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Buffalo Sabres Story Lines At The Holiday Break

Buffalo Sabres Story Lines
Buffalo Sabres goaltender Aaron Dell (80) celebrates with right wing Tage Thompson (72) after Thompson’s goal during the first period of an NHL hockey game against the Montreal Canadiens on Friday, Nov. 26, 2021, in Buffalo, N.Y. (AP Photo/Joshua Bessex)

Buffalo Sabres story lines for 2021-22. The Buffalo Sabres entered the 2021-2022 season with about the lowest expectations possible. Their franchise superstar was unable to play and openly sought a way out of town. They traded away their leading scorer in the off-season. Their only decent goaltending option decided to leave in free agency. The roster, overall, seemed devoid of true NHL talent. The team seemed destined for a season of sub-mediocrity, another lost season in more than a decade of relative hopelessness. A high draft pick and the beginnings of another (or continuation of the current, depending on your outlook) rebuild was about the only thing to look forward to.

And while that has largely been the case, the Buffalo Sabres have provided some surprising bright spots, combined with inevitable disappointment, so far in what is supposed to be a forsaken season. With the holiday break here earlier than expected thanks to COVID, let’s take a look at some of the prevalent Buffalo Sabres story lines so far.

The Jack Eichel Saga

There is no way one can discuss the 2021-2022 season without first discussing the Jack Eichel saga. We’ll refrain from re-litigating all of the events that transpired since we all know the details. Long story short, Jack Eichel revealed at the end of last season that he had a herniated disc in his neck that would prohibit him from playing hockey until addressed. Eichel’s camp and the Sabres medical staff disagreed on the course of treatment, and an ugly months-long standoff ensued.

The saga overshadowed anything else that the Sabres did on or off the ice. For either party to move on, a change needed to happen. And in early November, change came. The Buffalo Sabres sent Eichel and a third-round pick to the Vegas Golden Knights for a package that included a couple of conditional draft picks as well as veteran Alex Tuch and top prospect Peyton Krebs. Within days, Eichel received the procedure he wanted, Tuch was making Sabres fans proud with a press conference detailing why he was excited to be in Buffalo, and Krebs joined the Amerks in Rochester to continue his development.

Only time will tell how the trade ended up for both teams. Both Tuch and Eichel have yet to suit up for their new teams. And while Krebs is looking the part in Rochester, true evaluation won’t come until he cracks the Sabres lineup. But either way, the trade has given all involved some measure of peace, and the ability to look to the future.

A Hot Start

The Buffalo Sabres and their fans are no strangers to hot starts and the subsequent plummet back to earth. But entering the 2021-2022 season, expectations were so low that even the most optimistic fan knew wins were going to be extremely difficult to come by. 

Those factors made Buffalo’s surprisingly hot start to the season much more impressive. They opened with a 5-1-1 record, and contrary to year’s past, the Sabres’ underlying numbers suggested that the wins were coming in legitimate fashion and not just relying on luck (though they got plenty of that). And while they have inevitably come back down to earth of late, the Sabres are at least watchable on a night-to-night basis. Given the talent level on the roster, that’s about all one can ask for.

Donny Meatballs

Perhaps the biggest factor to any perceived success this season comes from head coach Don Granato. Fondly nicknamed “Donny Meatballs” by fans and media, Granato has successfully gotten the players on his roster to buy into his aggressive forecheck system to produce occasional wins and most importantly, an on-ice product that is watchable and relatively exciting.

This is a particularly refreshing change from last season, where former head coach Ralph Kreuger was employed a conservative and uncreative system that produced one of the longest losing streaks in team history. Granato has embraced an aggressive style that seems to fit the players on his roster well. He has instilled a culture of hard work, and one that allows his young players to try new things and make mistakes without the fear of getting benched. Donny Meatballs has the perfect teaching mindset that will allow the young talent in the Sabres’ system to develop the right way.

Goaltending Woes

One of the biggest reasons for pessimism entering the season was the Sabres goaltending situation. Gone was bright spot Linus Ullmark, who signed a 4 year, $20 million contract with Boston as a free agent. The Sabres replaced him with three journeyman goaltenders, all signed to one-year league minimum deals in Dusting Tokarski, Aaron Dell, and 40-year-old Craig Anderson. 

Anderson had a surprisingly strong start to the season, going 4-2 with a 2.5 goals against and .921 save percentage before being injured in early November. The duo of Dustin Tokarski and Aaron Dell stepped in and briefly played strong. Eventually, both reverted to their normally poor numbers before Tokarski was placed in the NHL’s COVID-19 protocol and became unavailable.  

