by Jack Goods
1. The top line.
The Sabres' top line of Kane – O’Reilly – Ennis should be a joy to watch. Kane has already eclipsed the 30-goal mark and O’Reilly’s career best is just two below it. These two are by far the best linemates that Ennis, the team’s leading scorer last season, has ever had in his NHL career. We saw a glimpse of their deadly mix of speed and strength in the line's preseason debut against Ottawa, when Kane scored two goals, and these three will give the Sabres their first legitimately threatening top trio in years.
2. Center depth.
After years of not having a true first-line center, the Sabres potentially now have two in Ryan O’Reilly and Jack Eichel. O'Reilly, Eichel, Zemgus Girgensons, Sam Reinhart and Johan Larsson have the potential to be one of the best collective center groups in the league, and the position is so overloaded with talent that some will have to move to the wing. Bonus? Adding O’Reilly also allows the Sabres to shelter Eichel on the second line while he’s adjusting to NHL competition.
3. Youth and the future.
O’Reilly, Eichel, Rasmus Ristolainen, Kane, Girgensons, Reinhart and Robin Lehner are all under 25 years old. That may lead to some growing pains this season, but the Sabres should keep improving year after year as Eichel, Reinhart, Girgensons and Ristolainen continue to grow while their other stars are still in their primes. It’s amazing what finishing at the bottom of the standings year after year and trading stockpiled assets for top-tier talent can do for a team. Buffalo is a team that is set up to win both now and for a long time to come.
by Ryan Evans
1. The blue line.
Buffalo overhauled its roster this offseason, but is still missing a top pairing-caliber defenseman. It remains to be seen if the group of rear guards the Sabres have will be formidable enough to make the additions elsewhere on the team pay off. All the shiny new forwards could be for naught if Buffalo can't keep the puck out of its net. The one potential cornerstone they do have is Rasmus Ristolainen, and he’ll continue to develop this season while playing top pairing minutes.
It will be interesting to see how head coach Dan Bylsma forms his pairs. The Sabres are heavy on right shot defensemen and most of their top guys (Ristolainen, Zach Bogosian, Cody Franson and Mark Pysyk) are right-handed shots. Someone is going to have to play on their off side since Buffalo's top lefties are Mike Weber and Josh Gorges, who is coming off microfracture surgery. Neither inspires much confidence in a top-four role.
2. Unproven goaltending.
Can Robin Lehner be a No. 1 goalie in the NHL? GM Tim Murray believes so and paid a heavy price to pry him out of Ottawa, but he will have to prove himself. The Swedish-born Lehner is only 24 years old and will have his first crack at being "the guy" in Buffalo. He has shown flashes of potential during his short career. In limited action in 2012-13 and 2013-14, Lehner put up a combined .919 save percentage in 48 games.
But he is coming off his most trying season as a pro -- a disappointing, concussion-shortened campaign that saw his save percentage dip to .905. Lehner is being given the keys to the Sabres crease, but will have to show he can withstand the rigors of the 60-plus starts expected from a starting netminder.
If he falters, Buffalo has another question mark, journeyman Chad Johnson, backing him up. Johnson, who was acquired from the New York Islanders at last year's deadline, struggled mightily in the backup role on Long Island last year, putting up a .889 save percentage in 19 games before New York opted to upgrade. He had strong numbers in 27 starts for the Boston Bruins in 2013-14, and will have to show he can regain that form.
3. Relying on youth.
The Sabres' stable of young talent is cause for excitement for the future, but those players are still unknown commodities. Lehner, Jack Eichel, Sam Reinhart and other young players will be thrust into significant roles this season and it remains to be seen how they will hold up on an 82-game schedule against NHL competition.
Surrounding those guys with established talent like Ryan O'Reilly, Evander Kane, Matt Moulson, etc., to learn from was a good move on Murray's part, but they still need time to mature and grow as players -- which takes time and patience -- and there will be bumps in the road.
1. Can Jack Eichel possibly live up to all the hype?
2. Which version of Robin Lehner will the Sabres get?
3. Just how much better can the Sabres be this season?
BEST CASE SCENARIO
by Terry Van Delinder
Buffalo may have ended up with the draft’s consolation prize in Jack Eichel, but he still gives Sabres fans plenty of reasons to be positive. Eichel -- along with other key offseason like Ryan O’Reilly, Evander Kane and Cup-winning coach Dan Bylsma -- has it looking like the team will leap, not crawl, out of the NHL’s basement.
No one is expecting this year’s Sabres to make a run at the Cup, but if these young players can step up and make the pieces fit together in Tim Murray’s head, then Buffalo could see playoff hockey this spring for the first time in five years. With that said, the bigger picture ‘best case scenario’ is for the Sabres to have their legion of youth gain much-needed experience and quickly develop into the elite NHL talent that they have the potential to be.
If that happens, then these last two hellacious seasons will seem worthwhile in the near future.
WORST CASE SCENARIO
by Stephanie Delio
You have to promise not to come after me with pitchforks and torches, because ... well, this IS the Sabres. Things ended about as well as they could have last season, so that's cool. How could they bomb out this season? Jack Eichel has a season-ending injury, all of the offseason investments blow up in their face, and the team collectively finishes somewhere in the middle, not even earning a top draft pick.
That hurt my soul to write. You don't even know. Seriously, though, we've really sold ourselves on this Eichel kid winning the Sabres a Stanley Cup this season and possibly even bringing the Buffalo Bills a Super Bowl win (because he's just that good), so anything short of that and he's a #bust, amiright? The Sabres will probably do their Sabre-thing and just miss the playoffs at the last possible second and we'll all stand around scratching our heads and yelling on the Internet, as per usual. But let's at least have some fun in the meantime. Or don't. Whatever.