Marcus Johansson

Jeff Skinner Buffalo Sabres disappointment surprise
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Buffalo Sabres: This season’s biggest surprises and disappointments

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With the 2019-20 NHL season on hold we are going to review where each NHL team stands at this moment until the season resumes. Here we take a look at the long-term outlook for the Buffalo Sabres.

Victor Olofsson ranks as biggest surprise for Sabres

With four points in six games to close out 2018-19, Olofsson showed promise. Little did we know, Olofsson was also providing a sneak preview for 2019-20. Olofsson began with a bang, carrying over that late 2018-19 season to score his first seven career goals on the power play, becoming the first NHL player to do so. (Or, at least as far as we know, being that the NHL began recording the stat in 1933-34.)

The Sabres’ power play and record eventually cooled off, and so did Olofsson. In Olofsson’s case, it was not as much as some might think, though.

Olofsson generated 35 points through 42 games before the All-Star break, settling down toward the end with seven points in 12 games (42 points in 54 overall). Olofsson finished third in Sabres scoring behind Jack Eichel (78) and Sam Reinhart (50) despite missing 15 games due to a lower-body injury.

While Olofsson rode some hot streaks, his 15.7 shooting percentage wasn’t so outrageous as to totally wipe out his impressive season. And you might chalk up some of his cold finish to injury issues, much like you’d downplay some of that hot start due to puck luck.

Split the difference, and the Sabres might have a nice find on their hands. Being that he was a seventh-round pick (181st overall in 2014) Olofsson seems like a gem for Buffalo. It just remains to be seen if Olofsson is a full-fledged diamond in the rough, or something a little less valuable.

Jeff Skinner‘s season a disappointment for Sabres, even with lowered expectations

Skinner’s brief Buffalo period already features a fascinating run of twists and turns.

My personal feeling was that the Hurricanes were selling low when they traded Skinner before 2018-19, being that his shooting percentage was just 8.7 in 2017-18. Skinner created instant chemistry with Jack Eichel in 2018-19, scoring 40 goals on a career-high 14.9 shooting percentage.

The stage was then set for Skinner to cost a bundle. Honestly, it felt like the Sabres kinda had to break the bank to keep Eichel, even if they were buying high with his new contract after buying low in that trade.

And now it … yeah, looks like the Sabres bought high. Skinner managed a mediocre 14 goals and just nine assists for 23 points over 59 games in 2019-20.

Skinner failing to look like a $9M forward wasn’t all that surprising. Still, such a drop in production was agonizing for the Sabres.

That said, there’s hope that Skinner might flip the script again — to an extent.

Skinner suffered through a 7.7 shooting percentage in 2019-20, tying a career low. It’s also fair to wonder if the Sabres would have been wiser to play Skinner with Eichel more often. More Eichel and more puck luck could boost Skinner’s numbers back to a higher level.

Will he be worth $9M? Probably not, but focusing on that dollar amount will only make things worse for Skinner and the Sabres.

New cast members, same Sabres story of disappointments

Sometimes the Sabres feel like a sad rerun of a failed sitcom.

Actually, maybe call it a failed reboot, like Hollywood’s recent attempts to make “The Fantastic Four,” a thing. Different cast members haven’t equaled box office buzz or critical acclaim.

Buffalo brought in new head coach Ralph Krueger. They aggressively attempted to boost their defensive depth with Colin Miller, Brandon Montour, and Henri Jokiharju. Marcus Johansson seemed like a wise budget addition.

With a hot 8-1-1 start, it seemed like there was hope for the Sabres. Maybe they’d be able to build off of that early sprint after falling off the tracks following a early rise in 2018-19, too?

Nope, the wheels came off once again. For yet another season, the Sabres couldn’t provide Jack Eichel with enough help. Sometimes there was bad luck, but other times, they were guilty of self-destructive moves. All the while, fans seemed on the verge of revolt.

***

(The biggest of all Sabres disappointments is probably Pegula Sports & Entertainment’s layoffs amid the coronavirus crisis, though.)

MORE SABRES BITS:
Looking at the Sabres’ 2019-20 season (so far?)
What is the long-term outlook for the Sabres?

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.

Where it all went wrong for Ray Shero and the Devils

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The New Jersey Devils fired general manager Ray Shero over the weekend, ending his four-and-a-half year run with the team.

