Before we get the Sabres, the NHL celebrated it's 100th anniversary in style. From Snoop Dog to Carly Rae Jepsen, from "The Golden Jet" and "Finnish Flash" to the Biebs and Courtney Daniels, the All-Star extravaganza was well placed in Los Angeles, California this year as we were witness to an all-out Hollywood production. Over sixty of the NHL's top 100 players as voted by a cross-section of executives, media member and players were on hand for the Centennial celebration.
It's too bad the "Mr. Hockey," Gordie Howe, passed on last year. Howe is one of four players whose name is always mentioned as the best ever to play the game. Also mentioned as the greatest ever are Bobby Orr, Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemeiux. All four were from different eras and in the humble opinion of this blogger, it's those four, in no particular order, and then everybody else.
The NHL did well with this one. They also did very well in finally figuring out a way to keep the game itself interesting. Like the NBA, the NHL All-Stars aren't there to play defense, save for the goalies and the 3-on-3 format provides plenty of open ice. The players take it for what it is and having a four-team tournament with the semi-final winners meeting for the championship makes for a somewhat competitive atmosphere, especially when there's a check for $1,000,000 waiting for the winning team.
And congratulations goes out to Buffalo's Kyle Okposo who represented the Sabres at the event.
The All-Star break is also a mile-post on the season. Most teams are close to, or at, the 50-game mark on the season and the trade deadline is a month or so away. Where a team is at the break doesn't fully give an indication as to what a team might do at the deadline, but some of chaff is being separated from the wheat.
Parity reigns supreme this season as only two teams are out of the playoff race already--the Colorado Avalanche and the Arizona Coyotes. In the Western Conference there are seven teams in the middle of the pack separated by six points or less while the Eastern Conference, the bottom eight teams are seven points or less out of the second wild-card spot. A good or bad streak will either propel you to the top of that group or send you to the bottom.
Buffalo has 15 games between Tuesday's matchup against the Montreal Canadiens and the March 1 trade deadline and their about to finish up their best month since March of last season. The Sabres are 7-4-1 this month with one game to play.
How they got there is an interesting case study as they've battled injuries and inconsistencies all season. Back in December we covered individual player performances to that point and now we'll look at it from more of a team perspective beginning with the forwards.
Simply put, it's night and day with the return of Jack Eichel on November 29th. Prior to that the team was dead last in the league averaging only 1.81 goals/game. The Sabres stared out well enough averaging 2.50 g/gm in October, but through 13 games in November they managed to score over two goals in a game only once pre-Eichel's return and a total of 18 goals, or 1.81 g/gm, total. Since Eichel's return the Sabres are averaging 2.92 g/gm.
The injury to Eichel (21 games to start the season) as well as injuries and recovery time for Evander Kane and Ryan O'Reilly put a crimp in forward continuity in Buffalo. All three are approaching, or at, full health and with the return of Tyler Ennis from 30-game stint on IR, the Sabres top-nine is rounding into form and producing.
Head coach Dan Bylsma has his forward pairings on the top two lines in O'Reilly/Okposo and Eichel/Sam Reinhart and he has a third line that in Kane, center Zemgus Girgensons, and right wing Brian Gionta that has been giving the opposition fits. Rounding out the top-nine are Marcus Foligno on the Eichel line and Ennis on the "O's" line.
For much of the season the Sabres have been heavily reliant upon their powerplay for production but as the injured returned to the lineup and with Bylsma finding his forward-pairings, the team has stepped it up 5v5.
Buffalo's top-nine right side is rock solid thanks to Reinhart comfort-level on the wing and elder statesman Gionta's best production in years. The Sabres are strong down the middle with their top-three of O'Reilly, Eichel and Girgensons but the left wing has been a trouble-spot all season. Other than Kane getting it done the last 25 games, there's been spotty production there from Foligno and a host of other players, including rookies, who played top-nine left wing before Ennis' return and even he has been shaky in that role dating back to the beginning of last season.
