The Buffalo Sabres and Arizona Coyotes meet tonight and again next Monday in a clash of the NHL’s basement dwellers. The clubs are in 30th and 29th place respectively with only five points separating the teams in the standings. With under 10 games left in the season for both teams, tonight’s game is an important game in the quest for last place.
It is no secret that Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel have the potential to be game changers for whichever franchise is lucky enough to draft them. While most of the NHL is jockeying for position in the standings in the hopes of qualifying for the playoffs, the Sabres, Coyotes, and Oilers are in a race for 30th.
According to Brian Costello at The Hockey News, the 30th place team is a lock to draft one of these two franchise forwards with a 20% chance of the first overall pick and an 80% chance of the second. Meanwhile, the 29th place team will have a 13.5% chance of landing the first overall pick, a 20% chance at the second overall pick and a 66.5% of drafting third.
Dear hockey gods: please let the coyotes win this game. For the sanity and mental well being of sabres fans.
— Howard WGR (@hsimon62) March 25, 2015
The head-to-head games between the Sabres and Coyotes will play a role in determining the NHL’s 30th place team. In a strange way, these games are becoming some of the more anticipated games of the season. Most Sabres fans will be glued to their televisions as if the games against the Coyotes are playoff matches yet they will be hoping for losses.
Call it tanking or whatever you wish, the fact is that the 30th place team has a definite odds advantage in the McEichel sweepstakes. Edmonton is also in the hunt for 30th and you can read my post from earlier this season that compares the Sabres and Oilers at the link below. Here is a side-by-side look at the Sabres and Coyotes who are the current front-runners in the McEichel sweepstakes.
Two Struggling Teams Go Head-to-Head
For Sabres and Coyotes fans, the prospect of winning the McEichel sweepstakes has often been more entertaining than both of these clubs’ on-ice performances. Many fans have weighed the future possibilities with draft simulators while Arizona and Buffalo continued their struggles – you can find a good draft simulator here.
Connor McDavid's final OHL regular season ends with 120 points in 47 games (2.55 PPG).
— Chris Johnston (@reporterchris) March 22, 2015
Goal scoring has been a challenge for both clubs. According to NHL.com, Arizona has managed a 2.01 goals per game average on the season while Buffalo has an average of just 1.78. Interestingly while the Sabres’ struggles with scoring goals is reflected in their NHL-worst power play, the Arizona Coyotes have the 7th best power play in the NHL.
Buffalo has a power play conversion rate of 12.0% and Arizona has a 20.6% efficiency rate with the man advantage. For those pulling for the Sabres to lose to put more separation between themselves and the Coyotes, Arizona’s power play stats definitely provide some pre-game hope.
Predictably, the Sabres and Coyotes sit in the bottom three in the NHL in average goals allowed per game – the Edmonton Oilers currently rank 30th in this statistic. Buffalo is in 29th in average goals allowed per game with 3.29. Arizona isn’t far behind with a 3.26 average ranking them in 28th place in this statistic.
I'm pretty sure anyone still outraged by folks wanting Sabres to finish last are pretending at this point.
— Christopher Parker (@Bulldogwgr) March 25, 2015
Both clubs have struggled on the penalty kill which has contributed to these goals allowed per game averages. Buffalo has killed off 74.1% of their penalties giving them the 30th ranked penalty kill. Meanwhile, Arizona has killed 78.2% making them the 26th best penalty kill in the NHL.
The Coyotes arrived in Buffalo after a big game in Detroit where they defeated the Wings in overtime by a 5-4 score. Prior to this game, Arizona had not won since March 5th when they defeated the Vancouver Canucks in a shootout. The Sabres have just four points so far in the month of March with a shootout win against the Bruins and through shootout losses to the Leafs and Caps.
[See Also: You Absolutely See Tanking in NHL Spotlight by Mark Shiver]
Who to Watch in the Quest for Last Place
Both the Coyotes and Sabres had more talent on their rosters earlier in the season. The talent level was diminished after the trade deadline as the GM’s of both teams traded away players to acquire assets to improve in the future. The outlook is bleak for this season but the teams are hopeful that they will be stronger when they enter the 2015-2016 season.
A bright spot for Arizona is the play of young defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson. Ekman-Larsson has 20 goals and 38 points so far this season. His 20 goals are a career high for the 23 year old and he is close to surpassing his career high in points if he can notch more than 44 by the end of the season.
The Coyotes have two other players with thirty or more points. Former Oiler Sam Gagner has 12 goals and 35 points in his first season in Arizona. Gagner averaged 42 points per season in 7 season with the Oilers. His production is on par with these other seasons despite the Coyotes’ struggles. Shane Doan is playing in his 18th NHL season. The 38 year old might not have too many NHL years left in the tank but he still has managed to score a respectable 13 goals and 32 points on the year.
For the Sabres, no other player has been more consistent on offense this season than Tyler Ennis. Ennis somehow has 18 goals and 40 points despite not much of a supporting cast. In addition to his production, Ennis puts himself in position to contribute on offense and often pays a physical price. His work ethic, offensive skill set, and positioning should serve him well in the next few seasons as Buffalo continues to improve.
Marcus Foligno has battled through injury this season and has only appeared in 48 games. Injuries, a lack of talent around him and other factors have limited Foligno’s production to six goals and 15 points. However, Foligno has provided a physical presence notching 20 hits in his last five games. Despite missing time he is second on the Sabres with 171 hits. Foligno has power forward potential and he has shown his ability to drive to the net to score goals on a few occasions this season. Barring any trades, Foligno figures to play a strong role with Buffalo in the years to come.