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30 in 30

Reasons for optimism, questions facing Sabres

Buffalo hopes adding Kyle Okposo, Dmitry Kulikov to young, talented core brings wins

by Joe Yerdon / Correspondent is providing in-depth analysis for each of its 30 teams throughout August. Today, the biggest reasons for optimism and the biggest questions facing the Buffalo Sabres:

The Buffalo Sabres improved by 27 points last season and will focus their attention on returning to the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since 2010-11.

Coach Dan Bylsma wanted the Sabres to be harder to play against, and general manager Tim Murray did his part by signing free agent forward Kyle Okposo to a seven-year contract and acquiring defenseman Dmitry Kulikov from the Florida Panthers. Okposo and Kulikov, along with the core group of defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen and forwards Ryan O'Reilly, Jack Eichel, and Sam Reinhart, give the Sabres plenty of reason to think big.

Sabres 30 in 30: Season outlook | Top prospects | Fantasy outlook

Here are four reasons for optimism entering this season:

1. Blossoming young talent

If the Sabres are going to make the playoffs, they're going to go as far as their youth can take them. Last season, Eichel, 19, had 56 points (24 goals, 32 assists) and Reinhart, 20, had 42 (23 goals, 19 assists) as rookies, and Ristolainen, 21, had an NHL career-high 41 points (nine goals, 32 assists) and established himself as the No. 1 defenseman.

Eichel and Reinhart were the top two goal-scorers last season for the Sabres, who also have Okposo, O'Reilly and Evander Kane to help the offense. Ristolainen has learned tough defensive play from Josh Gorges and could be paired with Kulikov when the season begins.

Goaltender Robin Lehner, 25, is another part of the young mix, and he will look to bounce back after an injury-plagued season.

Video: BUF@NJD: Eichel's great effort for empty-net goal

2. Following Ryan O'Reilly's lead

When the Sabres acquired O'Reilly from the Colorado Avalanche prior to last season, they knew they were getting a good player. What they may not have realized was they were getting their top all-around forward.

O'Reilly was the Sabres' best player on the penalty kill and power play, and was utilized for key faceoffs in the defensive zone. Even while doing all that and despite missing 11 games, he led the Sabres in scoring with 60 points (21 goals, 39 assists). When he wasn't scoring goals, O'Reilly still contributed; during a 24-game stretch without a goal from Jan. 10-March 28, he had 18 assists.

3. Kyle Okposo's offense

Okposo was brought in because of his ability as a power forward. He can drive the net, score goals (22 last season with the New York Islanders) and, perhaps most importantly, help his teammates score; of his 369 NHL career points, 230 are assists. His linemates will benefit from his playmaking ability.

"I'm going to go out there and play; play the way I know how and prepare the same and make sure that my game is there," Okposo said last month. "I feel like I'm at a point in my career where I know what I need to do to be successful and I'm going to continue to do that and try to get better, and that hasn't changed throughout my career, and it's not going to change in my approach here just because I signed a long-term deal."

Video: NYI@CAR: Okposo's spinning shot beats Lack

4. Dan Bylsma's second season

One of the main things the hiring of Bylsma did for the Sabres was establish a strong system. Buffalo had struggled to keep opponents from shooting and scoring in the two seasons before Bylsma was hired, but that changed last season; the Sabres scored 46 more goals than they did the previous season and allowed 54 fewer.

No longer was Buffalo a team opponents could unload shots against for 60 minutes. The Sabres went from minus-1789 in 5-on-5 shot attempts (SAT) in 2014-15 to minus-350 last season. With a full season of experience in Bylsma's system, Buffalo will look to its speed and skill to take the next step.

Here are three key questions facing the Sabres:

1. Can Robin Lehner lead the way in goal?

Last season was difficult for Lehner. His conditioning was lacking entering training camp because he wasn't able to work out until late July because of a concussion sustained in February while playing for the Ottawa Senators. Lehner then sustained a high-right ankle sprain in the first game of the season Oct. 8 that kept him out for three months. He played 20 more games before he was shut down for the season on March 30 to have surgery on his ankle.

"Battling through issues and not playing with my concussion coming in and still having some problems with my foot, I'm still happy with my game," Lehner said in April. "It was a lot of one-goal game losses, but there were stints there as a team [when] we played really well, we just couldn't get the puck in the net."

In Lehner's 21 games, he went 5-9-5 with a 2.47 goals-against average and .924 save percentage, which would have been tied for fourth-best in the NHL had he played enough to qualify. If he can do that for a full season, worries about goaltending will dissipate quickly.

Video: BUF@MTL: Lehner stops barrage to keep game tied

2. Is Dmitry Kulikov the missing piece on defense?

Murray has desired a top-pair left-handed defenseman since he was hired in 2014 and got that in Kulikov, who will have the opportunity to play with either Ristolainen or Zach Bogosian among the Sabres' top four on defense.

"He brings an edge; he's hard," Murray said of Kulikov at the 2016 NHL Draft. "He's not going to fight, he's not going to be a guy players are sitting on the bench afraid to go out and play against, but you have to keep your head up when you're on the ice. He'll hit you, he'll submarine you, he'll make you pay the price if you have your head down.

"He makes a great first pass. I think he's excellent defensively. He's not offensive, but I think he has a little more to give, not to put any expectation on that, but he has a little more to give in that area … he can play in all situations, and he's competitive. He's not going to be easy to play against."

3. Who will play with Kyle Okposo?

The answer to this might seem obvious because there is a spot on the right wing next to O'Reilly, with Evander Kane on the left side, that needs filling.

However, the Sabres will have Tyler Ennis back after he missed most of last season with a concussion. In the 23 games he played, he did not have much chemistry alongside Eichel. That could lead to Bylsma playing with different line combinations through training camp and the start of the season. Okposo, who is a natural right wing but can play on the left as well, could see time with Eichel and Reinhart.

If free agent left wing Jimmy Vesey signs with the Sabres, who own exclusive negotiating rights with him until Aug. 15, that will affect the situation as well, but Okposo likely will see a lot of playing time with O'Reilly and Eichel, whether it's at even strength or on the power play.

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