Josh Gorges

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O’Reilly: Sabres adopted mindset of ‘being OK with losing’

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BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) Ryan O'Reilly was unable to hide his dejection as he acknowledged that the Sabres’ latest last-place finish led him to question his love for hockey.

If that wasn’t enough, the high-priced center accused the Sabres of adopting a mindset of “being OK with losing.”

“It’s crept into all of our games. Yeah, it’s disappointing. It’s sad,” O’Reilly said Monday, two days after Buffalo closed one of its worst seasons in franchise history. “I feel throughout the year I’ve lost the love of the game multiple times, and just need to get back to it because it’s eating myself up, and eats the other guys up, too.”

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Losing is all O’Reilly knows in the three seasons since being acquired in a trade with Colorado, after which the Sabres signed him to a seven-year, $52.5 million contract extension.

Rather than being part of a rebuilding plan, which included Buffalo selecting Jack Eichel with the No. 2 pick in the 2015 draft, O’Reilly and company find themselves back at square one. They became the NHL’s first team to finish 31st – following this year’s addition of the expansion Vegas Golden Knights – after back-to-back 30th-place finishes in 2013-14 and 2014-’15.

This year’s collapse is considerably worse given that Buffalo’s trajectory was supposed to be trending upward under the new regime of general manager Jason Botterill and coach Phil Housley. They took over last spring after the Sabres underachieved in finishing 26th under GM Tim Murray and coach Dan Bylsma

“We have to evaluate everything, coaching staff, the players. What are they willing to change?” Housley said. “There comes a point in your career where you have to realize what’s important. Obviously, winning, what it takes to win, the commitment to win in this league. And that’s what we talk about change.”

Very little went right in a season Buffalo opened 1-5-2 and closed 2-9, extending the franchise’s longest playoff drought to a seventh straight year.

Buffalo matched a franchise low for home wins by going 11-25-5, including a 3-2 overtime loss to the Rangers in the Winter Classic at New York City. The Sabres finished last in the NHL with 199 goals scored, 91 goals at home and in being outscored by 81 goals.

Their best run was a three-game win streak, all on the road, while the Sabres went winless over four or more games seven times, including an 0-5-2 skid from Nov. 10-22.

The reality of how bad the Sabres were, set in at the midpoint of the season for defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen.

“It was around Christmas and we were done, and we still had 40 games to play,” Ristolainen said. “Everyone wants to make the playoffs so bad, and we weren’t even close.”

LIKING EICH

Eichel led Buffalo with a career-best 25 goals and 64 points in 67 games, despite missing 15 games with a sprained right ankle. Much more is expected next season when Eichel’s eight-year, $80 million contract kicks in.

“Things will get better and it starts with me,” Eichel said. “Everybody needs to look at themselves and figure out what they’re doing. Obviously, whatever I’ve been doing hasn’t been working. What we’ve been doing as a team hasn’t been working.”

DOWN ON THE FARM

While the Sabres are done, their AHL Rochester Americans affiliate qualified for the playoffs for the first time in four years. The Americans feature several Sabres prospects being counted upon to play in Buffalo full-time next season including forward Alexander Nylander, defenseman Brendan Guhle and goalie Linus Ullmark.

FREE AGENTS

The Sabres have a decision to make in goal with starter Robin Lehner set to become a restricted free agent and backup Chad Johnson eligible to become an unrestricted free agent. The team’s other pending unrestricted free agents include forwards Benoit Pouliot and Jordan Nolan, and defenseman Josh Gorges.

Forward Sam Reinhart, who scored a career-best 25 goals, completed his three-year entry level contract and eligible to be a restricted free agent.

OFF TO THE WORLDS

Rookie first-round draft pick Casey Mittelstadt accepted Hockey USA’s invitation to compete at the world championships in Denmark next month. Mittelstadt signed with Buffalo last month after completing his freshman season at Minnesota. The center won a bronze medal representing the U.S. at the World Junior hockey championships in January.

INJURIES

Lehner visited a specialist Monday to assess a lower body injury that forced him to miss the final five games. D Zach Bogosian expects to be cleared to skate by June after having season-ending hip surgery in January.

More NHL hockey: https://apnews.com/tag/NHLhockey

WATCH LIVE: Buffalo Sabres at New York Rangers

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PROJECTED LINES

Buffalo Sabres

Benoit PouliotJack EichelKyle Okposo

Evander KaneRyan O'ReillyJason Pominville

Zemgus GirgensonsEvan RodriguesSam Reinhart

Scott WilsonJohan LarssonJordan Nolan

Marco ScandellaRasmus Ristolainen

Jake McCabeJustin Falk

Josh Gorges — Casey Nelson

Starting goalie: Robin Lehner

[NHL on NBCSN doubleheader: Sabres vs. Rangers; Penguins vs. Kings]

