Sabres’ rebuild is still going nowhere

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For about three weeks back in November the Buffalo Sabres had their fans fooled.

It was then that they went on an improbable 10-game win streak to record their best start in years and finally show some signs that their perpetual rebuild was going to produce a positive result.

This was going to be the year that all of the waiting, losing, and disappointment was going to be worth it.

Even if you were of the belief that the win streak was the product of some good luck and an unsustainable run of overtime/shootout and one-goal victories (which almost all of the wins were) it still seemed like they had done enough to give themselves a decent cushion to cover for whatever inevitable regression might follow.

The only thing that could undo it at that point was an epic failure on behalf of the entire team.

More than three months later it has become abundantly clear that the epic failure has happened. Given where the Sabres are coming from, should any of it be a surprise?

The whole thing was a mirage, a total fluke, and nothing more than a temporary and all too brief break from the miserable run of irrelevance that has plagued the Sabres organization for the better part of a decade.

The low point of the season probably came over the weekend when they played a Colorado Avalanche team that has been equally disappointing in the second half and was also playing without one of its best players in Gabriel Landeskog. In that game the Sabres put forth one of the sorriest efforts of the season by any team when they were outshot by a 43-18 margin in a 3-0 loss that was way more one-sided than the final score would have you believe. Keep in mind that with just under two minutes remaining in the game the shot clock had the Avalanche with a 42-12 advantage. It wasn’t until the Sabres pulled their goalie for an extra attacker in a last ditch effort to do something that they were able to register even the smallest threat of offense.

What is worse is that it is hard to see why there should be much hope for better results in the immediate future with this organization.

We have spent a lot of time this season (and rightfully so, I might add) marveling at the incompetence of the Edmonton Oilers to build a successful team around Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl (and it truly is stunning), but keep something in mind about the Oilers — they at least made the playoffs once so far with McDavid, won a playoff series, and were a Game 7 loss away from being in the Western Conference Final.

Sure, everything that has been sandwiched around that makes that one season look like an outlier, but the Sabres don’t even have that.

In a lot of ways this team is worse than the team that is widely regarded to be the most inept team in the league.

That is not good!

[Related: Sabres’ captain Eichel disagrees with two-game suspension]

You might counter that by arguing that the Oilers have more high-end talent with McDavid and Draisaitl, and were also starting from a better place with a boatload of literal No. 1 overall draft picks. That would be a fair point. Sort of. But it’s not like the Sabres haven’t had a run of great draft picks in recent years.

When the Sabres tore their organization to the ground back in 2013 the intent was to stock up on premium draft picks (hopefully one that would land them Connor McDavid), rebuild the organization around the type of impact talent you can find at the top of the draft, and go from there.

The lottery balls were not always in their favor, but they were still in a good position to load the organization with talent.

They have not picked lower than eighth in draft since 2012.

They have had two No. 2 overall picks and a No. 1 overall pick.

One of those No. 2 overall picks produced Jack Eichel, and while he may not be on McDavid’s level he is still a bonafide star and a player that should, by year four in the NHL, be the centerpiece of a playoff team.

The other one was used on Sam Reinhart, who was taken one spot ahead of Draisaitl.

The result of all of those top-10 picks and a full-scale rebuild is a team that is headed for its eight consecutive non-playoff season (and 10th in the past 12 years) and has not won a playoff series since 2007.

Things have been so bad this decade that if they maintain their current pace and reach 83 points it would be their best finish since 2012. Based on the current Eastern Conference playoff projections, that would keep them 12 points out of a Wild Card spot and 24 points behind the third place team in their own division.

Again, this is a team that two months into the season they had the best record in the league thanks in large part to that 10-game winning streak!

That is where the problems really start to show.

In the 58 games independent of that fluke run they playing at a 69 point pace over 82 games, which is just about on par with what every Sabres team has done over the past few years. And remember the context of that winning streak: Nothing about it was sustainable. Seven of those 10 games were won in overtime or a shootout, while nine of them were decided by a single goal. If even two or three of those games go in the other direction (which can easily happen when you rely on that many overtimes and shootouts) the season easily gets even worse.

