They are a lottery team, not a playoff contender
By Andrew Kulyk and Peter Farrell
That was a nice head fake wasn’t it? Got our hearts beating just a bit. The Buffalo Sabres, left for dead, and dead last in the eastern conference just two weeks ago, now had to face the powerhouse New York Rangers and then the Chicago Blackhawks on the road. They went into both those buildings and put on their best performances of the season, demolishing the Rangers, and then almost beating the Hawks before losing in overtime. And that only happened thanks to Patrick Kane, being, well… Patrick Kane.
From there the team put together a mini-winning streak, taking 7 of 8 points, and just like that were within five points of the coveted eighth and final playoff spot, albeit in tight contention with several other teams.
Felt good, you say? It all came crashing down with two soul crushing losses in Tampa Bay and Carolina, teams the Sabres have to leap frog over if they have any chance to see the post season.
Time for Artvoice to hand out the mid-season grades, and a sneak peek at what may happen as the Sabres head to the meat of the schedule and the most exciting part of the season.
The team isn’t scoring. With under 100 goals at the mid point, that ranks them 27th in the league, and they are on pace to match those horrible seasons when the team was (allegedly) deliberately looking to finish dead last in order to land those coveted top draft picks.
Granted, the team was without team leader Jack Eichel for much of the first half of the season. Ryan O’Reilly has lost time, his most recent sideline due to appendicitis. But Eichel’s return has definitely turned the team’s fortunes around.
Kyle Okposo has been a solid and productive free agent signing, and his offensive output is on pace with his performance as a New York Islander. His being named to the NHL All Star team is well deserved. The troubled Evander Kane has shown flashes of brilliance and could be a terror on the ice given what night he is playing.
The disappointments are many… Tyler Ennis has been sidelined with injury and has but two points on the season. Sam Reinhart, and remember, he was a first draft choice and second overall pick during the Sabres’ tank, was painful to watch early on in the season, but has been brilliant of late.
Throw Marcus Foligno, Zemgus Girgensens, Brian Gionta and Matt Moulson into the veteran category of players who are simply underachieving. Girgensens has executed well under former coach Ted Nolan, but his play has fallen off significantly.
Rasmus Ristolainen has some work to do to become an all around defenseman, but remember he is still very young and even then, he has shown some dazzling playmaking skills and will certainly be a future All Star. Paired up with Jake McCabe, they make a great blue line tandem.
It goes downhill from there. Dmitry Kulikov is a bust. He is dead last on the team in the plus/minus category (Note to GMs everywhere: avoid Russians). Zack Bogosian is big and strong and physical, but makes stupid decisions which cost the team.
Cody Franson, Justin Falk, William Carrier… all poster boys as to why the team desperately needs upgrades on defense. A pleasant surprise amongst this pack has been Taylor Fedun, an off season free agent acquisition who has stepped up nicely.
Robin Lehner came into training camp healthy, buffed, leaner and more focused. Anders Nilsson won the backup job. But it has been Nilsson who has stolen the show, giving coach Dan Bylsma two great options in net.
Bylsma’s biggest dilemma is that the expectations are to play Lehner long and hard, with Nilsson serving in more of a spot role. That hasn’t happened, and both have pretty much shared the net equally.
Demerit goes for Lehner’s dismal performance in shootouts. When’s the last time a shootout was fun to watch for Sabres fans? Now it brings on foreboding and dread.
SPECIAL TEAMS: D
The Sabres are dead last in penalty kills. That’s right. Only 74.2% in successfully killing off shorthanded situations, while amassing 377 penalty minutes this season, putting them in 9th place in the league in that dubious category.
While the power play has had its fits and starts, the team is currently in 10th place in that category. Better production from the point and the ability to carry control of the front of the net is key to making that number even better. Again, Rasmus Ristolainen and Jack Eichel are the guys to lead the charge.
Why this team is so abysmal in shootouts is somewhat of a mystery. The Sabres have now lost 9 games via overtime or shootouts, leaving on the table important points which will most likely come back to haunt them.
Every time the Sabres’ head fake goes into another losing streak, followers of the team start questioning the coach and his “system”. Dan Byslma is no Lindy Ruff or Ted Nolan when it comes to personality. He’s more like a Ron Rolston. But offering quips at postgame press conferences does not make for a brilliant coach.
Bylsma has done better at mastering the overtime three on three, and the power play also seems to be getting better. But getting overall production on all levels from this team still proves elusive. Perhaps it just has to do with lack of talent or depth. But getting the underperformers to do better is what makes a coach worth his salt.
What will it take for the Sabres to have any chance? The month of February will be make or break time for the team. With a schedule chock full of western opponents, the team can afford to take games to overtime and surrender a point without hurting their position in the standings. But a sustained winning streak, not just a head fake, is a must if this team has any chance to jump over the competition in what is a very tight race at the bottom of the Eastern Conference. If it doesn’t happen, start planning your watch parties for the NHL lottery show in late April now.