Examining Sabres’ current slide

4 Comments

Buffalo Sabres fans finally had reason to believe.

After years of being stuck at the bottom of the NHL standings, the Sabres finally looked to be returning to relevance thanks to an incredible start to the 2018-19 season that featured a 10-game winning streak throughout most of November.

It was easy to get caught up in it (I did! Maybe you did! Most people did!)

When they won that 10th consecutive game on Nov. 27, the Sabres were sitting with a 17-6-2 record (by far their best start in years), had the best record in the league, and looked to be a near lock to make the playoffs for the first time since the 2010-11 season.

Keep in mind, between the 2005-06 and 2017-18 seasons there were 37 teams that won at least 17 of their first 25 games to start a season.

Only two of those teams (the 2015-16 Montreal Canadiens and the 2017-18 St. Louis Blues) ended up missing.

Not only would it have taken a massive collapse over the final three-quarters of the season to have that cushion get erased, but everything was going the Sabres’ way. Jack Eichel was taking another step toward superstardom. Jeff Skinner proved to be everything the front office could have possibly hoped for him to be when they traded for him over the summer. Carter Hutton solidified the goaltending position and top draft pick Rasmus Dahlin was making an immediate impact on defense. They were also getting every possible break.

But even with all of those positive developments there were some red flags as to whether or not the Sabres would be able to continue winning, and in the month-and-a-half since that winning streak ended their season has started to slip away from them a little.

A lot of those positive developments are still very much there. Eichel and Skinner have been magnificent together, while Dahlin is having one of the best seasons an 18-year-old defender has ever had. He looks like he has a chance to be the cornerstone defender the team has needed during this ongoing rebuild.

So what has gone wrong that has resulted in them sliding from the top spot in the NHL standings all the way down to the second wild card spot in the Eastern Conference, with just a one-point lead over the ninth-place Canadiens?

Let’s start with the obvious and point out that the 10-game winning streak was a huge anomaly.

That is not meant to be a knock on the Sabres because any team (even a great one) that goes on a 10-game winning streak has a little bit of luck and good fortune involved. You do not win that many games in a row at this level without a few breaks and bounces going your way.

The Sabres took that to the extreme during their streak. Nine of their 10 wins were decided by a single goal. Seven of those games were won in overtime or a shootout. Both of those numbers are impossible to maintain because one-goal games (especially overtime or shootout games) can come down to one weird bounce, one play, or one call. When every game is basically one giant coin flip, eventually your luck is going to run out.

Since their streak ended the Sabres are only 1-4 in games that have gone to overtime or a shootout. They were 7-0 in such games during the streak. For the season as a whole, they are 1-6 in overtime or shootout games outside of the winning streak.

In other words, when you live by overtime and the shootout, you will also probably die by overtime or the shootout.

They are also only 2-6-2 in all one-goal games since the end of the streak. They did not suddenly forget how to win those games. That is just the nature of the beast that is the NHL when so many of your games are decided by a single goal.

But why are they involved in so many one-goal games? Well, it’s probably because they just don’t have that much talent to separate themselves from everybody else, while they are totally dependent on their top line. They are getting nothing — almost literally nothing — outside of that top group.

For as good as Eichel and Skinner were during their winning streak, they were not the only players producing offense. Yes, Skinner had 10 goals during that stretch, including several game-winning goals, but the Sabres were getting contributions from other lines when it came to providing offense.

During those 10 games the Sabres only outscored their opponents by an 8-6 margin when the Eichel-Skinner duo was on the ice during 5-on-5 play.

As a team, they actually outscored their opponents by a 13-11 margin when neither was on the ice.

They received at least one goal from 17 different players. Seven players scored at least two goals. Six different players had at least seven points. Some of that was driven by a couple of hot streaks, some spikes in individual shooting percentage and again, maybe a little more good luck. All of it has dried up.

In the 17 games that have followed, the Sabres’ top-line (Skinner, Eichel, and Sam Reinhart) is dominating even more than it did during the winning streak. Reinhart has 23 points. Eichel and Skinner are both over a point-per-game. When all three are on the ice during 5-on-5 play the Sabres are outscoring teams by a 15-6 margin. They are, for the most part, carrying the play.

It is when they’re not on the ice that everything falls apart.

How little production are they getting out of the rest of the team?

When none of Skinner, Eichel, or Reinhart has been on the ice since Nov. 28, the Sabres have been outscored by a 19-9 margin. Only two players outside of that trio have more than five points over the past 17 games, and they’re both defenders. Rasmus Ristolainen has 12 points and Dahlin has six. Almost all of their points (nine of Ristolainen’s and all six of Dahlin’s) have come with the top-line on the ice.

