For much of this past campaign, the Buffalo Sabres did not resemble an NHL team. After a busy 2015 draft, they figure to have a very different look next season.
The Sabres had an abysmal 2014-15, finishing with 23 victories and 54 points — both league lows. More than one-third of their wins (eight) came in shootouts, and the club was shut out a whopping 14 times, including by the Pittsburgh Penguins at home in the season finale.
Buffalo’s troubles did not end there, however, as it failed to come out on top in the draft lottery, settling for the second overall selection for the second straight year. In 2014, the Sabres finished with a league-worst 52 points but lost out on the first draft pick to the Florida Panthers, who chose defenseman — and 2015 Calder Trophy winner — Aaron Ekblad.
The Sabres selected center Sam Reinhart, who registered one assist in nine NHL games last season. This time around, the Edmonton Oilers won the lottery and took top-ranked prospect Connor McDavid
With the next pick, Buffalo drafted center Jack Eichel from Boston University. The 18-year-old won the Hobey Baker Award as a freshman earlier this year, joining former Mighty Ducks of Anaheim (back when they had that name) star Paul Kariya (1993 with the University of Maine) as the only players to accomplish the feat.
“It’s tough to put into words,” Eichel told reporters. “Looking back on the entire year, it’s been the best year of my life. This really caps it off.”
Eichel led the nation in scoring with 71 points in 40 games with the Terriers and earned numerous Hockey East honors, including Rookie and Player of the Year. After helping Team USA capture the silver medal in the 2013 World Under-18 Championship and gold the following year, he joined the big boys and won bronze at the IIHF World Championship last month.
Despite playing with and against seasoned veterans, Eichel has yet to decide whether he will turn pro or return to Boston University for his sophomore season.
“I guess we’ll see in a few days,” he said jokingly. “Can’t let the cat out of the bag.”
In the hours leading up to the draft, Sabres general manager Tim Murray made a pair of trades that are expected to significantly help the club. The first was with the Ottawa Senators, who dealt goaltender Robin Lehner and center David Legwand to the Sabres for the 21st overall pick.
Lehner appeared in 25 games for Ottawa last season, going 9-12-3 with a 3.02 goals-against average before suffering a season-ending concussion on February 16. The 6-foot-5, 23-year-old Swede posted a 30-36-13 record with two shutouts and a 2.88 GAA in 86 career contests with the Senators.
“I think he’s a very talented, big, strong young man that is just scratching the surface,” Murray told reporters. “Hopefully, we can bring the best out of him.”
Legwand is a two-time 20-goal scorer who has collected 223 tallies and 604 points in 1,057 NHL games. Drafted second overall by the Nashville Predators in 1998, the 34-year-old recorded nine goals and 18 assists in 80 contests with Ottawa this past campaign.
“He’s a veteran that’s been around a long time,” Murray said. “He knows what goes on in this league. From everything I’ve heard, he’s a professional.”
Murray added two more players later in the day, acquiring forwards Ryan O’Reilly and Jamie McGinn from the Colorado Avalanche for defenseman Nikita Zadorov, forwards Mikhail Grigorenko and J.T. Compher and the 31st overall draft pick.
O’Reilly dropped off after a stellar 2013-14, scoring 17 goals and 55 points in 82 games. A season earlier, the 23-year-old set career highs of 28 goals and 64 points while capturing the Lady Byng Trophy.
“I like a lot about him,” Murray said. “He’s got tremendous hockey sense. I think his hockey sense is off the charts. I think he makes everyone around him better. I love his work ethic on and off the ice. I love his skill level. There’s nothing I don’t like about him.”
The 26-year-old McGinn notched four goals and two assists in 19 games with Colorado last season. He has registered 69 tallies and 128 points in 366 NHL contests with the San Jose Sharks and Avalanche.
Considering Evander Kane has yet to make his Sabres debut after being obtained from the Winnipeg Jets during the 2014-15 campaign, new Buffalo coach Dan Bylsma will have some fairly potent weapons at his disposal.
With Kane and O’Reilly on board, the Sabres have an excellent chance to surpass their league-low 161 goals scored total from last season.