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.
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.
One game doesn’t undo weeks of up-and-down play; not in a sport with an 82-game regular season. It doesn’t matter if that win came at home, or in Sweden, where the Tampa Bay Lightning managed a 3-2 win against the Buffalo Sabres on Friday.
Yet, for a Lightning team that had been wobbly in 2019-20 after that shocking first-round sweep against the Blue Jackets, it’s good to see a bit of that dominant burst back.
The Lightning were pretty assertive even beyond the early scoring. They fired 13 shots on goal in each of the first two periods before being knotted up 8-8 with Buffalo in the final frame. There were stretches where the Bolts carried themselves with that swagger we were more used to last season. Linus Ullmark gets the L here, but deserves some credit for some sharp saves when Tampa Bay was pressing to send that game out of control.
The Sabres did not receive a power play for that hit, and perhaps there might be some overall grumbling about calls. After all, you could argue that was the difference in a one-goal game, as the Lightning went 1-for-4 on the PP, while Buffalo didn’t score on just two power-play opportunities.
Reinhart the Lionheart
Last season, Sam Reinhart had a breakthrough that mostly slipped under the radar, as the now-24-year-old generated a career-high 65 points.
On a rare quiet night for Jack Eichel and Jeff Skinner, Reinhart almost scored enough to grab at least a standings point for Buffalo, as the winger was responsible for both of Buffalo’s goals. Reinhart is developing into a heady, useful two-way player, and maybe on his way to new career-highs, as he now has 13 points in 15 games.
This win pushes the Lightning to 7-5-2. While the Sabres rank ahead of Tampa Bay at 9-5-2, Buffalo’s now lost four straight games, and have dropped five of their last six. Neither team gets much time to ruminate on this result, as they meet again on Saturday.
1. Mika Zibanejad, New York Rangers. What a start to the year for the Rangers’ top center. Playing alongside big free agent acquisition Artemi Panarin, Zibanejad already has eight points in two games and had a hat trick on Saturday in a 4-1 win over the Ottawa Senators, scoring an even-strength goal, a power play goal, and a shorthanded goal. Read more about it here.
2. Mike Hoffman, Florida Panthers. The other hat trick in the NHL on Saturday belonged to Hoffman as he was the difference in the Panthers’ 4-3 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning. After scoring a career-high 36 goals in his debut season with the Panthers a year ago, he already has four goals in his first two games this season.
3. John Gibson, Anaheim Ducks. When he is on top of his game Gibson can be the best goalie in hockey. He showed that on Saturday by turning aside 35 of the 36 shots he faced in a 3-1 win over the San Jose Sharks. Gibson and the Ducks handed San Jose its third consecutive defeat to begin the season. The Ducks are now 2-0 with Gibson stopping 67 of the first 69 shots he has faced over the first two games.
Other notable performances on Saturday
Patric Hornqvist and Jared McCann both scored a pair of goals for the Pittsburgh Penguins as they rebounded from an ugly season opening loss to rout the Columbus Blue Jackets, 7-2.
James Neal scored two goals for the Edmonton Oilers as they were able to hold on for a wildly entertaining back-and-forth win over the Los Angeles Kings. Connor McDavid also had four points (one goal, three assists) in the win.
Tyler Bertuzzi scored two goals and added two more assists to help lift the Detroit Red Wings to a 5-3 win over the Nashville Predators to open their season.
Brayden Schenn celebrated his new eight-year contract extension with the St. Louis Blues by scoring his first goal of the season in their 3-2 win over the Dallas Stars.
Jaroslav Halak stopped all 35 shots he faced for the Boston Bruins, and they needed every one of those saves in a 1-0 win over the Arizona Coyotes.
Johnny Gaudreau had three points (one goal, two assists) and David Rittich stopped all 34 shots he faced for the Calgary Flames in their 3-0 win over the Vancouver Canucks.
Highlights of the Night
The Carolina Hurricanes were overtime winners once again, this time erasing a two-goal third period deficit against the Washington Capitals. New addition Jake Gardiner scored the game-winner, his first as a member of the Hurricanes.
The prettiest play of the night was still probably the passing play by the Rangers to set up Zibanejad’s second goal.
Blooper of the Night
The Oilers were winners, but it was still a frustrating night for goalie Mike Smith at times as he had a couple of early mishaps playing the puck. This one was especially tough for him.
He had another turnover behind the net later in the period that resulted in another easy Kings goal. Fortunately the Oilers offense showed up in a big way.
Honorable mention blooper:Kasperi Kapanen‘s ridiculous stick-throwing penalty that helped complete the Montreal Canadiens’ third period rally. Watch it again here. It set the stage for the Canadiens’ shootout win. Brendan Gallagher also had a huge night for Montreal, recording three points.
