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Sabres hope to begin putting rebuild behind them

by Joe Yerdon's preview of the 2015-16 season will include in-depth looks at all 30 teams.

BUFFALO -- The Buffalo Sabres head into the 2015-16 season with a much different look and feel about them compared to the recent past.

Since February, Buffalo has added high-end players in trades, through free agency and at the 2015 NHL Draft, and the fruits of a rebuild that began in earnest in 2013, the Sabres hope, will start to show this season.

After having the worst record in the NHL each of the past two seasons, hopes are high in Buffalo that wins will outnumber losses and the days of missing the Stanley Cup Playoffs will come to an end in the near future.


The Sabres scored 303 goals during the past two seasons, 70 fewer than the 29th-ranked New Jersey Devils, leaving general manager Tim Murray with some serious work to improve the offense.

The Sabres acquired left wing Evander Kane in a trade with the Winnipeg Jets on Feb. 11. Then on June 26 they acquired center Ryan O'Reilly and left wing Jamie McGinn in a trade with the Colorado Avalanche; that same day they selected center Jack Eichel with the second pick of the 2015 NHL Draft.

"It's been awesome. I think everyone's excited; everyone should be excited," Sabres forward Tyler Ennis said. "I think Tim did a great job putting together a lot of great pieces that we needed. He was aggressive and knew what he wanted and got some pieces. The guys look really good out there right now and we're kind of jelling, getting to know each other. At the same time, we know that there's a lot we need to improve on. There's a lot we need to get better at. It's not just going to happen."

Adding Kane, O'Reilly and Eichel to a forward group that already included Ennis, Matt Moulson, Zemgus Girgensons, who played in the 2015 NHL All-Star Game, and Sam Reinhart, the second pick of the 2014 draft, has the Sabres feeling good about the potential of their offense.

"It's an exciting time," Sabres defenseman Josh Gorges said. "I think the moves we made [have] made us a stronger team, but a more character [driven] team. I think that's going to go a long way. We brought in some guys who are real professionals that have been around the game. They know what it takes to prepare, they know what it takes to win, and I think that those sorts of things, they go a long way. Not to mention they're pretty good hockey players on top of it, which will help as well."

Important for the Sabres is their depth at forward. Captain Brian Gionta leads the way, and Marcus Foligno, Johan Larsson, Nicolas Deslauriers, Cody McCormick and newcomer David Legwand give new coach Dan Bylsma a lot to work with entering the season.

"Just from skating with the guys here, our top six, maybe even our top nine, look really good," defenseman Carlo Colaiacovo said. "We've got a lot of skill and a lot of elite talent, and that's a great thing to start with every year."


The Sabres will have several players competing at training camp for a few spots on defense. Gorges, Zach Bogosian, 20-year-old Rasmus Ristolainen and Mike Weber return from last season, and Cody Franson was signed to a two-year contract Sept. 10.

Franson, 28, who played for the Toronto Maple Leafs and Nashville Predators last season, provides something a bit different than most of the incumbents.

"I would like to sit here and say he's a complete defenseman and he's going to excel at all aspects of the game, but what we want him to excel at is moving the puck, skating the puck and shooting the puck," Murray said. "Whatever he does after that, to me, is a bonus, because we have some guys that are hard to play against, we've got some guys that are good defensively, block shots. So I think he adds to the mix that we have on the blue line."

The competition figures to be stiff throughout training camp to see who else will make the opening-night roster. In addition to Franson, Matt Donovan, Bobby Sanguinetti and Colaiacovo were signed as free agents, and 2010 first-round pick (No. 23) Mark Pysyk, 2012 second-round pick (No. 44) Jake McCabe and Chad Ruhwedel also will be in camp.

"It's always good to have competition; it brings the best out of players," Colaiacovo said. "We've got some really good players here. It's a long season. Things change all the time during the season, whether you start with it, or you go to the middle of the season, or you finish with it; things always change."


