Four Thoughts Ahead of the 2017-2018 Season

Buffalo Sabres right wing Kyle Okposo (21) celebrates with Jack Eichel (15) and Ryan OReilly (90) after Okposo tied the game against the Nashville Predators during the third period of an NHL hockey game, Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2017, in Nashville, Tenn. The Sabres won 5-4 in overtime. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

1)  Start off on the right foot

So often last year the Sabres lacked any jump or energy in the first period.  A lackluster opening period led to trouble in the second and by the time they got their act together in the third, it was usually too little too late.

New year – same issues throughout the preseason.

“I think just our starts in general haven’t been very good,” Housley told reporters following their 3-1 loss in the preseason finale to the Islanders.  “I remember at Penn State where we came out and we were ready. So, we have to address that and that’s all about preparation.”

“I don’t know what happened last year. I’m not concerned about that. I’m looking forward here. Those things, they’re going to change,” the head coach added.  “They have to. You look at all the games we’ve played in the preseason, we’ve only scored the first goal once, so you know how important those starts are.”

Sam Reinhart, who is playing out the final year of his rookie deal, echoed similar sentiments.

“We have to demand more, we have to expect more of this group. We have to be ready for Thursday night.”

Reinhart was one of the players that turned in a disappointing season a year ago.  Sure, his point total was up, but his energy and effort seemed to lack at times.

If he returns to similar form from his rookie year – where he showed grit and determination – even if he doesn’t wear a letter on his chest, he could be a leader with his effort and actions on the ice.

2)   Where is the scoring going to come from?

The Sabres ranked 24th last season with 199 goals, with 57 of those tallies coming courtesy of the best power play unit in the league.

How will the power play perform with a new head coach, philosophy and system?  Is it realistic to expect they’ll be tops in the league again?

We know this: If you can’t score 5-on-5 – you’re going to have problems.

Even with Phil Housley implementing a new aggressive approach (with jumbled lines mind you) Buffalo only scored 12 goals in six exhibition games.  They were shutout once and scored one goal in games against Toronto and New York.

“It starts with the shot mind set. I think that’s the way you create offense,” Housley told reporters Monday.  “We’ve had it one game up to this point.  I think if you continue to do that, things will open up and players will realize the puck is going there and that’s where we get those second and third opportunities. We just have to continue to hammer that message.”

For what it’s worth: The Bills offense struggled in the preseason and now everything is fine (maybe?) following a 3-1 start.

*****

Evander Kane was the best 5-on-5 scorer for the Sabres a year ago, ranking first on the team and 16th in the league with 25 even strength goals.

Only five other guys hit double figure:

Jack Eichel – 14
Kyle Okposo – 12
Marcus Foligno – 12 (now with Minnesota)
Ryan O’Reilly – 11
Brian Gionta – 11 (currently unsigned)

That’s not an inspiring list.

After bad starts and bad games, O’Reilly was the first to admit he “needed to better.”

He’s not wrong — but the time for talk is over.

Many analysts expect Eichel to be a point per game producer and even finish in the top 10 in scoring.

30-35 goals isn’t out of the question for Eichel but he needs to improve his even strength output.

Sure, he missed 20 games and still nearly produced at point per game pace. We all know a healthy Eichel is a better Eichel.

3) Will the defense improve?

This isn’t just a discussion for the guys on the blueline, but for everybody on the roster.

Nobody played two-way hockey a year ago and Robin Lehner took the brunt of the bad vibes backstopping the worst defensive team in the league.

There is reason to get excited with the defense jumping into the rush and helping generate offense but if nobody is willing to backcheck things aren’t going to get any better.

*****

Yes, Rasmussen Ristolainen gives up the blue line and allows entry into the zone a lot.

He’ll get somewhat of a reprieve skating alongside Marco Scandella (hip), while the additions of Viktor Antipin and Nathan Beaulieu should also help this unit improve.

Better team defense, better blue line play could lead to more of DJ Kool and a lot less groaning.

4) Bold Prediction

Buckle up. We’re about to go to crazy town.

Robin Lehner wins between 33-37 games.

NHL.com predicted him to win 26 games earlier this summer and there is no way 26 games is good enough for a No.1 goaltender or to get a team to the playoffs.

If Lehner stays healthy there is no reason he shouldn’t play a minimum of 55 games.

What could that lead to? 33-17-5 record (71 points)

The leaves 27 games for Chad Johnson to be the dependable backup he’s prove he can be.

Taking his production over the last four seasons, including his 22-win campaign two seasons ago in Buffalo, Johnson has averaged 16 wins per year.

A 16-8-3 mark would be nearly identical to the season he had with the Bruins during the 2013-2014 season.

That gets the Sabers an additional 35 points.

Quick match:  That’s 106 points.  HELLO PLAYOFFS!

*****

Back to reality.

What are reasonable expectations? 75-80 points? 81-90?

Can Buffalo compete with Montreal? Toronto? Tampa Bay in the Atlantic?

95 points was the threshold for teams in the Eastern Conference to make the playoffs last year.

The Sabres finished 33-37-12 las season which was good for 78 points and last in the division.

If Buffalo wins six of those overtime losses, their point total jumps to 84.  If they somehow manage three more regulation wins throughout the course of the season that gives them 90 points.

Granted they’d still miss the playoffs under that scenario — it’d be easier to stomach than the product on the ice last season.

Better starts. Better results. Better hockey.

There are still plenty of unknowns as the season approaches but the Sabres should at least be playing meaningful hockey when February turns to March.

Anything less would be a disappointment.

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