At the beginning of the season, the Buffalo Sabres surprised everyone (including themselves) with an outstanding run of games. They were first in the league off the back of a #1 center in Jack Eichel, his offensively dynamic wingman Jeff Skinner, a rejuvinated Rasmus Ristolainen at the front of the defense core (with a young Rasmus Dahlin not far behind), and a suddenly top-10 goaltender in net.
But as the year went on, the Sabres started to fall. It wasn’t a massive drop, but by December, the team was firmly out of the national media’s attention and on their way out of a playoff spot. So what happened?
To answer these questions, I called upon an expert from our sister website DieByTheBlade.com Melissa Burgess to shed some light on the situation. Melissa was an amazing guest. Here is my conversation with her on what has happened in Buffalo since the 10-game winning streak to start the year and where the team is looking moving forward through the Trade Deadline, playoffs, free agency, and into the new year.
HL: Can you take me through the period of time from Late November into now where the team has gradually dropped further and further in the standings and now out of a playoff spot? What’s been going on there?
MB: I think it’s really easy to look at a stat like a 10-game winning streak and think automatically, boom, that team is in the playoffs. But the Sabres were really lucky in a lot of those games. They grinded; they won a lot by one goal, overtimes, shootouts, things like that. They never gave up and that’s certainly commendable, but at the same time, they weren’t exactly running away with leads.
That being said, how we got from the top of the league to out of a playoff spot... inconsistency. After that 10-game winning streak, the Sabres dropped five in a row. In the second half of December, they lost five of out six games. And a bunch of their recent losses have come to conference opponents or divisional opponents - Toronto, Florida, Boston, Tampa Bay. Those are crucial and they haven’t been putting up the right effort, and it’s cost them.
HL: And as you can see through the advanced numbers listed above, the Sabres have been an extremely middle of the pack team all season, and just like a coin flip, flipping heads 10 times in a row is just as likely as any other kind of series of outcomes. Over time, as the year has gone on, those numbers have started to level out, pushing the Sabres lower in the standings.
I really like what Melissa had to say with regards to the division losses. Those divisional games — especially against Tampa Bay and Toronto — are tough, but this is their year to learn how to play top teams and grow mentally when you lose. It’ll only be a positive for them, I think.
New Players, Who Dis?
HL: Looking at some of the new guys; Jeff Skinner, Rasmus Dahlin, and Carter Hutton. How have each of their seasons gone and what do you expect out of their play in the short and long term? What odds would you put on Skinner re-signing?
MB: Jeff Skinner is unreal. I mean, I guess I already knew that to a point, but he’s been so excellent this season with the Sabres. Obviously a lot of that is on him and being just a great player, but it helps that he’s playing alongside guys like Jack Eichel. They work together, bounce off each other and produce - and I’d expect that to continue. As for Skinner re-signing, I think it’s likely at this point. He seems to genuinely like it in Buffalo and though the team has had their struggles, what team hasn’t? I’ve heard that talks with his agent and the Sabres are either going on or starting soon, and I know a lot of people will be very happy when that deal is inked.
HL: So no chance of a Skinner rental to Tampa Bay? That’s a shame.
MB: Dahlin is having a good rookie season. I wouldn’t call it spectacular (shocking, I know). He’s an 18-year-old kid and he’s going to make mistakes, there’s always going to be a learning curve. But I love his skill and I like what I’ve seen from him so far - and he can only get better.
As for Hutton, I really, really liked him at the beginning of the season. There’s been this question in my mind as to the future of the Sabres in goal, and to me, Hutton was really starting to stake his claim for that top spot. Then, as the season’s gone on, I feel like maybe he’s tapered off a little and made some mistakes where, it’s not fatal, but it makes me take a step back. Linus Ullmark has been a huge part of some big wins this season and that circles back to thinking about the future of this team’s goaltending. Maybe it IS Ullmark’s net?
HL: That’s really interesting. I would’ve thought through just looking at the numbers that Hutton had solidified himself as the starting goalie, but it turns out that he’s been slowing down as the season’s gone on. He’s 33-years-old and in the first year of the three-year deal. I don’t think anyone expects him to fall off a cliff (and even if he doesn’t, a $2.75MM cap hit ain’t bad), but if he does, it’s good for the Sabres to know that Ullmark is there to handle the job. I’m really interested to see what World Junior Star Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen can do in a few years. He’s been touted by many as the future.
Rental Options from Buffalo
HL: Do you see the Sabres as buyers, sellers, or neither? There are some guys with an extra year on their deal who might fetch a lot of assets.
MB: If I can never hear the word “rebuild” again, it’ll be too soon.
HL: Haha, fair enough.
MB: I can see the Sabres moving some pieces - Nathan Beaulieu, for instance, maybe Johan Larsson or Zemgus Girgensons or Marco Scandella (who has one year left on his deal.) The Matt Moulson contract will finally be off the books, so that’s nice. But otherwise, I don’t see the Sabres as big sellers or buyers. I think they’ve slowly been building this core with guys like Eichel, Skinner, maybe even Mittelstadt on offense, plus Ristolainen, Dahlin, etc. on defense. You just swap a few pieces and maybe it makes a big difference.
HL: How are the prospects looking? Crunch fans have had a chance to see the Amerks a fair bit this season, but on the whole, who’s on their way up and possibly NHL ready?
MB: The Amerks are looking pretty good - top of the division, third in the conference. The Sabres just moved Justin Bailey to the Flyers organization, which isn’t too surprising. Bailey just wasn’t at that level. But as for guys who are on their way up: C.J. Smith - 36 points in 37 games with the Amerks, some NHL action. He absolutely deserves to be in the blue & gold. Lawrence Pilut is up with the Sabres right now on the blueline but will likely go back down at some point. I’m also interested to see the day when Victor Olofsson makes his way up to the NHL. I don’t think he’s far off, but for now, I’ll just enjoy watching him grow at the AHL level.
And there you have it. I would like to thank Melissa a bunch for doing this interview with me on short notice. She was amazing to converse with. As always, if you have any questions about the Sabres or anything, feel free to reach out to one or both of us on Twitter or in the comments below! We would love to talk to you.
Melissa Burgess can usually be found at a hockey rink somewhere in the Buffalo, NY area. She writes about the Buffalo Sabres for Die By The Blade, covers the National Women’s Hockey League (NWHL) for The Victory Press, and writes about Atlantic Hockey at College Hockey News. She also works for the OJHL’s Buffalo Jr. Sabres, handling their social media and website and occasionally helping with broadcast & other duties as needed. Find her on Twitter @_MelissaBurgess.