Tampa Bay Lightning Rival Report: Buffalo Sabres

Throughtout the course of the off-season, I’ve been taking a closer look at the Atlantic Division opponents of the Tampa Bay Lightning and what kind of transaction’s they’ve made. Next up, let’s review what the Buffalo Sabres has done.

At this point in the NHL off-season, most teams, including the Tampa Bay Lightning, have already made most of their big moves and look to get ready for the upcoming season. Some teams have traded away their valuable assets for big name players or made a splash in the free agency market, while others have remained relatively quiet during the summer months.

Over the next several weeks, we’ll be taking a look at what the Lightning’s divisional opponents have done in the off-season thus far. There have been some moves within the division as well as blockbuster trades and questionable acquisitions among the eight teams in the Atlantic.

The fifth team we’ll look at is the Buffalo Sabres and see what the front office has done to build upon a roster that went from just over 50 points in both the 2013-14 and 2014-15 seasons to 81 points last season, which is good for around a 30 point turnaround. The roster is young, fresh, and ready to take the next step in the near future, but it still seems like a few pieces are missing.

After a few dismal seasons and last-place finishes the past few years, the Sabres has been able to acquire some top talent in the NHL Draft, including defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen, the eighth overall pick in the 2013 Draft, forward Sam Reinhart, the second overall pick in the 2014 Draft, and forward Jack Eichel, the number two pick in the 2015 Draft. All three of those players look to be key pieces in the organization for years to come.

In addition to those three, the Buffalo Sabres have acquired some valuable players through trades and free agency to give the team some extra depth and leadership on the ice. Such acquisitions include forward Evander Kane and Zach Bogosian from the Winnipeg Jets, forward Ryan O’Reilly from the Colorado Avalanche, defenseman Dmitry Kulikov from the Florida Panthers, and forward Kyle Okposo from the New York Islanders.

Aside from that, the main question surrounding the team is can the current goaltending situation hold up and help push the Sabres into the playoffs? Many think not, especially since their main starter in 2015-16, Chad Johnson, who posted a career-high 22 wins and career-low 2.36 goals against average, is now with the Calgary Flames.

That leaves the team with Robin Lehner, who has primarily served in a backup role for most of his career and has sustained several injuries over the years, thus limiting his playing time, and Anders Nilsson, who spent time with both the Edmonton Oilers and St. Louis Blues last season. Lehner is projected to be the starter in 2016-17, while Nilsson will look to battle for the backup spot with fellow netminder Linus Ullmark.

However, despite the uncertainty in net, this team has a great crop of talented forwards and an experienced and proven head coach behind the bench in Dan Bylsma, who will look to guide the Sabres into or close to reaching the Stanley Cup Playoffs. It should be an exciting season in Buffalo and the fans certainly have much to look forward to in the future with this core of players.

Without further ado, let’s take a look at what General Manager Tim Murray and his staff have done to help the Buffalo Sabres get back into the postseason and build around the strong talent acquired through the draft in recent years.

Major Transactions

On June 20, the Buffalo Sabres acquired the rights to forward Jimmy Vesey, the highly-touted prospect who won the Hobey Baker Award as college hockey’s top player while with the Harvard Crimson men’s team. Originally drafted by the Nashville Predators in the third round of the 2012 NHL Entry Draft, the 23-year-old Massachusetts native was eligible for free agency this summer, and unfortunately for the Sabres, he decided to start his career with the New York Rangers. [Buffalo Sabres]

The Sabres announced that the team signed forward Nicolas Deslauriers to a two-year contract extension with an average annual value (AAV) of $775,000. The 25-year-old Quebec native recorded a career-high six goals in 70 games during the 2015-16 season. [Buffalo Sabres]

On June 25, the Buffalo Sabres traded defenseman Mark Pysyk and 2016 second and third round draft picks to the Florida Panthers in exchange for defenseman Dmitry Kulikov and a 2016 second round pick. The main piece in this trade, Kulikov, recorded one goal and 16 assists during the regular season and one goal and three assists in the playoffs in 2015-16. The 25-year-old Russia native spent his entire career with the Panthers before going to Buffalo. [Buffalo Sabres]

