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.

The Playoff Buzzer: Rantanen pushes Flames to brink; Pastrnak emerges from slumber

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  • Pastrnak awakes, scores twice as Boston even series 2-2
  • Roope Hintz scores a brace as Stars make it rain on Predators to even series 2-2
  • Mikko. Rantanen. Two goals, one to tie the game late in the third, a second to win it in overtime and give Colorado a 3-1 series edge 

Bruins 6, Maple Leafs 4 (Series tied 2-2)

The Bruins responded, just as they did in Game 2. David Pastrnak scored twice and Zdeno Chara became the second oldest defenseman in the NHL to score a playoff goal, one that stood as the game-winner as a 5-2 lead evaporated late for the Bruins. This series shifts back to Boston now.

Stars 5, Predators 1 (Series tied 2-2)

Four goals were scored in the opening 13:45 of the first period. Dallas, of course, scored all of them and Pekka Rinne‘s night was done early. That’s the story of this one as the Stars won the game in the first period and held the Predators at bay for the rest of the night.

Avalanche 3, Flames 2 (Colorado leads 3-1)

A wild third-period comeback. A wild overtime. One hell of a save. One hell of a penalty kill. And one epic comeback.

All these things converged to give the Avs a commanding 3-1 series lead on the best team in the Western Conference during the regular season. Mikko Rantanen starred, scoring the tying goal in the third period late and then converting in overtime.

Three stars

1. Mikko Rantanen, Colorado Avalanche

What can you say about the young Finn that hasn’t been said already?

A game-tying goal on the power play with 2:50 to go in the third period off an incredible pass from Nathan MacKinnon, and then an overtime winner to push Calgary to the brink of elimination.

2. David Pastrnak, Boston Bruins

‘Pasta’ picked a good game to start cooking with the sauce. He grabbed his first two goals of the series to put the Bruins up 4-2, and they held on to a 6-2 win to even the best-of-7 series 2-2.

3. Roope Hintz, Dallas Stars

Like Pastrnak, Hintz, too, had a brace, scoring his first and second goals of the series as the Stars dropped the Preds 5-1.

Hintz nearly had a hat trick, but his shorthanded attempt rung off the iron.

Highlights of the night

Pastrnak show:

Grubauer with an epic save in OT:

Factoids

  • Old man Chara still doing things, like becoming the second oldest d-man to score a playoff goal. (NHL PR)
  • Pekka Rinne was pulled from a playoff game for the 10th time in his career. (Sportsnet Stats)
  • Calgary has never won a playoff series where they’ve trailed 3-1. (Sportsnet Stats)

Thursday’s Games
Game 4: Capitals at Hurricanes (WSH leads 2-1), 7 p.m. ET, NBCSN (Live Stream)
Game 5: Blues at Jets (Series tied 2-2) 8:30 p.m. ET; USA, (Live stream)
Game 5: Golden Knights at Sharks (Vegas leads 3-1), 10 p.m. ET; NBCSN (Live stream)


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Rantanen leads Avalanche in OT comeback win against Flames

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For most of Game 4, it looked like Flames goaltender Mike Smith would be the hero, but just as they did in Game 3, the Colorado Avalanche bombarded him and eventually it worked. Mikko Rantanen played an instrumental role, scoring the game-tying goal late in the third and then the overtime winner in Colorado’s 3-2 victory.

The Calgary Flames were tied for second in the league in goals scored during the regular season, but so far Smith has been their most important player. The 37-year-old goaltender earned Calgary’s only win of the series by posting a 26-save shutout. The Avalanche have made life too difficult for him lately though.

Just one game after the Avalanche managed to blowout Calgary by launching an overwhelming 56 shots at Smith, they sent another 52 shots his way Wednesday night. Smith held firm though for most of the game. His efforts combined with goals from Elias Lindholm and Derek Ryan gave the Flames a 2-0 lead by 6:58 of the third period. That’s despite the Avalanche firing 17 shots in the first period and 15 in the second.

Eventually though, their persistence paid off. Barely a minute after Ryan’s goal, Smith made a great save on Matt Calvert, but J.T. Compher picked up the rebound to finally get Colorado on the board. It was a start, but that might have been as close as Colorado got if not for some late penalty troubles by Calgary. Mikael Backlund took a tripping penalty at 16:39 and Noah Hanifin was penalized for a puck over the glass at 17:23.

The Backlund penalty was the one the Avalanche capitalized on, courtesy of Rantanen shoveling a Nathan MacKinnon centering pass into the net. That pushed the game into an overtime period that lasted 10:23 minutes before Rantanen scored again to complete the comeback.

With that, the Colorado Avalanche have a 3-1 series lead despite dropping their playoff opener. At this point, the Flames would have to make franchise history to advance as they’re 0-8 when trailing a series 3-1.

