With less than a month before the start of hockey’s regular season, the Guardian Liberty Voice will be taking an in-depth look at the 30 organizations, one for each day. Today, 30 in 30 will look at the Buffalo Sabres. The Sabres are in the midst of a multi-year rebuild, but the decisions made in this upcoming season could shave a few years off the rebuilding plans. The 2015 NHL Draft is the year of Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel, considered by some to be some of the best prospects to enter the draft since Sidney Crosby. Fortunately for Buffalo, they will have at least three picks in the first round, giving them ample opportunity to put either player (or possibly both) in a Sabres uniform.
Last Season – Last season was an unmitigated disaster for the Buffalo Sabres, if their plan was to make the playoffs. The only team in the league to earn 50 losses, Buffalo finished dead last in the league by a wide margin: 14 points. However, for a rebuilding team, last season could not have gone much better for the Sabres. The organization was able to unload both Tomas Vanek and Ryan Miller for young players and three first round picks, one in the 2014 draft and two in the 2015 draft. In addition, the Buffalo Sabres were able to play their up-and-coming star prospects and young players with little care for the team’s place in the standings, rather focusing on the player’s development. Zemgus Girgensons, the 14th overall pick in 2012, played his first NHL season last year, and though he did not light the league on fire, often showing that they can handle the rigors of a full NHL season is a big step in and of itself. Fellow 2014 draftee, Mikhail Girgorenko, and 2013 defenseman, Rasmus Ristolainen, both spent a handful of games in Buffalo, but also developed in the lesser leagues as well.
Offseason – The Buffalo Sabres finished the 2013-2014 season at the bottom of the league, but they lost the draft lottery to the 29th place Florida Panthers. This means they missed out on the chance to draft big defenseman Aaron Ekblad, but grabbing Sam Reinhart with the 2nd overall pick is a nice consolation prize. With Reinhart, Girgensons, Girgorenko, and Tyler Ennis as the organization’s center depth, Buffalo looks to be set in that position for the foreseeable future. Tyler Myers and Risolainen could be a solid defensive pairing in the future as well, though their defensive depth depends on how Jake McCabe and Nikita Zadorov will develop.
Luckily for fans of the Buffalo Sabres, they will get the opportunity to watch all their young players develop. The Buffalo organization has gone out of its way to ensure that its fanbase will have something to be excited about, even if the team on the ice is struggling. It was announced this offseason that Buffalo will host the 2015 and 2016 Scouting Combine. Buffalo will also host the 2014 CCM/USA Hockey All-American Prospects Game on September 25, where Eichel is expected to play. On October 22, the Buffalo Sabres’ home arena will host the Erie Otters, McDavid’s OHL team, in a match against the Niagara IceDogs. It appears that when the organization commits to a rebuild, it pulls out all the stops to ensure the fanbase is exposed to possible future stars for the team.
What to Watch for This Season – The main focus for the Buffalo Sabres will be watching the development of their prospects or young players, but that does not mean there aren’t some interesting veteran players to watch in the blue and gold. Buffalo’s expected top line could surprise a lot of teams that come into the game hoping for an easy win, and their lineup is spotted with veteran players who should be big assets in the rebuilding plan.
Buffalo’s top line should consist of Matt Moulson and Chris Stewart on the wings, centered by Cody Hodgson. All three players have been in the league for years, but they remain still young enough to develop new aspects to their respective game. Inconsistency has plagued their careers, but when those players are on their game, they should be threat to score every time they hit the ice.
Veterans Brian Gionta and Josh Gorges must feel like babysitters surrounded by the young players on the Sabres’ roster. Both players have a career spanning over a decade, and both have experienced the thrills of victory and the agony of defeat in big games. With Gionta mentoring the forward corps and Gorges handling the young defensemen, Buffalo could not have asked for better teachers to pass on the knowledge of a long NHL career to their young players and prospects.
Buffalo has made it no secret that they are in the midst of a rebuild, and with that comes the implication that the team will not be very competitive for the next few years. However, with Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel in this upcoming year’s draft, as well as the solid prospects that the organization already has, it should not take the Buffalo Sabres too long to become a powerhouse in the Eastern Conference.
Join the Guardian Liberty Voice tomorrow, where 30 in 30 will examine the truculent Calgary Flames. Also check out yesterday’s team, the Boston Bruins.
Commentary by Jonathan Gardner