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2015-16 Fantasy Outlook: Buffalo Sabres and Toronto Maple Leafs

by Eric Daoust

Sam.Reinhart

2015-16 Fantasy Outlook for the Buffalo Sabres and Toronto Maple Leafs

While many teams continue to battle for the Stanley Cup, more than half of the league has been eliminated and is in the offseason. Even though each team will undergo many changes this summer, we can still look at their rosters and get an indication of things to come next year.  Today we will cover the two bottom-feeders of the Eastern Conference: Buffalo and Toronto.

Buffalo Sabres

The Sabres iced an awful roster for the 2014-15 campaign and, as expected, finished with the league’s worst point total at 54 points. This result gave the Sabres the best odds of winning the NHL draft lottery to land generational prospect Connor McDavid. Worst case, they would slide down one spot to draft center Jack Eichel, who could be the top prospect in many other draft classes. In the end, the Edmonton Oilers won the lottery so the Sabres will have to settle for the consolation prize in Eichel.

Considering that the Sabres ended the year with Johan Larsson and Phil Varone as their top two centers, it is easy to see that the addition of Eichel to the lineup will make the team much better overnight. Add in the return of former first-round pick Zemgus Girgensons from injury, as well as the potential graduation of last year’s second-overall pick Sam Reinhart, and the Sabres suddenly have a major upgrade to their lineup in terms of talent.

This will definitely give a boost to the point totals of the Sabres’ wingers. While Evander Kane has big potential (especially in multi-category leagues), the one to watch is Tyler Ennis. The fact that Ennis was able to be the team’s only 20-goal scorer while getting 46 total points on such a horrible team makes you wonder what could be in store with more talent around him. Do not be surprised if he surpasses 50 points for the first time in his career next year.

In deeper leagues, keep an eye on Matt Moulson and Brian Gionta. The veteran duo is largely forgotten but both have shown in the past that they can deliver the goods in fantasy hockey. Of course, there is a risk that they could fall off the map entirely if other young talents emerge on the wings but if it all works out they could be respectable depth fantasy scorers.

Two examples of forwards that could leapfrog some veterans are Larsson and Mikhail Grigorenko. As mentioned, Larsson made his mark down the stretch playing big minutes at center. Unfortunately, there is now stiff competition down the middle which could leave him with third line duties. This would severely hurt his value in points-only leagues although in multi-category formats he could still be useful combining points with hits, blocks, faceoff wins and shots on goal.

Meanwhile, Grigorenko is a total wild card. Still just 20 years of age, it seems like he has been around for a decade. There is still lots of time for him to figure out the NHL game which could mean that he will not reward patient fantasy owners for some time yet. It is also possible that he shows up ready to finally contribute full-time at the NHL level. There is a lot of mystery but the fact that he has excelled at the lower levels is promising.

On defense, two candidates emerged this year that have very promising futures in Buffalo starting with Zach Bogosian. After coming to the Sabres from the Winnipeg Jets alongside Kane, Bogosian showed signs of having another offensive gear. In 21 games with the lowly Sabres he had seven points which puts him on a 27-point pace over an 82-game campaign. The addition of Eichel along with an improved core up front will make it possible for Bogosian to produce more. This is not Erik Karlsson by any means, but it is not unreasonable to think he could hit 35 points next year.

The other promising defender is Rasmus Ristolainen who was red-hot to close the year with nine points in his final 13 contests. This included four goals on 28 shots during the span. There are still going to be many ups and downs for the 20-year-old blueliner so do not expect this short streak to become the norm. He could still challenge the 30-point mark, though, which would make him appealing in many fantasy leagues.

In goal, things are wide open at the moment. Anders Lindback played well enough down the stretch to perhaps earn a one-year look but his history indicates that things will not go well once the spotlight is on him. Instead, look for the team to sign a free agent goalie during the offseason, in a move similar to the Calgary Flames signing Jonas Hiller. In this case, Lindback could serve as the backup.

All in all, even though the future looks much brighter for the Sabres, there is still a lot of work to do. They will probably not finish in last place again and now possess more fantasy-relevant players, but the cost of tanking for the top draft pick leaves them far from being a playoff contender. Still, the influx of talent should help them put more pucks in the net, and a stabilizing presence between the pipes will help lower the team’s goals against. Both factors will help immensely in the plus/minus department throughout the lineup. It may not be pretty for a few years but the 2014-15 Sabres are definitely a thing of the past.

