The Sabres Observer
It's strange to talk about reaching a low point before the hockey season even starts, but that's where it seems we're at in Buffalo.
The Sabres were only minutes away from ending practice yesterday when Jack Eichel got tangled up with Zemgus Girgensons during a drill in front of the net, and then there was screaming as Buffalo's franchise player fell to the ice.
While fellow young phenoms Auston Matthews and Connor McDavid were turning opening night on its ear with dazzling performances, Eichel -- well, I don't know what he was doing but I'm going to assume it didn't involve walking.
Watching those two great young players last night brought about a somber tone. I felt like the little kid watching the others play with their beautiful, bright shiny toys while mine was broken in pieces on the floor.
It's hard to imagine a hockey nightmare in Buffalo that's much worse. And it makes it even tougher when contemplating the joy felt by fans of the Leafs witnessing Matthews break a debut record with four goals, and thinking of the fun had by Oilers fans enjoying the extraordinary display of hockey from McDavid, whom I'm ready to declare right now is already the best player in the NHL.
Things are getting a bit dicey on the Buffalo blue line, as the lack of a new contract for RFA and number one defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen means we could see Zach Bogosian getting the most minutes in Thursday's opener against Montreal.
For a team usually more than willing to open up the wallet to pay its best players, why the hard stance against Ristolainen?
Three points to be made here. First, the Sabres have about $8.5M in free cap space and will obviously be much tighter to the ceiling after signing their star defenseman. Tim Murray wants to leave himself the option of being a buyer at the trade deadline, and overpaying in this situation certainly won't help.
My predictions for where they'll finish in 2016-17:
Tampa Bay - 112 points
Montreal - 97
Boston - 95
Florida - 94
Detroit - 89
Buffalo - 88
Ottawa - 80
Toronto - 76
It's tough to tell a Sabres fan right now that the playoffs likely aren't in the cards for this season, considering the wealth of young talent and offseason acquisitions. Trust me -- you won't get a pleasant response.
The perceived lack of respect from prognosticators -- well, let's just say it hasn't been taken very well from a large number of diehards who expect Buffalo to leap into the postseason this coming April.
In an unscientific twitter poll I ran yesterday, 69% of 313 voters picked the Sabres to finish in the top four of the Atlantic Division.
Hey, I love the optimism and I hope they're right. But a 27-point jump from being one of the worst teams in the history of the NHL is one thing, and a 15-point improvement into the mid-nineties with some of the big boys is another.
I say the latter is tougher to accomplish, and the Sabres don't quite have the complete team that can do it. Not just yet.
Sure, Sabres fans and media have good reason to talk about the strong performances in last night's 3-2 preseason win over Ottawa by Derek Grant (1 goal, 2 assists) and Nicholas Baptiste (1 goal, 1 assist), but the best news of the evening involves goaltender Robin Lehner.
Based on the latest Bovada moneyline (winnings per $100 bet for a team to win its division) odds, here's where teams are expected to finish in 2016-17:
NY Rangers +600
NY Islanders +700
New Jersey +1600
It's not what many Sabres fans will want to hear, given Evander Kane's less than repentant attitude while speaking to the Buffalo media yesterday regarding his countersuit against the woman who accused him of assaulting her at the HarborCenter Marriott in December, but Tim Murray will probably need to grit his teeth and wait for this unwelcome soap opera to play out.
Even with an improving and talented young team, the Sabres were the biggest longshot to win the 2017 Stanley Cup just a few weeks ago.
And while reasonable fans aren't expecting the team to be a serious contender for a championship this upcoming season, it's interesting that what Buffalo has done to its roster in recent weeks -- most noteworthy the signing of free agent Kyle Okposo and the acquisition of Dmitry Kulikov -- has vaulted them, for the first time in three years, out of the basement with Vegas bookmakers.
A big and shiny new hockey-themed complex attached to the arena. A remodeled locker room and training facilities. As good a selection of local restaurants as you'll find just about anywhere.
And on top of all of that, a hockey-crazed city with a young and promising team, led by a teenage phenom already drawing predictions that he'll eventually be considered the greatest player in franchise history.
Wooing a big fish like Steven Stamkos into this hockey utopia should be as easy as finding a tasty chicken wing downtown, right?
The day when the narrative of "but it's Buffalo" becomes an obsolete hot take could be here soon, but we're just not quite there. Not yet.
From Mike Schopp of WGR-550 radio,
Murray and the Sabres are going to court Steven Stamkos. The draft comes first on the calendar but that's your future; Stamkos is where the summer starts. Assuming Tampa doesn't sign him beforehand -- or trade him to another team that does so -- the Sabres on Saturday can approach Stamkos in an effort to find out what it would take to sign him.
If he wants to come here, or if he doesn't, that's that and you move on. If he's open to it, things can get tricky. The Sabres have other needs. Do they forsake another good free agent forward because signing Stamkos would render that player (Kyle Okposo?) unnecessary here, or unaffordable? Can they do what they want on defense with a $10M-plus player on the payroll, and might they need to trade Zach Bogosian to make room? A lot hinges on what Stamkos tells them, and at the risk of being naive I'm going to say that they don't know those answers yet.
About The Sabres Observer
Dave Davis has covered the Buffalo Sabres for various NHL accredited websites and newspapers since 2003. He was the senior writer and Sabres correspondent for The Fourth Period, covered hockey for Western New York Sports and Leisure Magazine, and has had articles featured on NHL.com, FOX Sports, Yahoo Sports and in New York Sportscene. Sabres news and notes can be found on his Twitter page.
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: [@DaveDavisHockey]