What Went Wrong: 2020-21 Buffalo Sabres

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As the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs approach, NHL teams will start getting mathematically eliminated from contention. PHT’s “What Went Wrong” series aims to analyze why each team missed the playoffs. The “What Went Wrong” series begins with the Buffalo Sabres, the first team to be officially eliminated.

When you ask most hockey fans “what went wrong with the 2020-21 Buffalo Sabres?,” plenty will answer ” … Everything.”

Speaking more literally, that’s an exaggeration. But that’s certainly how it must feel to be a Sabres fan in 2020-21, and likely how it often felt to be a player or staffer. With that in mind, there’s a lot to chew on when it comes to dissecting the Sabres’ spectacular failure of a 2020-21 season.

(Note: full season Sabres stats from before Buffalo’s 2-0 loss to the Bruins from Tuesday.)

What went wrong before the Sabres 2020-21 season

Look, the Buffalo Sabres didn’t tie an NHL record by extending their playoff drought to a haunting 10 consecutive seasons because of any single failure.

Instead, the Sabres have made mistakes at virtually every level, and you could say that the 2020-21 team boiled down to paying for past sins as much as anything else.

  • As much as people want to heap blame on Jack Eichel, his development hasn’t been the problem.

Instead, the Sabres haven’t been able to find much NHL talent outside of the first round. And, unfortunately, even some of their high first-round picks haven’t panned out. Not every situation is as bad as trading 2016 eighth overall pick Alex Nylander for a marginal defenseman, but there are a lot of swings-and-misses.

To an extent, the 2020-21 Buffalo Sabres suffered for the franchise’s past sins as much as anything else.

  • They’ve failed to make up for draft and develop struggles by flubbing free agency, too.

To be fair to Kevyn Adams, the Taylor Hall signing probably should’ve gone better. Most importantly, he didn’t make a huge gamble by giving Hall a bunch of term.

Unfortunately, the Sabres are paying for previous GMs failing to learn those lessons. From Ville Leino and Matt Moulson to Kyle Okposo and Jeff Skinner, this franchise has been saddled with terrible contracts.

Either way, though, there haven’t been many free agent additions to paper over failures in drafting and developing prospects.

  • They haven’t found the right coach, either.

For all the positive buzz Ralph Krueger brought in, he couldn’t put it together for the Sabres.

No doubt, some of that boils down to weak personnel. Even so, Krueger didn’t always hit all the right notes. Healthy-scratching Jeff Skinner for multiple games only made matters worse. It’s possible that he shackled Rasmus Dahlin and others with his defensive system, too.

What went wrong during the Sabres’ 2020-21 season

While people praised some of Kevyn Adams’ work in surprisingly landing Taylor Hall and shrewdly trading for Eric Staal, it wasn’t enough to raise expectations too high. After all, no one polled by PHT picked the Sabres to make the playoffs in 2020-21.

Still, it was surprising to see the Sabres reach new lows in 2020-21, but that’s exactly what (agonizingly) happened.

Bad luck

Hockey can be a sport of cruel bounces. While the Sabres paid for mistakes of the past (recent, but mostly before Adams’ time), their 2020-21 season felt like a series of worst-case scenarios.

During January, the Sabres looked average (sometimes downright good) according to underlying metrics, but their results were below-average. As one example, the Sabres only scored eight goals on 86 high-danger chances at even-strength, while allowing 12 goals on the 71 high-danger chances they allowed.

At that time, the Sabres were probably cursing their bad luck, but it would get a lot worse. Unfortunately, the Sabres’ 2020-21 season experienced a serious COVID-related disruption. Word was that Rasmus Ristolainen dealt with significant issues, and even then-head-coach Ralph Krueger tested positive.

From there, the Sabres’ actual play gradually started to match their dismal record … until they set some dismal NHL records.

If you want to summarize the Sabres’ lousy luck during the 2020-21 season most simply, turn to Taylor Hall. In 37 games with the Sabres, Hall only scored two goals on a 2.3 shooting percentage, easily the worst of his career. Hall needed just three games to reach two goals with the Bruins, and his shooting percentage with Boston dipped to 18.2 after “settling” for an assist in his fourth Bruins game.

Naturally, the Sabres dealt with injuries, too. But between a daunting lack of puck luck and the unique challenges of COVID, some big bounces went against them.

