The 2016-17 NHL season was supposed to be a great one for the Buffalo Sabres.
As fans, we all know what was supposed to happen. Kyle Okposo was supposed to be the first line winger the team desperately needed to round out their lineup. Fans expected Evander Kane to have a bounce back season after a lackluster 2015-16 campaign. Robin Lehner was supposed to prove himself as the starting goaltender the team has lacked since trading Ryan Miller three years ago.
Surprisingly, all of these things have happened. Okposo is leading the team in scoring with 39 points. Evander Kane already has 21 goals this season, and is finally becoming the player fans were promised when the team acquired the Vancouver-native from the Winnipeg Jets in February of 2015. Despite mediocre statistics, Robin Lehner has hit a hot streak, and has reassured fans that he is the answer going forward.
Although an injury has prevented him from playing every game, Jack Eichel has performed well in his second season. Sam Reinhart has been great in his sophomore year. Rasmus Ristolainen has proved to be one of the most talented young defenseman in the NHL. Team captain Brian Gionta is experiencing a career renaissance right here in Buffalo. Even call ups from the Rochester Americans have been a story this season, as Justin Bailey and Nick Baptiste have played well with the NHL club.
There seems to be more positives happening in Buffalo than negatives. So why is the team three points out of a playoff spot?
Lack of Consistency
Buffalo fans expected their team to compete for a playoff spot this season. Missing the playoffs would have been a disappointment, but the Buffalo faithful expected the Sabres to at least be in the playoff discussion come the end of the season.
Early injuries prevented the team from starting out strong. An ankle injury to Jack Eichel in the final days of the preseason kept the Sabres’ franchise player out until November. Kane went down with a rib injury in the team’s first game of the season. Robin Lehner, Ryan O’Reilly and Tyler Ennis have also missed time this season.
By the time the team was fully healthy, the Sabres had sunk near the bottom of the Eastern Conference. With a fully healthy team, fans hoped that the Sabres would click and climb up the standings. At times, the team does click. When they are playing at maximum capacity, they’re entertaining and difficult to beat. At other times, however, the team looks like the tanking Sabres of old.
The month of February, 2017 is perhaps a microcosm of the Sabres’ 2016-17 season. Coming back from the NHL All-Star Break, the Sabres struggled. A disheartening 5-2 loss to the Montreal Canadiens followed by a 2-1 overtime loss to the New York Rangers suggested that they had given up on the season. By mid-February the Sabres would win one game only to lose another, looking great in one outing and awful in the next.
Eventually, they were able to string together some victories, winning three straight to get within one point of a Wild Card playoff spot. In a nationally broadcasted game in Buffalo on Hockey Day in America, a win against the Chicago Blackhawks would have put the Sabres in the playoffs. How did the team perform? Not well.
They lost to the Blackhawks by a score of 5-1, leaving their fans heartbroken going into their bye week. In what was perhaps the most important game of the season, the Sabres were unable to perform. This is exactly why the 2016-17 Sabres aren’t a playoff team – their inconsistency makes them undeserving.
The Sabres’ inconsistency has hindered their ability to build an image, as it’s a different team playing nearly every night. In one game, the team will be an offensive powerhouse that wins by drastically outscoring their opponents. In another, their offense doesn’t show up, but Robin Lehner or Anders Nilsson will be there to save the day. There are other games that look as though the team has never played hockey before.
The Sabres have not consistently played as a team, which is why they don’t have an identity. If you look at teams sitting in a playoff spot, you’ll notice that most of them have an identity. The Chicago Blackhawks and Pittsburgh Penguins are talented teams that play up to their potential. The Columbus Blue Jackets is a team without superstars but plays well for their outspoken coach. The Toronto Maple Leafs are a young team exiting a rebuild and may sneak into the playoffs (cough, what the Sabres should be, cough).
What is the Sabres’ identity? Are they a young, talented team that just isn’t ready for the playoffs yet? Or, are they the inconsistent team that can’t be successful for a long period of time? Either way, their identity doesn’t match that of a playoff team.
Being in a bye week, Sabres fans have the next five days to think about the rest of the season. Will the team come out of their break strong and climb into a playoff spot? Or, will they continue to show up some nights and not others, and be on the outside when April 10 hits?
Ultimately, fans expected the Sabres to be fighting for a playoff spot this season, which is exactly what they’re doing.