Ryan O'Reilly

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Buffalo Sabres keep getting worse

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The Buffalo Sabres keep finding ways to reach new lows.

On Friday night they were on the losing end of a 4-0 decision to the Pittsburgh Penguins, losing for the 10th time in their past 11 games.

The overall numbers for the season are, to say the least, ugly.

  • They remain tied with the Arizona Coyotes for the worst record in the league, and given the way Arizona is starting to play a little better they may not be tied for much longer.
  • They are still the lowest scoring team in the league.
  • They have yet to receive a goal from a defenseman. Any defenseman. Twenty-six game sinto the season.

Friday’s loss also marked the third consecutive game that they were shut out.

This one was particularly ugly.

Not only were they shutout by a rookie goalie making just his fifth NHL start, they really did not pose a significant threat at any point during the game.

Their power play, entering the night ranked 30th in the NHL and only outscoring the opposing penalty kills by a 9-7 margin on the season, looked especially anemic and spent most of the night getting booed by an increasingly angry and frustrated crowd.

Coach Phil Housley called the way his team executed the gameplan on Friday night “embarrassing.”

What has to be especially concerning for the Sabres is that the start to this season is making it pretty clear that they are going to take another step backwards in their overall rebuild. The arrival of Jack Eichel, as well as the additions of players like Evander Kane, Ryan O'Reilly, Kyle Okposo, and Robin Lehner over the past few years were supposed to be a turning point. They were supposed to get the organization going back into a more successful direction and make them a playoff contender again.

Instead, the team regressed across the board a season ago and seems to be taking an even bigger step in the wrong direction this season.

After Friday’s loss the Sabres have won just six of their first 26 games.

Just look at how that start compares to the past five years.

2013-14: 5-20-1 (11 points)

2014-15: 9-15-2 (20 points)

2015-16: 11-12-3 (25 points)

2016-17: 10-10-6 (26 points)

2017-18: 6-15-4 (16 points)

This start this season, more than a quarter of the way through it, is right on par with what they were doing when the team was in full-on tank mode. This team is not built to tank. This team has big-money veterans. It has a potential superstar and franchise building block in Eichel.

It should not be this bad.

It also does not seem that things are on the verge of getting much better, especially with a brutal schedule in December.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Jack Eichel, Connor McDavid have wrong things in common right now

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As the top two picks of the 2015 NHL Draft, faces of beleaguered franchises, and recipients of eight-figure salaries starting next season, Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel share a lot in common.

Sadly, though the first quarter of this campaign, their similarities mostly leave you kind of bummed out.

Sure, there are key differences, but if you paint in broad brushstrokes, the similarities are striking.

Varying degrees of blame

Look, it’s almost human nature to blame a team’s failures on its best player. The logic goes: they have the most power to change things, and they often draw the biggest checks (technically not true for McDavid and Eichel until next season), so they need to take the heat, right?

Well, maybe, but in almost every case in a team sport like hockey, it’s usually not on the best guy or even top guys on a team.

Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin sure seemed “in decline” for a while there, and then the Penguins brought in Phil Kessel, played to their strengths as an attacking team with Mike Sullivan in charge, and are now repeat champs.

Here’s hoping that McDavid and Eichel get some help, but with things sour for the Oilers (middle of the pack with contender aspirations) and Sabres (cellar dwellers despite dreams of big strides), the two are getting thrown under the bus at times.

The Buffalo News’ Mike Harrington wrote this about Eichel, and keep in mind this was before Buffalo dropped its sixth in a row in falling short against Columbus on Monday:

Eichel has five goals in 20 games, tallying just once in his last 11. He’s got a minus-9 rating for the season. Those are the numbers. Now let’s move to things you can’t measure.

Eichel’s body language has been terrible much of season. It’s a dirty little secret fans are finally figuring out that he floats off the ice far too much on the end of his shifts.

McDavid, meanwhile, saw his defensive struggles magnified during Edmonton’s frustrating loss to the Dallas Stars this past weekend:

Oilers Nation’s Cam Lewis felt the need to defend McDavid, and he wasn’t alone. That’s how bad things are getting for fans of the Sabres and Oilers, two teams who have been through these growing pains so often, they probably wonder if the light at the end of the tunnel is actually a mirage.

Varying degrees of success

You really don’t have to dig that deep to see that McDavid and Eichel stand among a handful of Oilers/Sabres who are carrying the scoring burden for their teams.

