This is certainly unfamiliar territory.
As we approach the calendar turning to 2020, the Buffalo Sabres are in the thick of the playoff race in the Eastern Conference. Not battling to dig out of the basement. Not beginning the annual process of deciding which top-five draft pick they should be targeting. No, this team is in a bona fide dogfight in their attempts to stay afloat in the standings.
This team has gone through positive spurts before, providing a mirage of what fans and the organization have been waiting for over an agonizingly long time. With each previous climb has come a tremendous thud back down to earth.
This time, it feels different. There are reasons that the Sabres should be looking to go all-in on this season and make a serious push for a playoff spot. Without this mentality, it could be just another lost season.
Jack Eichel Exceeding Expectations
Stop me if you’ve heard a variation of this over the past couple weeks: Jack Eichel is a good hockey player. The Sabres’ captain has been on an absolute tear over the past month, finishing as the league’s third star the past two weeks in a row. Currently riding a 16-game point streak, Eichel presently sits in a tie for fifth in points with 48 and is second in goals with 23. He is currently on pace to demolish his personal career marks with 55 goals and an astonishing 116 points.
Just how good has Eichel’s start to the season been? Look no further than his shooting percentage. Over the past three seasons, he has averaged 11.3 percent while this season he is currently shooting 18.7%. Eichel has always had a lethal shot and obviously has worked on it over the summer. This season, it just looks different.
According to Evolving-Hockey, Eichel currently has 11.89 expected goals (xG). His 23 shatters that stat. Such a precedent is not unheard of. Elite goal scorers are often able to exceed xG projections because of their innate ability to blow pucks past goalies. Eichel may now be entering that special stratosphere.
Another part of Eichel’s impressive start is his effectiveness on the power play. Over the past three seasons, he has averaged a pace of 28 points on the man advantage. He is on pace for 36 this season, spending 23 seconds more power play time each game than he has averaged the past three seasons. That may not seem like much, but that equates to over 31 minutes of extra time on the man advantage over the course of the season.
It’s obvious that Eichel has found another gear this season. He is truly beginning to put his stamp on the league and make it obvious to all just how special he is. Sabres fans certainly hope that this will be the first of many special seasons. It very well could be, but there are no guarantees when it comes to professional sports. You definitely don’t need to tell a Buffalo sports fan that.
General manager Jason Botterill needs to see exactly what he has with Eichel and augment it. While Eichel may be fully capable of doing it, sitting back and hoping that he will carry this entire organization to the playoffs on his back is faulty reasoning. Doing so may break his back, effectively ending another season of Sabres’ hockey.
Sabres Exceeding What the Numbers Say
One of a few really positive stories this season has been the combined effort of both the goaltending and defence to keep the puck out of their net. This has not been easy for the Sabres over the past eight seasons. Over the past month, the Sabres are top-10 in the league, allowing only 2.58 Expected Goals Against per 60 (xGA/60).
The only trouble is, while the defence has played well, the offence has sputtered. Maybe sputtered isn’t the right word. They have continued to score. In any event, the Sabres have not put up sustainably strong offensive numbers. Over the past month, the Sabres rank 25th with just 2.54 Expected Goals For per 60 (xGF/60).
During that time span, they have scored 3.25 goals per 60 minutes. They’ve exceeded expectations by .71 goals for every hour of play. A major reason they’ve accomplished this feat was discussed in the last section. Eichel’s elite ability has kept things afloat and earned the team points on nights where they shouldn’t have had them.
Maintaining the status quo at this juncture is very risky. Teams are able to play staunch defensive hockey and rely on lights-out goaltending to grind their way to wins. The jury is still out on whether or not the Sabres can be that team. This whole situation and team has so many uncertainties. We can’t truly be confident in what we have and what we can expect at this point.
The wise move for Botterill would be to increase the odds that his team can sustain the strong start they’ve had defensively and build on the sparkling season that Eichel is having. The depth of the defence has been well-documented. The offence needs an upgrade and an extra punch in the top-six to help carry the load and support what coach Ralph Krueger is building. The time for Botterill to act is now.
Atlantic Division Is Within Reach
The past four seasons, the Atlantic Division has been widely regarded as the best division in the National Hockey League. Boasting the Boston Bruins, Tampa Bay Lightning and Toronto Maple Leafs, the top-end skill this division presents has made finishing in the top-three merely a pipe dream.
Things are different this season.
