Sabres Weekly: Depth, Reasons for Concern, Matej Pekar and More

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.

Buffalo Sabres Weekly Rasmus Dahlin Jack Eichel Jeff Skinner

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) and much more.

Sabres’ Royal Blues

The Sabres’ top line last season was both a blessing and a curse.

The blessing was in its potency. The line of Jeff Skinner, Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart found seemingly immediate chemistry all the way to producing career seasons for all three players. Night in and night out, the trio could be counted on to provide the offence.

The curse came in the damage their line did to the depth of the team. With the three strongest offensive players performing on one line, the rest of the lineup was left to sift through the dregs of offensive deficiency to fill out a roster. When the top line was not on the ice, the team was typically skating in their own end and thus losing games.

Jeff Skinner and Jack Eichel
Buffalo Sabres’ Sam Reinhart (23), Jeff Skinner and Jack Eichel (9) celebrate a goal during the third period of the team’s NHL hockey game against the Montreal Canadiens, Friday, Nov. 23, 2018, in Buffalo N.Y. (AP Photo/Jeffrey T. Barnes)

This season, things are different.

The Sabres split up last season’s top unit, infused some young talent, added a quality free agent and combined an unlikely group of veterans to build a somewhat competent roster.

The second line features Skinner, newcomer Marcus Johansson and “he who shall not be named”, Vladimir Sobotka. For their part, Johansson and Skinner are building something special. According to Natural Stat Trick, the pair have combined for an even-strength expected goals for percentage (xGF%) of 85.51 percent. With Sobotka, the trio has a 52.21xGF%. While still potentially not as great as it could be, having a second line that wins more than it loses is a massive boost for this team.

The supposed third line has been where offence has gone to die at this early point in the season. The triumvirate of Jimmy Vesey, Casey Mittelstadt and Evan Rodrigues have struggled to say the least. At even strength, they have been outskated and outworked to the tune of a 43.26xGF%. No combination of this line has been effective so far. In fact, without them on the ice, the Sabres own a 56.33xGF%. Something needs to be done about this abomination of a line.

Casey Mittelstadt Buffalo Sabres
Casey Mittelstadt, Buffalo Sabres (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

In the meantime, the fourth line has been possibly the biggest Royal Blue of the season. Zemgus Girgensons, Johan Larsson and Kyle Okposo have absolutely owned the puck this season. The three of them are rarely beaten while on the ice. They gain possession, gain the zone and cycle the puck down low, tirelessly making opponents chase them around the rink. The advanced stats support the eye test. They have a 79.63xGF% at even strength. When they aren’t on the ice the Sabres have a 48.48xGF%.

This line is one of the biggest assets the Sabres have currently. While not exploding on the scoresheet (outside of Friday’s one-goal, four-assist effort against the Florida Panthers), this line gives the team a luxury it hasn’t had in some time. While the top two lines can produce offence, the “fourth” line can tire opponents and own the offensive zone for the big guns to capitalize. It’s no wonder this line has seen more time than the supposed third line.

The Sabre’s newfound depth has been a pleasant surprise early on this season. The depth on defence was lauded over the summer but if the offence can continue to produce at this rate, the team could be finding their way out of the bottom of the league standings. Once the plethora of injured defencemen are healthy, moves will need to be made to facilitate all the bodies. One can only hope the offensive depth is then increased even more via trade.

Sabres’ Buffaslugs

The Sabres are off to their best start in a decade. Currently sitting at 4-0-1 with the second-best goal differential in the league, fans are pleasantly surprised at the Atlantic Division-leading upstarts.

The current stretch feels eerily similar to last season’s “November Championship”. The Sabres went on a 10-game winning streak which pushed them to the top of the league, only to fall off and crash hard in the bottom of the standings before the snow melted. How did things look during that stretch?

Buffalo Sabres Marco Scandella Jeff Skinner
Buffalo Sabres’ Marco Scandella and Jeff Skinner celebrate early season success (AP Photo/Bryan Bennett)

The Sabres were 29th in Corsi for percentage (CF%), 29th in Fenwick for percentage (FF%), 30th in xGF% and 31st in high danger chances for percentage (HDCF%). At the same time, they had the sixth-best save percentage over that span. Most other advanced metrics were somewhere in the middle. While gaining five more points over the next closest team in that time, the bottom seemed sure to fall out…and did it ever!

Fast forward to now and we see a surprising team sitting towards the top of the standings once again. After two dominant performances against the Pittsburgh Penguins and New Jersey Devils, the Sabres, while still gaining points, have done so less convincingly.

In the time since those wins, the Sabres have gained five of a possible six points in the standings, second-best over that short term. Looking under the hood, they have been 21st in CF%, 22nd in FF%, 26th in xGF% and 10th in HDCF%. The team save percentage over that time? Fifth in the league.

Buffalo Sabres Linus Ullmark Columbus Blue Jackets Sonny Milano
Buffalo Sabres goalie Linus Ullmark has been solid in net this season (AP Photo/Paul Vernon)

There’s no such thing as a bad point in the NHL. With the parity in today’s game, every point is essential. Regardless of how you get them, they look the same on the standings page and you need to bank them while you can.

