Plot Holes in the Next Chapter?

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It’s been a long offseason for the Buffalo Sabres. I mean REALLY long. If we’re all being honest with each other, the offseason has lasted over two years. It would be hard for anyone to argue that these past two seasons have approached anything resembling a hockey season, and the team taking the ice now bears no resemblance to the one that began the ill-fated 2013-2014 campaign. And the team that Sabres GM Tim Murray fielded last season? A woeful group of men, many of whom are not in the NHL any longer. And, so, here we are, on the cusp of…greatness? Certainly great compared to whatever the last two years have been.

I hope with every fiber of my being that we are done having the tank discussion. Was it worth it? Absofreakinglutely. Every moment of every moment of the 102 losses over the past two years was unequivocally worth it. When Jack Eichel dons his number 15 sweater for the first time and takes the ice at the First Niagara Center against the Ottawa Senators, nearly all 920,000 residents of Erie County will lose their collective minds because these last two years have all led to this moment. We’ve got our guy. NHL.com has predicted he’ll win the Calder. They also predict head coach Dan Bylsma will win the Jack Adams. National media – experts in the field – are on our side, sharing our excitement.

What a preseason, eh? (Fred Chartrand/The Canadian Press via AP) MANDATORY CREDIT

What a preseason, eh? (Fred Chartrand/The Canadian Press via AP) MANDATORY CREDIT

The preseason was exciting, with Buffalo scoring as many goals in 6 games as they did in the month of January last season, and Eichel, Evander Kane, Ryan O’Reilly, and Tyler Ennis have shown that they can turn on the scoring with the flip of a switch – even if we’ve got a man in the box. When Buffalo traded for O’Reilly, Jamie McGinn seemed like a toss in, but he’s shown he is a great balance of grit and skill, and he isn’t afraid to drop the gloves and get the party started.

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Not this Chad Johnson…though…could he do better? Photo from nfl.com

Am I gushing about our forwards? I suppose I am – and for good reason. They are very, very good. The Sabres defensive core remains the same, though bolstered by the acquisition of Cody Franson, but fans are expecting a much more organized and consistent effort from the D; hopefully, Bylsma’s approach to coaching will be better than Nolan’s ‘pond-hockey’ style. And then, there’s the elephant in the room…goaltending. GMTM picked up Robin Lehner, a goalie he had a hand in acquiring when he was Assistant General Manager of the Ottawa Senators. In a move that showed more loyalty than logic, Murray has Buffalo heading into the season with a starting goaltender who has been questionable at best. In the 2011 & 2012, Lehner worked as a call-up from Ottawa’s AHL affiliate, and maintained a decent GAA, but in his last two seasons as Ottawa’s number one goalie, his GAA inflated beyond 3. Lehner’s backup, Chad Johnson, had an even worse goals against, allowing nearly 3.1 in 19 games. Coupled this stat with the fact that the two goalies played fewer than 50 games combined, and it becomes very obvious Buffalo is going to be in trouble.

Bylsma has proven he can incredibly talented forwards. He’s shown he can coach a solid defensive system to back those forwards. What is perhaps most worrisome is Bylsma’s history with goaltenders. As coach of the Pittsburgh Penguins, netminder Marc-Andre Fleury developed into one of the league’s most hot-and-cold goaltenders – especially in the playoffs. Buffalo’s previous goaltending coach, Arturs Irbe did a stellar job with parade of goalies that played last season, but Irbe parted ways with the team, and his replacement has no NHL experience.  Worrisome, indeed…

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In a season of high hopes, it seems that Buffalo may also need a little bit of luck to cross the border from the basement into the promised land. It is possible that Murray is preparing to deal for a better goaltender – he’s got the capital to do it, and he clearly has no problem pulling the trigger on a deal, especially when a goalie is involved. As the puck drops on the ‘Next Chapter,’ let us bow our heads and offer the hockey gods a prayer. May the god of ice allow Eichel to get the extra jump in his stride. May the god of vulcanized rubber allow the bounces to go our way. May the god of carbon composite allow Risto’s stick to flex – but not snap – on the power play one-timer. And finally, may the hallowed cries of LET’S GO BUFFALO! ring loudly into June.

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