Sunday, January 7, 2018

Life at the half-way point of the 2017-18 season in Sabreland

Published by, 1-6-2017


Such is the Buffalo Sabres record at the half-way point of th2017-18 season. The 2018 portion of the schedule began with a 3-2 overtime loss in the New Year's Day Winter Classic followed by one of their most atrocious efforts of the season in a 6-2 loss at Minnesota vs. the Wild. Last night in Winnipeg was rather typical as they were chasing at team, the Jets, and wound up on the wrong side of a 4-3 regulation loss.

However, what was atypical last night was who did the scoring in Winnipeg. Defenseman Marco Scandella scored his first goal of the season as did Scott Wilson, both of whom were traded for by GM Jason Botterill--Scandella in June and Wilson in December. Buffalo's other goal scorer was Johan Larsson who lit the lamp for his second goal of the season and first one dating back to October some 34 games ago.

There were times last night where the Sabres looked ready to play but most of the time they struggled, kind of a microcosm of how this season has gone so far. Head coach Phil Housley has gone through a rather chaotic 41 games as a rookie coach and within this game we saw some nice execution with his team playin on it's toes countered with heavy doses of breakdowns and goals by a team playing on their heels.

Through much of December and into the Winter Classic, Housley's Sabres looked like they were getting what he was saying while sticking to his game-plan, but these last two game his words seem to have fallen on deaf ears, especially against the Wild.

It took former head coach Dan Bylsma about 1 1/2 seasons to lose his Sabres team and although we won't go that far just yet, the losing that's been taking place through the first 41 games under Housley is taking it's toll. Expectations were high to begin the year but the pace they're on right now (58 points) rivals that of the 2013-15 tank years.

With the season shot for all intents and purposes and the February 26th trade deadline looming large for some key Sabres players, the trials and tribulations of the 2017-18 Sabres will more than likely continue into April when a welcome end to the season will occur.

As of right now, here's some of what we've been witnessing in Sabreland through 41 games.


Yup. There's always hope in Buffalo, but for the Sabres it's not so much in the present as once again our sights are locked into the future. There is one Sabres building block in place right now--C, Jack Eichel--and there's another potential building block on the back-end in defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen. Both have had their ups and downs, with Eichel having way more ups than Ristolainen, but right now they are two pretty strong blocks to move forward with.

After that we move down to Rochester as the team is battling for supremacy in the AHL's Eastern Conference with a trio of youngins are leading the way. Goalie Linus Ullmark just won his league-leading 16th game last night and looks ready for the NHL right now. Rookie defenseman Brendan Guhle scored the game-winner in overtime and is on the top-pairing playing in all situations. He has 20 points on the season (7+13) placing him third amongst rookie defensemen in scoring. The Amerks also have rookie winger C.J. Smith who's fourth amongst AHL rookies in scoring with 30 points (10+20.)

Free agent Russian defenseman Victor Antipin should be part of the future Sabres, although he may not be a core player moving forward. Antipin has played sporadically during his first season in North America and has acquitted himself well through 24 games. He's had his fair share of rookie mistakes, but his skating and nose for open areas in the offensive zone are not to be mistaken. He seemed to be at his best while skating along side a more defensive-minded partner like Jake McCabe and if Antipin pans out, he'll be a nice addition to the new core moving forward.

Dipping deep into the pipeline is University of Minnesota center Casey Mittelstadt who just finished his first World Junior Championships as the tournament MVP. Mittelstadt and Team USA netted the bronze at the tournament this season as the Americans won a medal for the third consecutive year for the fist time in their history. Rumor has it that should an opening occur on the U.S. Olympic team, he's one of a few who might get the call.

Outside of those players, perhaps the biggest hope for those in Sabreland is a spot in the upper part of the 2018 NHL Draft where some bluechip prospects lie. Defenseman Rasmus Dahlin (SWE,) right wing Filip Zadina (CZE) and left wing Brady Tkachuk (USA) all played in the medal round and all look to be upper-level prospects. Dahlin and Zadina both were named to the 2018 WJC All-Star team. We shouldn't forget about Russian winger Andrei Svechnikov, who's slated to go second-overall behind Dahlin.


Although the Sabres have plenty of role players, the core that former GM Tim Murray built isn't panning out as expected and unfortunately there are some large cap-numbers attached to that group.

Murray's idea was reasonable at the time--bring in young vets to take the pressure off of the youngins and allow them to develop at the NHL-level--but the players Murray brought in, along with the way the NHL changed, has lessened their worth and effectiveness.

Center Ryan O'Reilly was a great get by Murray even though a hefty price was paid. O'Reilly was brought in to hold down the top center spot until Eichel was ready and his work-ethic was said to be impeccable. After a strong first season in Buffalo, O'Reilly has struggled. He's still effective and shows signs of brilliant play on the back of hard work, but his salary/production ratio just isn't there right now. Defenseman Zach Bogosian has been injured through a good chunk of his time in Buffalo and has also shown flashes of great play as well, but when you add those two player's cap hits, $12.6 million is a lot of money for what's ended up being average to above average play.

The best player Murray brought in is Evander Kane, who's tied for the team lead in scoring (Eichel.) Kane had a tumultuous ride in Buffalo through his first two seasons to the point where rumors had him being moved for a bag of pucks in the 2016 off-season. Since December, 2016, when he fully recovered from his broken ribs, Kane has been the most consistent scorer for Buffalo and exactly the type of on-ice player this team needs. Unfortunately he'll be an unrestricted free agent this off season and with the Sabres in 30th place, he'll probably be moved never to return.

