Published by hockeybuzz.com, 3-25-2017
Much has been made of "the tale of two rebuilds" in cities 100 miles apart. The Buffalo Sabres began theirs a bit earlier than the Toronto Maple Leafs and also augmented it with young vets to help speed up the process while the Leafs are a team full of rookies. Much has also been made about their respective head coaches--Buffalo's Dan Bylsma and Toronto's Mike Babcock as well as the latter spurning a Sabres serenade and leaving them at the alter before heading to Toronto.
There's also the irony of the Sabres finishing last two consecutive seasons only to pick second in the NHL Draft due to losing the lottery while Florida (2014) and Edmonton (2015) lucked into the right to draft first. The real crusher was that Edmonton leapfrogged Buffalo and the Arizona Coyotes to select once in a generation player, Connor McDavid. That's not a slight against Jack Eichel, whom the Sabres did select that year and who is looking like he'll be right up there with the elite in this league, it's was simply a matter of Buffalo playing second fiddle once again.
And to top it all off, the Maple Leafs finished last in 2015-16, won the lottery and in-turn won the right to select phenom Auston Matthews which they ended up doing, right on the Sabres home turf as the 2016 NHL Draft was held in Buffalo that year. Salt meet wound.
That said, both the Sabres and the Leafs had been gathering talent for a few years and came into this season on a similar trajectory--the playoffs were a possibility, not anywhere near given.
As it stands right now the Leafs sit third in the Atlantic Division, poised to make the playoffs with nine games left in the regular season. The Sabres are 13 points behind the Toronto in the standings and are out of the playoffs for all intents and purposes. While Toronto was busy icing as many as seven rookies on a consistent basis, the Sabres relied heavily on young vets intermingling with young players.
And while some will point to coaching as the big difference between the 30-32-12 Sabres and 35-23-15 Leafs, and there certainly is an argument to be made, when Bylsma was with Pittsburgh he went 5-2-1 against Babcock's Red Wings who were in the Western Conference at the time. Since the two manned their spots behind their respective benches two years ago, Bylsma's Sabres won three of four against Toronto last season while Babcock's Leafs have gone 2-1 against Buffalo so far this year. Lest we forget, Bylsma lead the Penguins to a 4-3 Stanley Cup series win over Babcock's Red Wings in the only time those two teams met in the playoffs.
There's a lot to be said for everything mentioned above but the biggest difference between these two clubs this season might not be a first-overall pick, talent or coaching, all of which may be contributing factors, but more so injuries, and/or lack thereof on the part of the Sabres and Leafs, respectively.
If you look at the top players on the Sabres many of them have missed double-digit games due to injury and they had some big ones at the beginning of the season. Eichel missed the first 21, Evander Kane missed 11 after getting injured in the opener while defenseman Dmitry Kulikov was in and out of the lineup nursing a sore tailbone/back after landing in an open bench door against, ironically, Toronto in the preseason.
Ryan O'Reilly had a bum back from the World Cup of Hockey and just when he was getting to feel healthier he went in for an emergency appendectomy on Christmas Day. Johan Larsson was lost for the season on New Year's Eve and just when the Sabres were positioning themselves for a run, leading scorer Kyle Okposo went down with a rib injury. And that's not even counting the Sabres having to tap into Canadian Junior for an emergency recall of Brendan Guhle because of multiple injuries to their starting defense-corps.
Injuries aren't an excuse but they do have a way of testing the depth of an organization and what we've found out is that the Sabres, despite having top-notch talent in the upper reaches of their roster, don't have the depth to overcome the injuries they incurred.
The Leafs, on the other hand, have been almost injury free when it comes to the top end of their roster. Scroll down their statistical leader board and you'll find that of their top-12 leading scorers, eight have played every game and another has missed only one game. Of the remaining three, defenseman Morgan Reilly (11th on the team in scoring) missed the most games at six.
Toronto has remained extremely healthy this season and no doubt it's contributed to the hugely successful season they're having so far. There's no dismissing the job Babcock has done as he's simply one of the best coaches in the league. Nor will we dismiss the talent they've amassed while rebuilding which includes players like Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander among others. But continuity has allowed this group of Leafs to play their style without interruption all season. It's how they went from constantly blowing third period leads early in the season to now winning those games. It has them peaking at the right time as they've won three in a row and seven of nine while catapulting into third in the division and on the precipice of a playoff berth for only the second time since the 2003-04 season.
Buffalo on the other hand is in spoiler-mode as their season effectively ended during a 2-7-2 post-bye week swoon. The Sabres began righting the ship with consecutive wins on the road at Anaheim and Detroit but then dropped a home game to Pittsburgh on Tuesday.
Top defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen will begin serving the first of this three-game suspension tonight after body-checking the Penguins Jake Guentzel into neverland. However, the Sabres will be welcoming back three players from longer-term injury--Will Carrier (24 games,) Okposo (10 games,) and Kulikov (nine)--and will also have Justin Falk (four games) back in the lineup. Rookie defenseman Brady Austin and his 6'4" 230 lb. frame will also be in the lineup as he was recalled from Rochester. It will be Austin's third game in a row in Buffalo.
With Ristolainen out, Buffalo's first powerplay unit was tweaked and Bylsma will be going with five forwards--Eichel, Kane, Okposo, O'Reilly and Sam Reinhart. Bylsma said the onus of being the "defensive" forward in this group will fall on the shoulders of (what a surprise) O'Reilly.
"You need to have a special guy on top to be able to do it, a guy who's comfortable there, responsible there," Bylsma told the gathered media at KeyBank Center. "You're flipping the switch a little bit when you're standing back on the point as a skill guy versus being a defenseman standing there. For some players it's a little bit of an island, it's a new experience and a little bit of an island, but Ryan's been there."
According to Jourdan LaBarber of sabres.com, here's the projected forward group for Buffalo:
Tyler Ennis, O'Reilly, Okposo
Marcus Foligno, Eichel, Reinhart
Kane, Evan Rodrigues, Brian Gionta
Carrier, Zemgus Girgensons, Matt Moulson
The six defenseman will be Kulikov, Falk, Austin, Jake McCabe, Josh Gorges, Zach Bogosian.
Robin Lehner gets the nod in net for Buffalo.
Game time is 7 p.m.