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18 FIRST IMPRESSIONS PART 1: OPENING NIGHT

by Jourdon LaBarber / Buffalo Sabres
(Photo Credit: Bill Wippert)
From beginning to end, the 2015-16 season was a transitional one for the Buffalo Sabres. The players came into it with high expectations, of course, but reaching their goals meant enduring the process of developing chemistry in a dressing room with nearly as many new faces as old.


Nine players made their debuts with the team when the Sabres hosted the Ottawa Senators for opening night on Oct. 8. That number grew to 18 over the course of the season: A combination of talented rookies, seasoned veterans and acquisitions meant to usher in a new era of hockey in Buffalo.

We broke down those 18 debuts by taking a look at the impressions they made on their first season in Buffalo and the lasting impressions that will be felt moving forward. We begin with the new players who opened the season on the Sabres roster.

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1. Ryan O'Reilly (Debut: 10/8/15)

First Impression: Expectations were high for O'Reilly in his first season with the Sabres after he signed a seven-year contract extension following his trade from Colorado over the summer. The numbers in his debut were hardly indicative of what he'd bring to the table over the course of the season: his 20:17 of ice time in opener against Ottawa ranked third amongst Sabres forwards and he didn’t register a single shot attempt.

As the season wore on, it didn’t take long for O'Reilly to establish himself as a Swiss Army knife of sorts for Sabres coach Dan Bylsma. His average time on ice of 21:44 was the highest among the League's forwards, his 1,812 faceoffs taken ranked fourth in the League despite missing 11 games with a lower-body injury, and he was the first man on the ice both on the power play and on the penalty kill.

All that, and he led the team with 60 points (21+39) en route to his first All-Star Game appearance.

Lasting Impression: For as valuable as O'Reilly was during games for the Sabres, his impact in practice was of equal value. After being named an alternate captain during Training Camp, O'Reilly became known for his after-practice drills that grew in popularity as the season progressed.

Sam Reinhart, who improved drastically over the course of his rookie season, said he wouldn't be where he is today without that extra work. But even beyond Reinhart, the impression that O'Reilly's work ethic left on a young team is undeniable.

2. Evander Kane (Debut: 10/8/15)

(Photo Credit: Bill Wippert)

First Impression: Kane's debut was long-awaited considering the fact that he had been traded to the Sabres in February 2015 but was sidelined for the final two months of the 2014-15 season due to surgery on his shoulder. Questions surrounded him about how he would respond to that injury and whether or not he would return to the 30-goal form he displayed at age 20 in 2011-12, his last season with more than 70 games played.

He showed his scoring prowess right off the bat in the season opener, tallying what appeared to be the game-tying goal in the third period only to see it overturned on a missed offside call thanks to the newly implemented coach's challenge. Similar missed opportunities held Kane without a goal until Oct. 21, when he scored the game-tying goal in a shootout win over Toronto.

Lasting Impression: Despite being held below 70 games due to a knee injury early on and an upper-body injury that ended his season in March, his 65 games were the most he's played since that 30-goal season in 2011-12. His 35 points (20+15) this season at age 24 ranked fifth on the team.

Like O'Reilly, however, his impact went beyond the scoring numbers. Bylsma called him the team's "hardest worker" on the ice, and it showed – he put his combination of speed and size on display to become a force on the forecheck, placing third on the team with 171 hits and finishing second in the League among forwards only to O'Reilly with an average ice time of 21:02. He also led the team and ranked 10th in the League with 271 shots.

3. Jack Eichel (Debut: 10/8/15)

First Impression: Nobody had higher expectations placed upon them than Eichel, who was taken by the Sabres with the No. 2 pick in the 2015 Draft and immediately touted as one of the League's top prospects. When he made his debut on opening night, he was 18 years old.

Eichel wasted no time in providing Sabres fans with their first lasting memory, and he did it in standard Eichel fashion – which is to say with a highlight-reel goal, Buffalo's first of the season.

He became the third-youngest player in Sabres history to score in his debut and the second-youngest player ever to score in a Sabres season-opener.

Lasting Impression: Eichel was every bit as good as advertised in his rookie season, and he only got better as he became more acclimated to the League. He increased his points-per-game average from 0.47 in 34 games prior to Christmas to 0.85 in the final 47 games, ultimately leading the team with 24 goals and finishing second only to O'Reilly with 56 points.

Eichel will skip participating for Team USA in this year's IIHF World Championship to take some well-deserved time off. After that, General Manager Tim Murray said that Eichel is going to train as if "he's preparing for a championship fight." Eichel himself said he expects to turn yet another corner in his sophomore season and, given his success as a rookie, there's no reason to doubt him.

4. Robin Lehner (Debut: 10/8/15)

First Impression: Last season ended in February for Lehner, when he sustained a concussion with the Ottawa Senators that would keep him off the ice until mid-August. He hadn’t even been skating for two months when he made his Sabres debut against his former team on opening night.

It didn’t last long. After allowing a goal on the first shot he faced, he sustained a high-ankle sprain 27:30 into the game and didn’t play again until January. When he continued to have problems with pain and swelling, the decision was made for him to have season-ending surgery on March 30. The surgery was successful and Lehner will be able to start working out again in a few weeks.

Lasting Impression: With his limited time to prepare coming in and the constant discomfort in his ankle, Lehner was never truly at 100 percent when he did play this season. But even so, he put up impressive numbers his 21 starts, posting a .924 save percentage and a 2.47 goals-against average.

