Watching a full season of Buffalo Sabres hockey and then a month of NHL playoff hockey makes it feel as though you’re watching two different leagues. The energy hits another level in the playoffs of course, but even so, the Sabres appear nowhere close to the level of hockey you can watch now.
Jason Botterill should have an idea of what it takes to construct a playoff hockey club from his time with the Pittsburgh Penguins. If he’s forgotten, turning on any one of the series currently in action will give him a list of things he needs to do to improve his team.
The first and most obvious thing is speed. It’s not a stretch to say the Sabres were one of the slowest if not the slowest team in hockey this past season. Not only with their foot speed, but with their movement of the puck.
I’ve said it a few times in previous articles and I’ll say it again now; the puck always moves faster than any player. You don’t need to have a roster full of burners to be a quick team, but having a team that executes a simple breakout pass is a start.
The Sabres passing was atrocious throughout the season and that’s been a theme for a few years now. Playoff teams make quick decisions and get the puck up the ice quickly.
It also wouldn’t hurt to get some players on the roster that can use their speed to get in on a forecheck. Besides Jack Eichel, the Sabres really lack anyone with elite speed. The addition of players like Brendan Guhle, Nick Baptiste, Justin Bailey, Casey Mittelstadt and Evan Rodrigues helped improve that area at times.
Likely adding Rasmus Dahlin to the mix will help the team speed for sure, but Botterill can’t stop there. He acknowledged after the season that this an area he’s focused on improving, so we’ll see what he has in mind.
The other glaring difference between the Sabres and playoff teams is how deep the lineup is. Secondary scoring was a big issue again in Buffalo and to make the playoffs at the very least you need a roster that can contribute on all four lines, as well as on the blue line.
We’ve seen players like Marcus Sorensen make an impact as a fourth line player for the San Jose Sharks. Jakub Vrana just scored one of the biggest goals in Washington Capitals history the other night.
The Tampa Bay Lightning held a 2-1 series lead on the Boston Bruins even though Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos combined for one point through those three games. Instead, players like Brayden Point, Yanni Gourde, Alex Killorn and Ondrej Palat have stepped up.
I think you get the idea.
The Sabres right now are a one and a half line team. They need to find support for Eichel, Mittelstadt and Sam Reinhart. The bottom six of the forwards needs a massive upgrade this offseason. Perhaps some younger players like CJ Smith and Sean Malone can come up from the minor leagues to help in that regard as a start.
The goaltending wasn’t the biggest issue most nights but wasn’t good enough this season. Robin Lehner was tied for 28 in the league with a .908 save percentage amongst goaltenders with at least 30 games played. Chad Johnson came in at 41 with a .891 save percentage.
Not including Linus Ullmark’s numbers, a combined .901 save percentage by Lehner and Johnson is not good enough in today’s NHL. Brayden Holtby is leading the Capitals to the brink of knocking out the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions. Connor Hellebuyck and Marc-Andre Fleury are playing very well as both of their clubs are on the verge of heading to the Western Conference Finals.
An upgrade in goal is certainly needed for the Sabres. Johnson has already stated he won’t be back and Lehner is looking unlikely to return next season as well. Botterill has committed to Ullmark being in Buffalo next season, so now it’s a question of who the other goaltender will be.
Botterill has a lot of work ahead of him this offseason to turn the Sabres around. The postseason has put a spotlight on some of the roster holes.