I believe that all things considered, the Buffalo Sabres should consider the 2016 season a small victory, especially given the distance they came in such a short period of time.
The Sabres were so poor in the 2015 season, they were a lottery loss away from having the 1st overall pick in last Summer's draft and with a lot of things coming together, like trades and signings, not to mention the 2nd overall pick, they have moved up in the world and they will pick 8th overall this Summer and that's not a bad thing in the world of rebuilding franchises.
This team could have been a little bit more, if their future number one goalie didn't get hurt within the first eight minutes of the season opening, as Robin Lehner was brought on to help guide this team to bigger and better things, but he ended up missing the better part of the season with his ankle injury.
Still, this team found ways to give their fans something to boast about from time to time, as Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart gave a glimpse into their not-so-distant future with a pair of good rookie campaigns and the building blocks placed around them are also great signs that this team has some real spunk, as soon as next season.
There isn't a huge rush to success in Buffalo, but they can't be sitting back on their laurels either. Build and maintain, build and maintain... that will be the mantra at the First Niagara Center again this year.
For having such a poor 2015 season, the sense of optimism was certainly there by the poolies in the draft, as 13 Buffalo players were taken in the first 14 rounds, which should have given a vote of confidence to team management, you know... if they were paying attention to this particular hockey pool. Injuries started to happen and four Sabres were dropped in Week Nine, while a couple were picked up and then in Week Eighteen, it was a three dropped, two picked ratio. Still, the Sabres ended up as sellers at the deadline and the active number of Buffalo players at the end of the year was down to nine.
When the Sabres dropped the blockbuster trade that brought the team Ryan O'Reilly, he was meant to lead this team through some pretty tough times and he got off to a decent start in 2016. He finished the year in 57th in overall pool scoring, picking up 60 points in 71 games for the team. He provided decent scoring and lots of leadership on this team, when it needed it most.
Not too far off the pace was their rookie dynamo, Jack Eichel, and then Sam Reinhart, while Evander Kane and Brian Gionta rounded out the pool-worthy forwards. On defense, it was a great year for Rasmus Ristolainen, who finished 24th among all blueliners, followed on the team by Zach Bogosian and Cody Franson, who were somewhat underwhelming, but did okay, considering the overall depth of this squad. In goal, Chad Johnson had to pick up the slack and he did admirably, finishing 26th among all goalies in pool scoring.
What I Said Last Year, At This Time...
Even the addition of Sidney Crosby to the Penguins in 2006 really turned that team around right away, so I don't think there is any reason why I would think that Eichel would turn this team around, no matter how highly touted he is. Eichel will likely be a big draw for the Sabres and between him and Reinhart, there will be some real excitement in the city again. Improvement will come, maybe by a leap, but I can't see it having a bound, since they don't have any established goaltending at this point. If management can supplant this team with some veteran depth, then a leap with a bound is possible. Today, with the make-up of the team the way it is, plus some potential, at best they might still be in the conversation at the start of the last month of the season.
Well, this one is definitely a win, because management swung for the fences and did well bringing on that veteran talent and this team really did make some strides this season. Okay, they weren't exactly in the playoff conversation in the last month of the season, but they weren't in the conversation for the 1st overall draft pick either. After such an interesting season, you begin to wonder how this management team is going to follow it up this Summer.
2017 Pool Outlook
|Ryan O'Reilly||7.500||Zach Bogosian||5.143|
|Evander Kane||5.250||Cody Franson||3.325|
|Matt Moulson||5.000||Josh Gorges||3.900||Robin Lehner||2.225|
|Tyler Ennis||4.600||Mark Pysyk||1.125||Linus Ullmark||0.776|
|Cody McCormick||1.500||Brendan Guhle||0.734|
|Johan Larsson||0.950||Brady Austin||0.627|
Remember, only the pool worthy are on the top of the table and the Sabres could really use a few more of those players next season. Okay, Robin Lehner should be one of those players next season, he will be looked upon to be that guy again, hopefully with better luck. Matt Moulson needs to be better and Tyler Ennis could also use a bit of that healthy luck as well. The Sabres certainly have a few of those pieces in place, but everyone still needs to be patient for this team to really come around properly.
In terms of who to watch, who could be a hockey pool player next season, look for Hudson Fasching, who played in seven games at the end of the season, picking up a couple of assists, as he is the most likely to get a full-time job and help add to some totals, if all things go according to plan. It doesn't look like the Sabres have a lot of prime time offensive talent in the wings right now, rather they are boasting a lot of support talent, so it could be slim picking, if you're looking for freshman points.
Needs at the 2016 Entry Draft
The Sabres are coming in at the 8th spot in the entry draft and by my count, they could end up with a pretty good pick in Pierre-Luc Dubois, who ramped his stock up to the top of the North American skaters, but has fallen in my mock draft, due to the needs of teams ahead of the Sabres in the draft and possibly some better fits. Dubois is a good-sized 17-year old today, who had awesome numbers for Cape Breton in the QMJHL in 2016. If he could fall into their laps, that would be a huge win for the Sabres.
Buffalo has also really stocked up on picks for this Summer's draft, as they have 11 total picks, so they will have lots to choose from, when they go to their development camp this Summer.
Free Agency and the Salary Cap
With 25 players signed onto deals, there are lots of spots available to be had on the Buffalo Sabres lineup, which means free agency will be very kind to this side as well. David Legwand and Chad Johnson lead the UFA contingency and may garner some attention from the management team, while there is far more work to do with some of the RFAs.
Rasmus Ristolainen headlines the RFA group, as the only pool worthy player of the bunch and there is a good chance that he'll be looking for some big bucks this Summer, as he has been growing at a very promising clip in his career.
The miracle deals that happened last year are not likely to be replicated or repeated this Summer, but you just never know, I suppose. Out of a few of these non-playoff teams, the Sabres have been doing a good job picking up players that actually could help their franchise right away and may make for an expedited trip to the playoffs before other teams. It still seems rather unlikely that this will happen for them in the 2017 season, unless some of those bigger pieces really flourish with a bit more familiarity under their belts. If Lehner can stay healthy and the tandem of Eichel/Reinhart stay at a steady pace, this team could make their way into the wild card talk in February, maybe late-March, but it will be their depth that really dictates where they finish.