The Buffalo Sabres hit the halfway mark of their 2016-17 season Thursday night in Tampa Bay. We reflect on the highs and lows of the campaign thus far.
When the Buffalo Sabres were gearing up for their 2016-17 campaign, the word “playoffs” was tossed around a lot, by the coaches, the players, and many hopeful fans.
Now that the halfway point of the Sabres’ season has come and gone, it’s safe to say that the word “playoffs” is not in the vocabulary of even the most optimistic fan. Sure, the players and coaching staff are still using that word in order to motivate themselves and convince fans there is still a reason to attend games at the KeyBank Center, and some really desperate fans might look at the standings and say, “Come on now, we’re only 7 points behind the Toronto Maple Leafs who are 16th in the NHL right now!” – but come on. At what point this season have you seen the Buffalo Sabres do anything to convince you that a strong playoff push is coming? Buffalo has owned one thee-game winning streak this year, and that’s it.
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Playoff push? Not. Gonna. Happen.
With that being said, let’s hand out our mid-season grades to pinpoint where things went wrong, and what this team needs to address if it ever wants to leave the rebuilding stage.
The Sabres top-6 forwards have been hit with the injury bug, as the team has seen Ryan O’Reilly, Tyler Ennis, Jack Eichel, and Evander Kane lose significant time to injury. When healthy, though, the Sabres top-6 has been productive. Okposo, the team’s lone All-Star, is on pace to hit close to 60 points – without John Tavares, go figure. Reinhart has shrugged off a slow start and is second on the team with 18 assists, and ROR is ROR: he gets work done. Meanwhile, Eichel is averaging more points per game (.071) than he did last season (.069), and Kane has scored all 11 of his goals in the past 19 games. This won’t be the top-6 that wins the team Lord Stanley’s Cup, but it has done its job well enough through the first 41 games.
There have been some strong individual performances from Buffalo’s bottom-6 this season: Marcus Foligno (8-7-15) is primed to blow away his career highs in goals (10), assists (13) and points (23), leading me to believe he will re-sign with Buffalo at the end of this season; Brian Gionta could score more goals this season than he did in both 2015-16 and 2014-15; and Matt Moulson has already surpassed last year’s goals scored, even though he has cooled off as of late. Even Zemgus Girgensons is playing better as of late . . . but that’s the problem with Buffalo’s bottom-6: no consistency. With Gionta and Moulson producing less points as the season goes on, and Zemgus disappearing for long stretches, there is no way to feel confident in the future of this collection of forwards. Toss in Nicolas Deslauriers (zero points in 21 games and counting) and the failed Derek Grant experiment, and you have a bottom six that is far from ready for primetime.
Aside from Rasmus Ristolainen and Jake McCabe, Buffalo’s blueline corps is quite possibly the worst in the NHL. Zach Bogosian, Josh Gorges and Dmitry Kulikov have a combined +/- of -23 this year, and Gorges and Cody Franson often look as if they are skating in tar. Taylor Fedun has been a nice surprise, and Brendan Guhle impressed, so there is hope for this defensive corps . . . but with the Kulikov-for-Pysyk trade blowing up in GMTM’s face and the Sabres’ blueliners (Risto included) often looking lost in the defensive zone, I present to you GMTM’s largest priority this offseason: fixing the Sabres’ blueline.
Shootout woes be damned – Buffalo’s goaltending tandem of Anders Nilsson and Robin Lehner have been the best part of Buffalo’s game this season. The two have combined for the 6th-best save percentage in the league, and have to be credited for getting the Sabres into all those shootouts that the team eventually lost, but let’s face it: the Sabres have often played as if they were playing not to lose, rather than playing to win, in OT. I understand a lot of people want to say, Buffalo needs a goaltender who can steal a game . . . but the last time I checked, you still need to be able to score at least one goal in order to steal a game, and you cannot ask your goalies to make saves and score that lone goal, too. If Buffalo’s offense could score (the team owns the 4th-worsts offense in the league, scoring just 2.29 goals per game) no one would be complaining about the goalies. Nilsson has been the standout this season and deserves more games, but Lehner has been a solid B/B+ player on a team that struggles to score, so cut him some slack.
Frankly, I am neither impressed nor unimpressed with coach Dan Bylsma. His constant tinkering with the forward combinations is vexing, but then again it’s not like the Buffalo Sabres are lighting up the world. Are Buffalo’s scoring woes due to the fact that Bylsma still has yet to see a line combination that he likes enough to leave alone, or because the forwards that GMTM has handed him don’t compliment each other? Likewise, is Buffalo’s habit of starting most games flat and uninspired due to Bylsma’s coaching and his system that is reportedly overly-complicated? Or due to the fact that Buffalo’s players lack true motivation? It’s hard to say, especially since that last point has haunted the Sabres since before Bylsma was hired. I might give him a pass on the Sabres’ flat play, but the lack of scoring falls on Bylsma’s shoulders, hence the C rating.
As always, share your comments on the Buffalo Sabres’ midseason grades below!