The 2014-15 Sabres season was strange, bizarre, and everything in between. As a season ticket holder I thought I knew what I was getting myself in to when the team broke camp at the end of September with a roster not exactly built for a long playoff run.
I was so wrong.
As Tim Murray shipped off whatever talent was left on the roster at the trade deadline the tank discussion was ratcheted up to a level previously thought unreachable. The various social media platforms became a veritable cesspool, as the tankers and anti-tankers became more and more entrenched in their beliefs. Columnists decried the goings on at the foot of Washington Street as immoral, while one particularly prescient radio personality knew all along that this was the right path to take; hell, he was so certain he declared himself worthy of being an NHL scout. Even when you thought it was over, the artist formerly known as “Harry Tee” got his 15 minutes of fame (and scorching hot takes).
When last place was finally cemented in Columbus a few weeks ago it put an end to the debates over Tim Murray’s morals and bemoaning Anders Lindback moonlighting as a capable NHL goaltender. In its place was (finally) the opportunity to take stock of the positives that have been overshadowed by being more concerned about Mike Smith’s sudden inability to get in the way of a hockey puck.
Believe it or not, there have been quite a few positives, both noticeable and not so noticeable, that will make the 2015-16 season (and the summer leading up to hit) much more enjoyable than the last six and a half months. Here are a few things that will ease the sting of that McDavid guy going to Edmonton:
There’s no way but up. This is obvious, but it needs to be said. No season will ever be as bad as this. I’m going out on a limb and saying the Sabres will not be a 30th place team (crazy, I know). The team endured career worst seasons a number of players that were expected to be key contributors, and coupled with cap room to spend and the front office’s desire to speed up the rebuild via trade you can expect a much improved on ice product.
A new voice behind the bench. The writing was on the wall for Ted Nolan the minute Tim Murray took over. Nolan is a good man who did what was asked of him and did it without voicing his concerns. Nolan came back to Buffalo with the reputation as a coach who always gets the most out of his players, and he leaves with that intact; the team never laid down or quit despite their obvious shortcomings. Where Nolan struggled was in the X’s and O’s aspect. He had difficulty putting his players in a position to be successful; a penalty kill that isn’t designed to defend the most commonly used powerplay system tends not to end well. With several marquee names either already on the market or soon to be (Mike Babcock, anyone?), as well as some younger coaches with connections to Tim Murray, it will be interesting to see what direction he goes with the hire. While it is his first hire, it may make or break his tenure in Buffalo.
Jack Eichel. The kid is going to be a stud. For the first time since Pierre Turgeon the Sabres will have a true franchise centerman to build around. Eichel plays a more direct style that Connor McDavid and it won’t take long for Sabres fans to embrace him. Another added benefit is that having Eichel in the fold may help the cause when it comes to luring free agents to the Queen City. While some people are concerned Eichel may opt for another season of NCAA hockey at BU, I still think he signs his entry level deal and is a Sabre to start next season.
Evander Kane. Kane is an unknown for a lot of fans due to spending his whole career in Atlanta/Winnipeg. He’s a prototypical power forward that will come to camp with something to prove after questions about his character arose during his final days in Winnipeg. Putting the 23 year old beside Eichel or Sam Reinhart should be fun to watch.
Sam Reinhart. Reinhart has become the forgotten man after spending his season in Kootenay after a nine game cameo in October. Reinhart was overmatched physically in the NHL this season, and reports of “internal concerns” surfaced recently. A year of maturing and lifting will help the physical part of the puzzle, while the alleged concerns are linked to his skating – something that was fairly well known ahead of last year’s draft. There were concerns about John Tavares’ skating and he put in the work to improve that dramatically. I’m not too worried about Reinhart.
Johan Larsson. Larsson may be the player I’m most excited about. Larsson was badly misused during the first half of the season, playing mainly with the likes of Nic Deslauriers and Matt Ellis. In 20 games prior to the trade deadline Larsson managed only a goal and two assists, and never played more than 13:42. After taking over as the first line centerman following the trade deadline Larsson notched five goals and eight assists in 19 games, while playing at least 14:21 in each contest. His post deadline numbers would equate to 21 goals and 56 points over the course of an 82 game season. Considering Larsson is still only 22, it’s not farfetched to expect those numbers to continue to rise.
Mikhail Grigorenko. Grigorenko was one of the players I feel Ted Nolan did some good work with. Grigo was nearly a point per game player in the AHL, but couldn’t put it together at the game’s highest level. Early in the season Grigorenko wasn’t putting in the work necessary to be successful in the NHL. While I am hesitant to expect too much out of him going forward, his last handful of games showed glimpses of what he could potentially offer on a regular basis. While he is only 20 and will certainly get a qualifying offer it will likely be (and should be) a one year deal. Next year could be make or break for Grigorenko’s NHL (and North American) future.
Mark Pysyk. Pysyk was an NHL defenseman tucked away in the AHL for the majority of the year. When he did make the trip down the 90 he certainly looked comfortable and was the team’s best defenseman at times. A health scare put his season, and career, in jeopardy, but thankfully he was able to play in the final few games for Rochester. Assuming all the health concerns are squared away Pysyk will be in Buffalo full time next year, and should form the core of the Buffalo defensive corps along with Rasmus Ristolainen and Nikita Zadorov for the extended future.
Assets to deal. This topic was briefly touched on already, but Tim Murray will be active both in the time surrounding the draft and in free agency. He already made it well known at the GM meetings that the team’s second first round selection is available, and I wouldn’t put it past him to see a prospect and/or a roster player or two get a change of address. Murray will probably put an offer together to try and entice the Oilers to trade down from first overall, but even if the Sabres grab Jack Eichel instead, the rebuild is entering a new phase. Murray will no longer looking to tear down, he’ll be looking to add NHL caliber talent, and fast.
While the Sabres are by no means going to be pegged to contend for a division title next year, they will be markedly improved. Every player listed is under the age of 24 and will be here for the considerable future. The days of going to First Niagara Center and not anyone wearing blue and gold are coming to an end. There are obviously needs to fill (who’s playing goal?) but the team will be entertaining and might just stick around the playoff race if Murray makes the right moves over the next two and a half months. Even if you’re not sold on the process used to get to where the organization is today know that come draft time and next season Sabres hockey will be fun to watch and talk about again. And that’s one thing almost everyone can agree on.