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Soak it in: Buffalo Sabres are good

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Remember when the Buffalo Sabres were bad?

The answer is we all do. You don’t have to go that far back in the annals of hockey history to find some woefully bad Sabres teams.

But those days of Buffalo being the butt-end of jokes and all of that sort of thing seem to be over with. The western New Yorkers aren’t simply toiling as an embarrassing team anymore. It’s been a bit of a process to turn the ship around, but the fruits of that labor seem to be flourishing so far this season.

Case and point: Buffalo has now cobbled together five straight wins, including triumphs over the Tampa Bay Lightning — tops in the Atlantic Division — and the Winnipeg Jets and Minnesota Wild, teams sitting second and third in the Central Division, respectively.

They’ve embraced the grind, have learned to weather storms and are still standing at the end of it.

In Winnipeg on Friday, the Sabres were outshot 12-4 in the first period and survived. In Minnesota on Saturday, they were again pelted in the opening frame, doubled up 18-9 on the shot counter, and still found a way to only be down by a single goal.

And in both games, they battled back in the third, tied the game and then won it late in regulation or in extra hockey, as was the case in Winnipeg. And they did it on back-to-back nights when you’d have forgiven them for packing it in early against Minnesota after Friday’s game, which needed 65 minutes and seven rounds of a shootout.

Summer acquisitions of Jeff Skinner and Carter Hutton have played massive roles in Buffalo’s ascent up the standings a month-and-a-half into the season.

Skinner has 14 goals and 21 points in 20 games this season after coming over from the Carolina Hurricanes.

Hutton is 4-0-0 in his past four games with a 1.42 goals-against average and a .950 save percentage.

Linus Ullmark is 4-0-1 in his backup role and Buffalo had the 11th best team save percentage coming into Saturday. 

Their penalty kill is in the top 10

Jason Pominville has turned back the clock with nine goals and 17 points thus far. Thirty-five years old and the wear and tear of 1,000 games? Pfft. Pominville is laughing at Father Time. 

And most importantly, they’re resilient.

“I just think we bent a little bit but we didn’t break,” Sabres head coach Phil Housley said after Friday’s win in Winnipeg. “I think last year we maybe would have broke a little more and gave the game away. We hung in there. That’s what’s great about this group, that they stick with it. We make some adjustments in between periods and they follow through with those adjustments. But it’s great for them, they’ve shown the resiliency up to this point in the season.”

The Sabres are simply an exciting team to watch these days and they’re positioning themselves to be in the playoff hunt, both this year and in the future.

Imagine that.


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

WATCH LIVE: Sabres host Lightning on NBCSN

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NBC’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Tuesday night’s matchup between the Tampa Bay Lightning at the Buffalo Sabres at 7:30 p.m. ET. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports App by clicking here.

For years, the Tampa Bay Lightning have chased a second Stanley Cup (and first with Steven Stamkos, Victor Hedman, and Nikita Kucherov as their main stars). Meanwhile, the Buffalo Sabres have mainly chased competency.

Both teams seem like they’re heading nicely toward their goals. The Lightning just saw a four-game winning streak end, and with a 12-4-1 record (25 points), they lead the Eastern Conference and rank second in the NHL.

The Sabres have won three of their last four games, placing them at 9-6-2 for 20 points. Entering Tuesday’s action, Buffalo currently holds the East’s second wild-card spot.

[WATCH LIVE – 7:30 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

While the Lightning combine Stamkos-Kucherov with Brayden Point‘s impressive second line, the Sabres have enjoyed great work from Jack Eichel. Almost as importantly, they’ve seen marked improvements in various areas of the game.

Eichel vs. Stamkos/Point should be fun, and fans can also get a look at Rasmus Dahlin, who’s made a smooth transition for Buffalo after becoming the No. 1 overall pick of the 2018 NHL Draft. This game should be an interesting barometer for the Sabres, as they face one of the league’s clearest powerhouses.

[Extended preview for Tuesday’s game]

What: Tampa Bay Lightning at Buffalo Sabres
Where: KeyBank Center
When: Tuesday, November 13th, 7:30 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
Live stream: You can watch the Lightning-Sabres stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

LIGHTNING

J.T. Miller — Steven Stamkos — Nikita Kucherov

Yanni Gourde — Brayden Point — Tyler Johnson

Alex KillornAnthony CirelliMathieu Joseph

Danick Martel — Cedric PaquetteRyan Callahan

Victor Hedman — Dan Girardi

Ryan McDonagh — Erik Cernak

Braydon CoburnMikhail Sergachev

Starting goalie: Louis Domingue

Sabres

Jeff Skinner — Jack Eichel — Sam Reinhart

Vladimir SobotkaEvan RodriguesJason Pominville

Conor ShearyCasey MittelstadtKyle Okposo

Zemgus GirgensonsJohan LarssonTage Thompson

Jake McCabeRasmus Ristolainen

Marco ScandellaZach Bogosian

Nathan Beaulieu — Rasmus Dahlin

Starting goalie: Carter Hutton

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.

