The Buffalo Sabres haven’t finished an NHL season with a winning record since 2010-11, which also was the last time the franchise made the playoffs. Is there reason for optimism next season? Maybe.
It’s difficult to be a sports fan living in the greater Buffalo area right now. The NFL’s Bills haven’t the playoffs since 1999, the longest drought in that sport. The area’s other winter pro sports team, the NHL’s Sabres, haven’t played extra hockey since 2011.
Still, if there’s reason for optimism it could come from this past season’s Edmonton Oilers. They of course selected Connor McDavid with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2015 draft. The Oilers were still terrible in 2015-16, finishing with just 70 points – their 10th straight year missing the playoffs. However, this past season, McDavid won the Hart Trophy and the Oilers finished with 103 points and reached the Western Conference semifinals. They are an early favorite for the 2018 Stanley Cup at +1000 on Bovada NHL odds. That’s behind only Pittsburgh (+700).
The Sabres selected Jack Eichel with the No. 2 overall pick in 2015 behind McDavid. Eichel was nearly as hyped a prospect. He played all 81 games as a rookie and finished with 24 goals and 32 assists. By comparison, McDavid had 16 goals and 32 assists in 45 games (broke his collarbone).
Yes, McDavid took a big jump in Year 2 with 100 points, but Eichel had 24 goals and 33 assists in 20 fewer games than his rookie year. So he was on pace to improve his first-year numbers substantially. Eichel was tied for 11th in the NHL in points per game (0.93) and led it in shots on goal per game (4.1). With Eichel centering the top line and Ryan O’Reilly the No. 2, that’s a nice combination.
Buffalo finished last in the Atlantic Division in part because Eichel suffered a high-ankle sprain in the preseason, and by the time he returned the Sabres had already dug themselves a big hole. Ownership expected the playoffs and cleaned house in firing general manager Tim Murray and head coach Dan Bylsma.
The new GM is Jason Botterill, who was the two-time Stanley Cup champion Penguins’ assistant GM. Owner Terry Pegula (he also owns the Bills) wanted someone to build structure and discipline. Botterill hired Predators assistant Phil Housley as his head coach. Housley, a Hall of Fame player, led the Predators’ defense for the past four seasons. Nashville finished first or second in goals from defensemen in each of those four seasons. Housley played 21 years in the NHL, eight in Buffalo.
Player-wise, the biggest move was Buffalo trading Tyler Ennis to Minnesota for forward Jason Pominville and defenseman Marco Scandella. Pominville, who played in Buffalo from 2003-2013, had 13 goals and 34 assists last year with the Wild. Scandella should pair with Rasmus Ristolainen as the No. 1 blueline pair. The Sabres also signed free-agent forward Benoit Pouliot to a one-year deal.
Robin Lehner returns in net and he was 23-26-8 with a 2.68 GAA and .920 save percentage last year. He’ll now be backed up by free-agent addition Chad Johnson.
The Sabres are +6600 to win the 2018 Stanley Cup. That’s not happening, but a 15-18 point improvement could and that might be enough for a playoff spot.Bet On NHL Futures At SBR's Top Sportsbooks