The Buffalo Sabres became the first team in the NHL to be mathematically eliminated from Stanley Cup Playoff contention in the 2020-21 season, extending the team’s playoff drought to an astounding 10 seasons. The elimination came following a 3-2 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins, a game the Sabres lost despite an impressive comeback effort in the third period. This edition of “Sabres Weekly” takes a look at some key details surrounding the drought, and what to look forward to for the remainder of the regular season.
Sabres Tie Longest Playoff Drought in NHL History
From the first puck drop on the NHL’s opening night, the Sabres were never in the conversation for the playoff picture this season, not even for a second. They started the season by winning just one of their first five games, and struggled to win many more games after that. So while Saturday’s loss officially eliminated them from playoff contention for the 10th straight season, this season has really been “over” for some time now.
The Sabres have matched the longest playoff drought in NHL history, tying the Florida Panthers (2001 to 2011), and the Edmonton Oilers (2007 to 2016) for the honors. They have not made the postseason since the 2010-11 season, a period of time during which ownership has committed to and fired six different full-time head coaches, and four different general managers.
In the 2020-21 season, the Sabres eclipsed their record for most consecutive losses in franchise history (14), previously set by the 2014-15 squad that was built to tank for one of Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel, when they lost an even more impressive 18 straight games earlier this season. For a team that was built to win hockey games, that is unacceptable, and highlighted that this roster was broken.
Key Contributors to Sabres’ Failure
Much like historians squabble over the countless reasons leading to the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, Sabres fans seem to disagree with each other and all point to their own version of why the club failed in spectacular fashion this season. The truth is, though, that there are many reasons that contributed to their shortcomings this season, as there are in any losing season in professional sports.
Linus Ullmark, the Sabres’ starting goalie and one of the only bright spots on the current roster, sustained an injury early in the season that sidelined him for a month and put the first, big nail in the Sabres’ coffin. Eichel, the team’s captain and best player, also succumbed to an injury that ended his season and which might ultimately end up needing surgery. The team had a handful of games postponed to begin the month of February, due to a COVID outbreak after a weekend series against the New Jersey Devils, which saw players like Rasmus Ristolainen encounter frightening COVID-19 experiences. Jake McCabe, who started the season on a defense pair with Ristolainen, sustained a season-ending injury of his own.
There were definitely some key factors that contributed the most to the lack of success for the Sabres this season, but as you can see, there are just too many to be able to place the blame on one individual, or on one specific incident. It could be that this roster was never very good to begin with, but indicators seem to argue against that. It could be that former head coach Ralph Krueger’s attempt to force a system that didn’t work was the main driver behind the losing, which the team’s record under interim coach Don Granato actually lends some merit to. At the end of the day, these are issues for general manager Kevyn Adams to examine and ultimately to solve, and we can only hope he has the ability to do so.
The Sabres’ Week Ahead
The Sabres have three games this week, all home at the KeyBank Center, all against the Boston Bruins. Former Sabres Taylor Hall and Curtis Lazar, who were moved at the Trade Deadline last week, will return to Buffalo to face their former team in the series.
Goaltender Dustin Tokarski was named the NHL’s First Star of the Week, going 2-1-1 in four appearances last week and posting a 2.27 goals against average (GAA) and .934 save percentage (SV%). After winning his first NHL game since the passing of his father about five years ago, Tokarski has become a feel-good story for the Sabres, and has played much better of late, too.
Looking to build off of some strong performances last week, the Sabres have nothing but their pride to play for as the regular season winds down to a close in the coming weeks.
Outlook for the Remainder of the Sabres’ Season
In their last 12 games, the Sabres have amassed a 6-3-3 record, and by NHL standards, are playing well above .500 hockey during that stretch. If they had played like this for the entire season, this could be quite a different article right now, but instead, the Sabres can look forward to playing spoiler to some of the top teams in their division. They bested the Washington Capitals and the Penguins last week, and can do the same to the Bruins this week, perhaps more than once. Any success they can earn now will be a positive sign for next season.
While some might say there is nothing left to play for this season, that could not be further from the truth. Numerous players are on expiring contracts, and need to play as well as they can, either to earn a new contract with the Sabres or with another team. Some players need to play well to make their case against being exposed to the expansion Seattle Kraken in the upcoming expansion draft. Others are looking to prove that they even belong in the NHL at all. All of this could make for some exciting hockey down the stretch, whether the points mean anything or not.
Brandon is a Buffalo Sabres Contributor for THW and Co-Host of THW’s ‘Sabres Scoop,’ who received his Master of Science in Sport Administration from Canisius College in Buffalo, NY, and founded his website, Seltytending, in 2017. He is an avid hockey writer and podcaster with prior work experience in the OJHL, NWHL, and NCAA. Twitter: @BSalts15