This may come off as more plea than preview, but bear with me for a minute.
With the 2017-2018 NHL season about to begin I'm finding it difficult to decide on how I feel about the upcoming season for the Sabres. The easy position is "cautiously optimistic." It's not that it's necessarily wrong to feel that way, in fact it's completely reasonable to insulate yourself from what often feels like inevitable disappointment. It feels good to be hopeful headed into a season and you want to be there for the full ride if they do end up being something special, but you also know the pain of crushing failure, made worse by naive optimism. So you proceed with caution.
I wish I had the confidence of cautious optimism. The best way to describe my state of mind for this Sabres season is the Shruggy Guy ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.
I don't think they're bad. The team was decimated by injury last year, specifically to their top 4 forwards for a combined 60 games. If Eichel, O'Reilly, Kane, and Okposo had played 75 games, not even a full 82, and maintained their 5v5 scoring rate, the Sabres would've added 7 goals at 5v5, which, when you consider their 21 one-goal losses last season, 7 extra goals at 5v5 isn't insignificant.
I also don't feel confidant saying they're good quite yet but there is cause for optimism. I think their center depth is among the leagues best, especially if Reinhart can prove to be a capable center in the league. If Kane can manage to stay relatively healthy he has the ability to be a top 15 goal scorer the NHL. I expect Eichel to catapult himself into the company of the elite players in this league. I don't think it's unfair at all to expect him to be a point per game player and hit 82+ points this year. It's not that 70-75 points would be disappointing, but he can and should be a top 5 scorer in the league.
Having none of Bailey, Baptiste, or Nylander (due to injury) make the team out of camp is disappointing. I had really hoped that one of them would run away with the opportunity available in the top 6. That's not to say none of them will get the call up in 20 games and finally be on the team going forward, but it is a bit of a set back.
After the season ended I sent out this tweet:
Despite the shock that came with Tim Murray's firing I've really liked Jason Botterill so far. As much as I appreciated Tim Murray's frankness and will always be thankful he had the courage to go full tank for McDavid/Eichel, I've found myself more confident in Jason Botterill as the head man. I never called for Murray to be fired and considered myself a fan of his so I don't want this to come off as a cheap shot after the man was let go.
Botterill came in and got a coach who appears to prefer the idea of trying to score and win rather than the sit back and hope not to lose. Then he went and acquired a few NHL defensemen that should push the team closer to league average defense. I'm not convinced they are quite there yet, but compared to the horror show we've witnessed the last few years I think they're in much better shape. Scandella isn't anything exceptional, but he is a steady NHL defenseman that you can depend on to move the puck to the forwards well enough and prevent excessive scoring chances against. I'm intrigued by Beaulieu's skating and passing. Watching him work the puck with Eichel at training camp was exciting. Antipin is a huge wildcard. He was impressive at the end of preseason and could be a real game-changer. If he proves to be a legit NHL defenseman and can contribute offensively then all of the sudden this D-corps could be real interesting and no longer the laughing stock of the NHL.
And finally he obtained at least 1 legit depth scorer and possibly a second. I'm almost always against bringing in re-treads, but adding Jason Pominville feels different. Yeah he's overpaid, but he can still score 45 points and the contract only has 2 years on it so it won't kill them. I can't help but be excited to see him and Eichel on a line together. It's such a surreal sight to see. The other depth scorer added was Benoit Pouliot. He's a bit of a conundrum in that he's doesn't put up the offensive numbers you would like, but the guy is a possession monster, so if nothing else they probably won't get scored on much when he's out there, and has the potential to turn that possession success into scoring success with Reinhart.
So the last thing to accomplish on that checklist from above is don't be injured all season. Every team suffers annoying injuries, unless you're the 16/17 Maple Leafs who basically had a perfect season when it comes to health, but if they can avoid extended absences from their top guys then there is no reason this team can't hang out in playoff contention all season.
The thing I'm struggling with is the amount of "what ifs" and "has the potential" in the paragraphs above. Most of the projections have them falling around the mid 80s in points. I can't argue with them. It makes sense. Even when the team was healthy they were barely a .500 team last year. Will the system change actually make that big a difference? Are the Defenseman that much better? Is Risto good or bad? Do they have enough depth scoring? Can Robin Lehner maintain a .920 save percentage again?
The amount of questions remaining around the team is somewhat unsettling for me.
At the same time I feel there is real cause for hope.
