At this point last season, Buffalo Sabres fans and media personalities were engaged in a, ahem, “spirited” discussion about what the team should be doing. Tanking was the big debate, with moralists ashamed of the product on the ice and advanced stats fans acknowledging the goal was to not win. This all culminated on March 26th, the infamous Tank-A-Palooza matchup between the Sabres and Arizona Coyotes that resulted in fans cheering ‘yotes goals and Mike Weber calling out Sabres fans for voicing their opinion (Weber committed a tripping penalty late in the 3rd period of that tied game that ultimately led to the Arizona power-play winner in overtime. How meta.)
A season later, the blue and gold have moved all the way from 30th to…29th, one point ahead of the smoldering tire fire known as the Columbus Blue Jackets. Without listing every exception, the majority of the league has played between 49 and 51 games. While much closer to the playoff picture, Buffalo is still only at 44 points, and the current second Wild Card battle is a tie between the Pittsburgh Penguins and New Jersey Devils at 57.
Barring a miracle drive a la Ottawa and Andrew Hammond, it appears to be the fifth consecutive season sans playoffs in the Nickel City, and yet...things appear to be better. Much better, actually. The argument is purely subjective, of course. The Buffalo News’ Mike Harrington and I got into a minor tiff a couple of weeks ago on Twitter, and we are both correct based on the metrics we chose to bring to the table. The sellouts in the arena aren’t happening nightly, but the television ratings appear to be up. There is some increased interest in the squad, and that shows the kind of hockey-starved town that exists in Erie County. So let’s focus in a few storylines post John Scott Party Time…and what the near future holds.
ROBIN LEHNER: The top of the list for Sabres storylines has to start with what exists in goal. An unfortunate ankle sprain robbed the big Swede of ice time for the majority of the first half of the season. The record is 1-3, and it was tenths of a second away from possibly being 0-4 in Ottawa. But instead, Lehner won the last game before the All-Star break, and things are looking up. The save percentage is at .936 (with a minimum of 33 saves in the last three games), the angles are now more adventurous after an extremely cautious start against Boston, and he even has an assist to his credit, showing a willingness and ability to handle the puck. Chad Johnson played surprisingly well, and Linus Ullmark showed flashes in net. However, a strong string of games for Robin Lehner, starting Wednesday in Montreal, could mean the Sabres have their best netminder since the Vezina Trophy campaign of Ryan Miller in 2010.
RASMUS RISTOLAINEN: In an interview on the podcast in November with WGR’s Matthew Coller, he mentioned a good comparison for Risto would be Victor Hedman. So far, so good for this one. Averaging a ridiculous 25:11 of ice time at just 21 years old, the mighty Finn is starting to show signs of being an all-timer for the Sabres on the blue line. Most impressively, of his 31 points so far this year, 14 are coming on the Power Play (4G, 10A), showing that he is beginning to take command of the special teams aspect of the game as well. The possession numbers still aren’t great, but he is showing progress from last season, with the Fenwick increasing from 38.5% to 43.3%. He still is figuring out the game, and everything is trending up. In two years, Risto could be a top ten defenseman in the league, and that continued progress this season is exciting.
MANDATORY JACK EICHEL MENTION: He’s good, he’s 19 and the more he plays, the more comfortable he seems to be. Eichel is second on the team with 34 points, averaging one minute less ice time per game than his age, and is truly the next great American hope in the sport. Plus, Matt Moulson’s kids like him and Tim Horton’s made him a spokesperson. But we aren’t selling out games and we suck still so the tank wasn’t worth it and its Eich’s fault. JK, JK love you all.
HOME RECORD: If I told you Buffalo would scrape together an 11-11-2 record on the road…well surely the team would be over .500, right? Nope. 9-15-2, including some ugly performances along the way (7-2 loss to Montreal in October, 5-1 loss to Florida in January), have left Sabres fans feeling empty walking out of First Niagara Center. In fact, since a December 17th 3-0 victory over Anaheim, the record is 1-7-0, with only an admittedly impressive 4-1 victory over Washington where the team chased Braden Holtby. In many matches, the offense just isn’t there. A four game stretch in November against the Western Conference (San Jose, Dallas, St. Louis, Nashville) resulted in 5 goals and a 0-3-1 record. Is there any reason behind this? For those that desire to play armchair psychiatrist, of course. We always seek reason for things beyond our understanding and control. The reality is that it is probably just a statistical fluke, and that the Sabres will play better in this final batch of games.
TRADE DEADLINE: General Manager Tim Murray always has a move ready in February as the deadline for trading approaches. He’s traded Ryan Miller and Steve Ott. He moved Matt Moulson and Cody McCormick, and then resigned them both. He sent out former cornerstones Tyler Myers and Drew Stafford for a disgruntled but talented Evander Kane. Even Brian Flynn and Torrie Mitchell weren’t safe in the fire sale last season. So…now what happens? The playoffs aren’t realistic, so what’s the point in trying to grab a few extra points, which in turn take away a few number combos from the team’s lottery chances? It makes sense to trade away the few extraneous pieces remaining on the team, which this season may not even make the team that much worse. If any team came calling for Mike Weber, Chad Johnson or David Legwand, why wouldn’t you grab a mid-round pick or C+ prospect? With Buffalo hosting the 2016 NHL Draft, the more assets the better for the Sabres to make a splash. It may not be the mammoth trades of the past, but expect GMTM to turn nothing into something.
Are there other storylines? Absolutely. Can Sam Reinhart keep showing improvement? Will Ryan O’Reilly become the first Sabre with 70 points since Jason Pominville from 2011-2012? Can Zach Bogosian become the consistent top pairing partner the team envisioned? Can Evander Kane pick up that conversion rate? There’s a lot to look for, as long as one understands that the playoffs as a true goal should be tucked away for one more season. But that glimmer is there, and the Buffalo Sabres are in rising in a fashion that will be the envy for most other franchises. Just be patient one more time…