The Buffalo Sabres seem to be finally — finally! — taking some sort of a significant step toward regaining relevance in the NHL.
Thanks to their 2-1 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning on Tuesday night, they were able to pick up their 10th win and improve to 10-6-2 on the young season.
This, of course, is major progress in Buffalo.
For one, this is tied for the Sabres’ best start (22 points) through their first 18 games since the 2009-10 season when they were 12-5-1 at this point.
(They also had 22 through 18 games during the 2011-12 season.)
Second, the Sabres did not win their 10th game of the season a year ago until Dec. 29. They didn’t get it until Dec. 6 in 2016-17. Even more, this is only the third time since 2009-10 that they have won their 10th game of the season before the calendar rolled over to December. All of that is insane, and just shows how much this organization has struggled over the past seven seasons.
There are a lot of reasons for their newfound early success.
[Related: Top Pick Dahlin has been strong for Sabres]
At the top of that list is the fact that Jack Eichel is healthy and, once again, playing like a superstar.
The other is that some of their offseason acquisitions are really paying off in the early going. Conor Sheary, thought to be a salary dump by the Pittsburgh Penguins, has six goals and 10 points in 18 games and been a nice complement to their forwards. Carter Hutton has been solid in net. They have another emerging star in top pick Rasmus Dahlin whose progress seems to be ahead of schedule for an 18-year-old defender.
But perhaps the biggest improvement from outside the organization has been the addition of Jeff Skinner.
The Sabres desperately needed a top-line winger that could complement Eichel, something he had not had over the first three years of his career. Skinner has given them exactly what they needed, and perhaps even more. It should not be a surprise.
Skinner, still only 26 years old even though it seems like he’s been around forever, has been one of the most productive goal-scorers in the league in recent years. Entering this season he was 15th in the league in goals over the previous five years and still in the middle of what should be his peak years of production in the league is on pace for what could be a career year.
He opened the scoring for the Sabres on Tuesday night with what is already his 13th goal of the season. Only Boston’s David Pastrnak has scored more as of this posting.
He and Eichel have been especially dominant together. When the Sabres have had the two of them on the ice this season they are outscoring teams by a 14-7 margin at even-strength and completely dictating the pace of the play from a shot attempt and scoring chance perspective.
They are not only steamrolling opposing defenses, they have given each exactly what the other needed and had been lacking for most of their careers.
Skinner has been an exceptional goal-scorer throughout his career despite the fact he has never had a center like Eichel setting him up.
Eichel has been great since the Sabres drafted him with the No. 2 overall pick four years ago even though he has never really had a finisher like Skinner on his wing.
Put them together and it has been close to perfection for the Sabres.
The two big questions for the Sabres now: Can the duo keep this rolling and do the Sabres have enough in the lineup beyond them to maintain this early pace, and will they be able to keep Skinner beyond this season. Skinner remains unsigned after this season and is no doubt playing his way into a huge contract given the combination of his age (again, still only 26) and continued production.
For right now this should be something that Sabres fans are enjoying, because they have not seen much of it over the better part of the past decade.