The Buffalo Sabres are on the outside looking in yet again, having failed to qualify for the postseason for the sixth straight season. A season that opened with talk of the playoffs will end with the Sabres being lucky to reach last season’s point total of 81, and will be accompanied by a lot of speculation regarding the roster, head coach Dan Bylsma, and GM Tim Murray. As a result, it is easy to dismiss the remaining five games on Buffalo’s 2016-17 regular season schedule as being “meaningless,” arguing that the Sabres have nothing left to play for except pride.
Actually, nothing could be further from the truth. Yes, the Buffalo Sabres will be eligible to hit the golf links come April 10, and nothing the team can do in between then and now will change that. Even so, Sabres fans should not be so quick to turn their backs on the Blue and Gold before the regular season ends, nor should they root for the team to lose – no more “embrace the tank!”
Let’s look at why Sabres fans should want the team to win out (or come as close as possible) the final five games.
Sabres Waited too Long to Tank
It’s natural for fans to turn their eyes to the NHL Draft Lottery once their team has been eliminated from the postseason. Sabres fans especially are conditioned to begin crafting “What if?” scenarios in their heads as early as February, which makes the fact that the Sabres were within reach of a playoff spot when they headed into their late-February bye week that much more enjoyable. Then Buffalo stumbled, losing its first three games following the layoff and going 3-5-1 to open March, and the Sabres were once again lottery-bound.
Problem is, Buffalo has won 3 of 5 to close March out, and are holding onto the 8th spot in the current NHL Draft Lottery standings. Even if the Sabres manage to lose their final five games of the season, it is highly unlikely that they will finish any better than 6th in the final lottery standings, which would only improve the team’s odds of landing the first overall pick in the draft from 5.8% to 7.6%, according to Tankathon – and when you consider the fact that the teams ahead of the Sabres in the lottery standings are a combined 0-13-2 in their last 15 games, it will be a small miracle if the Sabres manage to move up just one spot in the standings.
Bottom line: tanking now will do next-to-nothing to improve Buffalo’s odds of landing a top-3 pick in the NHL draft lottery. Considering how weak this year’s pool of prospects is, why bother sending players into the offseason on a losing note?
“With the 9th overall pick in the 2017 NHL Draft, the Buffalo Sabres select Jim Shootoutgoal.”
— Tom Martin (@4TomMartin) March 18, 2017
Robin Lehner’s Call to Arms
Buffalo’s goaltending tandem of Robin Lehner and Anders Nilsson provided one of the few bright spots for the team this season, as the two combined to give the Sabres’ the 4th best save percentage in the NHL to date. Considering just how badly the Sabres’ defensive corps has played in front of these two guys this season, that is a remarkable accomplishment, and has done a lot to answer the question of whether Lehner is worthy of being called Buffalo’s number one goaltender for the near future.
It has not just been the play of Lehner that has solidified his claim as the Sabres’ starting goaltender, though, as the outspoken Swede has proven that he is more than capable of providing leadership to Buffalo’s young core group of players. He has come to the defense of his players more than once – clearly, Lehner was not happy with the suspension handed out to Sabres blueliner Rasmus Ristolainen – but he has also not shied away from calling the Sabres out when they have failed to put forth the sort of effort he wants to see night in and night out. For example, Lehner had this to say about his teammates following a lackluster 2-0 loss to the Los Angeles Kings two weeks back:
Everyone needs to be playing for their jobs. It’s a privilege to play in this league. You’ve got to earn it. We all have to decide if we’re going to help each other make a good last impression these last 11 games left. If you just pack it in, there’s a lot of eyes, a lot of eyes looking and people see. And it’s pretty obvious. If we want to stay in this league, you better get your head on straight.
It won’t be enough to save everyone’s job, but as Lehner said, everyone can tell who is packing it in, and who is fighting until the end. With five games to go in the regular season, each and every player on the Buffalo Sabres roster should be taking the ice with the goal of proving to the front office that he is committed to helping this team achieve its goal of bringing playoff hockey back to the 716.
Building a Culture of Winning For Eichel, Reinhart
The Buffalo Sabres have reason to believe that the playoffs will be within reach in 2017-18, thanks in large part to the play of Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart. Eichel, in particular, has been a revelation, as he is only one point behind last year’s total despite having lost the first two months of the season to a high ankle sprain. And Reinhart, despite enduring some stretches in which he has come across as far too passive, has already topped his rookie point totals, and should easily clear the 30-assist mark by the end of the season.
It takes more to win Lord Stanley’s Cup than just individual efforts, however. If the Buffalo Sabres truly want to become playoff contenders, then the team needs to establish a culture of winning, something that tanking on purpose will never accomplish. Having already endured a losing 2015-16 campaign, Buffalo’s two young studs are in danger of developing the sort of habits that define perennial cellar dwellers – for example, Reinhart’s failure to be on time for the team’s meeting prior to Tuesday’s game against the Columbus Blue Jackets. Irresponsible and immature moments like that are too easily forgiven when a team is “playing for nothing,” which is why it was nice to see the Sabres organization nip Reinhart’s behavior in the bud immediately:
Coach Bylsma: Sam Reinhart violated a team policy and the discipline was not playing in tonight’s game.
— Buffalo Sabres (@BuffaloSabres) March 29, 2017
..” & how we grow as a team. He’s a good kid. He’s going to learn from it, and we’ll be better as a group for it.”
— Buffalo Sabres (@BuffaloSabres) March 29, 2017
Spending the rest of the season building that culture Brian Gionta was talking about will benefit a number of players on Buffalo’s roster – don’t forget, Ryan O’Reilly has only played in 13 postseason games so far in his career, while Evander Kane has yet to enjoy the postseason. Still, Eichel and Reinhart shoulder a disproportionate amount of expectations on their shoulders, so it’s important that they get used not only to winning, but being expected to win. Five games may not seem like enough time to develop a culture of winning, but it’s a start.