The Sabres open the 2016 campaign on Thursday against the Montreal Canadiens in the newly rechristened KeyBank Center. The drop of the puck brings both anticipation and excitement to a head. This is the first season in years that fans of the Blue and Gold can realistically think that postseason play is a possibility.
For the Sabres to realize their playoff aspiration, a number of questions have to be answered and a number of issues have to play out in their favor. Presented below are the top five stops on the path to the playoffs.
1. Jack and Sam step up
The Sabres primary difficulty has been the inability to score goals. Last year, the Sabres finished tied for 25th in the NHL with only 199 goals. They climbed to that level in a large part because Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart found some chemistry playing together over the second half of the season. Continued production and leadership from the Sabres’ 2014 and 2015 first round draft picks will be required.
2. Robin Lehner stays healthy
The 26-year-old Swede has shown flashes of true No. 1 ability. He will start the season healthy, in dramatically better shape than last year and with a boatload of confidence. The Sabres need a healthy Lehner who can post great numbers for at least 60 games.
3. New additions find success
Opening night roster will include a number of new faces. In the offensive zone, the Sabres will need production from Kyle Okposo, Tyler Ennis and Derek Grant. Okposo has been near the top of the league in points per game and will get the ice time to be a difference-maker.
Ennis is like a new player, having fully recovered from a 2015 season lost to concussion symptoms. A 20 goal, 20 assist season from Ennis would be a big help. Rookie-like Derek Grant has been making eyebrows rise with his persistent effort on the ice and consistent presence on the score sheet. The 26-year-old needs to continue to add his name to the scoresheet.
On defense, the Sabres will be counting on former Florida Panthers defenseman Dmitry Kulikov to facilitate puck retrieval and great first passes. Even with Rasmus Ristolainen signed, the Sabres hope to be able to keep the minutes on defense more balanced than last season.
The hope is that the Sabres’ blue line can improve on last season’s GAA of 2.62. Off-season acquisition netminder Anders Nilsson will have to continue his preseason strong play backing up Lehner.
4. Evander Kane takes it to the next level
Left Winger Evander Kane wanted a fresh start in Buffalo. He got it–and fumbled it. Although he reached 20 goals, he did so on an astounding 271 shots. That indicates poor shot selection, poor team play and an unwillingness to go to the net.
The Sabres need smarter play and more production from Kane. More importantly, they need his off-ice attitude to improve and his behavior to be squeaky-clean. If he can be the player the Sabres hope they have, it can only lead to his success and that of the team. If not, the Sabres will not be able to let him poison the team’s early bonding and nascent confidence.
5. An effective bottom six
Even if the Sabres play their game of speed and forechecking effectively, they still need to score to win. Last year it took a combination of fifteen forwards to almost match the 88 goals scored by Ryan O’Reilly, Eichel, Reinhart and Kane.
Compare that situation to the Cup-winning Pittsburgh Penguins who had a ‘third line’ often lead them in scoring. If the Sabres bottom six can contribute, it will take a lot of pressure off of the top two lines and allow for the balanced attack that has been missing.
Tune in Thursday night at 7 p.m. and we’ll all find out together.