Colby’s Corner: Buffalo Sabres from #EmbraceTheTank to Playoff Contenders?

In the final edition of Colby’s Corner for the 2014-2015 season- and unofficial first edition of Colby’s Corner for the 2015-2016 season- Colby Kephart takes a look into the future of the Buffalo Sabres based on their offseason moves. Don’t fret, Colby’s Corner will return next season on an even more regular basis!

#EmbraceTheTank –> #2016StanleyCupPlayoffs?

By: Colby Kephart

I have been holding back on writing about the rumor that the Sabres might be playoff-bound next year. I may not have that answer, but I do know that this might be one of the most controlled rebuilds I have ever seen.

Sabres fans were excited going into this year’s draft, knowing that they would almost definitely be drafting Jack Eichel. However, the day turned out even better as Sabres general manager, Tim Murray, the mastermind that he is, pulled off his first trade on draft day- acquiring goaltender, Robin Lehner, and center, David Legwand, from the Ottawa Senators in exchange for the 21st overall pick in the draft.

Robin Lehner has a chance to become a number 1 goaltender with the Buffalo Sabres in the 2015-2016 season. Photo via QMI Agency
Robin Lehner has a chance to become a number 1 goaltender with the Buffalo Sabres in the 2015-2016 season. Photo via QMI Agency

Robin Lehner is 6’4”, 23 years old and has experience in the NHL, having started in 86 games as the backup for the Senators for nearly 3 seasons. Lehner has a career save percentage of .914. With Lehner only being 23 years old and having a chance as the Sabres’ number 1 goalie, the big Swede has an opportunity to continue to improve, and for Sabres fans’ sake, he will become their new franchise goalie.

Also part of the deal was David Legwand, a veteran center at 34 years old, who according to Tim Murray, was “part of the deal, a take it or leave it situation”. Most people write him off and do not think he will have an impact on the team. As for me, I believe that his impact will be big off the ice.

He has more than a thousand games in the NHL under his belt. With young centers like Zemgus Girgensons, Sam Reinhart, Eichel, and Johan Larsson, Legwand will be able to give little tips and tricks, as well as show guys like Reinhart and Eichel that they don’t have to be center stage to be successful. Legwand was in Nashville for years racking up points, but still the average fan wouldn’t even know his name.

So at this point, the Sabres have their goalie, and I finally was able to breathe knowing Buffalo’s future. Then the mastermind, Tim Murray, struck again with the man everyone in the league wanted: Mr. Ryan O’Reilly. Murray traded defenseman Nikita Zadorov and forwards Mikhail Grigorenko and J.T. Compher, as well as the No. 31 pick in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft to the Colorado Avalanche for Ryan O’Reilly and Jamie McGinn.

O’Reilly, a 24 year old center, is a high-caliber player who might turn out to be the Sabres’ first truly number one center in years, dating back to the days of Daniel Briere and Chris Drury. O’Reilly comes with a year remaining on his $6 million AAV contract.

However, Tim Murray didn’t waste much time on locking him up longterm, giving O’Reilly a 7 year, $7.5 million AAV contract extension. Critics believe he was overpaid, as he received a front loaded contract, noting that when the contract kicks in beginning in the 2016-2017 season, O’Reilly will receive 11 million dollars (without a bonus).

Also included in the deal was 3rd/4th liner Jamie McGinn, a power forward with a scoring touch and is only 26 years old. In the 2013-2014 season, McGinn had a great total of 38 points (19 goals and 19 assists). He can provide some offense to 3rd or 4th lines, and could also be played with Marcus Folgino, as they have a similar style of play.

Or he could be put on the 4th line and hold his own with the big guys of the league and become a spark plug for the Sabres’ offense in games where they start off slow.

Finally, free agency opened up with the hopes of Sabres fans centered on finding a defenseman and, more importantly, a defenseman with a left-handed shot. Looking at big names like Johnny Oduya and Paul Martin (both of whom shoot left), the bar was set high and fans might have felt let down when the only moves made on July 1st were the signings of forward Jason Akeson and defenseman Matt Donovan, to one-year deals, while Martin signed a 4-year contract with the San Jose Sharks.

