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Season Preview: Buffalo Sabres

Newcomers Kyle Okposo, Dmitry Kulikov could help young core reach playoffs

by Joe Yerdon / NHL.com Correspondent
At a glance

2015-16 record: 35-36-11, 81 points, 7th in Atlantic Division, 14th in Eastern Conference

2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs: Did not qualify

Additions: F: Derek Grant, Alexander Nylander, Kyle Okposo; D: Erik Burgdoerfer, Justin Falk, Taylor Fedun, Dmitry Kulikov; G: Anders Nilsson

Subtractions: F: David Legwand, Tim Schaller; D: Carlo Colaiacovo, Mark Pysyk, Chad Ruhwedel; G: Chad Johnson

 
Projected opening night lineup

Forwards

Tyler Ennis -- Ryan O'Reilly -- Kyle Okposo

Evander Kane -- Jack Eichel -- Sam Reinhart

Marcus Foligno -- Johan Larsson -- Brian Gionta

Nicolas Deslauriers -- Zemgus Girgensons -- Matt Moulson

Cal O'Reilly

Defensemen

Dmitry Kulikov -- Rasmus Ristolainen

Jake McCabe -- Zach Bogosian

Josh Gorges -- Cody Franson

Justin Falk

Goalies

Robin Lehner

Anders Nilsson

Linus Ullmark

 

Video: BUF@TOR: Moulson puts it away for Buffalo in SO

The Buffalo Sabres took a significant step forward last season, when they improved by 12 wins and 27 points from 2014-15. But with that progress comes higher expectations for this season, meaning a return to the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since 2010-11.

After making moves in previous seasons to acquire goaltender Robin Lehner, center Ryan O'Reilly and left wing Evander Kane, along with selecting centers Sam Reinhart (2014 NHL Draft, No. 2) and Jack Eichel (2015 NHL Draft, No. 2), the Sabres made a splash again this offseason.

At the 2016 NHL Draft, Buffalo acquired defenseman Dmitry Kulikov in a trade with the Florida Panthers and selected left wing Alexander Nylander with the No. 8 pick. On July 1, the Sabres signed free agent right wing Kyle Okposo, who had spent all of his eight-plus NHL seasons with the New York Islanders.

Nylander should contribute in the future, but the additions of Kulikov and Okposo are all about helping the Sabres make the jump in the standings and get to the postseason now.

What will help the Sabres reach the playoffs will be the evolution of Eichel, Reinhart and defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen into impact players. Though all is well in training camp with Reinhart and Eichel, who played for Team North America in the 2016 World Cup of Hockey, the same can't be said of Ristolainen, an unsigned restricted free agent and Buffalo's No. 1 defenseman.

Buffalo's lineup isn't much different than the one it used when it went 14-8-5 to finish last season. Forwards Johan Larsson and Marcus Foligno combined with captain Brian Gionta to give it a formidable third line that could score and defend. The Sabres hope forward Tyler Ennis can rebound from two concussions last season to give a boost to the offense. Buffalo also would benefit from rebound seasons by left wing Matt Moulson and center Zemgus Girgensons; each struggled in his first season under coach Dan Bylsma.

The Sabres remain a young team that's growing and learning. They're hoping the addition of Okposo, 28, and Kulikov, 25, will speed the process of a young core that's learning to play together.

 

Why they should make the Stanley Cup Playoffs

Eichel and Reinhart have the skill to become 30-goal scorers. O'Reilly and Okposo can be 60-point scorers. Lehner has the talent to play 60 games and have a save percentage of .920 or better.

 

Why they could miss the Stanley Cup Playoffs 

Defensive problems suppress the offense more than their opponents do because they're often unable to get the puck out of trouble. If Eichel and Reinhart don't progress as expected, the Sabres may not be ready to return to the playoffs.

 

Breakout candidate

Jake McCabe. He emerged as a solid second-pair defenseman last season but has more to give. McCabe, 22, has been a favorite of Bylsma and earned opportunities on special teams and in tough situations to show what he can do. He's a strong skater and smooth puck-handler, something the Sabres need. If Buffalo is able to move the puck better, McCabe will be a big reason why, and the points will come.

 

On the hot seat

Lehner. After an injury-plagued first season with the Sabres, when he wasn't able to get in better condition because of concussion recovery during the 2015 offseason, Lehner, 25, is healthy and ready to prove himself. The Sabres need him to meet the challenge of being the No. 1 goaltender on a team with a lot of young talent. But if his health or his play betrays him, there's no proven alternative.

 

Trophy candidates

O'Reilly (Selke, Lady Byng); Lehner (Masterton)

 

Quotable

"I think just from talking with some of the guys, a lot the excitement level, I think expectation level, things have changed. Our mindset of where we see ourselves as compared to maybe where we saw ourselves in the past, I think we expect a lot of big things out of our group this year. We took a lot of strides in the right direction last year, and I think having a long offseason for a couple years in a row, you start to really not enjoy it, let's put it that way … the expectations of what we have on ourselves has changed and has definitely grown coming into camp this year." -- defenseman Josh Gorges

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