Toronto Maple Leafs

After a somewhat promising start to the season, the Maple Leafs went in a total freefall where everything went wrong both on and off the ice, leading to many changes already at management level. Now the team is apparently in rebuild mode, but with the term “rebuild” being very vague it is not clear just how far they will go to strip down the roster. Plus, some players own unappealing contracts so it is not clear if a deal that makes the Leafs happy will be reached in all instances.

Like the Sabres, the Leafs were big players during the NHL lottery draft sitting in the fourth-overall slot heading in. Ultimately, they ended up standing pat when it was all said and done, leaving them out of the mix to land McDavid or Eichel. Beyond them, there are still many great prospects available that will help the Leafs improve down the road.

The three prime candidates to land in Toronto are Dylan Strome, Mitch Marner and Noah Hanifin. One will likely be selected by the Arizona Coyotes with the third-overall pick. Due to the Leafs having needs across the board, they will probably not have any positional preference going in. Regardless of who they select, that pick is unlikely to play a major role in Toronto in 2015-16.

On the roster, no player drew more attention than Phil Kessel. He had a terrible second half and finished with just 61 points, his worst total since 2010 which was his first in Toronto. His 36 assists were close enough to what we are used to seeing, while his 25 goals stand out as the elephant in the room when looking at the struggles of the two-time 37-goal scorer. He still shot a ton, as his 280 shots on goal ranked sixth in the league. This total was just short of his 305-shot average which over the previous four full campaigns. Clearly, he was still trying to score goals and was simply unlucky scoring on just 8.9 percent of his shots. As a comparison, from 2011-12 to 2013-14 Kessel’s shooting percentage fell between 12 percent and 12.5 percent each year. If his shooting efficiency was at that level this year he would have finished with 34 goals, an improvement of nine tallies.

With that said, it is still not clear where Kessel will play next year. He could get traded sometime this summer or the Leafs could keep him around next year while continuing to wait for a suitable deal to develop. If he does indeed leave Toronto, his absence will create a huge gap at right wing and some players will benefit. Until we know what the Leafs get in return it is not clear who will be able to seize the opportunity. Looking at the current roster, college free agent signing Casey Bailey could be given a chance to shine. Keep an eye on the free agent market this summer because if another Mike Santorelli emerges in Toronto next year he could be put in a much more offensive-minded role.

Sticking with the forward group, Nazem Kadri will be a very interesting player to follow next season. The former seventh-overall draft choice struggled this year with 39 points, his lowest total since becoming a full-time NHLer, and ran into some trouble with the team. While his stock is low at the moment, he is still young (turns 25 in October) and had a tremendous campaign after the lockout in 2013 with 44 points in 48 games. Cleary, he is capable of much more offensively and depending on who owns Kadri in your fantasy league this could be a good time to buy low. Sometimes people take negative perception too far and simply want to rid themselves of their controversial players. If you are willing to step forward and take a bit of a risk, you may be rewarded with a strong contributor on your fantasy squad.

On defense, the guy to watch is captain Dion Phaneuf. Like Kessel, he is also rumored to be on the trade block. If he is shown the door, it would leave youngsters Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner as the top dogs in terms of power play utilization, barring any other big changes this summer. On the surface, this would be very appealing for fantasy owners but putting it all on the shoulders of young defensemen can lead to some very mixed results, as seen over in Edmonton with Justin Schultz. Meanwhile, Phaneuf’s potential departure would put Roman Polak in a more important defensive role, which could add to his multi-category value in leagues that count PIM, hits and blocks.

In goal, it should be status quo as Jonathan Bernier should return as the team’s top goalie. While the 26-year-old has shown signs of brilliance in Toronto, his fantasy value could hit rock bottom if the Leafs open the floodgates and start pushing every veteran they can find out the door. He is still young enough to be seen as a starter for many more years, but he may not be much more than a late-round filler in most fantasy drafts for the foreseeable future.

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Follow me on Twitter @DH_EricDaoust.

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