After the NHL Draft, free agency and other offseason moves, NHL.com is taking a look at where each team stands. Today, the Buffalo Sabres:
The Buffalo Sabres made major strides last season, going from last place in the NHL standings in 2014-15 to 23rd under the direction of general manager Tim Murray and first-year coach Dan Bylsma.
Their 27-point improvement was aided by some key additions, including forwards Ryan O'Reilly, Evander Kane and 2015 first-round pick (No. 2) Jack Eichel. The Sabres scored 46 more goals and allowed 54 fewer than they did in 2014-15. However, injuries to Kane, forward Tyler Ennis and goaltender Robin Lehner, as well as forwards Matt Moulson and Zemgus Girgensons each having the worst offensive season of his NHL career, hurt their Stanley Cup Playoff chances.
Murray hopes the Sabres can improve upon last season and qualify for the postseason for the first time since 2010-11.
The Sabres acquired the negotiating rights to 23-year-old left wing Jimmy Vesey for a third-round pick in the 2016 NHL Draft in a trade with the Nashville Predators on June 20. Buffalo holds Vesey's rights until Aug. 15, when he can become an unrestricted free agent. Vesey, who is friends with Eichel, won the 2015-16 Hobey Baker Award as the top collegiate player after scoring 24 goals and 46 points in 33 games for Harvard University.
"It's easy to play with someone as talented as he is," Vesey said of Eichel. "He sees the ice really well. I like to get open and get myself into scoring areas. I don't even need to yell, he always finds me. We both see the ice really well, so we complement each other out there."
Here is what the Sabres look like today:
KEY ARRIVALS: Kyle Okposo, F: The Sabres signed the 6-foot, 217-pound right wing to a seven-year contract on July 1. He's capable of playing a power game but also has a solid offensive skill set, averaging 22 goals and 61 points over the past three seasons. Murray promised Okposo a chance to play right wing with either Eichel or O'Reilly so expect him to get big minutes from the outset. … Dmitry Kulikov, D: Murray wanted a young, left-handed defenseman so he acquired Kulikov and a 2016 second-round pick (No. 33) for defenseman Mark Pysyk and two 2016 draft picks (No. 38, No. 89) from the Florida Panthers. The Russian has good offensive instincts and a good shot from the point, but the challenge for Bylsma will be trying to fix the little inconsistencies in his game. … Anders Nilsson, G: The 6-5, 229-pound Swede is athletic and mobile and should battle for backup duty behind Robin Lehner. Nilsson was acquired July 2 in a trade with the St. Louis Blues for a fifth-round draft pick in 2017. … Alexander Nylander, F: Murray says the 2016 first-round pick (No. 8) is the complete package. Nylander brings great speed, playmaking ability and a scorer's touch. There's an outside chance he could impress enough during his nine-game trial period that he'll stay with the Sabres instead of either being returned to Mississauga of the Ontario Hockey League or sent to Rochester of the American Hockey League.
KEY DEPARTURES: Chad Johnson, G: Johnson, 30, signed a one-year contract with the Calgary Flames on July 1. He played well after Lehner sustained an ankle injury that limited him to 21 games last season, going 22-16-4 with a 2.36 goals-against average and .920 save percentage in 45 games. ... Mark Pysyk, D: He was considered expendable when the opportunity to acquire Kulikov was on the table. Pysyk had five goals, 26 points and a minus-15 rating in 125 games with the Sabres over four seasons. He struggled to remain healthy and wasn't the physical presence that Murray envisioned along the blue line.
ON THE CUSP: Hudson Fasching, F: The 6-2, 207-pound right wing likely will start the season in Rochester of the American Hockey League but might not be there for long. He plays in all situations, including on the power play and penalty kill, and can play a power game and also finish. Fasching is a solid complementary two-way wing that Bylsma will want in his lineup sooner than later. … Brendan Guhle, D: Signed to a three-year, entry-level contract on July 27, 2015, the 6-1, 186-pound left-handed shooter played the past two seasons for Prince Albert of the Western Hockey League, then had one goal and four points in six games for Rochester at the end of last season. ... Justin Bailey, F: The 6-3, 209-pound right wing/center had 20 goals and 45 points in 70 games for Rochester in his first pro season in 2015-16. He likely will start the season in the AHL but offers great depth when needed with the Sabres. … Nicholas Baptiste, F: A hardworking and complementary forward who can play right wing or center, Baptiste had 13 goals and 28 points in 62 games with Rochester last season.
WHAT THEY STILL NEED: Murray needs to lure Vesey, who would give Bylsma great depth among the top six. … Bylsma will need to establish if Nilsson is the clear backup goalie prior to the start of the season since the departure of Johnson left a significant hole. Linus Ullmark is another option behind Lehner. … Murray said he isn't done in his pursuit to add organizational depth; he signed defensemen Justin Falk and Taylor Fedun to a one-year, two-way contract on July 1.
PETE JENSEN'S FANTASY FOCUS: We saw a glimpse of defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen's potential when he scored 41 points, including 21 on the power play, and had 202 shots on goal last season. His fantasy rise could continue with Buffalo's strong nucleus of top-six forwards. The Sabres' first power-play unit figures to include O'Reilly, Eichel and free agent addition Okposo, so Ristolainen will have plenty of potent forwards to feed the puck. He absolutely will be available outside the top 100 players in fantasy drafts, but the 21-year-old could be poised for a leap into the realm of 50-60 points with a much-improved rating if his even-strength play stabilizes.
Evander Kane - Ryan O'Reilly - Kyle Okposo
Tyler Ennis - Jack Eichel - Sam Reinhart
Marcus Foligno - Johan Larsson - Brian Gionta
Nicolas Deslauriers - Zemgus Girgensons - Matt Moulson
Dmitry Kulikov - Rasmus Ristolainen
Josh Gorges - Zach Bogosian
Jake McCabe - Cody Franson