It was the kind of sequence Buffalo Sabres fans were used to seeing go the other way: a turnover by Evgeni Malkin leading to an odd man rush, where Jack Eichel’s shot somehow trickled through Casey DeSmith to give Buffalo a comeback overtime victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins.
It felt symbolic, didn’t it? The struggling Pens remained sprawled on the Eastern Conference’s basement floor. The Sabres, winners of six consecutive games, improved to 13-6-2. It felt like two teams passing each other, one ascending toward heavenly playoff contention, the other descending toward hockey hell with Sidney Crosby’s upper-body injury still keeping him out of the lineup.
Maybe the Penguins will bounce back. They’ve done it before. Or maybe, like we’ve seen in recent seasons with the Los Angeles Kings and Chicago Blackhawks, the empire is finally crumbling. As one team fades out of relevance, however, another must take its place. The Sabres got win No. 13 on Nov. 19. Last year, they got it Jan. 23. The season prior: Dec. 27. The last time they reached 13 wins this early in a season: 2006-07. So it sure feels like something special is taking place with this long-suffering franchise. Have the Sabres finally paid their dues? Can we trust this team to remain a playoff contender all season?
“Contender” might be a loaded word, but for starters, let’s say we can at least see legitimate signs of improvement right now. Here are five reasons why.
1. They have their best possession numbers in years
The Sabres don’t utterly dominate their opponents, but they at least battle them to a standstill most nights in terms of game flow. In 5-on-5 play, they rank just 22nd in shot attempts per 60 minutes, but they allow the ninth-fewest attempts per 60 minutes. They’re attempting their most shots per game in eight years and allowing their fewest attempts per game in three years. They’re in more contests because they have the puck more.
2. Their goaltending has stabilized
Carter Hutton played over his head last year. He wasn’t going to post a .931 save percentage again. But he was a sensible, short-term veteran signing by GM Jason Botterill to pair with riser Linus Ullmark. They’ve combined for a .919 SP as a tandem so far this season. Last season, Sabres goalies posted an aggregate SP of .904. Hutton and Ullmark haven’t been Vezina-Trophy-caliber elite, but they’ve been good, and “good” is a significant upgrade. The team’s 5-on-5 SP has combined with a shooting percentage north of eight percent to give Buffalo its highest PDO (puck luck indicator, essentially) in the statistic's 12-year existence. Luck favors you when your goalies stop the puck.
3. Their biggest off-season additions have delivered
Thanks, Captain Obvious. But it’s true! Did people underestimate Jeff Skinner? Because he was so young in his 31-goal, Calder Trophy-winning rookie season, it’s easy to forget Skinner is still just 26 despite being in his ninth NHL campaign. His excellent speed plays better in today’s slashing-free NHL than it did even a few years ago. He’s never had more space on the ice. Skinner also never had an elite No. 1 center feeding him pucks as a Carolina Hurricane. Yes, he spent some time with Eric Staal – but not peak, 100-point Eric Staal. In Jack Eichel, Skinner has the equivalent of 2005-06 Staal for a No. 1 center. That’s a massive step up in linemate quality.
And Skinner isn’t the only off-season addition bearing fruit. First overall pick Rasmus Dahlin was expected to vault right into the lineup and transform this team’s blueline, and it’s happening. We all know he possesses an Erik Karlsson-like potential as an offensive defenseman, but his former coaches told me all summer they felt his physical shutdown game was underrated and would bloom first. Dahlin affects the play every time he’s on the ice. Among the seven blueliners to suit up for Buffalo so far this season, he has the second best Corsi relative to his teammates. He leads the whole D-corps in defensive zone start percentage and sits among the top four in quality of competition, too, so his minutes haven’t been sheltered.
Speedy Conor Sheary has contributed six goals already. And while Patrik Berglund and Vladimir Sobotka, acquired along with Tage Thompson in the Ryan O’Reilly trade, haven’t posted big offensive numbers, they’re starting more shifts in the D-zone than most of the team’s forwards, and both play a lot on the penalty kill, which is operating at 82.3 percent, sixth-best in the NHL.
4. Jack Eichel
High ankle sprains in consecutive seasons robbed Eichel of gaudy full-season totals, but he was progressing into a point-per-game center. He’s still just 22 years old. He hasn’t followed the supernova trajectory of Connor McDavid or flashed the goal-scoring prowess of Auston Matthews, but Eichel was considered a top-three worldwide prospect, mentioned in the same breath as those two, when drafted in 2015. Eichel’s ceiling may not be “generational talent” but it absolutely is “franchise-altering superstar,” and he may elevate to that status this season. Since the start of 2016-17, he averages more points per game than Matthews, Alex Ovechkin, John Tavares and Artemi Panarin. It’ll be fun for the sport if we get to meet Playoff Jack Eichel for the first time this spring.
5. They aren’t picking their spots on the schedule
The Sabres aren’t propped up by a marshmallow-soft slate of opponents so far this year. They’ve played 12 road games versus nine home games, and their seven road victories are the third-most in the league. Their current six-game streak includes wins over the formidable Tampa Bay Lightning and Winnipeg Jets. They beat the Jets in Winnipeg and the Wild in Minnesota, triumphing in what some would call the league’s two toughest buildings to win in as a road team. The Jets and Wild are a combined 73-17-14 at home since the start of last season.
So while we can’t crown the Sabres a breakout Cup contender just yet, all the signs are positive. Botterill has put the work in, and the Sabres look like a team that can remain competitive all year. We could be looking at this season’s version of the 2017-18 Colorado Avalanche and New Jersey Devils – except I’d argue the 2018-19 Sabres are deeper than both those teams.