Sam Reinhart

Jack Eichel #9 of the Buffalo Sabres celebrates his goal with teammate Rasmus Dahlin
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What is the long-term outlook for the Sabres?

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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.

Pending free agents

Dominik Kahun (RFA)
Curtis Lazar (RFA)
Brandon Montour (RFA)
Victor Olofsson (RFA)
Lawrence Pilut (RFA)
Sam Reinhart (RFA)
Tage Thompson (RFA)
Linus Ullmark (RFA)
Zemgus Girgensons (UFA)
Matt Hunwick (UFA)
Johan Larsson (UFA)
Michael Frolik (UFA)
Wayne Simmonds (UFA)
Vladimir Sobotka (UFA)
Jimmy Vesey (UFA)

The Core

The Buffalo Sabres have drafted two of the hardest pieces to find in the National Hockey League. A franchise center in Jack Eichel and a top-pairing defenseman in Rasmus Dahlin.

Sam Reinhart reached the 50-point mark for the third consecutive season and Victor Olofsson has been a pleasant surprise. However, the Sabres will need to find several more pieces to fill out the rest of the lineup to challenge in the top-heavy Atlantic Division.

Casey Mittelstadt is only 21 years of age, but after playing 77 games in 2018-19, he didn’t take the next step in his development. The young center played just 31 games in the NHL while spending the other half of the season with the Rochester Americans of the AHL. The maturation process varies from player to player, but the Sabres still expect Mittlestadt to grow into a formidable NHL player.

Two of the Sabres’ top five scorers (Dahlin and Rasmus Ristolainen) anchor the defensive group. Ristolainen has been the subject of trade rumors for several years now, but still is a right-handed shot defenseman with an offensive touch. Brandon Montour was acquired from the Anaheim Ducks in February of 2019 but is a pending restricted free agent.

Linus Ullmark has provided a boost in goal this season but hasn’t cemented himself as the long-term option. Several goaltenders could hit the free agency market this season and the Sabres could find a long-term solution at a reasonable price if they play their cards right.

Long-term needs for Sabres

The challenge for the Sabres front office has been finding the right complementary pieces to play alongside their foundational players. The Jeff Skinner contract extension is not providing the return expected with a $9 million average annual value. In 59 games this season, the high-priced forward has recorded only 23 points (14 goals, 9 assists).

The Sabres didn’t give up a valuable asset for Wayne Simmonds at the 2020 NHL Trade Deadline, but the idea that they gave up a draft pick for an expiring contract was strange to say the least. Simmonds’ value to the Sabres might not be measured by his on-ice performance but could be another veteran voice in the locker room. If he is extended in the offseason, Simmonds can be a sounding board for Eichel and Dahlin as the they continue to develop.

General manager Jason Botterill has six draft picks in the upcoming NHL Draft, but is missing his third and sixth-round picks from the Skinner acquisition in the summer of 2018. The Sabres have needs throughout their NHL lineup, but have limited assets and salary cap space to fill the holes.

Buffalo will miss the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the ninth straight season and will struggle to break that streak in 2020-21.

Long-term strengths

Eichel and Dahlin represent two foundational pieces and should be the face of the Sabres for years to come.

Head coach Ralph Krueger is also an interesting character and has gotten a lot out of his captain and Dahlin in his first season behind Buffalo’s bench. But, after an 8-1-1 start this season, Krueger was unable to stop the skid as his team fell out of the playoff picture.

Obviously, if there was more to add in the strength’s column, the Sabres would have finished higher in the standings and have a better trajectory for years to come.

MORE:
Looking at the 2019-20 Buffalo Sabres
Sabres biggest surprises, disappointments so far

Scott Charles is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @ScottMCharles.

