Before the 2021-22 NHL regular season commenced, the bar for the Buffalo Sabres was set about as low as it could go.
Ravaged by bad trades and free agent signings, the Sabres were expected to spend most, if not all of the year at or near the bottom of the Atlantic Division. But that’s not how the season began for Buffalo; the Sabres won their first three games of the year, and five of their first seven, to register a 5-1-1 record.
Was this going to be a surprise, Cinderella-type season for Buffalo? It may have been tempting to believe that, but the Sabres’ more recent span of games – they’ve gone 2-8-1 in their past 10 contests – has made their reality stark, and not very optimistic in the short term. And it isn’t just that they’re losing, it’s how Buffalo is losing that makes things appear so bleak at the moment.
In their current slump, the Sabres have surrendered at least five goals in a single game on eight of those 11 occasions. Buffalo’s offense hasn’t been a lot better. In their 11 most recent defeats, the Sabres have generated just 25 goals-for while allowing 44 goals-against. In their most recent four losses, Buffalo has been outscored 22-12. Sabres head coach Don Granato has not been able to replicate the Sabres’ strong start, and it’s hard to blame him. It doesn’t matter whether it’s been Craig Anderson, Aaron Dell or Dustin Tokarski in net – although Anderson’s numbers are notably best of the three – the Sabres find ways to lose.
That’s likely to continue through the next month, when Buffalo has to take on the Boston Bruins, Montreal Canadiens, Detroit Red Wings, Seattle Kraken, Florida Panthers and Carolina Hurricanes. And after that, the Sabres square off against the Anaheim Ducks, New York Rangers, Washington Capitals, Winnipeg Jets, Minnesota Wild and Pittsburgh Penguins. That amounts to two dozen games that have a good chance of ending in a loss for Buffalo.
And if it does continue to fall apart for the Sabres, they could be all but officially out of the post-season as early as Christmas. This is a familiar scenario now to Buffalo, playing out the string when everyone aboard knows not even a miracle turnaround could help them leapfrog the slew of teams ahead of them in the Atlantic standings and secure a playoff berth. With former captain Jack Eichel now a member of the Vegas Golden Knights, the Sabres no longer have a generational player to build around – they also are without the lone perennial all-star candidate Eichel has been.
That’s not to say one of the young forwards Sabres GM Kevyn Adams has brought aboard, either via the NHL entry draft or the trade market, can’t rise to the occasion and solidify themselves as a legitimate top-six talent at hockey’s highest level. It’s just not fair to expect all of Buffalo’s young, skilled players to evolve into peak form in the same season. Improvement isn’t always linear. Sometimes, steps have to be taken back before they can be taken forward. That’s what very likely will be the Sabres’ trajectory in the weeks and months immediately ahead.
In a way, it was cruel, the manner in which Buffalo started the season. It probably gave Sabres fans some false hope that the rebuilding process would yield immediate positive results. If they’d began the year 2-8-1, Buffalo would’ve not set its fans up for disappointment, and a modest success streak of five wins in seven games would’ve offset the bitter feelings of Sabres fans.
However, you can’t change what’s already happened. The Sabres could, in a short period of time, be the Atlantic’s worst franchise, and position themselves for the best odds at another top-3 selection in the 2022 NHL entry draft. They’re not as abysmal as the Arizona Coyotes, so Buffalo may not wind up winning the draft lottery. But the Sabres’ draft and development program has never been under greater scrutiny. If Adams and his management team swing-and-miss on more young talents, Sabres fans may finally and openly revolt.
We knew there would be pain in store for Buffalo this season. It hasn’t come as immediately as it did in previous seasons, but on a team this young, this inexperienced, this awful, it was bound to happen. Now the trick is for the Sabres to not let all this losing affect them and begin to turn the corner on a new, joyous era in Buffalo.