At the beginning of the 2015-16 season, there was a buzz around the Buffalo Sabres that hadn't been felt in years. Fans in Western New York were excited about a new coach, a new potential superstar, and a massive influx of new talent that would signal the coming of a new era in Sabres history. Improvements were certain, and the playoffs seemed within reach for the first time in forever.
This year, things were going to be different.
And yet, at the All Star Break, the Sabres find themselves in 27th place, just one measly point out of dead last. While many fans and experts thought the playoffs would still be out of reach this season, I don't think any of us expected the Sabres to be challenging for 30th place for the third year in a row.
So where did it all go wrong? There's no one reason why the Sabres are flirting with 30th again this year, but there are a number of things the Sabres need to improve on the rest of the season to avoid winning the Triple Crown of Last Place. Here are some of the biggest red flags.
They need more secondary scoring
The top talent on the Sabres has not, for the most part, disappointed this season. Ryan O'Reilly, Jack Eichel, Rasmus Ristolainen, Sam Reinhart, and Jamie McGinn have all met or exceeded expectations. The problem is that almost every other player is struggling through a disappointing year.
Tyler Ennis and Matt Moulson are public enemies #1 and #2 here - the duo was supposed to combine for somewhere around 40 goals and currently have combined for seven. That's a $9.6 million cap hit for seven goals, and their lack of production has taken what was supposed to be a fairly fearsome top six and turned it into a very pedestrian unit with a few bright spots.
Evander Kane is another player who, while he consistently brings a strong effort on the ice, simply hasn't had the production that the Sabres hoped for this year. Zemgus Girgensons, Cody Franson, Marcus Foligno - the list of disappointments runs deep.
Some of these underachieving players will be gone in a year or two as GM Tim Murray finalizes the rebuild, but for those sure to stick around, they need to step up and take some of the pressure off of O'Reilly and Eichel.
They need to learn how to win at home
The Sabres have earned fewer points than any other team in the NHL at home - just 20 in 26 games - and have compiled a 9-15-2 record in the First Niagara Center. Only Toronto has fewer points at home, but they've also played four fewer home games. Buffalo's record on the road is a respectable 11-11-2, but if they can't figure out how to regain their home ice advantage, they'll have no chance at a playoff run in the future.
They need to stay healthy
Part of the problem with Buffalo's lack of secondary scoring is due to injury - you can't score when you're sitting at home. Early injuries to Zach Bogosian and Evander Kane meant that the team couldn't really start to gel right off the bat, and multiple injuries to Tyler Ennis has meant that one of Buffalo's biggest scoring threats from last season has only appeared in 23 games.
Injuries on the back end have derailed what was supposed to be a figuring-out process between Robin Lehner and Mark Pysyk, and out of the 21 players who have played significant time this year (20+ games) only five players have appeared in all 50 games thus far.
The defense needs to be more productive
Rasmus Ristolainen is a stud, but the production behind him has been sparse, to say the least. Quick, without looking, do you know whether or not all other Sabres defensemen combined have more points than Ristolainen? They do...but you had to think about it, right?
Risto has amassed 31 points this season, and the next closest is Cody Franson at 14 points - not terrible, but a far ways off from his 32 points in 55 games with the Maple Leafs last year. After that, we're into the single digits for McCabe, Bogosian, and Gorges, and Mark Pysyk brings up the rear with a pathetic one point in 24 games - c'mon man, even Mike Weber has four points this year.
The additions on the blue line represent a hefty upgrade from players like Strachan and Meszaros, but at some point that upgrade in talent has to translate into more than just "better passes" and "isn't Andre Benoit."
They have to be more consistent
This Sabres team has a lot of talent on it, the most we've seen in probably five years in Buffalo, but that talent doesn't always manifest itself on a night-to-night basis, leading to streaks of fun, exciting play and streaks where we wonder when last year ended and this year began.
That's to be expected on a team that has so much young talent - guys like Eichel, Ristolainen, and Reinhart are still learning how to deal with a full NHL schedule and should develop that consistency in the coming months and years. It's also to be expected on a team with so many brand new pieces. From their coach and his system, to the players being brought in through trade and free agency, the Sabres this year are almost a completely different organization than what we saw last year. That kind of change takes time to settle, and we saw at the beginning of the season just how disjointed everything looked until everything began to settle in.
Fifty games into the new campaign, many things are improved, but the effort and results are still hit and miss. The Sabres don't yet have the talent to win when they have a bad night like the best teams can, so they need to balance that talent gap by bringing the same energy and drive every game.
There's our rundown of why the Sabres are still stuck at the bottom of the standings. Let us know if we missed anything and give us your own reasons in the comments.