In Tuesday night’s 5–4 shootout loss to the Red Wings, the Sabres showed glimpses of what they could be as a hockey club: a high-flying, dynamic scoring machine that can strike at will. During a six-and-a-half minute stretch from the second period into the third, they punched up Detroit goaltender Petr Mrazek for three goals by three different scorers. The Sabres were as potent as some thought they would be this season but they still came up short, allowing a Justin Abdelkader power play goal midway through the third period that tied the game.
But 5-on-5 is where the Sabres still struggle. As Dominik Luszczysyn points out in The Hockey News, Buffalo’s regression in terms of shot metrics was one of the worst in the NHL from October to November. It’s clearly going to take patience for the Sabres to evolve as a complete team.
Allowing a tying goal in the third period wasn’t out of character for this squad. Buffalo’s 5-on-5 Corsi For% (score adjusted) is 46.9%, seventh worst in the league. In the second period, the Sabres have a 48.6 CF%, which is in the middle of the league’s pack. (All stats via War-on-Ice.com.) The need for this team to rely less on its explosive power play and develop shut-down capabilities is glaring.
There are certainly positives to be taken from Buffalo’s performance this season: Roookie phenom Jack Eichel might not have the most impressive stat line (8-4-12, –5) but he has quickly adjusted to the grind of the physical NHL game and is a candidate for the Calder Trophy. He leads the Sabres in shots (by a ton: 85 to the 65 launched by Buffalo’s No. 2: defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen) and points will eventually come as he gets more comfortable with the offensive side of his game.
Center Ryan O’Reilly is also largely proving the worth of his $52.5 million contract that he was given during the summer. He leads the team in points with 20 through 25 games. And Ristolainen has proved to be a welcome surprise on the club’s back end: He has 17 points through 25 games in his second full campaign with the Sabres and is on pace to shatter his total of 20 in 78 games last season.
But the Sabres still face an uphill battle. Through 25 games last season they had a 9-14-2 record. This season they sit at 10-12-3 but you have to consider their opponents: eight of Buffalo’s wins have come against teams that are on the outside of the playoff picture.
Scoring is what the Sabres are surely capable of, but it’s looking more and more like they’ll need to go back to rethinking their defense, likely at the expense of the seemingly potent offense they’ve built. Buffalo isn’t as loaded with high-ceiling offensive forwards as, say, the Oilers are, but they’d be wise to learn from what’s happening in Edmonton now: offense might look great on the highlight reel but offense alone won’t enable a club to compete consistently.
So before free agent frenzy hits and teams generally overpay for players, Sabres GM Tim Murray would be wise to move a scoring piece with some value for a defenseman who can jump into the roster and make an impact next season.
Though he’s injured now, keeping center Tyler Ennis makes little sense for this team. Already set with O’Reilly, Eichel and Sam Reinhart down the middle, Ennis could at least fetch an AHL defenseman who can be groomed for the shutdown role. Ennis’s contract—$4.6 million AAV—runs until the end of the 2018-19 season and is manageable, especially for a player who has three 20-goal seasons on résumé.
Dealing Ennis is just a possibility. The up and coming (however slowly) Sabres have their fans excited, but they’ll need to improve in the areas of the game that aren’t nearly as sexy as offense if they want to compete for a playoff spot and do some damage once they get there.