The Boston Bruins have won 15 consecutive games against the Arizona Coyotes, tied for the longest active win streak for one team against a single opponent. [NHL PR]
Phil Kessel played in his 776th consecutive regular season game on Saturday night, tying him for the seventh-longest consecutive games played streak in NHL history. [NHL PR]
Jeff Petry‘s penalty shot goal was just the second penalty shot goal by a defender in Canadiens history. [NHL PR]
Every general manager has an extremely difficult job when trying to assemble a championship contending team.
No matter the sport it is a daunting task that requires vision, a plan, an ability to actually perform that plan, having the right people around you, and an understanding of not just where the league and their own team is today, but where all of that is headed in future seasons. It requires great scouting, an eye for talent, asset management, a lot of luck, and countless other factors to get their team to a championship level.
Even when all of those things work together in near perfect unison they are still more likely to fall short of their ultimate goal (a championship) than they are to achieve it.
With the NHL offseason officially underway, the league’s 31 general managers are beginning the process of putting their vision into practice, and while they all have a difficult job in front of them not all of their jobs are created equal. Some of them have significantly taller mountains to scale over the next couple of months. Some out of their own creation, and others out of the circumstances and hands they have been dealt.
These general managers are part of that group and have what will almost certainly be the toughest offseason jobs ahead of them.
Ken Holland, Edmonton Oilers
It is a testament to how bad and completely incompetent the previous front office was that Holland is walking into a situation where he has two of the NHL’s top-four scorers from this past season (Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl), both still not even in the prime of their careers yet and signed to long-term contracts, and your first reaction to his situation is, “wow, this team seems like it is light years away from contending.”
The Oilers have missed the playoffs in 12 of the past 13 seasons, including three of the first four years of McDavid’s career, having completely wasted what might be some of the best and most dominant hockey he ever plays (at least offensively).
They are a team that plays at the level of an early 1990s expansion team when their two-headed monster of McDavid and Draisaitl is not on the ice, they need an overhaul on defense, a ton of depth at forward, and a goalie. And Holland is likely going to have less than $10 million in salary cap space to start with.
What his roster lacks in talent it makes up for in bad contracts that are sinking the organization’s ability to build around its two superstars at the top.
Milan Lucic‘s contract is, for all intents and purposes, buyout proof and trading him will require Holland to take on a similarly bad contract in return or give up a far more valuable asset to entice a team to take the remaining $6 million per year cap hit (for four more years!) for a player that has just 54 points over the past two seasons (161 games) with only 43 of them coming at even-strength.
His returning starting goalie, Mikko Koskinen, will be 31 years old on opening night and has just 59 games of NHL experience with a .904 save percentage. He is also signed for three more seasons at $4.5 million per season, a rather lousy house-warming gift from the previous regime on their way out the door.
He has eight defenders under contract for close to $27 million under the cap for this season and doesn’t have a No. 1 or anything close to a top-tier puck-mover among them.
At least three of them (Andrej Sekara, Kris Russell, and Brandon Manning) are legitimate buyout candidates this summer.
There are only a handful of teams with less cap space than the Oilers entering the offseason, and it is not because of the contracts they are paying McDavid, Draisaitl, or even Ryan Nugent-Hopkins at the top.
It is because of the $17 million(!) that is going to Lucic, Russell, Manning, and Koskinen.
Other than that, things are pretty good.
If Holland manages to turn this situation into something positive within two years they should build him a statue.
Kyle Dubas, Toronto Maple Leafs
Dubas’ situation is pretty much the exact opposite of Holland’s because his team is actually … good.
Really, really, really good.
Championship contending good.
The problem Dubas and the Maple Leafs are going to run into is the same one they have run into in previous years. That “problem” is that it is a lot easier to go from being a “bad” team to a “good” team than it is to go from being a “good” team to a championship team. Having lost in the first-round of the playoffs three years in a row, including to a divisional rival in Boston in each of the past two seasons, kind of illustrates that. The Maple Leafs can score, they can win a lot of games in the regular season, but there is still a hurdle they have to get over because for as good as they have become, this group still does not have a finish higher than third place in its own division or a playoff series win.
But that is all narrative. When it comes to the actual team building Dubas’ challenge is going to be finding a way to get a contract done with Mitch Marner, one of his team’s best and most important players.
The Maple Leafs certainly do not want to go through a replay of last year’s William Nylander restricted free agency saga, and there is always that (please try not to laugh at the ridiculous suggestion) possibility of an offer sheet from another team (hey, one of these years it could happen again).
Finding the salary cap room for Marner is going to be a challenge as the Maple Leafs are already paying Nylander, Auston Matthews, and John Tavares huge money at the top of the lineup. As I wrote a few months ago, this is not a problem. The Maple Leafs can (and most likely will) compete for a championship with a significant chunk of their salary cap allotment going to the quartet of Matthews, Tavares, Marner, and Nylander.
Before they can get there they have to shed some contracts, specifically the ones belonging to Patrick Marleau and Nikita Zaitsev. The top-four might also cost them a couple of other depth players around the edges, but it is a heck of a lot easier to find another Conor Brown or Kasperi Kapanen than it is to find another Mitch Marner or William Nylander.
