Monday, August 3, 2015

Buffalo Sabres fantasy hockey outlook

Leading the way: Evander Kane
Kane ranks as my highest Sabres player in my offseason fantasy rankings (No. 80 overall) and a change of scenery could do wonders for this talented power forward. Since joining the NHL in 2009, only three other active players have totaled at least 100 goals, 100 assists, 350 penalty minutes and 1,200 shots on goal (Corey PerryJames Neal and Eric Staal). Keep in mind Kane has appeared in at least 42 fewer games than any of the other three. If Kane can stay healthy, he could be in line for a big fantasy season.
Undervalued: Tyler Ennis
Despite finishing last season with a minus-19 rating, Ennis still managed to post 20-plus goals and 40-plus points for the second consecutive season. He also closed out the season on a positive note with 13 points and an even rating in his final 17 games. With an improved rating and the fact he should be on the top line alongside Kane and Ryan O'Reilly, Ennis could be a solid fantasy contributor.

Ryan O'ReillyDespite finishing last season with a minus-19 rating, Ennis still managed to post 20-plus goals and 40-plus points for the second consecutive season. He also closed out the season on a positive note with 13 points and an even rating in his final 17 games. With an improved rating and the fact he should be on the top line alongside Kane and Ryan O'Reilly, Ennis could be a solid fantasy contributor.
It's not that O'Reilly is a bad player, he's just not the most valuable fantasy player. He won't help you in the penalty minutes or shots on goal categories, and unless the Sabres turn things around immediately, his plus/minus will likely take a hit as well. Most fantasy drafters will assume O'Reilly to at least contribute with a healthy amount of points, but that may even be a stretch. Since 2009, when O'Reilly debuted in the NHL with the Colorado Avalanche, he has 246 points in 427 games (.58 points/game). Of players that have appeared in at least 300 games since '09, that .58 points/game ranks 124th, behind players like Sam GagnerFrans Nielsen and Stephen Weiss. Don't pay for his name value come draft day.
Deep sleeper: Rasmus Ristolainen
The 20-year-old Finnish defenseman had 20 points in 78 games last season to go along with a minus-32 rating, but there's reason to expect a turnaround. Toward the end of the season Ristolainen was asked to play bigger minutes and he responded by posting four goals and five assists in his final 13 games. He should see an increase in power-play ice time (averaged 2:00/game last season) and should be the most productive defenseman on Buffalo.
Goalie outlook: Robin Lehner and Chad Johnson
Lehner has never appeared in more than 36 games (2013-14) but will likely be asked to start more than 50 in 2015-16. He has a career 2.88 goals-against average and .914 save percentage, but at 23 years old there's plenty of room for improvement. I had Lehner 27th among goalies in my offseason ranks, but he could actually see a boost in save percentage this season as the Sabres ranked last in the NHL in shots against per game last season (35.6). As for Johnson, he could end up getting somewhere around 25 starts this season, and if Lehner falters at any point, he could possess an even larger role.

