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Sabres show signs of sustainability

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Last season’s winning streak turned out to be fake, but early signs point to the streak this season being legitimate

NHL: Dallas Stars at Buffalo Sabres Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports

The Buffalo Sabres are off to a hot start this season. They’ve earned 11 of their first 12 points and have yet to lose in regulation. It’s an exciting start to the year, but some skepticism remains in the fan base.

Sabres fans are haunted be the winning streak ghosts of the prior season. We all remember the thrilling 10-game streak in November of last year. The club appeared to be on pace to get back into the playoffs for the first time since 2012. Then the calendar flipped to December and for the remainder of the season, they turned into one of the worst teams in the league.

Real or fake?

With how last season went, fans are afraid to dive all the way in on this team this early in the season. They’re enjoying the ride while it’s going, however, you’ll hear most fans talk about the club winning being good and then the “yeah but” comes out of their mouth.

One of the questions I’ve been asked the most over the first few weeks by a lot of fans is: “are they playing sustainable hockey this time?”

Nothing is certain six games into the season. The Stanley Cup Champions last season were sitting in last place in December. Things can change quickly in hockey. Injuries and some luck can play a factor in this sport.

Moving past that, to answer the question I referenced above, the answer is yes. The numbers in this streak to start the season show signs of continued success well beyond the numbers from the 10-game winning streak.

Let’s take a look at a few numbers from this six-game streak against the streak from last season at 5 on 5. These are score and venue adjusted rates per 60 from Natural Stat Trick:

  • CF%: 18/19 — 47.17% (7th worst in the NHL during the streak) | 19/20 — 53.49% (7th best in the NHL)
  • *xGF%: 18/19 — 44.09% (5th worst in the NHL during the streak) | 19/20 — 53.22% (7th best in the NHL)
  • GF/60: 18/19 — 2.47 | 19/20 — 2.83
  • GA/60: 18/19 — 2.18 | 19/20 — 1.22

As you can see the numbers in possession, shot quality, scoring, and goals against are good compared to last year. If the Sabres can continue to play at this level they should be competing for a playoff spot come March and April.

Islanders 2.0

The interesting thing that is starting to take shape is the Sabres are trending towards following the model of the New York Islanders last season. They’re a team that is made up of a lot of pieces from last year with a few good additions that are excelling under a new coach. The Islanders didn’t allow a lot of quality scoring chances against at 5 on 5 and improved their defensive game year over year under Barry Trotz. The Sabres are doing a similar thing under the new system of Krueger.

Last season the Islanders improved from 30th in 5 on 5 score and venue adjusted xGA/60 to 10th. The Sabres in six games have gone from 14th to 2nd in that same metric. It’s not a jump from the bottom to top the Islanders made, but still a significant move.

The Sabres haven’t seen the jump in the advanced stats goaltending metrics (GSAx and GSAA) that Islanders had, but the team save percentage has improved over last season. In six games, the Sabres goaltenders are fifth in team save percentage with a .931, according to Natural Stat Trick. A significant improvement over the .901 from last season.

This model led the Islanders to the playoffs and they even won a round. We’ll see if they can repeat it again or if the goaltending did cover up a lot of shortcomings. The Sabres have some more high-end talent on their roster and are not leaning as heavily on their goaltending. They’re following a similar trajectory, but don’t have the red flags of regression (yet) to devalue their success.

Power Play

Speaking of regression, there is one area that is probably going to come back to earth. The Sabres are not going to have a power play that will continue to click at a 42% success rate. They’ve feasted on opponents with the man advantage with their new top unit, which is primarily driven by a rookie sniper, Victor Olofsson.

It’s possible and perhaps likely that they’ll be one of the top power play units this season which will give them a chance to have success winning games. The success rate is what we’ll see come back to a reasonable number as the season goes on.

Conclusion

I’m not telling you to go out and start planning the Stanley Cup parade. I’m not even saying to start saving for playoff tickets. We’re only six games in and the team has a west coast trip coming up this week with three games in four days. The good news to this point is that the way they’re playing is a model that should lead to them winning more games than they lose.

We need to see if they can sustain this level of play over a full season or at least the majority of the season. Players like Rasmus Ristolainen and Marco Scandella are playing much better hockey than they have over the last few years. Can they sustain it? Will young players like Victor Olofsson and Henri Jokiharju continue to be key impact players? Can the goaltending continue to play well?

These are a few questions among others that we need to get answers on before we can start believing 100% that this club can be a playoff contender. Krueger has them on the right path and has done an excellent job at this point.

Going into the season, we talked about the Sabres needing a few things to go their way to beat the projections from the analytics community. Such things as an improved power play, career years from a few players, improved goaltending, and a positive coaching impact. Thus far they have all of those things working in their favor.

* Note: xG numbers in 2019-20 are being impacted by shot locations being recorded differently by the NHL than in years past thus resulting in lower xG rates compared to the 2018-19 season. Sabres still have improved significantly in xG year over year.

Data via: Natural Stat Trick, Sean Tierney, and NHL.com