On the surface, it’s not hard to see why the decision was made. Given the circumstances, it was inevitable.

The Devils have been a massive disappointment this season after a huge offseason, and were on track to miss the playoffs for the fourth time in five years under Shero’s watch. Not many general managers are going to make it through that sort of run unscathed. Especially when you consider how high expectations were in the preseason after the additions of top pick Jack Hughes and the acquisitions of Nikita Gusev, P.K. Subban, and Wayne Simmonds.

So where did it all go wrong for Shero and the Devils?

We should start with the very beginning.

1. Shero inherited a mess

While the lack of progress is the thing that will stand out in the wake of the change, it can not be understated how bad of a situation Shero walked into when he was hired by the Devils in May of 2015.

The Devils were coming off of a 2014-15 season where they had one of the worst records in the league, had missed the playoffs three years in a row, had a barren farm system, and had what was by far the oldest roster in the league.

Things were bleak. Very bleak.

Consider…

  • Seven of the top-12 scorers on the 2014-15 season were age 32 or older. Five of them were out of the NHL completely within two years.
  • Of the 35 players that appeared in a game that season, 18 of them were out of the NHL within the next two years.
  • Only two players on the team recorded more than 40 points, and nobody scored more than 43.

It was a team of fringe NHL players that were not only not very good, but were on their way out of the league.

Combine that with a mostly empty farm system and there wasn’t a lot to build on.

He had to start from the ground level and try to build a contender out of nothing. That was always going to take time.

2. The trades always seemed to look good on paper…

… But the timing and the luck was never on the Devils’ side.

Given the lack of quality talent on the NHL roster, Shero had to work quick to bring in talent from outside the organization. And when you break down his individual trades, he almost always seemed to come out on the winning side of them.

Getting Kyle Palmieri for a couple of draft picks was a steal.

He pounced on the Capitals’ salary cap crunch and picked up Marcus Johansson for two draft picks.

Adam Larsson for Taylor Hall was one of the biggest one-for-one steals in recent league memory.

The same thing happened this summer when he managed to get Subban and Gusev for next to nothing. Combined with a pair of No. 1 overall draft picks (Nico Hischier and Hughes) and there was a huge influx of talent on paper over the past couple of years.

But for one reason or another, the results never followed.

For as promising of an addition as Johansson was, his time with the Devils was ruined by injuries that prevented him from ever making an extended impact.

Subban and Simmonds were big-name pickups this summer, but it has become increasingly clear as the season has gone on that he got them at the end of their careers.

There was even some bad luck with Hall when he lost almost the entire 2018-19 season to injury.

3. Cory Schneider rapidly declined, and the Devils never adjusted in goal

This might be the single biggest factor in the Devils’ lack of progress under Shero.

When he joined the Devils he had one franchise cornerstone that he could build around, and that was starting goalie Cory Schneider. And he was a legit building block.

Coming off the 2014-15 season Schneider was one of the best goalies in the league. Between the 2010-11 and 2014-15 seasons he owned the best save percentage in the NHL (minimum 100 games played) and was just beginning a long-term contract that was going to keep him in New Jersey for the next seven seasons.

He was also still at an age where his career shouldn’t have been in danger of falling off. But after one more elite season in 2015-16, Schneider’s career did exactly that. It fell apart.  After his 30th birthday Schneider went into a sudden and rapid decline that sunk him to the bottom tier of NHL starting goalies.

This is where Shero’s biggest failing in New Jersey came into play. He never found a goalie to replace Schneider. That was the biggest question mark heading into this season, and the play of their goalies this season has been one of the biggest factors in their disappointing performance.

Shero’s tenure with the Devils is a fascinating one to look at from a distance. He inherited a team that had absolutely nothing to build around and tried to swing for the fences with some big additions over the years. He made a lot of the right moves and brought in legitimate top-line talent. But some bad injury luck (Johansson; Hall a year ago), a couple of star players declining (Schneider, Subban), and his inability to make the one big move that he needed (a goalie) helped hold back what started as a promising season. The 2019-20 season ended up being one losing season too many for the Devils.

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.

PHT Morning Skate: Devils should clean house; Could Hall go back to Oilers?

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.

