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5 Questions: Buffalo Sabres

Development of Jack Eichel, Sam Reinhart must make up for lack of depth on defense

by Joe Yerdon / NHL.com Correspondent

An NHL season is filled with twists and turns for each of the League's 30 teams. Here are five of the major questions that could define the 2016-17 season for the Buffalo Sabres:

 
Can Kyle Okposo unlock the Sabres offense? 

The Sabres scored 199 non-shootout goals last season; though that was a marked improvement from the 153 they scored in 2014-15, they were still 25th in scoring. Adding Okposo, a right wing, should give the offense a boost. Okposo had 60-plus points in two of the past three seasons; an injury limited him to 51 points (18 goals, 33 assists) in 60 games in 2014-15. Okposo figures to join Buffalo's leading scorer from last season, center Ryan O'Reilly, on the top line and help give the Sabres enough firepower to be competitive in the Atlantic Divisio.

 

How much will Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart improve?

While it seemed to be a given that Eichel would pile up goals and points in his first NHL season, Reinhart's performance caught some by surprise. The rookie forwards, who played on the same line for most of the season, led the Sabres in goals; Eichel had 24 and Reinhart 23. The Sabres can't afford to have either player go through a sophomore slump if they are to end their five-season playoff drought. Eichel's season got a head start when he played for Team North America at the 2016 World Cup of Hockey. Reinhart made came to training camp in better shape after working with a power skating coach during the offseason. If they can score a few more goals and perhaps help left wing Evander Kane get a few more, the Sabres' chances of making the Stanley Cup Playoffs will get a boost.

Video: CAR@BUF: Reinhart sets up Eichel for go-ahead goal

 

Is the defense deep enough to win?

Buffalo acquired defenseman Dmitry Kulikov from the Florida Panthers in June, and he figures to be paired with Rasmus Ristolainen, assuming the unsigned restricted free agent comes to terms. Second-year defenseman Jake McCabe likely will be paired with Zach Bogosian, and veteran Josh Gorges will work with Cody Franson, who returns after missing the final two months of last season with a vision problem. Beyond the top six, there is not a lot of NHL experience. Justin Falk, formerly of the Columbus Blue Jackets, was signed as a free agent, and rookie Casey Nelson showed signs of being a solid contributor when he arrived late last season after his NCAA career at Minnesota State. Buffalo also added Erik Burgdoerfer, who played for Hershey of the American Hockey League the past two seasons but has yet to make his NHL debut. If injuries arise or Ristolainen remains unsigned for any significant amount of time, Buffalo's depth will be tested.

 
 
Can Robin Lehner be the No. 1 goalie they've waited for?

Lehner had a .924 save percentage in 21 games last season, which was ruined by a high ankle sprain he sustained in the season opener. Lehner had season-ending surgery to repair the ankle; he spent the offseason staying in Buffalo and getting in better shape. With no other proven NHL goaltenders on the roster, the Sabres need Lehner to be effective through a full season to have any hope of getting back to the playoffs.

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

 

Can Tyler Ennis rebound?

Last season was a disaster for Ennis, who was limited to 23 games because of two concussions. The 26-year-old center is fully recovered, but questions remain as to how he'll fit into the lineup. If he can return to the form he had when he had back-to-back 20-goal seasons from 2013-15, Buffalo's offense would get a spark.

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