Risk Factors: Buffalo Sabres edition

12 Comments

From the same bunch of pessimists who brought you“Why your team won’t win the Stanley Cup,” PHT presents a new series called “Risk Factors,” i.e. three reasons to be worried about each NHL team in 2014-15.

Buffalo Sabres

1. Ted Nolan’s coaching, in more ways than one. Sabres head coach Ted Nolan might be the best person to encapsulate Buffalo’s dichotomous 2014-15 season situation, as it’s more than reasonable to ask: “How successful does the franchise want him and the team to be, anyway?”

By just about every account aside from the typical “player doesn’t want to count his team out” stories, the Sabres seem penciled in to the Connor McDavid/Jack Eichel sweepstakes. It’s probably fair to say that Buffalo might have the best odds of grabbing the most lottery balls for the 2015 NHL Draft.

That’s where Nolan becomes an interesting case study, then.

On the pro-tanking side, there’s the fact that one might conclude that Nolan’s tactics could be a little outdated. He went a decade between his first two gigs (ending with Buffalo in 1996-97 and starting his two-year stint with the New York Islanders in 2006-07) and then saw another big gap before taking over with the Sabres once more. Sports leagues tend to follow predictable coaching hiring trends, yet Nolan really doesn’t easily fit into many categories because there are few who traveled such a pateh.

In other words, there’s some reason to believe that Nolan will be the right kind of bad for Buffalo.

Still, if there’s one positive thing Nolan seems to generally be known for, it’s helping a scrappy bunch of players overachieve. That trend even carried over to the 2014 Winter Olympics, as Latvia generated buzz for “believing in themselves” under Nolan’s tutelage.

“We never had a coach that actually believes in the players,” Kaspars Daugavins told reporters in Sochi, according to The Globe & Mail. “It’s always been, like, army style, where everybody just has to work hard and you never get a tap on your shoulders saying ‘Good job, buddy.’”

That’s great for a hockey nation hoping to build its confidence, yet will it be a self-destructive formula in Buffalo?

2. Goaltending – Sure, some seasons were better than others, but Ryan Miller’s netminding provided long-term stability for a team that saw peaks and quite a few valleys. That’s gone now, leading to unfamiliar questions in net.

While the Jhonas Enroth (81 games of regular season experience) and Michal Neuvirth (136 regular season games) pairing are positively seasoned compared to the Anaheim Ducks’ combo of John Gibson and Frederik Andersen, their experiences are still scattered enough that they remain legitimate question marks.

Neither goalie has awful individual career numbers (Neuvirth’s save percentage is .911 while Enroth’s at .913), yet it’s up to question if either can handle the expected torrent of pucks coming their way. Neuvirth’s brief run as a borderline starter in Washington feels like it came a long time ago, as he hasn’t seen a lot of action since 2011-12. Enroth hasn’t ever played more than the 28 games he appeared in last season. Miller was one of the NHL’s true workhorses in a time when that breed has become tougher to come by, so this could be a bumpy transition for Buffalo.

3. Scoring. Buffalo scored by far the fewest goals in the league last season (157), generated the lowest number of shots on goal per game (26.3) and possessed the second-least efficient power play unit (14.1 percent success rate). Incremental progress is plausible … unfortunately, they’re currently leaps and bounds behind the league’s contenders.

While Cody Hodgson’s a gem, the Sabres are glaringly low on the sort of top-level scorers who can help you win games and dominate puck possession. Matt Moulson could be a solid fit in his second stint with the Sabres, yet the team probably can’t expect much more than solid mentoring from the likes of Brian Gionta.

Sure, there’s a wild card or two in Chris Stewart and Mikhail Grigorenko, but the situation’s pretty bleak overall. (And Stewart himself admits that he’s gone into one too many seasons with “something to prove.”)

Really, it isn’t tough to poke holes in the team’s defense either, but one could see Nolan driving this group to do its best to “bend but not break.” There’s only so much you can do to camouflage a lack of scoring ability, though.