The 2016-17 NHL season has not started the way the Sabres’ organization has hoped. After a debilitating injury to Jack Eichel occurred just 24 hours before the season opener, enthusiasm surrounding the assumedly improved franchise absorbed a crushing blow.
On Thursday evening, the team dropped their season opener 4-1 at the hands of the Montreal Canadiens in front of an unenthusiastic sellout crowd. The team played as one would expect after losing arguably their most valuable player: sluggish and uninspired.
Evander Kane was one of the few bright spots in game one, until he went crashing into the boards and had to be helped off the ice in the second period. Head coach Dan Bylsma expressed the team’s overall disappointment in his post-game interview.
“For me and this team, it’s the first time really having (that kind of adversity) at the start of the season,’’ Bylsma said. “It does feel different. You want to be together as a team; you want your best team on the ice.”
Fans have expressed a pessimistic, frustrated state of mind, however the players themselves are still fighting. Kyle Okposo in particular portrayed the injury situation like business as usual.
“With Evander going down last night, it’s a tough blow again. But, hey, teams deal with injuries all year. Unfortunately for us they’re coming at the beginning part of the year. But if we have to grow up as a team. We have to find a way to put points in the bank in October.’’ -Kyle Okposo
Veteran leadership through adversity will be critical for team success. Players like Okposo and Ryan O’Reilly among others, will have to pick up the slack to keep the team competitive on a nightly basis.
The roster is still very young and will need to lean on veteran mentorship both now and moving forward. The coaching staff must emphasize that this team is not just about Jack Eichel. This roster is a result of patiently acquired assets, hand-picked by a competent general manager and cannot rest solely on the shoulders of one player.
Veteran Zach Bogosian expressed that sentiment in his post-game interview on Friday evening.
“The more and more you’re talking about it, the more you’re making excuses for yourself,” Bogosian said. “We’ve all played this game long enough to know when someone gets hurt, other guys step up. That’s what we have to do.”
Actions speak louder than words.
It must be taken into consideration that one third of the top six forwards was missing from the action, not to mention the fact that the team fielded a clearly limited Ryan O’Reilly. The real test will come once O’Reilly, Okposo and Kulikov are all fully healthy and ready to compete in the coming days. These are the players that need to lead by example if the message of perseverance is going to translate on the ice.
Certain others will be given the chance to shine in Eichel and Kane’s absence. Their ability to take this opportunity in stride will dictate the success of the team (paging Tyler Ennis).
The best indication of just how much the franchise has improved over the past few seasons will be their performance without some of their key players. There is one universal commonality among the best teams in the NHL: depth.
The Sabres’ depth will be under a microscope over the next few months and must perform at a high level in order for the team to escape the league basement for the first time in several years.