We’re 13 games into the Buffalo Sabres season and an early season trend is now transitioning to a legitimate concern. It was an issue last season, the season before that and the season before that.
The Sabres were the lowest scoring team in the NHL last season, tied for the fifth worst in the 2016-17 season, and fifth worst again in the 2015-16 season.
It’s the same story year after year and so far, this season has been no different. They rely too much on the top of the roster to carry them, the depth scoring isn’t there, and they have a hard time scoring at even strength.
Through 13 games this season the club sits fifth worst again in total goals scored entering play tonight. The only teams below them are the Florida Panthers, Los Angeles Kings, Vegas Golden Knights, and Arizona Coyotes.
At even strength, they’re currently ranked 24 with 23 goals (1.77 EVS goals per game). To give you an idea of how far off the Sabres are, the top five even strength scoring teams in the league average 2.9 EVS goals per game.
This club is being carried by their first line of Jeff Skinner, Jack Eichel, and Jason Pominville. The trio has combined for 17 of the 33 total goals so far this season (51 percent). The numbers are even worse at even strength. Skinner (6), Eichel (3), and Pominville (5) have combined for 14 of the 23 goals they’ve scored at even strength (61 percent).
No player besides those three has more than one EV goal (nine players have one).
We’re closing in on the quarter mark of the season and still waiting for a good portion of the roster to get going. Sam Reinhart, Vladimir Sobotka, Patrik Berglund, Casey Mittelstadt, and Rasmus Ristolainen have one goal on the season. Evan Rodrigues, Zemgus Girgensons, Johan Larsson, and Tage Thompson are scoreless so far. Conor Sheary hasn’t scored a goal in eight games and only has one point over that stretch.
Not everyone on this team can play with Eichel.
The Sabres lack a second-line center right now that can generate offense. Sheary is a player who relies on their center to create opportunities and the same can be said for Reinhart.
While Mittelstadt has played ok so far, it’s not fair to have the pressure being a legitimate second-line center thrust upon him as a 19-year-old. Finding a center who could shelter him for at least a year and pick up some of the slack lost with Ryan O’Reilly appears to be a failure to this point.
So, how do they fix it?
The easiest answer is to investigate their farm system for some help. Victor Olofsson was named the AHL player of the month yesterday and Alex Nylander has continued to play well. However, I don’t think either of those players is ready now.
Olofsson while he’s done well on the power play, still has work to do in his game at even strength. Nylander is the player I would take over Olofsson, but he could still could use some more time as well to continue to develop his all-around game.
The forward I’d consider is C.J. Smith. He can help at even strength and slot into that third-line left wing role the Sabres need to figure out. He doesn’t have the flashy numbers like Olofsson but has seven points in 10 games with the Amerks. The 23-year-old doesn’t have a lot more to develop down at the AHL level. He scored 44 points in 57 games last season and was one of the better players in the league prior to injuring his knee.
He doesn’t have the high-end shot of Olofsson or dynamic skill of Nylander. Smith does have the ability to play a two-way game, play with some speed, provide depth scoring, and contribute at even strength.
When all is said and done, the Sabres need to address this issue in some way if they want to be competitive this season. They cannot continue to rely on the line centered by Eichel to generate all their offense. It’s not a model that is sustainable over 82 games.
Eventually, the top players are going to cool down and if nobody is able to step up, this team could be in a lot of trouble.