No other forward on the team has more than three points over their past 17 games.

How can you win with so little production from three of your lines? The answer, of course, is that you can not.

That is the problem the Sabres still have to fix before they can solidify themselves as a playoff team and take the next step in their development.

Big picture, they are not as good they looked during their 10-game winning streak. A lot of things fell perfectly in their favor at the exact same time.

They also may not be as bad as they have looked since. Their current record is probably an accurate representation of what they are. And what they are is a team that has one great line, not much else after it, and on most nights will find itself relying on a coin flip to determine whether they win or lose.

They are better than they have been over the better part of the past decade and they have taken some big steps, but they are not quite there yet.

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.

Seattle close to naming Ron Francis as GM

Getty Images
1 Comment

SEATTLE (AP) — Seattle’s NHL expansion team is close to an agreement with Hockey Hall of Famer Ron Francis to become its first general manager, a person with direct knowledge tells The Associated Press.

The person spoke on condition of anonymity Tuesday because the team had not made an announcement.

The expansion Seattle franchise is set to begin play in the 2021-22 season as the NHL’s 32nd team.

After longtime Detroit GM Ken Holland went to Edmonton, adviser Dave Tippett left Seattle Hockey Partners LLC to become Oilers coach and Vegas’ Kelly McCrimmon and Columbus’ Bill Zito got promotions, there was a limited pool of experienced NHL executives to choose from for this job. Francis fits that bill.

The 56-year-old has been in hockey operations since shortly after the end of his Hall of Fame playing career. All of that time has come with the Carolina Hurricanes, including four seasons as their GM.

Carolina didn’t make the playoffs with Francis in charge of decision-making, though his moves put the foundation in place for the team that reached the Eastern Conference final this past season.

AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno contributed.

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Provorov’s next contract presents big challenge for Flyers

Getty
2 Comments

Philadelphia Flyers general manager Chuck Fletcher has been busy overhauling his roster this summer and still has two big jobs ahead of him when it comes to re-signing restricted free agents Travis Konecny and Ivan Provorov.

With close to $14 million in salary cap space remaining, he should have no problem in getting them signed and keeping the team under the salary cap.

Konecny’s situation seems like it should be pretty simple: He is a top-six forward that has been incredibly consistent throughout the first three years of his career. The Flyers know what they have right now, and they should have a pretty good idea as to what he is going to be in the future. There is not much risk in projecting what he should be able to do for them.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

Provorov, on the other hand, presents a far more interesting challenge because he is still somewhat of a mystery whose career seems like it can go in either direction.

Along with Shayne Gostisbehere, Provorov is supposed to be the foundation of the Flyers’ defense for the next decade and entered the league with much fanfare at the start of the 2016-17 season. From the moment he arrived the Flyers have treated him like a top-pairing defender and pretty much thrown him in the deep end of the pool.

At times, he has flashed the potential that made him a top-10 pick in the draft and such a prized piece in the Flyers’ organization.

During his first three years in the league he has not missed a single game, has played more than 20 minutes per game every year, and over the past two seasons has played the fourth most total minutes in the NHL and the third most even-strength minutes. The Flyers have also not gone out of their way to shelter him in terms of where he starts his shifts and who he plays against, regularly sending him over the boards for defensive zone faceoffs and playing against other team’s top players.

In their view, based on his usage, he is their top defender.

Or at least was their top defender over the past two seasons.

Given the performance of the Flyers defensively during those seasons, that may not be much of a statement.

The concern that has to be addressed is that so far in his career Provorov has not always performed like a top-pairing defender in those top-pairing minutes that he has been given.

Just because a player gets a lot of playing time and the toughest assignments does not necessarily mean they are going to handle those minutes or succeed within them. That has been the case at times with Provorov in Philadelphia. This is not like the situation Columbus and Boston are facing with Zach Werenski and Charlie McAvoy this summer where both young players have already demonstrated an ability to play like top-pairing defenders and have already earned what should be significant, long-term commitments from their respective teams.

This is a situation where a young, talented, and still very promising player has been given a huge role, but has not always performed enough to justify that much trust.

He is also coming off of what can probably be described as a down season where his performance regressed from what it was in 2017-18. He not only saw a steep drop in his production offensively, but the Flyers were outshot, outchanced, and outscored by a pretty significant margin when Provorov was on the ice no matter who his partner was.

He struggled alongside Shayne Gostisbehere. He also struggled alongside Travis Sanheim, while Sanheim saw his performance increase dramatically when he was away from Provorov.

