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Justified Optimism

Eichel

Buffalo fans live and die with their teams in a way few outsiders can understand. Apart from chicken wings and snow, the Bills and Sabres give our beloved city a national identity. And it often transcends to our personal identity as well.

We’ve lived through every kind of controversial call and heartbreaking finish, yet we never give up hope. We continue to support our teams that often bring us pain and heartache. And we’ll never stop cheering unconditionally for them, regardless of an all too familiar outcome. It is truly our love and our pain.

For Sabres fans, after finishing 23rd overall last year and spending several seasons in the basement of the league before that, it sure feels like much brighter days are ahead.

ADDING TO THE FOUNDATION

This year’s team has legitimate promise. And that’s not just fluff preceding a new season on the horizon. This offseason, the Sabres are putting the pieces together to take that next step with a bravado that hasn’t been heard in almost a decade.

In Head Coach Dan Bylsma’s recent “Five Questions” interview with NHL.com, he made his expectations clear: “We should be above 95 points at the end of the season.”

That’s a 14-point improvement on top of last year’s dramatic 27 point jump, which was the most improved of any team. And for comparison’s sake, the last time the Sabres finished with 90 points, they made the playoffs.

CmxtqB0WgAA4fHlBylsma knows success. In addition to having his name on the Cup, he’s been at the helm for four 100-point seasons for the Penguins. Not to mention a 72-point season in the 2013 lockout year that projected to 123 over a full season.

Inking Kyle Okposo this offseason, arguably the second biggest free agent in the league and the biggest in the franchise’s history, is yet another step forward. His reason for coming to Buffalo was simple: to win a Stanley Cup.

“It’s nice to say that playoffs are a definite goal and you actually mean it when you say it. Expectations are the playoffs. I’ve said all along we’re getting there. Our young kids that played on the team last year, we expect to take a step. We signed Kyle on July 1, which is a big step forward. We all believe there’s been lots of improvement here and there’s a lot of room for more.” – Tim Murray

Murray swapped out Pysyk for a more experienced Kulikov, a potential shut down defenseman, and still wants to add two more players to the blue line. Plus, like most fans, he’s hoping Hobey Baker Award winner Jimmy Vesey will join the club. While Vesey intends to hit free agency August 15, Murray said he felt great about the meeting and clearly outlined his vision for the free agent.

“We believe we’re going to be a team that continues to get better and a team that competes for the Stanley Cup as we go forward here. We’ll be better next season. We’ll be better after that. And he’s got a chance to grow with our group of young players and be a great team. I think that’s the best opportunity for him in the league. We explained all that to him.” – Dan Bylsma

Murray doesn’t mince his words. Instead, he takes action. Hence the “gamble” for trading a third round pick to get first dibs on Vesey before he hits the open market. If it pays off, adding Vesey to the top six will only accelerate the team’s ascent.

INFLUX OF TALENT

The team’s development camp showed a lot of up and coming talent, with Justin Bailey and Brendan Guhle looking like contenders to join the club this year. Defenseman Will Borgen, goalie Cal Petersen and 2016 first rounder, Alex Nylander all look like terrific prospects as well.

Nylander could go back to junior, play in Rochester, or play wing with Eichel. “He’s just high-end talent, high-end skill. He’s going to be a real good NHL player. It’s a matter of time,” said Murray.

The big question mark still swirls around Robin Lehner and whoever else joins him between the pipes. Chad Johnson’s vacancy was filled with several unproven NHL goalies. If Lehner stays healthy and can play 60+ games, this may be a non-issue.

LOOKING AHEAD

Winning doesn’t happen overnight in the NHL. A perennial losing team does not turn into a Stanley Cup winner the next. It took the Penguins five years to make the playoffs after drafting Mario Lemieux, the Capitals three years after drafting Alex Ovechken, and the Blackhawks two years after drafting Patrick Kane.

There’s no doubt the Sabres are turning the corner. And with a foundation of Eichel, O’Reilly, Reinhart, Okposo and Ristolainen, this team is finally taking shape. Just the thought of returning to the playoffs is enough to get me pumped for opening night, October 13. For the city of Buffalo and its dedicated fans, we certainly deserve it.


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