Startling goalie: Henrik Lundqvist
Startling goalie: Robin Lehner
Startling goalie: Henrik Lundqvist
Startling goalie: Robin Lehner
Starting goalie: Anton Khudobin
Starting goalie: Robin Lehner
Earlier today, PHT spoke about the resounding, uncomfortable parallels between Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel struggling to start this season (or at least struggling to find team success).
One can see a similar phenomenon occurring with some NHL GMs who made bold, polarizing moves to craft their teams in their images. In each case, their teams are likely to rebound – at least to some extent – yet it’s remarkable to see the similarities in how they’re being burned for, essentially, making unforced errors.
Ugly growths for Peter Chiarelli
Instead, we’re looking at an Edmonton Oilers team built in the image of what GM Peter Chiarelli believes is a modern winner. Players like Hall and Eberle are gone, in part, to make room for Milan Lucic and Kris Russell. With more than $8M in cap space according to Cap Friendly, the Oilers assumed that they didn’t need to make additional moves during the summer – particularly to improve their defense – and there’s debate that it’s already too late to make a push.
In this salary cap age, sometimes you need to wave goodbye to quality players, but Chiarelli has instead moved younger, possible core guys out for older, slower, less effective pieces. I’m not the first to make this joke, but Chiarelli is the “general disappointment,” not the team. He’s the one who shopped for questionable ingredients.
Bergevin in a bind
The parallels between Chiarelli and Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin are, honestly, almost startling. (Bergevin’s the better dresser, though.)
Bergevin’s bet big on the Canadiens in the short term. Most obviously, he moved a younger star defenseman in P.K. Subban for an older one with a scarier contract in Shea Weber. Even the Mikhail Sergachev – Jonathan Drouin trade made the Habs older.
In many cases, the Habs suffer from old-school thinking in similar ways to the Oilers. The addition of Karl Alzner is divisive in that way, and it hasn’t gone well. Nathan Beaulieu isn’t a world-beater, but he can play a transition game that can help him fit in with the modern game, and the Canadiens gave him up for a pick. Andrei Markov walked to the KHL.
Much like $20M soon going to Connor McDavid + Leon Draisaitl, we can debate the Carey Price extension, especially with his health faltering, but those are the risks many NHL teams take. The thing that really stings Montreal is the unforced errors Bergevin’s made in crafting a team that plays “the old way” in some cases.
It hasn’t been pretty.
Another parallel between the Canadiens and the Oilers is that they both have cap space used for (???). It brings up a painful thought: Bergevin and Chiarelli, two swashbuckling traders, probably couldn’t get things done early this season. It’s basically the worst of both worlds for fans of the Canadiens and Oilers.
This quote from Bergevin via The Athletic’s Apron Basu (again, sub required), almost feels like he’s becoming slowly, painfully self-aware:
” … So it’s hard to make trades, it’s just the way it is,” Bergevin said. “There’s a few here and there, but at the end of the day teams want to keep their core players. That’s just the way it is.”
Bad defenses, a feeling of desperation mixed with little room for moves, and all this cap space going to waste. Yeah, this is sounding familiar. Both teams are also suffering with goalie headaches, with Carey Price ailing and Talbot struggling.
Thank goodness Dale Tallon’s back?
Of course, in both cases, asking for an Oilers/Canadiens trade is a “careful what you wish for” proposition.
Just look at the Florida Panthers and reinstated GM Dale Tallon, who showed an almost charming lack of self-awareness in discussing his return to a team that … still seems rudderless.
Last season, Florida saw crushing injuries to Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau while experiencing a slew of front office headaches. Tallon’s been able to resume control, and in doing so, going back to … wait for it … and old-school design.
Oh yeah, and gutting the sort of depth you need to succeed when that awesome Barkov line can’t do everything, kind of like Edmonton struggling when McDavid can’t do everything. This all sound familiar, doesn’t it?
Seriously, the parallels get creepier the deeper you dive.
The three teams even boast nearly identical records. Both the Oilers and Panthers are 7-11-2 as of this writing, while the Canadiens sit at 8-11-2.
Now there are differences at hand; it seems like the Canadiens and Oilers are at least regretting decisions, while there’s some (at least public) defiance from Tallon. It’s also fair to expect improvements in each situation, especially with Montreal and Edmonton.
And that brings us to an important question: are these teams learning any lessons about giving up skill and speed? For all we know, it might be too late for this season, but McDavid, Barkov, and others are still easily young enough that their teams can get back on the right path.
That might not happen if their teams keep making the same, critical mistakes.
Hockey fans annoyed by “day-to-day” updates should be careful what they wish for, because “week-to-week” is becoming a more common thing, and it’s more annoying. You might consider seven times as annoying, even.
