Buffalo GM Jason Botterill chose to stand pat through October and November with his Sabres imploding and the season all but done only two months in. Coming into the month of December the Sabres posted a 6-15-4 record, had won only once in their previous 10 games (1-7-2) and had been shut out in back-to-back contests to end the month of November. As they plummeted to the bottom of the league so, seemingly, did their interest in playing. WGR550 Sabres beat writer Paul Hamilton called the second shutout by Tampa Bay "[possibly] the easiest shutout [Lightning goaltender Andrei] Vasilevsky has ever had."
Although Buffalo had outshot the Lightning 34-26, they were mostly weak-tea perimeter shots that were easily stopped without a net-front presence.
And if Sabres fans thought that was bad, the 4-0 loss at home against the Pittsburgh Penguins to start December was even worse. With that debacle, the were shutout three games in a row for the first time in franchise history and looked awful in the process. In a case of throwing gasoline on the fire with that pitiful performance against the Pens, it should be remembered that owner Terry Pegula has ties to Pittsburgh as does Botterill and also during that loss the NHL was filming 'The Road to the Winter Classic' which would feature Buffalo vs. the NY Rangers at Citi Field in the Big Apple on January 1.
Buffalo did manage to score a goal in the second game of their home-and-home, a 5-1 loss at Pittsburgh. Their lone goal came mid-way through the third period ending a drought of 232:09 or nearly four full games without a goal.
This team was burning to the ground and that four-game stretch was like the roof caving in. There was very little anyone could do except let it take it's course. It was reported that Sabres president Russ Brandon, who is no longer with the team, was seen after the shutout loss to Pittsburgh talking with, almost trying to console, franchise center Jack Eichel in the locker room. As was pointed out, whether you like him or not, Brandon was the team president so he could go wherever he pleased. Why a businessman with an expertise in marketing would try to interject his thoughts into a hockey situation might leave some questions, but in that situation he was offering...umm...we're really not sure what kind of hockey advice he had to offer in that situation.
With the things spiraling out of control, it didn't take long for the rumor mill to start churning. After that shutout loss to Pittsburgh, Sportsnet's Elliot Freidman said during an intermission on Hockey Night in Canada that, "there's a sense from other teams that the Sabres are sending signals that they are open for business."
Freidman continued saying team could "ask about anybody whose name isn't Jack Eichel," but he also qualified that statement by saying that some are off limits unless the price is right. "I do think that if you're going to ask about a Rasmus Ristolainen or Marco Scandella or a Sam Reinhart," he said, "you'd better be coming with a serious offer because I don't think Buffalo is going to trade those guys unless the offer is great.
"But I think they are prepared to listen to [offers for] everyone except their franchise player (Eichel.)"
The player most were keeping an eye on when it came to the trade market was Evander Kane, who emerged from a choppy two years in the Blue and Gold to become the only player worth his salt during the first two months of the 2017-18 season. At the end of November Kane lead the Sabres with 12 goals and 23 points, but there were huge neon arrows pointing to his exit. With an imminent trade on the horizon, Kane began downshifting his aggressive north/south game to self preservation mode which was noticeable on the ice and on the stat-sheet after the Christmas break.
Botterill did affect change as he got things going with some roster moves as the team waived Matt Moulson, a move that fans had been hoping would happen for months. They also sent Kyle Criscuolo back to Rochester and called up Evan Rodrigues. In addition, Botterill traded for bottom-six forward Scott Wilson, a player he knew from his days in Pittsburgh. Wilson had contributed as a role player in the Pens' two recent Stanley Cup championship but found himself in Detroit after a trade. Botterill sent a fifth-round pick to the Red Wings for Wilson and he played a solid role in the Sabres 4-2 win at Colorado.
The positivity also came through against the Avalanche as the Sabres also had something happen during win that hadn't happened all season. Defenseman Jake McCabe snapped a shot from the point that sailed in for Buffalo's first goal by a defenseman all season, a span of 28 games. Interesting to note as you watch the video from sabres.com that Wilson was in front of the net creating a screen.
Although the trade for Wilson wasn't the blockbuster that fans had hoped for those three roster moves, along with defenseman Zach Bogosian getting up to speed after missing the first two months of the season due to injury, got the team moving in a positive direction and they finished the month with a 4-3-4 record.
Buffalo would say good by to 2017 on a positive note as they avenged an early season bludgeoning at the hands of New Jersey to dispatch the Devils 4-3 on the road in overtime and end December. Defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen scored the winner for Buffalo bringing their OT/SO record to 2-8 on the season.
For Buffalo's December team stats click here and for their December stats leaders, click here.
For my December archive click here.