2017-18 Sabres: Five bold predictions

October 5, 2017
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After a long offseason filled with plenty of changes, the new look Buffalo Sabres are ready to open the 2017-18 season on Thursday night against the Montreal Canadiens.

The offseason started with both general manager Tim Murray and head coach Dan Bylsma being fired by ownership after a disappointing 2016-17 season. The search for their replacements extended for months before Jason Botterill comes in as the new general manager, and Phil Housley enters as the new head coach.

While the Sabres have a good number of their top players returning to the lineup this season, the roster has seen a good amount of turnover, especially on the blue line.

Buffalo did not look all that great in the preseason, finishing with a 1-4-1 record, but the team is still coming together and developing chemistry with one another.

How will this season turn out for the Sabres? Will they be able to break their playoff drought and return to the postseason for the first time since 2011? 

Here are my five bold predictions for the upcoming Sabres season:

 

1.) Jack Eichel finishes as a top-five scorer in the NHL

Just about everyone has Jack Eichel pegged to have a breakout season after putting up 57 points in 61 games last year. Eichel finished last season 11th in the NHL in points per-game average, but was averaging a point per-game heading into the final six games of the season.

There's very little doubt that Eichel can sustain a point per-game pace in the NHL, but it's about staying healthy and being able to play 70 or more games this season. The points will start to rack up for Eichel if he can play in more than 70 games this season.

Connor McDavid led the NHL with a 1.22 points per-game pace after leading the league with 100 points in 82 games played. Nikita Kucherov was the NHL's fifth-highest point producer, averaging 1.15 points per-game in 74 games played.

I think Eichel can produce at a very similar pace to Kucherov, at the very least, and if he can play a full 82-game schedule, that's 94-95 points. That point total would have been good for second in the NHL last year, right behind McDavid.

Eichel is motivated to prove all of his doubters wrong, and is licking his lips at the chance of firmly establishing himself as one of the best players in the NHL. Finishing as a top-five scorer in the NHL at 21-years of age would do it.

Plus, Eichel will not have much to worry about now with his new contract extension officially in hand.

 

2.) Evander Kane hits the 30-goal mark

Evander Kane is another player looking to make a statement this season as he heads into the final year of his current contract. He will be an unrestricted free agent come July 2, 2018.

Only once has Kane ever hit the 30-goal mark in a season. That was back in the 2011-12 season where he scored 30 goals in 74 games with the Winnipeg Jets. Last season was the closest he has come to breaking the mark with 28 goals in 70 games.

Kane will open this season on a line with Jack Eichel and Jason Pominville. Of Kane's 28 goals last year, over half of them came while on the ice with Eichel. Pominville is another player who will give Kane chances by setting him up for scoring chances night in and night out.

Health has been an issue for Kane over the more recent years, only playing in 235 of a possible 328 games in the past four seasons. If Kane can stay healthy and get into 75 or more games this upcoming season, he should be able to net at least 30 goals at the same production rate as last year.

If Kane scores 30 goals again, it will certainly help bolster his numbers for a new contract, whether that is in Buffalo or elsewhere. 

 

3.) Victor Antipin finishes in top-10 of Calder Trophy voting

The 24-year old defenseman is projected to produce about 30 points this season if he plays in all 82 games.

The Sabres have given Antipin plenty of chances during the preseason as he continues to grow his game at the North American level. In his five games played, Antipin scored once while showing that he can be a very good fit in Phil Housley's system.

Last season, another KHL defenseman came over to the NHL and produced some decent numbers in Toronto. Nikita Zaitsev scored four goals and registered 36 points in 82 games, and is now a top-four defenseman on the Maple Leafs' roster.

I think the smaller rinks in the NHL will benefit Antipin's game even more, which means that will translate into more points. With Antipin becoming more acclimated to the NHL game and getting more ice-time in Phil Housley's system, there is a legitimate chance that Antipin can produce similar numbers to Zaitsev in his rookie season in Buffalo. My projection for Antipin is eight goals and 34 points if he stays healthy and gets into the lineup for most of the season.