• The Bruins are the best team in the NHL right now, but their fortunes may change soon enough. (Sportsnet)

• The NHLPA is covering up a theft of over $100,000 union funds. (TSN)

• The Devils should clean house after this season. (All About the Jersey)

Marcus Johansson is frustrated by the struggles he’s been having this season. (Buffalo Hockey Beat)

• Snoop Dogg is making an appearance in the NHL 20 video game. (Operation Sports)

• How has Sheldon Keefe changed the Maple Leafs? (The Score)

• There’s a few reasons why the Flyers had so much success in November. (Yahoo)

• The Edmonton Oilers are interested in Taylor Hall, but they will probably be outbid. (Edmonton Journal)

• The St. Louis Blues are gaining strength through injury adversity. (St. Louis Post-Dispatch)

• The Habs have lost nine of their last 10 games. Is it time for them to rebuild? (Spector’s Hockey)

• What is the true value of a fifth-round draft pick? (Japers Rink)

• Gus Katsaros explains how defensemen are evolving with the times. (Rotoworld)

• The Red Wings are looking to have fun during this tough stretch. (MLive)

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.

What’s gone wrong for the Sabres?

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Exactly one year ago the Buffalo Sabres were in the middle of a 10-game winning streak that would catapult them to the top of the NHL standings. Expectations were increasing, excitement was building, and at the very least it seemed as if the team had at least banked enough points in the standings that their playoff drought would finally come to an end, barring some sort of unspeakably bad collapse.

Then the unspeakably bad collapse happened.

They responded with another coaching change (their fifth in eight years), re-signed Jeff Skinner, made a few tweaks to the roster, and roared out of the gate this season by winning eight of their first 10 games and once again gave their fans a brief glimpse of hope.

It has, once again, been all downhill ever since.

The Sabres enter Monday’s game against Boston having won just two of their previous 11 games (the two wins were against Ottawa and Detroit) and are facing a pretty grueling six-game stretch that has them play Boston, Florida, Tampa Bay, Calgary, and Toronto (twice). There are a lot of divisional games there which means things can swing pretty dramatically in either direction in a very short period of time. Pick up a few wins, and the season can still be salvaged. Lose, and things can start heading down a very disappointing path.

The problem a year ago is that the Sabres’ fast start was the result of a lot of good luck and a lot of smoke and mirrors. Almost every game on the 10-game winning streak was decided by a single goal and required overtime or a shootout. The underlying numbers as a team were poor and it seemed like a team just waiting to collapse on itself.

Let’s take a look at what’s gone wrong this season.

They just don’t have enough offense

Jack Eichel is one of the best players in the league, while Jeff Skinner and Sam Reinhart are solid complementary players at the top of the lineup. That trio has combined to score 13 of the team’s 22 goals over the past 11 games, meaning the rest of the team is doing almost nothing, and some of the numbers are pretty jarring.

Take Casey Mittelstadt, for example. The No. 8 overall pick from 2017 is in his second full season in the league and is supposed to be a long-term core building block. He has been a complete non-factor this season offensively, entering play on Monday with just three goals and only 21 shots on goal in 21 games. He has just five shots on goal over the team’s 11-game slide and has been held without a shot in seven of those games.

Marcus Johansson was one of the team’s offseason additions and got off to a strong start with four goals and seven total points in his first nine games. He has been sidelined for the past two weeks, but even before he went out of the lineup his offense had completely disappeared with only five shots in his final eight games. Six of those games resulted in no shots on goal.

There are 33 forwards in the NHL with at least 15 games played this season and averaging one shot on goal or less per game — four of those 33 players play for the Sabres. You can not score goals that way.

Rasmus Dahlin‘s sophomore struggles

The league’s reigning rookie of the year is actually ahead of his scoring pace from a year ago (at least as far as assists are concerned) but every other aspect of his game has seemingly taken a small step back. He even found himself benched in a recent game. Dahlin is one of the most important players in the Sabres’ organization because of the potential he has and the role he is expected to play. If he becomes the player he was projected to be entering the league he could be the type of defensemen that can significantly change a team’s fortune. During his rookie year he looked like he was on his way to being that player. There is no reason to be overly concerned that he still won’t get there, but he’s definitely going through some growing pains. And since the Sabres don’t have another defender that possesses his skill or potential, if he’s not dominating games from the blue line, no one will.

This simply might be all they are capable of

The biggest issue with the Sabres isn’t necessarily “what’s gone recently,” but rather “what if this this is as good as they are?”

What is the identity of this team? What does it do well?

