The Buffalo Sabres continue to struggle with an important aspect of the game that has slowed them down over the past few seasons: goal scoring. They’ve been unable to score more than two goals in a game during the month of November. In fact, they’ve only eclipsed the two-goal mark five times in their 13 games played this season. Currently, they sit 29th in the NHL with 26 goals and, for reference, they finished 26th in goals last season. Luckily for the Sabres, goaltending, led by Robin Lehner, has allowed them to win low-scoring games.
However, an inability to figure out what is causing the scoring shortage could result in a frustratingly long season.
First and foremost, we have to take the injury factor into account here. Jack Eichel has not played a game all season long and Evander Kane has only played in two after suffering four cracked ribs on opening night. Those two players alone combined for 44 goals last season. Taking that production out of any lineup will certainly have an effect on a team’s ability to score.
Along with Eichel and Kane, winger Tyler Ennis is now on the shelf with a groin injury after trying to battle through it for a couple of weeks. He’s only scored one goal in 12 games, which is far below the pace for his career average.
Injury Update: Forward Tyler Ennis has undergone surgery on his groin and will be out for several weeks. pic.twitter.com/Njp6eHi3my
— Buffalo Sabres (@BuffaloSabres) November 10, 2016
Zach Bogosian is an offensive presence from the blue line that is out for a few weeks with an MCL sprain. Include the few games that have been missed by Ryan O’Reilly and Kyle Okposo, you can certainly see a trend here. Being without more than half of your top-six forwards for the majority of the early season certainly attests to the scoring woes. However, I don’t think that’s the entire story.
Speaking of defense and production from the blue line, the Sabres have yet to find that. Buffalo sits as the only team without a goal from a defenseman. Rasmus Ristolainen is the go-to guy for tallies from the point and he’s been productive with eight assists in 13 games. However, the Sabres were hoping the 21-year-old would eclipse his career high mark of nine goals last season. The season is still early, but it doesn’t look promising at this point.
Another player who hasn’t lived up to expectations yet is Cody Franson. Everyone knows about the limitations defensively, but his offensive upside was supposed to offset that. That certainly wasn’t the case last season and, so far, is not the case this season. With only three points in 13 games and none of the points coming on the power play, a turnaround doesn’t appear to be in the cards.
The other defenders on the roster (Josh Gorges, Dmitry Kulikov, Jake McCabe and Casey Nelson) are not known for their offensive upside.
The Bogosian injury along with the goose eggs in the goal column for Ristolainen and Franson really hurt the secondary scoring needed to help get the team over the top.
The biggest reason for the lack of scoring could be tied to the struggles at even strength. Buffalo has only 18 even-strength goals thus far this season, good enough to be tied for 29th in the league through Wednesday’s games. This is a similar trend to what we saw last season where the Sabres finished 28th in the league at five-on-five scoring with 145 goals. The numbers themselves are not pretty, but even watching them play, you can see the struggles at even strength.
The Corsi has improved over the last few weeks as the club now sits 20th in the league. Going into Thursday night’s games, the Sabres led in scoring chances for at even strength according to Corsica. Looking at the numbers, the signs are pointing toward an improvement, but the alarming number I haven’t given you yet is the shooting percentage.
Buffalo sits at 23rd in the league in five-on-five shooting percentage at 3.37. Initial thought can be the Sabres have been unlucky and that number will go back to the mean. However, perhaps they don’t have players on the roster who are good enough to beat NHL goaltenders when given an excellent scoring opportunity.
— Ian Ott (@IanSabresPR) November 10, 2016
If you need an example of this, you don’t have to look far. Two games over the past week could be a good indication of this being the case. The first game is the 2-1 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs last week. Of course, Fredrik Andersen played very well, but with the proper shot location, the Sabres could have potted a few more goals that night. The other game was the club’s last game against the Ottawa Senators on Wednesday night.
Buffalo threw eight shots at Mike Condon in overtime and allowed zero shots. They were given numerous opportunities to finish the game, but failed to convert on grade-A opportunities. The shootout record is another sign of the struggles they have to beat opposing goaltenders one-on-one. The Sabres scored only a handful of times last season in the shootout and have carried that pace into this season.
The return of Eichel and healthy lineup will help the scoring woes.
At the same time, Buffalo may have a bigger issue on their hands. Their power play isn’t good enough to be relied on to carry the scoring. They’ll need to vastly improve their even-strength play or likely won’t be in the conversation for a playoff spot this season.