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- They Just Keep Winning
Somehow, someway, this team keeps finding ways to win.
After a challenging California road trip, the Sabres came home to face the back half of a home-and-home with the San Jose Sharks. After going down 2-0, the team managed to fight it’s way back and defeat the talented Sharks 4-3 in overtime.
Thursday’s game against the New York Rangers was a bit of a debacle. It was gross. Let’s move on.
The Sabres completed their week with Friday’s game in Detroit against the Red Wings. In what could possibly go down as the most boring game ever played, the Sabres escaped with a 2-0 victory against the lowly Red Wings. Losers of six straight heading into the contest, Detroit severely out-chanced the Sabres and won the expected goals for percentage (xGF%) battle according to Evolving Hockey. Riding on the back of a stellar start from Linus Ullmark, the Sabres took their two points and high-tailed it out of Motown.
Last week’s performance continues to build skepticism in the validity of the Sabres’record.
According to Evolving Hockey, over the last week, the Sabres finished 24th in Corsi for percentage (CF%), 29th in Fenwick for percentage (FF%) and 24th in expected goals for percentage (xGF%). Those numbers are particularly troubling considering they played two of the worst offensive driving teams in the league in the Sharks and Rangers.
Some numbers that came down significantly from the high rates they were running were their team shooting percentage (SH%) and save percentage (SV%). Enjoying top-five finishes in both categories the previous week, the Sabres finished 18th in SH% and 24th in SV%. Honestly, these numbers feel like the range the Sabres should fall into going forward.
While not everything is rosy, the Sabres are compiling points at an aggressive rate. Last week, we calculated that the Sabres would need to obtain 56.8 percent of the remaining points available to them in order to finish the season with 98 points, the total required to qualify for the playoffs in the Eastern Conference last season.
At present, the Sabres are now 9-2-1, acquiring 19 of a possible 24 points, a splendid start to be sure. They have accrued 79.19 percent of all available points. Sitting where they are, the Sabres would now only need to accumulate 56.4 percent of the remaining available points. That relates to a 35-26-9 record over the rest of the season.
While it’s not perfect, the Sabres continue to set themselves up for success. After last season, nobody who follows the Sabres closely is taking anything for granted. There are certainly warts on this team. No one is denying that. What also can’t be denied is the favourable position this team finds itself in.
The Eastern Conference is seeing some highly-touted teams struggle at present. The Ottawa Senators, New Jersey Devils, Red Wings and Rangers are all poised to finish toward the bottom of the standings. The Tampa Bay Lightning and Toronto Maple Leafs have yet to find their groove and have gotten off to slow starts.
As the schedule gets tougher as early as November, the points the Sabres have banked will serve them well in their push to end their league-leading playoff drought.
As a fanbase, Sabres fans have been somewhat critical of the start so far. This is good. This means that the standard in previous years of just not getting annihilated has risen. Last season’s fall in the standings taught many of us the perils of empty-calory wins based more on bounces and beating the odds than winning by controlling and dictating play responsibly.
Ralph Krueger and his coaching staff are not oblivious to this fact. Each game they are happy about points that are earned but are not satisfied with merely scraping by on a high SH% and high SV%. Really, gaining points at this rate while still seeing room for improvement in play is the best position a team can be in. If they were firing on all cylinders, it would no doubt be encouraging. With where they are, however, they are at the top of the conference and have obvious room to grow.
This team may not be a playoff team this season. What they’ve accomplished so far cannot be ignored. They’ve put themselves in a position to buck the trend the team has followed the last decade. The question is, “Will they?”
Sabres’ Buffaslugs- the Victor Olofsson Experiment
It’s time to reevaluate how Victor Olofsson is being used.
Olofsson has an obvious home on the power play. Although he ranks eighth on the team in xGF on the power play, he is second in the league with six tallies on the man advantage. With a shot as lethal as his and a setup as menacing as the Sabres can produce on the power play, it’s no wonder he can out-produce the chances he creates.
At even strength, it’s been a different story. While receiving top-line deployment, Olofsson has yet to work everything out at the NHL level. Of his 10 points, only two of them have come at even strength. Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart have continued their chemistry and puck ownership. Reinhart has a 55.13xGF% and Eichel has a 53.51xGF%. Both have shown tremendous ability to create chances while also minimizing chances against.
As for Olofsson, he has a 49.21xGF%. While certainly not a terrible marker for a rookie, that ranks him ninth among all Sabres’ forwards.
Some may feel that as a rookie, Olofsson should be given more time. Olofsson is not just any rookie. He is, in fact, 24 years old – older than Eichel, Reinhart, Rasmus Dahlin and the bulk of the Sabres’ other young players. He has played professionally in Sweden as well as playing in the American Hockey League last season.
So even though he is technically a rookie, Olofsson should be kept on a shorter leash than would normally be afforded to a player in his first NHL season. He has yet to show an ability to earn the difficult ice in front of the net and has been pushed off pucks with relative ease most nights.
