Only a month into the 2015-16 NHL season, it’s not hard to see the Buffalo Sabres are a different team. The talent on the roster is showing through, along with the upgraded coaching staff. Positive trends are emerging as the Sabres enter into the second month of the season. Let’s take a look at what we’ve learned so far through 12 games.
Shots, Shots, Shots!
One of the early signs that the Sabres are a far different team than the previous two seasons is the shot totals. So far this season Buffalo is second in the NHL in shots for per game at 32.8 and fifth in shots against at 27.2 per game. The players on the team are talking of the importance in getting pucks to the net and establishing offensive zone time. This has the fingerprints of Dan Bylsma all over it. To put it in perspective last season the Sabres were in last in both categories with 24.2 shots per game and 35.6 shots allowed per game. The obvious thought is more pucks to the net the more goals you’ll score and the more you have the puck
the less opportunity the opponent has to score. Seems like a very simple way of thinking, but it seems to be Bylsma’s message. If nothing else the goal differential tells it all. Currently the Sabres are a -8, but if you rewind to November 2nd of last season, they were a -33 through the same 12 games.
Outside of one game against Montreal, the Sabres have not been overmatched; which seemed to be the case on a nightly basis last year. One could argue the Sabres have carried the play in the majority of their games so far this season. Most matchups in the previous campaign consisted of Buffalo chasing the puck and letting the opponent dictate the pace of play. Again, this season is a far cry from what I just laid out. The offensive pressure is vastly improved and the defensive zone breakdowns have come down. The Sabres are rarely caught in their own end for long stretches. The defensive zone improvement can almost directly be linked to an upgrade in talent. Jake McCabe, Mark Pysyk and Cody Franson have fit in well with Bylsma’s system. They’re excellent puck movers and allow the Sabres to break-out of the zone with greater ease. All of this has resulted in the club being seventh in the league in even strength corsi for percentage at 52.2.
Finding a Way Through the Injuries
With all of the good vibes early in the season, Buffalo has been bit by the injury bug. The team has been without arguably their top defender Zach Bogosian all season as he’s yet to dress for a game. The big blue liner is making progress in returning, but is still likely a week or two away. Once Bogosian returns the blue line could be a very solid group.
Along with being down one of their top defenders the Sabres have played all but a period and a half without their projected number one goaltender. Lehner went down in the second period of the season opener with a high ankle sprain, which is a very difficult injury for goaltenders in particular. The injury time line was set at 8 to 10 weeks, meaning Buffalo will have to go at least another month without Lehner.
However, not all is lost in-goal. After some very inconsistent play from veteran back up Chad Johnson, the Sabres may have found a gem in the system. The Buffalo goal now appears to belong to 22-year-old Linus Ullmark. The big Swede has led the Sabres to two straight victories and has a 2.02 goals against average and a .930 save percentage in 3 starts. Every game Ullmark has seemed more comfortable and for the moment looks to have taken over as the number one. Inconsistency can still be
expected as Ullmark has only played 5 games as a professional on North American ice. How the former 6th round pick progresses moving forward will be a fun story line to watch.
The biggest injury of all may be to top forward Evander Kane. Kane was lost to an MCL sprain and will miss 4 to 6 weeks. He was the Sabres best forward in the beginning of season and looked to be a big loss, but like in net, other players have stepped up. In particular winger Nic Deslauries has excelled playing in a top six role with Ryan O’Reilly and Tyler Ennis. Deslauries has two goals in his last 3 games. He’s benefiting from playing with the hottest player on the team in O’Reilly. The top line center has jump started the Buffalo offense with nine points in his last six games for a total of 13 points on the season. The newly acquired forward started off slow, but has found his game and is showing why he’s worth the big pay check.
Second’s Not So Bad
The kids can play. The second overall picks Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart are off to great starts. Reinhart has found a home as the net front presence on the power-play. He hasn’t picked up any points on the man advantage, but his screens have been responsible for a few goals. Even strength the 19-year-old has also played well. He has two goals and three assists so far this season. The improved skating and muscle has allowed Reinhart to be more successful in his second go around at the NHL level. The 2014 second overall pick is averaging 2.51 points per 60 minutes in 5 on 5. Once Reinhart gets more comfortable and experience playing at the NHL level he can be one of the most productive forwards on the club.
Of course, Eichel has come as advertised. The 2015 second overall pick usually has at least one play per night that reminds you of just how good he is. He has four goals so far on the season, three of which have been highlight reel. The 18-year-old has no assists yet, but he’s set up teammates numerous times with great plays that they haven’t been able to cash in on. Eichel will without a doubt be in the Calder Trophy race throughout the season. He has great vision and always wants to have the puck on his stick and gets the fans out of their seat.
Dan Bylsma on Jack Eichel: "With the puck on his stick, it’s a little bit different electricity in the air."
— John Vogl (@BuffaloVogl) October 31, 2015
Eichel’s size and skating are so impressive for an 18-year-old rookie; he’s had no problem adjusting to the NHL speed. He’s made veteran defenders look silly numerous times this season with his speed and puck skills. Sabres fans are thankful to have the joy of watching a player of his skill set on a nightly basis. He’ll have many more highlight reel plays to come this year.
Buffalo is a far different team from the past two years. They’re not a team without flaws, but a much improved team for sure. As players begin to gel by playing together and the team starts to get healthy; they could be a hockey club to watch out for. One month of hockey has brought more fun this season than potentially all of last season.