It’s especially stark with McDavid, who has 25 points while the second-highest Oilers scorer is currently Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (who has 15). Things are a little more even among Eichel and guys that he spends much of his ice time with, like a resurgent Evander Kane, but the broader view is the same: only four Sabres skaters are above 10 points while the Oilers only have five.

Yes, you can nitpick both players at times, but that requires the willful ignorance of looking the other way on an important point: few, if any, skaters are perfect. Especially during every night of an 82-game season.

The painfully obvious truth is that both McDavid and Eichel need more help and are being asked to do far too much. Harrington made an interesting point with this tweet, as it actually might apply to McDavid more than Eichel:

Deck chairs

From my vantage point, the situation might be more dire for the Oilers than the Sabres for a few reasons.

For one, it seems like Edmonton’s management has made its bed and now must lie in it. The Athletic’s Jonathan Willis said it well (sub required) in a piece titled “There’s no retreat from the course Peter Chiarelli has plotted for the Oilers.”

Chiarelli has essentially cast his lot with the likes of Milan Lucic and Kris Russell as key supporting cast members, and that hasn’t gone well, at all. Their bad contracts and trade clauses make them difficult to move.

And, really, how much do you trust Chiarelli to get the most out of moving, say, Nugent-Hopkins after he’s left behind a trail of shaky (at best) moves during his last years in Boston and his stay in Edmonton? To a lot of fans, he’s already a punchline.

Yikes.

In the short-term, the Sabres’ roster probably has bigger holes. Perhaps things might change as Kyle Okposo gets healthier, but the offense is a little slim beyond Eichel, Kane, Ryan O'Reilly, and Jason Pominville (though Sam Reinhart‘s showing some signs of promise).

While Edmonton’s actually fashioned a half-decent defense for itself, Buffalo’s a mess in that regard.

That said, this is the first season of the Phil Housley – Jason Botterill regime, and they deserve time to get things together. The best thing about this situation is that, while there’s a tough deal or two like that of Zach Bogosian, it’s a fairly clean slate in Buffalo. They don’t need to cling to bad moves out of pride or even to protect their jobs like, say, the Capitals stubbornly hanging onto Brooks Orpik and letting quality players slip by.

Essentially, these two teams are on different points in the board game that is team-building. The Oilers are advancing close to that make-or-break spot, which to some extent makes it scarier to see the same old problems bubbling up.

***

No, their situations aren’t exactly the same, but it’s remarkable to see the parallels between Eichel and McDavid right now. You can even meme them in similar ways.

With the right mixture of luck, progression, and good management choices, maybe we can go back to focusing on the delightful things that make them similar: financial security and being absolutely spellbinding at hockey.

Right now, that’s a difficult thing to do.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

WATCH LIVE: Washington Capitals at Buffalo Sabres

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The Washington Capitals carry a three-game winning streak (and wins in four of their last five games) into Buffalo against the Sabres tonight.

The Sabres, on the other hand, are trending in the opposite direction with one win in their last four tries. They do have one advantage: while Washington fought back for an OT win last night, the Sabres have been resting since Saturday.

These two teams boast some impressive firepower, with Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov powering the Capitals against Jack Eichel, Ryan O'Reilly, and Evander Kane of the Sabres.

Along with tuning in on NBCSN, you can watch online and via the NBC Sports App. Puck drop begins around 7 p.m. ET, but you can watch some coverage before the action kicks in:

CLICK HERE TO WATCH LIVE

For even more on this game, as well as Kings vs. Ducks, check out this preview.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

NHL on NBCSN doubleheader: Capitals vs. Sabres; Kings vs. Ducks

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2017-18 NHL season continues with a doubleheader on Tuesday night. In the early game, the Buffalo Sabres host the Washington Capitals at 7:00 p.m. ET. To watch the game online, click here.

The Capitals will be playing their second game in as many nights. They’re coming off a 3-2 overtime game against the Arizona Coyotes that saw them trail 2-0 in the opening period.

But thanks to Alex Ovechkin‘s game-tying goal and John Carlson‘s game-winner in the extra frame, they were able to save the day on home ice, where things have been a little rocky for Washington.

After a slow start to the season, the Caps have now rattled off three straight wins over the Isles, Bruins and Coyotes. Things are starting to look up.

