The Buffalo Sabres have not reached the Stanley Cup playoffs in the past five seasons. But the organization made important moves this offseason that could propel them into the postseason next spring.
Coach Dan Bylsma enters his second season behind the Buffalo bench and expects much more from his team in 2016-17.
Best new faces
The Sabres acquired Kulikov via trade from the Florida Panthers in exchange for defenseman Mark Pysyk on June 25. Buffalo also signed Okposo, who was an unrestricted free agent. The Sabres also acquired goaltender Anders Nilsson from the St. Louis Blues for a fifth-round pick in the 2017 draft. Okposo, the former New York Islander, should add a much-needed offensive punch and could prove to be a perfect linemate with Jack Eichel. Even though the Sabres lost Pysyk in the deal, Kulikov should be a great addition to Buffalo's top defensive pairing. He adds a physical presence.
Eichel, 19, enjoyed a successful rookie season in 2015-16. He registered 24 goals and 32 assists for 56 points in 81 games. The talented young forward played in every situation. He also played for Team North America at the World Cup of Hockey in September, but didn't have the best tournament.
Will Eichel suffer a sophomore jinx in 2016-17? He shouldn't. He likely will build off his World Cup experience, which put him at a pace higher than a normal training camp would have. He needs to feed off that experience and get off to a fast start with the Sabres. After his successful rookie campaign, opposing teams have the book on Eichel, so he'll face more challenges in his second season because teams no doubt will focus on him. How he handles that extra burden will be critical to his success.
Once again, goaltending could be an issue for the Sabres. If starter Robin Lehner, 25, can remain healthy and have a breakout season, it could mean the difference between a playoff spot or another losing season.
Defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen remains unsigned as a restricted free agent. After playing for Team Finland at the World Cup, however, he has taken part in training camp for the Sabres but is not able to play until the sides agree on a deal.
Evander Kane's status remains uncertain. The forward was charged with misdemeanor criminal trespass and five noncriminal counts of disorderly conduct and harassment stemming from an incident at a Buffalo bar this summer. He is next scheduled to appear in court on Oct. 31.
Depending on the Kane situation, expect Eichel, Okposo, Ryan O'Reilly and Sam Reinhart to lead the charge offensively. O'Reilly, 25, helped Team Canada to a World Cup championship, and that experience also should help him get off to a strong start. He registered 21 goals and 39 assists for 60 points in 71 games last season.
Okposo, 28, had 22 goals and 42 assists for 64 points in 79 games for the Islanders last season. The addition of his offense will be a significant upgrade for the Sabres.
The Sabres will contend for a playoff spot for the majority of the season but will fall just short in the end. Seventh in the Atlantic.