Overview: It’s no secret by now that the Sabres are not a good team. The core of the team that was once a playoff team has dissolved over the last few years. That will happen when you deal your star players and the Sabres did just that in a rebuilding effort: Jason Pominville to the Minnesota Wild for picks and prospects, Thomas Vanek to the New York Islanders for picks and Matt Moulson, Jordan Leopold and Robyn Regehr for picks. You don’t subtract that much talent without a huge dip.
The good news is that the rebuild is underway and the team has a wealth of picks – two first- and three second-round picks this year plus two additional seconds next year – and prospects to begin the rebuild. Historically, teams that have succeeded have done so through the draft.
The bad news is that the team is bereft of talent for this year and next year and the trades haven’t likely ended. Drew Stafford and Matt Moulson will likely be gone by the deadline; ditto goaltender Ryan Miller. The team is dead last in the NHL in points right now (and goals, nearly a full half-goal behind the 29th ranked Hurricanes), but that #1 overall pick will make this season feel a little bit better. You know the last time the Sabres were bad enough to pick first? 1987. They took Pierre Turgeon with that pick, eventually trading him for franchise favorite and current head of hockey operations Pat Lafontaine. It helped change the franchise.
All that said, let’s see how the current cast of characters has held up through the 1/3rd point. NOTE: I’m not counting guys with 10 games or less under their belts. Unfair to really judge them yet (Luke Adam, Matt D’Agostini, Patrick Kaleta).
Stats: 28 GP, 4-5-9, 17:37 TOI/G
I’m trying to be fair to all involved when I hand out grades because the talent levels aren’t there. That said, Tyler Ennis isn’t going to be what the Sabres and their fans expected. Not in Buffalo. He’s got the skill and it’s obvious, but if we’re asking him to carry the offensive load, he won’t.
He’s been largely invisible this season and that probably isn’t going to change. There’s just not much there to work with and the kid can only do so much. Could find himself dealt later in the year as well. Grade: C
Stats: 27 GP, 2-1-3, 14:15 TOI/G
I admittedly half a soft-spot for Flynn. He’s undersized, not physical and doesn’t possess elite skating, but he’s stuck it out with the Sabres and worked his butt off to be there. He’s a solid third/fourth-liner who has seen bigger minutes in some games simply because the team is so thin on talent.
He’s never going to score much – no one expects differently – and probably wouldn’t be with a better, deeper NHL club but on the Sabres, he’s a high-effort guy and that’s all you can really ask of him. Grade: C+
Stats: 25 GP, 3-5-8, 14:26 TOI/G
He falls into the Ennis mold but for entirely different reasons. When he’s playing with more talented players, the big, nasty power forward comes out and Foligno is successful (see: a couple of years ago when he, Ennis and Stafford were playing so well). But when that talent evaporates or performances fall off? You get an average big man who can’t create offense for himself.
Foligno is a solid young piece who will likely be around for the rebuild because the Sabres covet size and toughness in the wake of the Miller/Milan Lucic incident, but he may never emerge as more than a third-line kind of guy. Grade: C+
Stats: 27 GP, 1-6-7, 13:35 TOI/G
The Sabres seem to have different ideas than most as to just what Girgensons can be. They see him more as a big, two-way winger as opposed to the two-way center he’s already showing he can be. He’s on a bit of a curve (he’s still a teen, after all), but he’s shown that he belongs with this team.
The future is bright for Girgensons and he’s hung in as a teenager. As he grows both physically and as a player, he’s going to be good. Real good. Grade: B
Stats: 18 GP, 2-1-3, 11:25 TOI/G
I still don’t know what’s going on with Grigorenko. It seems like the team wants to send him down (and they should) but they’ve hit a bump in the road in regards to where they’re going to send him. In the meantime, he’s found himself scratched.
Grigorenko needs to go to the AHL or back to Juniors where he can bulk up and regain his confidence. He’s clearly not ready for the NHL and the prior coaching staff was doing him no favors by sticking him on the third and fourth lines. Grade: D
Stats: 28 GP, 8-9-17, 19:01 TOI/G
For the talent surrounding him, Hodgson is having a pretty good season offensively. He’s been the lone consistent scorer for the team and his future looks bright if the team can put some talent around him.
