Ten reasons for Sabres fans to be thankful this Thanksgiving
With Thanksgiving right around the corner, here are ten things all Sabres fans should be thankful for this year.
Thanksgiving in America is traditionally a time for family, food, and relaxation, but it's also time to pause for a moment, whether from work, school, or life, and give thanks for what you've been given this year. Buffalo Sabres fans have been given quite a lot this year, especially compared to previous year's meager feasts, so before we all break for the holiday, here are ten things all Sabres fans should be thankful for.
1. Ryan O'Reilly
On the day that Tim Murray swung the trade to bring O'Reilly to Buffalo, many Sabres fans were expecting him to be a nice 1B/2A center, a good player who would be keeping the first line warm for Jack Eichel's inevitable ascension. I don't think many of us expected him to be one of the best players in the NHL this year, but that's exactly what he's been so far.
While his point production rate has dropped a bit thanks to the team's recent offensive slump, O'Reilly still ranks in the top 50 this year with 17 points, and he leads the Sabres with seven goals - in fact, he's been the only player scoring any goals recently. Points aside, ROR really shines in other areas of the game. His faceoff win percentage of 57.83% is third best in the league among skaters with more than 100 minutes, his 21:36 of ice time per game is tops in the league among forwards, he's a great penalty killer, wins more than his fair share of battles along the boards, is a vocal leader on the ice, and is one of the hardest working players on the team.
O'Reilly has played like an All-Star this year, and has absolutely been the Sabres MVP so far this season.
2. The return of Beyond Blue and Gold
This video series giving Sabres fans a peek behind the curtain of the organization's operations has been one of the best pieces of #FanEngagement the Sabres have ever done, and this season is no exception. From the look into Jack Eichel's draft process to a glimpse of life at the Moulson household, BB&G is well produced, informative, and always a treat to watch.
3. The growth of Rasmus Ristolainen
Last season, his first as a full-time Sabre, Rasmus Ristolainen played on the second pairing behind Josh Gorges and Zach Bogosian. He averaged 20:36 of ice time while scoring 8-12-20 and posting a -32 in 78 games. Through the first 21 games of this season, Ristolainen is leading the team's top pairing, playing 24:02 per game, and has already scored 4-8-12 in the first quarter of the season, good for second-most points on the team. Both of those stats, by the way, put Ristolainen among the top 20 defensemen in the league.
He's going against the other team's top players every night, and while he's not dominating possession against his opponents, he is showing that he can slow down the best of the best. Stars assistant coach James Patrick said last week that Ristolainen reminded him of Victor Hedman, and said his top line (the highest scoring line in the NHL) was frustrated playing against Risto. The 21-year-old has shown growth in his play, production, and off-ice preparation every season, and seems to be on track to become that #1 stud defenseman every team craves.
4. Whoever nominated "Let Me Clear My Throat" in the goal song tournament
Bless you, kind sir, whoever you may be. While it looked a bit out of place among the usual punk rock chant-along fare, there's no denying that when the Sabres score, and that DJ Kool beat drops, the atmosphere in the First Niagara Center goes from library to party time real quick. I literally had to stop typing this article to take a dance break while watching this clip.
Beautiful sounds. Jack Eichel's 1st goal. Our famous foghorn. Rick Jeanneret's call. New goal song. #NextChapter https://t.co/AiGTTKn9OE— Buffalo Sabres (@BuffaloSabres) October 9, 2015
Turns out hockey can be fun sometimes, who knew?
5. An upgrade behind the bench
In his short time in Buffalo, Dan Bylsma has shown himself to be a smart, creative, and communicative head coach who puts his players in position for them to succeed. You may not like his constant line shuffling, and his special teams units still need some work (PK and 5-on-3) but if you look at the team's zone usage stats and the way Bylsma matches his lines up with his opponent, it's clear that more thought is going into how the head coach can help his players be successful than what we saw last season. Bylsma has "only" won one Cup, but he and his staff have brought instant credibility to the Sabres bench.
6. Linus Ullmark winning fans hearts and a starting goalie position...for now
When the newly-acquired Robin Lehner went down with an injury earlier this year, the Sabres looked to be in deep trouble in the crease, with only Chad Johnson having any real NHL experience among the organization's remaining goalies. Amidst rumors that the Sabres would make a move to get a new netminder, they called up Linus Ullmark, who made his NHL debut on October 24.
