While the Buffalo Sabres had passed the official halfway point of the season on January 8th, the unofficial halfway point was reached on Sunday, when the National Hockey League completed the 2014-15 All-Star Game in Columbus.
The Sabres have 37 games remaining in the 2014-15 season, and a handful of burning questions remain to be answered.
While the following points are not everything that fans have been asking, they are clearly some of the hottest topics surrounding the Buffalo Sabres.
Will Ennis and/or Girgensons reach 20 goals?
It seems like absolute madness that we are sitting here after 47 games, wondering if a Sabre will hit the 20-goal mark but times have evolved to this.
Tyler Ennis is looking for his third career 20-goal campaign, and his first ever back-to-back 20-goal seasons. Ennis finds himself moving along at a reasonable pace (10.6 shooting percentage). in comparison to his career numbers (10.9 career shooting percentage). It seems like a surefire lock that Tyler Ennis will end up with at least 20 goals, furthering his development and concreting his position on the Sabres first line for years to come.
Zemgus Girgensons is an interesting study, following 47 games. While Girgensons has 13 goals in those aforementioned 47 games, the ceiling and floor have really yet to be determined.
Last season, Girgensons tallied 8 goals in 70 games (7.0 shooting percentage). This season, he finds himself at 15.3 percent.
Girgensons has shown the ability to score goals, but also has two lengthy scoring droughts that highlight almost half of the total games he has played.
On the surface, it appears that Girgensons will reach the 20-goal plateau and that is a huge deal for the Buffalo Sabres. A 21-year old center/winger with a 20-goal season under his belt would be a big feather in this franchise’s cap, heading into another very important offseason.
How Will The Trade Deadline Unfold?
At this moment, it appears that the Buffalo Sabres will ship off as many bodies as possible as the Trade Deadline approaches on March 2nd.
Top candidates to move are the same names we’ve been talking about all season: Chris Stewart and Drew Stafford.
Stewart, on the last year of his deal, could be a very valuable piece to a Stanley Cup team’s puzzle. Stewart is a power forward who lays the body well and has the ability to put the puck in the net. We’ve already seen teams like the Boston Bruins linked to Chris Stewart, and the interest should increase as the deadline draws near.
Drew Stafford, also on the last year of his deal, could be a hot commodity for teams needing secondary scoring. While he’s struggled this year with the Sabres, Stafford has scored at least 13 goals in all but two seasons. The lockout shortened season and this season have Stafford at less than 13 goals. The price for Stafford may not be cheap, but the results may prove worthwhile if he can gel and provide secondary scoring for a Stanley Cup contender.
Will a Number One Goaltender Emerge?
Right off the bat, it seems like this will be a very difficult question to answer.
Let’s first discuss the apparent incumbent: Jhonas Enroth. He entered the season as the number one goaltender, and certainly backed that up with his play.
In 25 games played between October and November, Enroth posted a .914 save percentage and a 3.11 goals allowed average. Solid numbers coming from a goaltender on arguably the worst team in the National Hockey League.
December saw Enroth post 6 wins in 11 starts, but his numbers started to drop (.899 save percentage, 3.22 GAA).
Then January showed up, and a bomb went off in Enroth’s season numbers. In this past month, Enroth has made 5 appearances. In those five games, Enroth posted a very ugly .848 save percentage and 4.80 GAA.
If Enroth plans on being the answer for the Buffalo Sabres, he needs to figure out what is missing in his game and get it patched up relatively quickly.
Moving over to Michal Neuvirth now, who currently finds himself with another lower-body injury.
When Neuvirth was acquired, the Buffalo Sabres knew they were getting a talented goaltender, but one with a bad injury track record.
Neuvirth stumbled out of the gate in limited action, posting a good .901 save percentage but a lackluster 3.26 GAA.
November would be a much better month for Neuvirth, where in 6 games, he would post a .928 save percentage and a 2.56 GAA. This looked like a very positive development for the Sabres, but then December would arrive.
In 3 December appearances, Neuvirth posted an atrocious .875 save percentage, coupled with a 4.69 GAA. Things would turn around slightly for him in 5 January appearances (.901 save percentage, 3.67 GAA), but Neuvirth now finds himself injured, as previously mentioned.
These next few months will speak volumes to the futures of Jhonas Enroth and Michal Neuvirth with the Buffalo Sabres organization. Will one of the two step up, or will GM Tim Murray need to start looking for fresh blood in net?
Can Ted Nolan Adjust?
It is no secret to anybody who follows the Buffalo Sabres: Ted Nolan was brought here to bridge the gap behind the bench, during the rebuild.
With that being said, Nolan’s coaching message seems to be wearing thin on the current group of players.
We’ve seen multiple players have their ice time cut because they aren’t playing the style of hockey that Ted Nolan wants from them.
We’ve heard murmurs from the locker room that Nolan has been tuned out, and tension is at an all-time high with the Sabres stuck rut that is in an 11-game losing streak.
Will Ted Nolan survive the season? Barring a catastrophe, he should.
But, the next 37 games will show us how Ted Nolan adjusts to get through to this team, during one of the toughest stretches this team has ever seen. If Nolan can turn things around, maybe that warrants another year of him behind the bench.
If Nolan struggles to get the message through, the decision to cut him loose should be simple.
This franchise appears to be at a cross roads in the rebuild. Do they continue to field a poor, undertalented squad or is it time to start building from the ground up? The pieces are in, or soon to be in, the franchises’ possession. It is up to General Manager Tim Murray to determine if the Buffalo Sabres are ready to take the next step, with or without Ted Nolan behind the bench.