Linus Ullmark

Are the Sabres the real deal?

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It’s way too early in the season to be asking this question, but we’re going to do it anyway. Are the Buffalo Sabres the real deal?

Through six games, the Sabres have rattled off a 5-0-1 record and they have the best goal differential at plus-12. Not bad, not bad at all. New head coach Ralph Krueger has seemingly pushed all the right buttons and his players have responded in a positive way. Now, all he has to do (easier said than done) is keep it going for 76 more games!

“Anytime you get off to a good start and get results, confidence naturally comes with that,” forward Jeff Skinner said after Monday’s win over Dallas. “What you have to do is keep working at your game and use the confidence in a positive way. We still have things to work on, we still have things we want to improve. Being able to get off to a good start results-wise is nice. Now we have to keep that momentum going.”

There’s a few things that stand out when you take a look at why they’ve been so good. First, their power-play has been lethal. Raise your hand if you thought Rasmus Dahlin, Jack Eichel and Victor Olofsson would all be in the top six when it came to power play points to start the season. What? Anybody? Thought so.

Buffalo has scored at least one tally on the man-advantage in five of their six games. They scored three power play goals against the New Jersey Devils, two against the Columbus Blue Jackets and two against the Montreal Canadiens.

The Sabres’ power play was ranked 16th last season at just under 20 percent. This year, they’re clicking at 42.9 percent while the league average is right around 21 percent. As dynamic as they are when they’re up a man, there’s no way they’re going to roll at over 40 percent all year. To put that number into perspective, the Tampa Bay Lightning, who had the best power play in the league last year, were firing at just over 28 percent.

One of the other strong parts of their game has been their goaltending. Carter Hutton has been rock-solid between the pipes and Linus Ullmark has been really good, too. Hutton, who has started four of the team’s six games, has a 4-0-0 record with a 1.74 goals-against-average and a .931 save percentage this season. He’s coming off a 25-save shutout in a 4-0 win over the Dallas Stars.

“A lot of it is the fact that they both get to play then they both feel like they have a little bit of a rhythm going,” assistant coach Mike Bales, who works with the goaltenders, told the Sabres’ website. “One guy’s not going to sit for too long. So, they always feel game-ready because of that too. It helps a lot.

“You can practice all you want, but when you get into games it feels a little bit different. The traditional, old-school way of doing it where you have one guy play 65 games and the backup would come in and mop up once in a while, wouldn’t get that many starts, was tough on backups for rhythm and feeling ready so I think having two guys going all the time helps them be ready when they do play.”

Whether or not Hutton and Ullmark can keep this going remains to be seen, but it’s imperative that they get great goaltending if they’re going to earn a playoff spot in 2019-20. Ullmark hasn’t been a regular in the NHL for as long as Hutton, so it’s tough to get a gauge of what he can do over a full season. As for Hutton, he’s a veteran and he’s been around the league a lot. He got off to a very strong start last year before fading in a hurry in the second half of the season.

Another reason they haven’t lost in regulation yet is because of their balanced scoring. Through six contests, Buffalo has had 10 different scorers. Olofsson leads the way with five goals, Skinner has four, Marcus Johansson, Sam Reinhart and Jack Eichel each have three, Conor Sheary has two, while Johan Larsson, Marco Scandella, Kyle Okposo and Dahlin have all found the back of the net once. Now that’s balance.

As fun as the Sabres have been, it’s tough to envision them staying ahead of teams like Boston, Tampa Bay and Toronto, but they don’t have to finish atop the Atlantic Division to have a successful season. Making it back to the postseason in a Wild Card spot would be a huge success. They still have plenty of work to do before they can reach that point, but this team filled with youth seems to be on the right track.

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.

Previewing the 2019-20 Buffalo Sabres

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(The 2019-20 NHL season is almost here so it’s time to look at all 31 teams. We’ll be breaking down strengths and weaknesses, whether teams are better or worse this season and more!)

For more 2019-20 PHT season previews, click here.

Better or Worse: Significantly better. Colin Miller is an underrated defenseman who might be able to take on a bigger role than he played in Vegas. Henri Jokiharju provides another (eventual?) boost on the right side, possibly opening up room to trade Rasmus Ristolainen.

The forward group gets a boost from Marcus Johansson, and Jimmy Vesey if Vesey can take a step forward. Maybe most importantly, they didn’t lose Jeff Skinner.

Strengths: The high end of this team is powerful, and could get better, being that Jack Eichel is just 22, and Rasmus Dahlin is only 19. There’s also a little more help beyond the top guys than in 2018-19, where little good happened when Eichel, Dahlin, and Skinner were off the ice.

Weaknesses: Buffalo took some significant steps in improving the talent around their top players, but this is still not a very deep team. The Sabres badly need Casey Mittelstadt to make a dramatic leap as a sophomore. Even then, the bottom two forward lines seem pretty shaky, and their defense faces similar depth challenges. The Sabres also didn’t really address their goaltending situation, so they’ll have to cross their fingers that Carter Hutton and Linus Ullmark (or someone else, eventually?) will work out better than they did in 2018-19.

[MORE: Under pressure | X-factor | Three questions]

Coach Hot Seat Rating (1-10, 10 being red hot): From 1997-2013, Lindy Ruff served as Sabres head coach. During the offseason, Ralph Krueger became the fourth Sabres coach since Ruff was fired in Feb. 2013. The Sabres have missed the playoffs for eight consecutive seasons (plus 10 of the last 12), and haven’t won a playoff series since 2006-07.

Ideally, Krueger’s seat would be ice cold, but patience is beyond thin in hockey-loving Buffalo. If the Sabres suffer more from the same under a coach who’s spent the last few years more interested in the 4-4-2 in soccer than the 1-3-1 in hockey, then the heat could start boiling pretty quickly.

