 30. It was his second concussion this season, and though he was unable to return, he said he's feeling better now.
"I've always been a smaller guy; I know how to take a hit," Ennis said. "It's not going to bother me one bit; I'm going to play the same way and I'm excited there's going to be nothing in the back of my mind that's going to change how I play and there's no lingering effects, so there's no reason to be concerned about that."
Lehner still is recovering from surgery on his right ankle on March 30. It's the same ankle he injured Oct. 8, when he sustained a high ankle sprain. He missed more than three months after that and played 20 games before his surgery.
"I really haven't had many injuries," Lehner said. "I got my concussion [in Feb. 2015] and my high ankle sprain right after each other, and I just hope with a really good summer with the staff that we have here, working with them every day for the summer here and coming into the next season, I'm really excited about that and I'm very excited about our team going forward for next season."
Kane missed the final six games of the season with an upper-body injury he did not specify, but said it would not require surgery to repair. Defenseman Cody Franson missed the final 23 games of the season with a neck injury. Forward Cody McCormick missed the entire season with a blood clot issue.
WHO COULD GO: Center David Legwand, defenseman Carlo Colaiacovo and goalie Chad Johnson are unrestricted free agents. Johnson went 22-16-4 with a .920 save percentage and said he would love to come back to Buffalo next season.
WHO COULD ARRIVE: Sabres general manager Tim Murray has been after a top-four left-handed defenseman for the past two seasons and would like to add a top-six winger as well.
2016 DRAFT PICKS: The Sabres are hosting the 2016 NHL Draft and will have 12 picks, including six in the first three rounds. However, one of those third-round picks is a conditional pick from the Anaheim Ducks acquired in the Jamie McGinn trade. That third-round pick would become a second-round pick in the 2017 Draft if the Ducks win two rounds in the 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
REASON FOR OPTIMISM: Even though the Sabres missed the playoffs, the strides made by their young players provide nothing but hope. Buffalo's top five scorers are all 25 years old or younger and if Lehner returns healthy, the way he played gave a glimpse of how steady he can be in goal. Improvement from Eichel, Reinhart and Ristolainen as they continue to grow into their games should help boost the offense, and how Murray handles the draft and free agency should give the Sabres more depth and talent.