Rumor has it that Botterill wants to re-sign Kane, but he'll need to move a contract or two. O'Reilly's signed through 2022/23 as is winger Kyle Okposo who has a $6 million cap-hit. Okposo was signed in the 2016 off season and had a solid first season in Buffalo until medical issues landed him in ICU last April. It seems as if he's yet to fully recover from that and even if he does, he may have lost his effectiveness in the way the faster NHL is being played.

Doubts still surround goalie Robin Lehner, although there shouldn't be with the statistics he's been putting up lately. With a rag-tag defense-corps two years running, Lehner has been able to put up some decent numbers despite his, and the team's, poor record. Yet he still looks like a rookie goalie at times, still has troubles on breakaways and save for a time or two,  hasn't been able to dominate a game to save his skaters. Plus, he still hasn't proven he can win a game in the shootout.

That was the core brought in to hold the fort while the young players developed and they as a group have regressed mightily since the 2015-16 season. We can also add to that group, defenseman Josh Gorges ($3.9 AAV) who is in the final year of his contract and will likely be moved and forward Matt Moulson, who's signed through next season at a $5 million cap-hit but was placed on waivers in December. Both had good first season's in Buffalo but have been moved down the depth chart since.


Defenseman Marco Scandella and Jason Pominville came to Buffalo in the off season in a trade with Minnesota. Scandella was brought in to solidify the defense while Pominville and his $5.6 million contract was a necessity to get Scandella. So far they've been decent players, but were either traded at the deadline, it's doubtful any tears would be shed.

The first year of Buffalo's tank-job netted second-overall pick Sam Reinhart. The 2014 draft pick was emotional when Murray sent him back to junior for another year and when he came up for the 2015-16 season, Bylsma put him in a position to succeed, which he did. Reinhart had a very good rookie season, but regressed last season and has been invisible for the better part of the team's first 41 games this season. At one point he looked like he could be a core piece moving forward, now it's gotten to the point where he and his play aren't even worth arguing about anymore.

Defenseman Nathan Beaulieu was acquired by Botterill to help bolster the defense. Beaulieu is a fantastic skater who was on Montreal's top-pairing before he tumbled down the depth chart and into the pressbox. Botterill sent a third-round pick to the Canadiens for Beaulieu and we've gotten a good glimpse as to why he ended up in the pressbox in Montreal. In this sad state of a Sabres season, it would neither hurt nor help the team if he was moved.

Young forwards Hudson Fasching, Justin Bailey and Nicolas Baptiste have all had cracks at sticking with the Sabres over the past two years but none have played consistently enough to warrant them staying in Buffalo. All three have made an impact through the first game of two of their call-ups but soon became non-descript. All are still young and may still have some upside, yet any or all may be used to "sweeten the pot" in future trades.

Winger Alexander Nylander is in the same boat Reinhart was last season as his flaws--namely being a soft, perimeter player--have caused discussions as to his worth to the team moving forward. He just completed his third WJC and was decent, but not as dominant as his experience and skill-level should have dictated. As a player who has struggled at the AHL-level with the Amerks last year and through the first half of this season (due in part to injuries,) if Nylander is being noticed, it's mostly been for the wrong reasons. Many had hoped he'd be Eichel's wingman soon, but he may end up being part of a deal and most in Sabreland wouldn't bat an eye at this point.

At the half-way point of the season and with the team in 30th place, no one should be spared and that includes the coaching staff.

Whether Botterill should have brought in a rookie coach to help him get out of the mess he was handed will be up for debate this season, but that's what they went with. It was a disastrous move through the first two months of the season and if things don't get better, it could very well shatter the confidence of some supposed key players moving forward.

Botterill's on solid footing for the immediate future and Housley most certainly with get a mulligan for this season despite his team floundering worse than a discombobulated team under Byslma. Housley has had plenty of questionable moves that make him look like he's in way over his head and the thing for him will be to show progress in the second half of the season. Maybe even more importantly for him is not losing the room, although we've seen glimpses of that throughout the season thus far. He and his coaching staff also need to be asked how the league's top powerplay last season has dropped to 30th this year.

Contrary to some beliefs, I'm not of the opinion that this was a stealth tank season by Botterill and Company, although with how ownership has acted in the past with their focus on tanking, I wouldn't be too surprised. This is a team that has talent, and knows how to play the game but has yet to learn how to win, which is the most damning side-effect of a team that's been losing for four-and-a-half years.

As a glass-half-full kinda guy, I'd love to see those in the hope category shine brighter, those with doubts, shed them, and those in the apathy area have an impact, preferably long-lasting. I'd also like a little luck at the draft where two last place finishes didn't yield the top pick in the draft.

But we live in Buffalo where the Bills just broke a 17-year playoff drought. As of this season, the Sabres are on a six-year playoff drought which is second only to the Carolina Hurricane's seven years and right now the 'Canes hold the second wild card spot in the Eastern Conference. This is a boulder they're trying to move uphill once again.

Perhaps the biggest thing moving forward with the Sabres is turning this negative karma around and it won't happen through another tank. This is a team that needs to learn how to win while overcoming a mountain of adversity that the previous regime left them. Kane, Lehner and probably another player or two will probably be moved before the deadline and it will be up to those remaining to turn this thing around.

Or at the very least, give it everything they've got to try and do so.

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