The wait is finally over for Buffalo Sabres fans. And if Jack Eichel’s rookie year is anything like his first preseason, the team’s days of being among the NHL’s bottom feeders may have passed as well.
The new-look Sabres begin a promising new era when they host the Ottawa Senators Thursday night in Eichel’s highly anticipated regular-season debut.
Buffalo (23-51-8) appears to have reaped the rewards of finishing with the NHL’s fewest points two consecutive seasons, nabbing Eichel with the second overall pick of the 2015 draft. The 18-year-old center is regarded as a generational talent rivaling that of Connor McDavid, Edmonton’s choice with the top selection, and didn’t dispel those views while notching two short-handed goals and four assists in four preseason games.
The Massachusetts native led the NCAA in scoring while becoming just the second freshman to capture the Hobey Baker Award at Boston University last season.
”It’s going to be a special moment for me,” Eichel said of his first game. ”It’s something I’ve dreamed of my whole life, stepping foot on the ice. I made the NHL. I’m trying to soak it all in right now.”
Eichel is one of several high-profile additions made by the Sabres in an effort to end a franchise-long four-year postseason drought. Dan Bylsma, the orchestrator of Pittsburgh’s 2009 Stanley Cup run, takes over as head coach and two-way center Ryan O’Reilly was acquired from Colorado to anchor the top line.
In need of boosting an offense that’s generated league lows in goals two seasons running, Buffalo also signed defenseman Cody Franson and will have Evander Kane in the lineup for the first time since obtaining the forward from Winnipeg in February.
Kane, a 30-goal scorer with the Jets in 2011-12 who missed last season’s final two months with a shoulder injury, had four preseason goals.
”There’s buzz around the whole team,” Eichel said. ”This is the start of the process of the Buffalo Sabres becoming a winning organization.”
The Sabres will have a new goaltender as well after trading a 2015 first-round pick to the Senators for Robin Lehner and veteran forward David Legwand days prior to the draft.
"I have a lot of history there, a lot of good friends," Lehner, who is scheduled to face his former team, told the Sabres’ official website. "I talked to a few of the guys yesterday from Ottawa. They want to score and I want to save it, so it’s going to be fun."
While Buffalo continues to rebuild, Ottawa (43-26-13) seeks to build off a second-half flourish that garnered one of the Eastern Conference’s two wild-card spots in 2014-15. The Senators went 32-15-8 after firing Paul MacLean Dec. 8 and naming Dave Cameron coach.
Last season’s stellar run prompted few offseason changes, with Ottawa again relying on its core group of reigning Norris Trophy winner Erik Karlsson (21 goals, 45 assists), 2014-15 rookie standouts Mark Stone (26 goals, 38 assists) and Mike Hoffman (27 goals), center Kyle Turris (24 goals, 40 assists) and four-time 30-goal scorer Bobby Ryan.
”I hope there’s a confidence factor. We expect them to gain quite a bit from that run," general manager Bryan Murray said.
Goaltender Andrew Hammond helped spark last season’s surge by going 20-1-2 with a 1.79 goals-against average in place of an injured Craig Anderson, a performance that made Lehner expendable.
Anderson is 9-0-0 with a 1.43 GAA and two shutouts in his last nine starts against Buffalo.
Ottawa went 3-0-1 against the Sabres last season and is 6-0-2 in the teams’ last eight meetings, with both of the shootout losses coming at First Niagara Center.