Buffalo is already dealing with the loss of blueliners, although it’s worth noting that not all of the injury news was bad. Head coach Phil Housley mentioned that Josh Gorges and Nathan Beaulieu are both nearing returns from their ailments:
All of these issues meant a heavy workload for Marco Scandella, particularly during Tuesday’s 3-1 win against the Washington Capitals, as the former Wild defenseman logged 26:34 of ice time. (Taylor Fedun stands out as another defenseman who was pressed into more duty amid all of these issues.)
Now, it’s fair to acknowledge the devil’s advocate argument that Ristolainen can be a real mess in his own zone. That said, his possession stats have shown some improvement through 13 games in 2017-18, prompting one to wonder if Housley might be able to help the well-compensated Finn.
The Sabres are on the verge of a back-to-back set, as they’ll host the Panthers on Friday and then face the Canadiens in Montreal on Saturday. That trip to Montreal begins a three-game road swing; following that, they’ll play four in a row and six of seven in Buffalo.
That opens the door for the Sabres to make some progress, but it sounds like they’ll spend a substantial portion of that time without Ristolainen.
If you look at the Buffalo Sabres’ 0-3-1 record and blast Jack Eichel‘s $10 million extension,* then you might be part of what’s making the rising star so frustrated.
After Thursday’s 3-2 loss to the San Jose Sharks, Eichel had enough, as the Buffalo News’ Mike Harrington reports.
Harrington gets it right in describing Eichel’s comments as a mic drop.
Jack and little else
Commend Eichel for absorbing some of the blame, but consider this: his line with Jason Pominville and Evander Kane have scored all nine of the Sabres’ goals so far this season. (Eichel has a goal and four assists, Kane scored four goals and two assists, and Pominville has four goals plus a helper.)
It’s pretty easy to see that the Sabres need more from the likes of Ryan O'Reilly, who has an assist and is doing well in the dot … but that’s about it. He’s suffering from uncharacteristically bad possession stats and hasn’t scored a goal despite firing nine SOG in four games.
Ultimately, as bad as having one line scoring all nine of your goals might be, the 18 goals allowed stand as the bigger concern.
It’s just four games, but the Sabres are getting absolutely shellacked from a puck possession standpoint, with the fourth-worst Corsi For rating standing as just one example. If that’s too sophisticated for you, Buffalo’s been on the wrong side of the shots battle in three of four contests.
To some extent, the Sabres might be making some missteps in assessing who to put on the ice.
For example: Rasmus Ristolainen probably isn’t the guy you want playing 26+ minutes per night, far and away the most of any Sabres skater so far. Even with an average of 4:35 power-play TOI, he’s their even-strength leader, too.
Ristolainen has been criticized heavily by the fancy stats community, and his 2016-17 HERO chart provides a Halloween-worthy snapshot of why:
Check out that miniature shot suppression bar … yikes.
Ristolainen shouldn’t be singled out as the only struggling Sabres player, though. His current numbers look a lot better than those of addition Marco Scandella, who is just under siege so far to start his Buffalo days.
Looking through the team, Canadiens castoff Nathan Beaulieu might be part of the solution, although he’s already pressed into a lot of action averaging 20 minutes per night. Sabres fans might also have to stomach the occasional gaffe; hopefully most won’t be as egregious as this “assist” to John Tavares:
With Dmitry Kulikov and Cody Franson out of town in favor of Beaulieu and Scandella, it remains to be seen if Buffalo will make that much of an improvement on defense.
If management can add help, that would be great, but they’d need to get in line with, oh, 30 other NHL teams who are sniffing around for defensemen.
Which brings us to the most important would-be difference-maker: Phil Housley.
Let’s not forget that the Sabres have a new regime installed, and while there are times when teams ride fast and loose with that “new car smell,” there are other times when teams stall to begin.
Housley has the right idea in having an attack-minded approach; that seems to be both in keeping with the trends in the modern NHL and in acknowledging the makeup of this team. The key is to execute on such ideas.
Of course, to some extent, it hinges on having the Sabres’ goalies bail the defense out on occasions.
The good news in that regard is that both Robin Lehner and Chad Johnson have track records that indicate that better work will come. Especially since they both have the motivation of contract years to keep them alert.
At the moment, Lehner has a .901 save percentage, which essentially translates to “weak backup.” His career save percentage is .917, while he’s been even more impressive in Buffalo with a .921 average over 84 games.
Goalies can be fickle beasts, but it seems like a reasonable gamble to expect more from Lehner and Johnson (who has a solid career average of .914).
Long story short, the Sabres have a lot of work to do, and some problems seem easier to fix than others.
More than anything else, Sabres fans and Eichel alike might need to practice patience as best they can.
* – Which, you know, technically doesn’t kick in until next season.
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