Buffalo Sabres 2015-2016 Preview

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When the Sabres open their 2015-2016 NHL season October 8th, the team taking the ice at First Niagara Center will look very different from the one that ended last season with 51 losses and only 54 points for the season. There will be some familiar faces on the bench, but many will be putting on the blue and gold sweater for the first time.

All of them will be looking to put The Tank firmly in the team’s past.

Coaching Changes

GM Tim Murray started his march away from The Tank by firing head coach Ted Nolan on April 12, just one day after the Sabres’ last game of the season. No one was surprised by the move as Nolan had done little to bring the team together since taking over.

Soon after, Murray cleaned out the rest of the coaching staff and began searching for a new head coach to take on the challenge of a rebuild team. After a round of shady negotiations with Mike Babcock, who eventually signed with the Toronto Maple Leafs, the team hired Dan Bylsma, former coach of the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Bylsma’s coaching team includes Terry Murray, Dave Barr, and Dan Lambert.

Murray, uncle of GM Tim Murray, has coached four NHL teams; the Flyers, Capitals, Panthers, and Kings. Dave Barr has coached with the Devils, Avalanche, and Wild. The team’s third assistant coaching is Dan Lambert, who just wrapped up a successful season with the KHL’s Kelowna Rockets. Andrew Allen replaced Arturs Irbe as the Sabres goaltending coach, and Adam Mair, a former Sabre, and Krys Barch were added as player development coaches.

Player Changes

Between spring trades and waivers, a sizable number of players won’t be wearing Blue and Gold this year. Gone are Chris Stewart, Nikita Zadorov, Tyson Strachan, Drew Stafford, Michael Neuvirth, Tyler Myers, Torrey Mitchell, Andrej Meszaros, Andre Benoit, Anders Lindback, Cody Hodgson, Matt Hackett, Jhonas Enroth, and Mikhail Grigorenko.

It’s also unlikely Pat Kaleta will return as a Sabre this season. Kaleta signed a one-year contract with the Rochester Americans after becoming a free agent. Though Kaleta has said his focus is on returning to the Sabres, his complicated history with Bylsma may keep him in Rochester. Kaleta’s passion for being a Sabre and work ethic probably won’t be enough to win him much more than a few call-ups.

New faces including forwards Ryan O’Reilly, David Legwand, Evander Kane, Jamie McGinn and defensemen Carlo Colaiacovo and Cody Franson will skate with the Sabres veterans at the start of the season. Chad Johnson and Robin Lehner will compete for the number one spot in goal, though early indications are Lehner will be Bylsma’s go-to guy.

Draft and Prospects

The second Tim Murray gave his Jack Eichel mic drop announcement at the draft, Sabres fans turned their attention from The Tank to The Cup. They spent their summer prophesizing about how far the Sabres’ off-season changes could take them this season. Seventeen thousand, yes 17,000, of the Blue & Gold faithful packed the arena July 10 to get a glimpse into the potential future of their team at the annual scrimmage. They’ve attended prospect games, preseason practices, and stormed Twitter looking for more peeks at what’s ahead.

Side note – To the NHL Network, YES hockey fans do care that much. If more people will go to a prospect scrimmage than attend some teams’ regular season games, you should take us seriously when we say we want to see the preseason games. All of them.

The prospects impressed during camp. There were definite standouts, including Jack Eichel, Sam Reinhart, Evan Rodrigues, and Nick Baptiste. While Baptiste has already been reassigned to the Amerks, the others have been given the opportunity to play in preseason games. So far, Eichel has tallied three assists and two goals (one shorthanded), Reinhart four assists, and Rodrigues two goals. If their play continues at this level, all three could potentially earn permanent spots on the opening roster.

The team collectively is also making an impression. After five games, the team is 4-1 including a shutout against the Leafs. (Karma?)

Line combinations are being tested and players like Tyler Ennis are benefiting from the early cohesion of the team. Ennis scored a preseason hat trick against the Ottawa Senators, with two of those being assisted by Jack Eichel. Ennis has a talent for netting impressive goals and stronger line mates are going to give him more opportunities to make the highlight reel this season.

While there is a lot of hockey to be played, the Sabres are clearly doing the work it’s going to take to get the team back into a culture of consistent competitive play. As Bylsma refines positions and lines, the team can only get better. Expect the Sabres to be more aggressive this season and to do a better job of opening the ice for the goal tender.

One of the problems that has plagued the team in the past is injuries. With Bogosian and Gorges already missing games due to injury, the Sabres are going to have to play smart to avoid losing key players during the season.

Predictions for 2015-2016

Fans will have more to celebrate this year, including a rise in goal scoring, a decline in sloppy play, and a firmer hand from their coach. The finesse and persistence of the young forwards will dominate play and put opposing goalies to the test.

Given the caliber of play in all of the preseason events, it’s not out of the question for the team to make a run at the playoffs. However, it’s not likely they will be ready to go all the way this year. Look for Bylsma/Murray to demand better play from the veterans. Older players who can’t keep pace will go, as will players who continue to be inconsistent, ineffective, or under-perform.

Let’s Go Buffalo!

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