BUFFALO – As a Swedish import, Sabres newcomer Robin Lehner isn’t a big football fan. But after arriving here in August, the goalie started following the Buffalo Bills a little bit.
“A lot of people talk about their defense and how good their defense and stuff are, but people start questioning the quarterback a little bit,” Lehner said this morning prior to the season opener. “I feel like I’m a little bit in the same position.”
The Sabres dramatically overhauled their roster during the summer, adding first- and second-line scorers, notable forward depth and veteran defensemen.
Lehner, an unproven starter acquired from tonight’s opponent, the Ottawa Senators, knows he’s the biggest question mark. He struggled most of the preseason, his first action since he suffered a concussion in February.
“A lot of good additions here, our offense looks pretty good, a good addition in (defenseman Cody) Franson, and the question mark is me,” he said. “So I’ve got a lot to live up to and I’m really looking forward to the challenge.”
Sabres coach Dan Bylsma, who probably wants Lehner to play 55-60 times, doesn’t agree.
“I don’t think he’s the question mark,” he said. “We all are. People are asking those questions just not about our goaltender but about all of us. He’s a question mark but I don’t think he’s the only question mark.”
In other news, if it was crunch time or the playoffs, not the opener, Sabres captain Brian Gionta would probably play tonight.
“He could probably gut it out,” Bylsma said about the winger’s lower-body injury. “We just don’t want to put ourselves in a situation where we go from day-to-day to week-to-week.”
With Gionta out, Sam Reinhart, 19, will play right wing beside center Jack Eichel for the phenom’s NHL debut inside the First Niagara Center.
Bylsma said he won’t name his alternate captains yet because of the injury. Three players will wear an ‘A’ tonight.
As an 8-year-old growing up in Massachusetts, Eichel loved watching two exciting superstar rookies named Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin.
“Sidney Crosby, it was his show, and then, you know, this Russian guy named Ovechkin comes in and scores over 50 goals in his rookie year,” Eichel said.
Crosby and Ovechkin have been measured against each other ever since. Eichel’s already trying to fend off comparisons to Edmonton Oilers rookie Connor McDavid, who will play his first NHL game tonight in St. Louis.
“I think in the position of playing in the league you don’t look at it as much like that,” Eichel said. “As much as I haven’t already, I don’t look at it as a head-to-head matchup with me and Connor in any way. My biggest thing right now is to help the Buffalo Sabres win hockey games and that’s just what I’m going to do.”
Eight players – Carlo Colaiacovo, Eichel, Franson, Evander Kane, David Legwand, Lehner, Jamie McGinn, Ryan O’Reilly – will make their Sabres debuts tonight.
Here are the lines and defense pairs:
– Kane, Eichel, Reinhart
– Matt Moulson, O’Reilly, Tyler Ennis
– Zemgus Girgensons, Johan Larsson, Marcus Foligno
– Nick Deslauriers, Legwand, Jamie McGinn
– Josh Gorges, Mark Pysyk
– Colaiacovo, Rasmus Ristolainen
– Mike Weber, Franson
Bylsma said defenseman Jake McCabe will take the pregame warm-up.