Lets get to some grades:
Overall Season Grade: A+
There is no way around it, the Sabres currently sit at an incredible 4th overall in the NHL and just three pts back from being the best team in hockey. Going from dead last to the playoff fringe is a great improvement, but literally going from worst to almost first is other worldly.
Pretty much everyone deserves credit for the way this team is playing from GM Jason Botterill right down to the equipment staff. Botterill has done an excellent job assembling a team with depth that allows the young players like Rasmus Dahlin, Casey Mittlestadt, and Casey Nelson to step into roles and find their way without being overwhelmed.
Conor Sheary, Patrik Berglund, and Skinner have all played excellent in the roles in which they are needed. Carter Hutton has been superb, providing solid goaltending that the team can rely on at critical moments.
— Buffalo Sabres (@BuffaloSabres) November 20, 2018
Botterill made a lot of changes to this team after last season’s disaster and virtually every move has been an improvement.
Class All Star: Jeff Skinner A+ (honorable mention Jack Eichel)
At the time of the trade, the Sabres were credited for basically stealing Jeff Skinner out of Carolina. But no one could have forseen the scoring pace Skinner is at. If Skinner holds at this pace he would have 55 goals and 86 points. Even if Skinner slows down a little bit, 40 goals certainly seems doable. He has been the dependable clutch scoring threat Buffalo has needed since Thomas Vanek left and he is a major piece of the team’s success in the first quarter. For years, people said Eichel needed a true winger to really show his skill, and on the flip side, Skinner was said to have needed a true all-star center that could set him up. This could not be more of a match made in heaven.
Make that 9 goals in his last 10 games for Jeff Skinner ?
— NHL on NBC (@NHLonNBCSports) November 22, 2018
Most Improved: Kyle Okposo B+ (honorable mention Casey Nelson)
When Kyle Okposo was brought to Buffalo, he was expected to be a solid top 6 winger, but injuries and just some bad luck got in his way. He is on pace for 20 goals and 51 pts, which would be a decent boost from previous seasons and his impact on the power play is much more noticeable. Additionally, he has been credited by coach Phil Houlsey for his leadership and guidance to the young Sabres roster. Okposo is an easy guy to cheer for and it’s nice to see him finally healthy and having a good season after two years of frustration.
Coach Phil Housley: A-
For all of the criticism Housley received last year for being over his head and the team’s poor performance, he deserves just as much praise for this team’s success. Housley has smartly kept Eichel and Skinner together as much as possible, knowing that is a matchup he can always use to exploit a weakness from the opposition.
The Sabres play a really strong game as a unit and the defense has dramatically improved passing wise. They seem to be playing for each other and the heart they show is a credit to the work Housley and his staff have done. My only gripe is that he has kept Tage Thompson in the lineup when Evan Rodrigues sits despite advanced stats showing Rodrigues is one of the Sabres best shot producers.
Overall, Housley has done a great job with this roster and has had a good pulse of when to play certain players. It is looking more and more likely that last year’s roster was the sum of bad parts and not on the coaching staff.
Moment of the Season: Vancouver Canucks 4-3 OT Win
With all due respect to the incredible Penguins comeback win, the Vancouver one seemed to mean more for the direction of the Sabres. At that point, Buffalo was still 8-6-2, which was decent but a loss would have put them right back toward .500.
The Sabres had played some good games but they were a middling club finding its way. That all changed in the 3rd period when the Sabres roared back from a 3-1 deficit, scoring two goals to tie with under three minutes to go. By the time the shootout came, you could sense the momentum and energy in the air.
With Casey Mittlestadt’s goal and Carter Hutton’s save to finish the game you could see this roster had much more too it then previously considered for fans and media alike.
— Bar South N Celly™ (@BarSouthNCelly) November 11, 2018
That game also spring boarded them to four more wins against three of the NHL’s best and a dangerous Pittsburgh team. A lot of people would argue the Penguins game for the moment, which I could understand, except by that point it wasn’t a surprise to see the Sabres rally back. This felt like a major moment for a young team that has transcended the roster since.