4 Takeaways from Sabres’ Series Against Islanders

The Buffalo Sabres’ nightmare 2020-21 season continued over the weekend with a pair of losses to the New York Islanders in Uniondale, N.Y. Buffalo lost 5-2 on both Saturday and Sunday — which followed up another 5-2 loss to the Isles on Thursday.

Sunday’s defeat ran the Sabres’ losing streak to seven games, during which they’ve managed to score just 11 goals. The team’s 6-14-3 (15 points) record places it dead last in both the MassMutual East Division and the NHL.

The season is already lost and head coach Ralph Krueger’s seat is getting hotter by the hour. At this point, the Sabres and their fans are just counting the days until another playoff-less season comes to an end.

Here are four takeaways from the Sabres’ weekend series in New York.

The Sabres are a Soft, Fragile Team

Every NHL team deals with adversity over the course of the season. The Sabres have certainly had to deal with their fair share, from a two-week layoff due to COVID-19, to losing key players like Rasmus Ristolainen, Jake McCabe, and Linus Ullmark for extended time due to injury.

But the Sabres have shown a complete and utter inability to overcome even the slightest bit of adversity. It’s been the case when looking at both the big picture and the day-to-day grind.

Buffalo Sabres coaches
The Buffalo Sabres have become a fragile team under head coach Ralph Krueger (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Take this weekend for instance. On Saturday, the Sabres allowed three goals in a span of less than five minutes. And when Sam Reinhart cut the lead to 4-2 to possibly make things interesting, New York’s Anders Lee scored just 1:23 later.

On Sunday, the Islanders scored their first two goals just over a minute apart from each other. In the third period, Colin Miller cut the lead to 3-2 to give Buffalo hope. But then Cal Clutterbuck scored just over three minutes later to effectively put the game out of reach.

The Sabres give up goals in bunches, and on the rare occasions when they look like they’ll make a game of it, they allow the other team to score right back. That’s the sign of a mentally weak hockey team.

Jeff Skinner Finally Gets Off the Schneid

For anyone interested in betting, Sunday was a good occasion to make a big wager. Pigs flew, Hell froze over, and Jeff Skinner scored a goal in an NHL game.

The Sabres’ $9 million man found the back of the net for the first time since Feb. 29, 2020, putting an end to one of the franchise’s most ignominious droughts since the days of Ville Leino.

Jeff Skinner Buffalo Sabres
Jeff Skinner finally found the back of the net again in Sunday’s 5-2 loss to the New York Islanders (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

It was a goal that was a long time coming, and one that was richly deserved for a player who has been put through the wringer by fans and media alike, but who has actually been playing fairly well of late.

Skinner has been creating chances in the offensive zone, as evidenced by his 55.4 expected goals for percentage (xGF%) per Natural Stat Trick. He also looks like he found some chemistry on a line with Curtis Lazar and Casey Mittelstadt. If Krueger was ever inclined to give Skinner top-six, or even top-nine, minutes, the goals might start coming in earnest. The coach’s decision to scratch Skinner for three games looks worse by the day as he continues to bury the former 40-goal scorer in the lineup while still riding the likes of Cody Eakin and Kyle Okposo, despite their own distinct lack of goal scoring and paltry 5-on-5 numbers.

Jacob Bryson Shows Promise

One of the few bright spots in this dreary Sabres season has been the development of some of the younger players. Former first-round pick Dylan Cozens has received most of the attention, but defenseman Jacob Bryson has quietly carved out a role for himself on the Buffalo blue line.

Pressed into action after the losses of McCabe and William Borgen — not to mention the substandard play of Matt Irwin and Henri Jokiharju — the Sabres’ fourth-round pick from the 2017 Draft made an impression over the weekend, scoring his first career goal in Saturday’s game.

Krueger clearly sees a lot in the 23-year-old; Bryson led the team in ice time on Saturday (20:48) and played another 19:16 on Sunday. It remains to be seen what kind of role he will play in the future as the team faces another potential rebuild, but Bryson has proven he belongs in the NHL.

Casey Mittelstadt Gets a More Prominent Role

Entering this season, the word “bust” was being thrown around a lot concerning Mittelstadt. The eighth-overall pick in the 2017 Draft entered the 2020-21 campaign with just 39 points in 114 career games, and too often looked like he was overmatched by NHL competition.

Slowly but surely, however, the Minnesota product has begun to make good on his potential. Mittelstadt has only appeared in eight games this season but has four points and has been a net positive when it comes to driving play with a 51.2% xGF% and a 50.7% Corsi for percentage (CF%).

As noted earlier, Mittelstadt was on a line with Skinner and Lazar playing right wing, a new spot for him to this point. The early returns were promising, with Mittelstadt netting an assist and looking like one of the more engaged players on the team. Krueger even deployed the 22-year-old on the penalty kill, a unit that currently sits ninth in the NHL at 82.4%.

Mittelstadt becomes a restricted free agent after this season, and has been the subject of plenty of trade rumours as general manager Kevyn Adams ponders whether or not to make sweeping changes. Based on his recent play, Mittelstadt is making the case that he should still be a part of the Sabres’ future.

The Sabres are back on the road on Tuesday against the Philadelphia Flyers, followed by their first two games of the season against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Thursday and Saturday at home.