Six months ago, there was optimism, hope and a fresh start for a hockey team looking to continue their rebuild and take the next step toward the playoffs.
It’s been six full seasons since Buffalo has made it to the post season, and after last year’s 35-36-11 record, many thought the Sabres could battle for a wild card spot this April.
It didn’t seem like a tall task to at least be an improved team. Then, Jack Eichel went down the day before their season started and the team went on to drop 12 of the first 17 games. It was the first of may injuries that the team would have to deal with.
Still, the Sabres never found a way to take that next step. They showed signs of potential, and they continue to as they have the talent, but lack help on the defensive end. Now, they sit at 32-35-11 and will likely finish with a worse record than they did a year before.
There were moments during the season that could have served as turning points. Think back to the game against Winnipeg, when Jake McCabe drilled Patrik Laine and the Sabres stunned the Jets with three goals in the third. They dropped two of the next three.
Think back to Buffalo winning three consecutive games in overtime against Detroit, Montreal and Nashville. They dropped the next three.
These are just a couple of examples, but not once could the team use any of these games to turn things around and get going. Whether that’s coaching or lack of leadership or inexperience or something else, it wasn’t evident and needs to change.
What may be even a bigger issue is the Sabres’ performance against lower teams in the league. Even though they are right there with them in the standing, Buffalo went 13-17-4 against current non-playoff teams. That includes being swept by New Jersey and Carolina (3 games) and Vancouver (2 games).
Out of the 13 non-playoff teams, the Sabres only had a winning record against three of them (3-0-1 vs. Detroit, 2-0-1 vs. Florida and 2-0 vs. Winnipeg).
The Sabres also could only manage a season-high winning streak of three games, which they did three times. Even in the year they finished 23-51-8, they had four straight wins at one point, though that doesn’t say much.
In the midst of all this was the Maple Leafs surging to the playoffs, with exciting rookies and fantastic seasons from Auston Matthews, Mitchell Marner and William Nylander. Buffalo fans can do nothing but be infuriated at how things have gone.
After two straight seasons of finishing dead last and not winning the draft lottery, the Leafs do it and wind up with Matthews and they are playoff bound in a hurry.
The Sabres have some work to do and some questions to answer over the next two months. Dan Bylsma’s job may in question. The defense needs some remodeling. The goaltending situation needs to be ironed out. The team will also lose a player to Las Vegas.
Even with everything that has gone wrong this season, Sabres fans will have optimism once again come October, as they should.
Eichel took another step forward and will likely finish at a point-per-game pace or better. Evander Kane surprised fans and showed what he can do on the ice while staying out of trouble off of it. The power play will likely finish near the top of the league.
We got a look at youngsters such as Justin Bailey, Evan Rodrigues and some others. There’s also Johan Larsson, who will return from injury. And there’s another season of experience for Eichel and Sam Reinhart. There’s Alex Nylander and a potential early pick in this upcoming draft.
The Sabres weren’t expected to make the playoffs this year, but they weren’t supposed to be this bad either. It’s a disappointing season, but fans still have a lot to look forward to next fall.