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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