The Buzzer: Hat trick for Rantanen; Hutchinson shines for Maple Leafs

NHL Scores
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Three Stars

1. Mikko Rantanen, Colorado Avalanche. After routing the St. Louis Blues in their most recent, the Avalanche have now won back-to-back games thanks to their 5-2 win over the New Jersey Devils on Saturday. Mikko Rantanen shined in this one with three goals on three shots in the win. He has 15 goals and 31 total points in only 26 games this season. That is a 47-goal pace over 82 games.

2. Michael Hutchinson, Toronto Maple Leafs. Hutchinson has been having a miserable season for the Maple Leafs and has struggled to find his game from the very start. He has now won three consecutive decisions for and stopped all 33 shots he faced on Saturday against the New York Islanders to record his first shutout of the season. The Maple Leafs are now on a 9-0-1 over the past 10 games and are 15-4-1 in their first 20 games under new coach Sheldon Keefe. In Hutchinson’s first six starts this season he went 0-5-1, only once had a save percentage higher than .875 (never higher than .897), and allowed at least four goals in every game, including four games where he allowed five goals. He has allowed just five total goals in his past three starts.

3. Jacob Markstrom, Vancouver Canucks. Markstrom found out he is going to the All-Star game on Friday to replace Marc-Andre Fleury (read more about that here). He played like an All-Star on Saturday against the New York Rangers. Markstrom’s 36 saves helped the Canucks steal a 2-1 win over the New York Rangers to maintain their hold on a top-three spot in the Pacific Division and keep pace with the Vegas Golden Knights and Arizona Coyotes. He has been one of the Canucks’ best players this season and really solidified their goaltending spot as he continues to play for a big contract this summer.

Other notable performances from Saturday

  • The San Jose Sharks won their second game in a row and snapped the Columbus Blue Jackets’ point streak with a 3-2 win.
  • Eric Staal scored a controversial goal in overtime to lift the Minnesota Wild to a big win over the Winnipeg Jets. Read more about that play here.
  • The Edmonton Oilers scored four consecutive goals to stun the Boston Bruins. David Pastrnak scored his league-leading 31st goal of the season for the Bruins.
  • Chandler Stephenson continued his strong play for the Vegas Golden Knights since being acquired in a trade from the Washington Capitals, recording two points in a come-from-behind overtime win against the defending Stanley Cup Champion St. Louis Blues. His goal, the overtime winner, is already his fifth goal in 16 games with the Golden Knights. Before this season he never scored more than six goals in a single season.
  • Sam Reinhart had a big game for the Buffalo Sabres as they chased Sergei Bobrovsky early in a 3-2 win over the Florida Panthers. Read more about Bobrovsky’s struggles here.
  • Matt Murray had a strong game for the Pittsburgh Penguins to help them get a 3-2 overtime win against the Montreal Canadiens.
  • Tyler Johnson scored a late third period goal to help the Tampa Bay Lightning extend their winning streak to six consecutive games.
  • Clayton Keller scored two goals for the Arizona Coyotes in a big 6-2 win over the Philadelphia Flyers. The Coyotes did lose starting goalie Antti Raanta to a lower-body injury in the win. Read more about that here.
  • Rocco Grimaldi‘s two points and Pekka Rinne‘s 23 saves helped the Nashville Predators snap what had been a three-game losing streak in a 4-1 win over the Los Angeles Kings.

Highlights of the Night

Kasperi Kapanen helped get things rolling for the Maple Leafs on Saturday with this slick assist.

Cale Makar makes it look easy as he enters the offensive zone and finds Rantanen for one of his three goals for the Avalanche.

Roman Josi had the play of the night for the Predators as they get a much-needed win against Kings.

Blooper of the Night

Ottawa Senators forward Colin White found you can not head-butt the puck in the net. Read more about it here.