And that is pretty much the point here. Six years into this process and the Sabres are on their third head coach (probably soon-to-be fourth), their second general manager, and are only marginally better than they were when the whole thing started. And that is after getting the franchise player, who has been just as good as advertised, that they so desperately needed to start the rebuild.

Once you get beyond Eichel, Reinhart, Jeff Skinner, and top pick Rasmus Dahlin the remainder of the roster is just so painfully bland that it is almost impossible to see where any short-term improvement can come from within, and that is before you consider the fact that Skinner is a free agent after this season. He very easily could — and probably should — test the open market this summer where he would probably the second-best player available. He could pick his team and name his price given the season he has had.

If he goes? Well … there is probably not another 40-goal winger that is a perfect fit alongside your franchise center that is going to be walking through that door.

For things to get dramatically better they need to keep Skinner. They need Dahlin to become a superstar (not just a good player, but an actual superstar on defense). They need Casey Mittelstadt to live up to the hype. They need Tage Thompson to just simply be passable or decent (and 12 points in 58 games isn’t passable) to make it look like the Ryan O'Reilly trade wasn’t a complete waste of everyone’s time.

Even if all of that happens — and when you are talking about multiple young players it almost never works out exactly as you plan or hope with all of them — they still probably need five or six more quality pieces just to get back to wild card contention, let alone catch up to the powerhouse teams at the top of the Atlantic Division.

It is almost as if they need a rebuild from the rebuild.

That is not where anybody in Buffalo hoped, or expected, this team to be when the whole thing started five years ago. The whole thing has been a failure.

More: PHT Power Rankings: Capitals playing like champs again

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.

How Hurricanes can surge to Round 2

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The first round of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs has already seen two of the NHL’s powerhouse teams — the Pittsburgh Penguins and Tampa Bay Lightning — bow out, while the top two teams in the Western Conference — the Calgary Flames and San Jose Sharks — have already been pushed to the brink of elimination and are facing 3-1 series deficits.

The Carolina Hurricanes, who drew the defending Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals in their Round 1 matchup, are the other team that is trying to play the role of giant slayers.

Despite the 2-1 series deficit they are facing heading into Thursday’s Game 4 (7 p.m. ET; NBCSN; Live stream), they should have plenty of reason to feel good about their chances at successfully coming from behind and pulling off the upset.

Let’s start with this: The Hurricanes have been the better team during 5-on-5 play from pretty much the start of the series, and there really isn’t much room to debate that fact.

The Hurricanes’ Game 3 win was about as one-sided as a Stanley Cup playoff game can be, while they also carried the play for most of Game 1. There were a lot of encouraging signs to come out of that game if you’re the Hurricanes, despite the loss.

Overall Carolina has owned a 7-5 edge in goals during 5-on-5 play and, in true Hurricanes fashion, have completely dominated the shot attempt and scoring chance numbers for the series, and they really are not very close.

They are controlling the pace, they are dominating the scoring chances, and they have the all-important edge in goals.

The difference in the series at this point has come on special teams, particularly the performance of the Capitals’ power play unit in Game 1.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

It was there that the Capitals power play completely picked apart the Hurricanes and changed the game, not only scoring a pair of goals, but by also doing pretty much anything they wanted when it came to generating shots and chances. In only six minutes of power play time they had 15 shot attempts, generated nine scoring chances, and scored two goals to completely swing the game. If the Hurricanes were going to have a chance in the series that sort of dominance by the Capitals’ power play was not something that was going to be allowed to continue.

And it hasn’t.

In the two games since, the Hurricanes’ penalty kill has done a complete 180 on the Capitals’ power play and shown some pretty dramatic improvement, drastically cutting the number of shot attempts and scoring chances they have allowed. They have also not allowed a single goal, and that has to be the best sign of all for the Hurricanes.

It’s obviously only a three-game sampling, but the Hurricanes have demonstrated so far that they are perfectly capable of carrying the play at even-strength and getting the better of the Capitals when all things are even. It’s when the game turns to a special teams battle that the Capitals seem to be at their most dangerous, and if the Hurricanes can eliminate that advantage their chances of coming back in this series will significantly increase.

