The 2016-17 Buffalo Sabres season is now ten games old, and while we’ve seen both good and bad stretches thus far, a few consistencies are starting to show themselves in both the Sabres wins and in their losses. Let’s take a look at some of the good and bad early season trends.
Solid, if unspectacular special teams
The Sabres are ranked 10th and 11th in the NHL on the power play and penalty kill, respectively, and those numbers were both top-ten earlier this week. Buffalo has one very dangerous power play unit, which has scored all the goals, and one “meh” unit thrown together thanks to various injury/talent woes, but their PP% is almost exactly the same on the road as it is at home, something that not every team can claim.
Buffalo’s penalty kill came into their game against the Wild having killed of 12 penalties in a row, and while they did give one up to Minnesota, the Sabres are one of just two teams in the NHL that still has not given up a single goal at home while playing a man short.
I gotta admit, this one feels really good to write after watching the past two seasons where it seemed like every single game, the Sabres would play 20 competitive minutes, and proceed to get absolutely destroyed for the other 40 minutes.
Ask yourself, how many really bad periods have the Sabres had this year? Periods where they were clearly outclassed by their opponents? The third period against Philly comes to mind immediately, and I can only really think of two others that weren’t determined by score effects - against Calgary and the first Minnesota game.
Last season, it seemed like every single game, including the wins, was a Jekyll-and-Hyde situation from period to period. This season, I’m slowly starting to expect the Sabres to come out of each intermission with, at the very least, a competitive effort, and that’s a huge step that this young team has to take.
Outside of the Sabres top line of Moulson, O’Reilly, and Okposo (cow emoji) the rest of the team combined has 11 goals in 10 games (poo emoji). Heck, there are six players who’ve played in at least six games this year that still have yet to register a single point.
I know you’re missing EK and Jack, but c’mon fellas. It’s nice to have players with good possession stats or guys that can shut down their opponents, but at some point you’ve gotta, you know, actually score yourself. This one is going to really start hurting once the team’s top line starts to cool off, which may be happening already.
The Sabres as a team rank 3rd in the NHL with a sparkling 55.2 faceoff win percentage. They’re getting strong contributions from Derek Grant and Zemgus Girgensons, both hovering above 54%, but Ryan O’Reilly is unsurprisingly the one who’s really crushing it. ROR ranks 4th in the entire NHL among players who’ve taken more than 100 draws with a fantastic 62.55% win percentage. At this point, I expect him to win every draw he steps in for, and he proves me right far more often than not.
The Sabres have a few bright spots on the blue line - Rasmus Ristolainen continues to play well, and Kulikov has looked better than advertised to my eyes, but the team still has more questions than answers on their back end. Jake McCabe has been demoted to the third pairing after a rough couple of games, Cody Franson is a known liability at this point, and Josh Gorges has look more like an AHL defender this season, despite any amount of locker room leadership.
At this point, if the Sabres stick with the same defenders on the roster they currently have, it will be up to Dan Bylsma to hope that McCabe and Bogosian step their games up enough to hide the clear deficiencies of Gorges and Franson.
WAIT! Before you dive headfirst into the comments section to tell me what a disappointment Lehner has been because first rounder so and so, hear me out. His .922 save percentage ranks 12th in the NHL, ahead of last year’s Vezina winner and nominees (Braden Holtby, Jonathan Quick, and Ben Bishop), both the great Henrik Lundqvist and Roberto Luongo, and even the immortal Chad Johnson.
Lehner has had two poor games in which he let in four goals, and has otherwise kept the Sabres right in every other contest. Here’s a guy adjusting to being 30-40 pounds lighter than he’s been in years, and if you listen to Tim Murray and Marty Biron, is still figuring out how that affects his side-to-side movement and rebound control. The fact that he’s been good this early in that feeling out process gives me hope for some minor improvement as the season progresses.