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.

WATCH LIVE: Flyers host Sabres on NBCSN

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Monday’s matchup between the Buffalo Sabres and Philadelphia Flyers. Coverage begins at 6 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

This game figures to be crucial as both teams chase the Hurricanes and Penguins, who are tied with 72 points for the final Eastern Conference wild card spot. Though the Sabres (10th in East) sit one point ahead of the Flyers (11th), their recent play has them going in opposite directions.

Philadelphia is 13-3-1 in its last 17 games and are coming off dramatic 4-3 overtime win vs. the Penguins in Saturday’s Stadium Series game. Meanwhile, the Buffalo is 1-4-1 in its last 6 games, including Monday night’s 5-3 defeat at Toronto. The Sabres have not won two in a row in over two months.

After snapping a four-game losing streak on Saturday against Washington, and then taking a 1-0 lead into the first intermission yesterday against Toronto, it appeared that the Sabres were building some momentum. However, Buffalo allowed four goals in the second period, saw Carter Hutton get pulled, and ultimately lost 5-3.

The Flyers have had a couple days off since their improbable comeback victory in the Stadium Series game at Lincoln Financial Field. Trailing 3-1 with just over three minutes to play, Philly rallied to tie the game before Claude Giroux – in his 800th career game – scored the OT winner.

Just when it appeared that Carter Hart was finally providing some stability in net, he was pulled in back-to-back starts last week before getting ruled out for at least 10 days with a lower-body injury in advance of the Stadium Series game. In stepped Brian Elliott, who made 40 saves to defeat the Penguins in his first start since November 15 (he did appear twice in relief of Hart earlier in the week). Elliott will start again in this game.

Since winning their 10th straight game on Nov. 27 to claim 1st place in the entire NHL, Buffalo has been a very below-average team. They have a 12-19-6 record over that span and have dropped from first in the NHL in 17th.

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 6 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

What: Buffalo Sabres at Philadelphia Flyers
Where: Wells Fargo Center
When: Tuesday, Feb. 26, 6 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
Live stream: You can watch the Sabres-Flyers stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

SABRES
Jeff SkinnerJack EichelEvan Rodrigues
Conor ShearyCasey MittelstadtSam Reinhart
Scott Wilson – Vladimir Sobotka – Jason Pominville
Zemgus GirgensonsJohan LarssonKyle Okposo

Jake McCabeRasmus Ristolainen
Rasmus DahlinZach Bogosian
Marco ScandellaBrandon Montour

Starting goalie: Carter Hutton

FLYERS
Claude Giroux – Nolan PatrickTravis Konecny
Oskar LindblomSean CouturierJakub Voracek
James van RiemsdykScott LaughtonMichael Raffl
Corban Knight – Ryan Hartman

Ivan ProvorovTravis Sanheim
Shayne GostisbehereRadko Gudas
Robert HaggAndrew MacDonald

Phil Myers

Starting goalie: Brian Elliott

Gord Miller (play-by-play) and Brian Boucher (‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst) will have the call from Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, Pa.

Sabres shuffle lines looking for spark

What a difference two months makes.

The Buffalo Sabres were the darlings of the NHL back in November when they tied a franchise record with 10 straight wins and sat atop the NHL standings at 17-6-2. But since that 10-game winning streak, the Sabres are just 8-14-4 with 20 points, which is tied for the fewest in the league during that span.

During Monday’s practice head coach Phil Housley drastically shuffled his lineup and placed his top three scorers – Jack Eichel, Jeff Skinner and Sam Reinhart – on three separate lines. Eichel centered the top line between Conor Sheary and Kyle Okposo, Skinner skated alongside Casey Mittelstadt and Jason Pominville, and Reinhart moved to the third line beside Evan Rodrigues and C.J. Smith.

At 1.13 points per game, Eichel is without question Buffalo’s best player. The captain’s playmaking ability could help spark Sheary and Okposo, who have both had down seasons, but have shown promise in the past, especially when playing next to superstars. Sheary was extremely productive when skating alongside Sidney Crosby in Pittsburgh. He tallied 53 points and 23 goals in just 61 games during the 2016-17 season with the Penguins. Okposo’s best years came in his final three seasons with the New York Islanders, when he registered 69, 51 and 64 points respectively before signing a 7-year, $42 million deal with Buffalo in July of 2016. A significant portion of those Islander years were spent alongside John Tavares. Both Sheary and Okposo have struggled to find the same consistency since joining the Sabres. Perhaps this is the catalyst to get them going.

Skinner’s 31 goals are tied for second in the NHL, trailing only Alex Ovechkin. The pending unrestricted free agent has been a perfect match with Eichel all year and is seemingly in line for a big pay day. He’ll now look to find the same chemistry with the 20-year-old Mittelstadt and 36-year-old Pominville. Mittelstadt has struggled mightily with just two goals and six points in his last 19 games. The veteran Pominville has been even less productive, with four points and two goals over his past 25 games.

Meanwhile, Reinhart has 45 points and is on pace for 72, which would shatter his previous career-high of 50 set last season. The rookie Smith has played in just four games this season and six in his young career. He scored his first NHL goal in his last game back on January 8 against New Jersey. Rodrigues has started to pick up the pace with seven points and four goals in his last nine games.

Despite their struggles over the last two months, the Sabres are only three points out of a playoff spot. Now would be an ideal time for them to make a push, as they are in the middle of a season-long seven-game homestand that continues Tuesday night against Minnesota.

MORE: Sabres goalies need to shake off tough month

Struggling Sabres won’t have Eichel for at least two games

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A lot has gone right for the Buffalo Sabres so far this season, which is not something you’d say about this franchise since … the Chris Drury days, maybe?