Which NHL player is having best contract year?

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NHL teams are getting more sophisticated when it comes to avoiding truly boneheaded free agent moves (sorry, would-be next Bobby Holik), but the truth is that contract years can still swing a player’s contract by millions.

Just ask John Carlson — no, wait, he’s currently swimming in money.

(Note: he’s probably not literally swimming in money.)

We’re only in November, so a lot can change. Injuries happen in the violent, sometimes-randomly unlucky sports of hockey. Hot streaks can go ice-cold. Coaches can lose trust in a player, killing power-play opportunities and sabotaging line combinations.

At the moment, though, these are the players who are off to red-hot starts that could really fatten their future paychecks (and drive up their trade value, too). Cap Friendly’s free agent list was very helpful in putting this together, while stats cited come from Hockey Reference and Natural Stat Trick.

(Also, this list focuses on pending UFAs, in case you were getting ready to holler at your screen about Patrik Laine, Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, and other could-be RFAs.)

Mark Stone, Senators, 26, $7.35 million

Last night’s rousing five-point performance pushes Stone to six goals and 12 assists for 18 points in 15 games. Yes, you can note that his shooting percentage is a bit high (17.6), but his career average of 15.6 percent argues that he’s long been a talented – if selective – shooter.

There are other reasons why Stone should rank as high-end trade bait, yet will also be tough for Ottawa to let go. He’s still young at 26, and won’t turn 27 until May. Also, if wingers received more Selke attention, Stone would likely be in that conversation. Despite being deployed more defensively (starting 56-percent of his shifts in the defensive zone, versus a career average of 47-percent), Stone’s possession stats are off the charts, especially compared to his often-overwhelmed teammates in Ottawa.

If you’re a contender who could land him in a trade, Stone might be worth quite the ransom if he’d also talk extension.

Matt Duchene, Senators, 27, $6M

Despite his Wile E. Coyote-level luck when it comes to finding himself in miserable situations, Duchene is not one of Stone’s overwhelmed Senators teammates. Granted, his possession stats haven’t been resilient like those of Stone’s, but the speedy center still has 15 points in as many games this season.

Old-school executives will also love his abilities in the circle, as he continues to be strong on faceoffs (winning 53.2-percent so far in 2018-19).

One request is for Duchene to shoot more often, as he’s been below 2 SOG per game (1.87), which is not in line with his career average of 2.46 SOG per night.

Artemi Panarin, Blue Jackets, 26, $6M

“The Bread Man” is on the other end of the spectrum, flexing his skills with a resounding 51 SOG in 15 games (3.40 per night, towering over his 2.62 career average).

It would be the latest example that Panarin is for real, except I believe people no longer need convincing that he’s a star. His 16 points in 15 games feels more like “business as usual.”

Of course, the actual business side is where things are most fascinating, as the Blue Jackets need to figure out what to do with Panarin (and struggling contract year goalie Sergei Bobrovsky). Whether he remains in Columbus or is traded somewhere else, motivation shouldn’t be an issue.

Jeff Skinner, Sabres, 26, $5.725M

with Jason Pominville, Sabres, 35, $5.6M

For one of Jack Eichel‘s linemates, it’s about Skinner lining up that first UFA mega-deal, whether it’s with Buffalo (possibly as extension?) or not. On the other end of the spectrum – and on the other wing – we have Pominville, who’s merely hoping to keep his career alive and vibrant.

Both are off to raucous starts, and both are at risk of slowdowns.

Skinner’s generated a fantastic 16 points in 15 games, with nine of those points being goals on a shooting percentage of 18. Then again, maybe the universe is merely repaying Skinner for his unlucky shooting season in 2017-18, when he only connected on an 8.7 success rate? He’s really been all over the place during his career, suffering four seasons with a shooting percentage below the general shooter’s Mason-Dixon line of 10-percent.

Skinner’s long been a very effective player who sort of leaves you hoping for even more, so maybe he’ll put it together at the most lucrative time?

