When the season first began, it was obvious to anyone watching that the Buffalo Sabres were going to be one of, if not the, worst teams in the NHL. As the season went on, however, it became clear that the Sabres were the frontrunners for the worst record in the league, thus guaranteeing them the best shot at the #1 overall pick in the upcoming NHL Draft Lottery.
However, since the team fired Ron Rolston and Darcy Regier and brought Ted Nolan and Pat LaFontaine into the fold, the play on the ice has improved dramatically. The fact that even with the improvement the Sabres are still being outplayed consistently speaks to just how bad things were earlier in the year, but I digress. They're currently playing much better than some of the other bottom-dwellers, especially lowly Edmonton, but should Sabres fans be worried about losing out on a top-3 pick?
I'm here to say that no, they shouldn't. At least not yet. There are a few reasons why I'm not panicking today about Buffalo's heroic run to 14th place, and here they are:
The schedule gets tougher
As we stated in our summer schedule overview, December, January, and February are the easiest months on the Sabres' schedule, with the current month being the easiest of the season. Here's what we had to say about what's to come in March:
Total games: 14 - Home: 4 - Away: 10
Notes: The Sabres longest road trip (five games) takes place this month, and their travel schedule will be very rough. They will have two games on national TV, one each on NBCSN and NHLN.
Outlook: Did you notice that the Sabres have had more home games than away games every single month thus far? Well March is where that starts to even out in a big way. Luckily, their heavy away schedule this month isn't too tough, with a good mix of bottom-feeders and #4-8 seeds from last season. Half of their 14 games are against Western Conference teams, so making up ground in a potential playoff race may be difficult.
The Sabres have been awful on the road this season, winning just five of their 22 games, so ten games away from the friendly confines of the FNC should give the team some #1 pick course correction. We also wrote that before the Western Conference started completely dominating the East this season, and before teams like the Lightning and suddenly hot Islanders started playing like some of the better teams in the league. They'll also have two "critical" away games against the Oilers and Flames in March, but with the rest of the league stepping their game up as the playoff race heats up, expect tougher competition even from the bubble teams.
There could be significantly less talent in Buffalo
The Sabres will have three of the biggest bargaining chips at the trade deadline with Ryan Miller, Steve Ott, and Matt Moulson all set to hit the free agent market. While any or all of them could be re-signed, it's much more likely that one or two of them are gone come March. That's in addition to other guys who might be in play come trade day, including Henrik Tallinder, Jamie McBain, and Drew Stafford.
Less talent obviously means less winning, and especially this year with what little talent the team currently has. Another portion of the organization that might be hurt by this is the Amerks - if a few starters are shipped out of Buffalo, those spots will need to be filled by someone, and there's only so many Linus Omarks and Matt D'Agostinis to go around.
Ryan Miller's post-Olympic dropoff
Last time Ryan Miller led Team USA in the Olympics, he also won the Vezina Trophy for being the best goaltender in the NHL, and rightfully so. But do you remember that his play dropped off in the least three months of the season from the astronomically high numbers he posted to earn his Olympic berth?
Before the "All-Star Break" that season, Miller posted a 2.16 GAA with a .930 save percentage and five shutouts. Afterwards? A 2.40 GAA, .922 save percentage and no shutouts. I'd anticipate a similar dropoff this season once the games are over, and considering that Miller has been the only thing keeping the Sabres from being blown off the face of the Earth for much of the season, any drop off in his play could have potentially disastrous results for a team already struggling to stay in the game most nights.
Any combination of those three things should be enough to keep the Sabres in the hunt for a top-3 draft pick, and the #1 pick over all. And if that's enough to comfort you on the potential loss of a top line forward - well, Edmonton has to take a defenseman one of these years, right?
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