There's been a major culture change in upstate New York. The Buffalo Sabres, the NHL's worst team during the 2014-15 season with a lowly 54 points, have a new coach in Dan Bylsma, an upgraded roster and a completely new attitude for 2015-16 and beyond. Oh, yeah, and they also have this kid named Jack Eichel, one of the two generational prospects from the 2015 draft. "You can always take things from each season, but you just have to forget about those because there wasn't too much good about it," said Zemgus Girgensons. "You've got to look at the positives, but you hate that feeling when you're losing that much, and that's the main thing you have to remember."
BEST NEW FACES
Talk about a complete makeover. The rebuild began last February when the Sabres acquired forward Evander Kane from the Winnipeg Jets. Buffalo had the second overall pick in draft and landed Eichel, then acquired forwards Ryan O'Reilly and Jamie McGinn from the Colorado Avalanche on June 26. Buffalo also got goaltender Robin Lehner from the Ottawa Senators that same day. It also helped that Buffalo inked defenseman Cody Franson to a two-year deal on Sept. 10. "It's been an exciting offseason with all the additions we got, drafting Eichel and a new coach, so it kind of makes you forget about the past two seasons and just look forward to the upcoming season," Girgensons said. The focus will on be on Eichel. Even though the majority of the hockey world picked Connor McDavid as the preseason favorite to win the Calder Trophy, Eichel could have an earlier impact in Buffalo than McDavid does in Edmonton. "He's an unbelievable player. It's not just him. All the additions we got, fans and players are excited," Girgensons said.
How long will it be before the Sabres begin to see the results of their rebuild? It won't happen overnight, but there's a lot to be excited about in Buffalo. The team's depth is night-and-day from previous seasons, but the Sabres understand that there will be a learning curve. "You can't win a Stanley Cup in such a short time, trying to turn everything around," Girgensons said. "I think we're going to be a way better team. You do make mistakes, but overall it's going to be pretty good because there's a lot of skill out there." While expectations are high for Eichel, there's no telling how good he will be until the end of the season. Bylsma will put Eichel in a position to be successful and the rest will be up to him. Lehner, who suffered a season-ending concussion Feb. 16, is healthy and ready to become the No. 1 goaltender. Before his injury, Lehner posted a 9-12-3 record in 25 games for the Senators, including a 3.02 goals-against average and a .905 save percentage.
There's a reason the Sabres wanted to hire Bylsma. He brings instant credibility to the job, something earned by having his name etched on the Stanley Cup as coach of the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2009. Bylsma led the Penguins into the playoffs in every one of his six seasons. He knows how to win and he will breed that winning culture in Buffalo. The Sabres will be better, and they will be an exciting team to watch develop.
WORLD CUP CANDIDATES
The Sabres are loaded with young talent, and many of those players will participate in the World Cup of Hockey next year. Depending how Eichel performs in his rookie season, he could either earn a spot on Team USA or Team North America (the 23-and-under team made up of both Americans and Canadians). Either way, he will be on a roster for the tournament. Girgensons should be on Team Europe, while Lehner (Sweden) and Rasmus Ristolainen (Finland) will likely represent their countries.
PENDING FREE AGENTS
Forwards McGinn ($3 million) and David Legwand ($3.5 million) lead the unrestricted free agent candidates, while Mike Weber ($2 million) and Carlo Colaiacovo ($900,000) round out the defensive UFAs. Goalie Chad Johnson ($1.6 million) could also hit the market on July 1.
There's no way the Sabres will be as bad as they were last season. The younger talent has more experience and there is a lot of excitement with the additions of Eichel, Bylsma and a full season with Kane. Buffalo should have a better season, but reaping the benefits of the rebuild will take more than one season. Eighth in the Atlantic Division.