But there does tend to be a grace period when a new coach takes over, so let’s call it a five or a six.

Three Most Fascinating Players: Jeff Skinner, Rasmus Dahlin, and Casey Mittelstadt.

Skinner got his money, stunningly so, to the tune of $9 million per season. Now he’ll face pressure to justify that price, and he’ll be following up a season where he played a little bit over his head, as his 40 goals came via a 14.9 shooting percentage, the highest of his nine-year career. If he’s closer to his 2017-18 numbers (24 goals, 8.7 shooting percentage), there will be grumbling.

Dahlin was absolutely dazzling as a rookie, to the point that I was arguing that the Sabres should have echoed the Dallas Stars’ handling of Miro Heiskanen by giving Dahlin even more ice time, just to see if he could handle it. Maybe the Sabres will drop any facade of the “training wheels” being on in 2019-20? I’d guess Dahlin can thrive even in tough, big minutes — particularly compared to the Buffalo’s less-than-ideal other options.

Again, Mittelstadt needs to be better in his second full season. He came into the NHL with Calder Trophy hype not that different from Dahlin, and 2018-19 readjusted expectations … but a leap in 2019-20 could be crucial for Buffalo’s chances to compete.

Playoffs or Lottery: The Sabres did a lot right, and if Krueger ends up being a big upgrade from Phil Housley as head coach, then Buffalo could leap even further.

Unfortunately, the Sabres are also in arguably the toughest division in the NHL. It’s difficult to imagine Buffalo being in range of last year’s top three Atlantic teams (Tampa Bay, Boston, and Toronto), and the Panthers spent a ton to improve on what was already an impressive core. There might not be a lot of seats left in this game of musical chairs, and my guess is that the Sabres will find themselves stumbling out of the mix once again.

It wouldn’t be shocking if Buffalo stayed in the bubble longer than last season, but I’d say they’re more likely to play the lottery than reach the postseason.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 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.

Sabres goalies need to shake off tough month

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When the Buffalo Sabres look back on this season, they may consider January the month that broke their playoff hopes — or the month they survived.

Things certainly haven’t been easy lately, and you can see the strain most clearly in the way Carter Hutton and Linus Ullmark have struggled.

Before the calendar hit 2019, Hutton went 13-11-3 with a .916 save percentage, while Ullmark managed an 8-1-3 record and .922 save percentage. Things went sideways in January, however:

Ullmark: 2-3-0, .893 save percentage.
Hutton: 2-2-0, .860.

That’s troubling, particularly since the Sabres seemed to decide to continue the transition from veteran Hutton (33 years old) to intriguing young netminder Ullmark (25).

It’s not all doom and gloom for the Sabres or their goalie duo, though. Consider a few factors:

  • Even with this slump, Buffalo’s enjoyed better team save percentage (.912) than the league average of .908.
  • The Sabres have found ways to win some of these tough games. Wednesday’s game against the Stars in Dallas won’t be easy (they’re closing off of a back-to-back set after holding off Columbus), but the good news is that they’ll end a five-game road trip. After that, they’ll begin what could be a fruitful seven-game homestand on Friday:

Feb 1: vs. Blackhawks
Feb 5: vs. Wild
Feb. 7: vs. Hurricanes
Feb. 9 vs. Red Wings
Feb. 10: vs. Jets
Feb. 12: vs. Islanders
Feb. 15 vs. Rangers

  • Having such a promising set of home dates is one reason why Buffalo’s goalies should shake off this slump. Another is simple enough: it’s still just a small sample size. You could probably zero in most precisely on the last six games as especially tough, as they’ve allowed 27 goals during that span.
  • Buffalo managed not to sink too far in the standings amid this turmoil. While they trail the Pittsburgh Penguins for the East’s second wild-card spot, it doesn’t seem like an insurmountable gap:

The Sabres face the Penguins two more times this season, and also have one more game remaining against the Canadiens, who sit at the third place in the Atlantic with 61 points in 51 games played (26 ROW), so Buffalo can influence its closest competitors, too.

None of this is to say that this will be an easy journey for a franchise that sorely hopes to end its playoff drought, but the Sabres could make up some ground if their confidence hasn’t been shaken.

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.

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

PHT Morning Skate: Tallon loves Ekblad’s hands

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PHT’s Morning Skate takes a look around the world of hockey to see what’s happening and what we’ll be talking about around the NHL world and beyond.

Florida Panthers GM Dale Tallon is a big fan of his first-round pick, Aaron Ekblad. He’s a very big fan of his hands. Silky mitts, you guys. (Sun Sentinel)

Here’s a fun way to use fancy stats: David Clarkson was more effective than Wendel Clark. Chew on that, Maple Leafs fans. (The Score)

Chicago Blackhawks executive John McDonagh enjoys the team convention because it helps “humanize” the players. That’s pretty cool. (CSNChicago.com)

Congratulations to Rob Rossi as he moves from the Pittsburgh Penguins beat to role of lead columnist. (Pittsburgh Tribune-Review)

Buffalo Sabres prospect goalie Linus Ullmark is someone the team is high on. Also, he has Bowser from Super Mario Bros. on his mask. (Buffalo Hockey Beat)

Size and skill are what the Sabres have going for them up front. Maybe this rebuild will go just fine. (NHL.com)

Did you know Panthers prospects Rocco Grimaldi and Vincent Trocheck have been friends for a long time? (Sun Sentinel)

Finally, is this actually NHL referee Tim Peel on Twitter? There’s no way this ends well. (@TimTPeel)