The dilemma the Flyers have to face here is how they handle a new contract for him this summer.

On one hand, he does not turn 23 until January and clearly has the talent to be an impact defender. But he has also played three full seasons in the NHL, and even when looked at within the context of his own team, has not yet shown a consistent ability to be that player. Every player develops at a different pace, and just because McAvoy and Werenski have already emerged as stars doesn’t mean every player at the same age has to follow the same rapid path. Because they most certainly will not.

It just makes it difficult for teams like the Flyers when they have to juggle a new contract.

They were in a similar position with Gostisbehere a couple of years ago when they signed him to a six-year, $27 million contract when he came off of his entry-level deal. But while Gostisbehere had regressed offensively, he still posted strong underlying numbers and at least showed the ability to be more of a possession-driving player. His goal-scoring and point production dropped, but there were at least positive signs it might bounce back. That is not necessarily the case with Provorov.

Even though Provorov has played a ton of minutes, put up some decent goal numbers at times, and been one of the biggest minute-eating defenders in the league, this just seems like a situation that screams for a bridge contract to allow the player to continue to develop, while also giving the team an opportunity to figure out what they have.

Provorov still has the potential to be a star and a bonafide top-pairing defender.

He just has not played like one yet or consistently shown any sign that he definitely will be one, despite being given the role.

Related: Werenski, McAvoy should be in line for huge contracts

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.

Capitals re-sign Vrana for two years, $6.7 million

Getty
Leave a comment

Washington Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan took care of his biggest remaining offseason task on Tuesday afternoon when he re-signed restricted free agent forward Jakub Vrana to a two-year contract.

The deal will pay Vrana $6.7 million and carry an average annual salary cap hit of $3.35 million per season.

“Jakub is a highly skilled player with a tremendous upside and is a big part of our future,” said MacLellan in a statement released by the team. “We are pleased with his development the past two seasons and are looking forward for him to continue to develop and reach his full potential with our organization.”

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

Vrana was the Capitals’ first-round pick in 2014 and has already shown top-line potential in the NHL. He took a huge step forward in his development during the 2018-19 season, scoring 24 goals to go with 23 assists while also posting strong underlying numbers. He is one of the Capitals’ best young players and quickly starting to become one of their core players moving forward.

It is obviously a bridge contract that will keep him as a restricted free agent when it expires following the 2020-21 season. If he continues on his current path he would be in line for a significant long-term contract that summer.

With Vrana signed the Capitals have under $1 million in salary cap space remaining. They still have to work out new contracts with restricted free agents Christian Djoos and Chandler Stephenson. Both players filed for salary arbitration. Djoos’ hearing is scheduled for July 22, while Stephenson has his scheduled for August 1. If the Capitals want to keep both on the NHL roster on opening night they may have to make another minor move at some point before the start of the regular season.

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.

Donato gets two-year, $3.8 million extension from Wild

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Ryan Donato took advantage of a bigger opportunity with the Minnesota Wild and earned himself a raise on Tuesday.

The Wild announced that they have extended the 23-year-old Donato with a two-year, $3.8 million contract. That $1.9 million annual salary will be a bump from the $925,000 he made during the 2018-19 NHL season.

Following a February trade that sent Charlie Coyle to the Boston Bruins, Donato saw his ice time rise over three minutes under Bruce Boudreau and that resulted in four goals and 16 points in 22 games with Minnesota. Unable to carve out his own role in Boston, Donato struggled offensively with six goals and nine points in 34 games before moving.

“I definitely learned the business side of it, for sure,” Donato said in April. “One thing I learned, in Boston and here, it’s a game of ups and downs. More than college, more than any level, there’s a lot of ups and downs. It’s been an emotional roller coaster the whole year, but definitely over the last couple months it’s settled down quite a bit.”

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

Donato, who was a restricted free agent and will remain one when his contract expires after the 2020-21 season, continued his production in the American Hockey League’s notching 11 points in 14 games between the end of the Iowa Wild’s regular season and the Calder Cup playoffs.

“It’s all about opportunity in this league,” Donato said. “If I can get myself into scoring positions playing with the high-end veteran players we have here, that have been known to find guys in scoring positions, then I’m a guy that can bury it.”

The Wild have high hopes for next season as they expect to be a playoff team coming out of what will be a very, very competitive Central Division. General manager Paul Fenton added Ryan Hartman and Mats Zuccarello to boost the team’s offense which finished fourth-worst in the NHL in goals per game (2.56). Donato will be expected to be a key contributor.

————

Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.