GM Kevyn Adams sought to add goaltending depth by trading a conditional pick to acquire former first-round pick Malcolm Subban from the Chicago Blackhawks, However, Subban was injured in his first start and forced the Sabres to call up top prospect Ukkp-Pekka Luukkonen from Rochester.

Stability

The lack of stability in goal is one of the biggest reasons for the Sabres drop-off this season. Though not expected to be a playoff threat, playing games that they have a chance to win is key to the Sabres development. Consistently putting in strong efforts only to be let down by goaltending could invite a feeling of helplessness and negativity, something the Sabres are all-too-familiar with. Though Adams wanted Luukkonen to stay in Rochester and have the chance to be the workhorse goalie, he could not viably continue forward with Aaron Dell as his NHL starter. Dell has posted a depressing 4.52 goals-against and .872 save percentage. Luukkonen has performed well in his stint with Buffalo so far. He has posted a 2-2 record with an impressive 1.96 goals-against and a .939 save percentage. 

The debate rages if it’s the right idea to keep Luukkonen in the NHL going forward. But for now, he clearly is the best option for the Sabres in net.

Disappointing Dahlin

2018 first overall pick Rasmus Dahlin has had a tough, inconsistent season. In one game he can dazzle by showcasing the exceptional hands and skating that helped make him the first-overall pick. In the next game, he can frustrate by making a questionable move at the blueline that often ends up in the back of his own net. This inconsistency has drawn the ire of the fanbase, questioning if it’s time to label Dahlin as a bust.

I still think it may be too early to tell. Dahlin has not exactly been put in a position to succeed early in his career. He has had three different coaches, and the roster around him has been largely devoid of talent. One can clearly see the tools that make Dahlin special. His offensive-minded game is going to inevitably lead to a mistake here and there.

Dahlin is going to need to continue to develop and learn what it means to be a top player in the NHL. Seeing improvement will be key to silencing his critics. If he continues the inconsistent play, the label of a bust just might stick.

Hope Springs Eternal In Rochester

It appears one of the biggest keys to Kevyn Adam’s plan for future success is to have the Sabres’ top prospects develop together in Rochester. And so far, those young stars are giving Sabres fans plenty to look forward to. The trio of Jack Quinn, JJ Peterka, and Peyton Krebs have been nothing short of phenomenal playing together for the Amerks. Quinn, Peterka, and Krebs are second, fourth, and fifth in team scoring respectively. Also logging big minutes in Rochester is hulking defenseman Mattias Samuelsson. Though not much of an offensive threat, one can picture a future with Samuelsson providing stability in a pairing with Dahlin.

Only time will tell if keeping this young core together in Rochester will bear fruit. But watching them succeed together for the Amerks provides some much-needed hope for Sabres fans.

Resurgent Seasons And Other Bright Spots

Also nice to see in Buffalo is some players enjoying a productive season so far. Kyle Okposo is leading the team in scoring with 20 points in 30 games and possibly playing his best hockey since signing in Buffalo. Tage Thompson has taken a step as a scoring threat. He has already eclipsed his career-high in goals, assists, and points with 10, 8, and 18 respectively. He’s been confident with the puck and has been a revelation offensively. Enjoying a bit of a resurgence is linemate Jeff Skinner. After finding himself in Ralph Krueger’s doghouse for much of last season, Skinner has had himself a nice start with 9 goals and 17 points so far. That is already more than his totals from last season. More than that, he appears more confident and willing to shoot the puck. 

Low Attendance

It isn’t all sunshine and rainbows in Buffalo though. Attendance numbers for home games have hit one of the lowest lows in recent memory. The Sabres sit dead-last in attendance for the NHL, averaging a little over 8,000 fans per game, That’s lower than the Arizona Coyotes, who traditionally have trouble getting fans to show up. 

A variety of factors could be blamed for this. The COVID-19 pandemic still rages, and people may be choosing not to attend hockey games for a litany of health or economic concerns. Another factor is that fans are just sick of the constant losing. It has bred a lethargy among the fanbase that will only be undone with sustained success. It could also be frustration with Sabres ownership. The Pegula’s have certainly made some tough decisions that in the end alienate the fanbase.

Whatever the reason, it’s sad to see. Never have I seen such an empty arena in Buffalo. 

Photo: John Vogl / The Athletic

In Summary

The Sabres were never going to make the playoffs. Despite the promising start, most fans and media kept perspective of what this team truly is. Their recent drop-off and record are about where most expected the Sabres to be. And that’s okay. The main goal of this season is to see prospects develop and show improvement, while still staying in the running for a top pick in this year’s draft. The Sabres are doing just that. It’s a nice bonus that they have stayed relatively fun to watch in the process.

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