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Sabres in good spirits after extreme makeover

SUNRISE, Fla. – Nearly everyone working with Tim Murray feels like it’s Christmas morning. During a fascinating weekend filled with big trades and the drafting of a franchise player, Buffalo’s players texted kudos to the general manager and the Sabres’ coach talked to him about how much better the team is.

Murray, while happy, wasn’t ready to proclaim his squad as a playoff contender.

“You’re never going to get me to say that,” he said Saturday after wrapping up the NHL Draft. “If we go to the conference finals in two years and you ask me if we’re going to make the playoffs the next year, I’m not going to say that.

“Certainly here, things changed a lot in a few days. We’ve changed our team a lot. We’ve improved a lot.”

There’s no question Buffalo’s days at the bottom of the standings are over. The selection of Jack Eichel alone would have been worth a few wins, but the Sabres also traded for top-line center Ryan O’Reilly and Robin Lehner, a goaltender with No. 1 potential.

“I feel much better about our team,” Murray said in BB&T Center. “We’ve taken big strides.”

Dan Bylsma is amazed at the transformation. The coach has talked with Murray about potential changes since being hired last month, but the conversations were typically in hypotheticals. Now they’re real, and he loves it.

“We talked about Ryan O’Reilly two weeks ago, about the possibilities and what it would mean to our team, where players would play and combinations and trying to get out of me lineups,” Bylsma said. “We’ve been talking about this for a little bit, and it came to fruition.

“You get really excited right now when three weeks ago you looked at our roster and it looked a lot differently.”

Take Zemgus Girgensons, for example. Before the additions of O’Reilly and Eichel, he was the Sabres’ No. 1 center. When the season starts in October, he could be a second-line winger. Position changes are possible for centers Sam Reinhart, Johan Larsson and Cody McCormick, too.

There was only one spot Bylsma could commit to as he pondered lines.

“O’Reilly was the top-line center,” Bylsma said. “We’ll go there.”

It’s not a bad place to start. Like Murray on Friday night, Bylsma raved about O’Reilly’s skills and potential stardom.

“He’s a top, top player in the league,” the coach said. “He plays in so many different situations at a great skill level. He plays at both ends of the rink, power play, penalty kill.

“I think maybe we’re going to be surprised. We don’t know him that well seeing him on the other side of the conferences and being in Colorado, but we’re getting a really good player in a lot of different areas of the ice.”

O’Reilly had to share ice time in Colorado with fellow standouts such as Gabriel Landeskog, Nathan MacKinnon and Paul Stastny. Bylsma says having the No. 1 spot will allow O’Reilly to expand his game. The coach feels the same way about Lehner, who split the crease in Ottawa with Craig Anderson, Ben Bishop and Andrew Hammond.

“We got a guy who has shown flashes, shown what he can do,” Bylsma said. “He battles extremely hard and a guy who recently has been in a situation where they had one or two or three goalies in the organization that he’s been in battle with for top spot. It hasn’t played out that way for him, and we’re getting a young goaltender that’s going to get that opportunity with our team to be the No. 1 guy, the go-to guy, and we’re confident he’s going to grow into that.”

One player who might not enjoy the fun times is Cody Hodgson. The forward, who is just two seasons into a six-year, $25.5 million deal, can be bought out for $6.27 million. The buyout deadline is Tuesday, but Hodgson would need to be waived by Monday for the transaction to take place.

“We’re getting to the point of no return if it is a buyout,” Murray said. “If it isn’t a buyout then there is no timetable. You guys will know pretty quickly.”

The GM isn’t done changing the team. He wants to add a veteran defenseman through trade or free agency, which starts Wednesday. As folks in Sabreland learned, the roster can change in a hurry – and in a good way.

“I can see that they’re excited, and I think they should be excited,” Murray said. “I think there’s still a lot of uncertainty. Everything’s new, and let’s see how it all comes together in training camp.”

email: jvogl@buffnews.com

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