It’s been rough for the Sabres already.
Just five games into the season and a big, fat goose egg in the “win” column but more importantly than that, this team just doesn’t look good.
Who’s surprised, really? This was a team that finished near the bottom of the standings in the Eastern Conference last season and entered the year as one of the youngest teams in the league. Growing pains were to be expected.
Then again, I don’t think anyone expected an 0-4-1 start, nor did they expect just five goals through the first four games. When you look at the stats further, it’s just as ugly if not more so: just six players have a point so far, only three of them with multiple points. Sure, Vanek and Hodgson have four points in five games but past that? It’s a nightmare.
So is it time to panic? No, but not for the reason you think.
I’m not here to tell you that the Sabres are going to rebound from this start, figure it out offensively, and get themselves back in the mix. Actually, I’m telling you the opposite. They’re going to be really bad this year. Like “race for the first overall pick” bad. They’ll probably finish in the bottom three or four in terms of goals for if they don’t finish last.
This is a rebuild, after all. Things are going to get really bad before they get any better and we’re just going to have to strap in and hope it’s not too bloody when it’s all said and done.
So why isn’t it time to panic?
The Goaltending Has Been Mostly Good
Last night against Columbus aside, Ryan Miller has been pretty good. Sure, he’s 0-3-0, but his 2.36 GAA and .938 save percentage make it hard to ask for a better performance. And he’s faced 113 shots in those three starts. That’s damn near 40 per game. How are you supposed to win games consistently when you’re giving up those kind of shot numbers?
If the goaltending is holding up and playing well, it could lead to a hot streak. If the Sabres manage to figure out how to put the puck in the other team’s net, they could catch fire if the goaltending is still there. Miller can still steal a game or two and Enroth showed last year that he’s at least capable of it.
Right now, Miller and Enroth are about the only things keeping the Sabres from being hilariously bad. Something to consider: three of the Sabres first five games so far have been one-goal games. If a few bounces go their way, the Sabres could easily be 3-2-0 and feeling absolutely fine about things. The goaltending will keep them in it, keep them somewhat competitive. It’s just a matter of the team figuring out the rest.
The Kids Are Learning
First and foremost, even if things continue on this path, it’s not a total wash. The kids are getting their feet wet, taking their lumps, and learning how to play in the NHL. Did any of them come into this season expecting to be contenders? They’ll likely tell you “of course”, but they had to realize coming into this that it was going to be bad. Maybe not first overall bad, but bad no less.
For the Sabres to get better in the somewhat near future, the team is going to need Zemgus Girgensons, Rasmus Ristolainen, Mikhail Grigorenko, Mark Pysyk, and the rest of the teenie boppers to learn how to play on this level. Some of them seem to get the idea a little more than others, but experience is a huge key here and they’re certainly getting it.
It also helps those same kids that there is no pressure. There are no expectations. No one has aspirations that they’ll contend for anything, so they are free to learn and grow together, improving with each other so that in the near future, they can make the Sabres a better team.
Bring On The Reinforcements
It also turns out that there’s a perk to being one of the worst teams in the league: you get to select the best the junior ranks have to offer. Look at Colorado and Nathan MacKinnon, the first overall pick this past year. Granted, he hasn’t been asked to be their top-line center, but MacKinnon has been outstanding so far in this young season. He’s clearly going to be the face of their franchise in the very near future and the Avalanche are a better team for having been bad enough to get him.
So if the Sabres are going to be bad this year, they need to hope it’s bad enough to get a guy like that. Like the Sabres wouldn’t be thrilled to land Sam Reinhart or Willie Nylander for the trouble of being awful? I know they have a logjam at defense, but I’m sure they’d take an elite prospect like Aaron Ekblad if he were there when they pick.
It’s easy to lose sight of the big picture; fans are impatient. We want to win and want to win right now. Not only that, but for a city like Buffalo, one that hasn’t won anything and hasn’t even been relevant in a few years, it feels like this path will take forever and never pay off. And it might not. That’s the problem with building with young players – you just don’t know what you’re getting. But staying patience, realizing this team still needs to grow, and adding top-tier talent through the draft is a big reason the Chicago Blackhawks and Pittsburgh Penguins have been elite teams for years.
They realized how the game works. We need to be patient and hope that it turns out the same for the Sabres.
No, things aren’t where we as fans want them to be for the Sabres. It’s hard to watch your favorite team, invest in them emotionally, buy things with their logo plastered all over it, when they aren’t any good and are losing far more than they are winning.
But if you’re in it for the long haul, if you’ve been a fan for a long time, patience is the key. The Sabres are young. The Sabres are talented. But right now, it’s time to take those lumps.
Ryan is a lead writer for The Hockey Writers as well as editor for Mile High Sticking and co-owner of The Farm Club. Follow him on Twitter to discuss all things puck, Bills football, or his hatred of all things Philly