A polarizing topic this season in the NHL was the issue of tanking for the top pick in the Entry Draft, whether or not teams should partake in the practice and in the Buffalo Sabres' case, I sit on the side of the fence that says that they are patiently going through a full rebuild and tanking is a bi-product of that method of building and it couldn't have come at a better time.
The Sabres saw some ups in the 2015 season, a team is bound to when they play 82 games and there is some pride involved with players and coaches, because they don't necessarily want to lose... every single night. On paper, the Sabres were not going to challenge and at the deadline, they made sure that they were not going to challenge, but they also did some building of their own, which has some merits, going forward.
Frankly, I think the Sabres are an interesting team going forward, it's just a shame that the media vilifies these "tanking" teams, because they cannot report on the future, because it isn't written yet.
When you start looking at a year like the 2015 season in Buffalo, finding the best player on the team is almost like a moot point. Nevertheless, Tyler Ennis still managed to score 20 goals and 59 points, but he wasn't able to crack the top 100 in pool scoring this season. He will definitely welcome whatever help the team can muster up next season, be it a franchise centre through the draft or even the acquisition of Evander Kane has some potential for help. Ennis isn't likely to dominate in the scoring column anytime soon, but he will provide some good depth scoring for both the Sabres and your pool team.
In amongst the forward group in Buffalo, you can really see how they failed to make a real impact in the standings and led the race for last place all year long. The Sabres had no offensive catalysts, rather a bunch of lunch pail guys that can score, but no one was really driving the play. Matt Moulson was second on the team in points, 13 goals and 41 points, while Brian Gionta only hit 13 goals and 35 points this year. Both players were dropped through the year and the only other active Sabres forward by the end of the season was Zemgus Girgensons, the All-Star, but his injury at the end of the year limited him to 15 goals and 30 points in 61 games.
The face of the blueline changed considerably during the year, when the Sabres and Jets made their swap, in came Zach Bogosian to help lead the team from the back end, but with only limited help, he wasn't going to put up any real numbers. He finished the year with 3 goals and 20 points in 62 games between Winnipeg and Buffalo. Rasmus Ristolainen, who played all year in Buffalo, also had 20 points, but had 8 goals in 78 games.
In net, the Sabres mowed through a number of goalies, including Jhonas Enroth (gone to Dallas), Michal Neuvirth (gone to Long Island), Anders Lindback (came for Enroth), Andrey Makarov and Matt Hackett. This was not a great year to be a goalie in Buffalo and as the jokes go at the deadline, if you gave the team a shot, you were dealt, hence Enroth and Neuvirth getting shipped out. By the end of the year, it was a black hole in the pool for minutes.
2016 Pool Outlook
If the Sabres went into the 2016 season with just the framework of the team that they have signed on right now, there would be absolutely no point to take a player from this team in the hockey pool next season. Thankfully for them, they have all kinds of cap room and some potential, even before the 2015 Entry Draft. I wouldn't go so far as to say that their outlook for 2016 is very bright, but if they apply the right amount of power in the correct spots, they could definitely turn this ship around in a hurry. There is no question, that this team will have some draft-able players in the Fall, it will be up to you to decide how much value you see in them.
Rookie watch will be a big focus in Buffalo this season, especially since they hold a pretty sweet draft pick this Summer and they already have forward Sam Reinhart in tow. Reinhart had a pretty good year in junior with the Kootenay Ice and Team Canada at the World Juniors, so there will be a lot of attention still paid to him come training camp. The Sabres will also look to defenseman Jake McCabe, possibly to fill out a spot on the blueline, but it's hard to say at the moment. It would depend a lot on how young they will want this team to be next season or how much they will want to compete.
Free Agency and the Salary Cap
The salary cap situation for the Buffalo Sabres, in one word... excellent. Even if the salary cap ceiling goes up minimally, all of the players that the Sabres have under contract, by my calculations, will fit under the $71.7 million ceiling, which was proposed near the end of the year.
The team can move into being a very young team going forward and even younger with picks possibly moving into roster spots. Veteran talent will be a must, however, so UFA's Andrej Meszaros, Andre Benoit or Patrick Kaleta, may still have offers for jobs, but they would have the freedom to move elsewhere, if they so chose.
As for RFA's, forwards Johan Larsson and Mikhail Grigorenko headline the crop, while goaltender Matt Hackett will be included, but I begin to wonder if his stock is falling, due to some poor years already in the pros.
Needs at the 2015 Entry Draft
Well, you don't take a dive in the NHL season, just to not want a franchise player. At the end of the season, they were guaranteed to have either the 1st or 2nd overall pick in the draft and the lottery solved that mystery... they ended up with the 2nd pick, losing to Edmonton in the lottery.
The Sabres also have the Islanders' pick this season and now that they are in the playoffs, the spot in the draft will be determined by Long Island's finish in the Spring Dance. Past their pick of Jack Eichel, I think it would be very wise on their part, if they could find a defenseman to fit the bill as well. After the playoffs and all of these outlooks are done, I think that will be reflected in the mock entry draft that I'll do.
What I Said Last Year, At This Time...
In predicting the Sabres 2015 season, it is somewhat difficult, as the team is now operating under some new management and offering an optimistic prediction may be a tad silly today. The Sabres have the opportunity to make their future bright, but their present may be still laced with hardships and tough decisions to make. With all of that being said, their depth is not very strong, there isn't much for goaltending on their side going into the Summer and if these issues are not addressed, it could be another long season in 2015. I don't like their odds of a good season, rather, I like their odds of another good draft pick in June 2015.
I don't think last year's prediction was too much like rocket science, everything added up and sure enough, their goaltending was the pits and their depth made them look even worse. At least Jhonas Enroth proved everyone wrong in Dallas with some good numbers, but overall, the Sabres have themselves a very desirable pick in the Entry Draft and now they can start building upon the moves that they have ahead of them.
Even the addition of Sidney Crosby to the Penguins in 2006 really turned that team around right away, so I don't think there is any reason why I would think that Eichel would turn this team around, no matter how highly touted he is. Eichel will likely be a big draw for the Sabres and between him and Reinhart, there will be some real excitement in the city again. Improvement will come, maybe by a leap, but I can't see it having a bound, since they don't have any established goaltending at this point. If management can supplant this team with some veteran depth, then a leap with a bound is possible. Today, with the make-up of the team the way it is, plus some potential, at best they might still be in the conversation at the start of the last month of the season.