Since then, Ullmark has impressed Sabres fans by going 4-4-1 with a .925 save percentage, and impressed his coaches enough that after tonight he will have started in ten of the team's last fifteen games, effectively making him the starter until Lehner returns in late December. Ullmark hasn't been perfect and still needs to work on rebound control and positioning, but as of right now this is his crease to lose.
In addition to his strong play, Ullmark, like many other quirky goalies, has plenty of personality. From his Minion Mask, to his life motto of Hakuna Matata, he's an easy player to like, and the fact that he's playing so well in his rookie season is a pleasant surprise.
Between this Swedish Chef answer and his Minions mask, @Icebeardude is my favorite goalie who is not a Devil. pic.twitter.com/RBWTZwKdot— Sherry Ross (@SherryDarlingNJ) November 16, 2015
7. Pretty much everything Brian Duff does
Aside from being one of the best broadcasters in the business, Brian Duff is the master of Movember, as seen by these mustache photos from 2013, 2014, and 2015. In addition to his impressive soup strainers and on-air talent, he also writes the adorably-named "Duffalo" blog about his travels with the team that always has some funny behind-the-scenes moments. Rick Jeanneret aside, Duffer has been the best thing about the Sabres broadcasts since he was hired in 2012.
8. The most adorable lineup cards in the league
The Sabres Twitter account has had its fair share of criticism over the past few years, but this year's lineup cards that get put out during warmups are one of the best things they've ever done. Visually appealing, informative, and well produced, it's a great way to give fans the info they want without having to parse through jersey numbers from a hastily tweeted press box report. Plus, look how adorable these themed lineup cards are:
It's #HockeyHalloween Night at @FirstNiagaraCtr. Here's our lineup. #PHIvsBUF pic.twitter.com/1Vkv0mg6Vh— Buffalo Sabres (@BuffaloSabres) October 30, 2015
We've mixed up our lines a bit. Here's our official lineup for tonight's game. #TBLvsBUF pic.twitter.com/oLnBFj5n7z— Buffalo Sabres (@BuffaloSabres) October 10, 2015
Any excuse to put Ryan O'Reilly in a wizard hat is fine with me. (Note to team officials: please bring back the Club Sabres style cards every now and then. Sincerely, the world.)
9. Jack Eichel
What, you didn't think we were going to leave him off of the list, did you?
While he's currently mired in his first career slump (I'm assuming his only career slump) Eichel has been one of the standout players for the Sabres, and with good reason. The #2 overall draft pick has had some incredible, jaw-dropping moments that make you wonder just how good he can be in another year or two, and has shown that he can handle stiff NHL competition at barely 19 years old. He is a capital-S Star on the ice who commands the attention of his opponents and national broadcasters, and he's just getting started.
10. That this season is so remarkably, unbelievably better than the previous two
The next time you're thinking of complaining about the Sabres recent slump, or Mike Weber's defensive troubles, or about how David Legwand can't finish the World's Slowest Breakaway, take a second and think of all the reasons that this season is different - and far better - than anything we've seen in Buffalo this decade. In addition to the nine things listed above, we left so much more off of this list:
The growth of Sam Reinhart, the completion of HARBORCenter, Evander Kane's speed and power, the Corsi numbers that actually look like a real NHL team, Josh Gorges' revitalization, no more arguments about the Morals of Tanking, Jake McCabe and Mark Pysyk being huge upgrades over last season's defensive tire fire, no more terrible third jerseys, the beautiful zone exit passes of Pysyk, Franson, and McCabe, Buffalo supporting sled hockey and getting an NWHL team in the Buffalo Beauts, the bonkers 3-on-3 OT games we've seen...we could go on for days.
Is everything perfect yet? No. Are you still free to criticize and yell at this team? Of course. But so much positive change has happened over the past six months that we wanted to stop and say thanks. Thanks to the hockey gods for Jack Eichel and Tim Murray, thanks to all of you for making this site happen, and thanks to the Sabres for making hockey in Buffalo fun again.