It’s the second of our attempt at league-wide season preview pieces by talking to contributors from other SB Nation blogs. You can access yesterday’s piece (and all future pieces) here.
Today we’re crossing the border to Buffalo, talking the Sabres with Managing Editor Andy Boron of Die By The Blade. Here are his answers:
1. Jack Eichel had an impressive 18-year-old rookie season, coming 17th in points among rookies since the 2004-05 lockout. How much of a jump forward do you think he makes this year?
Last season, Jack Eichel scored 24-32-56 in 81 games, which put him at 58th in scoring in the NHL - not bad for an 18-year-old rookie. I think Eichel will make a significant jump next year for two reasons. First, he should have more consistency in his line mates and more talent around him. Last year, Dan Bylsma shuffled his lines more than a Vegas dealer shuffles cards, mixing everyone with everyone to see what worked. By the end of the year, it seemed like he found a pairing in Eichel and fellow rookie Sam Reinhart that really started clicking. On their wing this year could be either Kyle Okposo or Jimmy Vesey, both of whom would be upgrades over players like Jamie McGinn or Zemgus Girgensons, and either of whom would create a dangerous young line for Eichel to play with. Second, he'll have a full offseason to rest, recover, and train for next year as opposed to the whirlwind college/draft/Worlds/development camp/PR tour he was on last summer, which even he admitted was tiring. A stronger, more prepared Eichel playing with better teammates? Let's see how good this kid can really be.
2. Do you think Robin Lehner can be a full-time starting goalie in the NHL?
That is probably the most important question facing the Sabres this season. Their forward group looks stacked. Their defense is OK at worst and has a blue chip prospect in Rasmus Ristolainen. But their goaltending is basically the shrug emoji. Lehner showed flashes last season that he's capable of carrying the load, but he also has to prove that he's capable of doing that consistently and for an entire season without getting hurt. The Sabres paid a hefty price to get him, and with their acquisition of Anders Nilsson to be their backup, there is no plan B in net this year. The Sabres will either sink or swim depending on Lehner's performance this season, but he has committed himself this offseason, staying in Buffalo to train all summer, so we'll see.
3. Are you a fan of the acquisition of Dmitry Kulikov at the cost of Mark Pysyk? Does the fact that Kulikov is a pending UFA affect your opinion?
I'm not sure if I'm a huge fan of the deal, but I also don't think it's the disaster that many in the Twitterverse do. Pysyk was the analytics hero of the Sabres’ defense last year, posting the team's highest numbers in things like Corsi and GF%, but for whatever reason both Tim Murray and Dan Bylsma never seemed to think much of him, keeping him buried all year on the third pairing. The easier competition he faced there probably helped boost those numbers, but watching him on the ice, the best word to describe Pysyk was smooth. His skating, passing, and decision making all matched that description. What he didn't bring you was many points, or any type of physicality. Kulikov should bring both of those to the team, and most are guessing he will pair next season with Ristolainen, which would be a big upgrade over Risto's previous partner, the 31-year-old Josh Gorges. I'm not too worried about his contract, because if he plays well the team has shown no hesitation to throw money around, and if he doesn't, many are speculating he could be exposed in the expansion draft. As with all things, I'm reserving my judgement on Kulikov until we see him on the ice next to Ristolainen next season, but I think he will end up providing a small upgrade over Pysyk, and a big upgrade to Ristolainen should he play on the top pair.