by Joe Yerdon / NHL.com Correspondent
After five straight seasons out of the Stanley Cup Playoffs and three seasons of rebuilding, the Buffalo Sabres have set their sights on qualifying for the 2017 postseason.
The Sabres had 81 points last season, 27 more than in 2014-15, when they had the worst record in the NHL. Although that put them seventh in the Atlantic Division, they were 12 points behind the Detroit Red Wings for a playoff berth.
Buffalo has moved onto the path to success in its rebuild but must now take the next step. To help do that, the Sabres made two big additions during the offseason.
Forward Kyle Okposo, who had 22 goals and 42 assists with the New York Islanders last season, signed a seven-year contract reportedley worth $42 million as a free agent on July 1. He will join a lineup that included skilled forwards Ryan O’Reilly, Jack Eichel, Sam Reinhart and Evander Kane. Those four combined for 193 points as four of Buffalo’s top five scorers; O’Reilly led with 60 (21 goals).
“I’ve obviously watched those guys play and played against them,” Okposo said when he was introduced in Buffalo on July 7. “I’ve been saying it for a week that [O’Reilly] is one of the smartest players, one of the smartest centers in the League in my opinion, and [Eichel has] got nowhere to go but up. His ceiling is so high and he’s going to be such a tremendous player in this league for a long time. I’m looking forward to helping grow and continue to cultivate him as a player.”
The other big addition was defenseman Dmitry Kulikov, who was acquired from the Florida Panthers in a trade for defenseman Mark Pysyk during the 2016 NHL Draft.
“We certainly like [Kulikov] as a player,” Buffalo general manager Tim Murray said at the draft. “We did a lot of video scouting at the end of the year on him. We watched their six playoff games, other than knowing him well and watching him since he was in Drummondville (Quebec Major Junior Hockey League) and our pro scouting staff since he’s been in the National [Hockey] League. We like him as a player. We have a need for a left-shot (defenseman). He had an outstanding playoff for them; I thought he was their best (defenseman) in the six games they played against the Islanders.”
Kulikov will join a defense that featured 21-year-old Rasmus Ristolainen (an unsigned restricted free agent), 22-year-old Jake McCabe, Zach Bogosian, Cody Franson and Josh Gorges. Although the group is experienced, a veteran like Kulikov should help clear up some depth issues and give Buffalo an even balance between left-handed and right-handed defensemen.
More help could be on the way up front if Harvard University forward and 2016 Hobey Baker Award winner Jimmy Vesey signs with the Sabres. Buffalo acquired Vesey from the Nashville Predators in a trade for a 2016 third-round pick on June 20. Vesey said he intends to become an unrestricted free agent on Aug. 15 when his draft rights expire, but Murray and coach Dan Bylsma met with Vesey in Boston last month to make their case to him to play in Buffalo.
“For me, this is in his court and I don’t sit at home and speculate about this,” Murray said on July 12. “He’s either going to sign here or he’s not. If he doesn’t, it’s going to be obviously not the decision we want, and then you guys will call me a dummy for trading away a third-round pick, but I’ve got all the scenarios and I’m ready for them all, but it’s up to him, it’s his time.”
Robin Lehner will be the No. 1 goalie. The Sabres acquired Anders Nilsson from the St. Louis Blues to be the backup. Linus Ullmark will challenge Nilsson for that job in training camp, but Buffalo will need a healthy Lehner to carry the load.
Lehner, who was limited to 21 games last season, his first with the Sabres (5-9-5, 2.47 goals-against average, .924 save percentage), had season-ending ankle surgery on March 30 and decided to stay in Buffalo for the summer to prepare for the season. The Sabres will need him to prove he’s worthy of the No. 1 job if they are going to make a push for the playoffs.
(Reprinted with permission of the Buffalo Sabres)