The Sabres re-signed defenseman Jake McCabe to a three-year contract extension with an AAV of $1.6 million. The 22-year-old Wisconsin native played in 77 games with Buffalo last season and recorded four goals and 14 points. He was originally drafted in the second round in the 2012 Draft. [Buffalo Sabres]

On the first day of free agency, the Buffalo Sabres signed forward Kyle Okposo to a seven-year contract with an AAV of $6 million. The former New York Islanders winger and Minnesota native recorded 22 goals and 64 points last season and has mainly spent time playing on a line with forward and NHL star John Tavares while in New York. He also brings 24 games of playoff experience to the Sabres and can help out on the power play. Okposo should be a good fit in Buffalo for seasons to come. [Buffalo Sabres]

Minor Transactions

May 21 – Buffalo Sabres sign defenseman Brycen Martin to a three-year, entry-level contract

May 26 – Buffalo Sabres sign forward Vaclav Karabacek to a three-year, entry-level contract

June 29 – The Sabres re-sign defenseman Casey Nelson to a two-year contract extension

June 30 – The Sabres re-sign forward Cole Schneider to a one-year, two-way contract

July 1 – Buffalo Sabres sign defenseman Justin Falk to a one-year, two-way contract

July 1 – Buffalo Sabres sign defenseman Taylor Fedun to a one-year, two-way contract

July 2 – The Sabres acquire goaltender Anders Nilsson from the Blues in exchange for a 2017 fifth round pick

July 2 – The Sabres sign forward Derek Grant to a one-year, two-way contract

July 14 – Buffalo Sabres sign forward Marcus Foligno to a one-year contract

July 15 – Buffalo Sabres sign 2016 first round pick, Alexander Nylander, to a three-year, entry-level contract

July 17 – The Sabres sign forward Daniel Catenacci to a one-year, two-way contract and goaltender Jason Kasdorf to a two-year, two-way contract [Buffalo Sabres]

July 21 – The Sabres sign defenseman Erik Burgdoerfer to a one-year, two-way contract

After all of those transactions, the Sabres are left with around $9.7 million in salary cap space before the season begins, per General Fanager.

Draft

At the 2016 NHL Draft in its home arena, the Sabres drafted and added 10 new prospects to the organization, including five defensemen and five forwards.

Round 1 – (8th overall) Alexander Nylander, Forward, Mississauga Steelheads (OHL)

Round 2 – (33rd overall) Rasmus Asplund, Defenseman, Farjestad BK

Round 3 – (69th overall) Cliff Pu, Forward, London Knights (OHL)

Round 3 (86th overall) Casey Fitzgerald, Defenseman, Boston College (Hockey East)

Round 4 – (99th overall) Brett Murray, Forward, Carleton Place Canadians (CCHL)

Round 5 – (129th overall) Philip Nyberg, Defenseman, Linkoping Jrs

Round 5 – (130th overall) Vojtech Budik, Defenseman, Prince Albert Raiders (WHL)

Round 6 (159th overall) Brandon Hagel, Forward, Red Deer Rebels (WHL)

Round 7 – (189th overall) Austin Osmanski, Defenseman, Mississauga Steelheads (OHL)

Round 7 – (190th overall) Vasili Glotov, Forward, SKA Jrs

Conclusion

It has been a rough few years in Buffalo, but things are finally looking up for an organization that’s still trying to claim its first Stanley Cup. With the current roster in place, the Sabres will likely make some noise in the playoff race throughout the season, but it’s yet to be determined if they can actually jump into the postseason. Some analysts project that they’re a season or two away from that goal.

Forwards Sam Reinhart and Jack Eichel represent the present and future of this team and General Manager Tim Murray is clearly trying to build around them by bringing in top free agents and others via trade, as well as stocking up the prospect pool. In a way, it seems like the Sabres are just a key piece or two away from getting back on track and contending once again.

We know that the passionate fans in Buffalo are ready and now its a matter of time before the puck drops on a new season in Western New York.

This coming season will be an interesting one for the Sabres and the rest of the Atlantic Division. The two Florida teams are expected to be competing for the top spot in the division, as well as playoff positioning throughout the season, while the Sabres will try to get back into the mix of things and maybe compete for a wild card spot. In my next rival report post, I’ll take a look at another divisional opponent and review what that team has done in the off-season thus far.

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