New season, same results. That’s the feeling surrounding the Buffalo Sabres through the first 14 games of the 2020-21 season.
The Sabres currently sit dead last in the MassMutual East Division in both points (12) and points percentage (.429%) and are already on the outside looking in on the playoffs for a potentially record-setting 10th straight time.
The issues plaguing the team are the same ones that have been around for years: poor play at even-strength, a lack of depth up front, inconsistency on the blue line and in net, and, yes, plain rotten bad luck.
Buffalo finally got back in the win column with Saturday’s 3-2 victory over the New Jersey Devils, but with the regular season already 25 percent completed, there isn’t much time for head coach Ralph Krueger and company to turn things around.
Here’s a look at how the Sabres grade out through the first quarter of the season.
The Sabres’ performance on Saturday probably saved this grade from being even worse. Yes, by many measurements, this team has been spectacularly unlucky at putting the puck in the net. Per Natural Stat Trick, the Sabres rank ninth in expected goals for percentage (xGF%) at 52.2% but are somehow 30th in actual Goals For (GF%) at 37.8%.
But the fact is that they aren’t doing enough to make their own luck, and that starts with the forwards. There’s no excuse for a team with Jack Eichel, Taylor Hall, Sam Reinhart, Victor Olofsson, Eric Staal, and Jeff Skinner to rank 27th in goals per game (2.36).
Another poor start has once again reignited Eichel trade rumours. But for all the incessant talk about whether or not he will actually leave Buffalo, the truth is that he needs to be better. The points are there (13 in 14 games), but the goals are not, with just two on the season.
Even if the top guys manage to turn things around, the Sabres are still getting nothing from their bottom six. The Tobias Rieder-Cody Eakin-Kyle Okposo line has been one of the worst in hockey, while Tage Thompson doesn’t seem like he’s ever going to reach his potential.
Dylan Cozens has looked like he belongs as a rookie, and Curtis Lazar has been a pleasant surprise with three goals. But unless the team’s offensive fortunes change dramatically, the offensive woes may have already torpedoed yet another season.
There haven’t been many bright spots early on for the Sabres, but the most notable one without question has been the play of Rasmus Ristolainen and Jake McCabe. The duo have both gotten off to career-best starts; McCabe boasts a 62.0% xGF%, while Ristolainen sits at 56.2%.
Unfortunately, it looks like the Sabres could be without both for a while. Ristolainen has been sidelined with serious COVID-related health issues, and McCabe left Saturday’s game with a knee injury. The severity of the injury is unknown, but based on Krueger’s postgame comments, it doesn’t sound good.
This will mean that the rest of the defense corps will need to step up their games. Rasmus Dahlin is still looking to get on track; the third-year Swede has just five points in 14 games and holds an ugly minus-14 rating. Brandon Montour and Colin Miller have been inconsistent, while Henri Jokiharju has struggled mightily. Will Borgen looks like a potential bright spot and could see his workload increase substantially if Ristolainen and McCabe miss significant time.
The absence of their top two defensemen is the last thing this Sabres team needs as it looks to right the ship.
When you’re struggling to score as badly as the Sabres have this season, you need to be able to consistently rely on your goalies. But that consistency has been the issue once again with Linus Ullmark and Carter Hutton.
Buffalo’s team save percentage of .896% ranks 24th in the NHL, and the underlying numbers aren’t much to look at either. Both Ullmark and Hutton have a negative save percentage above expected according to MoneyPuck, with Ullmark at -1.32% and Hutton at -0.80%.
Both netminders have had moments of brilliance, but just as many ones that make you want to pull your hair out. On multiple occasions this season, the Sabres have surrendered goals in the final minute of a period, and while that’s not solely on the goaltenders, Ullmark and Hutton have given up too many goals at the absolute worst moments.
Special Teams: A-
This is the area that has been one of the only reasons why the Sabres’ season isn’t already completely lost. Coming off a 2019-20 campaign with the league’s 20th-ranked power play (18.9%) and second-worst penalty kill (74.6%), Buffalo’s special teams units have taken a big leap in the early part of the season.
The power play sits at third in the league at 32.6%, thanks in large part to Olofsson. The second-year forward has emerged as one of the league’s preeminent threats on the man advantage, with his five power play goals tying for third-most in the league and his 10 power play points tying for sixth-most.
The penalty kill sits at 19th in the league at 77.4%, but the good news is that the Sabres haven’t been shorthanded that often. Buffalo’s seven power play opportunities allowed are tied for the fourth-fewest in the NHL.
Special teams’ play can vary a great deal, even over the course of a single season. But to this point, they’ve been an obvious strength for the Sabres.
By all accounts, Ralph Krueger is a coach that players like to play for. Amidst all of the team’s struggles, there has been little in the way of vocal frustration with regards to the coaching.
But the results simply haven’t been there. Record-wise, the Sabres are in no better shape than they were under Phil Housley, Dan Bylsma, or any other coach during the last decade.
It’s not all Krueger’s fault that the team struggles so badly to put the puck in the net, and a two-week layoff certainly didn’t help matters. But he also hasn’t done enough to try to change things up to jumpstart the offense. Whether it’s an overreliance on offensive black holes like Okposo or Thompson or the unwillingness to play Skinner with legitimate playmakers, Krueger needs to try something new because what he’s tried so far clearly isn’t working.
There’s still time for the Sabres to turn their 2020-21 season around. But with another playoff-less spring staring them in the face, the margin for error is getting slimmer by the day.