It is finally official, the Buffalo Sabres disappointing season is over. The club gave the fans a little bit to cheer about going down the stretch as they finished 8-4 in the month of April, yet it was their poor performances in the other months of the season that did them in. The Sabres final game was on April 26, at the First Niagara Centre, in Buffalo, and it was “Fan Appreciation Night.” With all of the giveaways and specials, the best thing the team did was give the fans a 2-1 shootout win over the New York Islanders. Still, after the win and the salute to the crowd, the Sabres left the ice for the last time this season, much earlier than expected with a 21-21-6 record, good enough for 48 points and 12th spot in the Eastern Conference. So the question is: What went wrong?
For the most part of the season, the Sabres lived and died by the production of their first line consisting of Thomas Vanek, Cody Hodgson and Jason Pominville, who was traded to the Minnesota Wild. Vanek and Hodgson were pleasant surprises this year. Vanek led the team with 41 points (20 goals, 21 assists) and Hodgson showed tremendous progress as a sophomore player finishing with 34 points (15 goals 19 assist). After these two the production drops, except for Tyler Ennis (31 points) who benefitted from more top line minutes after the Pominville trade. Steve Ott was next, in team scoring, with 24 points. The organization expected much more from players like Drew Stafford, who ended the season with just 18 points, Nathan Gerbe, who added just 10 points, after returning from injury that caused him to miss the first six games of the season, and Ville Leino who continued to be injured for the majority of the season appearing in just eight games. Injuries were indeed a problem, but the Sabres cannot use that as an excuse and the fact is that the second and third lines didn’t step up to help provide offense.
To say that the Sabres defense let them down would be an understatement. They were just plain bad in all areas. They weren’t physical, the were unable to clear the net in front of Ryan Miller and Johnas Enroth, who were decent this season. The stat of screened shots is not kept, but it would be interesting to see just how many of the shots that beat the Sabres goaltending duo they actually saw.
The defense was also not offensively productive. Entering the season the likes of Tyler Myers, Christian Ehrhoff and Jordan Leopold gave many hope that this blue line would be able to jump into the rush and help supplement the scoring. That did not happen. Leopold, who was on the final year of his contract, was traded just before the deadline, Ehrhoff did finish with 22 points, but Myers appeared to take another step back, netting just eight points. If the defense core can take anything away from this season, it was the fact that Mike Weber showed he can be the guy to be the physical presence on the back end. Still, it will be an area that the organization will have to address in the off-season.
The face off circle was a team stat that was a struggle all season. They were always at the bottom of the league and finished 29th at 46.1 percent. Of the 14 teams that finished with face off percentages under 50, only five made the playoffs, which shows just how important the draws are. What had to be disconcerting was the fact that it wasn’t just the fact that they were losing draws, but rather that they lost draws at key times. They do have some help down the middle coming, as Mikhail Grigorenko will hopefully raise his game to the next level for next season. In addition, the Sabres could be looking at drafting another centre, depending on where they land in the NHL Draft lottery on April 29.
A problem that went hand in hand with the lack of production from the blue line, was the Sabres 29th ranked power play. The Sabres operated at just 14.1 per cent, scoring just 23 goals while on the man advantage. They also led the league in short-handed goals against with seven. Making changes to the defense core will have to take into consideration the affect on the power play because it too needs a serious overhaul.
Things were not much better on the penalty kill. The Sabres were 26th in the league killing off at just 79.2 per cent. Add to the fact that they were short-handed the fourth most times (178). They were undisciplined and therefore found themselves in the box frequently. Their 630 penalty minutes were fifth most during the season. Enforcing discipline will be another area the organization must focus on.
When it all boils down the Sabres biggest problem might have been inconsistency, both on and off the ice. They went on losing skids, to turn around and round off a couple of wins. Off the ice they dealt with their additional turmoil: a coaching change, players calling each other out and constant trade speculation. Now, the team faces more offseason questions with the on-ice product. Only time will tell but this team has to start working on all of their areas of weakness or they will miss out on the playoffs again next season.