Pominville felt like a nostalgia-friendly addition (and an expensive deal to make the money work) in the trade that netted Marco Scandella, yet the veteran winger has 14 points in 15 games. His eight goals come from some luck, as he’s connected on a whopping 19.5-percent of his shots. He’s also done so with a miniscule ice time average of a mere 13:43 per game, actually down from his recent years of decline.

Both are likely to slip from point-per-game play over the long haul of 82 games, but that’s fine. In Skinner’s case, he could easily exceed his career-high of 63 points. Meanwhile, Pominville could very well show that he still has a place in the NHL, possibly as the full-time “third-best guy on a good line.”

(Another Pominville-like, veteran impact who falls a little short of the top of this list is Jason Spezza, who’s managed a helpful 10 points in 15 games despite limited minutes.)

Anders Lee, Islanders, 27, $3.75M

Hey, maybe Lee is good, not just John Tavares-enhanced?

Either way, it’s been an impressive start to 2018-19 for Lee, who presents an interesting conundrum for the shockingly fast-starting Islanders: do you take advantage of him being the “hot hand” or do you pencil him in as a core player?

Lee has 13 points in 14 games, and his 12.5 shooting percentage is actually below his career average of 14.5 (OK, that might be the Tavares effect).

Interestingly, Lee is succeeding despite being deployed in a resoundingly different way. He’s begun 59.2-percent of his shifts in the defensive zone, versus a career average of 45.1. Lee’s possession numbers aren’t the prettiest in every regard, yet they look rosier relative to his teammates.

Lee’s numbers might suffer if things really bottom out for the Islanders as this season goes along; while he’s not really riding inane puck luck, the Isles in many ways have been.

Still, it’s heartening to observe his start, whether you’re an Islanders exec pondering an extension or a team hoping to poach Lee.

Lightning round

  • Spezza: It sure seems like has a new lease on life unshackled from Hitch’s clutches.
  • Erik Karlsson and Jake Gardiner: These two defensemen are in interesting situations. Each are scoring at about a point-every-other-game pace, even though Karlsson hasn’t scored a goal and Gardiner has been limited to one. All three have the potential to go on red-hot streaks to up their value; all three will get paid nicely one way or another.
  • Jakob Silfverberg: Even at 27, it’s tough to tell if we’ve seen everything Silfverberg has to offer. Injuries diluted his totals, but his nine points are more impressive when limited to 11 games. He can’t expect to maintain a 21 shooting percentage, though.
  • Wayne Simmonds: So far, the intriguing winger has 10 points in 15 games. His value is tough to gauge, so his earning power may very well hinge on how 2018-19 shakes out.
  • Semyon Varlamov, Ryan Miller, Robin Lehner: Goalies who are having the strongest contract years so far, with Varlamov and Lehner playing bigger roles.
  • Keith Kinkaid, Jimmy Howard: Two goalies in very different situations, with very similar save percentages. A lot on the line for all of the goalies in UFA situations.
  • Bob, Mike Smith: Among the goalies penciled in as starters who are off to tough contract years. We’ll see if they can get back on track.

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.

Jack Eichel’s off to huge start for Sabres

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With his $10 million AAV kicking in this season, Jack Eichel is certainly being paid fairly for his efforts. He might not always be getting the sort of credit he deserves, at least in certain, more cynical circles.

Perhaps this is the year he really cements his place as one of the NHL’s elite, and carries the Buffalo Sabres along with him?

Even Eichel’s naysayers must admit that he’s off to an impressive start. The 22-year-old already generated 17 points in 15 games, tying him for the 14th-best total in the NHL.

For some, the question is “Can he keep this up?” Really, though, it should be “Can he stay healthy?”

Through three turbulent seasons in the NHL, Eichel’s scored 24 goals twice and 25 once, never falling below 56 points. That’s a greater achievement when you consider that a) he was limited to 67 games in 2017-18 and 61 in 2016-17, and b) Eichel’s been on some lousy teams. (One can only imagine what Eichel might have muttered during hypothetical Uber rides during the past few seasons’ lowest moments.)

So, it’s fair to point out that Eichel’s basically been good-to-great since day one, but it’s also possible that he’s reaching yet another level this season. Enjoy this deeper dive into his fantastic, hype-affirming start.

[PHT Q&A with Eichel]

Questions of luck

Puck luck is an interesting element of Eichel’s start, as there are reasons why things might get even better, but also areas where regression seems all but certain.

For one thing, Eichel’s own shots will probably hit the net more frequently going forward. The center has already generated a robust 59 shots on goal, good for 3.93 SOG per game. Despite being so trigger-happy, Eichel’s only scored four goals, good for just a 6.8 shooting percentage. Maybe some of that volume comes from quantity over quality, but Eichel should get more bounces, as his career shooting percentage is 9.7.

