Why the Sabres are everyone's sleeper pick

"I think things are really heading in the right direction," Sabres center Jack Eichel said of his team going into 2018-19. "I can confidently say that now." Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports

In October 2017, Jack Eichel and the Buffalo Sabres agreed on a maximum eight-year, $80 million extension. It was a cause celebre in Buffalo. The 18-year-old had arrived, after all, shouldering massive expectations as the No. 2 overall pick, and despite his first two "mediocre" seasons -- his words -- Eichel, now 21, had graduated into a franchise center.

Then came another disastrous season in 2017-18. The Sabres finished dead last in the NHL in goals. The franchise-worst drought of missing the playoffs extended to seven years. Eichel was angry. Behind the anger crept self-doubt. "What am I even doing?" he wondered. "How did it get this bad?"

"It's tough when you lose that much because you question everything you do," Eichel said. "I never lost my love for the game, but it made doing it every day a lot tougher when you're losing, everything is negative, and you're just trying to find the positives in what you're doing. ... I just thought that there was too much complacency and there was a lot of 'Happy to be here. Who cares if I work at my game? I'm already in the NHL.' I think that's pretty contagious, and it can cause a lot of problems."

Eichel, who missed 36 games the past two seasons due to injury, had a hard time pulling out of the funk. Since he entered the league, he has averaged 0.85 points per game (73 goals and 177 points in 209 career games), 19th among all centers. His individual stats felt worthless in the larger context.

"I think what I was most frustrated about the last few years was just the culture in which the organization was trending, the direction," he said.

General manager Jason Botterill sensed that, too. He was among the league's most active GMs this summer. Right before Eichel reported to training camp, he noticed a change in tone.

"I think things are really heading in the right direction," Eichel said. "I can confidently say that now."

Considering the Sabres' recent history, words from the franchise center might ring hollow. But you should believe in Eichel. Because everyone around the NHL is noticing it, too.

Over the summer, ESPN polled 58 players, front-office executives and coaches, and asked them the same question: What team has the capacity to surprise this season? In other words, give us your sleeper team to make the playoffs.

The answers started trickling in around mid-August. "The Sabres," one NHL All-Star said without hesitation. "What about Buffalo?" a coach noted a few weeks later.

They came in a steady stream. Of the 58 people polled for the question, 29 independently identified Buffalo. (The Arizona Coyotes were the second-most-popular pick, followed by the Florida Panthers. There were also votes for the Calgary Flames, New York Islanders, Los Angeles Kings and Anaheim Ducks.)

It's Buffalo that had most of the league buzzing.

"They were a really active team over the summer," one GM said. "And when you inject that much change, you expect to see different results."

Added a player: "I don't know what the expectations are, but I know they are going to exceed it."

Here's how the team looks different: Botterill orchestrated a trade that sent perhaps his second-best player, center Ryan O'Reilly, to St. Louis. In return, the Sabres received two veteran centers in Vladimir Sobotka and Patrik Berglund, talented young forward Tage Thompson and two draft picks, including a first-rounder in 2019 (as an extra piece of savagery, Botterill lured the Blues into paying O'Reilly's $7.5 million contract bonus).

The GM wasn't finished. Botterill acquired Conor Sheary, Sidney Crosby's old winger in Pittsburgh, for the cost of taking on defenseman Matt Hunwick's contract. He snagged Jeff Skinner, a three-time 30-goal scorer, from Carolina to play on Eichel's wing. He signed goalie Carter Hutton, the prize of the free-agent market who posted a killer save percentage (.931) as part of St. Louis' goaltending timeshare last season.

Oh, and the team drafted a generational talent -- defenseman Rasmus Dahlin -- with the No. 1 overall pick.

"You see what they did this summer, and they lost Ryan O'Reilly, obviously, who is a really good player," one player said. "But they added so much depth. Tage Thompson, he's a good young player. I've seen him play. Jeff Skinner is going to score a bunch. And they have Dahlin, who everyone says is the real deal. They can't mess this up, right?"

Another player, who also plays in the Atlantic Division, offered his take: "I'm really intrigued by Buffalo to see how they turn it around. They took some really good steps. Jason Botterill, he did some good stuff this offseason -- it was cool to see some of the moves they had. They got [Jeff] Skinner, they got [Rasmus] Dahlin, who I'm sure is going to blossom into a heckuva player. It's exciting to see what they're going to do."

While the Sabres lost O'Reilly, the additions of Berglund and Sobotka give them two centers who can plug in for depth. "I know Patrik Berglund really well," one player offered. "He will be a sneaky good player. So I think he'll help them more than people think."

Casey Mittelstadt, the No. 8 pick of the 2017 draft, will slide into O'Reilly's role as the No. 2 center. There's high hopes for the young American to take a star turn with an increased role. Alexander Nylander, the No. 8 pick of the 2016 draft, could be a breakout player at left wing -- and there's less pressure with Skinner and Sheary above him on the depth chart.

The next step for the Sabres and second-year coach Phil Housley is managing the hype. And there's the trouble of getting through the Atlantic Division. The Panthers, of course, are another trendy sleeper team -- and the addition of Mike Hoffman gives them an elite top six. The Boston Bruins are a playoff team that returns virtually the same roster, while the Tampa Bay Lightning and Toronto Maple Leafs are two of the top teams in the league.

The good news for Buffalo: Last season in the same survey, several respondents picked the Winnipeg Jets, who ended up in the Western Conference finals. The bad news for Buffalo? The same number of respondents picked the Carolina Hurricanes, who missed the playoffs for the ninth straight season.

What's it going to take for the Sabres to fulfill expectations?

Eichel knows it's going to come down to the Bruins, Panthers, Lightning and Maple Leafs.

"Be better than one of them," Eichel said. "Win more games and have a better record."

He said that with a smile.