Sabres After 10
With no upcoming games on the horizon thanks to the pandemic, let's take at look at the Buffalo Sabres after 10 games. The boys in blue and gold find themselves with an even record of 4-4-2. Here are some of the main things that stand out so far.
The Sabres' overall team stats to date look like those of a bottom-tier playoff team. That may not sound so flattering but after a nine-year playoff drought, it likely sounds quite exciting to Sabres fans.
While Buffalo's goals per game is unchanged at 2.8, the scoring is coming from all over the lineup. This has historically been a big issue for the team, relying solely on Jack Eichel to do the heavy lifting. Once Jack and his line kick into high gear, and they will, the team scoring support may help vault them into the post-season.
Buffalo has made the top ten in special teams. They're at 7th in the NHL with a 30.8% power play conversion, up from 18.88% last season. The Sabres penalty killing unit is ranked 10th with an 82.6% efficiency, up from last year's 74.6%.
The Sabres have been putting tremendous pressure on their opponent's zone exit attempts. Both Eakin and Lazar and sometimes even Skinner are real pests in those situations. In past seasons, it was no challenge for opposing teams to skate out of their own zone after setting up from behind the net. Not so much this season.
Kevyn Adams building the roster was a nice surprise. Sabres aren't there yet but Adams got some much needed roles filled.
Linus Ullmark has been solid in net. Ullmark often looks better than his .914 save percentage indicates. Defensive break downs such as turnovers and an inability to get the puck out of the zone are responsible for many of his goals against. In one on one situations, Ullmark is beastly.
Victor Oloffson has 10 points in the first 10 games despite being shuffled from line to line. He leads the Sabres with 4 goals which tracks to 33 goals in an 82 game season. Buffalo's game plan, specifically on the power play, often revolves around loading Oloffson's off side in order to draw coverage away from him leaving a clear lane for a one-timer opportunity with his wicked shot.
Rasmus Ristolainen, bet you didn't expect to see his name on the upside list. Frankly, I wouldn't have either. However, the much-maligned defenseman has not only improved his defensive game but he is becoming hockey's version of William "The Refrigerator" Perry. In case you don't know, Perry was a humungous NFL defensive tackle who would be inserted into the offense as a running back in short and goal situations, helping his team score touchdowns. Risto, with his big, strong body, is now the guy that Buffalo uses on the power play to create chaos in front of the opposition's net, helping his team score goals. It's hard enough to see a shot coming from Oloffson and with Risto setting up a screen in front, the goalie has no chance. Making it even better is the knowledge that defensemen hate it when an opposing defenseman have offensive success against them. Hopefully, we'll see a lot of this in the future.
Dylan Cozens is inspiring to watch. He is skilled, fearless, and tenacious. In the first New Jersey game this season, Buffalo was scrambling in its own end until Cozens stepped into a lane, blocked a pass, and sent the puck up the ice tape to tape to a teammate leading to an Eric Staal goal. He did not get an assist and no one said a word about it on the broadcast or anywhere else that I've seen but the play showed his defensive responsibility. He is a complete player and has the brightest future of anyone on the team. Can't wait for him to grow into his centerman role.
The restructuring of the divisions and a shortened season and preseason and now the covid protocol delays work against Buffalo. There are 6 new players on their roster. Removing the goalies from the equation, that's a 28% turnover. Hockey is hockey and the various systems of play are somewhat universal but it takes time for players to gel with one another. Time is not on their side.
Turnovers and creating solid goal scoring opportunities are still problematic. Ralph knows it. He spoke about it at a post-game presser. He needs to fix it. While the Sabres show signs of potential, like the 6-1 game against Philly and the first several minutes of the first game against New Jersey, their 5 on 5 game is generally sloppy.
Taylor Hall is a former Hart trophy winner. He's been one of my favorite players since his draft year. Hearing he was signed by Buffalo this summer nearly made me swoon. Okay, I did swoon, but keep that to yourselves. His first ten games have been less than impressive for a player of his caliber, especially considering he's been skating with Jack. He does have 9 points in 10 games which looks great on paper. When you take a hard look at those numbers though, you'll see that 6 of those points, including his one and only goal, came on the power play. Hall is definitely part of the reason the Sabres PP has catapulted into 7th place but what about his even strength numbers? 3 assists in 10 games. Not good. He needs to pick it up and I believe he will once he gets his footing here.
Jeff Skinner is a nine million dollar man with 0 goals and 1 assist through 10 games. Totally, unquestionably unacceptable. If you are a Sabres fan, you have an opinion about why Skins has been snubbed from skating on the top line. Here's mine. Jack doesn't like Jeff. Two different sources have said this to me. There is no way to verify it because neither Jack or Jeff would ever say anything publicly but it is clear that there is something more going on than just Jeff being in the coach's doghouse. Skinner scored 40 times in a single season when paired with Jack. A new coach breaks that up in the following season. He never puts them together again for any significant time despite having no true center on the roster to skate with Skinner and also despite having a ridiculously bad campaign. That's one helluva doghouse! Skinner has his issues but he's a multiple 30 goal scorer without Jack and a 40 goal scorer with him. Grounding him for such a long time indicates there is something more at play.
Rasmus Dahlin is not where we want him to be. He most definitely has an upside which I do believe will be incredible once he's there, but he isn't there yet and we have to live with his growing pains. Those growing pains include turnovers and poor positioning in the defensive zone resulting in goals against. He'll be a star when he's 25. I'm sure of it. His stats point to it. At 20 though, he often makes me cringe.
Ralph Krueger has not yet become the coach we'd like him to be. I struggled with putting him on the downside list but ultimately I couldn't resist. It's the inconsistency of team play which put it over the top for me. At times, the players don't look like they know what they're doing resulting in mad scrambles, another long lasting issue for this club. That's coaching. As I've mentioned in other articles, I want everything the coach is trying to do to succeed and I believe it will because I believe in his system. How long will it take though? Plus, only once this season has Buffalo been able to really put a team away. That's1 game out of 10. That's 10%. In 10% of our games we had a good solid win with a comfortable lead. The other 90% we either lose or leave the other team in it right til the final buzzer. The defensive shell mentality while in the lead nearly cost us a game. Kansas City Chiefs coach Andy Reid said when in the lead his game plan is to, "Score more." That's the attitude which puts opponents away.
If I were grading the Sabres on their first ten, I'd give them either a C+ or a B-. You can decide which of those is most deserved.