Buffalo Sabres vs Toronto Maple Leafs: A Tale Of Two Rebuilds

The Buffalo Sabres head to the great white north tonight to take on a team whose rebuild was supposed to look more, uh, rebuild-y.

The Buffalo Sabres are in Toronto tonight to take on their division rival Maple Leafs tonight, and you have to think that the game will have a playoff atmosphere to it.

After all, the Leafs have managed to do the unthinkable this season: they have put together a team that is fighting for a playoff spot – seriously!  In just one season, the Leafs have gone from being dead last in the NHL to fighting for a playoff spot – it can happen, Sabres fans!

Just not in the 716, apparently.

Sarcasm aside, the Leafs currently own 48 points, good for third in the Atlantic Division and 9th in the Eastern Conference.  Every point matters for this Leafs team, which is why you should expect the Air Canada Centre to be buzzing tonight, and every night from here on out.

Meanwhile, the Buffalo Sabres are not that far behind the Leafs – despite being last in the division and second-to-last in the conference, only 5 points separate Buffalo from Toronto – but it certainly feels as if this Sabres team belongs on a different tier; whereas I can see the Leafs squeaking into the postseason with the 8th spot in the East, I have exactly zero hope that the Sabres have a legitimate playoff push in them.

In other words, those 5 points might as well be 500 points right now.

Which brings up the question, why?

The Maple Leafs are not a better defensive team than the Sabres – both teams have surrendered 120 goals to the opposition this season, and the Leafs have done so in two less games than the Sabres.  The same can be said for goaltending: Frederik Andersen may have more saves (18) to his credit than both of Buffalo’s goaltenders combined (17), but he owns a 2.67 GAA and a save percentage of just .919, worse than those of Robin Lehner and Anders Nilsson.

So where do the Leafs own the edge over the Sabres?  Simple: offense, coaching, and front office.  Toronto’s offense ranks 6th in the offense at 3.10 goals per game, which means they can erase many of the mistakes they make on defense (they allow 2.8 goals per game to their opposition).  Rookie Auston Matthews may lead the team with 37 points, but there are two other rookies on the Leafs’ roster with over 28 points, William Nylander and Mitch Marner, and the Leafs are getting quality scoring from more seasoned forwards such as James van Riemsdyk (15-20-35), Nazem Kadri (18-10-28) and Tyler Bozak (10-18-28).   Overall, the Leafs have three players with over 30 points and another five with 20+.

Meanwhile, the Buffalo Sabres have two players with 28 points – Kyle Okposo and Sam Reinhart – and no players over 30 points yet.  Yep: Buffalo’s best scorers are equalling the output of two of Toronto’s rookies.  With only four players who have hit the 20-point mark, it’s easy to see why the Sabres have won less games despite allowing less goals per game.

Is this a case of Toronto simply owning more firepower than the Sabres?  Maybe – in which case you have to get the nod to Toronto’s front office – but it’s also entirely possible that head coach Mike Babcock has simply given his players a system that plays to their strengths, something that Buffalo coach Dan Bylsma has yet to do.  I don’t follow the Leafs enough to know whether their recent trade and free agent history trumps what the Sabres have accomplished, so I will leave it at this: Toronto is getting maximum production from a pretty young crop of forwards, while the Buffalo Sabres are not.

And that’s why the Leafs rebuild appears to be light years ahead of the Sabres’.

Five points in the standings can be erased pretty quickly, so there is no guarantee that the Maple Leafs will finish the 2016-17 regular season ahead of the Buffalo Sabres in the standings.   The young players on the Leafs’ roster could trend downward, and the Sabres could begin playing more games like Monday’s 4-1 win against the Dallas Stars.  For some reason, though, it just feels like the teams are separated by more than 5 points, so until I see some consistent efforts from the blue and gold, I have to admit that the Leafs appear to have figured out this whole rebuild thing faster than the Sabres.

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