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.
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
What a week for this beleaguered franchise.
When the schedule came out and fans saw that the Sabres were opening the campaign in the house of horrors that is PPG Paints Arena, the gale-force winds released from the collective sigh of Sabres fans toppled barns in Western New York and Southern Ontario.
The Sabres hadn’t beat the Pittsburgh Penguins in regulation in the previous 18 tries. That all changed Thursday night. The Sabres owned the puck and aggressively defended their zone. Their creativity was on full display all night, picking apart the Penguins’ defence with stretch passes that were crisp and accurate to help build the offence.
The trend continued into the home opener on Saturday. The Sabres took advantage of a New Jersey Devils team coming off a tough loss the night before to the tune of a 7-2 victory. From the opening ceremony featuring 15 previous Sabres’ captains to the final whistle, the fans were fully engaged and rightfully so.
Although this season is extremely young, the Sabres’ first two wins were very convincing. Looking at their expected goals for percentage (xGF%), they owned a 72.53xGF% against the Penguins and a 57.24 xGF% against the Devils. By comparison, last season the Sabres had just 22 games with an xGF% higher than 57.24%. They won 12 of those 22 games, mostly due to not having enough skill to score the expected goals. With an influx of skill and progression from their young core, the Sabres are poised to make strides this season if the can maintain their puck possession.
In addition, the Sabres have only allowed six high-danger scoring chances in their two games while creating 19 for themselves. In those two games, they faced the likes of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jake Guentzel, Kris Letang, Taylor Hall and P.K. Subban. They’ve found success limiting the opposition’s primary offensive contributors and have dictated control of the puck.
If this week is more of a trend than an aberration, this will truly give testament to the validity of Ralph Krueger as a coaching hire. At the same time, it will raise a number of questions about what exactly Phil Housley was doing behind the bench as this lineup had no significant pieces removed from last season.
There really isn’t much to complain about after the first two games. The lines are rolling, the checking detail (ahem) is on point and the depth is contributing.
Two potential areas of concern have arisen, however. The second line currently consists of the $9 million man Jeff Skinner, Marcus Johansson and… Vladimir Sobotka. Yes, that Sobotka.
The move has been questioned and detested even before the puck dropped on the regular season. The results have been about what you’d expect. Skinner and Johansson have both found excellent chemistry as evidenced by Skinner’s goal in the game against the Devils.
The third-wheel on the line has struggled to say the least. Relative to the rest of his teammates, Sobotka is a negative player. For example, looking at their xGF% relative to their teammates (xGF%Rel), Skinner and Johansson are 13.73% and 10.73% respectively. Sobotka, for his part, has an xGF%Rel of -1.15%.
Spreading out the offence is essential to the Sabres’ success this season. Johansson and Skinner clicking is critical for them. While it’s understandable to try and raise the game of a veteran and add a physical element, Sobotka has appeared to be a step or two behind his linemates early on. They’ve won their first two games so a change is probably not imminent but they could potentially look to Evan Rodrigues soon to help boost the puck possession that much more.
A smaller issue, that is probably just due to the sample size, is the ice time afforded to Rasmus Dahlin. Through two games, Dahlin has averaged 17:54 per game, seventh on the team and fourth among defencemen. That is unacceptable and will no doubt be corrected as we go along. One thing that has been handled well is his power play usage. Dahlin is averaging 6:25 per game, tops on the team and a full two minutes more than Rasmus Ristolainen. The Sabres power play runs through Dahlin.
The French Connection Awards
Third Star – Ralph Krueger
Krueger’s tenure could not have gotten off the much of a better start. He has the team playing to their strengths by focusing on skill and puck management and playing aggressive defence. If they can maintain their stifling defensive play along with their tenacious forecheck, Krueger could emerge as a favourite to win the Jack Adams trophy.
Second Star – Victor Olofsson
Olofsson’s first full season has had a smashing start. Possibly the worst-kept secret in Buffalo, Olofsson’s shot and offensive creativity have been on full display. He certainly has a home on the power play where he has two goals already. If he is afforded the opportunity to continue building chemistry with Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart, he could be in line for more French Connection Awards this season.
First Star – Rasmus Dahlin
The way the first two games have gone, we might just reserve a place in this section for Dahlin throughout the season. Heck, we might even rename the award the Dahlies. Dahlin has taken the summer to bulk up and is coming into his sophomore season looking even more comfortable than he did in his rookie campaign. He accumulated three assists on top of this incredible goal.
Dahlin is about to have a massive season. While there were doubters over the summer, we knew that he was poised to prove them wrong. No. 26 is quickly becoming must-see TV.
Sabres Prospect Focus
Cozens was a little bit of a surprise cut at camp. He performed well and while it looked like he should probably go back to the Lethbridge Hurricanes for the bulk of this season, it seemed reasonable that he would get nine games with the Sabres – or 10 if they wanted to play it smart.
Upon his return to the Western Hockey League, he has been dynamite. He has exploded for five goals and four assists through just four games. Watch for Cozens to dominate the WHL this season and play a big role for Team Canada at the World Junior Championship. Should he not be dealt to a stronger team, Cozens may be available to play post-season hockey for the Rochester Americans or, dare I say it, the Sabres.
The Sabres Week Ahead
Monday, Oct. 7 @ Columbus Blue Jackets
The Sabres skate into Ohio very much on a high. After two decisive wins over the Penguins and Devils, the Sabres look to take advantage of a hurting Columbus Blue Jackets squad. Through their first two games, the Blue Jackets have allowed 11 goals, scoring only three. After the mass exodus of free agents last summer, the Jackets look to be stumbling out of the gate and could be ripe for the picking for the Sabres. Look for Buffalo to come out strong and continue their puck possession game.
Wednesday, Oct. 9 vs Montreal Canadiens
The Canadiens are on the heels of a wild win against the Toronto Maple Leafs Saturday night. Being down 4-1, the Canadiens stormed back to force extra time and eventually win 6-5 in a shootout. Montreal has played an exciting brand of hockey thus far with many opportunities going both ways. This will be a very interesting battle to see which system prevails.
Friday, Oct. 11 vs Florida Panthers
The new-look Florida Panthers make their first trip to Buffalo. After a tough couple of games against the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Panthers will look to continue to gel and build traction for a playoff push. It will be interesting to watch the Sabres face off against goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky. Bobrovsky is notorious for slow starts and it will be imperative for the Sabres to capitalize on this early divisional game.