This year was supposed to be different.
After suffering through a historically bad season, things were going to change. Things were looking up. With more than half the roster overhauled and a new coaching staff in place, the world was their oyster. While no one was expecting the Sabres to be Stanley Cup contenders, this year finally held hope. Perhaps, just possibly, they could be .500 and squeak into the playoffs.
Not so fast.
An 0-3 road trip through Western Canada now leaves the Sabres carrying a sluggish record of 11-15-3 after 29 games. A paltry nine regulation wins in 29 games. That adds up to 25 points, one point out of last place in the league. A mere single point better than the Cody Hodgson team of last year.
Frustration is mounting by fans, but more importantly, by players in the locker room. This team knows it’s better than its current record.
“The team last year had a losing mentality. We’re still trying to find that constant thing… having no casual moments. Teams that consistently make the playoffs, there’s never casual moments. They’re on every night. We have to find that. We’re not consistent enough” – Ryan O’Reilly
While there’s a small victory in the slight culture shift of not accepting a loss after digging themselves an early hole, that’s no solace. This team battles back only to find ways to lose.
“It’s really tough, really disappointing. We want better within this room and we know we’re capable of that,” said Sabres captain Brian Gionta.
In my book, there’s no such thing as a quality loss. Eventually they all look the same. After all, the NHL is a business. You either win or you lose. When you do your job, you win. Overtime and shootout points aside, a loss is still a loss.
So what needs to be done to turn the corner? There are two areas: (1) Finding Jack Eichel the right linemates and (2) better goaltending. Unfortunately, both are not quick fixes.
Dan Bylsma has tried all kinds of line combinations for his generational talent, Eichel, with little success. Why not give Evan Rodrigues, Jack’s winger from last year, a shot? So far, in his first year of a two-year entry level contract, he’s tallied three goals and four assists in Rochester.
Short of breaking up the legitimate top line of Ryan O’Reilly, centering Evander Kane and Sam Reinhart, is there anyone that can keep up with Eichel? Is it too early to suggest that General Manager, Tim Murray, work the phones and find Eichel the right linemates?
As for goaltending, when your starting netminder goes down in game one of the season, there’s no immediate answer. While making a lot of good saves night in and night out, both Chad Johnson and Linus Ullmark have let in too many softies.
It’s hard to point to a game this season that either Sabres’ goalie “stole.” They have decent statistical numbers, but they need to be more consistent and they need better goal support. Let’s hope Lehner, once back from injury in a few weeks, is the answer to upgrading this position.
Aside from these two areas needing attention, this year is far from doom and gloom. There are bright spots, like Rasmus Ristolainen, who became only the second Sabres defenseman to notch a hat trick in a period (the other being Jerry “King Kong” Korab in ’78).
Ristolainen is logging a ton of minutes, contributing everywhere on the score sheet and is a legitimate Norris trophy candidate. Sam Reinhart is gaining confidence and proving his value as a second overall draft pick. Also O’Reilly is panning out to be the puck hog and leader we hoped he would be.
Next up for the Sabres is the Pacific division-leading Los Angeles Kings. A team that’s on fire. They’re 7-2-1 in their last ten games, including a six game win streak. A regulation loss would actually put the Sabres a point behind last year’s record-setting stinker of a season. Games against Detroit, Chicago and a home-and home pair against the Capitals are also coming up. Things could get a lot worse before they get better.
Until this team addresses some key areas, like finding Eichel the right linemates and getting some stability in goal, it’s not a serious contender of any sort. Unless you’re talking about winning the draft lottery. And quite frankly, I’m not going there. And neither should you.