Sunday, August 6, 2017

No 2018 playoffs for Sabres? It's a pretty safe bet right now.

Published by, 8-4-2017 has it's annual series featuring one team every day. The now 31-in-31 series lead off with the Buffalo Sabres this year. Buffalo beat writer Joe Yerdon did some fine work laying out where the Sabres are at this juncture and asking three questions for the team moving forward as well as delving into who their top prospects are. In a short video, senior writer Dan Rosen answers the question of whether Buffalo fans, "who are aching and begging" for hockey in April, get their wish. Rosen's answer is, "No. No. I just don't see it from Buffalo this season."

First off, let me start by saying that anything can happen in a season when a hockey team has talent and good goaltending. The Buffalo Sabres have some very talented players in Jack Eichel, Ryan O'Reilly, Kyle Okposo and Evander Kane and they have a starting goalie in Robin Lehner as well as a very capable back up in Chad Johnson.

The Sabres missed the playoffs badly last season while finishing with three points less than they did the previous year but why they missed has been up for debate for many months. Some have claimed it was the coach while others claimed a lack of playoff caliber talent, especially on defense. I'm of the opinion that coaching was the main culprit in their demise followed very closely by injuries, as the talent was there to at the very least, win more games than they did. Was there enough talent to make them a playoff team? Probably not, but the talent they had seemed smothered by a rigid adherence to a system that took all creativity, flow and reaction out of the game.

Eichel, O'Reilly, Okposo and Kane missed a combined 60 games last year due to injury. In 268 games played they combined for 91 goals and 109 assists or roughly .34 goals/game and .75 points/game. Three of them were 20-goals scorers--Kane (28,) Eichel (24) and O'Reilly (20)--while Okposo hit the 19-goal mark. Buffalo also had four other double-digit goal scorers. There are two problems that people often times like to point out with their scoring--there were no defensemen in that group of double-digit goal scorers and a good chunk of their scoring came from the league's best power play.

Fair enough. New GM Jason Botterill brought in a new coach in Phil Housley who was hired to correct those deficiencies and we'll see what he can do five-on-five with basically it's the same group up front that the Sabres had last season.

The defense is always the main talking point with Buffalo and rightfully so as the Sabres' 34.3 shots against/game were the most given up by any team in the league last season. Yet their 2.82 GAA was tied for 19th in the league and despite all that rubber hitting Buffalo goalies, their .918 Sv% was tied for fourth. Botterill needed to bolster the Sabres blueline and he did so by acquiring Nathan Beaulieu and Marco Scandella which should help defensively and, hopefully, on offense as well.

With any decent amount of good coaching, the talent is there to surpass last season's point total and if things go really well, they could climb into playoff bubble territory. However, the Sabres main obstacle this year my not lie so much in getting their act together as it does with the strength of the Eastern Conference, especially in the Metropolitan Division, where Buffalo finished with a 6-13-5 record last year.

The playoff structure goes like this:  the top three teams from each division make the playoffs and the next two teams, regardless of division, are in as wild cards. Last season the NY Rangers grabbed the first wild card spot with 102 points while the Toronto Maple Leafs nudged out both the NY Islanders and Tampa Bay Lightning by one point to snag the second wild card spot. In 2015-16 the Metropolitan Division sent five teams to the playoffs and in the four years under this playoff structure they've sent at least one wild card team to the playoffs every year.

At the top of the Metropolitan Division is the two-time defending Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh Penguins who haven't missed the playoffs in 11 years. The NY Ranges have missed the playoffs once in the last 12 seasons while the Washington Capitals have missed the playoffs once in the last 10. Columbus seems to have found their groove, the Islanders made the playoffs the two years prior to just missing out last season and one can never count out Philadelphia as the Flyers always seem to be hovering around that area.

The Atlantic Division also poses a problem for Buffalo, but to a lesser degree as the Sabres went 13-13-4 against divisional foes. There seems to be a bit more flux right now although one could counter that by saying there are couple of up and coming teams, like Toronto, that can change the course of the standings.

In looking at the division, Tampa Bay had an off year last year and might be looked at as the best team in the division. Barring injuries, a problem the Lightning had last season, they look to be a shoe-in. Up in Quebec, as Carey Price goes, so does the Montreal Canadiens. They've missed the playoffs once in the last five seasons, the one where Price missed all but 12 games in 2015-16.

Those two look to be locks for the playoffs once again and it leaves just one opening in the Atlantic Division.

Last year the Ottawa Senators finished second in the division while the Boston Bruins finished in third. The Sens made it to the conference final last year but also have altered missing the playoffs twice in the last four seasons while the Bruins missed the playoffs two consecutive seasons before returning last year.

Toronto is an up and coming team that has the talent to be an annual playoff contender down the road. The Leafs squeaked into the playoffs last season with a very young group who had unusually good luck on the injury front but they could very easily be back in the thick of things with a year of experience under their belts. It was the only time the Leafs made the playoffs in a full regular season since the 2004-05 lockout.

Down in Florida it's a little more scatter-brained as the Panthers made the playoffs only twice since the turn of the century but have seemingly been on the upswing lately while the Detroit Red Wings missed the 2017 playoffs for the first time since the 1990-91 season and look to be retooling.

Could the Buffalo Sabres pull off a 17-point surprise in the standings and make the playoffs? Probably not. However, they should be in for a marked improvement with their on-ice product. The Sabres looked terrible for long stretches last season due to a number of factors mostly dictated by injuries to key players and a disconnect between coach and players.

As stated at the top, the Sabres have talent and they have solid goaltending which are two factors that increase their chances of closing in on a playoff spot, but they may not have enough at this time. However, with the way the Atlantic as laid out, I wouldn't completely count them out.

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