The loss of center Johan Larsson to injury and even the loss of Derek Grant to a waiver claim by the Dallas Stars has weakened the fourth line. Not much production was or is expected of them but at least they'd been able to hold their own until those two things happened. Cal O'Reilly has been centering a shaky line as of late that features rookie Will Carrier and former three-time 30-goal scorer Matt Moulson. As mentioned in a previous piece O'Reilly's line has given up three goals in the past five games (1-2-0 record in those games) when prior to that the fourth line gave up only two goals in the previous 22 dating back to Eichel's return to the lineup.
It's not a bad thing with O'Reilly and Eichel as your top two centers and with players like Kane, Okposo and Gionta providing them with top-five scoring on the team, the Sabres have some top-quality anchors and are starting to develop some depth. However they could use an upgrade at top-nine left wing and fourth-line center and neither look to be in the system at this time.
Thanks to the return of the injured this group has come a long way, but still have a long way to go.
Once again, injuries have taken their toll to the point that Buffalo recalled Canadian junior defenseman Brendan Guhle on an emergency basis. In hindsight, an argument could be made that Guhle should have made the team out of camp but the 19 yr. old didn't have a stand-out camp like he did the prior season.
Injuries to Dmitry Kulikov, Zach Bogosian, Josh Gorges and now Jake McCabe have hurt continuity on the blue line. Kulikov was expected to be on the top-pairing with Rasmus Ristolainen but his back/tail-bone injury completely derailed the first half of his season. Bogosian was also injured and, like Kane, it took him a while to get his large frame doing what it's capable of doing. Gorges was having a typical season in Buffalo as he mostly had trouble keeping up with the speed of the opposition but still managed to use his veteran savvy to hang in there before injury felled him.
Bylsma has relied upon Ristolainen to carry a heavy workload and until his injury, McCabe was on that top pairing shouldering as much as he could. The duo was as solid as could be until it started to take it's toll and they regressed for a few games and McCabe was felled by injury.
The All-Star break is huge for the entire defense-corps as it allows them to rest and heal. On the downside of the break, this group was just starting to come into it's own as they individually and as pairings started to play much better defense and were contributing regularly on offense with two goals and six assists in the last four games. Both the goals came in a stunning 3-2 overtime win against Montreal where Cody Franson scored the game-tying goal in the third period while Bogosian rifled home the game-winner in overtime.
Individually Ristolainen is having a fine year and McCabe has been mostly steady while the rest have had their moment. However, as a group they've struggled mightily throughout much of the season with performances ranging from meh to tire-fire, but as they began to return to health, the began to improve. Taylor Fedun has played extremely well for the Sabres and when McCabe and Gorges return to the lineup they'll have seven NHL defensemen in the lineup for the first time this season with a top-four consisting of Ristolainen/Kulikov and Bogosian/McCabe.
As a group they hit some pretty low, low's but have progressed rather nicely as of late but they still have a little ways to go to approach respectability.
Robin Lehner and Anders Nilsson have had their ups and down's this season with the duo being at their most effective in the month of November. As mentioned, the Sabres scored over two goals only once during the 13 games Eichel was out in November yet they managed a 4-6-3 record and that was due to some strong goaltending.
Nilsson especially was a beast during that month but he's since come down to earth and both he and Lehner are feeling the affects of the Sabres pushing for more offense. Both have managed to steal a game or two during the season thus far, but they've not managed to come up with that big in-game save very often. That and some real softies have played big parts in the Sabres not being able to extend a winning streak beyond three games.
Both are good goalies, but the Sabres will need more than that down the stretch.
Were it not for the powerplay, we'd probably be talking about another strip-down of roster players for picks and prospects at the trade deadline. That's how important it's been for them.
Although the PP dropped from fifth in November to ninth in December, it's back up to sixth at this point in the season and even when they're not scoring they have some great puck-movement much of the time. In fact it can be so good that they end up making one pass too many instead of putting the puck on goal.
The first unit consists of O'Reilly, Eichel, Okposo, Reinhart and Ristolainen.
Reinhart has once again found his home both in the crease and behind the net which is huge for Buffalo. Ristolainen anchors the point while O'Reilly and Okposo we've in and around the slot and work the corners. For his part, Eichel is most effective while working the half-wall on the left side as he creates space for himself or his team mates or he can finagle his way into the slot to unleash a potent wrister. Unfortunately, Bylsma is using him on the right point either because of strategy or our to necessity which has lead to lower results.
