It might be hard to believe, but there’s a chance the Buffalo Sabres won’t finish dead last in the NHL this season. And if they don’t finish at the bottom of the standings, they won’t have a guaranteed shot at Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel in the upcoming draft.
Granted, yes, no matter where they finish, there’s a shot they land one of the two simply by luck of the draw. However, if Buffalo doesn’t finish 30th in the league, there’s no promise they’re going to be able to get their hands on either of the draft’s top two selections. But where does the concern come from for the Sabres?
Well, if things go right – or wrong, depending on how you want to look at it – and if Edmonton and Arizona fall apart, the Sabres could fall as low as the third overall selection by the time the season is through. And the possibility of that is quite high.
Each of the three bottom-feeding teams – Buffalo, Arizona and Edmonton – have played 70 games this season. The Sabres, with 47 points, currently have a three-point “lead” in the McDavid/Eichel sweepstakes. However, Edmonton, with only 14 regulation and overtime wins and 19 total wins, has the fewest victories of any of the bottom three teams. Arizona has won 16 games in regulation or overtime and 21 overall to lead the pack, and Buffalo’s 20 wins, only 12 of which have come without the use of the shootout, in the second worst.
Since the all-star break, Arizona has a record of 5-16-3, picking up just 13 points since Jan. 27. That’s thanks in large part to the Coyotes’ dreadful 10-game losing streak. Over the same span, Edmonton has a record of 7-13-3 for 17 points and Buffalo has gone 6-17-4 for 16 points.
At this point in the season, though, with the trade deadline over and Arizona’s roster as bare of NHL talent as it has been all year, you could argue they’re the worst team in the league right now. The Coyotes have picked up only three points since the March 2 deadline, while both the Oilers and Sabres have taken four points in one less game. If the trend continues, the three-point gap Buffalo is holding onto for 30th in the league (and the best shot at the first-overall pick) might continue to shrink.
But what is maybe most concerning for Buffalo going down the stretch is that their strength of schedule might be the easiest. No matter how bad the Sabres are, if they happen to pull out a few wins against lesser competition or get lucky on a few nights, it could be enough to slip them ahead of Arizona.
Here’s how Buffalo’s schedule breaks down: They’ll play the Devils, Predators, Stars, Coyotes (x2), Avalanche (x2), Maple Leafs, Blackhawks, Islanders, Hurricanes and Penguins. The sum of points between Buffalo’s remaining opponents? 878, with the Coyotes and Avalanche counted twice. Only Nashville, Chicago, New York and Pittsburgh are playoff teams.
For Arizona, the total points of their opponents is greater by 50 – and that includes the six-point difference they give away in playing Buffalo twice. Remaining on Arizona’s schedule are the Avalanche, Penguins (x2), Canucks (x2), Red Wings, Sabres (x2), Sharks (x2), Flames and Ducks. That’s a total of 928 standings points and a combined six games against playoff teams – seven if you include Calgary in the mix and nine if you figure San Jose can keep challenging for a playoff spot.
Edmonton has the most talented roster of the three teams, but they may have the most difficult schedule. To close out 2014-15, the Oilers will play the Blue Jackets, Flyers, Jets, Avalanche (x2), Stars, Ducks, Kings (x2), Flames, Sharks and Canucks. Combined, those teams have a total of 941 points, with Colorado and Los Angeles being counted twice.
From the start of the season, there has been little secret made of the Sabres desire for the first overall pick. At or before the deadline they shipped out both of their starting netminders. They’ve rid the team of any talent on expiring deals. AHL players who have looked capable of NHL minutes – Mark Pysyk comes to mind – have been demoted. This isn’t a team bent on winning games down the stretch, but due to sheer luck mixed with the inability of the other basement clubs, it’s possible both McDavid and Eichel could escape the Sabres grasp.
It’s not often a matchup between the two worst teams in the league is considered marquee, but that’s exactly what the home-and-home between the Coyotes and Sabres will be in March’s final days. If the Sabres sweep those games, it could mean one of McDavid or Eichel is 100 percent Arizona bound.