“I think we’re just kind of finding our way and figuring out what’s working for us,” Carlson said, per the Washington Post. “We’ve got to put a couple of these together. We didn’t start [the season] like we wanted to, so we’ve got a lot of work to do, but just keep finding ways to win.”

Things haven’t really been going as well for the Sabres, who are in the basement of the Eastern Conference. They also own the worst goal differential in the East and the second-worst goal differential in the league (ahead of Arizona) at minus-18.

“We think a couple little changes here and there and we’re going to be better, but we all have to demand more out of ourselves,” Ryan O'Reilly said, per the Buffalo News. “It feels like we are a little fragile right now. When things don’t go well, it’s tough to climb back.”

This is a really important stretch for the Sabres, as six of their next nine games will be played on home ice. If they’re going to salvage their season, it will have to come before the end of November.

In the late game, the Anaheim Ducks host the Los Angeles Kings at 10:00 p.m. ET. To stream that game live, click here

This will be one of the Kings’ few upcoming road games on their schedule, as they’ll begin a five-game homestand over the next couple of weeks.

Before they can start enjoying some home cooking though, they’ll need to take care of business against their state rivals, who are off to a rocky start in 2017-18.

“Yeah, it’s always fun,” Kings defenseman Drew Doughty said of playing the Ducks, per LAKingsinsider.com. “Good team. They’ve been probably better than us in the last three years or so. … I’m not sure what the head-to-head match has been, but they’re a division team, a division rival, they’re only just down the road there. Have a lot of support there from our fans in their building. I feel like we always show up to play there and play well.”

Unlike the Ducks, Los Angeles has enjoyed a terrific start to the year. They come into tonight’s game in top spot in the Pacific Division and they have a 4-1-1 record in their last six contests.

In fairness to Anaheim, their 6-6-2 record is a little deceiving. After all, they were without Ryan Kesler, Sami Vatanen and Hampus Lindholm to start the year (Cam Fowler is also out of the lineup). Now, Lindholm and Vatanen are back, which should eventually help boost their record.

 “Obviously now you get a couple extra minutes because Cam is out,” said Lindholm, per the OC Register. “Even when he’s in the lineup, we usually get to play up to or close to 24, 25 (minutes). I think we both have proven we can handle it.

“Right now, we kind of have a couple of injuries. For me, I just feel that I want to bring as much as I can to the table and do as much good as I can out on the ice to help the team win some hockey games.”

Unforunately, Lindholm’s return hasn’t really sparked the Ducks into winning more games. Anaheim also has a ton of home dates this month, but they haven’t gotten off to a great start.

They opened November with a pair of home losses to Toronto and Nashville before dropping shootout decision in San Jose on Saturday night. Still, they have a great opportunity to get themselves back on track with seven of their next eight games coming at the Honda Center.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Jack Eichel’s 21st birthday present: Another Sabres loss

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Jack Eichel turns 21 today as the Buffalo Sabres host the San Jose Sharks. What do you get a guy who received an eight-year, $80 million extension not long ago?

Phil Housley’s answer appears to be a piece of humble pie.

The Buffalo News’ Amy Moritz reports that Eichel was bumped off the Sabres’ top power-play unit heading into this afternoon’s contest.

Take a look at the two power-play units, which get points for balance, if nothing else

PP1: Jason Pominville, Ryan O'Reilly, Ryan Reinhart, Rasmus Ristolainen, and Matt Tennyson.

PP2: Eichel, Kyle Okposo, Evander Kane, Victor Antipin, and Marco Scandella.

Honestly, even as a vocal proponent of ROR, I’d probably take that second group over the first. Maybe this is a merely nominal move, especially if Eichel and the second unit’s reps end up being nearly identical.

Eichel hasn’t scored a point in his past two games, so Housley is probably just trying to tinker with things to see if he can get a spark. On the other hand, the Sharks must be a little weary, playing at an odd hour and closing off a five-game road trip. You have to wonder if Housley might be getting a little “too cute” here.

It looks like Eichel is still on the top line from an even-strength perspective, so this probably isn’t too huge of a deal.

Not the greatest birthday present, either, though.

(H/T to Rotoworld.)

Update: The Sabres were solid on Saturday, with that non-Eichel PP unit getting a goal. Eichel assisted on a goal and had a would-be goal called back. The Sharks ended up winning 3-2, making for more frustrating in Buffalo.

Eichel looked frustrated, although you have to give him a Bo Jackson point here:

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.