So far our immensely popular What Went Wrong series has examined the (mis)fortunes of the Anaheim Ducks, Arizona Coyotes and Boston Bruins. A lack of scoring was acknowledged as the main problem for two out of those three, while the Bruins’ difficulties may lie ahead.
In the case of the Buffalo Sabres, it’s fair to say that asking what went wrong is pretty routine.
The Sabres have struggled mightily over the last several seasons and 2018-2019 was no different, despite a 10-game winning streak in November that saw them actually leading the National Hockey League.
Naturally, things went wrong. Kind of.
The Sabres finished the regular season with a 33-39-10 record, good for sixth in the Atlantic Division and 13th in the Eastern Conference. Only the Detroit Red Wings, New Jersey Devils and Ottawa Senators were worse.
Buffalo scored 226 goals and allowed 271 goals against for a differential of -45, same as the New York Rangers.
The good news? The Sabres didn’t totally stink at home. They drew 21 wins at the KeyBank Arena, more home wins than the Florida Panthers, Philadelphia Flyers, New York Rangers, Red Wings, Devils, and Senators – and just one less than the playoff-ready Columbus Blue Jackets.
But the Sabres were dreadful on the road, only collecting a dozen wins away from downtown Buffalo.
In failing to secure a playoff berth yet again, the Sabres earned themselves the ill-fated honour of holding the NHL’s longest active playoff drought. Thanks, Carolina.
Buffalo made no bones about their disappointment, firing head coach Phil Housley in April of 2019 and continuing the roundabout of bench bosses hired and fired since the inception of the Terry Pegula ownership era in February of 2011. Ralph Krueger was hired as the new head coach in May of 2019.
The Sabres are a young team and they are trying to produce offence from their core, which has led to a few positives.
27-year-old Jeff Skinner enjoyed a wonderful campaign, with a career-high 40 goals in 82 games. He also tied his career high in points with 63. Eight of his 40 goals were power play goals. Buffalo signed Skinner to an eight-year deal in June and it’s clear they expect him to transition into a mentor-type player as Jack Eichel matures.
Eichel and the likes of Sam Reinhart keep the Sabres interesting in terms of latent point-getters down the middle, while 19-year-old Rasmus Dahlin is the complete blueliner.
So, what’s wrong?
In essence, potential isn’t going to win games just yet. The Sabres have deep possibility at every position, including in goal with Linus Ullmark, but the entire team is essentially a case of “not quite there yet.”
Patience is going to have to be a virtue for Sabres’ fans, as they anticipate the maturation and full arrival of Eichel, Dahlin and Ullmark at their respective positions. Others sweeten the pot, like goalie Ukko-Pekka Luukonen and centre Casey Mittelstadt.
What we have with the Sabres is a team building for the future. There’s a lot on the table and Buffalo has more to look forward to than, say, the Ducks or the Coyotes. With the first full season of head coach Krueger to come, we could see some surprises – and some more wins – in 2019-2020. Maybe.
(Lead photo credit: NHL.com)