Along with that, he is also set to lose a little bit off of his blue line with the pending free agencies of Jake Gardiner and Ron Hainsey, while also dealing with the elephant in the room that is the highly paid head coach whose recent resume hasn’t matched his reputation.
Add in the fact this is all playing out in a hockey market where all reason and logic gets thrown out the window and he not only has a difficult task ahead of him, he is going to be under a constant microscope to get it done.
No matter what he does this offseason he has a playoff team on the ice this season.
Simply being a playoff team is no longer enough in Toronto.
Jarmo Kekalainen, Columbus Blue Jackets
He put together the most successful season in Blue Jackets history by not only getting them to the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the third year in a row (first time the franchise has ever done that), but by putting together a team that shocked the hockey world by sweeping one of the best teams of the modern era (the Tampa Bay Lightning) in Round 1 for the team’s first-ever playoff series win.
It gave Blue Jackets fans their first taste of postseason success and built a ton of excitement around the team.
Now he is facing the possibility of losing all of Panarin, Bobrovsky, Duchene, and Dzingel in free agency, while having only two draft picks (a third-round pick and a seventh-round pick) this year and only five draft pick in the 2020 class.
Do we really need to go any further as to what his challenge here is?
Panarin and Bobrovsky have seemingly had one foot out the door all season and their departures just seem to be a matter of where they go and not if they go, and there is little doubt that Duchene is going to test the open market for his one last shot at another big contract (Nashville seems like a perfect fit for him, right?).
The Blue Jackets will still a decent core coming back with Seth Jones, Zach Werenski, Cam Atkinson, and the constantly improving Pierre-Luc Dubois, but Panarin and Bobrovsky are not players that you just easily replace. They have been impact players and significant pieces of what has been a consistent playoff team the past few years. Bobrovsky in particular is going to be a huge loss because he is not only a two-time Vezina Trophy winner and one of the best regular season goalies of his era, but they do not really have any kind of an internal option that is a sure thing and limited options outside the organization.
Kekalainen did an outstanding job to raise the bar and set a new level of expectation in Columbus this season, but he also left himself in a situation where it is going to be extremely difficult to reach it (or exceed it) this upcoming season.
Jason Botterill, Buffalo Sabres
This seems like a make-or-break year for Botterill in Buffalo.
The Sabres are basically Edmonton-east right now given their consistent lack of success, inability to build around a young franchise player (Jack Eichel), and complete lack of depth.
Also like the Oilers: They recently traded an eventual major award winner (2019 Conn Smythe winner Ryan O’Reilly) for some magic beans. The situation in Buffalo is so bleak right now that probably overpaying winger Jeff Skinner is seen as a win for the organization, and I don’t really mean that to be as critical as it sounds because I dolike it. If you are going to “overpay” someone under the cap, you are better off making sure it is a player that might score 40 goals for you and seems to have developed some chemistry with your best player.
But after the Eichel-Skinner duo, and 2018 No. 1 overall pick Rasmus Dahlin, this is a roster that just … well … who in the hell excites you here?
The Sabres are in a division with three powerhouse teams at the top, a team a Florida that is already ahead of them with a better core, more salary cap space to work with, and is probably going to be a destination for top free agents (Panarin and Bobrovsky) this summer.
Oh, and there is also Montreal that missed the playoffs this past year by just two points.
This is, at best, the fifth best team in its own division after years and years and years of rebuilding and entering year three with his finger on the button (and with a new coach) there has to be immense pressure for Botterill to make something out of this mess. He has to do a lot, and he has to do it quickly.
The deal is good value for the Buffalo Sabres, who are right up against the 2018-19 salary cap of $79.5 million. CapFriendly shows the Sabres with just over $2.8 million in cap space left but with the potential to have to pay out nearly $4 million in bonuses this season.
Sam Reinhart Contract: Year 1: 3.55 Million Year 2: 3.75 Million
Like Josh Morrissey and Darnell Nurse before him, the deal means Reinhart will be a restricted free agent come the summer of 2020 and the Sabres will then have the option to hand him an eight-year deal.
And like Morrissey and Nurse, the deal is team-friendly in terms of the cap now and leaves the player betting on themselves for a significant pay raise in two year’s time.
Most comparable contracts: Sam Reinhart (F) Two years, $3.65M AAV
Reinhart had a slow start to the season last year but ended up setting a career-high in goals with 25 to tie Jack Eichel for the team lead.
What’s most impressive about Reinhart’s year was how good he was down the stretch. In the final 44 games, he had 39 of his career-high 50 points and 20 of his 25 goals came in 2018, which tied him for 12th in the NHL during that span.
Reinhart’s passing skills and hockey IQ make him an intriguing center candidate. Though not the fleetest of foot, he can drive the offense. According to the numbers at NaturalStatTrick.com, Reinhart trailed only Evander Kane and Jason Pominville in shots generated relative to his teammates and ranked fifth in fewest shots allowed. O’Reilly was noticeably better with Reinhart than without him.