It was two months ago, almost to the day, that the optimism surrounding the Buffalo Sabres’ season reached its zenith.
Guided by Jack Eichel and Jeff Skinner and rookie standout Rasmus Dahlin, Buffalo was bounding up the Eastern Conference standings and had just extended their league-best winning streak into double digits. The 10-game run that spanned three weeks in November had taken the Sabres to the very top of the Atlantic Division, one point clear of the Stanley Cup favorite Tampa Bay Lightning, two points ahead of the star-studded Toronto Maple Leafs and six points up on the Boston Bruins. On the surface, the Sabres appeared destined for a playoff berth.
Life in Buffalo since the winning streak, though, has been cruel. The next time out after extending the streak to 10 games, the Sabres tasted defeat for the first time since early November, handed a 5-4 loss by the Lightning. That was followed by a 3-2 loss to the Florida Panthers, a 2-1 loss to the Nashville Predators and a 4-3 defeat at the hands of the Toronto Maple Leafs. As quickly as the Sabres had risen to the top of the Atlantic, they had come back to the pack. Not since that 10-game winning streak has Buffalo truly been able to get back on a roll.
In fact, in the 23 games since posting the double-digit win streak, the Sabres have managed just seven victories, and Buffalo’s 7-12-4 record ties them for the fewest points in the league over that stretch with the third-worst points percentage, a mere .391 percent. The Sabres’ closest company has no longer been the cream of the proverbial crop atop the Atlantic. Instead, Buffalo shares a spot in the standings over the past two months with the Anaheim Ducks, Chicago Blackhawks, New Jersey Devils, Detroit Red Wings, Ottawa Senators and Colorado Avalanche. With the post-all-star break schedule about to kick off, one can’t help but wonder where that leaves the Sabres’ once promising playoff hopes.
As they wake up Monday, surely well-rested as all but all-stars Eichel and Skinner have spent the past nine days off and are entering their 10th consecutive evening without game action, Buffalo does so four points out of the final wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference, tied with the Carolina Hurricanes and staring up at the Pittsburgh Penguins. What once appeared to be a campaign that was sure to snap their seven-season playoff drought no longer seems like a sure thing. And the issues are twofold, it would appear.
Through the early part of the campaign, Buffalo’s goaltending had been impressive, and it wasn’t a case of one netminder really outshining the other. Off-season signing Carter Hutton, who inked a three-year, $8.25-million deal after posting career-best numbers last season, was proving himself to be no flash in the pan. The first-time No. 1 netminder had posted a .920 save percentage in 19 appearances through to the end of the winning streak. Not to be outdone, backup Linus Ullmark was making the most of his spot starts, posting a .926 SP in seven appearances with only one blemish, an overtime defeat, on his record.
But since that 10-game winning streak was snapped, neither netminder has played nearly as well. Hutton, for instance, has seen his numbers drop precipitously, managing a mere .898 SP over his past dozen trips into the blue paint, which has resulted in a disastrous 2-8-2 record over that time and a few instances in which coach Phil Housley has passed on the perceived go-to goaltender in consecutive outings. As for Ullmark, who has taken those consecutive starts in Hutton’s place, the performances haven’t been all that much better. Though he sports a considerably better 5-4-2 record in 12 games, his .907 SP is still far worse than his early-season performance. The result is a Sabres crease that has gone from a .930 SP at 5-on-5 and .916 at all strengths across the first 25 games to .916 SP at 5-on-5 and .901 SP at all strengths over the past 23 games, according to NaturalStatTrick.
Not helping mask the goaltending issues over the past two months is that the offensive performance has taken a slight downturn since the end of the 10-game streak. While at five-a-side the per-60-minute production has remained relatively similar — a positive difference of two-tenths of a goal since Nov. 29 — their all-strengths production has dipped by more than one-third of a goal per 60 minutes and resulted in a decrease in goals for percentage of nearly eight percent. The decline in goal production, though, is the result on one of the issues the Sabres may need to address if they dream of snapping their playoff drought this season: middle-six scoring depth.
It’s without question that the addition of Skinner, who has cooled slightly but remains on pace for a career-best 51 goals, has paid massive dividends for the Sabres, and Eichel has had a natural progression from high-profile rookie to steady-scoring star center. But with the exception of Sam Reinhart, who has notched eight goals and 27 points across the 23 games since the November winning streak ended, the offensive depth has been sorely lacking. To wit, the fourth- and fifth-highest scorers after the trio of Reinhart, Eichel and Skinner across the past 23 games are defensemen Rasmus Ristolainen and rookie blueliner Rasmus Dahlin, who have 16 and 12 points, respectively. After that, the next-best scorer has been Evan Rodrigues. He has four goals and eight points over that span. That’s simply not enough production from the middle of the lineup to win consistently.
So, how does Buffalo right this ship and potentially chase a playoff berth that can be the first stepping stone for a Sabres club that needs to start moving in the right direction? Though it would be misguided to fall into the buyer category with the deadline approaching — selling important future assets for a quick rental fix — it would almost certainly be worthwhile to take the kind of long-term view that the wild-card rival Hurricanes did when they flipped Victor Rask to the Minnesota Wild to acquire Nino Niederreiter. Adding a non-rental player for a middle-six talent, and one who might be a better fit in the system and find some production if he gets a change of scenery, could be a boon to the offense and in turn provide Buffalo the scoring depth it sorely needs.
As for the goaltending, chances are it can come around and be steady enough to keep the Sabres in the hunt. The minor improvements Buffalo has seen in a number of underlying categories — the Sabres’ Corsi, shots, scoring chances and high-danger chances percentages have seen upticks across the past 23 games — could help Hutton settle back in while Ullmark continues to push for a heavier workload.
Do the Sabres make the post-season? It’s no guarantee. But the real Buffalo lies somewhere between the 10-game winning streak and the league bottom feeder that has struggled ever since, and if they can find that middle before it’s too late, the Sabres may very well be able to sneak in and snap their seven-year drought.