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 facing hearings after Saturday hits

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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

The Buzzer: Ennis’ hat trick leads Leafs; Oilers rally vs. Sabres

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THREE STARS

1. Tyler Ennis, Toronto Maple Leafs

Ennis recorded his first career hat trick during the Maple Leafs’ 6-2 win over the Calgary Flames. Toronto jumped on Calgary with a 3-0 first period lead as Ennis picked up his first two of the night in a span of 7:25. His 12th goal of the season early in the third period sealed the three-goal night, much to the delight of the large number of Leafs fans inside the Saddledome. Zach Hyman got in on the scoring fun with a pair as Mitch Marner had a hand in both of his goals and later added one of his own.

2. Leon Draisaitl, Edmonton Oilers

Draisaitl extended his point streak to 11 games with a shorthanded goal and an assist during a 4-3 Oilers win over the Buffalo Sabres. Edmonton fell behind 3-1 after the first period before storming back with three goals in a 3:26 span late in the second period. Draisaitl recorded his 42nd assist of the season on Darnell Nurse‘s tying goal. He now has 17 goals in his last 19 games.

3. Mikko Koskinen, Edmonton Oilers

After a rough first period, Koskinen settled down and made 24 saves over the final 40 minutes to give him 35 saves on the night. Koskinen has now won his last three starts, two of which required him to stop at least 35 shots.

HIGHLIGHTS OF THE NIGHT

Draisaitl tallied his 41st of the season shorthanded via this pretty play with Connor McDavid:

Oh, no, Jason Pominville:

FACTOIDS OF THE NIGHT

• “Buffalo dropped to 2-7-1 in its past 10, and is 13-22-6 since a franchise-record-matching 10-game win streak in November.” (AP)

SCORES
Oilers 4, Sabres 3
Maple Leafs 6, Flames 2

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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.

Sabres’ Jason Pominville blocks own attempt at tying goal

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The Buffalo Sabres blew a 3-1 first period lead and fell 4-3 to the Edmonton Oilers Monday night in front of a frustrated KeyBank Center.

Adding to the home crowd’s growing frustrations with the Sabres was Jason Pominville‘s failed attempt to tie the game with under four minutes to go in the third period.

Pominville snuck behind the Oilers’ defense and positioned himself just to the side of Mikko Koskinen‘s crease in prime scoring position. Brandon Montour‘s pass found the veteran forward perfectly, but the finish didn’t go so well. His first attempt went off the heel of the blade but was moving toward the empty net for the equalizer, and that’s when Pominville’s follow through actually prevented the puck from crossing the goal line.

Brutal. Just brutal, and totally sums up the Sabres’ second half of the season. With the loss, Buffalo is now 2-7-1 in their last 10 games and 13-22-6 since that November 10-game win streak that seems forever ago at this point.

“I can probably take 100 shots from that area and it might never happen, but it happened tonight,” Pominville said afterward. “It was clearly going in and just kind of double touched it on my way back. It was just a tough feeling when you see it going in and then all of a sudden coming out.”

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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.