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Sabres Opening Weekend Observations

The Sabres are showing signs of progress in their first three games

NHL: Vegas Golden Knights at Buffalo Sabres Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports

Before we do anything, let’s all take a moment to appreciate the fact that the Buffalo Sabres are above .500 for the first time since January of 2013. After an opening night that left something to be desired, the team appears to be developing into a more cohesive unit following consecutive victories.

We’ll start with a player who newly anointed captain, Jack Eichel has twice referred to as the team’s best player thus far. 32-year-old netminder, Carter Hutton has been sensational in his ability to keep his team out of danger despite several defensive zone gaffes in the early going. Most notably, he successfully fended off a 3-on-0 opportunity against the New York Rangers that would have almost certainly resulted in a goal last season.

When Hutton came over as an unrestricted free agent on July 1, there was a fair amount of skepticism as to just how much of an improvement he would represent between the pipes. It’s still very early and a lot can change, but through three games, he boasts a .943 save-percentage. Not bad considering his heavy workload thus far (106 shots faced through three games). He’s also been particularly solid in high danger areas, somewhere Robin Lehner and Chad Johnson both struggled last season.

Speaking of high danger shot attempts, the Sabres are showing improvement in that area as well. Against Boston and New York, those opportunities weren’t nearly as prevalent at five-on-five with a great deal of their shot generation coming from the point. As you can see on the graphic below, the Bruins were much more successful in that department.

Yesterday afternoon, the Sabres’ fortunes changed in front of the net, with a heavy percentage of their shots on goal coming from high-danger areas at five-on-five, two of which resulted in goals. Vegas also found opportunities in that area, but Hutton was able to thwart them all.

Whether or not this is a growing trend remains to be seen, but fans should be encouraged at what Buffalo was able to accomplish in that area against the Golden Knights.

Staying on the topic of shot generation, newcomer Jeff Skinner was sensational in that area, particularly against New York. Though he was unable to capitalize on those chances, if he continues to hit the net in that area of the ice, the goals will come.

It’s fair to wonder just how many of these opportunities he’ll be afforded without an offensively dynamic center setting him up. After skating alongside Eichel in game one, he’s flanked Patrik Berglund on the second line over the last two games.

After taking Skinner’s place on the first line, Conor Sheary has also impressed, filling in seamlessly with Eichel and Reinhart. The 26-year-old was arguably the team’s best forward against the Rangers where he potted two of the Sabres’ three goals, both of which came with the man-advantage. He registered his first even-strength point yesterday with a nifty back-pass to Reinhart who found Eichel alone in front of the net.

Captain Jack has certainly found his offensive mojo despite a somewhat lackluster performance last Thursday (something that of course, garnered ridiculous overreactions from segments of the fan base). Over the last two games he’s posted three goals and an assist. He currently leads the team with four points.

With their fate this season partially predicated on the success of their young stars, there have certainly been a handful of rookie mistakes, but for the most part, the Sabres’ youth have acquitted themselves well to this point.

While certain members of the advanced stats community (and some of the more emotional, volatile portions of the fan base) will try and tell you that Casey Mittelstadt hasn’t made an impact, that notion is far from the truth. Despite only showing up on the score sheet once with a secondary assist (which was about as awesome as secondary assists come), the 19-year-old has been responsible with the puck, making smart decisions behind the scenes (In case you missed it, our very own Ben Mathewson wrote an excellent article on the “little things” Mittelstadt continues to do well, pertaining to his decisions with the puck and on-ice vision. You can check that out here).

Swedish phenom, Rasmus Dahlin is in a similar situation where, despite the fact that the offensive production isn’t immediately evident, his contributions in the defensive zone have been more than satisfactory.

Once he gets more comfortable with the NHL game, he’ll surely open up and do a little more “free wheeling” and really show off his offensive prowess. Regardless of what the Buffalo News tries to tell you, he is, and will continue to be just fine. He and Jake McCabe have made for an incredibly solid pairing to this point.

One player who did struggle at times this weekend was Tage Thompson. Despite flashes of offensive upside (including a goal that was waved-off on Saturday due to a high stick), he has made mistakes with the puck, the most glaring of which led to the aforementioned 3-on-0 opportunity that Hutton bailed him out of (though, an argument can be made that Casey Nelson should have never passed the puck to him there in the first place).

There is also cause for minor concern as it pertains to the youngsters’ ice time. While Dahlin has been well-utilized averaging 19:26 per game, the same cannot be said for Mittelstadt and Thompson who are averaging 11:54 and 9:52, respectively. Phil Housley could just be easing them in, but if the logic behind sending Alex Nylander down was due to the minutes he would be getting in Rochester, it’s tough to justify how they’ve been utilized to this point. Again, it’s early so we can’t draw any conclusions just yet, but it’s something to note moving forward.

Shifting focus toward the elder statesmen on blue line, the jury is still out regarding whether or not they’ve shown improvement in the defensive zone from last season.

On one end of the spectrum, McCabe has arguably been the team’s best defenseman in the first three contests. As Dahlin’s safety valve, he’s been a stalwart on the back end, playing a defensively responsible game while making good decisions with the puck. After playing through a shoulder injury for the better part of last season, he’ll look to continue his strong performance as he approaches restricted free agency next summer.

Conversely, the third-pairing combination of Nathan Beaulieu and Casey Nelson has been less than stellar. After spending nearly half of the 2017-18 campaign with the big club last season, Nelson has had a rough go of it so far. With up-and-comers like Brendan Guhle and Lawrence Pilut chomping at the bit for their opportunity to secure a full-time role, he’ll need to step things up in short order.

Beaulieu has been a little more of a mixed bag through three games. Most would agree that he was pretty disappointing in 2017-18, but after a horrendous performance on opening night, he’s actually shown signs of improvement. The sample size is ridiculously small, and it’s almost not even worth noting, but it’s at least mildly interesting that he is currently the team leader with a relative Corsi of 14.26. Like McCabe, he too will need to put together a solid outing in a contract year.

Obviously there is a ton of hockey left to be played and it’s tough to really gather a meaningful analysis of where things are headed in just three games, but fans should be encouraged. After a less-than-desirable showing on opening night, the team has rebounded. They could have come out uninspired against New York after being booed off home ice in the opener, but they didn’t. Each performance thus far has been better than the last, indicative of a team that is learning to play together, and a culture that is in the midst of a shift. At least Marco Scandella seems to think so.

With so many new faces on the roster, there will certainly be an adjustment period. If the Sabres can continue to string together hard-fought efforts with limited mistakes, that process will take place in short order.

For now, let’s enjoy the fact that the team has a winning record, and watch for continued signs of growth and progress as the season marches on. If what we’ve seen to this point is any indication of what’s to come, there will be marked improvement this season, which is exactly what fans expect to see from a team nearing the end of a lengthy rebuild.

Advanced Stats Courtesy of Corsica Hockey

Individual Event and Shot Charts Courtesy of NaturalStatTrick.