The Buffalo Sabres certainly didn’t expect the 2016-17 campaign to go down the way it did. It didn’t help that the new face of the franchise suffered a high ankle sprain on the eve of the regular season. Jack Eichel missed 22 games to start the campaign, but the good news is that he recorded one more point (57) in 20 less games (61) than during his rookie year.
Freshly minted general manager Jason Botterill has yet to name a new head coach, which means we’ll have to wait a little longer to assess who rounds out the top-six forwards. The first four are pretty easy, Jack Eichel, Ryan O’Reilly, Kyle Okposo and Evander Kane when healthy. Sam Reinhart should also be a lock, although much could depend on how the 21-year-old looks at training camp and the assessment of the new skipper.
The new general manager has some serious work to do with six roster players becoming unrestricted free agents and four set to enter restricted free agency. Does he have enough faith to re-sign restricted free agent goaltender Robin Lehner or will he sign/trade for another crease monkey? If he does re-sign Lehner, would he also try to bring in one of Brian Elliott, Steve Mason, Ryan Miller or Chad Johnson? He might, but this upstate New York team isn’t exactly going to have UFA’s beating down their door.
Another rumored option might be trading for Marc-Andre Fleury. That would certainly signal that the team is serious about winning now and put them in the driver’s seat in contract negotiations with Lehner. It would be the splash that Botterill might want to make in the offseason, especially because signing free agents might prove to be difficult for the Sabres. If the acquisition of Fleury were to come true, it would really put his mark on this team early.
Many of your competitors will shy away from Okposo on draft day due to a serious (life-threatening?) reaction to medication. I won’t be one of them, however. Remember his serious eye injury (detached retina) back in January of 2015? Some fantasy owners will remember the eye injury and now his latest episode and simply not want to take on the risk. The good news is that when he plays, he’ll put up points.
Ever since the birth of his first child, Okposo has taken it up a notch. Over 232 games he's scored 187 points, 0.81 points per game or 66 points per 82 games. In his previous 319 games, he had 185 points, good for 0.58 points per game and 47.5 points per 82 games.
If Okposo is still hanging around during the middle rounds of your draft and others are taking 55 point wingers, live a little and take a chance on him. Odds are you won’t be disappointed.
With Eichel and O’Reilly locked in as the one-two punch down the middle, Reinhart seems set to either continue to play on the wing with Jack Eichel or center the third line. There probably isn't currently enough talent to make a good top nine, so Reinhart’s better off playing on Eichel’s flank for now.
After a nine game cup of tea in 2014-15, Reinhart recorded 23 goals and 42 points in 79 games during his rookie campaign. He followed that up this season with 17 goals and 47 points in 79 games.
If he can keep that plum assignment next to Eichel, his point totals will rise for a third consecutive season. There are risks though. New management might want Reinhart to ultimately play center, which would be stunning considering that they already have Eichel-O’Reilly up the middle. Still, if the new coach wants to spread the scoring over three lines, then you'll want to shuffle Reinhart down your draft lists accordingly.
The hiring of Dan Bylsma as head coach two seasons ago was a death knell for Ennis. Over those two years, Ennis has scored a paltry 24 points in 74 games. That’s 0.32 points per game, or a 27-point pace over 82 games. Prior to Deadly Danny B taking the reins, Ennis scored 212 points in 345 games, or 0.61 points per game and a 50-point pace per 82 games played.
This season, Ennis was getting second-team minutes on the power play and averaging only 1:21 per game, which was the lowest of his career. His overall minutes per game were down significantly to 12:50, by far the lowest of his career, and the next lowest was all the way back in 2011-12 at 16:09 minutes per game. Ennis could get a new lease on life with a new head coach.
Only two seasons ago (prior to Bylsma), Ennis averaged 19:06 minutes per game, including a team high of 3:02 with the man advantage. The 27-year-old makes for a nice sleeper pick, in part because of his $4.6M cap hit for the next two seasons, but mostly because a new coach equals new opportunity.
The Sabres appear to have lucked out when they drafted defenseman Ristolainen eighth overall at the 2013 entry draft. He's the type of defender teams covet. Ristolainen started his professional career with the big club, playing in 19 NHL games before being sent to the minors. He received half a season of AHL seasoning, registering 20 points in only 34 AHL games, and then was recalled in March to play the final 15 games with the Sabres.
In his third NHL campaign, the big Finn broke out for 41 points. Last season, he continued his upward trend, recording 45 points in 79 games. It will be interesting to see Ristolainen's role under a new head coach because he really benefitted playing under Bylsma, as Ristolainen averaged nearly five minutes more per game than the next Sabre.
Call me crazy, but I could envision a scenario where the new coach plays Ristolainen a little less in order to keep him fresh for the more important minutes, possibly at the expense of some power-play time. I’m not saying that Ristolainen is due for a drop in points, but I think 40-45 points is more likely than hitting 50 this coming season.
Ultimately, Buffalo could see a bump in points this season, as many teams often experience positive gains when there is a coaching change. If they manage to acquire Fleury, those odds go way up. A 70 game season from both Kyle Okposo and Evander Kane would be a nice, but improbable bonus.
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