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The First Thirty-first

The Sabres have finally finished an ugly looking season. Here’s some of their final numbers.

NHL: Ottawa Senators at Buffalo Sabres Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports

Last season the Buffalo Sabres finished with 78 points. It was a disappointing finish, falling three points from the previous years final tally of 81. It was supposed to be a potential playoff push year. No dice. So changes were made, and this season started off with some optimism. Perhaps this would be the year of a legit push for the playoffs. Alas, here we are, finishing the season an astonishing sixteen points behind last seasons mark. 62 points this season (25-12-45).

It’s an ugly record to look at. Unfortunately this season was full of ugly numbers for the Sabres. That .756 points per game pace was bad enough to be the Sabres fourth worst season of all-time. The only three seasons worse than this year were 2014-15 (.656 ppg), 1971-72 (.654 ppg), and 2013-14 (.634 ppg). The NHL average was 1.12 ppg this season.

After the season opener hype wore off, there was really never much light for the Sabres, who at their very best were projected to have 82 points by season’s end after their very first game, but after the second game never climbed higher than 67 projected points, before finally finishing with 62.

Here’s a visual, with the initial ten games cut off to avoid the volatility of the early season:

On the bright side, there is a reasonably clear and interpretable pattern. The Sabres struggled early on under new coach Phil Housley, and it took time to get used to a new system, etc. Eventually, around 27 games in, the Sabres started to get the hang of things and started a clear upward trend. There was a decline in progress in the last 10 or so games, but it’s very plausible to write that off as a being driven by the season coming to a close.

A main driver for another poor season in Buffalo was a severe lack of offensive production. Buffalo finished the season with 198 goals (last in the NHL), failing to reach the 200 mark for the sixth consecutive season. On the other end of the spectrum, the Lightning finished with 290 goals for, with the league average being just about in the middle at 240 goals for.

A similar story presents itself for goals against, with the Sabres allowing 278 goals this season (last in the NHL). The Kings sit atop this leader board, allowing 202 goals against. The league average here was also 240 goals.

Combine a last place finish in goals for with a last place finish in goals against and you’ve got yourself the 2017-2018 Buffalo Sabres, who finished the season with a -81 (!!!) goal differential. This easily put them in last in the league:

As far as goaltending goes, Buffalo started Lehner for 50 games this season, just under the 53 game average for starting goaltenders. As 30 games was the smallest max load for a goalie by team (Chicago), I’ll use that standard for games played while evaluating Lehner. Here’s a scatter plot of GAA and save percentage:

Scott Darling is the dot out in left field. Unfortunate for the Hurricanes for sure. Meanwhile, Lehner sits at (.908, 3.01). The average for this group of goalies with at least thirty games started for their team is (.913, 2.73). This puts Lehner very slightly below the average save percentage, and a bit above the average GAA. Given the team in front of him, there’s honestly not much to complain about. Lehner definitely let in some frustrating goals, but had a decent year and seemed to receive more criticism than he deserved for the second straight season.

A much more alarming issue is the power play. Buffalo’s power play was ranked first in the NHL last year, yet tumbled all the way to 20th this season, finishing at 19.1%. The PK was also in a rough spot, finishing at 78% to place 22nd in the NHL.

Some more advanced stats were also disappointing for the Sabres. They finished 26th in the NHL with a CF% (proxy for possession) of 47.6%. Their dull play is also shown numerically by looking at CF/60+CA/60, which is a proxy for the pace of games they play:

Note that this chart doesn’t necessarily correlate with overall performance, it’s more of a scale of excitement in terms of watching the game. No surprise, Buffalo is not only in last but is a noticeable distance away from second last.

Another issue the Sabres had is inconsistency. They seemed to do well against good teams they had no business beating, yet struggle against teams that you would guess they’d beat on paper. This is also seen numerically when looking at the percentage of points earned out of those available grouped by opponents final rank in the season:

The Sabres earned 50% of the points available from the top five teams in the league, yet only 34.4% from the bottom five. They also clearly saw their worst struggles with the middle of the pack. Being able to execute and beat the teams they should beat on a consistent basis is something the Sabres need to seriously improve on.

And one final number that wraps up the Sabres abysmal season- 31. The Sabres will now forever be known as the first NHL team to ever place 31st in the league. It can’t get worse, at least until Seattle shows up. Only time will tell when (if ever) it will get better.