The time has come to gear up for another season of Buffalo Sabres hockey. After last season, let’s face it, this season can only be better. With another draft’s worth of prospects in the system, most notably forward Sam Reinhart, the club is poised to make progress towards the goal of becoming a playoff contender.
There is a lot of uncertainty surrounding the upcoming season. Sabres’ GM Tim Murray has added some veteran free agents into the mix including forward Brian Gionta and defenseman Andrej Meszaros. The offseason also saw the return of former Sabres’ forwards Cody McCormick and Matt Moulson to the roster. Murray also acquired defenseman Josh Gorges in a trade with the Montreal Canadiens.
This veteran presence combined with the club’s up-and-coming prospects, some of which may emerge onto the big stage this season, will provide an interesting mix for fans. This season’s edition of the Sabres should be an improved club from last year’s squad but there is a lot of uncertainty surrounding just how good (or bad) Buffalo will be.
Sabres fans got their first look at the club in Sunday night’s preseason matchup against the Washington Captials. Some key members of the Sabres’ were absent from the action including forwards Brian Gionta, Matt Moulson, defensemen Josh Gorges, Andrej Meszaros, Tyler Myers, as well as the projected top goaltenders in Jhonas Enroth and Michal Neuvirth.
The preseason is not the best window into the club’s regular season. With key members of the roster often left out of games, the level of competition at this stage doesn’t compare at all to the regular season. However, the preseason is useful in getting a look at NHL clubs’ young talent who are working to earn a roster spot with the big club. Here are three reactions to Sunday night’s Buffalo Sabres preseason opener against the Washington Capitals.
1. Lieuwen Played a Solid Game
Sabres fans are familiar with Nathan Lieuwen who spent some time in Buffalo towards the end of last season. He got his call up to the big club after Michal Neuvirth and Jhonas Enroth missed time due to injuries. The twenty-three year old posted a 1-4-0 record with Buffalo where he notched a .906 save percentage and a 2.98 GAA.
Lieuwen also spent time in the AHL with the Rochester Americans last season. He was a big part of the Amerks success and he racked up some respectable numbers. Lieuwen had a 17-11-2 record where he tallied a .922 save percentage and a 2.34 GAA. He appeared in thirty-two games for the Amerks where he logged more than 1,700 minutes in cage. At 6’5″ and 185 lbs., this young goaltender looks to build upon what he did last season to earn time in Buffalo.
Lieuwen had a solid game against Washington on Sunday night. He was Buffalo’s sole goaltender in the game and he allowed just one goal on twenty-five shots for a .960 save percentage. The goal he did allow beat him top shelf and was a laser beam from Capitals forward Andre Burakovsky. Lieuwen stood tall in net against two power play opportunities during which Washington failed to capitalize.
2. Sabres Struggle on Offense
A major struggle last season for Buffalo was their inability to score. The Sabres were the only team to average less than two goals per game last season where they managed just 1.83 goals per game. The team’s one hundred and fifty goals ranked them dead last in the NHL. The Sabres were thirty-eight goals behind the next closest team, the Florida Panthers, and one hundred and thirteen goals behind the Anaheim Ducks who led the NHL in goals scored.
Buffalo’s offensive struggles were apparent in their lackluster power play. The Sabres converted on just 14% of their power play opportunities last season scoring just thirty-six power play goals. This wasn’t the worst power play in the NHL – that honor belonged to the Florida Panthers. However, Buffalo had the twenty-ninth ranked power play in the league that was far and away from the Pittsburgh Penguins who led the league with sixty-five power play goals and a 23.4% conversion rate.
The Denver Broncos' offense is to the Super Bowl as the Buffalo Sabres' offense is to the NHL season.
— David Pagnotta (@TheFourthPeriod) February 3, 2014
Buffalo failed to score a goal against the Washington Capitals during Sunday night’s matchup. The Sabres managed twenty-five shots in the loss and failed to generate many quality scoring chances. Perhaps the best chance came from forward Torrey Mitchell but he was unable to light the lamp. Buffalo had two power play opportunities but came up short on both of them. The Sabres had only a few practices thus far in the preseason so this played a role in Buffalo’s lackluster offensive showing against Washington.
Despite being shutout, there were some encouraging signs in Sunday’s game. Most notably, the Sabres managed to win twenty-three faceoffs and the club had seven takeaways. Forward Mikhail Grigorenko won 88% of the faceoffs that he took followed by forward Sam Reinhart who won 60% in his NHL preseason debut. Buffalo’s offensive touch will pick up as the team moves through the preseason but the squad desperately needs to improve upon last year’s scoring totals in order to win more games this season.
3. Young Defenders On Display
A telling statistic for defenders in the NHL is ATOI or Average Time On Ice. As players establish themselves and earn the trust of their club’s coaching staff, they are relied upon more and more thus increasing their time on the ice. ATOI leaders in the NHL are quite often defensemen and these players usually play a big role in their club’s overall success.
[See Also: NHL Ice Time Per Game King – Ryan Suter]
Last season, Buffalo’s top three leaders in ice time were all defensemen. Arguably Buffalo’s best player last season, Christian Ehrhoff, led the team with an ATOI of 23:54. Ehrhoff played a solid defensive game during his stint in Buffalo and he also chipped in offensively. His departure from the Sabres via a buyout earlier this summer was no doubt controversial but it did free Buffalo from his gigantic contract. The Sabres relied upon Ehrhoff in many key situations as evidenced by his ATOI statistic and he will be missed on the blue line this season.
Buffalo’s other ATOI leaders were defenseman Tyler Myers who had an ATOI of 21:53 and defenseman Jamie McBain who logged an ATOI of 20:09. Myers seemed to turn a corner last year with the arrival of head coach Ted Nolan. He started to show glimmers of his former self who won the Calder Trophy for his stellar play as a rookie during the 2009-2010 season. Jamie McBain was given an opportunity in Buffalo last season but GM Tim Murray decided not to offer him a new contract.
Sunday’s preseason game put Buffalo’s top two young defenders on display. Nineteen year old defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen logged 23:17 minutes of ice time. Of that time, Ristolainen spent more than three minutes on the ice with Buffalo’s power play and penalty kill units. While he was on the ice for the only goal of the game scored by the Capitals, the youngster put forth a solid effort recording one shot, two hits and proved to be a steady defender throughout much of the game.
Players that impressed Nolan tonight: Reinhart, Grigorenko, Lieuwen and "especially Ristolainen." #sabres
— Chris Ryndak (@ChrisRyndak) September 21, 2014
Buffalo’s other nineteen year old defenseman, Nikita Zadorov, also logged big ice time in Sunday night’s game. Zadorov logged 21:09 minutes during which he also spent time on the power play and penalty kill units. Zadorov sacrificed his body to block a shot and contributed three hits to the twenty-six that Buffalo tallied during the game.
Buffalo faced Washington’s two biggest stars in forwards Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom in Sunday’s game and both stars finished the game without a point. Neither team has had much of an opportunity to practice prior to tonight’s game, but the fact that Buffalo held the Capitals to just one goal is encouraging. Ristolainen and Zadorov both played big roles on defense in Sunday’s game. While it isn’t clear just how much time Ristolainen and Zadorov will spend in Buffalo this season, both defensemen figure to play prominent roles in the Sabres’ future.
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