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Buffalo’s Attention Returns to Sabres

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Now that the football season is over, the attention shifts back to the Sabres

NHL: Detroit Red Wings at Buffalo Sabres Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports

As the Buffalo Bills’ impressive, yet disappointing season and brief playoff run have come to a close, many sets of weary eyes turn their attention to the Buffalo Sabres.

If you have not been watching the Sabres, you, unfortunately, have not missed much. Another lost season is front-and-center.

The growing pains of Phil Housley installing a completely new offensive system are prevalent. Buffalo currently pulls up the tail end of the NHL pack with their very bad 2.19 goals scored per-game. That number puts Buffalo comfortably in last place by 0.07 goals – Arizona is 30th with 2.26 goals-per-game.

Nothing has changed in that department. Buffalo has struggled scoring goals for the last handful of seasons. As the defense and goaltending have improved enough to notice a difference, the offense continues to scuffle. You may remember that this team scored an average of 2.43 goals-per-game the last two seasons combined. The math is easy there – Buffalo was tied for 24th with 2.43 goals-per-game last season and tied for 25th with 2.43 goals-per-game the season before.

If you have missed the games, no need to worry though – Jack Eichel is indeed blossoming into a top-tier NHL talent. Despite the continued lack of talent around him, Eichel has continued to take a step forward with his personal development. He is on pace to set a career high in goals, assists, and points this season. Last season, Eichel tallied 57 points (24 goals, 33 assists) in 61 games. This season, he has 36 points (15 goals, 21 assists) in 42 games.

Evander Kane continues to be a revelation as well. Currently, on pace to play all 82 games for the first time in his nine-year NHL career, Kane is also on pace for some personal bests. If he stays healthy, Kane should be able to eclipse his current career-high in games played (74), goals (28), assists (27) and points (57). Kane currently has 35 points (16 goals, 19 assists) in 42 games.

The very interesting thing to pick up on before the rapidly approaching trade deadline is whether or not Buffalo pulls the trigger on a Kane trade. In the final year of a six-year deal that started in the 2012-13 NHL season. There have been reports that Jason Botterill is attempting to drive up Kane’s price.

“The Sabres are trying to drive up the price on this pending UFA rental to see if they can get more than a first-round pick, a prospect, and a conditional pick – sort of the Andrew Ladd type prototype that was there before.”

- TSN’s Bob McKenzie on Insider Trading.

Whether or not that wanted return happens certainly remains to be seen, but Kane’s potential dealing and landing spot should be a very interesting story for the next four-to-six weeks.

Have you turned the Sabres back on and immediately felt your stomach turn? This lack of playoff appearances is certainly starting to mimic the recently-deceased Bills playoff drought. The Sabres have themselves staring down the barrel of a seventh-straight playoff-less season. To make matters worse, this franchise has not seen themselves get out of the first round of the playoffs since the 2006-07 season.

Don’t get too down on yourself at this point – the Rochester Americans can scratch that good hockey itch that you’ve been trying to scratch for quite some time.

Why don’t we start off with the two newly-minted AHL All-Stars? Leading the scoresheet is C.J. Smith, arguably Tim Murray’s parting gift for the Sabres organization.

Your fun fact of the day – Smith is one of two NHL players in history to have been born in Iowa. The other is ex-Devils goaltender Scott Clemmensen. Thanks, the NHL PR team

In 36 games this season, Smith has 31 points (11 goals, 20 assists). Those impressive stats put Smith at fourth overall in rookie scoring in the AHL. He trails rookie-leader Nick Merkley by only three points.

Smith was a highly-touted college free agent signing last year, but no one could have expected his stock would rise this fast.

Moving to the other Americans’ All-Star, goaltender Linus Ullmark has had a very good season

Stats tell the story with Ullmark – he is fifth in the AHL with a 2.27 goals-against average, tied for a league-high 26 games played, second with 1,482 minutes and 57 seconds played, a league-leading 17 wins and a fourth-best .928 save percentage.

Ullmark has continued to impress and has shown signs of being able to make the leap to the NHL in his age-24 season. He is, by far, having his best season as a member of the Sabres organization.

We see you wondering if there are any other players to keep eyes on? Most definitely.

Hands down, the Sabres’ top defensive prospect, Brendan Guhle, is adjusting to the professional game as well as many had hoped he would.

Guhle has tallied 20 points (7 goals, 13 assists) in 35 games. Not bad for a 20-year old playing a full professional hockey season for the first time. If Guhle continues to develop at this pace, he might not see Rochester again after this season.

Sahir Gill has also had a breakout season, with 25 points (12 goals, 13 assists) in 36 games. Gill has yet to make his NHL debut, despite playing in 138 AHL games. Gill could not have picked a better season for a career-year to be taking place. He finds himself on an AHL contract, but if Gill’s great season continues, one has to wonder if Buffalo tries to get him under a two-way deal.

One thing about the Rochester Americans to remember – they also have struggled to make a sound in the playoffs lately, but this season seems to be trending in a different direction. A good season so far, coupled with Botterill’s insistence to let kids play and develop, should lead to a very entertaining time watching the Americans at a hockey barn near you.

While we were all caught up trusting the Bills’ process from training camp on through, the Sabres have continued to struggle. We must all remember that there is also a process we need to be trusting with this hodge-podge of a hockey team. Moves are still to be made, and there will still be some painful hockey ahead. The juice will be worth the squeeze if you’re willing to give it a few minutes. Buffalo might not make a difference now, but their moves in the next few weeks could certainly impact the upcoming Stanley Cup Playoffs and beyond.

Editor’s Note: A parting thought - the Amerks are two points behind the Marlies in the North Division with a game in hand. The last time the Amerks won that division was in the 2004-05 season. And we all know what happened in Buffalo for the two seasons after that.