The Buffalo Sabres invested $18 million into two elite NHLers this season in an attempt to stave off a decade-long postseason drought, but it has not worked out well for them thus far. Through the first 12 games of the 2020-21 season, league superstars Jack Eichel and Taylor Hall have tallied a grand total of three goals for the Sabres, and only one of them has come at even strength.
Currently sitting in last place in the MassMutual East Division, the 4-6-2 Sabres are riding a three-game losing streak heading into Thursday night’s matchup against the Washington Capitals. A season that began with so much optimism is slowly diminishing, but it could be revitalized if the Sabres’ offence wakes up in time. With time ticking away on this condensed 56-game NHL season, can Eichel and Hall fix their scoring woes and lead Buffalo to their first playoff appearance since 2011?
Eichel Needs to Return to Normal Goal-Scoring Ways
Being realistic, it is highly unlikely Eichel and Hall will finish the 2020-21 NHL season with shooting percentages below five percent. But as it stands after 12 games, both players are doing exactly that. Eichel currently leads the Sabres with 42 shots, but only has two goals to show for it. On the other hand, Hall is sitting at 31 shots, but has only managed to put one in the net. This has to change.
Eichel is one of the NHL’s most elite talents, and no matter what some people may say, this short 12-game stint over his 366-game career so far does not change that. Last season, he ranked top-10 in the league with 78 points (36 goals, 42 assists) in 68 games while also having a 28-point lead over the next-best Sabres points-getter, Sam Reinhart (50 points). Now in 2020-21, he has a stat line of 11 points (two goals, nine assists) in 12 games. While 0.92 points per game may look pretty, Eichel’s job has to be putting pucks in the back of the net, and he’s simply not doing that.
Now in his sixth NHL season, Eichel needs to find a way to get back to his normal goal-scoring ways. He came into the season following a career-high 36-goal campaign in 2019-20, but it seems he’s hit a wall. At 4.8%, he holds the third-worst shooting percentage among Sabres players with goals this season, only ahead of Taylor Hall (3.2%) and Rasmus Dahlin (2.9%).
The season is still in its early stages, and if Eichel is still the player he’s shown to be the past five years, he will find a way to score eventually. The only question is “when?” More than a quarter of the way through the season, he will need to figure it out sooner rather than later if Buffalo wants a shot at competing for a playoff spot. It’s not time to panic yet, but it’s certainly getting close.
Hall’s Prove-It Year Not Going As Planned
The Sabres’ other elite talent, Hall, is just two seasons removed from winning the Hart Trophy, awarded to the NHL’s most valuable player to their team. Signing a one-year, $8 million deal with Buffalo this past offseason, he was hoping to use this season as a prove-it year to earn himself big money next season. He may look alright on paper with nine points (one goal, eight assists) in 12 games, but he hasn’t been playing up to his regular standard and is capable of much better, primarily in the goal-scoring department.
The Sabres signed Hall to provide the team with more offensive scoring power to complement Eichel, but it hasn’t turned out that way at all. Head coach Ralph Krueger, who was one of the most influential people in convincing Hall to play in Buffalo, originally tested the 29-year-old left wing alongside Eichel on the first line. The experiment was short-lived, and Hall has spent the majority of his time on the second line, centred by Staal since then. No matter who Hall has been centred by, he can’t seem to light the lamp. His only goal this season came on the power play in his first game as a Sabre.
So, what happens now? Just like Eichel, Hall has proven time and again that he is one of the best players in the NHL. It seems unlikely his goal count will remain this low the rest of the way, especially considering the number of opportunities and shots he puts on net. This again is a waiting game, but it can’t wait much longer. If he can’t start putting some pucks in the net over the next few games and find some sort of consistency, Krueger may need to make some major shake-ups again.
The Sabres are visiting the Capitals on Thursday night for their fifth of eight meetings this season. Hall’s only goal this season came against Washington, while Eichel has only managed to put goals up against the New York Rangers. With more key players returning after Buffalo’s COVID-19 pause, the expectations are only getting higher. The next few games will be crucial in proving whether or not Eichel and Hall are really capable of carrying this team, or if the Sabres’ money and talent will go to waste. The clock is ticking — can the team’s elite duo answer the bell?
Tom Pepper is an NHL columnist at The Hockey Writers. He lives in Toronto and is a diehard fan of the St. Louis Blues.