Buffalo Sabres Season Review
A roller coaster of a season for the Buffalo Sabres has finally come to a close. The highs of the ride saw the debut of Jack Eichel, the monumental improvement of Sam Reinhart and Rasmus Ristolainen, and how well Ryan O’Reilly meshed with his new team. The lows included a brutal stretch in the winter, injuries to several key players and poor performances from high-paid veterans. The Sabres finished with 81 points, and will miss the playoffs for the fifth consecutive year. Here are my grades for the season:
Despite the best efforts of Eichel, Reinhart and O’Reilly, the Sabres finished with the fifth-fewest goals scored in the NHL. Injuries to Tyler Ennis and Evander Kane—among others—certainly contributed to those numbers, but even on games with almost an entirely healthy roster, the team struggled to score. Part of that was due to a lack of chemistry between the lines, which I’ll get to later. The secondary scoring for the Sabres wasn’t there on a consistent basis. Matt Moulson, who is making $5 million per year, had 21 points. Zemgus Girgensons had 30 points in 61 games last year, but regressed and had only 18 in 71 games in 2015-2016. If the Sabres want to contend for a spot in the playoffs next season, they need to drastically improve their third and fourth lines. Positively, the Sabres were able to see what they had with forwards such as Hudson Fasching and Justin Bailey making their NHL debuts. Although it was a small sample size, they look ready to contribute in the near future.
Power Play: A-
This unit could only go up. After finishing dead last in the NHL during 2014-2015 on the man advantage, the Sabres improved to 12th and scored on 18.9% of their chances. The first unit was a treat to watch, with some of the passing and finishing that fans had been waiting years for. Eichel thrived on the power play, finishing with 21 points. Ristolainen had 21, as well, and O’Reilly led the team with 22. Dan Bylsma wasn’t afraid to try different guys on the power play, and it usually worked. Zach Bogosian had a nice stretch on the first unit along with rookie D-man Casey Nelson. If Kane and Ennis stay healthy next year, the Sabres could easily have a top-5 power play unit.
Another place where the Sabres could only improve from a year ago. After throwing many below-average defenders on the ice last season, the Sabres tried to tighten things up with the addition of Cody Franson and having Josh Gorges and Bogosian on the roster for an entire season. However, injuries also hampered what this group could do. Ristolainen was the only defenseman to play in all 82 games. The unit never remained consistent throughout the year, holding some teams to under 25 shots, and allowing other teams to dominate play in their end. You never quite knew what you were getting, and it was hard to mask the flaws without a high-flying offense. Jake McCabe finished with a plus-6, best on the team, and was the only D-man in the positive range. Although Bogosian, Franson, and Ristolainen were great on offense, they often disappointed back in the d-zone. Too many times the Sabres lost close games because of defensive lapses late. Buffalo allowed 222 goals, which was 15th in the NHL. That was also a marked improvement from last year—where they allowed a stunning 269 goals. Looking ahead to next year, Nelson will certainly be competing for a roster spot with the Sabres after his strong play in the month of April.
Penalty Kill: A
Another impressive improvement in the special team’s category was on the penalty kill. The Sabres were dead last in 2014-2015, only killing off 75.1% of chances. This year, they moved up 21 spots, killing off 82.6% of chances. David Legwand and O’Reilly were the team’s two best penalty killers most nights and often didn’t let the opposition’s man advantage dictate the game. Last year the defensemen seemed to sit in front of the next and wait for the shot. This year the Sabres were active blocking, clearing and checking. The Sabres also had five players score shorthanded goals.
Another season, another cavalry of goalies patrolling the crease for the Sabres. This year saw Chad Johnson, Robin Lehner, Linus Ullmark and Jason Kasdorf all start games. With Lehner going down in the first game of the season with a serious leg injury, the Sabres needed other guys to step up. Johnson, voted as the team’s unsung hero by his teammates, started 40 games and held things together this season when things could have turned disastrous. Ullmark—while he struggled at times—also showed the Sabres he has flashes of becoming a quality goalie. The 21 games Lehner started were up and down as well, posting a 5-9-5 record and a 2.47 GAA. Lehner struggled with some easy shots, but also made saves that would make Dominik Hasek smirk. It was too small of a sample to see if he is really the team’s number one goalie going forward, but if the Sabres can re-sign Johnson, it will be a fun goaltending competition come the fall.
Nobody on the team had a more criticized season than first-year head coach Dan Bylsma. The first thing he had to do was rid the team of the anti-tank culture that permeated throughout in 2014-2015. That was mainly helped by many of the additions Tim Murray made in the offseason to bring in quality players. Along the way, Bylsma had to deal with the Evander Kane situation, the injuries and some of the regressions. Nearly all of that was out of his control. Where Bylsma’s grade lowers is his inability to find consistent lines and build chemistry between his forwards. There were points that it was interesting to see him experiment but others that left you scratching your head. For example, Nic Deslauriers— a third-liner at best— played a big chunk of the season on the first line. Girgensons was consistently on a line with Eichel for some reason and Bylsma buried prospects such as Fasching and Rodrigues on the fourth line. Too much grief can’t be given to Bylsma as he helped the Sabres improve 27 points and seven places in the standings. Fewer injuries and a better idea of the players he is working with will lead to an even better 2016-2017 campaign.
Anthony Sambrotto started writing at The Radio Blast in 2016 and is excited to contribute with a variety of sports–but especially hockey.
He’s written from a press box, his couch and his car, but what has remained constant is his passion for sports.
He hope to provide intelligent and unique insight that you won’t find on other sites. Feel free to comment on his posts–whether you agree or not. Follow Anthony on Twitter @asambrotto95.