A crop of players will hit the ice at KeyBank Center next Thursday, donning the Buffalo Sabres’ blue and gold as the team faces off against the Montreal Canadiens. While each player is a part of the team effort, there are undoubtedly a few “key” players we’ll be keeping a closer eye on as the season kicks off.
· Robin Lehner: Last season was erratic for Lehner. In his first year with the team, he got hurt early in the season-opening game, when expectations were high. He missed most of the year, and when he came back, he re-injured his ankle. There’s no doubt he worked hard over the offseason to recover from his injuries and return to the ice stronger than ever - word has it he even took MMA classes! Heading into this season, Lehner is largely expected to be the starting goaltender for the Sabres, and he needs to be able to fit into that role. In order for the Sabres to have a solid season – even if they aren’t necessarily playoff-bound – Lehner needs to put up a strong showing between the pipes. He hasn’t fully proven himself yet and will need perform well; not only in the early games, but also over the course of the season.
· Jack Eichel – Whenever someone’s designated as the ‘face of a franchise,’ it naturally puts a lot of pressure on that player to be good at their job. If that’s a forward like Eichel, it means putting up goals, of course, but it also means making strong plays to assist others, working to make other players better, and be a part of the overall team effort. Eichel came into his rookie year with a lot of weight on his shoulders, and his sophomore season is no different. With one year of NHL experience under his belt, Sabres fans should be excited to see what comes next from the young prodigy.
· Nicolas Deslauriers – Deslauriers is one of those players you just love to have on your team. Hard-working, gritty, skilled; he’s willing to do it all, and his versatility makes him a key piece among the forwards on the Sabres this season. He’s not likely to be that guy scoring the big goal night in and night out for the team, but he’ll be the guy making the solid play in the background to get the puck to the net. He’s not afraid to defend his teammates and play the body, which is undoubtedly an important part of his game. It’ll be exciting to watch him this season and see where he can step up even further.
· Zemgus Girgensons – Freshly re-signed, Girgensons needs to have a good year for the Sabres. Last season, he put up a measly 18 points in 71 regular-season games - career lows in goals, assists and points. The forward simply didn’t make enough of an impression, but obviously it WAS enough to get him a new contract. This year is a bit of a test for both sides, as his deal is just a one-year contract. If he doesn’t do enough this season to impress the Sabres brass, they may choose to let him walk next summer. It will be up to him to put in the effort and produce.
· Kyle Okposo – I didn’t want to put all of the newcomers on this list, but I think there is an onus on all of them – including Okposo – to perform well in their first season with the Sabres. Okposo is a player some Sabres fans may know well, since he has played in the Eastern Conference for his entire career. Over the last two seasons, he's put up four points (2 goals, 2 assists) in just five games against the Sabres, so it’ll be nice to have him scoring for us, rather than against us. How will Okposo fit in with his new team? After putting up an efficient 64 points in 79 games last year with the Isles – more than any Sabres player – what will he do this season?
· Zach Bogosian – Bogosian will once again be a key piece of the Buffalo Sabres defense – and even more so if the team can’t sign Rasmus Ristolainen in time for the home opener. Along with guys like Josh Gorges, Jake McCabe, and newcomer Dimitri Kulikov, Bogosian will be a big part of the blueline for the Sabres. Last season, Bogosian appeared in 64 games with the Sabres. He put up 86 hits, 98 blocked shots and had 21 giveaways. He also ate up a decent amount of icetime, averaging 19:28 per game - two seconds shy of Ristolainen. Bogo was also second among Buffalo defenders with 121 shots on goal, the majority of which (63) were slap shots. He’s got the power, now he just needs to use it.
Of course, outside of these six, it’ll be interesting to see what Sam Reinhart does this season, in his second full year in the big league. If Derek Grant makes the team, he could be a gem to keep an eye on, too. Another player to watch is Hudson Fasching, if he makes the final cut. We’ve only seen a limited amount of Fasching and he certainly seems to have some potential.
Stay tuned for more coverage as the Buffalo Sabres prepare to kick off the 2016-2017 season on Thursday, October 13 against the Montreal Canadiens.