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.

Sabres captain Eichel disagrees with NHL’s two-game suspension

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BUFFALO, N.Y. — Buffalo Sabres captain Jack Eichel disputes the NHL’s decision to suspend him for two games for an illegal check to the head of Carl Soderberg of the Colorado Avalanche.

Eichel was suspended Sunday following a hearing with the league’s department of player safety.

He blamed Soderberg for lowering his head while the two raced for a loose puck along the boards during Colorado’s 3-0 victory Saturday. He said Soderberg was reaching for the puck and that his head hit Eichel’s back.

The NHL ruled Eichel was to blame because Soderberg didn’t change the direction he was heading, while Eichel cut sharply in front of Soderberg to initiate contact.

Eichel was penalized for an illegal hit. The suspension will cost him more than $107,500 in lost salary.

Alexander Nylander is expected to replace Eichel in the lineup after the 2016 first-round draft pick was called up from the minors.

Sabres’ Eichel, Flyers’ Voracek get two-game suspensions

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The NHL handed out two-game suspensions to Jack Eichel and Jakub Voracek on Sunday.

Eichel’s suspension

In Eichel’s case, it was a high hit on Carl Soderberg from Saturday’s 3-0 win for the Colorado Avalanche against Eichel’s Buffalo Sabres. Eichel received a two-minute minor penalty for an illegal hit to the head during the game itself.

Here’s the league explanation for Eichel’s two-gamer:

Voracek is/was not happy

Meanwhile, Voracek received a five-minute major, and now this two-game suspension, for a hit on Johnny Boychuk from the Philadelphia Flyers’ 5-2 win against the New York Islanders on Saturday. (You can see the hit and more in the video above this post’s headline.)

After the game, Voracek had quite the comment for Boychuk, stemming in part from an incident between the Islanders defenseman and Nolan Patrick.

“He’s pointing at me like it’s WrestleMania or something,” Voracek said, via the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Sam Carchidi. “Come on, it’s a hockey game. This is a guy who was sucker-punching 19-year-old Nolan Patrick last year at the end of the game, and he’s going to do that. Give me a break.”

Voracek’s response to the two-game suspension was similarly entertaining:

Maybe Voracek can team up with Gritty against Elias and Boychuk at “Wrestlemania?” There’s certainly some “heat” in the feud between Voracek and Boychuk, if you will.

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.

Sabres’ Eichel, Flyers’ Voracek facing hearings after Saturday hits

Sportsnet
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The NHL’s Department of Player Safety will be busy on Sunday.

Forwards Jack Eichel of the Buffalo Sabres and Jakub Voracek of the Philadelphia Flyers will be asked to explain their actions in their respective games on Saturday after two massive hits.

Eichel’s came in the second period of a 3-0 loss to the Colorado Avalanche. He and Carl Soderberg were chasing down a loss puck in the neutral zone when Eichel took his shoulder and laid it square into Soderberg’s chin, forcing the latter to leave the game temporarily.

Eichel was given a two-minute minor for an illegal check to the head on the play, which can be seen here around the one-minute mark:

Eichel had enough, he admitted after the game.

Nikita Zadorov drilled him in the first period (a hit you can see from the beginning of the above video) after an offside whistle had already been blown.

“He hits me after they (bleeping), excuse my language, blow the whistle,” Eichel told the Buffalo News following in the game. “That’s whatever.

“I thought he was just reaching. I don’t know. I’d have to look at it, to be honest with you. I’m trying to protect myself. It’s a physical game. I think he’s going to deliver a hit to me.

“It seems like they were taking runs a little bit at times. If I’m going to be at the forefront of it, I might as well push back a little bit. I’ve got to protect myself.”

Eichel has never been suspended.

Meanwhile, Voracek will have to answer for this bit of interference he threw on New York Islanders defenseman Johnny Boychuk in their game on Saturday.

In a 5-1 game for the Flyers, Boychuk was pinching in to try and snag a loose puck heading Voracek’s way. Instead, Voracek saw Boychuk coming and dropped him with hit, forcing Boychuk from the game and resulting in a five-minute major for interference.

You can be the judge here:

Voracek was far from pleased with the call following the game.

“The explanation I got was if I hit him in the head, it would be a game [misconduct],” he told NBC Sports Philadelphia. “I don’t know why I got five. I try to protect myself, to be honest, maybe the puck was a little further than I thought — I thought the puck was close to me.