That 18-game winless streak, and Krueger’s firing

Even for a bad team — and an unlucky one — it’s still stunning that the Sabres suffered through that 18-game winless streak.

PHT’s Adam Gretz broke down some of the numbers from the Sabres’ 18-game winless streak, and it’s staggering stuff.

  • The Sabres were outscored 74-30 during that 18-game winless streak, making for a -44 goal differential.
  • Buffalo ranked last in goals per game and goals against per game, and in the bottom-three in shots per game, shots against per game, save percentage, and on the power play.
  • Only two Sabres scored more than two goals during that 18-game winless streak: Sam Reinhart (six) and Jeff Skinner (three).

(There’s more, so check out Gretz’s piece.)

Once the Sabres lost their 12th game in a row, they decided to fire Ralph Krueger. Really, it all seemed inevitable, especially when Krueger pointed to the team’s fragile psyche and said they were in a “dark, dark place.”

You almost wonder if injuries to Jack Eichel and others felt like missed blessings, as they no longer had to slog through the Sabres’ miserable 2020-21 season. Yes, it was that bad.

Bad enough to make a rebuild harder, thanks to plummeting market value for a Taylor Hall trade, and so on.

So, the Sabres were unlucky, but they were also bad. There’s only so much you can do to sugarcoat that.

What went right for the Sabres?

Obviously, the larger answer is “not much.” That said, you can shine a light on a few things.

  • Through February, the Sabres boasted one of the best power plays in the NHL. During that span, they connected on 31.2-percent of their chances (19 PPG on 61 opportunities), the third-best rate in the league.

It’s unclear if Victor Olofsson can develop beyond being a power-play specialist, yet it’s clear that his shot is a useful weapon in that area.

  • Sam Reinhart continues to establish himself as a quality piece. No, he’s not the superstar you dream of when selecting second overall, but he could be part of the solution in Buffalo. Maybe.
  • Quietly or not, Linus Ullmark put together a pretty good season — again.
  • If Jack Eichel’s willing to stick around, he’s a true star, and he’s still only 24.

What’s next?

In trying to fix the Sabres, GM Kevyn Adams has his hands full. He needs to re-sign (or trade) RFAs, such as Sam Reinhart. And, no doubt about it, the Sabres either need to trade Jack Eichel, or at least find ways to maintain his morale.

Really, it’s such a complicated process that it justifies its own post. So stay tuned for that.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Stars expect to open camp without unsigned scorer Jason Robertson

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FRISCO, Texas — Young 40-goal scorer Jason Robertson is expected to miss the start of training camp for the Dallas Stars because the team and the restricted free agent haven’t agreed on a new contract.

General manager Jim Nill said there’s been steady, ongoing negotiations over the last couple of weeks with Robertson and his representatives. Nill wouldn’t say what has kept the two sides from reaching a deal, adding there have been “very good discussions.”

The Stars, with new coach Pete DeBoer, open camp Thursday in Cedar Park, Texas, at the home of their AHL team. They have three days of work there before returning to North Texas for their exhibition opener at home on Monday night. They open the regular season Oct. 13 at Nashville.

“I think he’s disappointed he’s not at camp, we are too,” Nill said before the team departed for the Austin area. “I think it’s very important for a younger player and as you mentioned, the (new) coaching staff. … We do have some time on our side, but we wish he gets here as soon as he can.”

Robertson had a base salary of $750,000 last season, the end of a $2.775 million, three-year contract. He still has five more years before he has the opportunity to become an unrestricted free agent.

The left wing turned 23 soon after the end of last season, when he had 41 goals and 38 assists for 79 points in his 74 games. Robertson joined Hockey Hall of Famer Mike Modano, Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin as the only 40-goal scorers since the franchise moved to Dallas in 1993.

A second-round draft pick by the Stars in 2017, Robertson has 125 points (58 goals, 67 assists) in his 128 NHL games. He had one goal and three assists in his first postseason action last season, when Dallas lost its first-round playoff series in seven games against Calgary.

DeBoer said he looks forward to coaching Robertson, but that the forward’s absence won’t change his plans for camp.

“It doesn’t impact what I’m doing,” DeBoer said. “Listen, I laid awake at night with the excitement of coaching Jason Robertson, 40-plus goals, but he’s not here. So, you know, until he gets here, I can’t spend any energy on that.”

