It’s been a season of ups and downs for the Buffalo Sabres. They finished the month of October with a winning record for the first time since MTV stopped showing music videos (and then started again…) Still, fans aren’t completely happy with the team, which is floating one point above .500 for the year.
There is little question that the team is playing better. Buffalo is getting contributions from key positions - something that hasn’t necessarily been true in the past. The defense has contributed on offense exponentially better than previous iterations of this core group. It seems that goaltending has improved, though on paper, there is room to grow.
Team scoring has gotten better, as well. The Sabres have improved nearly half a goal a game, up to 2.87 from 2.42 last season. This jump is due in large part to the contributions of a handful of offseason acquisitions by the Buffalo front office.
After a spring and summer that saw the team jettison some of its most productive players, there were concerns that those points had not been replaced. General Manager Jason Botterill quelled those fears, collecting top-six scoring from Jeff Skinner and adding middle-six scoring from players like Conor Sheary and Patrik Berglund.
Skinner leads the team in goals with nine, and is second in points, scoring 16 in 15 games played. He’s third in points per 60 behind a resurgent Jason Pominville and a refreshed Jack Eichel. Most impressively, his 2.93 P60 consists entirely of even strength, primary points. Skinner is no just scoring, but he’s driving scoring, and he’s doing it five-on-five.
Sheary is third on the team in goals, finding the back of the net five times this season. He’s maintained a P60 of 1.65, which has a solid chance of climbing as the season progresses and the young forward becomes more comfortable in his role with the Sabres.
From an advanced statistics standpoint this pair of Sabres is cumulatively on par with the players they replaced; Ryan O’Reilly is posting a 2.83 while Evander Kane has a 2.11. What is impressive is that Botterill found a way to get equal production for far less money - Sheary costs nearly $3 million less than Kane, and Skinner $1.7 million less than O’Reilly. The $4.9 million in savings is the cost of a player, and there is little question Botterill has plans for that money.
A look back at Buffalo’s offseason would be woefully underreported if it were to ignore defender Rasmus Dahlin. The 18-year old blueliner has added a new dynamic to Buffalo’s game, with only 15 professional games in North America under his belt.
Dahlin has been protected slightly; as a solid member of the second pair, he’s fourth in five-on-five minutes. Still, he’s ahead of the curve in P60 (1.10), second on the defensive unit to Jake McCabe (1.57).
After what was ultimately a lost season, Buffalo’s evolution has been immediately evident. Coach Phil Housley is still playing with line combinations, trying to get peak chemistry from each of his players. The team is playing a faster game with a higher shot rate and that’s definitely the style that Housley had in mind when he took the job after assisting in Nashville. It’s a work in progress, but as Botterill and Housley continue to put their thumbprint on the team, the stats begin to tell the tale that is inching ever-closer to the happiest of endings.