Bylsma as coach gives Sabres reason for optimism

As the Buffalo Sabres head into the 2015-2016 season, there's a different feeling around the organization.
The past two seasons, the worst in Sabres history, marked an especially low point. But Buffalo selectedJack Eichel with the No. 2 pick at the 2015 NHL Draft and acquired center Ryan O'Reilly from theColorado Avalanche and goalie Robin Lehner from the Ottawa Senators during the offseason.
The Sabres hope the days of rebuilding are over and they can focus of returning to the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since 2011.
"There's a lot of great players in this organization right now," Eichel said in early July. "I think that's why everyone in Buffalo is excited about the future of this team. [The Sabres have] a lot of good pieces, and I think now we all have to just put it together and start having success. I think that's what people want to see and that's what everyone wants. The organization has done a really good job of acquiring good players and developing young guys. It's a really bright future in this city."
The offense is better: Buffalo scored 153 non-shootout goals last season but will add Eichel, O'Reilly, and Evander Kane to the lineup.Here are four reasons Sabres fans should be optimistic about this season:
Eichel had 71 points in 40 games at Boston University last season and won the Hobey Baker Award. Kane scored 30 goals in 2011-12 and is looking for a fresh start with the Sabres after his time with the Winnipeg Jets. O'Reilly is coming off a season with the Colorado Avalanche when he scored 17 goals and 55 points. In 2013-14, O'Reilly scored 28 goals and 64 points.
Adding them to a lineup that includes Tyler EnnisMatt Moulson, and Brian Gionta should give the Sabres a more robust offense.
Dan Bylsma's track record: After the Sabres fired coach Ted Nolan in April, the search led them first to Mike Babcock, who joined theToronto Maple Leafs, then landed on formerPittsburgh Penguins coach Dan Bylsma.
During Bylsma's time in Pittsburgh, the Penguins made the playoffs every season. In five-and a half seasons, the Penguins won the Stanley Cup in 2009 and two division titles. Twice he coached the Penguins to a 51-win season, and he guided Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin through the early part of their careers.
With that sort of experience, Bylsma seems like the perfect fit for a team with a lot of young talent and two potential star centers (Eichel and Sam Reinhart). Sabres general manager Tim Murray wanted to get a coach with a winning pedigree and found one.
Youth talent coming up: Much of the talk around the Sabres the past few seasons has been about their prospects in junior hockey and the American Hockey League. Now it's time for those players to show what they can do in the NHL.
The Sabres will be one of the youngest teams in the League, and though that means some growing pains, putting Eichel (18), Reinhart (19) and Zemgus Girgensons (20) up front, with defensemenRasmus Ristolainen (20), Mark Pysyk (23), and Jake McCabe (21), will show that waiting for players to mature is the hardest part of a rebuild.
The worst is over: After back-to-back last-place seasons when the Sabres earned 52 and 54 points, Murray has improved the roster enough that, barring catastrophic bad luck, Buffalo won't be that bad again.
There are questions surrounding the defense, but the addition of Lehner should help settle a position that saw a lot of change the past two seasons. The Sabres had five goalies play last season and three, including former goalie coach Arturs Irbe, dressed as backups.
The additions on offense and finding a potential No. 1 goalie should help turn around their NHL-worst minus-113 goal differential of last season. More goals for and fewer against should produce additional wins.

Eichel, Reinhart among Sabres' top five prospects

It's only a matter of time before the Buffalo Sabres' top prospects make an impact in the NHL. That time may come this season.
The past two seasons were the worst in Sabres history. A byproduct has been the ability to stockpile young talent, including forward Zemgus Girgensons, who was voted to the NHL All-Star Game last season, and Rasmus Ristolainen, who became one of Buffalo's top four defensemen.
Three prospects might be in the opening night lineup Oct. 8 against the Ottawa Senators, and two others are set to play their first season of pro hockey coming out of the Ontario Hockey League.
Here are the Sabres' top five prospects, according to