The Bruins continue to run away with things, currently sitting second in the league with 48 points and a nine-point cushion in the division. Beyond that, however, things have been much tighter.
The Lightning have not yet taken off like they did last season. They are currently on pace for 93 points. The Maple Leafs struggled out of the gate, leading to firing former coach Mike Babcock. They are poised to reach 87 points.
Beyond that, the Montreal Canadiens are on an 89-point pace and the Florida Panthers are paced to reach 90 points. That brings us to the Sabres, in mid-December, staring at the possibility of a 94-point season. Both their strong start and the struggles of their division have put the Sabres, not just in the playoff conversation, but with the opportunity to have home-ice advantage in the first round.
The odds of the big dogs in this division continuing to struggle are low. There are simply too many game-changers on both the Lightning and Maple Leafs to believe that they will not begin their ascension any time now.
In the meantime, the Sabres are sitting pretty. There are no pictures on the league standings page showing how teams got there. Regardless of how pretty or ugly it is, the points the Sabres have accumulated cannot be taken away from them.
How often will the Sabres be able to take advantage of a struggling division? Such a start may not occur for another five seasons. The team is playing well and deserving of some support from the general manager. Bringing in more troops can give a shot in the arm to the entire team and, perhaps more importantly, the fanbase.
It’s Time to Reward Sabres Fans
The last reason that this is the right time for the Sabres to make a push is their loyal following. The long-suffering hockey fans of Western New York and Sabres fans abroad have dealt with being the lowest of the low throughout much of the last decade.
This season of 50 years of celebration — dubbed the “Golden Season” — has been marred by a collection of jaded Sabres fans, weary from the long and winding road of numerous rebuilds. The wick of optimism has been squelched so many times that any spark presented by the team is quickly dismissed as mere fiction.
This team is not in the upper echelon of the league. They are certainly not a serious Stanley Cup contender at this stage. But this team is also not just the younger sibling of previously failed concoctions. Krueger has established a style that fits the mould of this team and they are seeing results.
Sabres fans have absolutely rewarded the team despite the barrage of missteps it has taken. Forbes recently released a list of the best fanbases in the NHL based on a variety of factors including merchandise sales, ticket sales, television ratings and social media reach. There were few surprises.
The Pittsburgh Penguins, Bruins, Chicago Blackhawks and Vegas Golden Knights finished in the top-four. All of these teams have had at least one Stanley Cup Final appearance in the last five seasons and carry some of the league’s elite and most noteworthy players. Which team rounded out the top-five? Not the New York Rangers. Not the Canadiens. Not even the Maple Leafs. No, the fifth-best fanbase in the NHL belongs to the Buffalo Sabres.
This team has not had a sniff of the postseason since 2011. In a league where over half of the teams qualify for the playoffs, that’s appalling. The Western New York faithful have continued to bleed blue and gold and support the team that, frankly, has done little for them in recent history.
It would be foolish for the organization to rely on this faithfulness. Patience is growing thin. The Sabres are no longer a guaranteed sellout and there are often very inexpensive tickets available for most home games. With the success of the National Football League’s Buffalo Bills, the Sabres are very close to completely alienating an entire generation of sports fans. If they fail to capitalize on what they’ve built this season, they run the risk of burying themselves in the sports page and the hearts of Buffalo sports fans.
How Botterill Should Go All-In
Going all-in can have different meanings to different people. As discussed, the Sabres are not, as of yet, a major cup contender. When cup contenders go all-in, they are willing to trade any futures for expiring contracts in hopes of finding just the right chemistry to add to what they have and push them over the top.
The Sabres should not go about things this way. While they have definitely shown signs of growth, they are not currently in a position to give up piles of picks and top prospects to make a run.
What the Sabres should be looking to do is add character players in the forward ranks that can provide depth, leadership and a scoring punch without necessarily having to break the bank.
If the Sabres can find an agreement with another team wherein they trade their first-round pick and it’s top-10 protected for the next couple seasons, that should be explored. Any prospect not named Lawrence Pilut or Dylan Cozens should also be made available.
There are myriad reasons for Botterill to make a major move this season. Eichel has caught lightning in a bottle and put them in a position among the division’s elite. Their offensive numbers, while better, do not appear to be perfectly stable and could use some strengthening. Ultimately, it’s time to throw a bone to the loyal supporters of the Sabres. They have stuck with you through thin and, well, thinner. Time to stand by them and deliver a winner. Will such an approach actually work? That remains to be seen.
This is unfamiliar territory, after all.