As far as unwrapping tape goes, it was as aggressive a display as you’re going to find. Jack Eichel, young captain of the Buffalo Sabres, was shedding his shin pads after another loss to Toronto and the weight of the failure was clearly on his mind. The first tape ball missed its target as Eichel lobbed it across a door frame towards a garbage bin. He whipped the second one with malice, bouncing it off the side of the bin and back towards the middle of the dressing room. The third and final ball was thrown with promise, only to bounce off the lip of the garbage and out again. It was that kind of night.
The Buffalo Sabres had a 10-game win streak earlier this season, but those heady days have been replaced by a slog that has seen the young squad drop out of the playoff race, with just three wins in the past 10 games as a capper.
“I’m not going to beat around the bush: It’s disappointing we didn’t get the result,” said coach Phil Housley after the Toronto loss. “We didn’t meet our standard.”
As for Eichel, it’s a pattern of team behaviour that has been so frustrating and in need of change.
“Just cleaning it up,” he said. “We make a couple too many mistakes during a game. It’s simple stuff that kills us.”
Of course, there is promise with this group. Eichel is a legit No. 1 center, while rookie Casey Mittelstadt has the pedigree to be a top-six pivot behind him. Rasmus Dahlin, the first overall pick in 2018, has been one of the best producers among all NHL rookies this season and there is still a ton of potential to be unwrapped from both him and Mittelstadt. Brandon Montour was a nice pick-up from Anaheim, while the re-signing of Jeff Skinner this summer would go a long way in bolstering what GM Jason Botterill has done in a short amount of time.
Right now though, the Sabres are taking their lumps.
“We’ve got a young group,” Eichel said. “It’s important to plug away. It’s a long year with a lot of highs and lows. It’s important to stay even-keel and focus on the next day, next game, next practice, whatever it happens to be.”
There is definitely hope for the Sabres, but there should also be some concern. Simply put, this rebuilding team may find itself in the wrong division at the wrong time. The Atlantic is incredibly top-heavy with three of the NHL’s best teams right now: Tampa Bay, Toronto and Boston. The Lightning will be a Stanley Cup favorite this year and likely for several seasons after that. Toronto is just about to enter that same window thanks to a dynamic attack featuring three stars age 22 or under: Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander (not to mention veteran John Tavares, who is still pretty good at hockey). The Bruins have survived some nasty injuries this season and boast both a present and a future, thanks to Zdeno Chara, Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand on one end, plus youngsters such as Charlie McAvoy and David Pastrnak, who are already fantastic.
Doing the math, that leaves only a narrow path to the playoffs for Buffalo in the coming years. Montreal is ahead of them now, while the Florida Panthers should be better next season (I know, we always say that) with a healthy Vince Trocheck and the growing Henrik Borgstrom. It’s almost like the old Winnipeg Jets in the Smythe Division – they were always blocked by better teams from Edmonton, Calgary and Los Angeles. Despite talents such as Dale Hawerchuk, Thomas Steen and Teemu Selanne, the Jets never won a Smythe division pennant and never got out of the division in the playoffs.
Buffalo’s challenge now is to grow organically without getting discouraged, or pressured into making panic moves – because that’s how you become a constant rebuilder like Edmonton.
For Eichel, it’s not about catching Toronto per se, it’s about simply getting better.
“I think we use every game as a measuring stick,” he said. “It’s a competitive league and anybody can beat anybody on any given night.”
On more nights than not this season, Buffalo has been beaten and obviously there is still more building to do. Team defense is not good enough and the goaltending has been below league average. Can the Sabres improve enough over the summer to be a playoff team in 2019-20? That’s the challenge right now and everything will have to come through baby steps. Thinking of any glory past that in the short-term would be folly.