The Buffalo Sabres have failed to make the playoffs for the eighth consecutive season. They were eliminated from contention Saturday after losing to the Montreal Canadiens.
So, what went wrong? How did it happen again? And was 2018-2019 at least a step in the right direction?
It’s a mixed bag for the Sabres. They had a 10-game winning streak in November and, at one point, seemed like a real contender. They even tied a 1984 Sabres record with their performance and were first in the NHL by the end of November.
After that, it was all downhill.
The Sabres hit a major skid and went 14-28-7 in their next 49 games, rounding out to just 35 points and falling well short of the mark.
The collapse was, in large part, due to a lack of scoring. Despite outscoring opponents 36-25 during the November run, the Sabres only had two players reach 20 goals in 2018-2019: Jeff Skinner and Jack Eichel.
Without a doubt, Skinner had a good year. He’s at 37 goals and could put up a career-best total before the season officially wraps. He scored 37 with Carolina in 2016-2017 and has eight games left to eclipse the mark. Contract talks have been an issue and Skinner’s set to hit free agency this summer. The Sabres are looking to make a deal, but the 26-year-old holds all the cards.
Captain Jack’s 26 goals put him in good standing and his 75 points are a career best, no matter what happens the rest of the way.
But the rest of the squad kind of broke down when it came to goal-scoring. Sam Reinhart had his 19th of the season Saturday against Montreal, sure, but the balance of scoring done by Conor Sheary, Jason Pominville, Casey Mittelstadt, and Kyle Okposo has left a lot to be desired.
Issues on defence didn’t help, with Rasmus Ristolainen flat-out having a bad year and the rest of the team failing to hold the fort. The Sabres, at press time, have allowed 244 goals against while scoring just 206 goals. That goal differential of minus-38 puts them in tough company, with just the Red Wings, Senators, Devils, and Rangers playing worse out in the Eastern Conference.
Of course, it’s not all bad for Buffalo.
The arrival of Rasmus Dahlin was a good thing. The defenceman reached 40 points with his performance on Saturday, marking the second-highest scoring totals for an 18-year-old defenceman in history. Only Phil Housley, Buffalo’s coach, set a higher mark in 1983.
And really, the youth movement is in full effect. Dahlin, Eichel and Alexander Nylander are showing clear signs for the future. The latter put up four points in six games and could be ready to develop as a significant part of the formula, even if he doesn’t hit the heights of his brother William.
Maybe most intriguing of all, the Sabres will hit the 2019 NHL Entry Draft in Vancouver with two first-round selections. If they can sign Skinner and draft smart, they could set themselves up for a much-improved run in 2019-2020.
(Photo credit: Marilyn Indahl/USA TODAY Sports)