The Good: Team Defense, Goaltending, Faceoffs
Dan Bylsma is famous for holding the Pittsburgh Penguins together, winning while superstars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin were injured, sometimes occupying the infirmary together. Bylsma’s defensive style is his calling card. It is now that of the Sabres; they are 7th overall in goals against.
With the exception of occasional lack of rebound control, Robin Lehner has been excellent, posting a GAA of 2.35 and a save percentage of .925. Newly acquired backup Andres Nilsson has been even better in his three games at 1.96 and .937.
Ryan O’Reilly, at over 61%, has the Sabres killing it off the draw. As a team, they are 2nd in the league on face-offs at 54.1%.
Honorable individual mentions go to Rasmus Ristolainen (8pts, playing huge minutes with confidence), Kyle Okposo (leading the team at 5G, 3A-8P) and Derek Grant (a scorer, placed on the fourth line, finding other ways to contribute by killing penalties, winning faceoffs at a 58% clip, and getting into the only fight of the year).
The Bad and The Ugly: Scoring, Coaching
The Sabres are tied for 28th with just 25 goals, 2.08 per game. That’s not playoff team scoring. O’Reilly, Okposo and Matt Moulson are on pace to score over 20. With the exception of Captain Brian Gionta, no one else is close. (And history suggests that Moulson will fade–last year his 5th goal came 45 games after his 4th.)
Coach Bylsma doesn’t seem to have answers to changing conditions. In games, seldom does he get the most advantageous match-ups on the ice, even at home when he has the last change. With a line-up chock full of young, fast offensive talent, he continues to preach defense. He hasn’t properly motivated players on which the team depends such as Reinhart, Ennis, and Girgensons. The kids from Rochester on call-ups have been used poorly. The Sabres are the only team in the league without a goal from their defense corps.
Dishonorable individual mentions go to Cody Franson (slow and can’t make the crucial first pass out of the zone) and Tyler Ennis (2 points, -6, and hasn’t used his speed and talent to produce results).
Reasons for Optimism: Eichel, Kane, GMTM
The serious injuries to Jack Eichel and Evander Kane changed everything. Will their return spark a turnaround? Absolutely. Eichel must be chomping at the bit while watching other young stars like Connor McDavid, Patrik Laine and Austin Matthews pile up points and lead their teams.
Last year, Jack and Evander represented more than 22% of the team’s goals. It is reasonable to think that the Sabres would be deep in the early playoff hunt with 31 goals instead of 25 as half of their first 12 contests have been decided by one goal.
Eichel and Kane also bring a positive determination that can ignite the fans which can, in turn, infect the team with new confidence and refreshed focus. They are both difference makers and often respond when a goal is needed. Without them, the fans have no one to pin their hopes on coming over the boards when the game is in the balance.
It is likely that fans can count on General Manager Tim Murray to bring in some help. He has made over 22 roster moves since taking the helm and is not shy about pulling the trigger. While no team can win a playoff birth in the first weeks of the season, teams can lose a spot by leaving important points on the table. Surely GMTM recognizes that if the Sabres are going to make the playoffs this year, a roster shake-up is necessary; it will be too late by the time Jack is fully healed.