Predictions for the Buffalo Sabres' 2014-15 Season
The Buffalo Sabres' 2014-15 season begins Thursday night with a matchup against what should be a solid Columbus Blue Jackets team. To say expectations are low may be the understatement of the century.
Coming off arguably one of the worst seasons in NHL history, the Sabres had a lot of work to do to become respectable this season. General manager Tim Murray, beginning his first full season, has seemingly done that by adding a few veteran faces to what would otherwise be an extremely young team.
Head coach Ted Nolan also brought in Hall of Fame center Bryan Trottier and former Moncton Wildcat (of the QMJHL) head coach Danny Flynn as his assistants. Both of them should have a positive impact on the younger players in the system.
But despite these improvements, what will the final result be on the ice? Here are a few predictions for the upcoming season.
The Team Will Struggle to Score Goals (Again)
Last year the Sabres scored an NHL-low 150 goals, an amazing 38 fewer than the 29th-placed team, the Florida Panthers.
As it stands, the Sabres have made two significant additions to help in this regard: Brian Gionta and Sam Reinhart. Matt Moulson was also brought back after a stint in Minnesota, but his addition is more status quo as he was in Buffalo for 44 games last season.
No one knows how long Reinhart will be around at this point, so the hope is that Gionta paired with other veterans on the Sabres roster, like Tyler Ennis, Cody Hodgson and Drew Stafford, can increase the output.
Ennis and Hodgson will likely eclipse 20 goals as they both did last year, and Moulson could, and should, join them. Stafford has the skill to reach 20 goals, but his penchant for being streaky, as well as his future as an unrestricted free agent this summer, could get in the way of reaching that mark.
The Bottom-Six Forwards Will Be a Fluid Group
Fluid may be a term used to describe most teams' bottom-six forwards every season, but the Sabres seem to be in a somewhat unique position when it comes to that aspect of their team.
The main issue is the Sabres have a team full of bottom-six forwards, plus a promising stable of prospects in the AHL. If last season is any indication, Ted Nolan will be using a variety of line combinations, especially on the third and fourth lines.
Yes, the Sabres were plagued by the injury bug last year, which played into the line jockeying, but Nolan played fast and loose with his lines mid-game as well. What you saw before the game wasn't always what you got at the end of the game.
So with the young guys knocking on the door and the coach's tendency to shuffle his lines, the Sabres could see a lot of different players filling the ranks of their bottom six throughout the year.
The likely lineup on Thursday should look something like what the Sabres have practiced with all week, but don't expect that to stay the same for long.
Drew Stafford and Chris Stewart Will Be Major Trade Deadline Targets
Drew Stafford and Chris Stewart may have traveled different paths to get to Buffalo, but both are in the same boat now.
Both Stafford and Stewart are in the last year of their current contracts, with both carrying at least a $4 million cap hit this season. Both are also coming off a somewhat disappointing season and have shown a nose for goal scoring in the past.
Surrounded by the right people, both could become a valuable part of someone's postseason and Cup push this trade deadline. Given the price tags at last year's deadline, they won't fetch a first-round pick, but a second-rounder or a contributing prospect is certainly not out of the question.
Expect there to be a lot of buzz surrounding these two in the days and weeks leading up to the trade deadline in March. If they can hit a 25-goal pace at that time, the Sabres will have a few more assets to play with this year at the draft.
Sam Reinhart Will Get 9 Games, Then Head Back to the WHL
Despite the fact that 99 times out of 100 a player of Sam Reinhart's talent and pedigree would get automatically inserted into the Sabres lineup, this will be that one time he is not.
Let's be clear about one thing: This is not Reinhart's fault, nor is it anything remotely to do with him not being worthy of the second overall pick.
This is about being patient and putting your prospects in the best position to succeed.
Reinhart was able to crack the scoresheet this preseason and showed the vision and puck-moving skills that made him the top-drafted forward, but he also has been introduced to the speed of the NHL game and the strength you need to withstand it.
Now, Nathan MacKinnon was in a similar position at the start of last season, and given his similar size and stature to Reinhart, his Calder Trophy is proof that the speed and strength building can be done within an NHL season.
But that decision is up to Tim Murray, and with a vastly improved Mikhail Grigorenko sitting in the AHL right now, the sense seems to be to give Reinhart another year of juniors while saving a year on his entry-level deal and bring Grigorenko up to take his place.
Either way, Reinhart's future is extremely bright. Now it's just a matter of when it will start.
Cody Hodgson Will Lead the Sabres in Goals, Tyler Ennis in Points
Granted, this isn't really going out on a limb, as Hodgson led the Sabres in points and Ennis led in goals last season, but it seems that they will lead the charge on offense again.
As the Sabres can pretty much only go up in terms of goals for this year, it seems logical that both will score around 50 points. Both will post something close to 25 goals, but Hodgson has the edge given he scored one fewer goal in eight fewer games last season.
Ennis' play definitely improved as the season wore on last year, and playing him with Matt Moulson and Drew Stafford─at least to start─should be a boon to his point totals.
There hopefully will come a time when these two are the secondary scorers on Buffalo, but until then they will be counted on to keep the team competitive.
Last Place Is Not a Lock, but the Sabres Will Be in the Race All Year
This is the biggest question on Sabres fans' minds, as it should be.
The addition of Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel has the possibility to pay off big time in terms of Stanley Cup rings, but these guys are pros who are not going to lay down for the next big thing.
If Nolan's teams have shown us anything, it's that they stick around in games that they shouldn't, and in an NHL season, a team will win more than a few games it had no business even being in.
But, realistically, the Sabres didn't add much to their offense to increase their league-low 150 goals scored last year. The defense is steadier with the additions of Josh Gorges, Andrej Meszaros and Andre Benoit and the subtraction of Jamie McBain, but this is not yet the top-tier defensive corps the Sabres are threatening to have when all of their prospects get to the NHL.
But the biggest question is goaltending. Jhonas Enroth has struggled in the starting role in the past, and Michal Neuvirth has had an awful preseason. Ryan Miller was able to steal more than a few for this team last year, and to improve in the win column, Enroth and Neuvirth will have to do the same.
Overall, the team is a little better on offense but less two-way capable on defense and measurably worse in net. When adding all of these things up, they equal a pretty bleak future for the overall performance.
Calgary and Carolina are probably the most likely to have a say in the matter, but the Sabres will be in the race, if not leading it, to the finish for the first overall pick, much to the conflicted delight of most Buffalo fans.