The Buffalo Sabres enter the 2016-17 season with something the organization hasn’t had in quite a few years -- real expectations of the playoffs. Having finally turned the corner from tanking to competing last year with the additions of young guns Jack Eichel, Sam Reinhart, Ryan O’Reilly, Evander Kane, and Jake McCabe to the roster, the Sabres jumped from a league-worst 54 points in 2015 to 81 points last year. Now, the team is focused on taking the next step this season -- making a push for the postseason.

Here are the reasons an improvement of 15 points or more could happen in Buffalo. Last year the Sabres got almost no production from either Matt Moulson or Tyler Ennis. Anything they get from those two this year is found money. They also didn’t lose any major contributors in the offseason, and the Sabres made some strong additions over the summer by signing Kyle Okposo and trading for Dimitry Kulikov. The team is hoping that those players, plus the addition of a healthy (and in-shape) goalie in Robin Lehner, along with improvements from youngsters Eichel, Reinhart, McCabe, and No. 1 defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen will be enough to propel the Sabres into their first playoff berth since 2011.

THREE QUESTIONS

  1. Can goaltender Robin Lehner live up to his lofty expectations?

  2. Will Eichel, Reinhart, and Ristolainen take the next step toward stardom?

  3. What kind of contribution will the Sabres get from the bottom half of their roster?


BEST CASE SCENARIO

Jack Eichel, Sam Reinhart, and Rasmus Ristolainen all take the next step and emerge as some of the league’s top young stars, and they find instant chemistry with newcomer Kyle Okposo. Robin Lehner stays healthy all year and performs like a top-15 goaltender. Matt Moulson and Tyler Ennis both go from dead weight last year to semi-competent this year. You never see the words "Evander Kane" and "accused of" in the same headline, or better yet, let’s just not talk about Kane at all, shall we? The Sabres get a small bump in production out of their bottom six, and backup goalie Anders Nilsson isn’t a tire fire. All those plus another year of comfort with each other and in Dan Bylsma’s system results in a 15-20 point improvement this year, and the Sabres make the playoffs for the first time in five years. They lose in Round 2.

WORST CASE SCENARIO

Eichel, Reinhart and Ristolainen aren’t any better than they were last year, which was still quite good. Robin Lehner can’t stay healthy, and is only average when he does play. Tyler Ennis try-hards his way into a fourth line role, while Matt Moulson turns his house into an Airbnb for teammates while somehow still counting against the cap. Evander Kane cements himself as a bad guy both on and off the ice, and the team’s bottom-six combines for 20 total goals. The Sabres are out of it in March, but somehow go 12-1-2 in their final 15 games to make a heroic run to 9th place. We spend all summer debating the merits of tanking yet again until in July Terry Pegula names Rex Ryan dual-coach of both the Bills and Sabres, and Buffalo sports fans all calmly light themselves on fire. Season ticket renewal rates are still in excess of 93 percent.