Barring injury, Eichel should finally become a star this season. Kane should score 30+. Okposo should hit 25 goals. The defense is significantly better. Bylsma's system was trash so just having a competent coach running the team should be a huge improvement. There's a good chance Bogosian could actually be a contributor in an uptempo defensive system that takes advantage of his speed and hands. While I have my concerns with Ristolainen I think moving to a system that calls for an aggressive attack vs. a passive one should make him less of a possession black hole.
As much as I try to be the smart guy that attempts to evaluate everything from a realistic point of view, I'm still a fan, and it's time for this team to not be a joke. We've suffered through enough mediocrity and tanking. I'm tired of my favorite memories of this team being from over 10 years ago. I'm tired of being unable to watch full games or highlights from of the Sabres in the playoffs in HD. I mean seriously, have you watched the videos of the 05/06 & 06/07 teams on youtube? They're brutal, and of course the NHL.tv archive only goes back to 07/08 so you can't even pay to watch games from those days.
I know they made the playoffs in 2010 and 2011, but I was kind of disconnected from those teams. I had just started college and somehow found myself on the hockey team at Broome Community College. Our season was just under 6 months long, and we practiced every weekday at 6am and had games almost every Wednesday and Saturday, so I didn't really have the time to consume any additional hockey during my last hurrah at competitive hockey, so I missed out on those Sabres seasons.
With that said It's time for this team to make some HD memories. I'm not expecting a cup run like Newsday, but I don't think it's unreasonable for them to make the playoffs. The Metro is stacked and should take both wildcard spots, but the Atlantic is wide open as far as I'm concerned. I think the only locks are Tampa in 1st and Detroit in 8th. After that I could be convinced of any combination of the remaining 5 teams.
Here was my too early Atlantic guess:
I'm going to make a slight change and say,
Tampa should win the President's trophy. Washington is still good but has fallen to back to the pack. Tampa is stacked and plays in the weakest division.
Toronto is fine I guess. I feel like I'm supposed to pick them to be a solid playoff team. They probably will be, but, I don't know, they also barely squeaked in last year on the 2nd to last day and had a perfect injury season. They'll be good but the hype train needs to slow down.
Buffalo should compete for this spot all year. The Center depth is what puts them over the edge for me. 2 top centers, improved defense and steady goaltending in a weak division presents the perfect opportunity to surprise everyone and get in.
Boston has an elite first line with ok defense but little else. Rask has declined and the forward depth is suspect. Time for them to fall into obscurity for a little bit.
Montreal is a mess of a team with cement footed defenseman and forwards that can't score. The division is weak enough for Carey Price to drag them into the top 3, but I'm not confident that he is the same player he was 2 years ago. I would expect a slight decline from him, in which case the Canadians are screwed.
Florida is also a mess. Barkov, Huberdeau, and Ekblad are excellent, but they let a lot of scoring walk away for nothing and they seem to be in a state self imposed chaos.
Ottawa isn't good and they're missing their best player to start the year.
Detroit - lol. I don't feel bad about the idea of this team missing the playoffs for a decade. You've had your fun, now go away.
I haven't felt this excited or nervous about a Sabres season in a long time. This summer felt longer than most. I want to be optimistic, and I feel it's not unreasonable for them to make the playoffs in this division, but I'm nervous about getting the rug pulled out from under me yet again.
It was a thrill to be in Nashville for the cup run last year. Nashville was my home for 5 years so it was exciting to see the city come together around my favorite sport like it did for those 2 months. As great as that was, the thing I kept thinking about was how great it would be for Buffalo to experience the playoffs again. That feeling of the warm sun on your skin as you walk down Washington Street toward the arena in a jersey and shorts for a game in late April. That awful yet wonderful nauseous feeling you have all day as you wait for puck drop that night. The increased significance of typically insignificant plays, made significant simply because it's a playoff game.
I want that for Buffalo again.
This team shouldn't be a joke. They aren't cup contenders, but there's no reason why this team shouldn't contend for a spot all year and frankly it'll be disappointing if they don't make it in this toss up of a division.
I'm tired of cautious optimism. It's time for the Sabres to compete again and for fans to actually enjoy watching this team again. So I'm all in on them making the playoffs. Will it be a shock if they miss? Probably not, but I mean if we're not all in on a playoff run with a player like Jack Eichel on our team, then what are we doing here?
Let's make some memories we can look back on in HD.