He’s seeing the second most ice time among forwards thanks to that, but he’s also shored up his defense enough that it’s not embarrassingly bad as it was last year. He still needs to improve on his faceoffs (just 44.7%) but he’s growing into the type of player the Sabres had hoped for. Grade: B+
Stats: 17 GP, 0-1-1, 12:04 TOI/G
Larsson has since been sent to Rochester of the AHL and that was the right move. It’s clear that he’s going to be a solid two-way player in the NHL, it’s just a matter of letting him play in big situations for a better team than having him toil away in the big leagues this year.
He’s much stronger than he looks and you can say the same about his offensive game, but he was put in a position this season to see if he could survive, not thrive. He didn’t look out of place, but his time will likely be next year. Grade: C+
Stats: 16 GP, 0-5-5, 14:40 TOI/G
I’ve long been a defender and supporter of Leino in the face of constant backlash over his contract. Is he overpaid? No question. But he’s a solid possession player who, when healthy, gives the Sabres depth and flexibility on offense.
He’s been basically as advertised this year, showing strong puck possession when he’s been in the lineup, but he’s not going to score much without talent around him. It’s just the way this situation is going to work. Grade: B-
Stats: 20 GP, 1-4-5, 8:30 TOI/G
McCormick is what he is at this point: a solid skater who gives more than 100%, finishes his checks and scraps when he’s gotta scrap. The fact that he has more goals than Leino and Larsson is surprising given his ice time, but he earns what he gets.
There will always been room in the league for guys like McCormick and for right now, the Sabres can use as many high-effort bodies as they can get into the lineup. Grade: C+
Stats: 15 GP, 4-7-11, 18:05 TOI/G
Moulson came over in the Thomas Vanek trade and has been right there with Hodgson for “best Sabre”. He’s smart, finds open spaces and creates offense for himself and others. He’s not quite the warrior Vanek was in front of the net, but he puts himself there as well and it’s created goals.
I’m a little sad that we’re likely on borrowed time with Moulson in Buffalo because he’s one of the few bright spots this team has. It works out though, because I feel like Moulson deserves better than this and he’ll likely find his way to a much better team by year’s end. Grade: A-
Stats: 28 GP, 3-4-7, 19:26 TOI/G
It only took trading the team’s biggest star for the Sabres to get a definitive captain, but here we are. Sad part is that Ott is on the list of names that could find themselves elsewhere by year’s end.
Otter has been what we expected: tons of energy, tons of hits, tons of talking, a little bit of scoring. He’d be an ideal third-line center on a good team; someone who can wreak havoc, chip in a few goals but not be the catalyst of his team. In Buffalo, he’s depended upon to be one of “the guys”. You can now see why the Sabres are as bad as they are. Grade: B
Stats: 14 GP, 0-0-0, 5:45 TOI/G
What can you really say about Scott that hasn’t been said? We all know why he’s here and he does his job to the best of his ability. He doesn’t belong on the ice for the most part (and isn’t there), but throws his body around and skates hard when he is.
I like Scott, but he’s a fairly useless part on a really bad team. Grade: D+
Stats: 28 GP, 2-7-9, 17:42 TOI/G
I might not be the most objective when it comes to Stafford. I’ve never liked him and probably never will. He looked like the same old half-assed player he’s always been for a good chunk of this season, but has seen a little bit of a resurgence since Ted Nolan stepped behind the bench.
When he skates hard, puts his head down and goes to the net, he’s a good player. He’s a 20-25 goal, 50-ish point kind of guy. But when he just dumps and half-assedly chases, he’s a waste of time. If we get more of the former, his grade goes way up. Grade: B-
It should be no surprise that this team is last in the league in goals by a mile and a half. There’s no talent here and the pieces that are left are underachieving and likely to be dealt to more ideal situations by the time the deadline rolls around.
The front office is making the right decisions with the younger crowd, but I hope that this kind of losing culture doesn’t affect Hodgson, who is clearly the team’s top center and arguably their top player.
Expect more of the same as the season goes on and just hope that the team can flip a few guys for more assets.