Jack Eichel, C
How acquired: 1st round (No. 2), 2015 NHL Draft
Last season: Boston University, H-East: 40 GP, 26-45-71
During his freshman season at Boston University, Eichel (6-foot-2, 196 pounds) helped the Terriers reach the national championship game and won the Hobey Baker Award as the top player in college hockey. He signed his professional contract with the Sabres on July 1.
Eichel, 18, is expected to step into the Sabres lineup right away and join Ryan O'Reilly as one of their two scoring centers. Eichel excelled last season, but the jump from college to the NHL will be his biggest test. After he performed well for the United States at the 2015 IIHF World Championship, he should be ready for the challenge.
"Playing at that level, I was able to get some confidence," Eichel said after signing his contract. "It's not the NHL, but there were a lot of great players over there, and being able to compete with them, I gained confidence in myself and my own abilities. With the right attitude and good work ethic this summer, I can make an impact next year."
Projected NHL arrival: 2015-16
2. Sam Reinhart, C
How acquired: 1st round (No. 2), 2014 NHL Draft
Last season: Sabres: 9 GP, 0-1-1; Kootenay, WHL: 47 GP, 19-46-65; Rochester, AHL: 3 GP, 0-3-3
Reinhart, 19, got a taste of NHL life last season when he played nine games for the Sabres before he was sent back to Kootenay of the Western Hockey League. The 6-foot-1, 185-pound center helped Canada win the gold medal at the 2015 IIHF World Junior Championship before he finished the season with Rochester in the American Hockey League.
The Sabres are hoping that experience will allow him to start the season in the NHL. There will be quite a bit of competition at center; Buffalo has O'Reilly, Eichel, Girgensons, Johan LarssonDavid Legwand andCody McCormick at that position. If Reinhart is going to make the Sabres, it might be on the wing. He is eligible to go to the AHL instead of junior hockey.
"I'd be open to anything," Reinhart said at development camp. "I've played everywhere, including defense, in my career, so I'm comfortable at any position. I'm not saying that's going to happen. I've played wing a lot. … It's not a strange thing for a young guy to come into the League and have to play wing. I'm prepared for whatever's thrown at me, and I'm excited for the challenge."
Projected NHL arrival: 2015-16 season
3. Jake McCabe, D
How acquired: 2nd round (No. 44), 2012 NHL Draft
Last season: Sabres: 2 GP, 0-0-0; Rochester, AHL: 57 GP, 5-24-29
If there was a player who helped make a good first impression at development camp in July, it was McCabe. The 6-foot, 195-pound defenseman spent most of last season with Rochester, where he had 29 points in 57 games. Even though he missed time because of a concussion, he drew the attention of Sabres coach Dan Bylsma during the camp scrimmage.
"We look at them all week and you try to get evaluations of speed and skill and what they can do, but this was a game situation and I thought [McCabe] showed really well, I thought he played really well defensively," Bylsma said at the time. "He showed some physicality, stepped up on a rush, was good defensively, but was also really good offensively and in the offensive zone controlling the play."
If McCabe, who turns 22 on Oct. 12, can that against NHL competition in training camp, he could play more in Buffalo than Rochester this season.
Projected NHL arrival: 2015-16 season
How acquired: 3rd round (No. 69), 2013 NHL Draft
Last season: Sudbury, OHL: 12 GP: 6-5-11; Erie, OHL: 41 GP, 26-27-53
Baptiste's junior career got the attention of the Sabres coaching staff. Two seasons ago, the 6-foot, 196-pound forward had 45 goals and 89 points for the Sudbury Wolves in the OHL. Last season, he had 32 goals and 64 points with the Wolves and Erie Otters.
Baptiste turns 20 on Aug. 4 and will play his first professional season in 2015-16. Making the adjustment means facing more experienced players, and how Baptiste adapts will be watched closely.
Projected NHL arrival: 2016-17 season
5. Justin Bailey, RW
How acquired: 2nd round (No. 52), 2013 NHL Draft
Last season: Kitchener, OHL: 35 GP, 22-19-41; Sault Ste. Marie, OHL: 22 GP, 12-16-28
At 6-foot-3, 190 pounds, Bailey has the size to be a power forward. During the scrimmage, the Buffalo native used his size and speed to make the coaches notice him, and at 20 years old, he's learning how to best put it all together.
Bailey turns pro this season coming off his best junior season with Kitchener and Sault Ste. Marie, when he had 34 goals and 69 points. He improved each season in junior, and the Sabres hope that trend continues.
Projected NHL arrival: 2016-17 season

