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.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.