This is a very small sample size. That being said, the bottom looks like it could fall out again soon. Or at the very least, it appears there isn’t quite as much lustre to this team as there may appear to be. The team had a pair of two-goal leads go away this week in the third period against divisional rivals. Those are points you can’t afford to give away if you want to be serious about qualifying for the playoffs. Can we have confidence that the goaltending will continue to keep the team in games? Can the Sabres find a way to adjust and keep their foot on the gas in the third period? We’ll just have to settle in and find out.

The French Connection Awards

Third Star- Henri Jokiharju and Victor Olofsson

The Sabres’ two young studs have performed admirably so far this season. Olofsson has solidified his place on the top power play and picked up two more goals on the man advantage this week. Jokiharju has been paired with oft-maligned Marco Scandella and has positively contributed to his defensive game.

Buffalo Sabres Victor Olofsson
Buffalo Sabres left wing Victor Olofsson (AP Photo/Bryan Bennett)

The pair have held their own, helping Scandella to be much less of a tire fire than he was last season.According to Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston, Jason Botterill has informed both that they will remain with the team throughout the season. It will be an interesting campaign to watch them both grow

Second Star- Jack Eichel

The week didn’t get off to a great start for the captain, being muscled off the puck in overtime to lose on Monday to the Columbus Blue Jackets. Eichel responded in a big way on Wednesday against the Montreal Canadiens, registering two goals and two assists, including assisting on the overtime winner. Eichel currently has seven points in five games and looks poised to put up his best offensive season to date.

First Star- Linus Ullmark

The Sabres gained three of four possible points on Ullmark’s watch this week. Realistically, they should probably have earned zero if not for him. On Monday against the Blue Jackets, he stopped 40 of 44 shots and followed that up by stopping 41 of 43 shots during Friday’s win against the Panthers. His expected save percentage according to is .946 while his actual save percentage is .968. He’s outperformed expectations and his continued solid play will be essential to the Sabres finding success this season.

Sabres Prospect Focus

Matej Pekar

Fan-favourite, Pekar, is off to an excellent start with the Ontario Hockey League’s Barrie Colts. In seven games this season, the pesky Pekar has amassed seven goals, three assists and 10 penalty minutes.

Matej Pekar Sabres
Matej Pekar, Buffalo Sabres, 2018 NHL Draft, Dallas, TX, June 22, 2018 (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Watch for him to play a big role for the Colts this season and be among the league leaders in goals. Fans love his tenacious, antagonistic style and he will no doubt be watched closely if he is able to join the Rochester Americans at the end of this season.

The Sabres’ Week Ahead

Monday, October 14th vs Dallas Stars

The Stars have had their way with the Sabres recently, winning the last five games against them. There is a good amount riding on this game. The Stars have struggled out of the gate, having won only one of their first six games. The Sabres are looking for points in their sixth straight game to start the season.

The big boys for the Stars in Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn and Alexander Radulov have yet to really take flight with Roope Hintz leading the team in points. The Sabres should look to take advantage of a team travelling across the continent and playing a game at 3:00 EST. The last game of their homestand, look for the Sabres to come out flying. Oh, and of course…no goal.

Wednesday, Oct. 16 @ Anaheim Ducks

The Sabres busy week continues Wednesday in Anaheim. The Ducks are off to a great start this season, winning four of their first five games. The bulk of their success has come from carrying the league’s second-best save percentage on the backs of John Gibson and fabled Sabre Ryan Miller.

John Gibson, Anaheim Ducks, NHL
John Gibson has carried the Ducks to a strong start this season(Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports)

This game can be a nice one to kick off the road trip if the Sabres can establish their possession game and defeat a team that’s off to a hot start, despite their less than stellar advanced stats. Ryan Getzlaf, Nick Ritchie and old friend, Nic Deslauriers will present a physical challenge for some of the Sabres’ young players. Look for the defence to take advantage of the opportunity for stretch passes up the middle of the ice to challenge the Ducks’ defenders.

Thursday, Oct. 17 @ Los Angeles Kings

This game should fit well with the Sabres’ current style of play. While the Kings have played well, their goaltending has let them down terribly. They are last in the league in save percentage. It will be imperative for the Sabres to jump on the Kings early and get pucks on net as often as possible. If they can use their speed effectively, their power play could hopefully wrap things up early against the Kings’ 28th ranked penalty kill. The Kings are led offensively by Anze Kopitar and Ilya Kovalchuk. If the Sabres can use their speed to shut them down, that will go a long way to securing a victory.

Saturday, Oct. 19 @ San Jose Sharks

The Sabres’ long week comes to an end with a trip to the Shark Tank. That hasn’t been as daunting a proposition as it has been in previous years. The Sharks have gotten off to a slow start this year and are suffering from the 30th-ranked save percentage.

San Jose Sharks Erik Karlsson Timo Meier Joe Pavelski
San Jose Sharks’ Erik Karlsson celebrates with Timo Meier and Joe Pavelski (AP Photo/Josie Lepe, File)

Even though they have yet to hit their stride, the likes of Erik Karlsson, Brent Burns and Logan Couture can make it a long night. Former Sabre Evander Kane will no doubt also be looking to execute his physicality and penchant for scoring as well. As the Sabres look to finish off this crazy week, they can look to try and steal a point from a talented team off to a rough start. It will be interesting to see if there are any messages sent for the rematch next week in Buffalo.