At the beginning of the season I said that predicting the Buffalo Sabres would be challenging. Other than some roster improvement, I would say this statement has been true. Few imagined that there would be a 10-game winning streak in the first 43 games and hold a playoff spot (wildcard). Most fans might be placated by being in the playoff bubble as it is still better than being in last place.
Now fans have the luxury (I use this term loosely) of worrying if the Sabres will stay in a wildcard spot. If the last 7 years were not so terrible, I feel people would be freaking out more. There has certainly been stress as the Sabres were at the top of the league during the win streak and have dropped further, being 6-9-4 since.
But as hot as they have been at times and as poor as they have played on other occasions, the Buffalo Sabres are likely somewhere in between that, AKA a playoff bubble team. In comparison to last season, there are significant improvements in overall scoring, skating, passing, and goaltending while there are challenges to overcome in depth, lineup consistency, and shot shares. Despite moving out of the bottom, there is still work to do for the Sabres as a rebuilding franchise.
Yes, the Sabres have struggled to consistently score unless it is Jack Eichel, Jeff Skinner, or Sam Reinhart. This top line, however, has scored a lot and often. The dangerous trio league-wide is the first legitimate scoring line in years. Skinner looks like a player that GM Jason Botterill will be hesitant to move with 29 goals through 43 games. Eichel has taken a step forward as captain and leader with 49 points in 40 games played. Bound for his best year, Reinhart has complemented the duo with 40 points in 43 games.
But how is this an improvement if the other 9 forwards struggle? Easy. The defense has chipped in more frequently. You could have a birthday before the Sabres blueline produced 5 goals last year, a significant reason why they were so bad. In just over half a season, Buffalo defenders are on pace for 169 combined points, 51 more than all of last year. Overall pace has slowed lately due to lack of recent scoring but they should be well ahead of last season’s 108 points.
Another reason for optimism is the improvement in scoring rate. The Buffalo Sabres were 31st in 5 on 5 shoot percentage (6.1 %) but have jumped 10 spots overall (7.7%). During the hot streak, there were goals coming from everywhere as they came from behind in many cases while Jeff Skinner’s 21.2% rate has contributed. Moving forward, this is the critical piece that gets them to the top. It is not hitting, fighting, grit, or character. Why? The top three teams in 5 on 5 scoring rate, league wide, are Washington, Toronto, and Tampa Bay.
Skating and Passing
Last season, the Buffalo Sabres lost to any team that was faster than them. The problem with that is that was just about everyone. The additions of Rasmus Dahlin, Conor Sheary, and Jeff Skinner have certainly changed that course. One can argue that youngsters Tage Thompson and Casey Mittelstadt have added speed, even if they are not much more than average NHL skaters. That, in itself, is an improvement.
Adding the above players has also contributed to better passing across the board. If you thought the skating was poor, the passing was worse in 2018. But from top to bottom, getting the puck five feet is not as tall a task. It may not always be perfect but the Sabres’ have been able to move from the d-zone, through the neutral zone, and create some semblance of offense. Even 18 year old Dahlin upgraded the overall puck moving ability but the new additions have helped.
Overall, it is fair to claim that Robin Lehner had his strengths. The former Sabres’ netminder also had his demons, which he openly detailed in the Athletic. Hearing that, it is difficult to imagine going through such agony as well as succeed in the NHL.
After deciding it was best to part ways, in came Carter Hutton and Linus Ullmark. With limited experience, who would have predicted that the Sabres tandem would be 6th in the league in 5 on 5 save percentage? Hutton had a great showing in St. Louis last season and has been a solid starter in 29 games. Throughout the win streak, the 33 year old produced big saves to keep them alive. And it did not hurt that Ullmark performed strongly when in relief of Hutton, maintain a 9-2-3 record and .924 SV%.
For the future, many believe Ullmark will transition to a starting role within the next three years. Together, the duo’s .930 5 on 5 SV% is a key factor for their wins. It has come in strong when the offense was limited. Considering the Sabres are still a young team, Ullmark and Hutton will continue to be important as they plan to stay in the playoff hunt.
The Sabres are certainly more entertaining to watch (thanks to Jack Eichel, Jeff Skinner, and Sam Reinhart). The 10 game run drew back the fan base as games were won in dramatic fashion, including secondary scoring.
Since the hot streak, however, the blue and gold has mostly been a one-line team. And everyone knows what line that is. After Eichel (49), Skinner (42), and Reinhart (40), the next highest point-producing forward is Jason Pominville (18). The sad part is that most of Pominville’s points came when playing with the top line. At one time, there were plenty of forwards in the double digits but it has not gone further, resulting in offensive struggles.
Despite losing Eichel in 3 whole contests, the Sabres were 2-1. With 9 goals in the two wins (4 and 5), the team stepped up without their best player. Even if they get 50-60% of that production from the other 3 lines, it will be an improvement. And that is what it will take if they want to be a dominant NHL franchise.
Overall Shot Shares
Like many bad teams, the Sabres were a bottom team in terms of shot attempts last season. Fenwick (47.6%-25th) and Corsi (47.6%-26th) were far from flattering, getting out chanced in most 5 on 5 situations. Even worse, it was evident to the eye test that Buffalo got pounded by the opposition. This does not make for fun hockey.
As we review 43 games, it has not improved all much. Remaining in the bottom 10 in the league in Corsi and Fenwick, the Sabres inability to produce enough chances, quality and quantity, have challenged them. Now, the top line has shown stronger in this area but it has not boded well for the other lines. In addition to the forwards, it would be great to see a trend change for the defenders, the only regular above 50% Corsi being rookie, Rasmus Dahlin (52.0).
Statistical naysayers will say that you can take a million shot attempts from random areas and still lose. No kidding. But the top NHL teams tend to be in the top half of the league in these areas and are above 50%. Yes, shots need to be concentrating closer to the net but to deny the importance of being ahead in attempts is foolish.
When teams struggle to score, forward lines and defense pairings vary. While they were winning, Buffalo had steadier combinations as players produced and were healthy. When injuries seeped in and balanced scoring waivered, the shuffling ensued.
Of course, there was not much that would cause a separation of the top line until Eichel’s injury. Again, they regularly produced. But as few others did, defense included, changes occurred on a game to game basis. As the Sabres look to maintain their current standing, or improve, it will require regular combinations. On great teams, they run consistent tandems that produce all the time.
With a young roster and many new players to start the season, mixing up is going to happen. Lines can look great on paper and not work in reality. What results in a stronger hockey club will be the Sabres discovering what reality is. And among the need for consistent combinations, just about everything needs to go well to move to the top echelon of the NHL.