The Sabres made the leap from unwatchable to respectable last season. Buffalo hopes the rebuild plan launched in 2013 takes the next step this year: playoffs.
In the parity-driven NHL, teams need a lot of things to go right in order to pass their rivals. Here are key areas to watch during the 2016-17 season as the Sabres attempt to end their five-year playoff drought, the longest in team history.
1. Robin Lehner – The goaltender is aware fans still don’t know what to make of him. He couldn’t prove himself last season because of a concussion and bad ankle. During limited appearances, he showed he could stop the puck and fight opponents. It’s clear a fire burns inside him. A few hot streaks can show the city what he’s all about.
2. Evander Kane – The talented winger got the fresh start he sought in Buffalo, and he blew it. In addition to circling games on his calendar, Kane also has to keep track of court dates. Accusations of abusing women are a serious matter, but Kane doesn’t seem to care. He’s on a short leash, so dogging it on the ice is not an option.
3. Crowd noise – Last-place teams and bad hockey have sucked the life out of the Sabres’ arena. If the NHL kept track of quietest buildings, Buffalo would be in the running for a championship. It’s time for ticket-buying fans to turn the corner. While skepticism is warranted, unbridled enthusiasm after entering the rink is OK, too.
4. Tim Murray – Quick with a trade and faster with one-liners, Murray has become one of the must-watch general managers. His willingness to go for it has endeared to him to fans who were sick of Darcy Regier’s hesitance. The GMs combined on the teardown, but the rebuild is all on Murray. His next steps in the process are sure to be intriguing.
5. Jack Eichel – There’s a sense something special can happen whenever he gets the puck. He had his moments last season, including scoring in his debut and a buzzer-beater at home, and everyone expects more this year. It’s been almost a decade since the Sabres had a skater who could change the game on his own, and that drought could be over.
6. Jake McCabe – Rasmus Ristolainen gets the most attention among Buffalo blue-liners, with good reason, but the steadiest defenseman just might be McCabe. He learned plenty as a rookie last year and commandeered prime ice time during the final month. He has the skills and mentality to grow into a No. 1 defenseman if given the chance.
7. Toronto – The race to win the Stanley Cup is on for Buffalo and its neighbor to the north. The Sabres got a head start with their roster construction, so they should look down on the Maple Leafs in the standings. If the reverse happens, there are going to be a lot of questions about whether Buffalo is on the right path to a championship.
8. Tyler Ennis – The freewheeling forward struggled to fit in with coach Dan Byslma’s structured system, then suffered two concussions that ended his season in December. Ennis is healthy again and attempting to dance through defenders. He’ll need to stay in tune with the team in order to make the impact that Buffalo hopes he can.
9. Matt Moulson – The list of Buffalo busts is long and inglorious. It didn’t make financial sense to add Moulson to the buyout brigade that includes Ville Leino, Cody Hodgson and Christian Ehrhoff, so the forward is back. He’s eager to show he can be a money player. A return to 20 goals would move him away from the aforementioned mistakes.
10. Brian Gionta – The Sabres signed the captain two years ago to teach the team professionalism. He’s entering the last year of his contract, and it will be a huge boost if he’s not on his last legs. The 37-year-old will eventually cede the “C” to Ryan O’Reilly or Jack Eichel, and he can enhance his legacy by helping make the Sabres a winner.