Lehner, Kane questions key to Sabres success

The Buffalo Sabres are expecting a lot from their prospects, including No. 2 picks Jack Eicheland Sam Reinhart, heading into this season.
But contributions from young veterans Robin Lehner and Evander Kane will have as much impact on their possible success.
Here are the three biggest questions facing the Sabres heading into the season:
Can Robin Lehner be a No. 1 goalie? Lehner spent his first five full seasons as a professional either in the American Hockey League, injured or backing up Craig Anderson with the Ottawa Senators. Now he's expected to take the Sabres' starting job.
"I think he's a No. 1 goalie," Murray said after trading for Lehner at the 2015 NHL Draft. "I think he becomes a starter."Buffalo general manager Tim Murray knows Lehner well from his time in the Senators front office; he scouted the 24-year-old Swede before he was drafted by Ottawa in the second round (No. 46) at the 2009 NHL Draft.
Lehner is 30-36-13 with a 2.88 goals-against average and .914 save percentage in 86 NHL games (76 starts); a concussion limited him to 25 games last season.
"He's got a couple months now to get in tip-top shape, hopefully," Murray said. "I believe he will."
Lehner won't have to compete against a superior veteran for starts (Chad Johnson is expected to be the backup), but he will have to show consistency and stay healthy. If he can do those things, the Sabres may have found their goalie of the future.
How will the defense hold up? If the Sabres have an obvious weakness, it's their defense. Josh GorgesZach Bogosian and Rasmus Ristolainen will return as part of the top four defensemen, but after that, positions are up for grabs.
The Sabres have young options Mark PysykJake McCabe and Chad Ruhwedel to go along with incumbent veteran Mike Weber. Buffalo also signed Carlo ColaiacovoMatt Donovan and Bobby Sanguinetti as free agents in July to help add to the competition in training camp.
Pysyk may be the favorite from that group to make the Sabres, based on his play last season, but they'll need a few players to seize the opportunity to make a difference.
How will Matt Moulson and Evander Kane bounce back? Moulson had the worst season of his NHL career with 13 goals and 41 points in 2014-15. He could be due for a rebound after a career-low shooting percentage (8.3).
Kane played in 37 games for the Winnipeg Jets and had NHL career lows of 10 goals and 22 points before season-ending shoulder surgery. He was traded to Buffalo on Feb. 11 and is looking forward to a fresh start.
"I think they're doing everything they can to turn it around," Kane said Feb. 21. "As players, you're not trying to finish in last place, you're not trying to lose hockey games. I think everybody has that hunger to get better."

Revamped Sabres set to start climbing standings

Things are about to change for the better for the Buffalo Sabres.
The past two seasons were the worst in Sabres history, so it'd be easy to say things can't get worse, but the arrival of the No. 2 pick in the 2015 NHL Draft, Boston University center Jack Eichel, has changed the attitude here.
Eichel's arrival, coupled with the eventual debut of forward Evander Kane, who didn't play for the Sabres after he was acquired in a trade from the Winnipeg Jets on Feb. 11 (shoulder surgery); center Ryan O'Reilly, acquired from the Colorado Avalanche on June 26; and coach Dan Bylsma, has the Buffalo fan base hopeful the organizational rebuild will bring results on the ice.
The Sabres will have a young and talented group of forwards to try to lift an offense that scored an NHL-low 158 goals last season. The addition of Eichel, Kane and O'Reilly to Tyler Ennis and Zemgus Girgensons gives Buffalo a youthful core. If Sam Reinhart, the No. 2 pick in the 2014 NHL Draft, makes the roster, it would make the Sabres that much younger and add another potential scorer.
"I thought he was outstanding," Sabres general manager Tim Murray said at the time. "I thought he was one of the best players on the ice. … His team won the game and his line was a big part of it, and I expected that. I expected him to come in here and say, without saying it, to us, to you, to the fans, 'Don't forget about me, I'm a big part of this organization going forward,' and I think that's what he did."Reinhart showed improvement at the development camp scrimmage in July.
Youth may dominate on defense and in goal too. The Sabres added 24-year-old goalie Robin Lehner in a trade with the Ottawa Senators on June 26. Lehner is expected to be the No. 1 goalie, backed up by Chad Johnson.
Lehner showed potential in parts of five seasons with the Senators but was unable to unseat Craig Anderson as the starter and was overtaken by Andrew Hammond on the depth chart last season.
Lehner will need to provide stability and quality starts after the Sabres allowed 269 goals last season, 29th in the League. Like Kane, Lehner arrives in Buffalo coming off an injury and with a lot to prove.
He did not play after Feb. 16 because of a concussion.
"I've been working out and I've got a ways to go, but I'm ready to really push it so that I'm ready for the season," Lehner told the Ottawa Sun in late June. "… To have a good chance to compete for the No. 1 spot is something I've always wanted. It's going to be a nice challenge."
More will be asked of the younger defensemen. Rasmus Ristolainen, 20, and Zach Bogosian, 24, will play in top-four roles again. It's expected that 2010 first-round pick Mark Pysyk will be an everyday contributor, and 21-year-old Jake McCabe will have a chance to break into the lineup after he impressed Sabres coaches during the scrimmage.
"We look at them all week and you try to get evaluations of speed and skill, and what they can do, but this was a game situation, and I thought [McCabe] showed really well, I thought he played really well defensively," said Bylsma, who was hired May 28, more than six weeks after Ted Nolan was fired. "He showed some physicality, stepped up on a rush, was good defensively, but was also really good offensively and in the offensive zone controlling the play. … I thought he played really well and that's what we got to see in this game."
Josh Gorges will return from microfracture surgery on his knee. The Sabres added veteran Carlo Colaiacovo to a defense that includes Mike Weber, and signed free agents Matt Donovan, who played for the New York Islanders last season, and Bobby Sanguinetti, who played for the Vancouver Canucks, to compete for spots.
There is pressure on the younger players to step up on defense, but opportunities to earn more ice time are there. That doesn't mean the Sabres have stopped searching for help.
"We've looked at everybody that we feel are going to need waivers," Murray said after development camp. "We're still talking trades with teams. We're still talking about a couple guys that are still out there, but there's no hurry."

