There were plenty of positives and negatives for the Buffalo Sabres last season. Injuries were a big reason why they stayed at the bottom of the Atlantic Division. Their defense was as bad as anyone’s in the league. Sam Reinhart failed to take a step forward. On the other hand, they had the best power play in the league, Jack Eichel was outstanding and their goaltending, notably Robin Lehner, was excellent. Out went Dan Bylsma and Tim Murray, in comes Phil Housley and Jason Botterill. It’s time for a return to the playoffs for the Sabres and they have the talent to make it back. How the team improves tactically under Housley and how much the defense improves will be the major factors. Let’s see what my hometown team are working with:
Elite Talents – After missing the beginning of the season due to an ankle sprain the day before the season started, Jack Eichel was a monster. In 61 games, Eichel scored 24 goals and added 33 assists. His major value came from his shot rate as it was the best in the entire NHL. Eichel totaled 24 PPP in only 61 games which is also elite. I had Eichel at 14th overall in my Early Top 50 and I think that’s still a good spot for him. With a drastically improved blueline and system in place, Eichel should flourish. 90 points isn’t out of the question.
Must Draft – Evander Kane‘s second season in Buffalo was much better than the first. Kane scored 28 goals in 70 games taking well over 3.5 shots per game. Add in 113 PIM and he’s a fantasy monster. Sure, the assists will be poor as will the power play points but potential 30 goal scorers that get over 100 penalty minutes are hard to come by. He’s a clear top 100 player that will almost certainly be in my top 75. He does have an injury history but the upside is tremendous.
Thankfully Kyle Okposo has recovered from his infection to be back with the Sabres at the start of this season. Okposo’s first year in Buffalo was solid, scoring 19 goals and 26 assists in 65 games. He was a key part of the #1 power play and should continue to be. The penalty minutes dipped and seem inconsistent but even if he’s only average there, 25+35 with solid contributions across the board seems like a reasonable expectation. He’ll be right around the 100th overall mark for his offensive safety plus penalty minute upside.
Ryan O’Reilly is as safe as it comes at this point in his career. RoR had 20 goals and 35 assists last year in 72 games. He’s excellent on the power play and provides an above average shot rate. You aren’t going to get penalty minutes but otherwise, there’s plenty to like. He’ll be outside of my top 100 but not by much.
Sam Reinhart would probably be considered by most to be an elite streamer with upside. In his age 21 season, Reinhart scored 17 goals and added 30 assists in 79 games. The penalty minutes are non-existent and he’s more of a secondary piece of the first power play unit. However, I’m expecting big things from Reinhart this season. One, he should be with Eichel the whole season instead of being constantly moved around like he was by Bylsma. More importantly, a player with Reinhart’s vision will greatly benefit from Housley’s preferred style of play. Defensemen joining the rush will give Reinhart more options. I would write a sleeper post for him but at this point, my focus is on the team previews and getting my Top 200 done. Reinhart will definitely go outside of the top 150 in drafts but if you can get him at that point, I think you can hit a home run.
Streamer With Upside – This is a bit of a bold call but I can see a scenario where Benoit Pouliot becomes a hold in 12’ers. I called the same thing two years ago and Pouliot reached that status played with Connor McDavid. Now, he signed a one year deal with the Sabres and there’s a chance he plays on Eichel’s wing. Last season was a disaster for Benny but two seasons ago, Pouliot had 36 points in 55 games. I wouldn’t use a pick on him in 12’ers since there’s no guarantee he plays in the top six (it will depend if Alex Nylander makes the roster, more on him later), but he’ll be one of my favorite streamers if he does.
Potential Streamers – Jason Pominville returns to the Sabres after over 5 seasons in Minnesota. Pominville was under-the-radar excellent for the Wild last year scoring 47 points (13+34) in 78 games despite very little power play time. I expect him to get time on the second unit this year and probably be the focal point of it. It’ll be very interesting how the lines are set up since it will greatly determine Pominville’s value. His shot rate is below average now and he gives us almost no PIM but I can definitely see him having stretches where he’s a hold.
My part on Matt Moulson is short and sweet. If he gets time on the first power play unit because someone gets injured, Moulson can be a decent streamer (he did score 11 PPG last year). To be blunt, I don’t expect that to happen and question whether he even makes the starting lineup.
Elite Talent – Rasmus Ristolainen is one of the most debated players in the entire NHL. Some people think he’s a first pairing defenseman, some think he’s not even closer. However, there’s no debate over his fantasy value. Risto was great last year scoring 6 goals and 39 assists. He was running the first power play unit resulting in 25 PPP and the penalty minutes skyrocketed to 58. Add in an above-average shot rate for a defenseman and there’s upside of a #1 fantasy defenseman. I think his game goes to another level this year with Housley taking over and more importantly, he’ll actually have a credible partner instead of a rotating pile of garbage, notably Josh Gorges. I’d be surprised if Ristolainen didn’t get to 55 points this season.
