Published by hockeybuzz.com, 2-15-2018
At some point, I'm of the opinion that the Buffalo Sabres will pass the Ottawa Senators in the standings this season. I know it's not saying much as only three points separate the two teams at this juncture, but it's significant in that these are two teams at the bottom of the Eastern Conference going in different directions.
Buffalo headed into this season on the heels of a disappointing 2016-17 campaign that saw the general manger and head coach get fired. New Sabres GM Jason Botterill hired a new head coach in Phil Housley, the team tweaked their defense and Buffalo went into this season with a sense of optimism that they could take a step forward.
It didn't happen.
An 0-4-1 start lead to a 10-20-8 record for the 2017 portion of this season placing them all but mathematically out of the playoffs for the seventh consecutive season. A few years back Buffalo had decided on a scorched earth rebuild featuring two seasons in the tank. They made a huge leap in points in the 2015-16 season after drafting Jack Eichel and trading for young vets Ryan O'Reilly and Robin Lehner at the 2015 NHL Draft. But the next season they took take a step back which lead to the firings.
The Senators have spent the last 10 years mostly alternating between making the playoffs and missing them. Prior to last year's run where they came to within one game of the Stanley Cup Finals, Ottawa missed the playoffs four times and never made it out of the second round when they did. Their best season was in 2006-07 when they defeated the Sabres in the ECF then lost in the SCF to the Anaheim Ducks.
That 2007 playoff season was the last time either team was consistently good and it would seem as if Ottawa, like Buffalo a few years ago, is ready for a massive rebuild. Like the Sabres did when they realized that the team as constructed was mediocre with only a faint possibility of making any noise in the playoffs, the Senators came to the conclusion that the only way to move forward is to undertake a rebuild.
Last year's run to the ECF was an aberration in the grand scheme of things for Ottawa and despite having a bona fide superstar in defenseman Erik Karlsson, it sounds as if the Senators are ready to sink to the bottom for some high picks. "The goal is to win the Stanley Cup," said team owner Eugene Melnyk in a press release announcing the extension of GM Pierre Dorion. "Having come within one goal of last season's Stanley Cup Final, we were hopeful entering this season. Obviously, our results have challenged those expectations. What remains unchanged is the dedication that goes into evaluating every aspect of this organization."
Although the team did not mention "rebuild" the press release followed that quote with the rather lengthy euphemism stating that the Sens "will concentrate on building a foundation of sustainable success." Aka, building through the draft.
"Today's announcement reflects a renewed commitment to scouting, drafting and development," continued Melnyk. "It may require changes to our lineup. Rest assured, we will only tolerate pain with an endgame in mind: building an organization that wins - at all levels - year in and year out." With "changes to our lineup" being a code word for tanking the season.
Sabres fan know all about "pain with an endgame in mind," and oddly enough, management actually used the word "suffering" when it came to what the fans should expect during their tank. Unfortunately, that pain extended a little farther than we would have liked. Buffalo went from 30th place two years running to 23rd, back down to 26th and is now in second last place again.
Ottawa began it's rebuild by shipping veteran defenseman Dion Phaneuf on Tuesday. Ironically, the Senators trading for Phaneuf was the start of a three year "win-now" push by the organization which also saw them acquire young vets Derek Brassard, Tommy Wingels and Matt Duchene, amongst others, as they built to win while Karlsson was still under contract until the end of this season. It almost worked, but in the process they gutted their prospect pool.
With the hopes of a deep playoff run dashed, their prospect pool depleted and the team's bottom line getting worse by the day, the time to start again is now. Some are all-in on rebuilding and are ready for their team to lose for high draft picks.
"I understand that cheering for your favourite team to lose goes against every fibre of your body," wrote SBNation's Trevor Shackles today, "and it feels sickening when you are actually excited to see them do poorly in games." He continued by writing, "what’s best for the Ottawa Senators the rest of the season is if they continue to pile up the losses. I don’t see a way out of this continuous cycle they are in unless the 18-wheeler finally does fall off the cliff."
Shackles is the Sens writer for SBNation and the first reason behind him wanting his team to lose was to "net them the highest pick possible" while also adding that it will "force the organization to make some long-lasting changes that will make the team a sustainable contender."
That should sound familiar to Sabres fans as the team went through five seasons post-'07 where they either missed the playoffs or got bounced in the first round with a team that either wasn't good enough to make (or advance in) the playoffs, but weren't bad enough to get top picks in the draft.
The Sabres and Sens had enjoyed a pretty heated rivalry prior to their era's of inconsistency beginning in '07/'08 but now they find themselves at the bottom of the Eastern Conference heading in different directions.
While the Senators are barreling towards the bottom, the Sabres seem to be picking themselves up. After their atrocious start to the season and poor play that kept them at the bottom of the conference, the past few weeks have seen them start to find themselves as a team. Beginning with a three-game western Canada swing where they swept the Calgary Flames, Edmonton Oilers and Vancouver Canucks (by a combined 11-1 score,) the Sabres have managed to muster a 6-4-1 record and in the process have gained a ton of confidence.
Will this upswing be sustainable?
With this team you just don't know, especially with Eichel out 4-6 weeks with a high ankle sprain. But for those who've been watching Buffalo all season, this stretch has a welcome reprieve from the terrible hockey we've subject to for much of the season.
The Sabres head into Ottawa tonight having won three of their last four. In their three wins they've beaten the league's best team in Tampa Bay as well as the Boston Bruins, who sit second in the conference. Buffalo also beat a NY Islanders team that was in playoff desperation mode as they're dealing with the possibility that franchise center John Tavares might leave when his contract expires this off-season.
For the first time since Nov. 27-Dec. 4, 2015, the Sabres scored four or more goals in four consecutive games. Low and behold, they won three of four. The Sabres found their lost powerplay last month and continue to move up in that department. Since January 1 when the PP was at 12.4% (14/113), Buffalo has converted on 17 of 61 opportunities (27.8%) which moved them from 30th in the league to 23rd at 17.8%. In the last four games they've gone 4/15 with the man advantage (26.7%.)
WGR550's Paul Hamilton tweeted from Ottawa that the lineup looks to be the same save for defnesman Josh Gorges replacing Justin Falk which means this is what Buffalo will be icing tonight:
Hamilton also tweeted that it looks like Lehner will be in the net for the Sabres.
In their only meeting of the season, the Sabres defeated Ottawa in Buffalo 3-2 with Lehner in net. Benoit Pouliot, Kyle Okposo and Evander Kane staked the Sabres to a 3-0 lead just past the half-way point of the second period, Ottawa would counter with two third period goals including one with less than a minute to play with their goalie pulled.
The Sabres are 7-1-2 in their last 10 against the Senators, 4-5-1 on the road, according to Sabres PR.