Nill said the Stars are open to a long-term extension or a bridge contract for Robertson, who was part of the team’s top line last season with veteran Joe Pavelski and Roope Hintz. They combined for 232 points, the second-most in franchise history for a trio.

“We’re open to anything. But other than that … I’m not going to negotiate through the media,” Nill said. “As I said, we’ve had good conversations. We’ll see where it goes.”

Training camps open around NHL after another short offseason

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Training camps open around the NHL after another short offseason, a third in a row squeezed by the pandemic. That doesn’t bother Colorado Avalanche star Nathan MacKinnon one bit.

For one of hockey’s best players and his teammates, it’s already time to get back on the ice and defend their Stanley Cup title, less than three months since they knocked off the back-to-back champion Tampa Bay Lightning.

“I still feel like I just was playing,” MacKinnon said. “I took two weeks off, and then I started skating again. It’s just fun. I enjoy it, and I like the short summer. It feels like the season’s just kind of rolling over again.”

The NHL rolls into fall coming off an entertaining playoffs and final with the chance to finally get back on a normal schedule. That means full camps for teams that got new coaches and the benefits of a regular routine.

That means a mere 88 days between Game 6 of the final and the first-on ice practice sessions.

“We’re kind of used to it now,” Tampa Bay goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy said after he and the Lightning lost in the final for the first time in three consecutive trips. “It’s a little harder, of course, because you don’t have that much time to rest. It’s basically a few weeks and you have to get back at it. But, yeah, I can’t complain. You want your summers to be short every year.”

It was a little longer for Connor McDavid and the Oilers after losing to Colorado in the West final. Despite the lack of downtime, McDavid “wouldn’t trade that in for anything” and aims to make it even further since Edmonton shored up its goaltending situation by adding Jack Campbell.

A few spins of the goalie carousel ended with the Avalanche acquiring Alexandar Georgiev from the New York Rangers and Cup winner Darcy Kuemper landing with Washington. Joining new teammates, many of whom hoisted the Cup in 2018, Kuemper is not worried about less time off.

“It was definitely a very unique summer,” Kuemper said. “With how short it was, you start getting back into the gym and you’re kind of a little bit worried that your training’s going to be so short. But you kind of felt like you weren’t getting back into shape. You were already there.”

NEW COACHES

The Oilers are one of several teams settling in for training camp under a new coach. Jay Woodcroft took over as interim coach in February but has the full-time job now.

“Looking forward to a camp with him,” McDavid said. “He did a great job coming in during the middle of the season, but it’s never easy on a coach, for sure. I’m sure there’s things that he wanted to touch on that you wasn’t able to kind of in the middle of the year, so he’ll be able to to touch on all of it this year.”

The same goes for Bruce Boudreau in Vancouver, 11 months since being put in charge of the Canucks. Philadelphia’s John Tortorella, Boston’s Jim Montgomery, Vegas’ Bruce Cassidy, Dallas’ Peter DeBoer, Florida’s Paul Maurice, Chicago’s Luke Richardson, Detroit’s Derek Lalonde and the New York Islanders’ Lane Lambert are all starting the job fresh.

CAMP TRYOUTS

Roughly 40 players are attending a camp on a professional tryout agreement with the chance to earn a contract for the season. James Neal has that opportunity with the Blue Jackets, and Derek Stepan returned to Carolina to seek a job with the Hurricanes.

The most intriguing situation involves 37-year-old center Eric Staal, who agreed to the tryout with Florida the same time brother Marc signed a one-year contract. Younger brother Jordan was with Eric and Marc on the 18th green at Pebble Beach to witness the occasion.

“They’re both just super pumped, as was I,” said Jordan Staal, who is the captain of the Hurricanes. “Eric is excited about the opportunity and Marc, as well. Really cool. Really cool thing.”

EARLY START

Before the puck drops on the NHL season in North America on Oct. 11, the Nashville Predators and San Jose Sharks play twice in Prague on Oct. 7 and 8. And those are not exhibitions.

“We still play two important games,” said Sharks forward Tomas Hertl, who is a native of Prague. “It’s not just preseason where you coming here to warm up.”

Colorado and Columbus will also play two games in Tampere, Finland, on Nov. 4-5 as part of the NHL’s Global Series.

