2017-18 NHL Team Preview: Buffalo Sabres

Buffalo Sabres forward Jack Eichel (15) skates during the second period of against the Toronto Maple Leafs. (Jeffrey T. Barnes/AP)

It’s time the Buffalo Sabres got out of the Atlantic Division basement and make a big jump up in the Eastern Conference standings.

The Sabres have finished at the bottom of the division in three of the four years since it’s been re-arranged as the Atlantic, which has given them time and opportunity to put together a young roster with promise. Some reasonably believed 2016-17 was going to be Buffalo’s big break out, but a bottom-third offence helped sink them again — the consolation prize being Casey Mittelstadt with the eighth overall pick.

Mittelstadt adds another scoring forward for the future, although he won’t be on the 2017-18 team. This year’s Buffalo Sabres come back a year older, a year better developed and supposedly, a year closer to getting back in the playoffs.

We’ll see if it comes true and take a closer look at the team in our season preview.

UP-AND-COMING PLAYER TO WATCH

Throughout our 31 team previews, we’ve mostly used this space to talk about potential rookies that could crack the roster. In Buffalo’s case, that candidate would be the eighth overall pick of the 2016 NHL Draft, Alexander Nylander.

Nylander struggled, though, with 28 points in 65 AHL games last season and earned one assist in four late-season NHL call-up games. He was injured in the rookie tournament and hasn’t been healthy for training camp yet with week-to-week status, so he’s highly likely to go back to the AHL, where the team hopes to see some improvement.

Other than Nylander, we’re going to get more obvious. Jack Eichel, who will turn 21 in October, would like to see a breakthrough season in which he’s fully healthy. He was limited to 61 games last season and still scored one more point (57) than he did in his 81-game rookie season. Due for his first first post-entry-level contract, Eichel needs to be the offensive leader and is a candidate to top 30 goals and 80 points, with the potential to go even higher.

Eichel may not be at the same level as Connor McDavid, but if he becomes a top five scorer in the league it would give the Sabres a similar boost in their playoff hopes, and it would give Eichel a contract north of $10 million.

WHAT A SUCCESSFUL 2017-18 WOULD LOOK LIKE

It’s about time this team took a leap, isn’t it?

In some ways, the Sabres are the Winnipeg Jets of the East: a team of patience that has built through the draft in recent years, but one that hasn’t made any meaningful progress in the standings. At least the Jets have a playoff appearance to show for it, though.

New Buffalo coach Phil Housley has shown signs in training camp that he wants to open up the attack and use all five players to push the pace aggressively, which would seem to suit their collection of defencemen and offensive forwards, beefed up with summer pick-ups Marco Scandella, Nathan Beaulieu and Jason Pominville. The Sabres were 24th in goals per game last season (2.43) and should see an uptick there.

Success will be defined by the playoffs for the Sabres this season, but missing out may not necessarily constitute a disappointment. As long as they are in the playoff race until late in the season there will finally be a sign of life here. But the Eastern Conference will be a tough top eight to crack.

BIGGEST REMAINING QUESTION

As mentioned, the Sabres need an improvement in their goals this season and it seems the coach coach will optimize the situation. Eichel will score, Ryan O’Reilly will be in the 50-to-55-point range and Sam Reinhart should get up into that range this season, too. Aside from them, there are two veteran forwards in particular that need to step up.

Kyle Okposo came to the team as a free agent last season, earning $6 million against the cap. Moving away from John Tavares, Okposo had his worst season since 2011-12 and didn’t crack the 20-goal mark. For the kind of money he’s making, Okposo shouldn’t be reliant on his centre and needs to get over 20 goals and 60 points again.

And then there’s Evander Kane. After hitting 30 goals in 2011-12, Kane has been very inconsistent over the years, finally approaching that number again with 28 goals last season. He did that with a 10.8 shooting percentage, which is around three percentage points higher than he shot in the past three seasons. Kane will be an unrestricted free agent after this season, so he’s playing for a contract at least. But he was supposed to be an elite scoring talent when the Thrashers drafted him fourth overall in 2009 and hasn’t come close to that potential at age 26.

Both players have to bring it this year and if they do, the Sabres should make up all the offence they need to be competitive.