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Sabres need more offense, better defense to return to playoffs

New coach Housley, healthy Eichel could produce first trip to postseason since 2011

by Joe Yerdon / NHL.com Correspondent

If the Buffalo Sabres are going to get back to the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since 2011, they're going to need to score more at even strength and improve on defense, including the penalty kill.

They had the best power play in the NHL last season (24.3 percent), scoring 57 of their 199 goals (tied for 24th) with the man-advantage. They were 25th in the League on the penalty kill (77.6 percent) and allowed the most shots per game (34.3). That kind of inconsistency plagued Buffalo and led to changes at coach and general manager in the offseason.

Coach Phil Housley and GM Jason Botterill, who were hired to replace Dan Bylsma and Tim Murray after each was fired April 20, have a lot to build on with the roster. Center Jack Eichel had 57 points to lead the Sabres in scoring last season despite missing the first 21 games because of an ankle injury. Forwards Ryan O'Reilly (55 points) and Kyle Okposo (45) each missed time because of multiple injuries but rounded out the top four on the Sabres in scoring with forward Sam Reinhart (47).

Housley said everyone gets a fresh start, which could be what the Sabres need after a disappointing season.

Here is a look at the five keys for the Sabres, the inside scoop on their roster questions and projected lines for the 2017-18 season:

 

5 KEYS

1. Playing aggressively

Under Bylsma, the Sabres played a passive style of hockey at each end of the ice. Housley said he wants to change that right away, and that should play to the strengths of the roster.

"We want to be an aggressive team," he said. "I think everybody we've talked about playing aggressive offensively, but we need to play aggressive defensively. I think defense gives you a chance to win every night and they'll understand that we want to be fast and aggressive."

2. Staying healthy

Last season, the Sabres were stung by injuries to Eichel, O'Reilly, Okposo, forward Evander Kane and defenseman Zach Bogosian. Injuries always are an unpredictable factor for every team, but if the Sabres can keep their top players on the ice all season and play up-tempo hockey, improvement will come quickly.

3. Improved defense

With Housley's plan to increase aggressive play, the pressure will be on the defense not only to stop opponents, but to continue generating chances for themselves. The additions of Marco Scandella, Nathan Beaulieu and Victor Antipin will help with puck possession and make things a little easier for goalies Robin Lehner and Chad Johnson.

4. Eichel leads the way

Eichel scored 24 goals in 61 games, matching his production in 81 games as a rookie in 2015-16, and had 33 assists, one more than his first season. But the 20-year-old needs to take more of a leadership role this season. The Sabres have quality scorers throughout the lineup, but they'll go only as far as Eichel can take them.

5. Wing production

The Sabres are deep at center with Eichel, O'Reilly and now Reinhart going back to his original position, but they're going to need production from the wings to succeed. Okposo and Kane lead the way, but former captain Jason Pominville, Zemgus Girgensons, Matt Moulson and Benoit Pouliot need to score more.

 

ROSTER RUNDOWN

Biggest lock

Lehner is the No. 1 goalie and proved it last season when he made the most starts of his NHL career (58) and had a 2.68 goals-against average and .920 save percentage. In two seasons with the Sabres, Lehner has a .921 save percentage. Johnson returns to Buffalo as Lehner's backup after playing well in that role in 2015-16 (22-16-4, 2.36 GAA, .920 save percentage), but Lehner is the starter.

Biggest battle

There are spots to be had on the wings on the top three lines, especially now with Reinhart playing center. Young players like Hudson Fasching, Nicholas Baptiste, Justin Bailey, and C.J. Smith, each 22 years old, as well as Seth Griffith and Steve Moses, have shown at other levels they can score. Speed and skill are valued by Housley, and each of these players has them.

Most intriguing addition

It was stressed in the offseason that fixing the defense was the priority, and the biggest name the Sabres brought in was Scandella, who was acquired along with Pominville in a trade from the Minnesota Wild on June 30. After seven seasons with the Wild, Scandella brings veteran know-how and will be expected to help support top defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen. "[Housley] wants north-south hockey, he wants the [defense] to be involved, so I feel like I have pretty good skating ability, so I think I'm going to mold really well into the system," Scandella said.

Biggest potential surprise

For a player who was a first-round pick (No. 17) of the Montreal Canadiens in the 2011 NHL Draft, Beaulieu appears to have the cleanest slate of anyone on the roster. Acquired in a trade from the Canadiens on June 17 for a third-round pick in the 2017 NHL Draft, Beaulieu figures to instantly plug into the top six on defense, and with Housley's aggressive puck-moving style, the potential he's always had in Montreal may have the proper outlet in Buffalo.

 

PROJECTED LINEUP

Evander Kane -- Jack Eichel -- Jason Pominville

Zemgus Girgensons -- Ryan O'Reilly -- Kyle Okposo

Benoit Pouliot -- Sam Reinhart -- Hudson Fasching

Matt Moulson -- Johan Larsson -- Jacob Josefson

Marco Scandella -- Rasmus Ristolainen

Jake McCabe -- Zach Bogosian

Nathan Beaulieu -- Victor Antipin

Robin Lehner

Chad Johnson

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