And just as the league gets used to a regular schedule, work is ongoing between the league and NHL Players’ Association to stage a World Cup of Hockey in February 2024, which is popular among players even if it knocks the calendar off kilter again.

“I think they missed out on a huge, huge portion of the international game that’s really going to be missed,” McDavid said. “We need to figure out a way to get an international tournament in as quickly as possible.”

Matthew Tkachuk, Panthers ready for 1st training camp together

Candice Ward-USA TODAY Sports
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CORAL SPRINGS, Fla. — Aleksander Barkov was sound asleep at his home in Finland when the trade that brought Matthew Tkachuk to the Florida Panthers was finalized, which isn’t surprising considering it was around 4 a.m. in that part of the world.

He woke up and read texts from friends reacting to the deal.

And it wasn’t too long before he got a message from Tkachuk.

“The first message was `(expletive) right’ and how he was excited to come to Florida,” Barkov, the Panthers’ captain, said at Florida’s media day. “`Let’s take this next step, let’s be a winning team for many years to come.’ That’s who he is. He wants to win. He wants to bring that character to this organization. And I think he’s done some damage already.”

With that, Barkov was sold.

And after a few weeks of informally skating with one another, the Panthers start the process of officially seeing what they have in Tkachuk when the team’s training camp – the first under new coach Paul Maurice – opens.

“We’ve basically had everybody here for a few weeks,” Tkachuk said. “I feel like I’ve been in training camp for a couple of weeks. So today doesn’t feel that new to me. I’ve gotten to know everybody … so let’s get these games going. I’m sick and tired of just practicing and working. I want to start playing some games. I think everybody feels the same way.”

Maurice was hired over the summer as well, inheriting a team that won the Presidents’ Trophy last season and went to the second round of the playoffs — the first series win for Florida since the run to the Stanley Cup Final in 1996.

He’s as eager as the players are for the first formal practice, calling it “our first Christmas.”

“The house is bought. Most of the boxes are unpacked,” Maurice said. “I’ve got two kids that kind of came with me; one’s in Coral Gables, one’s in Estero. Their places are unpacked. They’re out of our house. Once you get down here, for me, you spend most of your days at the rink. So, experiencing all of South Florida, we haven’t gotten to that yet.”

As part of the deal that went down on July 22, the 24-year-old Tkachuk signed a eight-year, $76 million contract. That’s not the only big cost that the Panthers had to agree to while executing the trade; they also sent Jonathan Huberdeau, the franchise’s all-time scoring leader, and defenseman MacKenzie Weegar to the Calgary Flames in exchange for a left wing who had career bests of 42 goals, 62 assists and 104 points last season.

“I wish all the best to Huby and Weegs,” Barkov said. “They’re great. Everyone loved them. Only good things to say about them. It happens, and for sure, it was best for the team and organization to do this. We move on, and we’ll get ready for a new season.”

BOBROVSKY’S SUMMER

Panthers goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky is Russian, still makes his home in St. Petersburg, and went there for the bulk of his offseason.

He said it was not logistically difficult to travel there (or return to the U.S.) this summer, even as the war that started when Russia invaded Ukraine continues. Bobrovsky said last season that he was not trying to focus on anything but hockey, and when asked if it was difficult to be back in Russia as war continues he kept the same approach.

“I had a good summer,” Bobrovsky said. “I saw friends, I saw family. It’s all been fine. I don’t want to talk about what’s going on. I’m not involved in that stuff.”

CAMP ROSTER

Florida is opening camp with 56 players – 31 forwards, 19 defensemen and six goalies. That group includes brothers Eric Staal and Marc Staal; Marc Staal signed as a free agent in July; Eric Staal is with Florida on a tryout contract.

Coyotes sign Barrett Hayton right before training camp

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SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — The Arizona Coyotes signed forward Barrett Hayton to a two-year contract right before the start of training camp.

Terms of the deal were not released.

The 22-year-old Hayton was a restricted free agent and not initially listed on Arizona’s roster for camp.

Hayton had 10 goals and 14 assists in 60 games with the Coyotes last season, all career highs.

Arizona drafted the Peterborough, Ontario native with the fifth overall pick of the 2018 NHL draft. He has 13 goals and 18 assists in 94 career games with the Coyotes.