The first quarter of the NHL season for the Buffalo Sabres has been a rollercoaster ride to say the least. With a new head coach (Ralph Krueger) with limited NHL experience, who could predict realistically how the team would start. Despite added defenders, the forward group was largely the same. Fans were excited with the their ability to win games off the hop but I feel most involved in the world of advanced stats saw the Sabres coming down to Earth.
Winning only one game in the month of November, how will Jason Botterill, as well as the coaching staff, right the ship? Getting healthy again will not hurt them but it will take more than that to be back in the win column.
As the Sabres look to build off solid play in a loss to the Boston Bruins, here are the good, the bad, and my non-professional opinion on improvement based on the first quarter of the season.
Stability on the back end and better o-zone entries were a problem last season that a new coach probably would not fix. The quick fix was Botterill acquiring forward, Marcus Johansson (free agency), and defenseman, Henri Jokiharju (trade).
From the start of the season, these two had an instant impact on the Sabres’ overall play. Jokiharju, as a 20-year old, looks to have revived Marco Scandella, who struggled with breakouts in his past two seasons. Even with less TOI than most, he is a top player in puck possession and finds good plays out of the defensive zone, which the much of the team has failed to do in recent years. A young player, Jokiharju has potential to be in the top-four group as a continues to round out his game.
Down the middle, there has not been much to speak for in Buffalo. Despite much of his time on the wing, Marcus Johansson transitioned to center rather smoothly. He seems to have found success with Jeff Skinner early on and another player not named Jack Eichel entering the offensive zone with the puck on his stick without dumping it is a sight for sore eyes. Since Johansson’s injury, zone entries have been a challenge and it might be an understatement to say he is missed.
Continued Growth of Jack Eichel
Being a young captain has its challenges but Jack Eichel continues to show maturation to meet the responsibility. It is kind of sad to see that media members still label him “coach killer” despite his ability to produce even when his team cannot. And for those saying he is “soft,” Eichel engaged in a fight in a loss to the Minnesota Wild, which most would rather him not do.
There has been improvement defensively on his part as well and the initiative is more consistent. To be honest, I did not think Eichel was terrible before from an effort standpoint but he definitely had issues in awareness. But from his postgame to his play on the ice, Jack Eichel is growing as a leader that fans hoped he would be.
Sometimes, I feel like the bane of my existence has been that Rasmus Ristolainen continues to face the top opposition despite the facts. And as nothing has changed to this point, Jake McCabe gets pulled down for it. Realistically, McCabe should be a 5-6 defenseman but here we are: Having to compete against the other teams best is not where he should be as his partner does not pass to open teammates that are 5 feet away.
One of the most significant problems here has been that sophomore defender, Rasmus Dahlin, has been in a slump most of the season in his own end. Those struggles impacted newcomer, Colin Miller, who found himself having to clean up too much. All of that eventually led to Miller’s time in the press box, TOI rolled back for Dahlin, and Ristolainen’s pair getting too much ice time.
For the Sabres to succeed, defensive usage has to be re-balanced. With Brandon Montour and Dahlin showing strong efforts lately, it is time start rolling back on 55 and 19.
Sobotka on the Second-Line
As I saw Vladimir Sobotka lined up with Johansson and Skinner, I thought “yeah, they are just trying it out in practice.”
It was real. And to be honest, the line performed well…though it was mostly in spite of Sobotka. There was plenty of opportunity for him to score but his skill level is just not there. Krueger does not number lines but that line was really the second line. Johansson and Skinner contributed to the much needed secondary scoring while their winger had 3 points. And that is clearly not good enough.
Vladimir Sobotka on that line explicitly showed the need for talent. On a good team, Sobotka is on the fourth-line and would probably do just fine. At this point in his career, the 32 year old needs to be play were he is most useful. The answer to that is…not on a scoring line.
How to Improve
Acquire Forward Talent
The answer is quite simple, the process is not. Disgruntled Sabres fans believe that it’s easy to make a trade in this league for top forward talent. It happens in the NHL but it typically comes with a cost or the acquiring team gets lucky. Either way, it is a task that insiders claim the Sabres are pursuing.
Jason Botterill claims to not negotiate trades or contracts in the media but with a plethora of defensemen, he is likely to move at least one. There are teams that would start one of the blueliners that the Sabres have had in the press box recently. More good defenders is a nice problem but when you think of the human element, one of those players will want to play. But that opportunity could happen on another team.
Even with the excess of defense, Botterill may need another piece to acquire the forward they seek. A draft pick is likely but does it take a Casey Mittelstadt or Tage Thompson to seal the deal. It very much could and it may be necessary if it the right player in return.
More High Danger Scoring Chances
Early on, the Sabres were ok about getting players to the net but started to veer away as they struggled. Most of their shots were coming from further away with fewer second or third opportunities. Obviously, this is something the current roster could improve at but the coaching staff could also consider more time with Tage Thompson outside of the fourth line. In Rochester, the 22 year old has shown the willingness to use his size around the goal line. It is time to try that in the NHL, where they severely need it.
Otherwise, get more players that can do this. If a forward has been around for a while and is not getting to the net, it is likely that he will not start any time soon. The Sabres cannot have one line that creates scoring chances (Eichel’s) and 3 others that do not.
The Next Quarter
I speak for many Sabres’ fans when I say that a trade would be nice. With a number of bad teams out there, can they acquire one forward that improves their scoring depth? With the holidays coming, it becomes harder but waiting until the trade deadline could be too long.
This hockey team has been challenging to predict but when Johansson returns, this team will be better off. I almost expect some 50/50 hockey this quarter with the number of games upcoming. And without another significant upgrade, I do not believe the Sabres will be much improved. It could be win one-lose one for a while. If I could predict more I would but status quo does not necessarily show promise.
So unfortunately, I would expect the rollercoaster to get longer.