Not enough is made about just how good the Hurricanes’ blue line is and just how much they can frustrate opposing forwards in any situation. There is a perception about the Hurricanes that their dominant shot attempt and Corsi numbers are the result of them having a “shoot from anywhere” mentality. But it’s not necessarily about what they do with the puck that drives those numbers, it’s also about what they do when they don’t have the puck. And for several years now the Hurricanes have been one of the NHL’s best teams at limiting shots and shot attempts.

They are doing it to the Capitals at 5-on-5 in this series.

And now their penalty kill is starting to do it.

If all of that continues, this series could get really interesting, really fast on Thursday night.

(Data via Natural Stat Trick)

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.

The Wraparound: Sharks sticking with Jones as they face elimination

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The Wraparound is your daily look at the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs. We’ll break down each day’s matchups with the all-important television and live streaming information included.

Eleven goals on 54 shots. An .847 even strength save percentage. Two consecutive games allowing a goal on the first shot. Martin Jones couldn’t be found to speak to reporters after Game 3, which matches his on-ice performance during this series.

On Wednesday, he did speak, and he wasn’t there to talk about the past.

“What’s done is done,” Jones said. “It doesn’t matter at this point. We’re down 3-1. We’ve just got to win a game [Thursday].”

Peter DeBoer said he’s sticking with Jones as the San Jose Sharks face elimination tonight (10 p.m. ET; NBCSN; Live stream) against the Vegas Golden Knights down 3-1 in the series. Related to their goaltending problem, the Sharks have been playing catch up far too often, something you don’t want to happen with this Golden Knights team.

Since their Game 1 victory, the Sharks have not led at all and have allowed the opening goal after 58, 16, and 71 seconds, respectively, in the last three games. In their three losses they also allowed the second goal of the game to fall behind 2-0. That can quickly change your gameplan, and as they’ve tried to play more aggressively — sometimes succeeding when it’s far too late — Marc-Andre Fleury has been in their way.

“You’ve got to give him some credit, he’s made some good saves,” said Sharks captain Joe Pavelski. “[There has been] some posts, some pucks popping out the other side. But next game that can’t happen. Bottom line.”

The Sharks are 0-6 in franchise history when staring down a 3-1 deficit. Overcoming history is a big enough mountain to climb.

And when it comes to goaltending, DeBoer’s hands are tied. Aaron Dell wasn’t any better during the regular season, so it’s Jones, who has five years left on a deal carrying an annual cap hit of $5.75M, who will have to be the one to help bail them out of this situation that he played a role in creating.

“We’ve just got to make sure we take care of our home games here,” Jones said. “If we can push it to a Game 6, we know we can win a game in that building. And you never know what can happen.”

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

TODAY’S SCHEDULE

Game 4: Capitals at Hurricanes, 7 p.m. ET (Capitals lead 2-1): A forgettable Game 3 performance is in the rear-view mirror for the Capitals, who won’t let a tough game derail them. “As this group maybe proved last year, we kept calm,” said Nicklas Backstrom. “If anything happens — you score a goal or you let in a goal — you’ve got to keep calm, I think, and make sure you stick to the game plan.” PNC Arena will be lively again in hopes that the Hurricanes can even the series. (NBCSN; Live stream)

Game 5: Blues at Jets, 8:30 p.m. ET (Series tied 2-2): Mission accomplished for the Jets. They went to St. Louis down 2-0 in the series and head back home with things even following their 2-1 overtime win Tuesday night. “It’s going to look like this quite possibly for the next three games,” said Jets head coach Paul Maurice. “It’s going to be very, very tight. The whole team is going to have to play well, but you’re going to need one guy to put you over the top.” (USA Network; Live stream)

PHT’s 2019 Stanley Cup playoff previews
Capitals vs Hurricanes
Bruins vs. Maple Leafs

Predators vs. Stars
Blues vs. Jets
Flames vs. Avalanche
Sharks vs. Golden Knights

Power Rankings: Why your team won’t win the Stanley Cup
NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs: Round 1 schedule, TV info

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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.

Jets hoping home ice is finally an advantage in Game 5 vs. Blues

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Home ice, much like games in-hand, is only good unless you take advantage of it.

For the St. Louis Blues and Winnipeg Jets, neither team has benefited from the “advantage” part of “home-ice advantage.” Through four games, with the series knotted a two, the road team has been the victor as we shift back to Winnipeg for Game 5 Thursday night (8:30 p.m. ET; USA Network; Live stream). According to the NHL, only three best-of-seven series in Stanley Cup Playoffs history have the featured the road team winning each of the first five games.

