BUFFALO -- After a season that saw great improvement, the Buffalo Sabres are prepared to take the next step toward returning to the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Sabres General Manager Tim Murray and coach Dan Bylsma met with the media on Monday and assessed a season in which the Sabres finished 23rd in the NHL and improved by 27 points from the previous season. Even though the improvements are a positive for the franchise moving forward, the goal is to get back to the playoffs, where the Sabres haven't been since 2011.
"We have to state every year that the goal is to make the playoffs," Murray said. "If that's not coming from the manager and the head coach, then what are the expectations for the players? In saying that, I've said to you guys a lot that we just want to improve every year, and I think we've done that to a pretty good degree. And again, the goal will be to make the playoffs. Next year it may actually be a realistic goal. So that will be our statement to the players, that yes, the goal is to reach the playoffs, and that we actually do expect that we can do that."
The Sabres ended the season with 81 points and finished 15 points out of the second wild card in the Eastern Conference. Buffalo dealt with a myriad of injuries including losing goalie Robin Lehner (high ankle sprain) and forward Tyler Ennis (concussion) for most of the season as well as forward Evander Kane (knee) and defensemen Zach Bogosian (lower body) and Cody Franson (neck) for extended periods.
Forward Cody McCormick's career ended because of a blood clot problem that developed last season. That issue prevented him from playing during the 2015-16 season and he has one year left on his contract with the Sabres.
"Cody McCormick is not going to jeopardize his life or his family by trying to play again. We support him in that," Murray said. "He was around this winter and did some other things when players were rehabbing. So I don't know if that's going to be a future thing or not. That's something that he dabbled at and seemed to like."
Lehner was a major acquisition, picked up in a trade with the Ottawa Senators during the 2015 NHL Draft, and was being counted on to be the No. 1 goalie. Instead, Chad Johnson got the bulk of the starts when Lehner was out and played well, but the Sabres know they have to see Lehner carry the load next season.
"To be a playoff team, a contending team, you have to have an established starting goaltender who may not be your best player, but your hardest-working player," Murray said. "You have to get a certain number of games out of him, and we haven't done that yet."
In addition to injuries, one disappointment for the Sabres was the play of forward Matt Moulson who had the worst season of his career scoring eight goals and 13 assists. Moulson has three years left on a five-year, $25 million contract and has scored 21 combined goals the past two seasons. Murray said Moulson would not be bought out of the final three years of his contract, but made it clear he has to improve.
"I had a long talk with him [Sunday]," Murray said. "He knows he has to work hard this offseason and he's very disappointed in himself, his own season. It was a tough season for all of us to watch, and hopefully he can regroup and come back next year and be better... He works hard. It was not a question of him working hard; it was a question of him maybe changing his workout regime and stuff like that. He feels strongly in the way he works out and the effort he puts into it. He was very strong to that in the exit interview. He tells us he's going to work extremely hard to get his game back."
If the Sabres are going to push for the playoffs next season, rookies Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart will be key players in making that happen. Eichel led the Sabres in goals with 24 and Reinhart was right behind him with 23. Their first full seasons in the NHL showed the ability they have and the hope it provides for where their talent can take them from here.
"I think there's no question about the improvement of Sam Reinhart from last year to this year coming into camp," Bylsma said. "He had great strides in his strength, great strides in his skating; fast forward to camp and from the start of the season to right [at the end] you saw huge improvements in his game.
"Jack, his year was a lot like I think we anticipated and expected from Jack. There was some up and downs, there was some difficult times and struggles throughout the year in some of his games, but almost immediately you see what kind of player he can be; a dominant player and if you look at the last 40 games, really a guy who had the puck on his stick more than anybody in the league. He showed he could be a take-over guy, a dominant guy; a dangerous guy every time he touches the puck."