New York Rangers

Rick NashMika ZibanejadPavel Buchnevich

Mats ZuccarelloJ.T. Miller — Vinni Lettieri

Jimmy VeseyDavid DesharnaisPaul Carey

Michael Grabner — Peter Holland — Jesper Fast

Ryan McDonaghNick Holden

Brady SkjeiKevin Shattenkirk

Brendan SmithSteven Kampfer

Starting goalie: Henrik Lundqvist

WATCH LIVE: 2018 Winter Classic – Rangers vs. Sabres

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PROJECTED LINES

Rangers

Rick Nash/Mika Zibanejad/Mats Zuccarello

Michael Grabner/Kevin Hayes/J.T. Miller

Pavel Buchnevich/David Desharnais/Jimmy Vesey

Paul Carey/Boo Nieves/Vinni Lettieri

Ryan McDonagh/Nick Holden

Brendan Smith/Kevin Shattenkirk

Marc Staal/Brady Skjei

Startling goalie: Henrik Lundqvist

Rangers, Sabres take advantage of Winter Classic distraction

Sabres:

Zemgus Girgensons/Jack Eichel/Sam Reinhart

Evander Kane/Ryan O'Reilly/Kyle Okposo

Benoit Pouliot/Evan Rodrigues/Jason Pominville

Johan Larsson/Jacob Josefson/Jordan Nolan

Marco Scandella/Rasmus Ristolainen

Jake McCabe/Zach Bogosian

Josh Gorges/Nathan Beaulieu

Startling goalie: Robin Lehner

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 hoping to use Winter Classic to jump-start positive second half

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NEW YORK — The climb in front of the Buffalo Sabres as the calendar turns to 2018 is a daunting one. Currently 16 points out of a playoff spot, playing any hockey beyond game No. 82 in April is unlikely, but as they prepare for the Citi Field Winter Classic game against the New York Rangers, the players are looking at it as an opportunity.

Playoff hopes may be lost, but after a very tough first half the Sabres have shown some signs of life. They’re still dead last in the Eastern Conference, but head coach Phil Housley’s message is sinking in and beginning to pay off.

“If you look at our games recently in the last two weeks we’ve played solid hockey, especially against really good competition, teams in playoff positions,” Housley said Sunday morning after the Sabres practiced at Citi Field. “I think our team is moving in the right direction, but certainly having this opportunity on the world stage can hopefully give our team a boost because we have been playing better as of late. Obviously, we’d like to be in a better position at this point in the season, but it is what it is and we’re going to try to bring our best [Monday] against a very good hockey team and another team that in a playoff position.

The final 44 games of the season will prove to be a vital evaluation period for Housley and general manager Jason Botterill. As the Sabres eye a top lottery selection in June’s entry draft, there are a number of pending unrestricted free agents who could end up as trade bait before the Feb. 26 deadline. That bait could bring in assets that will help the franchise’s turnaround over the next several seasons.

Evander Kane, who’s tied for the team lead in goals with 15 and is second on the Sabres in points with 34, is set to become a UFA on July 1. Same goes for forward Benoit Pouliot, defenseman Josh Gorges and backup goaltender Chad Johnson. Kane will most likely be gone by the end of February, but until then he’s be a part of the roster that would love to use a Winter Classic victory to jump-start a positive second half.

After a November that saw the Sabres win three of 13 games, they picked up 13 points in 14 games in December, which included five overtime defeats. Progress is there in Housley’s eyes and as January approaches — a month that features their bye week and the All-Star Break — the hope is that the climb continues to an uphill one.

“Any team is lucky to be part of something like this. I think we’ve been playing better,” said goaltender Robin Lehner. “It’s a good opportunity for us on a big stage to hopefully go out and get a win, keep the momentum going.”

More 2018 Winter Classic coverage:
Sabres’ Jason Pominville ready for third outdoor game experience
Mike Emrick on calling the first Winter Classic, his favorite outdoor game venues (PHT Q&A)

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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.

Tough news for Sabres: Ristolainen now week-to-week

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Hockey fans annoyed by “day-to-day” updates should be careful what they wish for, because “week-to-week” is becoming a more common thing, and it’s more annoying. You might consider seven times as annoying, even.

After missing two games with an upper-body injury, Buffalo Sabres defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen goes from day-to-day to week-to-week.

Buffalo is already dealing with the loss of blueliners, although it’s worth noting that not all of the injury news was bad. Head coach Phil Housley mentioned that Josh Gorges and Nathan Beaulieu are both nearing returns from their ailments:

All  of these issues meant a heavy workload for Marco Scandella, particularly during Tuesday’s 3-1 win against the Washington Capitals, as the former Wild defenseman logged 26:34 of ice time. (Taylor Fedun stands out as another defenseman who was pressed into more duty amid all of these issues.)

Now, it’s fair to acknowledge the devil’s advocate argument that Ristolainen can be a real mess in his own zone. That said, his possession stats have shown some improvement through 13 games in 2017-18, prompting one to wonder if Housley might be able to help the well-compensated Finn.

The Sabres are on the verge of a back-to-back set, as they’ll host the Panthers on Friday and then face the Canadiens in Montreal on Saturday. That trip to Montreal begins a three-game road swing; following that, they’ll play four in a row and six of seven in Buffalo.

That opens the door for the Sabres to make some progress, but it sounds like they’ll spend a substantial portion of that time without Ristolainen.

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.