There’s but a short list of teams that performed as poorly as the Montreal Canadiens and Buffalo Sabres during the last National Hockey League season. Accordingly, there are few teams with higher expectations of themselves when it comes to improvement this season.
Fresh off a 2011-12 redux at a time when the Canadiens’ Stanley Cup window was supposed to have been open, improvement should be a foregone conclusion for the Tricolore. How much improvement remains to be seen, but it’s apparent that reaching the playoffs no longer goes far enough as an organizational goal.
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In Buffalo, things are less certain. The team took a big step forward last season, elevating their play from historically woeful to a garden variety of incompetence. Building around foundational pieces in Jack Eichel and Rasmus Ristolainen, the Sabres would like to make a similar leap this season, into playoff contention.
If that’s to happen, it looks like the offence will have to be the engine driving the team. The signing of Kyle Okposo adds another dimension to the Sabres’ top six forwards, lending credence to the idea that the Sabres might have two scoring lines in the same way that Alex Radulov is intended to improve the Habs’ offensive credibility. Radulov may have a higher ceiling, but Okposo’s production - his 64 points was equaled by only Max Pacioretty on last year’s iterations of these two teams - is a known quantity on a team in desperate need of them.
Beyond the talent on the top two lines, however, including Evander Kane and Sam Reinhart, there isn’t much. And when the same absence of talent pervades the defence corps too, things start to get ugly.
Ristolainen is undeniably impressive, but it will take a heroic effort to make his union with Dmitry Kulikov into top pair material. Jake McCabe is an up-and-comer as well, and performed well in limited minutes with Cody Franson last season. Unfortunately, McCabe’s regular partner Zach Bogosian was an anchor, on the second pair only by virtue of the underwhelming prospect of the Gorges-Bogosian pairing that would result if Franson and McCabe were left together. The Sabres aren’t without talent, but they aren’t without some serious holes as well. That puts even more pressure on the talent to produce, which can get complicated when the talent isn’t available.
Buffalo’s best weapon Jack sustained a freak ankle injury in a Wednesday practice, and his absence should afford the Canadiens a pretty serious advantage on offence. Conversely, an ill-timed case of the flu will sideline Carey Price, leaving Al Montoya to make his Habs debut well before he expected to. He will be backed up by Charlie Lindgren.
Any prospect of playoff contention for the Sabres rests on the hope that Robin Lehner can be the better of the two goalies most nights, and this development gives Lehner a chance to do that right away. If the Habs wish to establish themselves as serious players again, it’s their job to prove it doesn’t matter who’s in the Sabres’ crease.