Sabres Need to Add Some Fire to the Line-Up

<em>A lack of grit is catching up to this team…</em>

If this were the NFL, the Buffalo Sabres defense would have been dominant during the last 3 games. During that span, Buffalo has surrendered just one touchdown in each game, with only the Hurricanes failing to convert the extra point. As a result, most eyes, and rightfully so, have turned to the woeful goaltending and porous defense that is knocking Buffalo out of games early and often.

While I wholeheartedly agree with the aforementioned issues, my primary gripe is actually aimed at something else. Something that is way more controllable, even for a seemingly overmatched hockey club such as the Sabres. Fire, passion, grit or whatever cliché you want to use.

With Carolina jumping out to a 5-1 lead in the second period of Saturday night’s match, and the game seemingly spinning out of control, the one thing that Buffalo could actually change was the physicality of the contest. Instead, the Sabres, just as they have all year, marched on and continued to try to outplay a far superior team. It was akin to hitting one’s head against a wall over and over and expecting a different result each time. Simply put, and far from breaking news, the Sabres are not going to win a skills contest with most teams.

Buffalo’s early Cinderella start to the season was powered by out-working their opponents for the majority of a 60-minute game. It’s an ‘easier said than done’ blueprint to victory, but nevertheless, that’s how this team has been constructed. It’s also no secret that Buffalo’s management has tried to put together a stop-gap team to bide its time during a rebuild. Thus, the Sabres roster is filled with varying degrees of 2nd to 4th line talent, with the latter being more prominent.

It’s a tough pill to swallow for any die-hard fan of a sports team, but one that some fans, including myself, can understand from a hockey economics point of view. As it stands, the Sabres have as many as three 1st round draft picks* in an allegedly strong upcoming draft when this season is done and dusted. Sabres management has all but outwardly asked their fan base to watch another losing season in exchange for the hope that a deep seeded prospect pool will grow and blossom sooner rather than later. I, for one, can live with that.

*Two of the picks are conditional picks acquired via trades:

  • Florida’s 2022 first round pick (acquired as part of the Sam Reinhart deal) will become a 2023 first round pick if the pick falls in the top 10, which seems very unlikely at this point, so it should remain a 2022 first round pick.
  • Vegas’ 2022 first round pick (acquired in the Jack Eichel trade) will become a 2023 first round pick if it falls within the top 10, which also seems unlikely, so chances are, it too remains a 2022 first round pick./

What I can’t live with is watching a team losing 5-1 look more interested in what’s on the hotel dinner menu than going out and playing hard, angry hockey to at least show their fans that losing, especially this badly, is not acceptable. This brings me to another similar grievance that’s been simmering for a while and is now starting to boil over. The Sabres don’t hit, and I don’t get it.

The Sabres finished the Carolina game with a paltry 16 total hits. I actually hit the fridge more times during this game, and while the Hurricanes only threw 19 hits, they didn’t need to play physical, they were winning…by a lot.

Let me be clear, this is not a call for the Sabres to ‘goon up’ and start trying to brawl with opposing teams. But why, during a 5-1 drubbing, is no one hitting, chirping, getting in a Carolina player’s face to draw a penalty and the like? How about a few board rattling forechecks? Maybe a clean, open ice, helmet popper? Stir the Canes’ drink a little and see what happens. Instead, fans were forced to watch an absolutely lifeless game of hockey that was, quite frankly, incredibly boring.

In fairness to any discommenders to my point, stats do not show that hitting alone wins games. In examining the current top 10 hitting teams in the NHL, there is no distinct correlation between hitting and winning. Four of the top 10 hitting clubs are ranked in the top 10 in points, while the remaining 6 teams are ranked 15th down to 31st in points. Not much to work with. As for Buffalo, the Swords are currently winning a pillow fight with the Columbus Blue Jackets to avoid last place in hits. At least they are winning that battle.

So, with not much statistical proof on either side of the argument, the point to be made is more to do with applying the right players to the right system. As previously mentioned, the Sabres are not a team built to win with speed and skill. They are built to be a hardworking, ‘keep your feet moving’ team that must attempt to throw skilled opponents off of their game to stay competitive. When they don’t do that, you get games like the Carolina or Boston contests where the Sabres looked beaten way too early. And this is where the rubber isn’t quite meeting the road in Buffalo.

Win or lose, teams should know that when Buffalo is up next on their dance card, they are in for a dog fight. Right now, I can’t imagine any team thinking about anything other than juicing their scoring stats, and perhaps trying out some low-profile shoulder pads for greater comfort and dexterity.

So, what’s the plan? Go get some players that can hit. And to do this, the Sabres should be judicious in not sacrificing any major part of their rebuilding pool of talent or high draft picks. Thus far, Buffalo has collected an impressive stock of young skilled prospects, namely J.J. Peterka, Jack Quinn and Peyton Krebs. However, it would not be a bad idea to start targeting bottom six character players who can help round out what, hopefully, will be a highly skilled group of top line players in the near future.

For some perspective, the current hit leader on the Sabres is defenseman Robert Hagg with 45 hits. Therefore, in looking for a potential acquisition to add some sandpaper to the Buffalo lineup, it wasn’t hard to find guys who would instantly vault to the top of the Sabres’ hit column.

If I were the GM, I would be kicking the tires on players like Nashville Predators winger Tanner Jeannot or the Minnesota Wild’s Brandon Duhaime. Jeannot, 24, has 11 points to go along with 70 hits in 24 games while Duhaime, also 24, has 56 hits and 8 points in 24 games.

If the ask on these players was too high, I’d look to Chicago Blackhawks center Reese Johnson, 23, who has only 3 points in 15 games but has thrown 55 hits on the Hawks 4th line. For a comparison, that’s three times as many points and 19 more hits than Sabres 4th line winger John Hayden has in 18 games. Another young Hawks player that merits a look is left wing Mike Hardman, 22, who has 50 hits in 17 games.

Obviously, none of these players will significantly move the needle on the Sabres’ tank (pun intended), I get that. But the bottom line is Buffalo needs to roll out a more watchable team then the one that is currently getting beaten on the scoreboard and all over the ice. To put it nicely, Buffalo is going to lose a few more games, but they don’t have to go down without a fight. And that’s exactly what happened Saturday night.