The Buffalo Sabres will be without one of its top players for an unknown amount of time this season.

Jack Eichel was injured in practice on Wednesday and was diagnosed with a high ankle sprain. There was no timetable given for his return to the ice. Eichel’s injury is a huge loss for the Sabres, who are looking to improve from a season ago.

The Sabres finished last season with a 35-36-11 record and 81 points. They finished 23rd out of 30 teams last year, but there was improvement shown; scoring 199 goals while giving up 215. They finished 14th out of 16 teams in the Eastern Conference, and 7th out of eight teams in the Atlantic Division.

In the offseason, the Sabres upgraded the blue line with the addition of Dmitry Kulikov, who was acquired in a trade with the Florida Panthers. The offense got an upgrade with free agent signing of Kyle Okposo, and Buffalo found its backup goalie in Anders Nilsson. Tim Murray and the Sabres then went and re-signed Johan Larsson, Nicolas Deslauriers, Casey Nelson, Jake McCabe, Marcus Foligno, and Zemgus Girgensons among a few others. Derek Grant was supposed to be an upgrade to the AHL Affiliate, but instead he had a great camp and preseason and made the Sabres final roster.

The key to improvement for the Sabres will be Kyle Okposo. Eichel will be out for an extended period of time, and someone needs to step up to replace his lost offense. Okposo will be out for the season opener on Thursday due to a bruised knee, but is listed as day-to-day. Okposo will have some big shoes to fill but he did score 22 goals, have 42 assists for a total of 64 points for the New York Islanders last season. If Okposo can step up and pitch in on the offensive side of things than the Sabres should be an improved team.

The health of Robin Lehner will be the x-factor this year. If Lehner can stay healthy this season then the Sabres should show even more improvement. Lerner was out last year for an extended period of time after injuring his ankle and Linus Ullmark did a decent job along with Chad Johnson, but Ullmark is in the AHL and Nilsson is the backup. Nilsson doesn’t have the experience to be the starting goaltender behind a mediocre defense; so the health of Lehner is imperative to the Sabres season.

Sam Reinhart will open some eyes again this year, especially if he gets more ice time due to the Eichel injury. He can skate and is a playmaker so if he is paired with a goal scorer then look out. He will also get some time on the power play, which means even more opportunity for him to rack up some points.

The offense definitely took a hit with the loss of Eichel, but they should still be able to hold their own. The forwards have some skill and speed so they’ll be able to move the puck. They have a nice mix of veterans and kids up front, and the defense will pitch in on the offensive side of the puck. The offensive players will get their chances and have the ability to put the puck in the net. The centers seem to have good face off win percentages, so that will help with gaining possession and getting some time in the offensive zone.

The defense is a question mark again this year even with the addition of Kulikov. Buffalo doesn’t have a true number one guy that can be the shutdown defenseman. They are willing to block shots and certain guys aren’t afraid to be physical. The defense should be involved in the offense since they can move the puck pretty well. The Sabres don’t have too many true stay-at-home defensive defenseman and that could hurt them. They will give up their chances and the goalies will need to stay focused.

The power play was decent last season, but should improve with the additions of Okposo and Kulikov. It will be interesting to see what the new power play units will look like without Eichel. They’ll need to draw more penalties on the road and be better overall on the road with the man advantage since they were in the middle of the pack. The penalty kill unit ranked in the top 10 last season and they should be ranked there again this year.  They’ll need to improve on the road since they were ranked 16th while playing a man down on the road.

The Sabres should see an improvement this year, but the postseason drought will continue for Buffalo.

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