What’s Wrong With the Buffalo Sabres?

Alex Tuch celebrates a goal against the New Jersey Devils Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers

At the beginning of every season, we all have expectations of what we think will happen in the NHL. For this year, as an example, Connor Bedard would help improve the Chicago Blackhawks. The Boston Bruins were not going to challenge last season’s regular season point total. The Seattle Kraken would struggle to meet their achievements from a year ago. For me, Buffalo would challenge for a playoff spot and might even knock Boston out. With many high draft picks on the roster and gaining experience, plus coming off their best point total in a decade at 91, this seemed like a reasonable prediction. They were one point away from a playoff position last season. We’ve almost reached the halfway point in 2023-24, with Buffalo in seventh of eight teams in the division and third to last in the conference with 38 points as of January 8. Why has Buffalo regressed?      

There are many reasons team performance doesn’t meet expectations. It could be a poor coaching staff, horrible drafting, or bad trades, amongst several other issues in hockey. The Sabres have not been very successful since their early NHL days. Buffalo is not a desired location for most hockey players, so enticing free agents is problematic. Perhaps the culture of the team is not healthy. On paper, Buffalo looks like a playoff team; the last time they reached the playoffs was 2010-11. Outside of goaltending, they have three former first-overall picks playing defense and five former first-round draft choices. At forward, they have ten first-round picks on the roster; only four forwards are not first-round picks.

We have seen a pattern with certain teams that consistently have high draft picks, such as the Edmonton Oilers. Some never pan out. Others struggle when put into a third or fourth-line role. While still a young team, the Sabres have been a little light on goal-scoring this season. Losing Tage Thompson for ten games did not help, but another factor is that they are awful at the faceoff dot; this skill is probably not a focus when drafting. Not having the puck forces a team to chase it to regain possession. More importantly, goaltending is an issue. Having lost Linus Ullmark to free agency in 2021, the Sabres have now decided to rely on a rotation of two young goalies in Devon Levi, formerly of Northeastern University, and Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen, a second-round pick in 2017 from Finland. Both have goals against averages above three and save percentages below 90 percent. While I will never entirely blame a goalie for his numbers, as he needs help from the five other players on the ice, these numbers are not where they need to be, especially in such a stacked division with the Toronto Maple Leafs, Boston Bruins, Florida Panthers, and Tampa Bay Lightning.

On the trade front, the Sabres have done relatively well. Trading former number two overall pick Jack Eichel to Las Vegas in 2021 returned 2016 number eighteen pick Alex Tuch, 2019 number seventeen pick Peyton Krebs, plus a first and a second-round pick. I think the team that gets the best player “wins” the trade; however, Tuch is a rare commodity because he’s a skilled power forward. Krebs is caught in a log jam of better centers, so he is not getting much ice time. Time will tell on the draft picks. Tage Thompson came to Buffalo in a July 1, 2018, trade that sent Ryan O’Reilly to the St Louis Blues. Many would argue that St. Louis won this trade because O’Reilly helped lead them to the 2019 Stanley Cup win over Boston. I understand this logic, but O’Reilly is long gone, while Buffalo still has the critical assets returned. Other assets were involved, but it essentially boiled down to O’Reilly for Thompson and 2019 first-round pick Ryan Johnson, who is now a regular on defense. The other defenseman who was a first-round pick and probably has been Buffalo’s third-best defenseman behind Dahlin and Power is Henri Jokiharju.  Jokiharju was acquired via trade for Alexander Nylander, who never panned out. I would give Buffalo a failing grade on the trade that sent Sam Reinhart to the Florida Panthers in 2021 in exchange for Devon Levi and a first-round pick from 2022. While none of the three 2022 picks are contributing in Buffalo, Reinhart is looking to be the early favorite for the most desired free agent at the end of the year with twenty-eight goals and twenty-two assists in thirty-nine games for fifty points.