Factoids

  • The Maple Leafs are now on a 10-game point streak (9-0-1) for the first time since the 2005-06 season. [NHL PR]
  • The Golden Knights’ come-from-behind win on Saturday was the first three-goal comeback win in franchise history. [Vegas Golden Knights]
  • With the Sharks’ win against Columbus on Saturday general manager Doug Wilson became the 19th general manager in NHL history to reach 700 wins. [San Jose Sharks]
  • Leon Draisaitl has recorded at least one point in all but eight games this season for the Oilers. [NHL PR]
  • Thanks to his two goals on Saturday Zach Werenski is the first defender in Blue Jackets franchise history to score 50 goals for the team. [NHL PR]
  • Canucks rookie defenseman Quinn Hughes needed just 41 games to record his 30th point this season. That is faster than any rookie Canucks defenseman in franchise history. [NHL PR]
  • Roman Josi is on a nine-game point streak for the Predators, tied with Shea Weber for the longest run by a Predators defender. [NHL PR]

Scores

Edmonton Oilers 4, Boston Bruins 1
San Jose Sharks 3, Columbus Blue Jackets 2
Buffalo Sabres 3, Florida Panthers 2
Minnesota Wild 3, Winnipeg Jets 2 (OT)
Vegas Golden Knights 5, St. Louis Blues 4 (OT)
Toronto Maple Leafs 3, New York Islanders 0
Pittsburgh Penguins 3, Montreal Canadiens 2 (OT)
Tampa Bay Lightning 5, Ottawa Senators 3
Colorado Avalanche 5, New Jersey Devils 2
Arizona Coyotes 6, Philadelphia Flyers 2
Vancouver Canucks 2, New York Rangers 1
Nashville Predators 4, Los Angeles Kings 1

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.

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.

Lightning flash signs of old swagger in beating Sabres

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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.

Here are a few thoughts from the first of two Lightning – Sabres games for the 2019 Global Series (find out more about the 2020 version here).

Striking quick early

In particular, the Lightning started strong.

Most obviously, that quick start could be seen in building a 2-0 lead, with the highlight being great passes from Kevin Shattenkirk to Brayden Point and finally to Nikita Kucherov for a pretty goal:

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.

Discipline coming?

As you can read about here, Kucherov didn’t just score a nice goal. He also delivered a very-not-nice hit on Vladimir Sobotka, who did not return to Friday’s game.

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.

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• 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.

The Buzzer: Wrapping up wild Saturday around the NHL

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Three Stars

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.
  • The Sabres dominated the New Jersey Devils, 7-2, thanks to a pair of two goal efforts from Sam Reinhart and rookie Victor Olofsson. Rasmus Dahlin also had three assists for the now 2-0 Sabres.
  • 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.
  • Colorado’s big three of Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, and Gabriel Landeskog were once again dominate in a 4-2 over the Minnesota Wild.
  • 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.

Factoids

  • 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]
  • Sidney Crosby had a fight and moved into a tie with Jean Beliveau for 41st on the NHL’s all-time points list. [NHL PR]
  • The Avalanche are nearly unbeatable when all three of MacKinnon, Rantanen, and Landeskog record at least one point in a single game. [NHL PR]
  • McDavid’s four-point game was already his eighth in the NHL. Only Nikita Kucherov, Patrick Kane, and Johnny Gaudreau have more four-point games since McDavid entered the league. [NHL PR]

Scores

Buffalo Sabres 7, New Jersey Devils 2

Montreal Canadiens 6, Toronto Maple Leafs 5 (SO)

New York Rangers 4, Ottawa Senators 1

Florida Panthers 4, Tampa Bay Lightning 3

Pittsburgh Penguins 7, Columbus Blue Jackets 2

Carolina Hurricanes 3, Washington Capitals 2 (OT)

St. Louis Blues 3, Dallas Stars 2

Detroit Red Wings 5, Nashville Predators 3

Boston Bruins 1, Arizona Coyotes 0

Colorado Avalanche 4, Minnesota Wild 2

Anaheim Ducks 3, San Jose Sharks 1

Calgary Flames 3, Vancouver Canucks 0

Edmonton Oilers 6, Los Angeles Kings 5

MORE:
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.