In a Round 1 that’s already featured some major surprises, the Avalanche seem on course to deliver yet another. Of course, hope isn’t lost for the Flames yet, but if they are to bounce back, they’ll need to rely on Smith less. He’s already had to face 173 shots in this series, which is 28 more than any other goaltender.

Avalanche-Flames Game 5 from Scotiabank Saddledome will be Friday night at 10:00 p.m. ET on NBCSN

Ryan Dadoun is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @RyanDadoun.

Stars chase Rinne early, win big to even series vs. Predators

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Four goals on eight shots in just under 14 minutes in the first period. In as tight of a series as it’s been between the Nashville Predators and Dallas Stars, Wednesday’s aberration on the scoreboard was a byproduct of Dallas squad that simply took advantage of many of their opportunities in a 5-1 win.

Swiss-cheese goaltending and a porous defensive effort certainly didn’t help the Preds as Dallas evened the best-of-7 series 2-2, but Dallas played the game that helped them down the stretch in the regular season, and it was effective.

[2019 NBC STANLEY CUP PLAYOFFS HUB]

The first three games of the series had been decided by a single goal, meaning every opportunity to fire one into the back of the net had a little extra meaning to it. Both Pekka Rinne, who was yanked after a terrible opening 14 minutes, and Ben Bishop had been superb, a continuation of their stellar regular-season play.

But when the dam cracked in the Predators crease on Wednesday, it didn’t take long before it all came crashing down.

Dallas imposed their will on the Preds from the onset.

In the first five minutes, they had drawn two penalties and converted on both of their power play chances (one by Roope Hintz, the other by Alex Radulov). Their suffocating style kept Nashville struggling to make it through the neutral zone.

Conversely, the Stars had no issues working their way into the Nashville end of the ice, with Andrew Cogliano‘s goal to make it 3-0 a prime example of a great break out and some lazy defending by the Predators. Mats Zuccarello‘s third of the series was another power-marker, a snipe job from the slot that ended Rinne’s night.

Hintz found the net for his second of the playoffs and second of the game in the second. Hintz nearly scored shorthanded, too, but his attempt ringed off the post to deny his hat trick.

Ben Bishop’s shutout bid ended nearing the mid-way mark of the third as Roman Josi sent a seeing-eye wrist shot past the Vezina candidate. It’s some consolation as the series shifts back to Tennessee this weekend, although Dallas mostly sat back on the lead they built in the final 20.

Stars-Predators Game 5 from Bridgestone Arena goes Saturday at 3 p.m. ET on NBC


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

David Pastrnak breaks out, leads Bruins to 6-4 win over Leafs in Game 4

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One of the biggest concerns for the Boston Bruins through the first three games of Round 1 was David Pastrnak‘s lack of offensive contributions. On Wednesday, Pastrnak was the difference in Boston’s 6-4 victory over Toronto.

Down 2-1 in the series, the Bruins got an early opportunity in their quest to even the series when Connor Brown was sent to the sin bin for holding just 1:08 minutes into the game. Initially, the Bruins had trouble getting anything going in their power play, but the end result is all that matters and in this case it was a goal from Charlie McAvoy in the dying seconds of the man advantage. Just 3:35 minutes later, Brad Marchand pushed the Bruins’ lead to 2-0.

Toronto heated up late in the first though and was aided by a couple Bruins penalties in quick succession. Technically Boston killed off both penalties, but Zach Hyman found the back of the net through traffic mere seconds after the second power-play opportunity expired.

Auston Matthews evened the contest just 1:07 minutes into the second period, but that’s when Pastrnak woke up. He scored his first two goals of the series just 1:35 minutes apart to establish another two-goal lead for Boston.

Speaking of players who hadn’t scored yet in this series. Zdeno Chara managed to mash one past Leafs goaltender Frederik Andersen at 5:39 of the third to expand the Bruins’ lead to 5-2.

That extra goal proved to be critical. McAvoy was caught hi-sticking. His previous penalty was the one that led to the Hyman goal, even if Boston technically completed its penalty kill just before Hyman scored. This time around Matthews needed just 10 seconds of power-play time to net his second goal of the game. With new life breathed into the Maple Leafs, Travis Dermott scored at 13:27 and suddenly Boston’s lead was just a goal.

It was enough to make the ending interesting, but not change the outcome. Boston held on and Joakim Nordstrom got the empty netter with just two seconds left to close out the game.

For the second time in this series, the Bruins have successfully responded to a Toronto victory. This win also put the onus back on the Maple Leafs to win another game at TD Garden. The Bruins haven’t had the series lead yet, but with two of the final three games at home, they’re the ones in the enviable position going forward.

Maple Leafs-Bruins Game 5 from TD Garden will be Friday night at 7:00 p.m. ET on NBCSN

Ryan Dadoun is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @RyanDadoun.