Last year was supposed to be the season that we saw real growth from the Buffalo Sabres. With a roster that includes Jack Eichel, Ryan O’Reilly, Kyle Okposo, Evander Kane, and Rasmus Ristolainen, the team was going to break the drought of five playoff-less seasons. And then, just as Eichel fell in practice the day before the season opener, so did their hopes of postseason action.
Eichel missed 21 games. He came back prematurely from his injury, rejuvenated the team’s scoring and helped lead them back within reach of the playoffs before the team fell apart and drifted slowly out of contention the last month of the season.
At times, the team was brilliant, including a league-best power play. However, more often, the squad left fans shaking their heads. Whether it was injuries to key players, Bylsma’s paralyzing system that handcuffed the team, or a snakebitten offense, they just weren’t consistently good enough.
Housley and Botterill
After cleaning house, Sabres owner Terry Pegula brought in Jason Botterill whose resume and pedigree proved favourable. Phil ‘Wowie’ Housley soon joined as head coach. Then players were added. Trades were made. Free agents signed. On paper, the team has seen more than a third of its players change.
Gone are: Marcus Foligno, Tyler Ennis, Dmitry Kulikov, Cody Franson
Added are: Marco Scandella, Victor Antipin, Nathan Beaulieu, Benoit Pouliot, Seth Griffith, Jacob Josefson
Housley promises a take-the-reins-off, aggressive style play from the defense. It’s a breath of fresh air.
“We’re having fun putting the work in. I like what they’re preaching,” said Sam Reinhart.
“If we play the way that we can play on a consistent basis, I think it’s going to put us in position to win more nights than not,” added defenseman Zach Bogosian.
Taking the Next Step
Being a supporter of sports teams from Buffalo has thickened the skin of many fans. It’s added gray hairs for those still with hair. Many still expect the worst. Putting all of that aside for a moment and focusing on the positives, the Sabres can break through this year. It’s possible that in April, they’ll be playing hockey instead of golf but they’ll need to stay healthy to get there. The Sabres’ offense was hit hard last year: Eichel missed 21 games, Kane missed 12 games, and Okposo missed 17 games.
Goal: More Goals
The Sabres scored 199 goals in the 2016-17 season, tied for 24th place in the NHL. For perspective, the Ottawa Senators scored 206 goals, the least of all the teams to make the playoffs last year. By contrast, the Penguins lit the lamp a league-best 278 times.
Reinhart’s move to center, while it lasts, fortifies the Sabres down the middle with three solid lines. On the right wing, Jason Pominville and Kyle Okposo will likely be on the first two lines, while Evander Kane and Zemgus Girgensons will be on the left. Botterill hopes Pouliot, a castoff from the Edmonton Oilers, will find his game again.
Make no mistake, the offense of this team runs through Jack Eichel. His success equals the team’s success.
The Sabres only tallied 126 goals during 5-on-5 play, ranked 28th in the league. At even strength they had minus-409 shot attempts (their opponents attempted 409 more shots they did for the season). Only the Arizona Coyotes were worse. The New York Rangers and Senators were the only playoff teams from last year with negative shot attempts.
Goals For by Period
Breaking down the Sabres’ production by period, it’s easy to see they were consistent under-producers. In the first period, they tied for 17th place with 63 goals. In the second period, they were 26th with 65 goals. In the third period, they were 24th with 65 goals.
The blue line, the Sabres’ weak spot, was addressed this offseason. The addition of Scandella, Beaulieu and Antipin should ease minutes off Finnish workhorse, Ristolainen. Their speed and quick hands will help the minutes spread around more evenly. And that could improve Zach Bogosian’s game by default.
Rounding out the blue line corp is Josh Gorges, Justin Falk, Taylor Fedun, Matt Tennyson and rising prospect Brendan Guhle.
All of the new faces and fast-skating, puck-moving defensemen need to gel. They need to grasp Housley’s system of moving the puck up ice and joining the rush responsibly.
Goals Against by Period
Breaking down the Sabres goals allowed by period, their sore spot is clearly the second period. In the first period, they were tied for 11th best in the league with 59 goals allowed. In the second period, they were 28th with 86 goals allowed. In the third period, they ranked 21st with 80 goals.
For all the chatter about weak starts, the stats indicate that they were ok in the first period but terrible thereafter. Is this a reflection of poor conditioning? Or could it mean that other teams saw what they were doing and made adjustments?
Robin Lehner and Chad Johnson will backstop the Blue and Gold. Lehner finished with a 2.68 goals-against average (21st among goalies who played more than forty games last year) and a .920 save percentage (8th in the league among goalies who played more than forty games last year). He faced a lot of rubber, 1,910 shots total (3rd most in the league). Johnson hopes to re-capture the form he had during his first stint with the team when he posted a 2.36 goals- against average and .920 save percentage.
The power play clicked at a league-leading 24.5% last season. They chipped in a plentiful 57 goals.
The penalty kill struggled, ranking 25th in the league, with a 77.6% kill rate. Simply stated, they must improve because it is unlikely that they will be able to match last year’s man-advantage numbers.
Rest of the Division
While the Sabres made many offseason moves, so did teams in their division. The Ottawa Senators and Tampa Bay Lightning will likely contend for the division title. After that, it’s a bit of a toss-up. The Montreal Canadiens are always a threat with Carey Price and The Detroit Red Wings and Boston Bruins will likely regress.
The Toronto Maple Leafs made the postseason by a single point last year. Will they build on their success or was it a fluke? The New York Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers should be in the mix for a wild-card spot. The Florida Panthers are a giant question mark.
Making it Happen
Like many players, Jack Eichel’s goal is to be a playoff team:. “(We want to) be in the hunt at the end of the year. Playing games in March and April and keep going. I think that’s important for us and I think that’s what this organization wants and that’s what we want in the room. I think anything less than that is an underachievement.”
“It goes without saying that we have some offensively talented players on our team. It’s going to be a really exciting brand of hockey,” said Kyle Okposo.
Will the team come together and challenge for a playoff spot in March? If they make it will they go deep?
Vegas oddsmakers give the Sabres a 60 to 1 shot at winning the Stanley Cup–the same as the Carolina Hurricanes. Only six teams have worse odds, the Colorado Avalanche, Detroit Red Wings, New Jersey Devils, Arizona Coyotes, and Vancouver Canucks are all 100 to 1, while the Vegas Golden Knights are 200 to 1. The Pittsburgh Penguins top the list at 8 to 1.
We’ll find out soon enough how this team comes together. The season starts when the Sabres host the Canadiens Thursday night at 7:05 p.m. at KeyBank Center in downtown Buffalo.
Jeff has been covering the NHL for over a decade for various sites. He’s been with The Hockey Writers as a lead Sabres writer three years, while also writing a satire column called “Off the Crossbar.”