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By Chris Chilelli
Buffalo Sabres Writer
Who Has the Brighter Future?
When your team is consistently near or at the bottom of the standings the only thing people can talk about is how promising the team’s future is. Several teams that have been preaching future over the years are the Buffalo Sabres, Toronto Maple Leafs, Edmonton Oilers and Arizona Coyotes. The purpose of this article is to look at the futures of the Sabres and Leafs.
Being a Sabres fan, I have a tough time believing that anyone has a brighter future than my team. They have an ownership group that is willing to spend to the cap, a management team that isn’t afraid to make the bold move, and the players and prospects that can make it all come together. The Leafs also have an insanely bright future, which will make for an awesome rivalry for years to come. So let’s dive in and take a look at the futures of each club.
I am going to start with the goalie situations for each teams, but that isn’t limited to who will be playing in net for the big clubs at this time, but also who is in the pipeline. The Sabres are hoping that Robin Lehner will be able to carry the load for them this season, something that he wasn’t able to do last year after an ankle sprain limited him to just 21 games played. He was fantastic when he played, he finished the season with a .924 save percentage. He showed flashed when he was out there that he was worth the steep price Buffalo paid to acquire him. After that Buffalo has Anders Nilsson, who is relatively young and unproven. The Sabres gave up a 5th round pick to acquire him, and they are hoping that he will come in and be the backup this season. In terms of prospects the Sabres are loaded between the pipes. That starts with Linus Ullmark, who played his first season in North America last year, and was brought in to play games with the Sabres. He impressed many in his time with Buffalo, but had a bit of a roller coaster ride in the AHL with the Rochester Americans. With Buffalo he posted an 8-10-2 record, .913 save percentage and a 2.60 goals against average. With the Amerks he was 10-16 with a .902, he will be back with Rochester again next year, and the thinking is with a full summer to work on his game he will come back better than he played last season. Having a full Summer will help him too, as last year he had double hip surgery which kept him out right up until training camp. Two of the Sabres other top goalie prospects were college hockey standouts last year in Jason Kasdorf and Cal Petersen. Kasdorf posted a .931 save percentage in his senior year at RPI and Petersen posted a .927 last season with Notre Dame. Buffalo looks good in goal in both the present and the future, but goalies are tough to judge, so we will see how they pan out.
The Maple Leafs have struggled to find a constant between the pipes for years now, but they finally might have it right with Frederik Andersen. Andersen played in split time with the Ducks the past few season, but the Leafs are hoping that the investment they have made in him will pay dividends for them. Andersen has been a solid goalie over his NHL career, last year he finished with a .919 save percentage behind a far superior defensive unit in Anaheim, but he is a for sure upgrade for Toronto. There has been a rumor floating around the past few days that Jhonas Enroth is going to sign with the Leafs, and it is my opinion that this is a bad signing. Sure, Enroth posted a .922 save percentage last year, but that was behind the Los Angeles Kings’ stellar defense. Just a year before that he was at a .903 with Buffalo. If you want to argue that is because the Sabres were so bad, then what would you say to the .906 he posted with the Dallas Stars after he was traded there? I will admit that I can be proven wrong, but I think Enroth is a below average backup in this league, and his size is going to hurt him with the new rules for goalie gear. After that, the Leafs have Garret Sparks, who was absolutely atrocious for the Leafs last year. There is no other adjective that could adequately describe his play last year, he was just brutal. The Leafs lack real skill at the position, and are hoping that Andersen is the answer now and in the future.
The next discussion will be on defense. The Sabres have a solid group at the NHL level, highlighted by Rasmus Ristolainen and now second-year Sabre, Jake McCabe. The Sabres also have Dmitry Kulikov on the back-end and Zach Bogosian, both have offensive upside and a good physical style of play. Buffalo also has a few high-end prospects that have Sabre fans excited about the future of the club. The big three in terms of defensive prospects for Buffalo are Casey Nelson, Brendan Guhle and Will Borgen. Nelson was an undrafted college free agent who impressed Sabres brass in his seven games with the team last season. Guhle was viewed as the Sabres top prospect by many before the team had a stellar draft in 2016, but now he is a top-five prospect, and has a real chance to make the team out of camp this year. Borgen really made a name for himself last year after being a fifth round pick in the 2015 draft. The Sabres could really use another left shot defenseman to help further elevate Ristolainen’s game, but at the moment they have a solid core that can be built upon.
Toronto has a very impressive stable of young defenseman as well, highlighted by future star, Morgan Rielly. Another solid young player on that blueline is Jake Gardiner, and although he is no Rielly, he will be a good player in his own right. They have young players in the pipeline such as Connor Carrick, Nikita Zaitsev, and Stuart Percy. The Leafs are said to lack top end talent on the back end, but that should change over time as they focus on building their team. It could be argued that Buffalo is further along in the rebuild process and that is why they have a better defensive stable as well, but another argument could be that Buffalo has just been able to draft better, which is a specialty of GM Tim Murray.
The forward conversation is the most exciting to me, and might be the closest contest of them all. In Buffalo, they are absolutely loaded down the middle, so much so that they have had to move talent to the wing. Looking at the center situation in Buffalo you will see Jack Eichel and Ryan O’Reilly on the top two lines. These are two young players with star written all over them, Eichel finished last year, his rookie season, with a team leading 24 goals and 56 points and O’Reilly had a career high in points last season with 60. Then you add in Sam Reinhart, who was second on the team in goals during his rookie year with 23. Then you factor in Kyle Okposo, Evander Kane, Tyler Ennis and even Zemgus Girgensons and you see that Buffalo has a great stable of forwards at the NHL level. When it comes to prospects, Buffalo isn’t as strong as the Leafs, simply because all of their offensive prospects are making actual impacts at the NHL level. But players like Alex Nylander, Rasmus Asplund, Justin Bailey and Hudson Fasching show that Buffalo still has plenty of firepower yet to make it to the NHL.
Toronto has great players on offense as well capped off with number one pick Auston Matthews. Other players like Nazem Kadri, Tyler Bozak, and James van Riemsdyk are other players at the NHL level making an impact. Prospects such as William Nylander and Mitchell Marner show that there is some top-end talent down on the farm for Toronto. But all in all I still feel that Buffalo has the better offensive unit than Toronto.
Both organizations have groups in place that will make this an exciting, skilled rivalry for years to come. I know I can’t wait to see how it plays out starting in the 2016-17 season.