By: Rossy Pasternak
The Buffalo Sabres are one of the worst teams in the National Hockey League. For a team that boasts the likes of Jack Eichel, Evander Kane, Ryan O’Reilly and Rasmus Ristolainen, and a coach with the pedigree of Dan Bylsma, my previous statement should be unacceptable.
It may be a little early to talk about the window of opportunity for the Jack Eichel era Sabres, but lets have that conversation anyways.
Buffalo has been active in free agency in past years, adding veterans to their young core. GM Tim Murray, who is truly one of the most entertaining people in hockey, has gotten creative with his trades as well. He has brought in Ryan O’Reilly, Kyle Okposo, Evander Kane, Zach Bogosian, and has traded away, and then later re-signed, Matt Moulson.
All of those players have formed the core of the Sabres, playing exceptionally well in spurts, and providing value to the team. With the exception of Bogosian, all of them are in the top 10 in points on the Sabres. A top-6 forward group of Eichel, Okposo, Kane, O’Reilly, Moulson and Sam Reinhart should be able to compete for Stanley Cups, year after year.
Except the Sabres can’t play defence. Buffalo only has five players who have played more than 25 games with a positive +/- rating. This is even more peculiar, considering goaltender Robin Lehner has the 8th best save percentage in the league, with a .922% mark. Buffalo leads the league in shots allowed, with 34.3 attempts heading Lehner’s way per game. To be fair, allowing a lot of shots does not mean you can’t be successful. Also in the top ten in shots allowed per game are the Maple Leafs, Islanders, Penguins, and Blackhawks – four potential playoff teams.
On special teams, the Sabres are tied for the third worst PK%, at 70%. However, they are the top powerplay scoring team in the league, scoring on 25.1 powerplay attempts. Although the penalty kill is pretty horrendous, this is something that is usually easily fixed, either by bringing in specialists who play in your bottom six, or by bringing in a new assistant coach to head up the PK.
Where the Sabres really struggle is at 5-on-5, where they have given up 212 goals against compared to just 120 goals for. One reason for their struggles 5-on-5 could be because of the Sabres lack of depth both on defence and forwards.
While Bylsma does a good job spreading his top offensive talent across all four lines, most of the lines struggle defensively. Bylsma has a unit of Tyler Ennis, O’Reilly and Okposo that can shut down opponents while still producing offensively. He uses this unit to shut down their top opponents on a night to night basis. The prolific offence usually comes from Reinhart, Eichel and Marcus Foligno, a line that features the two brightest future stars on the Sabres.
Buffalo’s defensive struggles confuse me, because on paper, their defence looks stronger than that of a few playoff contenders. Justin Falk, Ristolainen, Bogosian, Jake McCabe, Cody Franson, and Dimitry Kulikov. Even with Franson hurt for the majority of the season, this should have been a good defensive corps. Buffalo is a top pairing defensman away from being able to shut-down opponents top lines’ on a nightly basis.
So, the goaltending, offence, and defence, on paper, all check the boxes of a playoff contender. Sure, Buffalo could use some depth on forward, specifically on the penalty kill. But their powerplay is at the top of the NHL, they have a true starting-calibre goaltender in net, and they have the big-names, both on and off the ice. So, what is wrong with the Sabres?
Well, in the end, it all comes back to Dan Byslma. Bylsma has accumulated enough success in the NHL as a head coach to be regarded as one of the best in the league – and is compensated as such. Bylsma has four years remaining on his deal, at a salary of $3M per year, which puts him in the same category as Claude Julien and Alain Vigneault. Julien and Vigneault have experienced extended runs of success on multiple teams. Vigneault has built both the Canucks and Rangers into perennial contenders. Julien has done the same with the Montreal Canadiens, Boston Bruins, and now is back with the Canadiens again. Bylsma, on the other hand, inherited a team with a budding Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jordan Staal, Kris Letang, and Marc-Andre Fleury. He won the Cup in his first season as head coach, after he replaced Michel Therrien at mid-season. He then rode that core to a 252-117-32 record, until he was fired after the 2013-14 season.
Bylsma’s Penguins made the Playoffs every year he coached there, but failed to reach the Finals in the 5 seasons following their Cup win. It is also important to note that most of the young core’s growth had already been completed. Crosby and the young Penguins had been to the Stanley Cup Finals already, losing the previous year to the Red Wings. They also had veterans like Mark Recchi and fitness nut Gary Roberts, who were exceptional leaders, who really took the young players under their wing. That isn’t to mention the other role players who were of vital importance.
Under Bylsma, the Sabres have had what some may call a dysfunctional locker room. There has been Jack Eichel calling out the entire team, and Evander Kane has never, once in his life, been good for a locker room. Also, some players have even started outright disrespecting the coach. Once of the more bizarre scenes I have ever witnessed at a hockey game was when Robin Lehner started freaking out at Bylsma after he was pulled.
The Sabres have the makings of a future contender, with the proper grooming and additions. One of those additions may just have to come in the form of a new Head Coach, because Dan Bylsma is just not cutting it right now. Also, the Sabres don’t figure to have a boatload of cap space to play with next season. Murray has to find a way to add another top-four defensman before he can even think about the playoffs, and those are the hardest asset in the NHL to acquire.
Murray and Bylsma have a lot on their hands right now, with a team that is severely underperforming. I hope they’re up to the task.
All statistics are via NHL.com
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