Via Hockey Reference, you can see that his on-ice shooting percentage, meanwhile, is higher than usual. He’s at 11.5 percent, versus a career average of 8.6.

It seems like Eichel’s most common linemates are generally swiping his puck luck. Jeff Skinner (another volume shooter) has been electric, connecting on 18 percent of his SOG as he’s collected nine goals and 16 points in 15 games. Eichel and Skinner seem to turn back time for Jason Pominville, as he’s playing well enough to make Daniel Alfredsson forget who he is again, scoring on 19.5 percent of his SOG for eight goals and 14 points. Even Conor Sheary‘s season shooting percentage is 16.7 percentage.

So, expect Eichel’s goals to climb, while his assists should fall.

That said, Skinner – Eichel could very well remain a deadly combination, to the point that Buffalo might want to dangle an extension to their dimpled new winger.

All-around improvement

There’s only so much you can do about luck. The good news is that Eichel is “making his own luck” with stronger all-around play.

Coaches and color commentators likely put too much weight on faceoffs at times, but it’s still promising to see Eichel go from fairly putrid in that area (41.3-percent career average) to close to even so far in 2018-19, as he’s won 49.2-percent of his draws. The more well-rounded Eichel’s game, the less likely Phil Housley will decide not to roll him out in important situations.

Eichel’s vastly improved his puck possession game, going from a negative player in that regard – however much that falls on him – to one who’s positive by just about every metric, as you can see at Natural Stat Trick.

Now, it’s plausible that Skinner has as much to do with that area of improvement as Eichel’s own work, being that Skinner’s been a consistently dominant puck hog during his career. Then again, maybe this is a sign of what Eichel can accomplish when he’s getting more help?

***

As of this writing, the Sabres currently hold a slim lead on the last East wild-card spot at 16 points in 15 games (7-6-2).

More than even a healthy season in the point-per-game range, making the playoffs would raise Eichel’s profile and standing in the eyes of the hockey world. To do so, Eichel and the Sabres will surely have to roll with punches that used to easily knock them out.

Time will tell if Eichel can pull all of that off, but so far, he’s been extremely impressive.

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.

PHT Morning Skate: Isles goalies answering questions; dependable Raanta

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• Fantasy Hockey GMs looking for advice should check out Rotoworld’s “Waiver Wired” column. Golden Knights forward Alex Tuch is worth adding off the wire.  (Rotoworld)

• Coming into this season, there were plenty of question marks surrounding the Islanders goalies. But so far, Thomas Greiss and Robin Lehner have been solid. (Newsday)

• Which jersey do NHLers around the league think is the best one? No surprise here. (NHL.com)

• NBC Sports Philly explains why Bobby Clarke is the greatest Philadelphia Flyer of all time. (NBC Sports Philly)

• The Anaheim Ducks are glad that they’ve made some progress recently, but the results still haven’t been there for them. (OC Register)

• With Auston Matthews sidelined by a shoulder injury, Mitch Marner has stepped up in a big way. (Toronto Star)

Antti Raanta spent several years as a backup goalie, but he’s turning into a dependable starting goaltender in Arizona right now. (NHL.com)

Jason Pominville celebrated his 1,000th NHL game in style over the weekend, and he was extremely grateful that his family could be there with him. “It’s tough not to get choked up when you see the kids, see them on the ice,” Pominville said. “Even during the game. It was kind of fortunate we had a lead. I was able to look up and hear most of them. Just a lot of people that have meant a lot to me throughout my career. A lot of great players, and great memories with them. It was pretty emotional at times.” (Buffalo News)

• The Calgary Flames have quite a few Swedes on their roster, so that group, which includes Mikael Backlund, Elias Lindholm and Rasmus Andersson, can speak in multiple languages on the ice. (Calgary Sun)

• After years of on-ice frustration, Yanni Gourde was finally rewarded with a huge contract extension. (Tampa Bay Times)

• Sometimes, teams spend a ton of money in free agency only to have those signings fail. Other times, teams make low-risk signings that work out beautifully. The Hockey News looks at five summer acquisitions that have made a surprisingly positive impact on their teams. (The Hockey News)

• Did Wayne Gretzky really end up playing for the Edmonton Oilers because of a high stakes game of backgammon? This is a wild story. (Sportsnet)

• The Ottawa Senators played their 2,000th game in the NHL, and Randy Sexton has so many memories since the team joined the league. The Sens have come a long way. (Ottawa Sun)

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.