Hockey is a game typically filled with tons of emotion, especially when things aren’t going well for your side. Currently sitting in last place in the MassMutual East Division, the Buffalo Sabres’ trio of superstar Jack Eichel, former Hart Trophy-winner Taylor Hall, and former 40-goal scorer Jeff Skinner have combined for a grand total of just three goals in 14 games to start the 2020-21 season. Despite a stacked roster, the team was riding a four-game losing skid up until Saturday afternoon, when they managed to survive the New Jersey Devils‘ late comeback push by one goal, 3-2.
The Sabres, who are looking to stave off a decade-long postseason drought, should be extremely frustrated with how their season has started. Consistently losing games due to shots off of the post, missing the net by inches on wide-open opportunities, or goaltenders failing to make clutch saves at crucial times, Buffalo is struggling to stay afloat despite many dominant performances. It is very clear that the fans are angry with the results, but are the players too?
Sabres Have Just One Fighting Major This Season
One of the most common ways to respond to frustration and get your team fired back up in a hockey game is to drop the gloves with the opponent. The Sabres have done so just once this season, and it occurred in their season-opener before they knew what was coming in the abysmal weeks to follow. Jake McCabe, Buffalo’s only fighter this season, went toe-to-toe with Washington Capitals defenceman Brenden Dillon late in the third period when the Capitals led, 5-3. Less than three minutes later, the Sabres responded with a goal to bring the game within one. Buffalo has turned into a laughingstock with only five wins through their first 14 games. How come no other players on the roster have let their tempers flare like McCabe?
Currently leading the league in fights, an evidently frustrated Ottawa Senators team has dropped the gloves nine times. The only other teams that match the Sabres’ single fighting major this season are the Philadelphia Flyers, New York Islanders and Dallas Stars, who are all off to much better starts. This lack of aggression and willingness to answer the bell is a concerning marker of Buffalo’s passion and eagerness to win early on. Losing night after night and being seen as a walk-through opponent was not the Sabres’ plan heading into this season, but they’re allowing it to happen without any response. Someone needs to stand up and prove that Buffalo is not a pushover team. So far, they appear to be exactly that.
Only Five Players Have Recorded 15 or More Hits
Even outside of fighting, the Sabres have shown little to no aggression through their first 14 games. It is an extremely rare sight to see Buffalo play a hard-hitting shift to help build some momentum. Rasmus Ristolainen leads the team’s hit count by a mile, with 35 hits in 10 games played. He also happens to be one of the Sabres’ best players this season, along with McCabe. Unfortunately, both players are absent from the lineup right now, so the team needs more players to step up.
Only four Sabres have at least 20 hits this season: Ristolainen, Curtis Lazar (28), Colin Miller (26) and McCabe (22). Just behind them, Matt Irwin rounds out the top-five hitting leaders with 15 hits over his six appearances this season. Five players with 15 or more hits, including a player who isn’t even a regular in the lineup? That is simply not enough, especially for a team that is struggling to put the puck in the net. If Buffalo can’t score goals, show they can fight, or lay hits on their opponents, what’s the point of them even playing at all?
This lack of aggression and resistance has given the Sabres a very uninspiring look and style of play. Buffalo needs to address this major issue if they want any hope of a playoff spot in a tough and physical MassMutual East Division.
As the Sabres’ season continues to slip away, they’ll need to find some physicality before it is too late. With Ristolainen (COVID-19 recovery) and McCabe (lower-body injury) out of the lineup for the foreseeable future, the team is down to just two lineup regulars with at least 15 hits (Lazar and Miller). Will anyone else step up, or will Buffalo accept their title as the MassMutual East Division’s pushover team? Something needs to change, and fast.
Tom Pepper is an NHL columnist at The Hockey Writers. He lives in Toronto and is a diehard fan of the St. Louis Blues.