Both players are depth players, but Donovan has a chance to bust into the D pairs. He has some NHL games under his belt, but I, like the rest of all the Buffalo fans, was still waiting for a bigger name to help solidify the defense. The 3rd of July saw the Sabres sign 27-year-old Bobby Sanguinetti to a one year deal, who will more than likely be playing with the Rochester Americans in the AHL.

On our nation’s birthday, the 4th of July, the Sabres announced the signings of forward Cal O’Reilly (older brother of Ryan O’Reilly) to a two year deal. This adds another depth player to the Sabres and similar to Akeson, he will spend time in the AHL.

Buffalo signed another defenseman with a lot of NHL experience, and mileage around the league, Carlo Colaiacovo. Colaiacovo spent last year with the Flyers and played 33 games, amassing 8 points during that period.

The 32-year-old signed a 1-year deal worth $900,000. Colaiacovo is a left-handed shot, and with the experience that he has, will make the team on the Sabres 3rd defensive pair.

I envision Buffalo’s first D-pair will be Zach Bogosian and Josh Gorges, followed by Rasmus Ristolainen and Mike Weber, with the 3rd D-pair of Mark Pysyk, if he re-signs, (he’s a current RFA with a qualifying offer having already been tendered by the Sabres) and Colaiacovo. I would imagine other depth defensemen would be Donovan and Jake McCabe, which would be perfect with the injury issues the Sabres usually face during the season.

Obviously, all of this could change since as of July 7th Cody Franson and Johnny Oduya are both still unsigned, left-handed shot, defensemen. If either are signed by the Sabres, they would walk into their defensive plans and into the fans’ open arms. Yet, both want long-term deals, and in this off-season, Murray has only been handing out one-year deals to players.

Other defenseman that could be targets would be Matt Irwin, Tim Gleason, David Schlemko and Ryan Wilson, all left-handed shots ages 27-31 and with cap hits around $1m- $2.2m. All of them also have experience within the NHL and could be a replacement if Pysyk doesn’t sign with the Sabres.

Now to the person that’s been all over Buffalo’s media, 2015 2nd overall pick: Jack Eichel. On July 1st, the Buffalo Sabres signed Eichel, or ‘the future’, as Sabres fans will eventually start calling him, solidifying himself onto the team. My expectation would be that Eichel slides into the second line center with a chance to play on the first line if he shines and has chemistry with Evander Kane or Tyler Ennis.

Jack Eichel is ready for a big debut season as the 2nd overall pick in this year's draft behind Junior superstar, Connor McDavid. (Getty Images)
Jack Eichel is ready for a big debut season as the 2nd overall pick in this year’s draft behind Junior superstar, Connor McDavid. (Getty Images)

Speaking of 2nd overall picks, Sam Reinhart (taken 2nd overall in 2014), after having an amazing World Junior Championship tournament- leading the tournament in points- has a legitimate chance at making this year’s roster, according to some. But I am not one of those people.

I believe he will get all of the preseason to prove something, and depending on how he performs in the AHL with the Amerks, he will have a chance about midway through the season to make a run at truly breaking into the lineup.

Obviously, he will be one of the first choices to be called up should the team run into injury problems, like last season.

As for all the talk about the playoffs, here are my thoughts: I feel like the Sabres are one Top-4 defenseman away- and if everyone plays as expected, the Sabres will be looking at a wildcard spot or will be just out of the playoffs. The major issue is that nobody knows exactly how well Eichel will perform alongside Evander Kane; let alone how Kane will play in a new location. Everyone should be happy if Eichel puts up 15 goals and 20 or more assists in his first season. Another player to watch will be Girgensons. If he puts up a 20-goal season, then the Sabres will be set and fans should be eyeing a playoff run and a bright future.

As for the thinking surrounding a deep playoff run, I don’t think so. They will be matched up against a high seed, and fans should hope for a deep series to stand a chance. I understand this is a lot to think about, seeing how development camps just began. But this is for the Sabres fans who are unsure about next season and the other fans who will be caught off-guard by the Sabres next season.

I will end my prediction for next season with this; I believe the Sabres will be in an end-of-the-season battle for points, and we will either miss the playoffs by 2 or 3 points, or will steal a wildcard spot in the Eastern Conference.

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