Welcome to Buffalo Sabres Weekly, where you can catch up on the last week of the Sabres throughout the 2019-20 season. From trending topics to news and notes, this is your weekly update on your favourite team.
This space is specifically designed to resonate with Sabres fans in Western New York and abroad. Consider this your go-to source for the news and insight you need during the Golden Season. We will feature our Royal Blues (things that are trending up), Buffaslugs (things that are trending down), French Connection Awards (three stars of the week), Hot Wing (hot take) and much more.
Sabres’ Royal Blues – 3 Positives as Regression Ensues
Things are coming back down to Earth.
After a very memorable start to October, the Sabres scuffed their feet toward the end of the month and kicked off November by being outscored 7-1 on route to an 0-2 hole to start the new month.
Breaking things down game by game has seemed frustrating at times over the past couple of weeks. The fact is, though, that in the big picture, the Sabres sit sixth in the standings in the National Hockey League at the start of November. Such a thought seemed pretty far-fetched even a month ago.
While the past couple weeks have been shaky at best, there is still reason for optimism with this team.
One such reason for optimism is the return of Brandon Montour. Although he struggled mightily with the Anaheim Ducks last season, Montour saw a major uptick in his play with the Sabres.
In his first game on Saturday night, Montour showed a lot of the elite skating and offensive instincts he possesses. He demonstrated a great degree of ability to control the puck over a quarter of last season with the Sabres and once he’s up to speed he’ll no doubt continue that.
The addition of Montour also affords the Sabres even more flexibility with their lineup. Until Scandella is able to return, there will be a permanent spot available in the top-four. Montour spent most of last season with Rasmus Dahlin and started that way Saturday night. Whether he continues in that spot remains to be seen. In any event, adding a superb puck-moving defenceman to your lineup is never a bad thing. It will be interesting to see how Ralph Krueger decides to deploy him to best utilize his speed.
Krueger Ready to Make His Mark
A second reason for optimism is the fact that Krueger now appears to have a full grasp on his lineup and feels comfortable making changes.
For all of October, there were essentially no major changes made to the lineup outside of injury adjustments. There were questions raised about the overall usage of Dahlin, Olofsson, Rasmus Ristolainen and Casey Mittelstadt. Heck, even casual Sabres’ fans could tell you the ice time that Vladimir Sobokta was not deserving but receiving.
In fairness, the Sabres did win the majority of their games and you never really feel right changing a winning lineup. Understandably, Krueger no doubt also wanted time to properly assess exactly what he has with his team.
That initial assessment appears to be over. Olofsson was moved off the top line and Sobotka saw a significant decrease in his ice time on the fourth line. Krueger will begin a very important part of his first season with the Sabres. Having gotten off to a hot start, can he continue to manipulate his squad and push the right buttons so as to not squander this first-month explosion? He appears ready to really put his stamp on the lineup.
Sabres’ Swedish Vacation
Finally, the Sabres are embarking on an adventure of sorts. They are travelling to Stockholm, Sweden to play a pair of games against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
A couple of weeks ago I had my reservations about this trip. The team was playing well (and often) and it felt like such a trip could really mess with the mojo they were starting to build. The trip could get them out of sync and possibly sabotage what had been a strong start.
Fast forward two weeks and the Sabres appear to be in a bit of a funk. Shots that were going in the net previously are now going off the post or being blocked. The offence isn’t coming quite as easily now.
Enter the Sweden trip.
This next week could potentially be a pivotal period in the Sabres’ season. It will provide a major opportunity to bond. Marcus Johansson, Johan Larsson, Linus Ullmark, Olofsson and Dahlin will no doubt be playing with a great amount of pride in their homeland. The Sabres’ also did prospect Lawrence Pilut a solid in calling him up from the Rochester Americans before take-off. Whether he plays or not, this will be a big boost to help continue his strong start to his season.
Road trips can quite often build camaraderie among teammates. There are fewer distractions and the players spend more time together. The six-hour time difference from home will make the distractions even fewer.
Perhaps some home cooking will help Olofsson and Dahlin to find that next gear in their seasons. Both have had excellent starts but have yet to really start clicking fully. Ullmark also could receive a boost in what could be the biggest season of his career.
On the International stage, Jack Eichel will no doubt be looking to assert his position as one of the top centres in the league. Being able to face off against a juggernaut in the Lightning will only add more incentive to him having a solid showing.
A trip across the globe mid-season is daunting. The distance is tiring and the resulting schedule slam upon return can sometimes be too much to overcome. It also gets you out of your regular routine. Maybe a shake-up is something the Sabres could use right now though. It’s funny how a couple of weeks can change your perspective.
Sabres’ Buffaslugs – Offence Sputters
The Good Ship Sabre has hit its first true patch of swirling waters.
The first seven games of the season saw the Sabres play a solid, stifling style of offence. They owned the puck and played aggressively fast against opposing puck-carriers. Outlet passes were crisp and allowed the forwards to cheat a little bit and create offence.
Things have changed a little over the last eight games. The puck has been on the Sabres’ sticks less than before. Offensive zone possessions have not lasted quite as long. Defensive zone time has been extended as passes have been less accurate and decision-making has been more questionable. The following chart from Charting Hockey really bears this story out.
