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Crunch Time

Making the playoffs imperative for a team with rising expectations

The Buffalo Sabres’ playoff drought stands at six years (2nd longest in the NHL to Carolina)–a lengthy malaise that made the previous two seasons hard to swallow for some who expected a quicker turnaround with the advent of young, potential-laden talent like Jack Eichel, Sam Reinhart, and Evander Kane.

For others, the drought is viewed with a little more nuance, as certain fans are prone to disregard the significance of the “tank” years and previous ones when assessing just how long the franchise has languished without a postseason berth.

As the 2017-18 season approaches, tolerance for the drought should be fading from both segments of the fanbase. Taking its place, expectations.

Whether you were willing to endure “the process” of the rebuild or will only be impressed by unequivocal success in the standings, the upcoming season is one where, quite frankly, the Sabres need to start satisfying all parties.

“This is not going to be a five-year rebuild.”

Former General Manager Tim Murray may be in the rear view mirror, but that iconic sentiment from him still sits with us. Climbing out of the basement of the NHL shouldn’t require half a decade’s work, certainly not with the talent that the Buffalo Sabres acquired through high draft picks and shrewd trades. Compounding the pace of their rebuild is the turnaround accomplished by other teams who were once in comparable situations.

When the Edmonton Oilers nearly reached the Western Conference Finals two years after welcoming Connor McDavid, and the Toronto Maple Leafs returned to the playoffs in Auston Matthews’ rookie season, it drops a lot of pressure–justified or not–onto the Buffalo Sabres organization this coming year.

If the Sabres don’t contend for a playoff spot at the very least, it begs the question of just how successful the rebuild actually was. If the team doesn’t improve off their strides from Jack Eichel’s rookie season, was his injury – and the injuries that sidelined other players – truly to blame for the disappointing setback that the team had last year?

“It was frustrating, but injuries happen. It wasn’t the easiest injury to deal with. I started to play much better the second half of the season. But for me, the most frustrating part was the underachieving of the team. I thought we had a pretty good team.” – Eichel

There are a variety of desired attributes for a hockey club to withstand pressure, and if there’s anything that can calm nervous Sabres fans, it’s the reassurance that the team has had a few of those attributes instilled in them, one of which has come about organically.

The Sabres’ roster may be young, but at least when assessing their top talent, they’re no longer “green”. On opening night, Jack Eichel will skate out on the ice inside KeyBank Center with nearly two full seasons under his belt. Sam Reinhart will have a little more. Rasmus Ristolainen has four to his name. Evander Kane and Ryan O’Reilly combine for 16.

We’re always quick to label these young players as “kids”, and while that may be an accurate term when describing them within the rest of society, on the ice, their maturity takes a different meaning. They’ve had ample time to experience the speed and rigors of the NHL level, and more importantly, they’ve been able to do so in one another’s company. The framework of this roster dates back a couple of seasons, now. Although some faces have left, and new ones have replaced them, there should be a sense of familiarity amongst this current squad.

2017-18 shouldn’t be about building chemistry–it should be about proving that chemistry.

It goes without saying that chemistry can be dashed if a piece of the puzzle is abruptly removed, which was just about the theme for last year’s team. Injuries are unlikely to come with the severity and frequency that they did in the unbelievably unfortunate 2016-17 season, but they’re bound to rear their ugly heads in some capacity. It’s an unavoidable evil in any professional sport.

“Being a leader, a lot of it falls on me, but to do it two years in a row like this and not go anywhere and not get any better is pathetic. It’s so frustrating and things have got to change.” – O’Reilly, before the conclusion of the 2016-17 season.

In just a short few months, General Manager Jason Botterill has successfully taken a measure to prepare this team for inevitable injuries, and simultaneously, that pressure that comes with them. Unlike last season, the Sabres are far better equipped to lose a man or two. There is depth to just about every position within this organization, reaching all the way through to the farm system in Rochester, which Botterill was vocal about making a priority.

Rather than be thrown to the sharks (not those ones in San Jose, per say), players like Justin Bailey, Alexander Nylander, and Nick Baptiste can hone their craft in the AHL before being called up. Maybe Casey Nelson and Hudson Fasching need to have familiar surroundings for an entire season before they make the next step.

“From my standpoint, my job will be to make sure that every player and every staff member understands the significance of wearing the Sabres logo and wearing the Rochester Americans logo. I’m committed to building an organization the right way. Success comes from structure […] We want to build two teams, one in Buffalo and one in Rochester, that are highly competitive year in and year out.” – Botterill

When you have depth, you have a backup plan in case things go wrong. You have options. It means that, if Victor Antipin doesn’t adjust to the NHL in a timely manner, or if a change of scenery wasn’t quite enough to revitalize Nathan Beaulieu, coach Phil Housley has a Taylor Fedun or a Brandon Guhle to bring in. Robin Lehner has injury woes, again? That’s okay, that’s why the organization brought back Chad Johnson. That’s why Linus Ullmark will be waiting patiently in the minors.

In a perfect world, their services won’t be required. But the NHL is no utopia, and the Buffalo Sabres need to prove that they can thrive in it, regardless of less-than-ideal conditions.

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