After all the hype this summer, the Buffalo Sabres have essentially found themselves in a slightly better position than last year after the first 12 games. Although Eichel is healthy this year and putting up 12 points in 12 games, the Sabres only have 3 wins so far this season. Buffalo fans are confused and the rest of the NHL is simply baffled at how this team, which has missed the playoffs for 6 years straight, still does not have a strong enough core to overpower less talented teams like Boston or Montreal. How could this happen to a team that includes former 2nd overall pick Jack Eichel, former 8th overall pick Rasmus Ristolainen, veterans Ryan O Reilly and Evander Kane and a solid goalie in Robin Lehner? Let’s take a look:
For Buffalo, offense is most certainly not a problem. Jack Eichel, who started this year healthy and roaring to go, also has an impressive 12 points in 12 games. He has been the catalyst for the team’s offense both 5 on 5 and on the power play; feeding the likes of newcomer Jason Pominville and Evander Kane for multiple goals so far. Evander Kane, who is tied with Eichel for the team`s scoring lead with 12 points in 12 games, has been dynamite offensively. However, for all his positive offensive output, Kane still has a major problem staying out of the penalty box, as he accumulated 8 costly minor penalties in 12 games. Jason Pominville has jumped back to life since being traded this summer by the Minnesota Wild, along with defenseman Marco Scandella, to the Buffalo Sabres. His 12 points in 12 games have him tied with Eichel and Kane for the team lead in scoring , as he has been their long-coveted right shot on the power play.
The problem for the Sabres is that, after the aforementioned trio, there is not much secondary scoring going on. Kane, Pominville and Eichel combined for 16 goals, while the rest of the team has produced 13 goals total. If the Sabres are going to rise in the rankings they desperately require more from the likes of Ryan O’Reilly, Sam Reinhart (former 2nd overall pick) and Zemgus Girgensons (14th overall pick) who have all underwhelmed to start the season. The Sabres have been waiting on Sam Reinhart to live up to his expectations ever since he was drafted 2nd overall in the 2014 NHL Entry Draft. Since then, he has been demoted from the 2nd line to the 3rd line and, as of this season, converted to the wing in favor of stronger and more defensively responsible pivots. Sadly, the Sabres do not have a plethora of young forwards they could call upon, which means any form of offensive reinforcements would be either Justin Bailey or Seth Griffith. With 6 + years of high draft picking, we begin to see that the Sabres problems on offense stem from horrendous asset management and pretty bad player development in the case of Reinhart and Girgensons (not to mention the failed Grigorenko project).
When Rasmus Ristolainen was drafted 8th overall in the 2013 NHL Entry Draft, many thought that he would absolutely dominate the NHL with his size (6.4) and his skill. When he first made the Buffalo Sabres roster after an insane performance at the 2014 World Junior Championships for Finland, many thought that Rasmus would step in and have a similar impact to Drew Doughty’s 2008-2009 rookie season for the Kings. As we now know, this was not the case, as the rearguard struggled mightily alongside veteran Josh Gorges and Zach Bogosian. Even after his contract holdout last year, which saw him sign a 6-year $32.4 million contract, he struggled last season until Jack Eichel returned from injury in December. Ristolainen has been expect to be the number 1 defenseman on this team for 3 years now and has not really lived up to the hype.
Both former GM Tim Murray and current GM Jason Botterill have failed to properly insulate Ristolainen with high-end puck moving defensemen, which correlate to their abysmal possession ratios over the years. Beyond Ristolainen, Bogosian has also not lived up to his draft stock, as the former third overall pick has been nothing more than average for the Buffalo Sabres since being acquired from Winnipeg in the Myers-Kane trade two years ago. Josh Gorges has slowly been phased out of the lineup, while Marco Scandella appears to be the only Sabres defenseman who can properly rush the puck from center ice into the offensive zone. Even the supposed underrated acquisition of former 1st round pick Nathan Beaulieu has been nothing short of an underwhelming for the Sabres so far this season. If they ever wish to take the next step, they desperately require that top pairing defenseman that could slot in with Rasmus Ristolainen and take over games. It should not all rest on Jack Eichel to produce the offense. Needless to say that the Buffalo defense and their lack of scoring will always hold back the Sabres from long-term success until it is rectified via trade or by drafting a certain Swedish phenom named Rasmus Dahlin.
Robin Lehner had nothing short of an excellent season last year. How can a goalie whose team finished in the bottom 10 of the league have an excellent season? That’s because the team in front of him was absolutely garbage. Although he had a 23-26-8 record in the 2016-2017 season, Lehner put up a respectable 2.68 Goals Against Average and a .920 Save Percentage. On average, he faced more than 30 shots per game last season and still managed to give his team a chance to win. Unfortunetely for Lehner, this season has been very bad for him. He has only recorded two wins in 8 starts, he has let in an average of 2.78 goals per game and has faced an average of 24 shots per game so far this season. Clearly the defense was not upgraded to where it needed to be in order to take the work off of Lehner, but the goaltender himself seems to have regressed to far this season.
Will the Sabres be able to come back from this horrible start? My money is in the ‘’No’’ column mainly because I do not have faith in Buffalo’s defensive corps in the short or long-term. They need to add to Scandella and Ristolainen in a big way if the Sabres are ever going to reach the Spring Dance. Until then, expect more of the same futility as this team plays its way to a lottery ball by season’s end. We can only hope that they finally win that lottery and draft a true franchise defenseman in Rasmus Dahlin to right the sinking ship.