What Went Wrong: Buffalo, Anaheim

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Welcome to What Went Wrong, a series where we take a look at each team that failed to make the playoffs with an emphasis on why they fell short. We’ll also end each team’s outlook by highlighting some players in the organization to watch going forward, either because the team is looking for them to be key members in the future or because they have something to prove after a less than ideal year.

This week we’re going to be focusing on the two teams who finished in the NHL’s basement: Buffalo and Anaheim.

Don’t forget, for everything NHL, check out NBC Sports EDGE's Player News, and follow @NBCSEdgeHK and @RyanDadoun on Twitter.

BUFFALO SABRES

It would be easier and far shorter to talk about what went right. This was truly a nightmare season in Buffalo.

It was known that the East Division would be tough and not a lot of people were projecting them making the playoffs, but after adding veterans Cody Eakin, Eric Staal, and surprising many with the signing of Taylor Hall to a one-year deal, it looked like Buffalo was going to take a step forward. On top of those veterans, they had a young and promising core that now also included Dylan Cozens, who had the potential to be one of the campaign’s better rookies.

And initially things did go okay. Not great, but with a 4-4-2 record through Jan. 31, they were certainly holding their own. Jack Eichel and Hall were off to solid starts with 11 and nine points respectively, Victor Olofsson was too with four goals and 10 points in 10 games. In goal, Linus Ullmark was keeping the team respectable with a 3-1-2 record, 2.56 GAA, and .914 save percentage in six starts. It was all largely what everyone was looking for: The Sabres weren’t dominate, but they looked fine. They looked like a team that needed a little extra before they’d be playoff contenders, but were on the right track.

Then the team had to endure a COVID-19 outbreak that swept through the team and nothing was good after that. From Feb. 1-14 the team didn’t play and whatever positivity that existed before then was completely erased.

The change was immediate and complete. Starting on Feb. 15, the team went 2-19-3 over their next 24 games. During that span injuries decimated the team. Ullmark continued to play solid hockey, but he only appeared in eight of those contests due to injury and none of the Sabres alternative goaltenders were acceptable. Ullmark had a 2.64 GAA and .917 save percentage over those eight starts and in contrast, Dustin Tokarski posted a 4.11 GAA and .890 save percentage in three games (two starts), Jonas Johansson posted a 3.82 GAA and .884 save percentage in six starts, and Carter Hutton had a 3.67 GAA and .881 save percentage in nine contests (eight starts) over that 24-game stretch.

It wasn’t just goaltending woes though. Jack Eichel was limited to 11 contests during that 24-game span and when he did play, he had no goals and seven assists. Staal didn’t score a single goal over the Sabres’ 24-game collapse. Hall had just one goal and nine points. Jeff Skinner, who comes with a $9 million annual cap hit through 2026-27, had three goals and no assists. Cozens had just two goals and three points while being limited to 16 contests due to injury.

In fact, just two players recorded at least 10 points over those 24 games: Olofsson (five goals and 11 points) and Sam Reinhart (nine goals and 15 points).

This all led to head coach Ralph Krueger being fired on March 17, replaced by interim bench boss Don Granato. He couldn’t right the ship initially and even when the team did turn things around, it was a rather meek bounce back. Buffalo posted a 9-11-2 record during its remaining 22 contests. Okay, but not confidence inspiring. Under different circumstances, that finish might have been considered acceptable for a team that was more looking to take a step forward than make the playoffs, but the circumstances had changed. Confidence in the direction of the organization was lost.

The Sabres dealt away Jonas Johansson, Eric Staal, Brandon Montour, Taylor Hall, and Curtis Lazar before the trade deadline. That might not be the extent of their trades though. While Sabres GM Kevyn Adams said Eichel has not asked to be moved, Eichel is clearly unhappy and there’s a lot of talk about him being moved. When the Sabres drafted Eichel in 2015, it was supposed to be the start of the Sabres’ revival, but after squandering the first six seasons of his career, it now seems like Buffalo is on the brink of being back at square one. Key defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen might have a foot out the door too. While Ristolainen being traded appears less likely than Eichel, he did say that he’d be “fine” with a trade and said that he “can’t go for another rebuild or wait multiple years,” which is a problem because it’s hard to see how the Sabres can trade Eichel and not go through another rebuild.

