FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – Early to bed, early to rise might be a marketing slogan for the Buffalo Sabres’ 2015-16 schedule.
A new wrinkle was quite prominent on the 82-game slate announced Thursday by the team and the league: There will be 10 home matinees in First Niagara Center next season, including seven Saturday afternoons with 1 p.m. starts.
It’s a number unprecedented in franchise history and team president Ted Black termed it as “an experiment.” But interestingly, Black said the decision was made for hockey reasons in consultation with General Manager Tim Murray and not for marketing.
“Tim and I worked extensively on it,” Black said during an afternoon briefing with reporters here at the team’s headquarters hotel. “With the team we have, Tim’s belief is that playing earlier in the day is probably advantageous. For the players that have families, it’s good for them too. They can get home.”
The Boston Bruins have traditionally played a large number of Saturday matinees, and visitors often struggle at times to adjust to the 1 p.m. starts. Especially if they’re teams from out of the Eastern time zone.
“Tim believes playing a little bit earlier in the day and maybe getting out of the normal cadence, what will become normal for us will be abnormal for other teams,” Black said. “He thinks the young kids will be a little bit more resilient with that. It also had a nice impact in reducing the number of back-to-backs.”
The Sabres have only 15 sets of back-to-back games next season, certainly a manageable number. And Saturday afternoons cut that down because Black noted NHL rules prohibit teams from playing on Friday night – home or away – if they’re playing the next afternoon.
The Saturday matinees include some marquee matchups on the schedule:
An Oct. 10 visit by Eastern Conference champion Tampa Bay, the Nov. 7 return of Ryan Miller and the Vancouver Canucks, the Dec. 19 trip to town by Patrick Kane and the Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks, a Feb. 21 game against Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins and the March 26 return of Tyler Myers with the Winnipeg Jets.
Black said he understands the team is likely to get varied feedback on the change, especially when you consider it’s pretty much one-fourth of the home schedule.
“It’s going to be a mix,” he said. “There’s no one sentiment. For folks with families, they may say it’s great. For folks that like to go out a lot, they may not be as happy.”
The schedule opens in Buffalo on Oct. 8 against Ottawa and the Sabres, in fact, play their first three games at home (Ottawa, Tampa Bay and Oct. 12 against Columbus) for the first time since the 1975-76 season.
With all the attention being paid to Jack Eichel, a big date on the calendar will be Buffalo’s trip to Edmonton on Dec. 6.
That will mark the first NHL matchup between Eichel and Oilers’ presumed No. 1 pick Connor McDavid.
It will also be the Sabres’ final game in Rexall Place, the building made famous as “Northlands Coliseum” during the Wayne Gretzky era, as the Oilers move into a new downtown arena in 2016-17.
McDavid plays his first game with the Oilers in Buffalo against the Sabres on March 1. Eichel plays his first game at home in Boston on Dec. 26 in TD Garden. He won the Beanpot Tournament and got to the championship of the Frozen Four on that rink last season.
The Sabres’ variable pricing ticket designations and national television schedule will be announced at a later date.
Some other notes on the schedule:
• Dan Bylsma’s return to Pittsburgh: The new Buffalo coach returns to Consol Energy Center to meet his old team on Oct. 29 and March 29.
• The Babcock Chronicles: Every game against the Toronto Maple Leafs is a show, but the rivalry is really ramped up now after the Mike Babcock affair last month. The teams meet twice in the preseason (Sept. 25 in Toronto and Sept. 29 in Buffalo), and the regular-season meetings look like this: Oct. 21 and March 31 in Buffalo and March 7 and March 19 in Toronto.
• Lightning strikes early: The Sabres play all four of their games against Tampa Bay over the season’s first 15 games – and then don’t play the Bolts again the rest of the way. The Lightning are in Buffalo Oct. 10 and Nov. 5, while the Sabres travel to Amalie Arena on Oct. 17 and Nov. 10.
• Short trips, short stands: The Sabres have no road trip or homestand longer than three games the entire year. The road trips to the far west are Dec. 6-7-10 to Edmonton, Vancouver and Calgary, Jan. 18 and 20 to Arizona and Colorado, and Feb. 24-26-27 to Anahiem, San Jose and Los Angeles.
• Atlantic Division breakdown: The Sabres have five games against Montreal (three home, two away) and Detroit (two home, three away). They play two home and two away against Tampa Bay, Toronto, Florida, Boston, and Ottawa.
• Metropolitan Division breakdown: The Sabres got a tough hand dealt here with their road schedule. They play one home and two away games against the New York Rangers, New York Islanders, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. They play two home and one away against Washington, Columbus, New Jersey and Carolina.
• Western Conference: As in the past, the Sabres will play all 14 teams in the West once at home and once on the road.
• The finale: The season ends April 9 on the road against the New York Islanders. The Sabres’ first game against the Isles in their new home, Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, is Nov. 1.