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
The Sabres have me conflicted at this early stage of the season.
After nine games, they have a record of 7-1-1 and sit atop the Eastern Conference with 15 points. They are second in the league in goal differential at plus-13 and are coming off a four-game week when they earned six of a possible eight points, including four of six on a California trip. Their power play is on track and they have received solid goaltending.
Why do things still feel off?
While their record is impressive, some numbers beneath the surface have taken the sizzle off their scorching start. A number of these were touched on in last week’s edition of Sabres Weekly.
According to Natural Stat Trick, here are some of the Sabres’ numbers over the past week at five-on-five score and venue adjusted. Their Corsi For percentage (CF%) was 23rd in the league at 47.97%, Fenwick For percentage (FF%) was 20th at 48.97% and expected goals for percentage (xGF%) was 19th at 48.90%. Keeping them afloat was the fifth-ranked shooting percentage (SH%) at 11.14% and the fifth-ranked save percentage (SV%) at .962%.
Now, this is the Royal Blues where we discuss everything going right in Sabreland. While these numbers indicate an approach to winning hockey games that may not seem sustainable, there is reason to believe that it could work.
The Sabres’ style can be classified as “low-event”. Though they rarely overwhelm opponents with high-flying chances, they also mitigate chances against, playing sound defense and relying on solid goaltending to grind out victories.
Sound familiar? Your 2019-20 Sabres are the 2018-19 New York Islanders.
Coming off a disastrous defensive season, the Islanders brought in head coach Barry Trotz and goaltending guru Mitch Korn. Together, they implemented a structure and fixed the goaltending on a team that was largely unchanged (besides losing John Tavares) and led them unexpectedly past the Pittsburgh Penguins and into the second round of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
What did their regular season look like? They finished 21st with a 48.47CF%, 20th with a 48.81FF% and 14th with a 50.44xGF%. At the same time, they finished ninth with an 8.54 shooting percentage and first with a .935 save percentage. This season’s Sabres are a mirror image of last season’s Islanders.
In any event, coach Ralph Krueger and assistant coach/goalie expert Mike Bales are implementing a style that best fits their lineup. Being a very young team with a history of defensive issues, it makes sense to play a safe, stifling style that utilizes skilled puck-movers with high-end talent in the forward ranks.
On top of that, young dynamos Jack Eichel and Rasmus Dahlin have started off well but have yet to hit their full stride. The California teams are a challenge for centres and defencemen with their size, speed and skill and the duo’s lack of points last week can be attributed to that.
At this point, Eichel is on pace for 91 points and Dahlin 82. Those totals could propel the Sabres to a playoff berth on their own. Once Eichel and especially Dahlin get a firmer grip on Krueger’s system, expect them both to continue putting pucks in the net.
This hot-start bodes well for any hopes the Sabres have at a playoff spot. Regression is coming. No team will sustain a 137-point pace. Last season, it took 98 points to make the playoffs in the Eastern Conference. The Sabres would need to maintain a 56.8 point percentage throughout the remaining games to reach that level. Taking 83.3 percent of all points, they’ve built some wiggle room and we can only hope the bottom doesn’t fall out like last season.
It’s nice to be able to say this again: there really isn’t much this week that is trending down.
Sure, it would’ve been nice if the Sabres hadn’t been killed in shots by the Los Angeles Kings to the tune of 47-24. Still, they managed to pull off a 3-0 victory.
The Anaheim Ducks presented a physical challenge. When the Sabres played their style coming out of the gate they were successful. When the Ducks tried to implement their physical intimidation, the Sabres bit and suffered for it. No doubt they learned the lesson to stick to their game plan and fight the tendency to cave.
The team continues to win and find success. Anything that Krueger touches in the lineup is working. If we want to pick nits, however, we can still find room for improvement.
Vladimir Sobotka sits 10th on the team in five-on-five ice time. This is a recording. He is ahead of Victor Olofsson, Marcus Johansson, Casey Mittelstadt and others.
