Expectations are everything in sports. A team that is expected to win the Stanley Cup will consider only reaching the Conference Finals a disappointment, where a franchise that makes a surprise trip to that very same Conference Final could consider it a massive success.
For the Buffalo Sabres, the expectations for the 2021-22 seasons couldn’t have been lower. After experiencing an abject disaster in 2020-21 and slogging through an offseason that felt like it would never end, there wasn’t much reason to be excited. The team was at best an enigma, with a roster that consisted of new faces, journeymen, and a handful of core players that were still considered to be a cornerstone of the franchise.
However, through their first seven games of the season, the Sabres have defied all expectations. For a team that Las Vegas had at +20000 heading into the season, they are sporting a pristine 5-1-1 record.
Clearly, this winning percentage isn’t sustainable. Throughout the course of an 82-game season, there will be peaks and valleys, and this wouldn’t be the first time in recent memory that the Sabres started the season off strong before rapidly coming back to Earth.
However, this doesn’t mean that Buffalo fans shouldn’t be excited about the product they are seeing on the ice, as this makeshift unit is producing some truly exciting hockey that may help define the future of the Sabres for years to come.
Contributions Coming From All to Push Sabres Forward
One reason why the start of the season has felt so impactful for Buffalo is how they are winning games. For the first time in what feels like years, they are getting complete efforts from all aspects of the team, from offense to defense to goaltending.
First, despite the fact that they are missing Jack Eichel and traded a handful of players who were supposed to be core offensive pieces, this Sabres squad has been sporting a surprisingly balanced attack. Their lead scorer is Victor Olofsson, who has posted eight points in seven games. After that, they feature four more players with at least five points, meaning that it’s not just one hot line carrying the team.
On defense, Buffalo is starting to see some of the rewards from their recent top picks and trades. Rasmus Dahlin has taken significant steps forward after struggling to establish himself in 2020-21 and is looking like that true number 1 defenseman who can eat 20-plus minutes a night. Also, Colin Miller is playing significantly better, as he has posted five points and is playing 20-minutes each night.
Finally, the dynamic duo of Craig Anderson and Dustin Tokarski has gone from being a bit of a punchline to start the season to a legitimate starting tandem. Anderson is looking like he has regained form from 2017 when he helped lead the Ottawa Senators to the Eastern Conference Finals. For his part, Tokarski has also been great, and as a true journeyman, this may be his chance to establish himself as a 1B starter in the NHL after bouncing around the league for the majority of his career.
Sabres Are Finding Ways To Win Instead of Lose
A good way to describe the 2020-21 season is to look at Taylor Hall’s output while he was with the Sabres. Throughout his 37 games, he carried a 2.4 shooting percentage, which means he was scoring at an unsustainably low rate. This was just one microcosm of what went wrong for Buffalo, as they just couldn’t get anything to fall their way in a way that was, simply, bad luck.
Sure, you can’t rely on luck to win, but in a game like hockey, you still need things to go your way a few times each night. To start the 2021-22 season, the Sabres have been on the positive side of those breaks, which is allowing for timely goals which can turn the tide of a game.
Most importantly, success breeds success. As those bounces go your way, you start to believe that they will continue. You no longer feel that giving up a goal early is the end, as a one or two-goal lead can be easily erased when things are going well.
This confidence is infectious, and you can already see some of this seeping into the Sabres’ organization. The team looks like it is having fun and that they are excited to take the ice because they know not only can they win, but that they should win.
So, while this early season success doesn’t guarantee a trip to the playoffs, it will go a long way to helping rebuild a franchise that looked fundamentally broken just a few weeks ago. If they can continue to build on this momentum and make smart choices with potential trades down the road, it could set the Sabres up for long-term success.
However, if they can stay in the playoff hunt come January, it would be nice to see Buffalo smartly spending assets at the trade deadline instead of acquiring them.
Eugene Helfrick is a Tampa Bay Lightning writer who is actually from Tampa Bay. He has written about the Lightning for six years, covering everything from their run to the 2015 Stanley Cup Final, to their crushing first-round exit in 2019, to their redemption in the bubble in 2020. While he is happy to talk about just about anything from cows to cars to video games, hockey will always remain one of his favorite pastimes.