At the quarter-pole of the 2015-16 season the Buffalo Sabres might be a little better than many expected them to be, especially when you consider the schedule-maker did them no favors. After 20 games the Sabres are 8-10-2 which places them 7th the Atlantic Division, 12th in the Eastern Conference, 22nd in the NHL.
Buffalo has already completed their four-game season series with the defending Eastern Conference champion Tampa Bay Lightning and, predictably, came out on the short end with a 1-3 record. They’re also in the midst of rough patch against some Western Conference heavyweights. Buffalo just completed their season series with the conference-leading Dallas Stars (0-2,) play the No. 2 team in the conference, the St. Louis Blues, tonight to finish their season series (0-0-1,) has played the 3rd place San Jose Sharks (0-0-1) and have two dates with the fifth-seeded Nashville Predators this Wednesday and Saturday to finish that series. All in a two-week span to finish the month.
A cupcake schedule this was not, but then again, when you're coming off of two consecutive last place finishes, there's no such thing as an easy game.
Although this team is far better than what hit the ice the previous two or even three seasons, they need to bring it every game and have done so for the most part. They've been consistent in the effort department, which has been enough to gain the respect of the opposition, but the results have varied thus far. Which is to be expected.
How the Sabres got to a respectable record this early in the season has been the more interesting aspect of the season thus far as the team has relied upon a banged up defense and a goaltending tandem that features a back-up and a 22 yr. old rookie sharing duties.
Goalie Chad Johnson, a career backup, was thrust into the starting role when Robin Lehner went down in the very first game and rookie Linus Ullmark grabbed the backup role after getting his feet wet in the AHL for a few games. Johnson has held the fort rather well, all things considered, while Ullmark has looked the part of a future NHL starter.
The defense is anchored by 21 yr. old Rasmus Ristolainen who's 24:10 ATOI is tops on the team and is over three minutes more than Josh Gorges, his defense partner. Other defensemen have done their part but the biggest contributions to the back-end in absence of top-four d-man Zach Bogosian, has come from Jake McCabe. The 23 yr. old, might have been the victim of a numbers-game out of camp were Bogosian not injured, but he took advantage of his opportunity and has been pretty solid in his second-pairing role.
In no way should the defense be confused with a Jennings Trophy candidate, but Sabres assistant coach Terry Murray has done an outstanding job getting this group to overachieve. Murray, a sound defensive strategist, has over a 1,000 games of NHL coaching experience under his belt including laying a foundation in Los Angeles for the Kings 2011-12 Cup-run. After a stint in the AHL, Murray came back to the NHL to join Dan Bylsma's coaching staff.
Although the offensive struggles were to be somewhat anticipated as nine new faces were introduced into the linueup, Buffalo's 2.10 goals per game is a little disheartening. With the additions of Ryan O'Reilly, Evander Kane and Jack Eichel, all three with prominent offensive acumen, the Sabres were expected to score at a much higher clip. Bylsma's up-tempo style has resulted in more puck possession and more shots on goal, as well as increased excitement at the arena, but hasn't translated into more goals. At least at even strength.
The saving grace of the offense has been the powerplay which at one time was ranked 3rd in the league. At the quarter pole the Sabres' have scored 14 powerplay goals which has accounted for 33% of their 42 total goals. But, as they've found out over the last four games, they can't rely on the powerplay. Buffalo has converted only one of 13 chances on the powerplay (7.7%,) including three 5-on-3's, and it has resulted in a 0-2-2 winless streak. Prior to that the Sabers powerplay converted four of 14 chances (28.5%) on their way to a 5-1-0 stretch.
Chemistry 5-on-5 has been the biggest issue for Buffalo, which is to be expected. It takes a while for the coaching staff to find out what they have in their players while the players are adapting to a whole new system. Bylsma's system has been in place for 20 games and although the players know what's expected of them, they're still getting to know their linemates, along with their strengths and weaknesses, as well.
Overall this edition of the Buffalo Sabres has put together a few complete games so far, sometimes winning sometimes not, which is a far cry from the last two seasons. The standard is higher, however, and so are the expectations.
It wouldn't be surprising to see the next 20 games bring about similar results for the Sabres. The torrid powerplay has begun to settle in, the penalty kill which has been weak should get better, scoring should be up and hopefully the goals against will hold while all this happens. In a lot of cases, this is the area where we see teams revealed for what they truly are.
Who will the Sabres be the next 20 games? With such a young team, about the only thing we can be pretty sure of is that Bylams has gotten generally consistent play from his team but the results have been inconsistent.
Which is something most Sabres fans can live with for now.