Last season, when everything else seemed like it was going sideways, the Sabres could at least console themselves with the results they got on the power play.
Their man advantage last season ran at nearly 24.5 percent, and it came at a time when they couldn’t buy offense at 5-on-5 and didn’t defend particularly well either at full strength or down a man. Meanwhile, the power play also allowed fewer than average shorthanded goals, giving them a plus-53 differential with the man advantage, versus the league average of plus-41. Pretty solid stuff, and with the amount of offensive talent the team had on hand — then added to over the summer — one might have expected that things would keep trending in the right direction.
New coach, new GM, better talent throughout the lineup, and yet: Another putrid start, made worse by the fact that they’ve already given up as many shorties in four games (a total of four) as they did in the full 82 last season.
Obviously it’s four games and you don’t want to make too big of a deal out of anything, even having your power play outscored by the other team’s penalty killers. That’s doubly true with a new coach — especially one who has never been a head coach in the NHL before and whose only experience as The Guy behind the bench came in two seasons of literal high school hockey, as well as a gold-medal World Junior tournament. It takes time to learn systems and get everything squared away. Maybe you want to be on the right track by Game No. 10 or so, maybe Game 15 at the latest.
But with that having been said, there hasn’t been a lot that’s gone right for the Sabres, and this was a team a lot of people expected to take a good-sized step forward. Take into consideration we’re dealing with incredibly small samples here and everything like that, but it’s fair to call almost everything about this team disappointing.
Given the offensive talent level here, especially at the top of the lineup, you’d expect the defense — which was a disaster last year — to be the real problem, but it’s not. Evander Kane had four goals in the first three games. The rest of the team, combined, had three. And of the team’s seven goals through the first three games, exactly zero of them were scored without Kane on the ice. That seems like it should be impossible, since he’s played fewer than 57 of the team’s 185 total minutes, but here we are. Difficult as it is to wrap your head around, every other player’s goals per 60 in those first three games was zero-point-zero.
Not that you expect them to shoot 0 percent on 54 shots forever, obviously, but 54 shots in 128 minutes of hockey really isn’t that high of a number, y’know? It’s about 25.3 per 60 in all situations, and that would rank as third-lowest in the league before last night’s games.
Then on Thursday night in San Jose, things got a little better. They still lost, obviously. And they gave up too many chances, but at least they scored with Kane off the ice thanks to some line juggling. Of course, they still can’t score with Eichel off (he set up both goals through Jason Pominville, but it’s something to build on, one supposes).
Because it’s not just that the offense is bad, either. The defense has likewise been horrible in terms of giving up scoring chances all over the ice and generally getting run over. The shots-against numbers aren’t terrible, to be honest, but their shot quality against is still too high; they give up more high-quality looks per 60 than any team in the league.
And again, the shorthanded-goals-against number is bananas. To give up four goals in a little more than 22 minutes of power play time is incredible. The record for shorthanded goals allowed since 2007-08 is 15, and Buffalo could actually challenge that number if they don’t right the ship in a hurry. (As with the Ovechkin thing, no one expects them to maintain this pace, but banking these goals against doesn’t really help.)
So with the small-sample caveats in place, you have to acknowledge that in terms of how things have gone versus how they could have been reasonably predicted to go, this is the worst-case scenario for the team’s worst-case scenario.
You probably go in accepting the kinks in the system here and there. This is, again, a first-year head coach and the Sabres on their sixth coach in as many seasons (not that the roster is exactly bursting with holdovers from the Lindy Ruff era). It’s not an ideal situation but you make the most you can of things. Perhaps, then, you accept the lapses on special teams with the understanding that you work to fix them ASAP. The team grows together.
You probably go in accepting that the D corps as a whole just isn’t very good and that’s not something you can fix overnight. Rasmus Ristolainen is the best defenseman on the team, and that’s not a good situation. He’s playing 26 minutes a night because Housley just doesn’t have anyone else he can trust to come close to approaching that; Nathan Beaulieu is the only other guy north of 20, and only just. The less said about other guys — Marco Scandella, Matt Tennyson, Jake McCabe, and Victor Antipin — the better. So maybe you also accept the high-quality chances and say, “Oh I bet that’s why we have a team save percentage in the .870s.” Tough to say how much a group with this little talent on hand can be counted upon to improve, but there has to be more cohesion. Otherwise it’ll be a long season.
And you probably go in accepting that your offense just isn’t that deep. Hence the fact that they literally cannot score goals without Kane on the ice. You have your Kane-Eichel-Pominville line and that’s working. Benoit Pouliot-Ryan O’Reilly-Kyle Okposo and that should be good enough, but hasn’t been yet. After that it’s a bit of a mishmash of guys who either have some promise and haven’t shown it yet, or are just kind of dead-end options you hope to improve upon when their contracts are up. So, maybe you accept that you were going to struggle to score as well.
But all three at the same time? Eh, probably not. It’s early and there’s reason to be optimistic, but these first few games haven’t just been poorly played, they’ve been ugly to the extent that they ain’t got no alibi. And at this point in Sabres’ history, you can probably forgive the fans for a little teeth-gnashing and garment-rending. It’s been a rough decade.
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