Youth-laden Buffalo Sabres finally showing signs of progress
Buffalo Sabres left wing Matt Moulson (26) celebrates with teammates after scoring a goal during the second period of an NHL hockey game against the New York Islanders Saturday, April 9, 2016, in New York. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)
BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) Sabres general manager Tim Murray acknowledged it was unrealistic to expect Buffalo to transform into an overnight contender based on the wholesale changes that took place last offseason.
It's not an excuse Murray plans to be repeating a year from now after the youth-laden Sabres showed gradual signs of improvement by riding an encouraging second-half season surge to end up 23rd in the NHL standings following two consecutive last-place finishes.
''There is a light,'' Murray said, during a season-ending news conference on Monday.
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''The goal will be to make the playoffs, and it may actually be a realistic goal,'' Murray added. ''We should have, I'm not going to say smooth sailing, but it should be an easier, smoother ride for sure.''
The prospects are finally starting to look up for a franchise that spent much of the past three seasons bottoming out as part of Murray's top-to-bottom rebuilding plan.
It began with the Sabres firing coach Ted Nolan and replacing him with coach Dan Bylsma in May. And it continued at the NHL draft in Florida on June 26, when Murray made separate trades to acquire forward Ryan O'Reilly from Colorado and goalie Robin Lehner from Ottawa, and selected highly touted forward Jack Eichel with the No. 2 pick.
Though it took a few months for the new pieces to jell, Buffalo was competitive in closing the season going 20-14-7. At 35-36-11, the Sabres won 12 more games, scored 48 more goals and surrendered 47 fewer than the previous year.
''We definitely changed the culture of the Sabres,'' Eichel said. ''A lot of games I'm sure we wish we had back. But I think next season is a time for us to make the turn.''
At 19, Eichel scored 24 goals to become Buffalo's first rookie to lead the team in scoring since Ray Sheppard had 38 in 1987-88. Eichel's 56 points were second among NHL rookies and second on the team behind O'Reilly, who finished with 60 (21 goals, 39 assists).
Veteran defenseman Josh Gorges cautioned this is no time to become contented.
''We did take steps, and that's good to see,'' Gorges said. ''We're going to need to take more of them next year.''
Here are a number of things that stood out for the Sabres, who missed the playoffs for a fifth consecutive season:
ROBIN'S RECOVERY: Lehner's season was derailed in Game 1, when he sustained a high right ankle sprain that eventually required season-ending surgery last month. He finished with a 5-9-5 record in 21 games, and failed in his bid to establish himself as Buffalo's starter.
Lehner is scheduled to have the cast removed in two weeks, and intends to spend the entire offseason rehabbing in Buffalo.
UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS: Backup goalie Chad Johnson and veteran forward David Legwand are scheduled to become unrestricted free agents. Johnson went 22-16-4 in taking over the starting duties for Lehner. Johnson hasn't ruled out re-signing with Buffalo, but first wants to test the market to determine whether he can land on a team in need of a starter.
RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS: Defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen leads Buffalo's group of restricted free agents, which includes forwards Marcus Foligno, Zemgus Girgensons, Johan Larsson and Nicolas Deslauriers. The 21-year-old Ristolainen is in a position to land a lucrative offer after leading Sabres defensemen with nine goals, 41 points and logging an average of 25 minutes of ice time per game.
TAKING A BREAK: Eichel said he needs some down time after a hectic year in which he became college hockey's second freshman to win the Hobey Baker Award, represented the United States at the World Ice Hockey Championships and played 81 NHL games.
''I think it's time for me to take a little break and unwind a little bit and kind of take a deep breath for the first time in a while,'' said Eichel, who has been selected to Team North America's roster for the World Cup of Hockey that begins in September.
BY THE NUMBERS: The Sabres were second among NHL teams in winning seven games when trailing after 40 minutes. … A franchise-high nine players played their first game for Buffalo in the Sabres' season opener against Ottawa on Oct. 8. … Eichel and Sam Reinhart combined for 47 goals, the most by a team's rookie tandem since Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal scored 62 for Pittsburgh in 2006-07.