Reprinted with permission from hockeybuzz.com
The NHL Standings say that the Buffalo Sabres have 47 points, tied with the Calgary Flames, Toronto Maple Leafs, Winnipeg Jets, Edmonton Oilers and Columbus Blue Jackets at the bottom of the league. At 52 games played, the Sabres have played more than the Flames, Leafs and Jets and because of it sit behind those three in the standings. They've played two more than the Jackets who are in 30th place and have played the same number of games as the Oilers but because Buffalo has three more regulation/overtime wins than Edmonton they presently hold down 28th-place in the league standing.
For some in Sabreland it's an abomination that a team like Buffalo, who went to the bottom of the league two-years running, should be in this predicament. And in typical fan-fashion, begin to throw blame around.
Some of it is thrown head coach Dan Bylsma's way, especially in light of his shootout choices in the home loss to the Boston Bruins on Thursday. Some of the blame is directed at GM Tim Murray who finished the tear-down his predecessor started. It could be said that this is almost wholly Murray's squad as there are only a few holdovers from the previous regime.
Then there's blame directed at individual players and in a real head-scratcher, some throw a heap of blame towards Terry Pegula and Pegula Sports and Entertainment.
And, of course, there are those who believe there's a "stealth tank" going on as our own 22sabresQ mentioned. That Murray's looking for one more top-end pick before the team really gives it a go.
Personally, I subscribe to the theory that this is a rebuild still in it's infancy with a team that's just learned how to walk. In no way, shape or form will I dismiss any of the above for their part in the Sabres present 28th place standing, but to place it fully on their shoulders is somewhat misguided.
First off, it should be noted that after 52 games last season the Sabres had a dismal 15-34-3 record, good for 33 points in the league and they had an unfathomable -87 goal-differential. Above them in the standings were Edmonton (37 points,) Carolina (43,) Arizona (45) and Columbus (47.) Toronto (48) and Ottawa (49) were just above. Whereas last season the Sabres were 21 points away from getting out of the bottom-third of the league, this year they're seven. This season Buffalo has 21 wins, two shy of last season's total and their goal-differential is a -21, or 66 better than last season.
The "company line," from Murray to Bylsma has been that this team is better than it's standing indicates. They are presently tied with Edmonton and Minnesota for the most one-goal losses in the league at 10. They've also lost six times in the extra sessions via overtime or shootout. These one-goal losses are the bumps and bruises of learning to crawl and walk and there's sure to be more of that in the near future.
Bylsma has done a fine job teaching and molding this team into playing an up-tempo style and although the stats don't reflect it, the team is really starting to get it. Kudos should also be given to associate coach Terry Murray who has them ranked 13th in goals-against average (2.63 ga/gm) and that includes nine empty-net goals against. They're also ranked 16th in the penalty kill at 80.8%. Last season at this juncture they were dead-last in goals-against and had a 29th-ranked penalty kill.
The offense has been what's holding the team back as they're still near the bottom of the league in goals/game. Although their 2.29 g/gm is way better than last season, it's still very weak and a lot of that can be contributed to underachievers who's principle culprits are Tyler Ennis and Matt Moulson. Forwards Zemgus Girgensons and Johan Larsson could also be placed in that category.
Which leads to why Murray signed some of these players, Moulson in particular. Although nobody could've predicted the train wreck that is Moulson's 2015-16 season thus far, it was Murray who signed him to a long-term, $5M cap-hit. He also traded for Evander Kane who struggled early, but is finding his rhythm, and Zach Bogosian who started the season on injured reserve and is just beginning to get his legs back. Goalie Robin Lehner was a hot topic of conversation while he was sidelined, some even using him as a basis to fire Murray, but Lehner's stellar 2.22 goals-against average and .938 save percentage in the five games since his return have largely quieted critics.
One thing I find difficult to comprehend at this point is how Pegula is the lousiest owner ever. Perhaps it's how he retained his GM and coaching staff when he took over or how he rarely talked to the media during the "tank-years." Maybe it was allowing his appointed President of Hockey Operations, fan-favorite Pat LaFontaine, walk at a crucial juncture in the teams tear-down. Maybe it was the team parting ways with some in senior management. Regardless of what's transpired since Pegula bought the team in 2011, his almost limitless resources and strict adherence to a plan now have the Sabres on a road that should take this team very far in a very short time-span.
Does that plan include a "stealth tank" this season?
I wouldn't put it past them, but I don't think it's the driving force. Murray is smart enough to see what he has in front of him. It's a young team that's going through some serious growing pains. He knows that long-term success doesn't happen over night and that a noble run to the middle third of the standings isn't in the team's best near-term interest. Along with that is the familiar refrains of a bottom team with assets that can be moved for futures and the implied, "our time is the future."
Does he have a Sabres team that's anywhere as near as bad as last year's squad? Not even close, so the word tank shouldn't really be a part of the equation. Maybe it leans more towards being unfortunate enough to lose close games while being largely competitive with a possible top-10 pick as a by-product.
All that said, while looking at Buffalo's place in the standings, it's hard for me to get worked up over it. This is a season of transition from out of the darkness and into the light. No one said it would be easy, nor should anyone have thought it to be fast and painless. It's more like Bruce Cockburn once sang, "Got to kick at the darkness 'til it bleeds daylight."
Kris Baker of sabresprospects/sabres.com has updated his prospects stats-page. Some of the highlights:
Top-three in points-percentage
C, Giorgio Estephan (2015, 152nd-overall)--1.24 ppg; 63 points (27+36) in 52 games
RW, Eric Cornel (2014, 44th)--1.16 ppg; 58 points (23+35) in 50 games
RW, Hudson Fasching (2014, 118th, LAK)--1.08 ppg; 27 points (12+15) in 25 games
Jason Kasdorf, 8-6-4; 2.11 GAA, .935 SV%
Cal Petersen, 14-5-7; 2.23, .926
Jonas Johansson, 21-13-0; 2.32, .919
Speaking of prospects, one-time prospect and long-time AHL'er Daniel Catenacci is scheduled to make his NHL debut tonight in place of Marcus Foligno, who suffered an injury in the Boston game on Thurdsay.
Catenacci was a 2011 third-round draft pick (77th) by the Buffalo Sabres but has yet to make it to the big club. He's spent the last three full seasons with the Rochester Americans registering 32 goals and 33 assists in 180 AHL games for the Amerks.
Finally, the Sabres are in Boston to face the Bruins for the fourth and final time this season. Buffalo is 1-1-1 in the previous three meetings and their only win was a 6-4 comeback win on December 26, 2015. In that game North Chelmsford, Massachusetts native Jack Eichel propelled the Sabres to victory with 2 goals and two assists.
Game time is 7:00 pm.