(Harry Scull Jr./Buffalo News)
By John Giustino
The National Hockey League season has started and the Sabres look to undoubtedly finish above where they did last year. With a mostly intact roster to start the year, they know they have to maintain a steady pace and contend for a spot in the top half of the Atlantic Division if they want to threaten to claim a playoff position.
The Sabres’ biggest problem last season was on defense; the game plan often resulted in immediately giving up the blue line to the rush, resulting in easy zone control and the goaltender being pelted with shots. With new additions that are both younger and faster as well as in-house talent developing well, the strategy must change in order to limit the amount of shot attempts and high-danger scoring chances.
With center Jack Eichel receiving a new contract with an average annual value of ten-million dollars and healthy to start the season, he will be leaned on to be one of the team’s top scorers and producers overall. With nearly three points-per-sixty minutes last year during a shortened stint, one may expect Eichel to keep up the pace in his third season of play and potentially increasing his production total and production rate. Sam Reinhart is another name that should be expected to improve this season as well. While his numbers were not subpar last year, he left some aspects of the game to be desired; Reinhart is an extremely smart player with and without the puck, and is dangerous when given the time and space to move the puck to linemates. His play will be integral on whatever line he starts on and should be able to further grow as either a center or winger.
Lastly, Robin Lehner was signed to a one year deal and will likely have to prove his worth to the new front office staff. Last season he finished with a .920 save percentage and a 2.68 goals-against average along with five shutouts. Those are not poor numbers by any stretch given the amount of shots he faced, but the goals-against average must go down in order to muscle into the playoffs. A team’s last line of defense is a goaltender and Lehner will have to excel in this position to help the Sabres stay competitive.
Fans and management alike are looking to see their team take the next step after getting out of what is considered the rebuilding process. Many of the players that were drafted are now either on the team or striving to make the team through showing improvement in Rochester. In order to be regarded as a success, the Sabres will have to become a cohesive unit and start winning several more games than they have been. The playoffs are tough to get into in the Eastern Conference, especially with the threat of both wild card positions being held by the powerhouse that is the Metropolitan Division. While the road to punching a ticket to the postseason is a difficult task and will probably command nearly one-hundred points after the season, Buffalo’s team should have a chance so long as they limit shots allowed by opposition, limit high-danger scoring chances against and generate a healthy amount of scoring chances off the rush or cycle.
The Sabres play their first game of the season against the Montreal Canadiens tonight.