As of right now, the Buffalo Sabres sit in first place in the NHL. Before the start of the season, even the most optimistic of fans wouldn’t have expected the team to hold a 16-6-2 record through 24 games. Currently riding a nine-game winning streak, this is the strongest team that the franchise has fielded in over a decade.
While it’s undeniable that the Sabres as a team are experiencing a revitalization of sorts, certain individual players on the roster are quietly reviving their careers, contributing in a big way to the team’s success so far. As carry-overs from last season, these particular players weren’t necessarily seen in a positive light among fans. That rhetoric has changed quickly as they’ve made notable contributions to the Sabres’ success so far.
We’ll start with a player who has been with the team since the beginning of the tank-era. Johan Larsson was seen by many as a potential waiver candidate as fans prognosticated the Buffalo roster this summer. Known as a penalty-kill specialist who wasn’t particularly adept in the offensive zone, the 26-year-old appeared expendable.
While he certainly hasn’t been an offensive catalyst with three points in 18 games this season, Larsson is emerging as one of the team’s top possession players, and he’s done a fantastic job of matching up against some of the top forward groups in the NHL.
His advanced statistics indicate that he’s producing shots despite a low distribution of offensive zone starts. With a zone-start ratio of 15.49, he actually has the lowest proportion of offensive zone starts on the entire team. That metric alone makes his individual Corsi-for per-60 of 12.47 (good for fourth on the team) even more impressive. His relative Corsi of 2.16-percent ranks him fifth among Sabres forwards and also marks a massive improvement from the -6.41-percent that he posted last season.
Phil Housley spoke highly of Larsson’s improved outlook this season after the organization challenged him to be better after a 2017-18 season that left a lot to be desired.
“It’s good to say he took the words the right way at the end of the year,” Housley said. “But he’s been really really good in camp so far.”
After this season, Larsson is set to become a restricted free-agent. Just two months ago it seemed like a foregone conclusion that he wouldn’t receive a qualifying offer, but he’s making a strong case to become part of Jason Botterill’s long-term plan as a steady presence in the bottom-six. If he continues his current pace, he’ll be hard to let go as an affordable veteran option.
Kyle Okposo’s situation is unique. After signing a seven-year, $42 million free-agent contract with the Sabres in the summer of 2016, his tenure in Buffalo got off to a rocky start. In 65 games he posted 45 points, but the real story lies beyond the statistical surface. At the end of the 2016-17 campaign, Okposo endured a life-threatening health ordeal that not only caused him to miss games toward the end of that season, but jeopardized his career as well.
Last year it took the then 29-year-old veteran quite a bit of time to regain his form. In his first 10 games back, he only managed to produce two points. Fortunately, the Okposo of old began to re-emerge toward the end of last season where he produced seven points in the last eight games of the year.
Still, fans were skeptical as to whether or not he would ever be the player he was during his time with the New York Islanders which of course, earned him such a hefty contract with the Sabres. During preseason action, he had the look of a man on fire. He was faster and more aggressive, inspiring fans to start believing in him once more.
That newfound drive has carried over into regular season action where he has posted 14 points in 24 games thus far. If he continues at his current trajectory, he’ll finish the year with 48 points, which would represent his highest total as a Sabre. Statistically, that jump isn’t exactly Earth-shattering, but his presence as a steady veteran beside Casey Mittelstadt on the second line has surely helped the 20-year-old center adjust to NHL action. If that chemistry continues to grow, perhaps Okposo’s cap hit won’t look like such an albatross on the Sabres’ ledger moving forward.
Related: Is Kyle Okposo Finally Back?
Shifting gears toward the defense (a group that is largely the same from last season, save for one Swedish wunderkind), one player stands above all others at the most improved from 2017-18. Nathan Beaulieu was Botteril’s first trade acquisition last offseason when he sent a third-round pick to the Montreal Canadiens in exchange for the then 24-year-old blueliner.
Statistically, he is on pace to more than double his point total from last season. From a Cosri standpoint, he ranks second among Sabres defenders with a relative Corsi of 3.13-percent, a 2.5 point improvement from 2017-18.
Curiously enough, Beaulieu has been in-and-out of the lineup, spending some nights in the press box as a healthy scratch. The Buffalo blue line is far from a finished product, so it’s a bit odd that one of their top performers this season would have trouble sticking as a roster regular ahead of someone like Marco Scandella who has been inconsistent, to put it kindly.
Regardless, there is no question that we’re seeing a much more mentally steady, intelligent player. Though he still has the occasional gaffe in his own end, those types of unforced errors we saw from last season have been reduced dramatically. It will be interesting to see if he can cement a permanent role with the team by the end of the year.
Like Larsson, he too is set to become an RFA at the end of the 2018-19 campaign. With a current cap hit of $2.4 million, the Sabres may not be willing to invest in a new deal, especially considering all of the young defensive talent in the pipeline who are still on entry-level contracts.