While it is highly unlikely that Antipin will win the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year, this year's rookie class may not be as stacked as it has been in years past. I think he can get Calder Trophy votes this season if he performs up to expectations, and if he can establish himself as a key piece to the Sabres' blue line.

 

4.) Sabres defense doubles their scoring totals from last year

The Sabres' defensive unit was downright awful last season when contributing on offense. As a unit, they scored a league-low 17 goals and produced a meager 121 points.

With Phil Housley entering the picture, the blue line has gone under an extreme makeover. Out goes players like Cody Franson and Dmitry Kulikov, in comes players like Victor Antipin, Nathan Beaulieu and Marco Scandella. In addition, the system goes from a relatively boring and more defensive system under Dan Bylsma to a fast and aggressive system under Housley.

We've already seen evidence of the defense playing aggressive and contributing on offense this preseason. Guys like Antipin, Beaulieu, Rasmus Ristolainen, Jake McCabe and Zach Bogosian have been getting up on rushes, joining the attack, and creating more scoring chances. The Sabres also have a defenseman like Scandella, who can bring a similar style of play and will have a more notable role in Buffalo than he did with the Minnesota Wild. However, he did not play a game this preseason as he continues to rehab from offseason hip surgery. However, Scandella is ready to go and will play in Thursday's season opener.

With the defense adapting to Housley's system and growing as a unit, it would not be shocking if we see more goals and points produced from the blue line. How much more production could we see? I think they can, at least, double their goal total from last season, while putting up anywhere between 130-150 points as a unit.

The change we will see from the defense this season is going to be night and day from last season. It should make for some fun hockey.

 

5.) Sabres will contend, but just miss out on the playoffs

As much as many of us want the six-season playoff drought be broken this season, most of the teams in the Eastern Conference are still one step ahead of the Sabres. However, it sure seems like the Sabres are closer than ever to getting back into the thick of things.

I see the Sabres finishing in the 85-95 point-range this season, which is just outside of the target range to clinch at least a wild card spot. Buffalo may get off to a slower start to the season as they continue to get fully comfortable in Phil Housley's system, but I see the Sabres contending and being within a few points of the playoffs for most of the year.

Buffalo is certainly better off now than where they were last season, but there is still a lot of room to grow down the road.

I believe the Sabres will finish fifth in the Atlantic Division behind the Toronto Maple Leafs, Tampa Bay Lightning, Montreal Canadiens and Boston Bruins. However, it is certainly not out of the realm of possibility that Buffalo can be one of the top teams in the division come next season. As long as the team continues to progress and develop some chemistry, the future in Buffalo continues to look better and better.

 

BONUS: Casey Mittelstadt will win the 2018 Hobey Baker Award

Buffalo's first round pick (8th overall) in the 2017 NHL Draft is getting ready to play his freshman season of hockey at the University of Minnesota with the Golden Gophers program.

The 18-year old has already shown off his incredible skill sets at Sabres development camp, but will look to take the next step in his game at the college level. With the Golden Gophers, Mittelstadt will look to grow his physical game and try to build some size before making the jump to the NHL, whenever that will be.

I can see Mittelstadt scoring more than 20 goals with the Golden Gophers this season, while using his speed and incredible playmaking abilities to dominate at the college level. If he can dominate and produce eye-popping numbers at Minnesota, Mittelstadt should be a shoo-in for the Hobey Baker Award as college hockey's best player.

We should get a good look at Mittelstadt in December as he is likely to make the Team U.S.A. roster this year's IIHF World Junior Championship in Buffalo.

In case you missed it, here's a little snippet of what Mittelstadt has done in exhibition play with Minnesota:

Another angle of Mittelstadt's goal and it somehow became more impressive. He totally meant to pass it to himself. pic.twitter.com/svUjcSHwU4

— Sabres Fanatics (@SabresFanatics) October 3, 2017