After bottoming out during an organizational rebuild, the Buffalo Sabres have shown a gradual improvement in their overall record. Buffalo’s current record is three points ahead of where the club was during the 2014-15 season. Last season, the team had a record of 14-20-3 and 31 points through 37 games. Meanwhile, the 2015-16 Sabres are 11 points ahead of the pace set by the 2013-14 club which had a record of 10-24-3 and 23 points through 37 games.
Despite signs that Buffalo is heading in the right direction there is still a lot of room for improvement. Buffalo’s record of 15-18-4 and 34 points ranks them as the 28th best team in the NHL. The club is 11 points out of the final wild card spot in the Eastern Conference which is currently held by the New Jersey Devils. As 2015 comes to a close, here are three areas that Buffalo will need to improve upon in 2016 to get back into the playoff race.
Improve the Power Play
The Sabres power play was rather successful earlier this season. Through mid-November, Buffalo had converted on 23.6 percent of their opportunities with the man advantage. This ranked the Sabres power play as the fourth best in the NHL.
Unfortunately, the Sabres weren’t able to sustain this pace. According to NHL.com, through 37 games Buffalo has converted on 19.1 percent of their power play opportunities which now ranks the club as the 12th best power play in the NHL.
Buffalo’s power play has been especially poor in recent games. In their last five games, the club had 15 opportunities but it failed to score a single power play goal during this stretch. In fact, the team’s last power play goal was scored against the Los Angeles Kings back on December 12th. The Sabres have been involved in many close games so a converted power play opportunity or two could have swung a few of the club’s losses into the win column.
[See Also: Top 5 Buffalo Sabres Power Play Goals]
Increased Production from Key Sabres
Compared to the last two seasons, scoring for the Sabres has been up so far this season. While they averaged less than two goals per game during the past two seasons, Buffalo currently averages 2.33 goals per game which is the 26th best in the NHL. Ryan O’Reilly, Rasmus Ristolainen, and Jack Eichel have accounted for 32 of the Sabres’ 87 goals. Many of Buffalo’s players have been productive this season but others have left much more to be desired.
Matt Moulson is one member of the Sabres who has struggled on offense this season. Moulson has four goals and 12 points in 36 games. According to NHL.com, Moulson is on pace for just nine goals and 27 points in 81 games which would be some of the worst numbers of his career. The veteran was a healthy scratch for Wednesday night’s game against the Washington Capitals so he will need to make the most of his next opportunity.
Matt Moulson probably should've been scratched at least two weeks ago.
— Bill Hoppe (@BillHoppeNHL) December 30, 2015
The Sabres will also need an increase in offensive production from several other key players in 2016 to close the gap in the playoff race. Some of these players include Brian Gionta (four goals and 11 points in 34 games), David Legwand (two goals and eight points in 34 games), Zemgus Girgensons (three goals and seven points in 33 games), and Marcus Foligno (two goals and seven points in 31 games).
Solidify Sabres Goaltending Depth Chart
In June 2015, Sabres’ General Manger Tim Murray acquired Robin Lehner and David Legwand from the Ottawa Senators in exchange for Buffalo’s 21st overall pick in the first round of the 2015 NHL Entry Draft. Many felt that Murray overpaid for Lehner and Legwand. However, Lehner was sidelined by an early injury which deferred judgment on this trade until he returns.
Lehner is on the mend and he should be returning to the Sabres’ lineup in early 2016. In his absence, the Sabres have relied upon goaltenders Chad Johnson and Linus Ullmark. Both Johnson and Ullmark have performed well enough to give the club a chance to win on most nights. Johnson has a 2.41 GAA and .917 save percentage in 24 games while Ullmark has a 2.60 GAA and .912 save percentage in 15 appearances.
Bylsma said they'll monitor Lehner for 7 to 10 days and then confirmed he'll likely play at least one game in Rochester.
— Paul Hamilton (@pham1717) December 29, 2015
Once Lehner returns, the goaltending dynamic in Buffalo will change. As a starting point, Lehner will likely receive the majority of starts, Johnson will serve as his backup, and Ullmark will likely be sent to Rochester. It may begin this way but ultimately performance will determine which goaltender emerges as the Sabres’ number one netminder. Through this process, the club will improve their awareness of what they have on their goaltending depth chart. This will take time to sort out and it will be an important storyline as 2016 unfolds.
[See Also: Buffalo Sabres Number 90 History]
Tim joined The Hockey Writers in July 2013. He began his tenure with THW by covering the Minnesota Wild and he now writes on the Buffalo Sabres. Tim completed his undergraduate and graduate work at the University at Buffalo. In addition, he is a published historian and a Baltimore Orioles Contributing Writer for LegendsOnDeck.com. Tim’s work for THW has been featured on sites such as Yahoo.com. Follow him on Twitter @TOHockeyTHW