The second unit powerplay has Franson and Fedun at the point with Kane, Gionta and Moulson down low. They rely upon getting the puck to the net for the 40 seconds or so they're on the ice and have contributed.
Buffalo has a potent first unit that can really back off the opposition. It's been the most consistent facet of the team all season long, and as mentioned, tit's the thing that's been keeping this team in a the playoff hunt.
The Penalty Kill
Up until recently the Sabres penalty kill unit has been last in the league. Whether it's through the loss of former Sabre David Legwand, whom they didn't re-sign or whether it's the scheme, it can get pretty ugly for Buffalo when they're down a man.
The first PK unit has Ristolainen and now Kulikov with R. O'Reilly and Girgensons and they've gotten better which has shown in their recent small successes and a variety of players are woven in to the PK fabric. But at the heart of a real good PK unit is goaltending and as mentioned earlier, they haven't gotten that big stop when they truly needed it very often and they certainly could use more of that on the penalty kill.
There are many teams that use some of their best players on kill but the Sabres aren't using one of their best. I'm of the opinion that by using Eichel, Buffalo will add a whole new dimension to their penalty kill. Amongst stars who receive rather significant PK time are Gabriel Landeskog and Nathan MacKinnon in Colorado, Anze Kopitar and Jeff Carter for Los Angeles, Chicago's Marion Hossa, Buffalo's own Ryan O'Reilly and Evander Kane. Even Tampa's Steven Stamkos and Edmonton's Connor McDavid are averaging around 50 seconds of PK time per game so there's really no reason to keep Eichel off the ice. Simply put, you want your best players on the ice as much as possible.
We've been seeing Eichel on the penalty kill group for the transition back to full strength and Bylsma used him on the kill at Dallas when they were down a goal with less than two minutes remaining in the game.
O'Reilly and Girgensons have shown chemistry lately and they'll be expected to carry much of the load against the oppositions first PP unit. After that it's been Kane and Gionta. A duo of Kane and Eichel with their speed against a second powerplay unit with a bit more open ice would certainly be something to think about for the opposition.
The PK unit has been in the dumps all season, but they've gotten ever so slightly better. They need more whether it's from the players or the scheme.
There was a point in this season where Buffalo was 1-6 in the extra sessions going 0-3 in overtime and 1-3 in the shootout but with the recent run of three consecutive overtime wins the Sabres pushed that to 6-9 past regulation.
The overtime session has gotten much better with Bylsma using the best three players available and the return of Eichel. Earlier in the season not only were the Sabres without Eichel, but Bylsma was trying some new system where he tried to change players dependent upon whether they were defending or on the attack. It was a disaster and after it came to an end, the team started performing better 3-on-3 and as of late they're unstoppable. Overall this season Buffalo is 5-4 in overtime.
Shootouts are a completely different story, however, as they're only 1-5 with Nilsson having their only win. This team is poor in the skills competition as not only has goaltending failed them, but their shooters as well. Their goaltending duo has combined for a league-worst .286 save percentage while their shooters are converting on only 20% of their shots (26th in the league.)
Buffalo has had the right attitude in overtime as they seem to be doing everything in their power to avoid the shootout.
Eventually they'll need to overcome their shootout ineptitude as they've lost valuable points because of it. Having to win in the shootout becomes a moot point if they continue winning in regulation or overtime. Regardless, loser points can keep a team afloat but if they want to make a move, they'll need to get that extra point everytime a game goes beyond regulation.
For as much grief has Bylsma has been getting Overall he's adapted and adjusted well. The early overtime blunder was corrected and he has his team playing more aggressive when they have the lead. He still has a penchant for changing lines and there's a lot of work to be done to fix the penalty kill but considering the number of injuries throughout the lineup, he's done yeoman's work.
Bylsma has the forwards clicking with nearly a full compliment of forwards while his defense is hanging in there despite injuries that have plagued that group since day one.
For the next month Bylsma will probably be expected to enhance Buffalo's strengths while coaching around their flaws as it's highly unlikely that the team will make any major changes to the lineup. He and goalie coach Andrew Allen also need to instill more confidence in his goaltending duo and that might be something as simple as playing to their individual home/road strengths.
In the end, coaching is what might get and keep tem on a long enough run for a shot at the playoffs.