If Things Break Right… – The Sabres signed Viktor Antipin from the KHL despite him agreeing to the deal with Tim Murray and Murray subsequently being fired. Antipin should come in and be on the point of the second power play unit. He has massive offensive potential, which he flashed during the KHL playoffs last season. Antipin had 7 goals and 4 assists in 18 playoff games for Metallurg Magnitogorsk. He’s always been a super low penalty minute guy so if you want to gamble on him, make sure you have PIM covered. I love taking the shot in deeper leagues and while I wouldn’t draft him in 12’ers, I would keep him on my radar.
In a puzzling move, Montreal shipped Nathan Beaulieu to the Sabres for a third round pick. Beaulieu had 28 points and 44 PIM last season for the Canadiens. Maybe if he has fantasy relevance if he gets on the second power play unit? It’s a long shot but not impossible. It’ll be interesting to see how the pairs are set up for Buffalo and that should determine Beaulieu’s value.
GOALIES – I’m all in on Robin Lehner this season. Lehner posted a .920 sv% last season in 59 starts after having a .924 in 2015-16 in 21 games. The defense in front of him is massively improved which should lower his GAA and Lehner was given a one year deal this offseason. Basically, this year is a “prove it” season for Lehner and he’s more than capable of delivering. Yes, he has an injury history. but the potential is through the roof. He has #1 goalie upside but I’d love getting him as my #2.
The Sabres brought back Chad Johnson on a one year deal. Johnson started off the season extremely well in Calgary before tapering off, finishing with a 2.59 GAA and .910 sv%. He’s capable of more though as he showed in Buffalo the season before posting a 2.36/.920 stat line. If Lehner were to go down, Johnson would be a #2 goalie. Otherwise, I feel pretty safe streaming him whenever he starts.
HITS / BLOCKS / FACEOFF LEAGUES
Ristolainen becomes a clear #1 defenseman with elite hits and blocks. Otherwise, there’s not really much here in terms of value changes. I would add that in deeper leagues, I like taking a shot on Johan Larsson. He’s not going to light the world on fire but if he plays on the third line with say, Pominville and Pouliot or Nylander, he could have decent point totals. The faceoffs should be good and the blocks are solid for a forward. Getting 30 points with decent contributions across the board has some value in 16+ man leagues.
Eichel becomes a top five player since he won’t turn 21 until the end of October. Reinhart is a top 100 player as well. I would put Risto as a clear #1 just outside of the top 5 overall defenseman. The rest of the Sabres core are currently in their primes so value them the same. The only player who downgrades is Pominville but he still has value at the bottom of your roster in a dynasty.
Blue Chip – Through a loophole, Alex Nylander was able to play in the AHL last season for Rochester. His numbers aren’t anything special, 10+18 in 65 games, but he came on strong at the end of the season and was excellent in the World Juniors. Nylander scored five goals and added seven assists in seven games for Sweden and was one of the players of the tournament. His offensive ceiling is incredibly high making him one of the best prospects in the world. There’s a chance he makes the Sabres roster to start the season and if he does, I like taking the gamble on him late; he certainly could play with Eichel. If not, don’t sweat it, he’ll be up sooner than later.
Yes, Casey Mittelstadt struggled to do a pull-up at the combine, but he is the complete package. Mittelstadt’s puck handling is able to keep up with his elite speed which is no small task. He’s already a two-way force and he should progress nicely at Minnesota this year. I expect him to play one year in college and then making the Sabres roster in 2018-19. From a fantasy perspective, he could be the best player in his draft class, although I’d lean towards Hischier and maybe Makar.
Prospects With Upside – Brendan Guhle has the tools to be a great offensive defenseman in the NHL. His skating is elite, he leads the rush incredibly well and his shot, both wrist and slap, are valuable weapons. I believe he will start the year in Rochester but Guhle should be up at some point this season. It’ll take some time but there’s top pairing upside (he probably ends up on the second pair).
A personal favorite of mine is Nicholas Baptiste. His first year in Rochester after doing very well in the OHL was a success scoring 25 goals and 16 assists in 59 games. Most people see him as a future bottom six player while Justin Bailey has more upside but I believe the opposite is true. Baptiste’s power game down low is the perfect compliment to elite offensive players, which the Sabres have a lot of. You should be able to get him late in dynasty drafts but Baptiste has some sneaky potential.
That’s all for now guys. Please leave any questions or comments you have below. I’ll be back tomorrow previewing the Washington Capitals. Thanks for reading, take care!