Home ice hasn’t helped either team, but one team’s top line as completely dominated offensively.

The Blues need to get more from their No. 1 line of Vladimir Tarasenko, Ryan O’Reilly and Brayden Schenn. The trio have combined for only three goals in the series, compared to Winnipeg’s threesome of Kyle Connor, Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler, who have six goals and 15 points combined.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

“We’re a good line of good players and we’ll figure it out. It gets back to one shift at a time and making an impact,” said Blues forward Ryan O'Reilly. “If it’s something defensively or offensively… we know how to play the game, we know what our success looks like. It’s working for it.”

The Jets stars all hooked up for Connor’s overtime goal in Game 4.

“They drive for our team — all three of those guys and Mark in particular took his game to another level,” said Jets defenseman Josh Morrissey after Game 4 via the Winnipeg Sun. “Looking at last year’s playoffs, that’s what we see. We definitely like to see that out of him.”

The Blues and Jets each had similar road records during the regular season, with St. Louis picking up 21 away victories ands Winnipeg earning 22. But the Jets’ issues away from MTS Place date back to March when they dropped their final three home games before the Stanley Cup Playoffs began.

“I think it just goes to show that each game is a new challenge for both teams,” said Morrissey. “Coming here down 2-0 we had to be playing desperate hockey. We did a lot of good things in those first two games, but I thought we elevated our game in the last couple and that’s playoff hockey. I think for us, we love playing at home. Our fans really give us a lot of energy.”

The winner of Game 5 in a best-of-seven playoff series tied 2-2 is 205-55 all-time. The Jets will need the desperation they had in Games 3 and 4 to continue into Thursday night.

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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.

PHT Morning Skate: Kings introduce McLellan; another level for Zuccarello

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

•  Here’s today’s NBC Sports Stanley Cup Playoff update for April 18

• The Todd McLellan hire is an important one for Rob Blake, as the Los Angeles Kings GM knows he needs to get this right. [LA Times]

• Here are all 31 nominees for the 2019 King Clancy Trophy, awarded to “to the player who best exemplifies leadership qualities on and off the ice and has made a noteworthy humanitarian contribution in his community.” [NHL]

Justin Williams is putting a lot of friendships on hold as his Carolina Hurricanes look to top his old pals with the Washington Capitals. [NHL.com]

• The Winnipeg Jets are looking like the 2017-18 version just in time. [Sportsnet]

• Another level for Mats Zuccarello to reach? Dallas Stars head coach Jim Montgomery thinks so. [Dallas Morning News]

• A better Calgary Flames performance in Game 4 still wasn’t enough. [Calgary Sun]

• Columbus Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen on how he felt the morning after sweeping the Tampa Bay Lightning: “A little relief. “Tired. Happy. All those things.” [Toronto Sun]

David Savard has been a pleasant surprise for the Blue Jackets. [1st Ohio Battery]

• “Lightning becomes the disappointment all others will be measured against” [Tampa Bay Times]

• On Brad Marchand and turning a new leaf on the ice. [ESPN]

• Depth and resilience helped the New York Islanders eliminate the Pittsburgh Penguins. [SNY]

Phil Kessel on his future in Pittsburgh: “That’s a tough question to start. I don’t know at this point. We’ll see how it goes this summer.” [Post-Gazette]

• What’s next for the Penguins in regards to roster turnover this off-season? [Pensburgh]

• Ralph Krueger on his future now that he’s no longer chairman of Premier League club Southampton: “At the moment, it’s rather difficult to imagine getting back into day-to-day business immediately and taking over a team.” [Swiss Hockey News]

• Former NHLer Brent Sopel talks about his battle with dyslexia and his travels with the Stanley Cup. [Grandstand Central]

• Some names to ponder as the Buffalo Sabres seek a replacement for Phil Housley. [Buffalo Hockey Beat]

• Fun look at some very weird hockey cards from the 1990s. [Puck Junk]

• Finally, in the latest episode of “Off the Ice with Kathryn Tappen,” Blue Jackets star Cam Atkinson reflects on his upbringing, and later reminisces with one of his brothers over a game of pool:

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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.