The Buffalo Sabres are a completely different-looking team now than they were at the start of the 2020-21 season. From season-ending injuries to Jack Eichel, Jake McCabe, and Zemgus Girgensons, to the firing of head coach Ralph Krueger, to the trading away of players like Taylor Hall, Eric Staal, Brandon Montour, and Curtis Lazar, it’s been a rollercoaster that’s gone mostly down.
But despite still sitting at 31st in the NHL standings at 10-25-7 (27 points), the Sabres have shown signs of life in recent action. Buffalo is 4-2-2 in its last eight games, including a hard-fought 3-2 shootout loss to a good Boston Bruins team on Tuesday when the Sabres clawed back from a third-period deficit to earn a point.
With the team 75 percent finished with another season without a playoff appearance, here’s a three-quarter season report card for the Sabres.
Entering the 2020-21 season, the Sabres’ forward group was expected to include the likes of Eichel, Hall, Staal, Girgensons, and Lazar. At the moment, every one of those players is either out for the season due to injury or has been traded. Needless to say, there’s been a lot of turmoil amongst the Buffalo forward ranks.
On the bright side, those losses have given the Sabres a chance to see what they have in youngsters like Dylan Cozens, Casey Mittelstadt, Rasmus Asplund, and Arttu Ruotsalainen. All of those players have shown flashes and should be a part of the team’s rebuild next season.
The Sabres have also gotten better production in recent games from Kyle Okposo and Tage Thompson, both of whom were offensive nonfactors early in the season. Okposo has 12 points in his last 16 games, while Thompson has five points in his last nine and has found good chemistry on a line with Mittelstadt and Asplund.
Unfortunately, the Sabres still rank 29th in the league in scoring (2.31 goals per game) as big names like Sam Reinhart, Victor Olofsson, and Jeff Skinner have struggled to find the net recently.
The Sabres also entered Thursday 29th in the NHL in goal prevention (3.43 goals per game), and while a good deal of the blame has to go to the team’s revolving door of goaltenders, the blueline has struggled ever since the loss of McCabe to injury and Rasmus Ristolainen’s extended absence due to COVID-19.
According to Natural Stat Trick, no current Buffalo defenseman has an expected goals for percentage (xGF%) above 47.0, with Matt Irwin (41.5) and Colin Miller (44.5) sporting especially ugly numbers.
It hasn’t been all bad lately, however. Rasmus Dahlin and Henri Jokiharju have formed a solid pairing, with Dahlin looking like a completely different player under interim coach Don Granato. The former first overall pick has six points in his last six games and scored a dandy of a goal to tie the game in the third period against Boston on Tuesday.
With Montour traded to the Florida Panthers, the Sabres will look to bring up either Will Borgen, who looked excellent in four games before breaking his arm, or Mattias Samuelsson, who has played well for Rochester in the AHL.
The same upheaval that was mentioned in the forward group could be in store for the defensemen: looking ahead to next season, only Dahlin, Bryson, and Jokiharju are sure bets to still be around.
Guess where the Sabres rank in team save percentage? That’s right: 29th. Buffalo’s .895 save percentage (SV%) is ahead of only the Ottawa Senators and Philadelphia Flyers. The Sabres are also one of only four teams that has yet to record a shutout.
The team goaltending grade should really be split into two sections, though: Linus Ullmark and not Linus Ullmark. Amazingly, the Sabres still have only one win with someone other than the 27-year-old Swede in net. To make matters even worse, Ullmark had to leave Tuesday’s game with a lower-body injury, the latest in a now disturbingly long line of injury woes.
When healthy, Ullmark has been outstanding, with a 9-6-3 record, a .917 SV%, and a 2.63 goals-against average (GAA) while playing behind the worst team in hockey.
With Carter Hutton still out with his own injury, the Sabres must now rely on Dustin Tokarski as the de facto number one. But after some early struggles, Tokarski has been respectable of late: despite a record of 0-4-2 and a rough 3.54 GAA, he also sports a .905 SV% while MoneyPuck credits him with -1.6 goals saved above expected. That’s not great, but it’s actually better than both Ullmark (-3.6) and Hutton (-8.2). Like many other Sabres players, he’s been the victim of some bad luck.
The Sabres only have a quarter of the season remaining, but if Ullmark misses any more time, more wins might be hard to come by.
Special Teams: C+
One of the only things the Sabres had going for them at the beginning of the season and even in the early portion of the 18-game winless streak was their special team’s play. The penalty kill was hanging around the middle of the league, while the power play was at one point ranked as high as third.
Strangely, as the Sabres have begun to marginally improve, the special teams have continued to slip. On the power play, there’s no secret to the lack of success: no Eichel. Without the captain of the team and the captain of the power play, the Sabres have looked utterly lost on the man advantage, going 3-for-22 over the last 10 games. Buffalo ranks 14th in power-play success rate (21.0%), but many of those goals came when Eichel was still around.
The penalty kill, meanwhile, ranks 20th at 77.8%, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see that number continue to drop as the Sabres have 10 games remaining against the Bruins, Pittsburgh Penguins, and Washington Capitals, all of whom boast top-10 power-play units.
Those percentages can be a bit misleading, though, as few teams in the NHL take or draw fewer penalties than the Sabres. Buffalo ranks — you guessed it — 29th in both power-play opportunities for (105) and against (108).
Much like the goaltending category, this grade should really be split into two parts: Krueger and Granato. It’s becoming clearer by the day that the Sabres held onto Krueger for far too long. The season was likely lost anyway, but they may have been able to at least stop the bleeding and avoid the embarrassment of losing 18 games in a row if they had moved on from Krueger sooner.
That’s not to say that the team has turned into a powerhouse under Granato. The Sabres are still just 4-7-3 since Krueger was fired. But it’s apparent to anyone who’s watching that this team is much more engaged and competitive than they were before. Games where the Sabres fall behind early no longer turn into cakewalks for the opponent.
It’s clear that the Sabres have at least some interest in potentially removing the “interim” tag from Granato’s title. How these last 14 games play out, not so much with regards to wins and losses but to effort and competitiveness, will go a long way in shaping management’s decision.
The Sabres wrap up a three-game road trip on Thursday against Washington before beginning a five-game homestand with a weekend doubleheader against the Penguins.
Born and raised in Buffalo, NY, Nick has a Bachelor’s degree in history from Boston University and a Master’s degree in journalism from Syracuse University. He interned at Little League International where he covered the Little League Baseball World Series. Nick then spent over three years as a newspaper sports reporter and editor at the Bradford Era in Bradford, PA and the Daily Freeman in Kingston, NY. He is currently living in Buffalo where he is still holding out hope for a Bills Super Bowl and/or Sabres Stanley Cup.