Edmonton Oilers fantasy hockey outlook

Leading the way: Taylor Hall
Hall had arguably the least productive season of his five-year career in 2014-15 with 14 goals and 38 points in 53 games (.72 points/game). A shooting percentage of 8.9 percent could've had something to do with his low goal total, but health continues to be Hall's biggest question mark. If he can avoid injury, Hall has the potential to be one of the better fantasy performers of the future. With the possibility of playing on a line with rookie Connor McDavid and usual suspect Jordan Eberle, Hall should be in line for a big bounce-back season.
Undervalued: Jordan Eberle
Including his breakout 34-goal, 76-point season in 2011-12, Eberle has 241 points in 287 games (.84 points/game). Those 241 points are tied for 17th most in the NHL during that stretch, and Eberle has proven to be extremely durable as well, missing seven games. Let's also not forget he had 32 points in his final 32 games last season after a tough start. Target Eberle between rounds five and six with hopes he exceeds that draft position by the end of the season.

Justin SchultzIncluding his breakout 34-goal, 76-point season in 2011-12, Eberle has 241 points in 287 games (.84 points/game). Those 241 points are tied for 17th most in the NHL during that stretch, and Eberle has proven to be extremely durable as well, missing seven games. Let's also not forget he had 32 points in his final 32 games last season after a tough start. Target Eberle between rounds five and six with hopes he exceeds that draft position by the end of the season.
Schultz came into the NHL with high expectations prior to the 2012-13 season but has yet to live up to the hype, with last season being the worst of the three (six goals, 25 assists, minus-17). With Andrej Sekera now in the picture on the blue line, Schultz could see a smaller role offensively and on the power play. Schultz is still worth drafting, but I'm not sure he'll ever live up to the expectations placed on him coming out of the University of Wisconsin.
Deep sleeper: Leon Draisaitl
With all the hype surrounding 2015 No. 1 draft pick Connor McDavid, fantasy owners need to remember Edmonton's first-round pick from 2014, Draisaitl (No. 3 pick). The 19-year-old forward could switch to the wing and end up in a top-six role, and that could lead to big things. While his first stint in the NHL didn't go as planned (two goals, seven assists in 37 games), he did have 53 points in 32 games after being sent back to the Western Hockey League. At 6-foot-1 and over 200 pounds, Draisaitl has the makeup to contribute right away, it's a matter of finding the right opportunity. Keep an eye on him.
Goalie outlook: Cam Talbot and Ben Scrivens
I expect Talbot to win the starting goaltending job out of training camp, and while the team still has question marks defensively Talbot could end up with sneaky fantasy value. Over the past two seasons with the New York Rangers, Talbot posted a 33-15-5 record with a 2.00 goals-against average, .931 save percentage and eight shutouts in 57 games. He was arguably the best backup goalie in the NHL over the two-year span and was even more impressive when called upon as the everyday starter with Henrik Lundqvist on injured reserve last season. People might point to the Rangers defense as a reason for Talbot's success, but the Rangers allowed 29.5 shots against per game last season which ranked 14th in the NHL. The Oilers allowed 30.0 shots against per game and ranked 20th. Talbot should be Edmonton's No. 1 goalie, but whether he can handle a full workload is still up in the air. Scrivens could end up with 30-plus starts, which would still make him fantasy relevant. Regardless, Talbot is the goalie you want to draft because of his upside, likely after the first 20 starting goalies are selected.

