Considered by many to be the worst team in the NHL, the Buffalo Sabres have surprised a lot of people this season.
If Hades were a hockey rink, it would have been at the KeyBank Center last season.
Anything that could have possibly gone wrong for the Buffalo Sabres did, and in a big way. Superstar center Jack Eichel suffered a season-ending neck injury early in the season, and the wheels fell off from there. The team suffered through an NHL record eighteen-game losing streak. Then Taylor Hall, whom the Sabres had signed in the offseason to pair with Eichel, forced his way out of town for a minimal return – to a divisional rival no less. The nightmare season would also cost Head Coach Ralph Krueger his job.
The pandemonium spilled over into the offseason. A former high first-round pick, Sam Reinhart, made it clear he was through playing for the team and was subsequently traded to the Florida Panthers. Defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen was traded to the Philadelphia Flyers, although to be fair, Sabres GM Kevyn Adams got a very reasonable return for him. Goaltender Linus Ullmark joined Hall in Beantown, signing a five-year contract with the Boston Bruins as a free agent.
The Buffalo Sabres offseason news was (and still is) dominated by the Jack Eichel neck surgery saga. If you follow hockey at all, you know what the situation here is, but suffice to say, it has hung a black cloud over the team since it started.
With a decimated roster, a goaltending tandem made up of Craig Anderson and Dustin Tokarski, and a lack of NHL-ready prospects, the Buffalo Sabres were supposed to hang on to their title of the worst team in the NHL. A funny thing has happened, however. They aren’t the worst team in the NHL – far from it.
The Sabres are 5-1-1 this season and are currently in second place in the Atlantic Division. Granted, there is a lot of hockey left to be played this season, but given the expectations coming in, this has to be the biggest surprise of the young season. Just how have they done this so far?
A lot of credit has to go Head Coach Don Granato. Granato took over when Krueger was fired last season and almost immediately brought a sense of calm to the Sabres locker room – even if their record didn’t dramatically improve. The players seemed to respond and play hard for him, which is the best anyone could have hoped for given the situation they were in.
The Buffalo Sabres on-ice roster is devoid of any superstars (Jack Eichel doesn’t count as he is on IR and most likely never playing for the team again), but it might be the secret to their success thus far. They certainly aren’t blowing it up offensively, although Victor Olofsson leads the team in scoring with four goals and four assists. Instead, they are getting it done in other facets of the game instead.
To start with, the goaltending for the Buffalo Sabres has been outstanding. Forty-year-old Craig Anderson has discovered the fountain of youth, posting an improbable 4-1 record to go with a 1.98 GAA and a .939 save percentage. Dustin Tokarski (of the 2014 Eastern Conference Final fame) has been just as solid in the backup role. In two games, Tokarski has one win and has allowed only three goals, giving him a 1.40 GAA and a .950 save percentage. Not bad for two players who just about everyone had written off.
It isn’t easy to win in the NHL without at least decent special teams play. The Sabres 4-1-1 start can, at least in part, be attributed to the fact they have been excellent in both facets of special teams play. They are currently fourth in the NHL on the power play, converting at a 30% clip. On the flip side, they are killing 88.2% of the assessed penalties, which is good for the sixth-best in the league.
Does all of this suggest the Buffalo Sabres will make the playoffs this season? The answer is a resounding no, there is way too much hockey left to be played, and regression is bound to happen. Still, better days are coming for this franchise. With top-end prospects like Owen Power, Ryan Johnson, Jack Quinn, and JJ Peterka, the assets from a potential Jack Eichel trade, and $45 million in cap space next offseason with no major free agents to re-sign, the potential to turn things around sooner than expected is there. In the meantime, if you are a Sabres fan, enjoy the current ride – how long it will last, nobody knows.