Things can fall apart alarmingly quickly in the modern NHL, however, and the Sabres face some challenges as 2018 turned to 2019.

Consider that, after their stunning 10-game winning streak, the Sabres enjoyed a 17-6-2 record, even briefly earning a spot atop the entire NHL. While the Sabres are engaged in a tug-of-war with the Bruins for the Atlantic’s third spot, they’ve come down to Earth, having only won four games (4-7-4) since that surprising winning streak.

Bringing a three-game losing streak into Thursday’s home game against the Florida Panthers would be bad enough, but it gets worse when you realize that Phil Housley’s ruling Jack Eichel out for at least the next two games.

Eichel isn’t getting much Hart Trophy buzz, yet – with all due respect to Evan Rodrigues – things get dicey without Buffalo’s captain.

Via Left Wing Lock, the Sabres are expected to place Rodrigues on what’s been an impressive top line, as Eichel normally combines with Jeff Skinner and Sam Reinhart.

Things get stark beyond that, particularly with Vladimir Sobotka pressed into second-line duty. (Sobotka’s suffering with really bad possession numbers, and only has five points in 37 games during his first season with the Sabres after that Ryan O'Reilly trade.)

There’s not much sense in straining too hard to look for positives here, although there are some interesting things to consider:

  • How will Skinner play without Eichel?

It’s been downright refreshing to see Skinner flourish with an elite center, even if Buffalo’s capologists will disagree regarding the pending free agent. Skinner’s long been an underrated scorer – at least since he’s gotten over scary concussion issues earlier in his career – so this near-point-per-game pace has been fun to watch.

That said, Skinner’s play has undoubtedly been enhanced by Eichel’s presence, not to mention well-timed puck luck (21.3 shooting percentage), which has helped him exceed last season’s 24 goals with 26 already in 2018-19.

Two/a few games wouldn’t stand as the sort of sample size to make any broader judgments about Skinner, yet they could provide an interesting look into how Skinner (and the Sabres) can perform without that star center.

When I first heard about Eichel missing time, I wondered if the silver lining could be Mittelstadt getting a chance to take a bigger role, possibly even stepping into that top center gig.

Of course, that would be a decision made based on his pedigree as a prominent draft pick and prospect, rather than what he’s accomplished so far this season.

After coming into 2018-19 with significant Calder Trophy buzz, Mittelstadt only has 11 points through 40 games while averaging just 13:29 TOI per game. His underlying numbers don’t exactly blow you away (at least not in a good way) either.

Still, I wonder if there’s upside to giving Mittelstadt that shot, rather than placing him in the fourth-line role it appears he’ll take on against Florida on Thursday. Sometimes a talented-but-struggling player can get a boost from playing with other skilled players. If nothing else, there seems like more upside to deploying Mittelstadt as the 2C rather than an also-struggling Sobotka.

Just throwing it out there.

  • But what about Eichel’s routine?

These details from SI’s Alex Prewitt seem less fun. Will Eichel at least get more control over the apples he’s eating now that he’s day-to-day?

***

Buffalo might learn some lessons with Eichel out, whether it’s for two games or more. Unfortunately, there’s a chance many of those lessons will end up being painful.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

WATCH LIVE: Capitals host Sabres on NBCSN

NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Friday night’s matchup between the Buffalo Sabres and the Washington Capitals with coverage beginning at 6 p.m. ET. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

This is the second of three meetings between the Sabres and Caps this season, following Washington’s 4-3 shootout win six days ago in D.C. The season series will conclude on Feb. 23 in Buffalo.

Buffalo is coming off a 5-2 loss at home to Florida – a game the Sabres led 2-1 after two periods. Buffalo had been 9-0-2 when leading after 40 minutes this season. In the 10 games since Buffalo’s team-record-tying 10-game win streak, they’ve gone 3-4-3.

The Sabres are getting the vast majority of their offensive production from their top line of Jeff Skinner, Jack Eichel, and Sam Reinhart. Skinner has already surpassed his goal total from last season (which was 24 in 82 games with Carolina), so given that he’s in a contract year, more and more attention is being paid to his future.

Though Alex Ovechkin was held off the scoresheet on Wednesday, he’s still scored 29 goals in 33 games, and is on pace to crack the 70-goal barrier. No one has scored 70 goals since Alexander Mogilny (with the Sabres) and Teemu Selanne both scored 76 in 1992-93.

With one more goal, Ovechkin would join former longtime Capital Mike Gartner as the only players in history to score 30-plus goals in each of their first 14 NHL seasons (Gartner did so in his first 15).

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 6 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

What: Buffalo Sabres at Washington Capitals
Where: Capital One Arena
When: Friday, Dec. 21, 6 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
Live stream: You can watch the Sabres-Capitals stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

SABRES
Jeff Skinner – Jack Eichel – Sam Reinhart
Conor ShearyVladimir SobotkaEvan Rodrigues
Zemgus GirgensonsCasey MittelstadtKyle Okposo
Remi ElieJohan LarssonTage Thompson

Rasmus DahlinZach Bogosian
Lawrence PilutRasmus Ristolainen
Marco ScandellaJake McCabe

Starting goalie: Carter Hutton

CAPITALS
Alex Ovechkin – Nicklas BackstromT.J. Oshie
Jakub VranaEvgeny KuznetsovTom Wilson
Andre BurakovskyLars EllerBrett Connolly
Chandler StephensonNic DowdDevante Smith-Pelly

Michal KempnyJohn Carlson
Dmitry OrlovMatt Niskanen
Jonas SiegenthalerMadison Bowey

Starting goalie: Braden Holtby

————

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.