New leadership adds to Edmonton Oilers optimism

When the Edmonton Oilers ended another disappointing season in April, there was little reason for optimism heading toward the next one.
Despite three No. 1 draft picks in the lineup, the Oilers were unable to make headway in the standings and finished 13th in the Western Conference, six points ahead of the last-place Arizona Coyotes.
Edmonton missed the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the ninth consecutive season, fired coach Dallas Eakinsless than a year and a half into a four-year contract, and seemed a long way from respectability.
"[The fans] should be excited; there has been a lot of great changes, and they've brought in a lot of great hockey minds," No. 1 pick Connor McDavid said in early July at development camp. "They made a couple of trades and signed a couple of free agents that are very good players. I think there are a lot of reasons to be excited about this franchise moving forward."Under general manager Craig MacTavish, the plan was to stay the course and hope the roster would come of age and lift the Oilers into contention. But the Oilers unexpectedly won the NHL Draft Lottery for the fourth time in six years, resulting in a major management shakeup.
Here are four reasons the Oilers should be optimistic:
Connor McDavid: By virtue of the lottery, the Oilers won the right to select a player considered to be the NHL's next generational star. If McDavid lives up to his potential, he will become the latest in a long list of standouts to play for the Oilers. With McDavid on the way, Edmonton returned as an NHL destination seemingly overnight. The Oilers made changes in management and hired a new coaching staff. McDavid, 18, joins other young talent in Edmonton, including three recent No. 1 picks (Taylor HallRyan Nugent-Hopkins and Nail Yakupov) and early first-round selections Jordan Eberle and Benoit Pouliot.
Peter Chiarelli: When the former Boston Bruins general manager became available, the Oilers moved quickly to hire him despite having a GM in place. Chiarelli replaced MacTavish and hired Todd McLellan as coach to replace interim coach Todd Nelson. Chiarelli identified one of the Oilers' weaknesses during their rebuilding process and fired most of the scouting staff. He addressed a need by trading for goalie Cam Talbot, and added depth to the defensemen by signing free agent Andrej Sekera and trading for Eric Gryba. With an experienced GM, the Oilers believe their young, talented players are in good hands.
Todd McLellan: The coaching carousel is likely to stop with the hiring of the experienced and successful former San Jose Sharks coach. McLellan missed the playoffs once in seven seasons with the Sharks. He is the Oilers 14th coach, seventh in the past eight seasons.
Cam Talbot: The Oilers allowed the most goals in the NHL the past two seasons, and goalies Ben Scrivens and Viktor Fasth struggled last season. In an effort to improve, the Oilers acquired Talbot in a trade with the New York Rangers at the 2015 NHL Draft in June. Talbot had an excellent season behindHenrik Lundqvist, playing an NHL career-high 36 games with a 2.21 goals against average and .926 save percentage. Talbot played particularly well filling in after Lundqvist sustained a vascular injury in his neck, going 17-4-3 with two shutouts while Lundqvist was out. The Oilers believe, given the opportunity, Talbot will be an excellent starting goaltender in the NHL.