2017-18 Sabres team preview: Hard lessons learned, Buffalo hopeful of change - The Buffalo News

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2017-18 Sabres team preview: Hard lessons learned, Buffalo hopeful of change

Why should this year be any different?

For the past six seasons, the Sabres have been in lather, rinse, repeat mode. When they clean out their lockers, they talk about the hard lessons learned by not making the playoffs. When they arrive for training camp, they talk about putting those lessons to use. When they clean out their lockers with no playoffs, they talk again about learning hard lessons.

They could have been Rhodes Scholars for a few of those seasons and still not made the playoffs. The talent simply wasn't there.

The other years, especially last season, were disappointments.

So, again, why should this year be any different?

"Look at the things that have changed," center Sam Reinhart said. "It's just a different mentality when new guys come in, when new philosophies are put out.

"Just coming to the rink every day, it's a different feel."

Optimism is the hallmark of every season opener. Everyone feels good when they're tied for first place with no losses.

Buffalo's optimism is accompanied by a sense of freedom. While no one has come right out and said it (at least not publicly), the Sabres felt shackled under former coach Dan Bylsma. Coming to the rink was a chore, not a fabulous way to have fun and make a living.

New bench boss Phil Housley promised a fresh start, and he's delivered. The players have loved it.

"We're having fun putting the work in," Reinhart said. "I like what they're preaching."

That, along with an improved defense and aggressive system, might be why this year is different as the Sabres attempt to end the longest postseason drought in franchise history.

"You talk to any group that doesn't make the playoffs at the end of every year, obviously you can do things differently," defenseman Zach Bogosian said. "As a group we need to recognize that early on in the year and make sure we're making those changes and they're not just words.

"If we play the way that we can play on a consistent basis, I think it's going to put us in position to win more nights than not."

OFFENSE

Without Jack Eichel for the first 21 games last season, the Sabres scored a measly 1.8 goals per game. With Eichel, they scored 2.64.

Sounds good, right? Well, that still would have ranked 20th in the NHL.

The Sabres simply need more goals.

The depth has improved, especially with the Reinhart's move to the middle. With Eichel, Ryan O'Reilly and Reinhart centering the top three lines, there's a playmaker continually hopping over the boards. Eichel should draw the opponents' top defenders, so the other two centers have to increase their numbers.

Mike Harrington: In Year Three, expect a big step forward for Eichel

There are still question marks among the wingers.

Evander Kane, who had a team-high 28 goals, anchors the left side. After that, the Sabres are banking on players to bounce back.

Zemgus Girgensons totaled 14 goals during the last two seasons after scoring 15 in 2014-15. Edmonton bought out Benoit Pouliot following his plummet to eight goals and 14 points. Buffalo took a flyer with the belief he can again score 15 to 20 goals.

Kyle Okposo and Jason Pominville bring two-way games to the right-wing spot. Okposo was among the team scoring leaders last season until a rib injury and concussion sent him to the sidelines. Pominville, playing for Minnesota, scored all 13 of his goals at even strength.

Buffalo ranked 28th with just 126 goals scored at five-on-five, so the help is needed.

The league's No. 1 power play returns all of its key pieces. With improved puck possession at even strength, the Sabres' goal total should nudge forward.

"It goes without saying that we have some offensively talented players on our team," Okposo said. "It's going to be a really exciting brand of hockey."

DEFENSE

Newcomer Nathan Beaulieu is wearing No. 82, the jersey formerly belonging to forward Marcus Foligno. It was easy to confuse the two during training camp because Beaulieu spent as much time in the offensive zone as Foligno did.

Beaulieu seems perfectly suited for Housley's aggressive system, which gives the green light to any defender who sees open ice.

The additions of Beaulieu and Marco Scandella should shore up the left side. Scandella is billed as a puck-mover with a nasty streak. Lingering soreness from offseason hip surgery prevented him from proving it during camp.

A revitalized Bogosian would allow the Sabres to finally ease Rasmus Ristolainen's workload. Bogosian was an outcast under Bylsma, but Housley made the defenseman an alternate captain during the preseason and praised him often.

Ristolainen needs to find a middle ground between looking like a No. 1 defender and being an analytics nightmare. Stats get skewed for guys who face the top lines and skate 26:28 per night, but Ristolainen was pinned in the defensive zone often. A better partner and more outs provided by Housley's system could do wonders for Ristolainen, who is starting his fifth NHL season at just 22 years old.

With injuries on defense, Ristolainen's workload could get pumped up again

Jake McCabe and Victor Antipin have the mobility to make a difference. The learning curve is steep for Antipin as he makes the move from Russia. The depth has increased with Josh Gorges, Justin Falk, Taylor Fedun, Matt Tennyson and rookie Brendan Guhle also in the organization.

The penalty-killers need to improve after being the sixth-worst unit in the league. The Sabres also need to realize that every period matters. They got outscored, 86-65, during second periods last season. Only Winnipeg and Arizona allowed more goals during the middle of the game.

GOALTENDING

Key statistics say the Sabres received average goaltending last season. Robin Lehner was 12th with a .920 save percentage, 17th with a .925 even-strength save percentage and 14th with a .935 short-handed save percentage.

Lehner was also under siege. He faced the third-most shots in the NHL with 1,910, trailing just Edmonton's Cam Talbot (2,117) and Toronto's Frederik Andersen (2,052). Lehner also played fewer games, so his shots faced per minute of .56 made him more active than his counterparts.

The Sabres' goal is to have the puck more. That would result in fewer shots against.

Increase in speed, aggressiveness evident with Sabres' Lehner

Let's say Buffalo moves to the middle of the pack and allows 30 shots per game rather than 34. Based on minutes played, Lehner would have faced 227 fewer shots. Keeping the same save percentage, he would have allowed 18 fewer goals.

Lehner was involved in 24 one-goal games, going 11-5-8. Maybe those 18 fewer goals would have come in those games, giving the Sabres more victories. Maybe not.

Either way, the 26-year-old should have an improved season if Buffalo keeps the shots down.

The return of Chad Johnson gives the Sabres a reliable tandem. Linus Ullmark has proved he can come up from Rochester and perform well.

Lehner is No. 1, though, and he hopes to continue to grow as a leader in the dressing room.

"We as players need to hold each other accountable and show up every day – that's everyone, me, too," he said. "That's what I think everyone is on board about. We all talked, and we know what we need to change."

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