With the All-Star Game behind us, we take a look back at the Sabres first 50 games of the 2015-16 season, finding the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. They have 32 games remaining in the season, unless they pull off a historic push for the playoffs by leapfrogging six teams and making up 12 points.
* * * THE GOOD * * *
Jack Eichel. There was a lot of hype and expectation for the second overall pick at the 2015 NHL Entry Draft and he’s living up to it so far in his rookie year. When he’s fully engaged, he’s a game changer who pulls you to the edge of your seat. His effortless speed, patience that defies his age and quick release are all highlight reel material. Jack’s 16 goals are second only to Chicago’s Artemi Panarin (17). Panarin has someone on his line named Patrick Kane. Dylan Larkin, also a rookie of the year candidate, has 15 goals and has a winger on his line named Zetterberg. Jack has seen a constant parade of mediocre and inconsistent linemates.
Rasmus Ristolainen. Risto has made giant leaps forward. He’s logging huge minutes—a whopping 25:11 per game and generating offense, too. He’s ranked in the top 15 among NHL defensemen in goals (T-12th, 8), assists (T-10th, 23), points (T-10th, 31), shots (T-10th, 117), time on ice per game (12th, 25:07) and multi-point games (T-5th, 7). He’s putting up these numbers despite being the only top defender on a team ranked at the bottom of the league. Plus, he’s on pace for 52 points, which would be the first Sabres D-man with 50 points in a season since Garry Galley (1995-96) and the youngest to reach that mark since Phil Housley.
Sam Reinhart. Often lost in Eichelmania is the emergence of Sam Reinhart. He’s coming into his own, finding his way around the net with 12 goals and 8 assists. He has the ability to become a point-per-game, two-way center. Coaches and teammates alike keep saying his hockey IQ is off the charts.
Jamie McGinn. Often lost in the blockbuster deal that brought Ryan O’Reilly to town, McGinn is contributing everywhere. He’s chipped in 10 goals and 11 assists and is proving to be a necessary piece of the re-building puzzle. Will GM Tim Murray sign him?
Ryan O’Reilly. The power forward is living up to his giant contract, leading the team in points and leading all NHL forwards in average ice time per game (21:53). More importantly, his tireless, never-take-a-shift-off presence is leading by example, sending a strong message to this team.
Linus Ullmark. With Robin Lehner being injured in the season opener, the 2014 Swedish goalie of the year was called up and made his debut at the NHL level, going 7-10-2 with a 2.58 GAA, .915 SV%. Very respectable numbers for his first ride and a glimpse into what he might bring in the future. I think that it is worth repeating here that in his ten losses, the Sabres only managed a total of 12 goals.
Chad Johnson. After a shaky start, he’s 12-13-2 with a 2.45 GAA and .917 SV%. Not bad for a backup goalie thrown into a starting role. In a recent 18 game stretch beginning in November, he was 9-6-2 with a 1.98 GAA and .936 SV%.
Power Play. The Sabres power play sits in 6th place, converting 20.9% of their chances. Last year, they were dead last in the league, at 13.4%. In an era when special teams take on increasing importance, this shouldn’t go unnoticed.
Penalty Killing. While starting the year off horribly, the Sabres PK unit recently killed off 22 straight penalties before surrendering one to the Rangers. They’re now a middle-of-the-pack 17th place (80.6%), compared to last year’s last place penalty kill rate of 75.1%.
* * * THE BAD * * *
Inconsistent Play. This team has been streaky, especially since November. They’ve gone 0-4-2, 3-0-1, 0-3-0, 4-1-1, 0-6-0, 4-1-0. It’s a roller coaster. Youth and injuries can do that to a team, especially to a team in a rebuilding mode.
One goal games. The Sabres have lost 14 one goal games. Come the playoffs, close games are the norm. Then again, the playoffs are years away.
Slow starts. Buffalo has given up the first goal in 29 of its 50 games. In these games, they’re 7-18-4. It’s tough enough to score in this league, but to constantly be digging out of a hole due to a slow start is an uphill battle. During the regular season, teams that score first win roughly 68 percent of the time.
Evander Kane. For a $5.25 million player, he’s only logged 11G, 8A, and is a -13. His defensive coverage and lack of hustle while backchecking have cost the team far too many goals. He also needs more discipline in his game, as evidenced by his 32 penalty minutes–highest of any non-defenseman on the team.
Dan Bylsma. Granted the team has had a lot of injuries, but Coach Bylsma juggles lines like a circus performer. How can players possibly find chemistry if they’re playing with different linemates every week?
* * * THE UGLY * * *
The Standings. Despite all the improvement, they’re still only in 27th place. They only have 17 regulation wins in 50 games… winning just 34% of their games in regulation. They’ve lost 30 of 50 games. To snag a wild card position, they’d have to make up twelve points and climb over six teams. They’re one point away from 30th place in the standings.
Offensive Offense. The Sabres still have a lot of trouble finding the back of the net, averaging just 2.28 goals per game. Only Anaheim (2.14) is worse. Moulson, Ennis, Legwand, Foligno, Deslauriers, Gionta, Larsson: seven of our 12 forwards. $20 million. 22 goals.
Injuries. Buffalo has lost 218 man games, second most in the NHL. Players still on injured reserve include Cody McCormick (50 games), Tyler Ennis (13 games), Nick Deslauriers (11 games) Sam Reinhart (3 games). Only Jack Eichel, Cody Franson, Jamie McGinn and Ryan O’Reilly have appeared in all 50 games.
Matt Moulson. 37 games without a goal? Yikes! One assist in his last 20 games? Double yikes! Moulson is clearly having an off year. He hits the cap for $6 million this season. With three more years totaling $13 million.
Cody Franson. He hasn’t exactly been the power play quarterback the Sabres were hoping for and his glacier-like speed isn’t helping. Perhaps there’s a reason 29 teams hadn’t made him an offer til right before the season.