Goaltender has been a fluid position in Buffalo the past two seasons, with Ryan Miller Jhonas Enroth, Michal Neuvirth and Anders Lindback, among others, taking starts. So Murray acquired a player familiar to him to try to solidify the position, getting 24-year-old Robin Lehner from the Ottawa Senators on June 26.

"He fits with what we're trying to do," said Murray, who was an assistant GM with the Senators when they drafted Lehner in the second round (No. 46) in 2009. "And if it takes this year only to get his feet back under him, I'm fine with that. Because if we become a competitive team in two years or three years and he's found his game and becomes what we think he is, it's the perfect fit."

Lehner sustained a concussion Feb. 16 and didn't play again last season. He's since been cleared to return and is eager to prove himself in Buffalo.

"When I got traded I had a lot of emotions running through [me]," Lehner said. "I'd been with the guys in Ottawa for a few years and had a lot of good friends there. Coming here and talking to the organization and seeing the changes they're making and how much they're putting into a fresh start, it's really exciting."

Lehner and backup Chad Johnson, 29, should give the Sabres a steady tandem. Johnson, who was acquired at the NHL Trade Deadline last season from the New York Islanders for Neuvirth, will push Lehner to stay on his game.

Special Teams

Fixing special teams will be vital to the Sabres' success this season, but it also won't be difficult to improve on their 2014-15 performances.

Last season the Sabres had the worst power play in the NHL (13.4 percent), scoring on 30 of 224 man-advantage chances; they also allowed eight shorthanded goals, tied for the third-most in the League. The penalty kill also was the worst in the NHL (75.1 percent).

Bylsma had great success coaching special teams with the Pittsburgh Penguins. From 2009-10 through 2013-14, the Penguins were in the top five in the League in power play and penalty kill three seasons each. During that span the cumulative power-play efficiency was 19.6 percent, and the penalty-kill rate was 84.9 percent. If the Sabres can come close to those numbers, wins will happen more frequently.



2014-15 record:
23-51-8 (54 points)

2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs: Did not qualify

Key additions: C Jack Eichel, C Ryan O'Reilly, LW Jamie McGinn, G Robin Lehner, D Cody Franson, D Matt Donovan, D Carlo Colaiacovo, Dan Bylsma (coach)

Key subtractions: C Cody Hodgson, D Nikita Zadorov, C Mikhail Grigorenko, D Andrej Meszaros, G Anders Lindback, Ted Nolan (coach)

Bylsma was hired May 28 to replace Ted Nolan and help lead the Sabres out of its rebuild and into the postseason. In his five-and-a-half seasons with the Penguins, he won the Stanley Cup in 2009 and led them to the playoffs every season.

"He's been through it," Murray said when Bylsma was hired. "Stanley Cup Final as a player, winning the Stanley Cup as a coach. To me, he's a winner. He knows what it takes to get there, how to perform when you are there. So there's a lot of lessons he can give to young players. That's part of the culture. We've been trying to change the culture here every day, but this is a big swing to the positive."

The Sabres' 37.5 shot-attempt percentage (SAT%) last season at 5-on-5 was the worst in the League since the 2002-03 season, according to In Bylsma's first three-and-a-half seasons with the Penguins, their SAT% was at least 52.0 percent at 5-on-5; in his final two seasons it was at least 48.0 percent. Bylsma's system should help turn around that aspect in Buffalo.

Bylsma's staff also has experience. He hired former NHL coach Terry Murray, longtime NHL assistant Dave Barr and Dan Lambert, former coach of Kelowna of the Western Hockey League. That group will look to change not only the Sabres' style of play, but also adjust their culture.

"The developing, the winning, the culture of winning and developing that with your group and your team is going to be something I learned with the Pittsburgh Penguins, something you developed," Bylsma said in May. "It wasn't something that we had because you had certain players on your roster, and that's something that we have to immediately get into the Buffalo Sabres organization, get into our DNA, get into who we are and how we play and develop that culture with this group."

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