Much of the problem from last season was that Jack Eichel, Jeff Skinner and Sam Reinhart were doing almost all of the scoring. It was a team that played on the perimeter and wasn’t willing to do the things necessary to score.
Fast forward to this season. On Oct. 22, the Sabres were 8-1-1 and were, once again, on top of the NHL, one point in front of Washington. Buffalo was third in the league with 38 goals, and it was getting contributions from throughout the lineup.
In order to try to improve the team, Jason Botterill acquired Brandon Montour for the final month of last season, and this year brought in Marcus Johansson, Colin Miller, Henri Jokiharju and Jimmy Vesey. Victor Olofsson also became a regular from Rochester.
Botterill only subtracted Jason Pominville from the team banking on that some of the players that have contributed to eight years of losing and really bad hockey would turn their game around with new coach Ralph Krueger.
In the first 10 games, that bet paid off as Johan Larsson’s line with Kyle Okposo and Zemgus Girgensons were not only changing the game by playing almost every shift in the offensive zone, but they were chipping in on the offense. Okposo and Girgensons both had a goal and three assists, while Larsson had a goal and an assist.
Conor Sheary played on a line with Casey Mittelstadt. Sheary missed four games due to injury, but netted three goals and four points in the six games he played. Mittelstadt was improving each game, and had three goals and four assists for seven points.
Johansson was meshing well with Skinner and Vladimir Sobotka and had four goals and seven points.
The players were totally buying into what Krueger was selling, and it looked like the team had turned the corner.
Well, not so fast.
Since then, the Sabres are 1-5-1 and have just 12 goals in those seven games. In some ways, this season is different because when the Sabres were in first overall, only 10 games had been played and teams were still close.
In less than three weeks, 18 teams have passed the Sabres and they are no longer in the playoffs. Part of that is they’ve only played two games in almost two weeks, but picking up just three points in the seven games they’ve played has killed them.
The Capitals are now on top of the NHL and are 10 points ahead of the Sabres. In the Atlantic Division, Boston is five points ahead of Buffalo, Toronto is two points ahead, while Florida and Montreal have jumped one point in front of the Sabres. Despite losing two games to Tampa Bay in Sweden, the Lightning are still two points in back of Buffalo.
If you’re looking at the Eastern Conference, the Islanders are five in front of the Sabres, Philadelphia leads by two and Carolina and Pittsburgh are one point ahead.
The thing that is similar to last season is during this slump, Eichel and Reinhart are doing most of the scoring. They have scored six of the 12 goals.
Buffalo was near the top of the league in goals during the first 10 games, but has now fallen to 17th overall. The No. 1 power play is now the No. 5 power play overall. At 23rd in the league, the penalty killing is not good, and the shots-against per-game keeps rising and rising. Three times in the seven games the Sabres allowed 40 shots or more.
In the seven games since the great start, Larsson, Okposo and Girgensons have combine for no goals and one assist.
The line of Mittelstadt, Vesey and Sheary has zeroes across the board. Evan Rodrigues has filled in and gotten one assist. Miller and John Gilmour also have no points.
In the seven games, Skinner has a goal and an assist and is minus-6. Sobotka also has a goal and an assist, while their center, Johansson, has no goals and three assists.
Despite playing most of the time with Eichel, Olofsson has a goal and two assists. That leaves Eichel, who has produced two goals and three assists for five points, and Reinhart, who has scored four goals and three assists for seven points.
Both Rasmus Ristolainen and Rasmus Dahlin have no goals and two assists in the losing streak. Henri Jokiharju and Jake McCabe have a goal and an assist, while Marco Scandella has a goal in the one game that he played. Montour has one assist.
To me, the goals have gone down because, at times, they’re getting overrun in their own end again. They don’t possess the puck anywhere’s near as much and they aren’t playing consistently as five-man units. The players, at times, are making the wrong decisions on when to press and it’s coming back to great scoring chances the other way.
The biggest thing is it’s starting to become a perimeter game again. Some players haven’t been willing to pay the price to be where the goals are scored, so goalies that come into the game slumping all of a sudden look like Dominik Hasek. Opposing goalies are seeing most of the shots and many are coming from distance.
Botterill kept all but one forward from last year. At times, they do go to the net and cause problems, and that’s when the Sabres are successful. However, there are too many players on this team that aren’t going to do it all the time. It’s not in their nature. Housley would beg them to be in the dirty areas and work on it constantly, but it never really worked.
Although I don’t think this season is last season, I think Botterill has to realize that he can’t keep doing the same thing and expect a different result. He has to realize he needs to add more than Johansson and Vesey to the forwards. In his first 14 games as a Sabre, Vesey has not played like Botterill had hoped.
There’s plenty of season for him to get going, but as far as what the GM needs to do? Waiting to improve this team is not an acceptable solution.