The month of November has been a difficult one for the Buffalo Sabres.
Through 22 games, the Sabres have compiled a record of 8-9-5. The team’s 21 points position them in ninth place in the Eastern Conference standings. Buffalo trails the next closest teams, the Carolina Hurricanes and Toronto Maple Leafs, by one point, and they’re four points out of the final wild card spot currently held by the New Jersey Devils.
Much of what ills the Sabres is in the scoring department. Buffalo had a bit of a scoring drought in November with just two games during the month in which they scored three or more goals. Injuries have been an issue, with Ryan O’Reilly, Evander Kane, Jack Eichel, Tyler Ennis, Dmitry Kulikov, and Zach Bogosian all missing time during the month November – some have yet to return. However, the Sabres need to find a way to overcome this adversity in order to accomplish their goal of returning to the postseason.
Despite a difficult month of hockey, Buffalo isn’t that far out of the playoff race and there is plenty of hockey yet to be played this season. Thanksgiving gave us all an opportunity to be among family and friends while reflecting on the reasons we are thankful in our lives. Here are three reasons why Sabres fans should be thankful when it comes to their hockey club.
Sabres Owner Terry Pegula
Terry Pegula took over as the Sabres’ owner when he purchased the team in 2011. The new owner’s entrance onto the Buffalo professional sports scene was met with lots of excitement. This sentiment was amplified when Pegula stated that the team’s main purpose was to win the Stanley Cup.
The goal of a championship has not yet been accomplished. In fact, the team has been about as far away from a championship as possible during the past few seasons. The Sabres performed historically bad in the recent past, as the club underwent a massive rebuild to bring in some key pieces for the future. Buffalo showed signs of improvement last season which left many fans feeling optimistic about the 2016-17 campaign. However, the team has struggled in the early-going of this season.
Despite the recent difficulties, the future still looks very bright for the team. Pegula has the resources to retain the organization’s youngsters while adding new players to the talent pool. Today’s Sabres organization is always in the discussion when it comes to signing the marquee free agents. We saw this first-hand over the summer when Buffalo inked forward Kyle Okposo to a seven-year deal. The Sabres were far less of a factor in free agency before Pegula’s ownership of the team.
The road back to the playoffs is proving to be long and winding for the team. The Blue and Gold are heading in the right direction but they have a long way to climb before they can reach their goal of becoming a playoff contender. In the meantime, however, Buffalo fans can thank their lucky stars that they have an owner willing to do whatever it takes to win a championship.
An Offensive Defenseman
Darcy Regier was still the GM of the Sabres when the team drafted defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen in the first round of the 2013 NHL Entry Draft. Ristolainen played in SM-liiga in Finland as a 16-year-old. SM-liiga is Finland’s top hockey league. When Ristolainen started playing in the league he was one of the youngest players in the history of SM-liiga, which demonstrates his raw hockey talent.
Ristolainen refined his game by playing hockey internationally for Finland. The defenseman made several appearances at the World Junior Championship and played in other tournaments. Perhaps Ristolainen’s most notable moment in international play came in January 2014, when he scored the game-winning overtime goal to capture gold in the World Junior Championship for Team Finland.
Ristolainen continues to grow with Buffalo at the NHL level. He has all the talent and skill to become the Sabres’ top defenseman. Ristolainen scored nine goals and 41 points last season, and 21 of these points were tallied with the man-advantage.
While Ristolainen has struggled a bit on the offensive side this season, the 22-year-old has played an important role for his club on the blueline. Through 22 games, Ristolainen has 11 assists but is still looking for his first goal of the season. Ristolainen is relied upon in many key situations and is averaging more than 26 minutes per game of ice time, which currently ranks him fifth in the NHL. The youngster has a lot to offer his club in the coming years and Sabres fans are thankful for the opportunity to watch this kid develop.
Two Strong Centers
Former Buffalo GM Darcy Regier mentioned that there would be suffering during the rebuild, and that may have been an understatement. Sabres fans witnessed some historically poor teams and suffered through many agonizing losses during the rebuilding years. To their credit, Sabres fans continued to support their team in spite of the club’s poor play and ultimately were rewarded with two high picks.
The Sabres bottomed out and were able to bring forwards Sam Reinhart and Jack Eichel into the fold. Reinhart was selected in the first round of the 2014 NHL Entry Draft by the team. The versatile 21-year-old is a natural center but he can also play on the wing. He has an elite vision for the game that allows him to move into the right place at the right time to generate offense. Reinhart notched 23 goals and 42 points last season. Through 22 games, he has five goals and 12 points in his 2016-17 campaign.
Buffalo drafted Jack Eichel in the first round of the 2015 NHL Entry Draft. Eichel is an excellent skater and he carries the puck well to generate offensive opportunities. The 20-year-old is highly competitive and puts in a strong effort on nearly every shift. Eichel scored 24 goals and 56 points last season. He returned to action on Tuesday evening after suffering an injury that sidelined him for Buffalo’s opening 21 games. The youngster had a goal and an assist in this rare November offensive explosion as the Sabres defeated the Ottawa Senators by a 5-4 score.
Depth down the middle is very hard to come by in the NHL. Sabres fans are indeed thankful for Reinhart and Eichel, who have elite-level potential that is beginning to come to fruition. Eichel and Reinhart’s talent will be paramount to the Blue and Gold’s resurgence and may one day lead to a championship in Buffalo.
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