Even though Eichel has met his pre-draft expectations and become a top-line player, there is not much help around him to make this a good offensive team unless the power play dominates. The power play was hot at the start of the year, but has cooled off considerably since.

They are not great defensively unless they get outstanding goaltending, and everything about their 5-on-5 play points to a mediocre (to maybe even bad) team. They rank 14th in shot attempt differential at even-strength, and sit among the bottom-six in scoring chance, high-danger scoring chances, and expected goals (all via Natural Stat Trick), while owning an even goal differential (39 for, 39 against). Nothing stands out about them, and that has to be the most frustrating thing for Sabres fans as they go through what could be a ninth consecutive year of this.

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.

NHL Fantasy Hockey: Henrique, Nelson highlight this week’s top adds

Welcome to our weekly Adds/Drops column, where I focus on highlighting players you should consider grabbing or be concerned about in fantasy leagues. As always, the goal here isn’t to recommend 10 players you must add and five players that need to be dropped. Context is everything and the context of each league is different. What this is instead is a guideline so that if you’re looking to make a change, you have potential players to target and if you see players I’ve suggested to drop, you can evaluate your potential alternates.

Players Worth Adding

Neal Pionk, Jets – D: The shift from the New York Rangers in 2018-19 to the Jets this season has been to Pionk’s benefit so far. In terms of average ice time, he’s only jumped from 21:10 minutes to 22:58 minutes, but most of that increase has come from gaining additional power-play time. He’s gotten off to a strong start in 2019-20 with two goals and six points in 10 games and should continue to put up solid numbers this season.

Jakob Silfverberg, Ducks – RW: Silfverberg couldn’t have asked for a better start with five goals and eight points in nine games. At the least he’s a nice gamble in the short-term, but he might be worth hanging on throughout the season. Silfverberg has never gotten more than 49 points in a single season, but new Ducks coach Dallas Eakins seems comfortable with giving him a sizeable role. As a result he’s averaging 18:13 minutes, up from 17:06 minutes in 2018-19, which is more than any other Anaheim forward.

Brock Nelson, Islanders – C/LW: Nelson has been in kind of an odd pattern in the early portion of the campaign. He’s scored in exactly every other game and for the last six games he’s alternated between recording 0 and 2 points. The end result is that he has four goals and seven points through eight contests this season. He saw his ice time jump to 17:58 minutes in 2018-19 and set a new career-high with 53 points as a result. This season his playing time has inched up further to 18:20 minutes and he might be able to flirt with new career-highs. One key benefit to him is his left wing eligibility despite his primary role being up the middle.

Marcus Pettersson, Penguins – D: Pettersson is might just be more of a short-term pickup to gamble on while he’s hot. He has registered four assists over his last four games. That being said, he is averaging 18:34 minutes this season, including 1:33 minutes per game with the man advantage, so there is a chance that this will end up being a breakout campaign for him. Even if you decide not to grab him at this time, he’s worth checking back in on later to see how the 23-year-old has been developing with the Penguins.

Andre Burakovsky, Avalanche – LW/RW: Burakovsky is something of a roll of the dice at this stage. Burakovsky never recorded more than 38 points in a single season with Colorado, but he already has four goals and eight points in eight games with Colorado. Perhaps this is a case of the change of scenery agreeing with him, but he’s also just averaging 13:49 minutes. Unless his role with the Avalanche expands, it’s hard to see him being a significant offensive contributor in the long run. Still, given how well he’s already done and the potential that the 24-year-old is taking a step up this season, it’s worth taking a chance on him.

Adam Henrique, Ducks – C: This is mostly a case of riding the hot hand. Henrique has four goals and five points in his last four games, so he’s worthy of some short-term consideration. In the long run, he has fringe value in standard leagues. The limiting factor with him is his center-only eligibility given the glut of options up the middle.

Paul Stastny, Golden Knights – C: At this point, Max Pacioretty is owned in 84% of Yahoo leagues while Mark Stone is claimed in 97%, but Stastny is owned in just 38%. Stastny is skating on a line with that duo this season and has done his part. Stastny has four goals and seven points in nine games. If he continues to skate with Stone and Pacioretty, he should have a very good year.