In watching Buffalo, other than a few players such as Dylan Cozens, Alex Tuch, Jordan Greenway, and Tage Thompson, I have seen that most of the forward group plays a similar style. As mentioned, they are not good at faceoffs, are not overly physical, have no enforcer type, and rely heavily on skill and speed. Eventually, this team will return to the playoffs and stay there for years. They have too much young talent not to do so. Dahlin, Power, Jokiharju, and Ryan Johnson are a core defense to build around. If I were Buffalo GM Kevyn Adams, I would be looking to move some forward talent to upgrade in goal and for one more defenseman. 2017 first-round pick Casey Middlestadt should be an all-star selection this year. 2023 first-rounder Zach Benson needs time to develop at left wing. At right wing, both 2020 1st round pick Jack Quinn, who is returning from an Achilles injury, and 2021 1st round pick Isak Rosen need to continue to grow as well. Dylan Cozens hasn’t produced the way he did a season ago. Increased goal scoring might be a question of chemistry and leadership. While I wouldn’t mortgage the future, working the trade market might be a good idea for Adams, especially at left wing, or, as mentioned, to upgrade in goal and add one more defenseman.

My thoughts that Buffalo should be a playoff team this year might need to be delayed until next year. They have far too much talent in the lineup, with many prospects working to earn a spot in Buffalo to be kept out for long. The Boston Bruins and Vancouver Canucks have surprised me this season with how well they have done. To this point, the Buffalo Sabres have been a disappointment.

We Got The Jack Inside The Rink

In episode 8 of the Inside The Rink podcast, Matty and Smitty are joined by new co-host Conrad Jack. After the long hiatus, we get back to hockey with a PACKED episode!Matt Rempe & the Devils vs. Rangers Line BrawlCould the Vancouver Canucks squander a playoff opportunity? Have the Winnipeg Jets finally figured out their lines?Flyers Head Coach John Tortorella is a sound byte MACHINEOvechkin is on his way to 895, Who is next?McDavid joins elite company with 100 Assists in a seasonRyan Hartman was suspended 3 Games, was it worth 3 games??Can Auston Matthews hit 70 Goals this season?The Eastern Conference Wild Card race is heating up, who lands the two playoff berths?For all of your hockey news and more from the show, visit us at insidetherink.com and watch us on YouTube! How to support us and our sponsors:TicketmasterColumbia Sports ApparelESPN+ SubscriptionFanaticsDraft Kings – CODE ITR
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3 thoughts on “What’s Wrong With the Buffalo Sabres?

  1. A couple corrections, the Sabres have been successful several times in their franchise history and have been in the finals more than once.

    The Sabres signed one of your Boston Bruin free agents in the off season, a player that was the second most desirable defenseman available.

    Krebs is expendable, Rosen is expendable, they would love to give Olafsson away but no one wants him. They could package them with a first round pick, but teams aren’t really giving up stud goalies or goal scoring physical forwards for that price these days.

    A lot of this looks shortsighted or maybe written by GPT

    1. Hi, Thank you for taking the time to read my article. What are the corrections you believe should be made? I mentioned the Sabres success in the past being mostly in the early days. This is a true statement. Yes, I did not specifically say which year(s), and I skipped over 1999, because they were better in the mid-seventies. This article was not written to attack or praise Sabres team history. I do not own the Boston Bruins. As for Clifton, anyone who had him as the second most desirable defenseman available is a fool. There are reasons Boston did not want him back. He’s not a good defender; he’s more offensive minded but is not extremely skilled there comparatively. He’s small. I would say Orlov, Gudas, Dumba, Shattenkirk, and Dumoulin start the list, and it keeps going for some time before Clifton. Personally, I was happy to see him go. What is shortsighted? I wasn’t proposing a quick fix, and I also believe that while challenging for the playoffs this year will be a difficult, especially without making changes, Buffalo should be in the playoff mix for many years to come. Who or what is GPT? I wrote the article myself.

  2. I believe the talent is there to win more hockey games. As I listen to post game interviews, the players seem to claim that the problem is not Granato. Rather they themselves are the problem – they do not execute or follow the game plan, and they cannot seem to get motivated to play with desperation. That seems congruent with Granato’s claims – he says the compete level is always inconsistent. Sometimes they play hard and sometimes they don’t. Granato also says the players lack confidence. It sounds to me like the team needs to invest in a sports psychologist for the players. The players have to be disciplined to do what the coaches tell them and they have to be mentally ready to compete every night. They need to learn how to win. I think they just try not to lose each night.

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