“It’s a tough hit. You know, he’s getting off the ice, he’s pointing at me like it’s a WrestleMania or something. Pointing at me like it’s a WrestleMania. Come on, it’s a hockey game. … He’s the guy that was sucker-punching 19-year-old Nolan Patrick last year in the end of a game. He’s going to do that? Give me a break.”

Voracek, like Eichel, has no history.


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

Oilers, Sabres sagging despite being led by McDavid, Eichel

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BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) — While keeping open the possibility of a late playoff push, Edmonton Oilers captain Connor McDavid acknowledged how much losing has worn on him this year. In Buffalo, Sabres captain Jack Eichel grew irritated when asked about his team’s inability to win consecutive games in nearly three months.

”I don’t have an answer for you right now,” Eichel said following a 5-2 loss at Toronto on Saturday, a day after beating Pittsburgh.

What’s becoming abundantly clear since McDavid and Eichel were selected with the top two picks in the 2015 draft is it takes more than the arrival of a so-called “once-in-a-generation” star to transform a losing team into a contender.

”It’s a team sport. Things don’t get fixed with one player,” Sabres forward Kyle Okposo said before a 4-3 loss to the Oilers on Monday night. ”They can certainly help. But it’s a collective effort.”

The game against Edmonton was an example of Okposo’s viewpoint. Eichel scored twice, including his career-high-matching 25th, but the Sabres squandered a 3-1 second-period lead.

McDavid and Eichel are the faces of their respective franchises based on both production and salary. The 22-year-old McDavid is in the first season of an eight-year, $100 million contract, and the 22-year-old Eichel is in the first season of an eight-year, $80 million deal.

Their respective teams have barely made a dent in the standings, with both entering the final month of the season in jeopardy of missing the playoffs.

The comparisons are striking.

The Oilers have advanced to the playoffs just once with McDavid, in 2016-17, when they were knocked out in the second round by San Jose. Buffalo is in the midst of a franchise-worst seven-year playoff drought, and finished last overall twice with Eichel.

Both teams also have changed GMs and coaches since 2015. The Oilers fired general manager Peter Chiarelli and coach Todd McLellan in separate moves this season. The Sabres dismissed GM Tim Murray and coach Dan Bylsma in April 2017.

It doesn’t come close to the expectations right after the 2015 draft in Florida, where the Canadian-born McDavid was picked first and the American Eichel second, to the delight of each team’s respective fan base.

As much as McDavid and Eichel dislike the comparisons to each other, they’re in agreement in saying how unfair the expectations were.

”I don’t think that’s possible at all,” McDavid said of one player changing a franchise’s trajectory. ”I don’t think in this league, where it’s so competitive each and every night, that one guy can change it.”

McDavid has won two scoring titles and was the league’s MVP in 2017.

Overall, McDavid’s 348 points (120 goals, 228 assists) in 271 games are third among NHL players since 2015-16. Eichel has 249 points (98 goals, 151 assists) in 272 games, and ranks 29th over the same span following Monday’s game.

Inconsistency has all but scuttled the Sabres’ playoff chances this season.

In going 13-22-6 since a 10-game winning streak in November, they’ve gone from briefly sitting atop the Eastern Conference standings to 11th, and nine points out of contention.

It’s a slide during which Buffalo has failed to win consecutive games since Dec. 11-13. Eichel has been among the few constants. His worst point drought lasted five games.

”It’s a team game and you need everyone pulling in the same direction,” said Eichel, who has a career-best 72 points this season. ”It’s the best league in the world. You can’t expect it to be easy. And I think we all expected it to be hard, and I think it has been.”

The Oilers slipped out of the playoff race following a 1-8-2 skid that began on Jan. 19. Edmonton has rebounded by going 5-1-2 in its past eight, but still sits 11th in the West, and six points out of contention.

With 33 goals and 59 assists, McDavid is the first Oilers’ player to reach 90 points in three consecutive seasons since Jari Kurri (1983-1990) and Mark Messier (1987-90).

”Connor does a ton for us, and obviously, you see the offensive numbers, but it’s more than that,” forward Sam Gagner said when asked how the Oilers might miss the playoffs despite McDavid’s contributions.

”We still feel like we have an opportunity to get back in this,” Gagner added. ”We’re still in the playoff picture. And hopefully we can get there and put that issue to rest.”

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports