2017-18 season preview: Buffalo Sabres

New Sabres head coach Phil Housley has his work cut out for him. Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports

Buffalo Sabres, 33-37-12, missed playoffs, $6.9 million in cap space

Biggest changes: No team shook things up more in the offseason than the Sabres, who replaced general manager Tim Murray with two-time Stanley Cup winner Jason Botterill and supplanted head coach Dan Bylsma with former Nashville Predators assistant and former Sabre Phil Housley. But that was just the beginning. After seeing the Sabres finish with the third-fewest goals in the East while allowing the fifth most, Botterill went to work on fortifying his roster, swinging a major trade that sent forwards Tyler Ennis and Marcus Foligno to the Minnesota Wild in exchange for top-four defenseman Marco Scandella and checking-line forward Jason Pominville. Botterill also signed depth forwards Benoit Pouliot and Jacob Josefson to one-year deals, acquired defenseman Nathan Beaulieu from the Montreal Canadiens for a third-round pick and made a shrewd under-the-radar signing of KHL star defenseman Viktor Antipin, a gifted 24-year-old Russian who had been courted by several NHL teams. Botterill also replaced backup goaltender Anders Nilsson (who signed with the Vancouver Canucks) with backup Chad Johnson, who will be playing for his sixth team in seven seasons.

Case for: Even after missing the first 21 games of the season with a high-ankle sprain, Jack Eichel led the Sabres in scoring last season, averaging nearly a point per game (57 points in 61 games). Playing under a new coach should invigorate the 20-year-old center, who is expected to begin the season centering a top line with Evander Kane (who had a team-high 28 goals) and Kyle Okposo (19 goals, 26 assists). The Sabres also can come at you with second and third waves of offense, with Ryan O'Reilly (20 goals, 55 points), Sam Reinhart (17 goals, 47 points), Matt Moulson (14 goals) and Pominville, who at 34 returns to Buffalo following a strong 13-goal, 47-point season with the Wild. Having lost hard-hitting defenseman Dmitry Kulikov to free agency, the Sabres revamped a blue line led by Scandella and minute-muncher Rasmus Ristolainen, who emerged as Buffalo's most valuable blue-liner last season, Ristolainen will be asked to carry the load again. Their bottom four blue-liners are solid if unspectacular. And if Robin Lehner proves he can be a No. 1 goalie, the Sabres could challenge the Boston Bruins and Ottawa Senators for the final playoff spot in the Atlantic.

Case against: In his season-ending meeting with the media, Eichel called out his teammates. "I think guys want to win," Eichel said, "but there's a difference between saying you want to win and actually wanting to win and putting the work in and dedicating your life to it." Clearly, Eichel wants to see a culture change in Buffalo, and it's up to Housley to do it. The 53-year-old Hockey Hall of Famer spent nine years as a high school coach in Minnesota before returning to the NHL as an assistant in Nashville, where in four years he groomed Roman Josi and Ryan Ellis into star defensemen. This is Housley's first crack at a head-coaching job in the NHL, and he's got a tall task ahead of him. The Sabres will progressively get better under him, but there is a reason they finished with the worst penalty kill in the East last season. Until Lehner proves he's a capable starter -- the 26-year-old Swede has not had a winning record in the NHL since 2012-13 -- the Sabres cannot be considered a true playoff contender.

Trade bait: Is there ever a year Kane is not the subject of trade rumors? This season, the 26-year-old left winger should feel much safer after scoring 28 goals, two shy of his career high. But this is a contract year, and if Kane struggles to put up similar numbers and the Sabres are out of the playoff race, he could be dealt before the deadline. Defensemen Josh Gorges, 33, and Justin Falk, 28, also become unrestricted free agents after this season.

Goalie situation rating: 4. Is anyone in hockey convinced that Lehner and Johnson are a good enough tandem to get any team -- let alone one of the NHL's bottom feeders -- into the playoffs, ? At 6-foot-4 and 239 pounds, Lehner looks more like a tight end than a goalie, but he moves extremely well for his size and competes like crazy. He has trouble with rebound control and forgetting bad goals; and with a 58-71-26 career record, he has a lot to prove after signing a one-year, $4 million extension. Lehner will be given lots of rope, but if he doesn't live up to his contract, Johnson, who is on a one-year, $2.5 million deal, will assume the No. 1 job -- a role he couldn't keep the last time two seasons ago in Buffalo, when he went 22-16-4. If all does not go well between Lehner and Johnson, prospect Linus Ullmark will see action before season's end.

Scout's take: "I think Buffalo is going to make a step. I'm just not sure how big it's going to be this year. It will be an adjustment with new management and a new coach coming in. They're going to get a little jolt just by having new voices, but they still need a little more depth through their lineup to compete for a playoff spot."

Prediction: 6th in Atlantic

Depth chart/Combos


Evander Kane-Jack Eichel-Sam Reinhart

Benoit Pouliot-Ryan O'Reilly-Kyle Okposo

Matt Moulson-Johan Larsson-Jason Pominville

Nicolas Deslauriers-Zemgus Girgensons-Jacob Josefson

Jordan Nolan


Marco Scandella-Rasmus Ristolainen

Jake McCabe-Zach Bogosian

Nathan Beaulieu-Viktor Antipin

Josh Gorges-Matt Tennyson


Robin Lehner

Chad Johnson

Linus Ullmark