Strong finish bodes well for next year’s Sabres
By Andrew Kulyk & Peter Farrell
To get a glimpse of exactly what Buffalo fans have to look forward to, maybe for years to come, one only had to watch last week’s Saturday matinee at home against the Winnipeg Jets, won by Buffalo 3-2.
Newcomer and highly touted prospect Hudson Fasching, brand new in town after inking a contract with the Sabres, puts on a rush to the net from the faceoff circle to earn his first career NHL goal.
Come the third period, Sam Reinhart and Jack Eichel each get a goal, erasing a 2-1 Buffalo deficit and getting the team the win. Want more enthusiasm? The “other” newcomer, defenseman Casey Nelson, notches his first NHL assist on the Fasching goal, and in subsequent games has been adding the points.
Eichel and Reinhart, along with forwards Ryan O’Reilly and Evander Kane, make four players who are in the 20 goal club, and all are under 25 years of age. We all want to forget the horrific season that the Sabres had to endure that ended just a year ago – a shameful 54 point finish and a -113 goal differential. This year’s Sabres are close to the 500 mark, and have shrunk that negative goal differential to the low teens. Still not acceptable for a playoff contender, but the strides they have made are substantial.
Could the Sabres have made a legitimate playoff run this season, where they sit approximately 14 points out of that coveted eight seed? Here are the missing pieces of the 2015-2016 Sabres puzzle. Fix these in time for next season, and long suffering Buffalo fans could once again be enjoying home hockey games well into late April and perhaps beyond.
-Your injured goaltender. Robin Lehner was touted as a true #1 starter. This is a team whose success has always been built around an elite goalie who can win games and steal games. Think Roger Crozier, Tom Barrasso, Domink Hasek and Ryan Miller. Lehner’s bad luck happened on opening night, succumbing to injury and forcing coach Dan Bylsma to lead with Chad Johnson and rotating his back up goalie from Rochester. Lehner’s return to the crease and unlocking his potential will go a long way to making the Sabres competitive.
-More missing pieces. Tyler Ennis has but 3 goals and has been off the ice in all of 2016 due to injury. Hot rookie Zemgus Girgensons has had a disappointing sophomore year after being named an All Star last season, wondering if former coach Ted Nolan’s style was more conducive for the young Latvian. And Matt Moulson? This former high flyer drew comparisons to Ville Leino for his shocking drop in scoring. The Sabres are saddled with his contract beyond this season. Can he regain his scoring touch?
-Your elite defense. The Sabres have a good crop of capable young defensemen. What is missing is that 1-2 tandem that can qualify for that “elite” level, the guys who can shut down the opposition, kill penalties and gobble up minutes. Rasmus Ristolainen and Mark Pysyk might reach that stage. Can General Manager Tim Murray find that missing piece to headline the defensive roster?
-Win shootouts. Like it or not, there are overtimes and shootouts in the NHL. The Sabres seemed to struggle a bit with the new 3 on 3 overtime format early on, before catching on to the strategically different style of play. But their record in shootouts has been abysmal, winning just two this season, both against the lowly Toronto Maple Leafs, while dropping 7. Add 4 overtime losses and that amounts to lost points and lost opportunities to improve their spot in the standings. Absent the next shootout specialist like former Sabre Ales Kotalik, the Sabres need to ramp up their analytics on opposing goaltenders and do better.
There are other pieces. Breaking down last year’s trade with Winnipeg in raw form, Zach Bogosian was the guy who replaced Tyler Myers, and in recent weeks has been playing much better and showing his potential. Marcus Foligno has been quietly adding to the scoresheet. Johan Larsson has been scoring key goals in key moments and is final emerging as a potential offensive threat on a consistent basis.
Can the Sabres break a five year playoff drought next season? The pieces are in place. And the future looks awesome.
Lots of consternation and criticism from a couple national media outlets regarding the choice of Ryan O’Reilly as Buffalo’s nominee for the Bill Masterton Trophy. The voting is done by the members of the Professional Hockey Writers Association.
O’Reilly’s DUI arrest last summer is well documented, and he will face trial this summer in an Ontario courtroom. At that point he will take his lumps, pay his debt to society and make restitution. And he will move on in life. But O’Reilly is no Johnny Manziel. He made a mistake, seems like a well grounded young man, and like all of us, deserves second, third and even fourth chances.
On the ice, O’Reilly matched the criteria for the Masteron nomination. His credentials and performance deserved consideration. And that’s why he received the nomination from all the writers who cover the team. As members of the PHWA, Artvoice was proud to add to that list by casting both our ballots for O’Reilly.