Through the month of October, it is hard to believe that the Buffalo Sabres are 8th in the Eastern Conference. After 13 games last season, they were below .500 (4-7-2) to kick off a last-place finish. Despite selecting a defenseman thought to be generational (Rasmus Dahlin), most have expected growing pains to continue. Truth be told, the blue and gold have had ugly moments. On the other end of the spectrum, Buffalo has had some bright spots. And going into Saturday night’s game vs the Ottawa Senators, the Sabres have a winning record (6-5-2).
GM Jason Botterill‘s changes have shown promise early on, in both Rochester and Buffalo, while others need to get going. If there were no changes, his hockey team would be near the bottom as it was last year (thank you Captain Obvious). The abysmal opening reminded fans of every game of the 31st place team that bored them. Thankfully, the tide turned quickly as HC Phil Housley was brash about the Sabres effort and execution, post game. From there it has been better though not perfect. Key areas have improved with others that need must be addressed for the Sabres to push towards the postseason.
Puck Possession/Shot Share
For the past decade, the Buffalo Sabres have been one of the worst passing teams in the NHL. From the pre-tank, tank, post-tank years, putting a 5-foot pass on a teammate’s stick has been a challenge. There was clearly not enough talent on the front or back-end to move the puck at a pace that would thwart the opposition.
But in November 2018, they can pass and move the puck? Visibly, the new acquisitions have improved the team’s ability to transition from defense to offense without constantly dumping the puck in. Even the neutral zone play is better, resulting in a team CorsiFor% (5v5) of 49.5 (16th in NHL) and FenwickFor% or 50.4 (14th). Overall shot attempts are up in rate (577; 16th), as the Sabres were in 30th last season with 3,608. Their rate at even strength is on pace for 3640, which would still keep them at the bottom. And as Buffalo has been in the penalty box a lot lately, it has limited their player usage and ice time. All in all, there are more games with 30-50 shots on goal so far that the team has seen in the last few years.
A Dominant Top-Line
Since the game in LA, the trio has been the most consistent line in terms of production as well as execution. According to Matthew Bove of WKBW, the trio has scored 52% of the team’s goals with 17 (of 33). Anchored by Eichel, the top line has excelled even when other lines have floundered. Skinner adds a skating, shooting, and puck possession prowess that is also key to this groups success. Pominville, who just played his 1,000th game (loss in Ottawa) has been a steadying and smart element, guiding his faster, younger counterparts. All in all, there is no reason to stop what is working.
An Actual Fourth Line
Sabres’ fourth lines of the past decade have composed of players that should not be in the NHL. In previous games, the bottom trio found themselves being dominated by opposing fourth lines. In many cases, they were not capable or fast enough.
Lately, Johan Larsson, Zemgus Girgensons, and Patrik Berglund have found their niche. Berglund was scratched out west as he struggled mightly in the top-9. Not fleet of foot, like Larsson, but is a smart enough hockey player to be effective. Girgensons and Larsson were almost on their way out when they recognized what role they needed to take and excell at it. So far, all three are positive Corsi players individually. They play hard and cycle pucks down low while they have contributed to the penalty kill. After a few years of Girgensons and Larsson trying in the top 9, it is a good sign if they find efficiency on the fourth. And as this is the name of the podcast, it must be a good thing!
Outside of 3 players (Eichel, Pominville, Skinner), the rest of the Sabres have scored a combined 16 goals. 6 of those are from defensemen, which is not glamorous for the forwards. Outside of Conor Sheary (3) and Kyle Okposo (3), no other Sabres forward has more than 1 goal in the bottom 9 lines.
Over the last 3, win-less games, little has come from the anyone not on the top line. Reinhart, Sheary, and Okposo, who are expected to contribute, have not provided the additional scoring and production needed. Casey Mittelstadt (19) and Tage Thompson (20) combining for one goal from the youngsters does not help but the responsibility is not on them necessarily. Mittelstadt has at least shown the work it takes to produce while, on the other hand, Thompson has only shown a few flashes that he can be effective. At the end of the day, the Sabres, as a whole, need to be more dangerous offensively to keep pushing them.
The theme over the last few has been lots of PIM’s. Unless its a fantasy hockey league, too many of those can be counterproductive. As an actual hockey team, it is difficult to get into a rhythm when the balance of ice time is off.
For the Sabres, it means that Eichel, Skinner, Reinhart, Okposo, and Mittelstadt are not playing as needed. In the last two games, Buffalo committed 10 penalties. That is 10 minutes per game down a man, at least. Yes, the opponent has scored on some of these, which adds to the pain.
In some cases, the Sabres have been able to claw back from being down 2 or 3 goals when they get players back. The problem is that constantly playing this way is not sustainable. It will really kill them when they play upper-echelon teams. Avoidable penalties must be minimized if Buffalo is to have control of hockey games.
Net Front Consistently
When the Sabres are effective, and many other franchises for that matter, they are sending skaters to the opposing net. There have been moments when they are getting shots on but the goaltender has clear view. Even backups will stop what they can see.
The third period of the previous match against the Ottawa Senators proved what a Phil Housley coached team needs to execute. With the previous two periods being penalty-filled and not dangerous, the Sabres came into the third doing what is expected. Two, third-period goals (Pominville, Skinner) came from players obstructing the Craig Anderson. Other changes also occurred due to this same mentality. But it needs to happen for consistently. With secondary scoring as limited as it is, running to the net will produce better opportunities.
This afternoon, the Buffalo Sabres return home in a rematch vs. the Senators. Evan Rodrigues is back in for Remi Elie (who has not shown much) and Linus Ullmark starts in goal. Ullmark’s last appearance (Columbus) was less than ideal as the Sabres tanked the 2nd period. Buffalo must rebound and improve on all of the above against Ottawa or it will be a repeat of the last. With today’s match, as well as tomorrow night’s vs the New York Rangers, the goal should be all 4 points. The following matchups will be tougher. The Sabres must get some momentum back or be in a challenging situation. Moral victories will not cut it anymore. It is time to buck up a win or some players will see others in their place.