So, here we are. 19 games to play, 5 points out of the last playoff spot. A few tough losses in a row. Wherefore art thou, Victor Olofsson?
Thought #1: This is HARD.
We are rapidly approaching the end of Step 2 of the Rebuild Part Trois (Quatre?). The foundational portion. They've done the easy part, the Tear Down. If you watch any of those Home Improvement shows, the inexperienced home owners are always brought in to help with the tear down. Why? Because anyone can kick a hole in a wall or sledgehammer a shower door. They've moved guys out, changed the culture, found a surprising amount of talent. The last year or so, which is quicker than most, they've framed up the new place, poured the foundation, put up the exterior walls, the porch, the deck, put in the plumbing and HVAC. This off-season, I would argue, they are entering Step 3: Building a Playoff Team, or, Making It A Livable House. This is the hardest part.
It is especially hard with the youngest team in the NHL. We've already discussed around here the fact that the only guys with any kind of meaningful playoff experience are guys like Tyson Jost, or now Jordan Greenway. The only player with significant playoff experience who also has a significant role on the team is Alex Tuch - and he could be out for the remainder of the regular season. So these guys are learning on the fly for the most part. Grinding out points - OTLs or straight-up wins - is not their forte. They're trying, but it's not really in their nature...yet. This is something they have to experience...that goes for the coaching staff AND the players. And they're in it right now. 3 of their last 4 losses have been by 1 goal (not counting the ENG against CBJ). There are 7 teams fighting for 2 spots...BFLO is right in the middle of that pile-up. That's progress.
Last year, they finished strong, but they were already out of the playoffs. Teams no doubt took them lightly. Look at Columbus - they've got points in 7 of their last 10. Because teams (like the Sabres) are taking them lightly. It's human nature to get up for big games (like last night) and have a letdown, even an imperceptible one, against lesser teams. They're going to have to dig deep, play desperate, and get some fortunate bounces to make a run and lock up a spot in the playoffs, and even that will be 'learn-as-you-go' because most of the important pieces on this team have never had to do that before, not at this level.
Thought #2: The Wall.
For many of these kids, the rookie wall is fast approaching. Power, to me, looks tired. And I don't blame him. So does Peterka. Dahlin looks like he's playing hurt. Samuelsson is out, as is Tuch. Quinn, Cozens and Mitts still have some jump every night, but for how long? Even Tage is slowing down a bit, although I think that is more about teams game-planning against him than anything else. Managing energy and health over an 82-game season has to be learned. Tampa is brilliant at it. These guys have played a lot of hockey - for some of them, more than they've ever played in a season. Cozens played a full season at 20, then went to the World Championships, then came back and played a full season with even more responsibilities, more on the line, than ever as a 21-year-old. That's draining. This is what happens with a young team. It's all new, all the time.
The Sabres are like a puppy, chasing anything that moves including their own shadow. There isn't a lot of structure to their game. It's up-and-down, high-octane, taking chances to create offense. Which is great as a fan of hockey. But Tampa, Boston, Carolina...it's like an older dog, who just lies around the house most of the time. But when something big is happening, that dog is all over it. They play safe, sound, structured hockey for the most part - but when they turn up the crank, watch out.
Thought #3: Stock Is Up!
At this time last year, after Game #63, the Sabres were 22-33-8. 52 points. This year? 32-27-4. 68 points. That's a marked improvement. Unless they completely fall off a cliff, they should finish with more points than any Sabres team in over a decade. And with what, essentially 7 rookies in the line-up most nights?
Guys like Power, Krebs, Cozens, Sammy, Quinn, UPL, and Peterka will all continue to improve next season by virtue of nothing else but experience. Guys like Dahlin, Tage, Greenway, Joker, and Mitts will have to work this off-season to improve certain things, but I don't doubt they'll put in the work. And there's more talent on the way. Adams doesn't have to do much to have a team that, if reasonably healthy, puts up 90+ points next season. And if he does make a judicious move or two? They could be even better.
Although I know we all want playoffs this year, regardless of how this plays out, there's a lot to be excited about this year and the years to come. So hop on the bandwagon. There's still comfortable seats available.