[For more fantasy sports analysis, check out Rotoworld]

Marcus Johansson, Sabres – C/LW: Johansson is coming off two rough campaigns, but 2019-20 is shaping up to be different. After signing a two-year, $9 million contract with the Buffalo Sabres over the summer, he’s scored four goals and seven points in nine games. Johansson has typically been put on the ice with Jeff Skinner, who had 40 goals in his first season with Buffalo and has added another five goals in nine contests in 2019-20. All three of Johansson’s assists so far have been on Skinner goals.

Ian Cole, Avalanche – D: Cole missed the start of the season with a hip injury, but he made his return on Oct. 14th and has made up for lost time with four assists in his last three games. He’s not a particularly exciting defenseman from an offensive perspective, but you could gamble on him while he’s hot. It’s worth adding that he’s also one of the better sources of blocked shots out there, so if your league cares about that category then that’s a great secondary reason to consider grabbing him while he’s hot.

Mikko Koskinen, Oilers – G: Koskinen’s first season with the Edmonton Oilers left plenty to be desired, but he’s been a big part of their early season success. He’s 4-0-0 with a 2.21 GAA and .934 save percentage in four starts. He was a top-tier goaltender in the KHL and now that he’s had a full season to adjust to North America, he might prove to be a solid goaltender in 2019-20.

Players You May Want To Drop

Henrik Lundqvist, Rangers – G: Lundqvist has been on the decline for several seasons now and that descent will likely continue at the age of 37. Through four starts, he’s 1-3-0 with a 3.57 GAA and .906 save percentage. It doesn’t help that while the Rangers did get some very encouraging additions over the summer, they are still not quite a full force contender.

Boone Jenner, Blue Jackets – C/LW: Jenner didn’t exactly wow people last season with his 16 goals and 38 points in 77 games, but the 2019-20 campaign might prove to be worse. Despite the Blue Jackets losing some key forwards over the summer, his ice time has tanked from an average of 17:04 minutes in 2018-19 to 14:27 minutes this season. That’s his lowest minutes per game since 2013-14 when he was a rookie. He has just a goal and no assists through eight games.

Sammy Blais, Blues – LW/RW: Blais enjoyed a strong start to the season with three goals and five points in five games, but he hasn’t recorded a point in three contests. If you picked him up during that hot streak, you should re-evaluate his role now. He’s averaging a modest 14:03 minutes per game, so it’s hard to see him being a major offensive force this season. On the plus side, he is an excellent source of hits, so if you need help in that category, then maybe it’s worth your while to keep him even if he’s not contributing much in other areas.

Nino Niederreiter, Hurricanes – LW/RW: After Carolina acquired Niederreiter from Minnesota during the 2018-19 campaign, he went on a terrific run of 14 goals and 30 points in 36 games. However, a big part of that run was due to his increased role with the Hurricanes. He had averaged 14:37 minutes with Minnesota prior to the trade and 18:17 minutes for the rest of the season. In his first full campaign with the Hurricanes, Niederreiter has fallen back to a level of responsibility he’s more accustomed to. He’s averaging 15:39 minutes and has recorded no goals and three assists in nine games. With his playing time down, he’s also taking fewer shots, from 2.86 shots per game in 2018-19 with Carolina to 2.22 this season. His complete lack of goals can still be partially attributed to bad luck, but unless his role increases, he’s not going to return to the levels of production we saw during his post-trade time with Carolina last season.

Cory Schneider, Devils – G: Schneider has had some highs and some extreme lows over the last few years, but on the whole he’s certainly left plenty to be desired. That trend has continued this season. He has a 0-3-0 record, 4.08 GAA, and .876 save percentage in four games. To make things worse, at least for Schneider owners, Mackenzie Blackwood has rebounded from his own rough start to the campaign. It’s entirely possible that Blackwood will end up getting more starts than Schneider this season. There’s just not a lot to like about Schneider’s outlook right now. 

If you’re looking for fantasy hockey information, Rotoworld is a great resource. You can check the player news for the latest information on any player and insight into their fantasy outlook.

Every week Michael Finewax looks ahead at the schedule and offers team-by-team notes in The Week Ahead. I have a weekly Fantasy Nuggets column where I basically talk about whatever’s captured my attention that week. Gus Katsaros does an Analytics columns if you want to get into detailed statistical analysis. If you’re interested in rookies and prospects, there’s a weekly column on that written by McKeen’s Hockey.

For everything fantasy hockey, check out Rotoworld’s Player News, and follow @Rotoworld_ HK and @RyanDadoun on Twitter.