If you are going to play on the Eichel line, you need to be prepared to see the opponent’s best every night. The best checkers, the best defensive players, the best puck-possessors. You need to be ready for that and not everyone can be.
At this stage, it may be best to give Olofsson a little less responsibility at even strength. While keeping him as a hired gun on the man advantage, he can continue to learn his craft and face lesser competition lower down the lineup.
Who should get the deployment on the Eichel line? I think now would be a great time to try Evan Rodrigues.
Rodrigues has found himself in Krueger’s doghouse to start the season. Having suited up in only five games so far, Rodrigues looked to be getting off to a challenging start his first couple of games. His impact was minimal and he was losing puck battles.
He has now gotten his game back. He has a 60.25xGF%, second on the team among all players who have played at least five games. Having him on the top line will help to spread out the offence but could also get the most out of that line. His tenacious ability to fight for the puck could complement well with Reinhart and Eichel, who he spent significant time with at Boston University.
Will Krueger see the need to make his first significant lineup change? Only time will tell. I think the Olofsson experiment deserves to be shelved for the time being at least.
The French Connection Awards
Third Star- Sam Reinhart
Reinhart had a nice week, scoring two goals and an assist. His goal against the Red Wings capped off an impressive power-play opportunity. Additionally, Reinhart directed a team-leading 19 shot attempts on net last week. This is the biggest season of Reinhart’s career and he is poised for a breakout.
Second Star- Linus Ullmark
Ullmark had an excellent game on Friday against the Red Wings. Although they were underdogs, the Red Wings had a 60.4CF% and a 57.2xGF%. When his teammates were feeling the lactic acid in their legs on the second night of a back-to-back, Ullmark stood tall and gave his team the chance to win.
On the season, Ullmark has saved 1.31 goals above what he would be expected to allow based on the quality of shots he has faced. While he hasn’t seen the net as much as Carter Hutton, he has been the Sabres’ best goalie. Like Reinhart, this is a massive season for Ullmark. If he can keep up this level of play, it will go a long way to solidifying the Sabres’ playoff hopes and Ullmark’s own future in the league.
First Star- Jack Eichel
Eichel had another of his other-worldly games against the Sharks on Monday. Contributing two goals and two assists, including the overtime winner, he carried his team to victory. He compiled a couple more assists in the following two games.
As we look to begin November, Eichel is on pace for a 109-point season. He has been an offensive monster his whole career but things really seem to be coming together this season. Whether he’s manning the power play or manning the top line, Eichel has been “the Man” this season.
Sabres Prospect Focus
Another in the long line of Sabres’ Swedish Sons, Weissbach is having a nice start to his Junior season with the University of Wisconsin. Through six games, he has one goal and seven assists. he is supremely skilled but, like most young seventh-round picks, needs to round out his game without the puck.
Before we get too excited, it bears mentioning that he is playing on a line with Los Angeles Kings prospect Alex Turcotte and future Montreal Canadiens sniper Cole Caufield. Playing with those skilled forwards will no doubt bring about many points to go around. In any event, Weissbach is gaining some nice experience and could be putting himself in line for a contract with the Rochester Americans at the end of this season. If his growth continues, he could be a nice middle-six winger for the Sabres down the road.
The Sabres’ Week Ahead
Monday, Oct. 28 vs Arizona Coyotes
The Sabres’ week begins with another saga from the 2014-15 Tank Bowl. Fast-forward five seasons and we see two very different teams. Although the Coyotes got off to a slow start, they have found their game and now find themselves in a playoff spot. The Coyotes are third in the league in xGF%, 20th in SH% and fifth in SV%. They like to play low-event defensive hockey, much like the Sabres. The Sabres will be in tough to win this game, but they certainly have the advantage in terms of game-changing star power. If those stars can come through, the Sabres can eke out a low scoring win.
Friday, Nov. 1 @ Washington Capitals
This battle in Washington will see the current top two teams in the Eastern Conference face-off. The Capitals and Sabres both play similarly possession-wise and are both very dangerous on the man advantage. A question mark at this early point in the season for the Capitals has been their goaltending.
Brayden Holtby has a .886 SV% on the season and has been anything but steady. The Capitals lead the league in goal scoring and have been able to stay ahead of their netminding. Can the Sabres calm the storm that is perennial goal-scorer Alex Ovechkin?
Saturday, Nov. 2 vs New York Islanders
The Sabres’ last game before leaving for Sweden sees them up against one of the weakest possession teams in the league. The Islanders rank 29th with a 45.55xGF%. Propelling them to their 7-3-0 start has been their goaltending, ranked third in the league in SV%. As dangerous as the Sabres have been on the power play, the Islanders sit one spot above them in the league. If the Sabres can play a disciplined game and win the war for high-danger ice, they can have a chance to give the home fans something to cheer about before heading overseas.