Don’t get me wrong, Sobotka has improved since the start of the season. Considering that the bar was low heading into it, improving to the point of mere competency should not merit the ice time he is receiving. Given Mittelstadt’s improvement and skillset, I’d like to see him gain some increased playing time and perhaps try to build chemistry with Johansson and Jeff Skinner. Until they start losing, however, I wouldn’t expect to see much of a change.
The French Connection Awards
Third Star- The “LOG” Line
The line of Johan Larsson, Kyle Okposo and Zemgus Girgensons has continued their strong play. After having a tougher game against the Dallas Stars, the trio was the Sabres’ best line in two tough games against the Kings and Ducks. They also executed their exhausting cycling and checking game Saturday night against the San Jose Sharks. As a result of their hard work, they were rewarded with the winning goal to cap off a successful road trip.
As this line continues to work together and find success, it will mean good things for the more skilled players in the lineup. Getting these depth contributions are critical for the Sabres to earn a playoff spot.
Second Star- Henri Jokiharju
Jokiharju continues to impress. He plays with a scope on his stick, capable of sending screaming stretch, tape-to-tape passes to his streaking forwards. The greater impact of his game has been on his partner Marco Scandella. The two are owning the ice and could quickly become the go-to pair the Sabres need in key situations. Jokiharju put up three assists this week and his offensive game was on full display against the Sharks on Saturday.
First Star- Carter Hutton
This was easily the best week of Hutton’s Sabres career. After a relatively uneventful shutout against the Stars on Monday, Hutton stood on his head with a franchise-record, 47-save shutout against the Kings. His shutout streak sits at 128:36.
According to Corsica.hockey, he has an expected save percentage of 93.12 percent but has exceeded that and is stopping 96.55 percent, tops in the league. If he and Linus Ullmark can continue their solid play, the team will continue to emulate the Islanders’ model.
Sabres Prospect Focus
Pilut returned to the ice this week after suffering a shoulder injury during the Rochester Americans’ finale last season. He has been paired with Will Borgen. Having not seen any action since the spring, it will take some time for him to shake off the rust and get back to his game. Once he is up to speed with the Americans, there will be rumblings of his potential return to the Sabres.
He showed great poise and puck control last season. Until there are injuries or trades, however, it doesn’t seem reasonable to expect him with the big club. The argument can be made that he should be in the NHL, but the logistics don’t make sense given the roster. In the meantime, it will be interesting to watch him regain the offensive acumen he displayed last season.
The Sabres’ Week Ahead
Tuesday, Oct. 22 vs San Jose Sharks
We have a rematch after an exciting game last Saturday in San Jose. The Sabres found a way to execute their game plan and stick to it against a slow-starting Sharks team that was beginning to find some traction. Goaltender Martin Jones was his usual shaky self and could get the start in this game. Hutton will no doubt get the start for the Sabres and look to extend his shuto…errr…string of excellent play. If the Sabres can get pucks on net with bodies in front they will be successful.
Thursday, Oct. 24 @ New York Rangers
The Sabres head into Madison Square Garden to play a Rangers team that is among the worst in the league in puck possession. Led by stud centreman Mika Zibanejad, the Rangers are struggling due to a lack of depth. This will be the Sabres’ first chance to see rookie Kaapo Kakko perform.
This is the game where the Sabres can possess the puck and out-chance their opponents. Surprisingly, they should hope they’ll face Henrik Lundqvist (1-3-0, .906 sv%, 3.57 goals-against average) rather than back up Alexandar Georgiev (1-1-0, .928 sv%, 2.56 goals against average).
Friday, Oct. 25 @ Detroit Red Wings
The Sabres finish off the week with another favourable matchup against the Detroit Red Wings. The Red Wings boast an excellent top line of Dylan Larkin, Anthony Mantha and Tyler Bertuzzi but beyond that, they have few offensive threats. We’ll see if Krueger tries to use the LOG line against the top unit to try and diffuse them. The Sabres are poised to win all three games this week and bank more points for a hopeful playoff run.