Looking at the Sabres’ expected goals for percentage (xGF%), you can see how things have certainly levelled off from the start of the season. Over the last eight games, the Sabres have been expected to score fewer goals than their competition each night based on the quality of chances they are generating.
Now let’s be clear, this in no way guarantees they are on a path similar to last season. As we talked about a few weeks ago, the New York Islanders’ model of perhaps not generating a ton of chances but also limiting them with squelching defence and solid goaltending can work. The concern is whether or not the Sabres have the personnel to pull off such a plan.
At present, Rasmus Ristolainen and Jake McCabe continue to receive the most ice each game. Ristolainen owns a 47.72xGF% and McCabe owns a 48.27xGF% according to Evolving Hockey. Both of these numbers are below the team average and would place them fourth and fifth among defensemen on the team.
Even without looking at the numbers, the past few games have highlighted the struggles the Sabres’ top pair have endured. They have regularly been out of position and have struggled with outlet passes. Decision making has been questionable, with pucks just being slapped around the boards and iced rather than even being attempted to a teammate moving up the ice.
The forward ranks could also use a boost. There have been some nice combinations but the struggles at even strength continue. The power play has helped keep them afloat but certainly can’t be relied on as a primary means of scoring.
As time goes on, it becomes more and more apparent that this team is really in need of at least one top-six forward. Could one of the 38 defencemen be moved? Could Tage Thompson receive a call from the Rochester Americans? If the losses continue to pile, something will need to be done.
The French Connection Awards
Third Star – Henri Jokiharju
Jokiharju continues to impress each and every game. This week, in particular, was very special for the 20-year-old as he scored his first career NHL goal. Let’s hope it was the first of many to come.
Second Star – Jeff Skinner
Skinner has been as consistent as you could ever hope a second-line winger could be. One of only three Sabres’ goal scorers this week, he found the back of the net on this pretty play with Marcus Johansson.
Skinner’s presence and tenacity on the puck have been evident since the very first game of the season. To solve the Sabres’ even-strength woes, it may be time for him to be reunited with Jack Eichel.
First Star – Carter Hutton
Hutton was stellar this week although he didn’t receive any wins. Posting a 1.44 goals against average (GAA) and a .954 save percentage (SV%) in his two starts helped the Sabres to muster a point. As the strength of the defence has increased, so has Hutton’s game. Him keeping up the strong play will be very important to the Sabres hopefully ending their playoff drought.
Sabres Prospect Focus – Tage Thompson
After a disastrous first season with the Sabres, Thompson is off to a nice start with the Rochester Americans. Through 12 games, he has collected five goals and six assists. He currently leads the team in goals, assists and points.
It is no doubt very important to Jason Botterill that Thompson pans out. One of the primary pieces of the Ryan O’Reilly trade, Thompson draws interest because of his size and shot. It’s his play away from the puck that requires more development. He is using his size and reach much better this season and we will no doubt see him with the Sabres at some point before April.
Sabres’ Hot Wing – Lightning the Perfect Sweden Opponent
When I first saw that the Sabres would be heading to Sweden, I thought it was great. What a nice opportunity for the team to showcase its stars and get some recognition on the international level.
Then I saw the opponent.
Of all the teams the perennially struggling Sabres would have to play, it had to be the Lightning. The same Lightning steamroller that features the likes of Nikita Kucherov, Victor Hedman, Steven Stamkos and Brayden Point. The same team that finished last season with 128 points. It had to be that squad that faced off against the typically sad-sack Sabres.
Things haven’t exactly gone the Lightning’s way so far this season. They currently own a pretty pedestrian 6-5-2 record and are middle of the pack in goal-scoring with 44 goals (16th) and bottom third in goals against with 47 (20th). There is no better opponent for the Sabres in Sweden than the Lightning right now.
Even though they have struggled to start the season, the Lightning still carry the cache of being arguably the best team in the NHL. Their stars have yet to shine fully but everyone expects it to happen any time now.
Had the Sabres been squared off with the Detroit Red Wings, New York Rangers or Ottawa Senators, for example, they could very well be favourites and take all four points. Make no bones about it- the Sabres are underdogs this weekend. Regardless of where the teams are in the standings, most would expect the Lightning to roll.
The Sabres have a prime opportunity to knock off a heavy-weight divisional opponent while they are struggling on the international stage. A bonding trip such as this coupled with stealing a big four points could really be a turning point in a big season for a lot of young players. These two games could be games we look back on in April as a turning point, one way or another.
Sabres Week Ahead
Friday, Nov. 8th and Saturday, Nov. 9th vs Tampa Bay Lightning
We’ve talked extensively about this week’s opponent because, well, they’re the only opponent and the Sabres play them twice. In short, the Sabres will need to absolutely avoid taking penalties against a stacked lineup such as this. At the same time, they need to have their own power play clicking as the Lightning currently have the 27th ranked penalty kill. Andrei Vasilevskiy and Curtis McElhinney have both struggled so far this season with sub-.905 SV%. Both teams have played very similarly possession-wise and have similar underlying numbers. Who comes better prepared to pounce on a struggling adversary? We’ll find out on Friday afternoon.