At age 24, the limited performance was enough to see the potential he has when he is able to put together a healthy season. Lehner remains confident he'll be able to do that, and Murray, who was in Ottawa's hockey department when the Senators drafted Lehner in 2009, suggested Lehner will have the opportunity to claim the starting role again next season.

5. Jamie McGinn (Debut: 10/8/15)

First Impression: Acquired along with O'Reilly in an offseason trade with Colorado, little was known as to what we should expect from McGinn after his season was cut short due to back surgery in 2014-15. He began the season on Buffalo's fourth line and played 10:03 in the season opener. His first goal wouldn’t come until the ninth game of the season, a win in Philadelphia on Oct. 27.

His role expanded as the year went on, however, and McGinn became a consistent net-front presence for the Sabres up until when he was traded to the Anaheim Ducks on Feb. 29. Playing in 63 games with Buffalo, he still ranked fifth on the team with 14 goals by season's end.

Lasting Impression: While his status as an unrestricted free agent this summer led to his departure at the Trade Deadline, there's little doubt regarding the impact McGinn had on a young team in a formative year.

O'Reilly credited McGinn with helping ease his transition to Buffalo. Eichel couldn’t help but smile any time he spoke about the friendship he and McGinn had formed. Just as the image of McGinn tipping in goals at the net-front would feature prominently on Buffalo's season-ending scoring reel, the impact he had in the dressing room in a formative year will continue to be remembered by his teammates.

6. Chad Johnson (Debut: 10/8/15)

(Photo Credit: Bill Wippert)

First Impression: Buffalo acquired Johnson at the 2015 NHL Trade Deadline, but on the morning of his first scheduled start on March 6, 2015, he injured his ankle and his season was over.

He didn't expect to make his regular-season debut with the Sabres on opening night, but right from the moment Johnson subbed in for an injured Lehner, the 29-year-old goaltender served as a calm, collected presence in net for Buffalo. He allowed one goal on nine shots in relief that night, which served as a sign of things to come.

Two stretches in particular come to mind when looking at Johnson's season: his seven starts in November, during which he allowed eight goals on 174 shots for a sparkling .954 save percentage, and his nine-straight starts after Lehner's season ended in March, when he went 6-2-1 with a 2.21 GAA and a .925 save percentage.

Lasting Impression: A backup for his entire career prior to this season, Johnson proved to himself and to the League that he can carry the load when called upon. He made a career-high 45 appearances – including 40 starts – and posted a 22-16-4 record with a .920 save percentage and a 2.36 goals-against average. His teammates voted him as the team's Unsung Hero at the end of the year.

Bylsma often spoke of Johnson's calm demeanor as his greatest attribute, but he also rose to the occasion with dazzling stops when he needed to – especially in overtime or at the end of games. With Lehner expected to be the starter in Buffalo next season, it remains to be seen what Johnson's future holds as an unrestricted agent this summer.

7. David Legwand (Debut 10/8/15)

First Impression: Legwand settled into his role as Buffalo's fourth-line center from day one, playing 8:57 on opening night. The fact that Buffalo wasn’t called for a penalty in that game, however, meant he didn’t have a chance to show what would become his most prominent role on the ice: the team's quarterback on the penalty kill.

Legwand played 191:38 of shorthanded ice time, second on the team only to defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen, and was a steady presence on a unit that rebounded from a poor start to finish ninth in the League at 82.6 percent.

Lasting Impression: Like several of the veterans on the team, Legwand also held a leadership role in the dressing room. A former No. 2 overall pick himself in 1998, he made it a point to pass down advice to Eichel and Reinhart on how to handle the ups and downs of an 82-game season. His hockey IQ made an impact too – Bylsma said in March that Legwand had his own personal book on how to approach each opponent in the faceoff circle and on the penalty kill that he would share with teammates before each game.

(Photo Credit: Bill Wippert)

8. Cody Franson (Debut: 10/8/15)

First Impression: The Sabres signed Franson late in the offseason to round out their defensive corps.

His start wasn’t ideal – Franson had a minus-1 rating in his debut and a minus-3 rating in his second game, a 4-1 loss to Tampa Bay. He had a minus-7 rating by the time Buffalo's 10th game ended on Oct. 29.

Things turned around, however, from that point on. Franson had a plus-2 rating for the remainder of the season and ended the year ranked third among the team's defensemen with 17 points (4+13) despite seeing his season cut short after 59 games due to a neck injury sustained on Feb. 19.

Lasting Impression: Aside from his duties as a defenseman on the third pair, Franson was a regular on the power play when he was healthy.

He scored seven points with the extra man (1+6) and played 126:01 on the power play, which ranked ninth on the team despite his shortened season.

With a year under his belt already, look for him to build on those numbers next season.

9. Carlo Colaiacovo (Debut 10/8/15)

First Impression: After signing a one-year deal with the Sabres over the summer, Colaiacovo started for Buffalo for the first two games of the season. Then he didn’t play again for two weeks. Such would be life for the 33-year-old defenseman, who provided reliable depth on the blue line. At times, he would serve as sixth D-man on the Sabres' roster and at other times, he'd be the seventh or eighth.

Lasting Impression: Colaiacovo gave the Sabres an able-bodied veteran defenseman in a season where they'd desperately need one due to injuries. He filled in and played well when called upon while also bringing a positive attitude to the dressing room. He finished the season with five points (1+4) and averaged 14:28 of ice time over 36 games.

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