If there light at the end of the tunnel here? Perhaps. They still have some promising young players and they could get a nice haul for Eichel and, if he’s dealt, Ristolainen. You also have to keep in mind that the Sabres endured more than their fair share of bad luck in 2020-21 so perhaps it wasn’t a fair representation of what they’re capable of. All that being said, it’s hard to look towards next year and not see more pain before things potentially get better for Buffalo.

Jeff Skinner – As mentioned above, Skinner is still early in his eight-year, $72 million contract and what a disaster that deal has been. Even when it was signed, Skinner’s deal was considered questionable given the up-and-down nature of his career to that point, but this has truly been the worst-case scenario. After being limited to 23 points in 59 games in 2019-20, he had just seven goals and 14 points in 53 contests. It is worth noting that his playing time dropped from 18:31 minutes in 2018-19 when he scored 40 goals to just 14:31 minutes in 2020-21. He even was a healthy scratch on occasion. To an extent, that speaks to his declining performance, but it is a bit of a chicken and the egg thing where it’s hard for him to bounce back if he’s not getting an opportunity to. If the Sabres do trade away some of their top players over the summer, then it’s likely Skinner will get a fresh chance next season to serve in a first line role.

Sam Reinhart – If Eichel is traded, then Reinhart would be counted on to be the driving force of the Sabres’ offense. That’s actually largely the role he served in 2020-21 given how much of the season Eichel missed due to injury. Reinhart scored 25 goals and 40 points in 54 contests, making him just one or two Sabres players to even reach the 25-point mark and he was the only Sabres player with at least 15 goals. He’s well established as a top-six forward at this point, but the spotlight will shine brighter on him going forward if Eichel isn’t around. That’s of course assuming that Reinhart isn’t traded too. There’s not the same kind of speculation about Reinhart being moved, but if Eichel is traded then all bets are off when it comes to Sabres veteran players with trade value. It’s also worth noting that Reinhart is set to become a restricted free agent this summer so while the Sabres still have a lot of control over the situation, Reinhart is in a position to try to force Buffalo’s hand if he does want to move on.

Dylan Cozens – All-in-all, Cozens rookie season was okay, but nothing special. He had four goals and 13 points in 41 contests while averaging 14:21 minutes. That said, he has a lot of potential and if the Sabres are going to go through another reset, then Cozens will be counted on to be a big part of the next wave. For example, if Eichel and others get traded then it’s entirely feasible that Cozens will begin the season in a top-six role. The stage could be set for Cozens to have a big sophomore campaign.

Rasmus Dahlin – If the Sabres do have to start their rebuild over again to some extent and trade Eichel in the process, then this would shift from being Eichel’s team to Dahlin’s. He was taken with the first overall pick in 2018 and has established himself as one of the Sabres’ top defensemen while still being just 21-years-old. That being said, with five goals and 23 points in 56 games, he did take a significant step backwards offensively in 2020-21 and his defensive game needs work. He has so much potential, but he’ll need to grow further before he can become one of the NHL’s top blueliners.

ANAHEIM DUCKS

If the Sabres were a team that was looking to take a step forward in 2020-21, but instead collapsed, the Anaheim Ducks were more of a team that was caught in the awkward early stages of a rebuild. From 2013-18 Anaheim made the playoffs every year and they still have players who remember that era, but they’re not that team anymore.

That meant that they entered the season with legacy contracts like those to Ryan Getzlaf, Adam Henrique, Jakob Silfverberg, and although his career is unfortunately over, Ryan Kesler. They also featured quite a few players in their prime like Cam Fowler, Josh Manson, Kevin Shattenkirk, Rickard Rakell, and goaltender John Gibson, to name a handful of noteworthy examples.

So this isn’t a young up-and-coming team even if it does feature some young talent that could be highlighted as being the initial pieces of a rebuild. This is a team caught between generations and while those veterans were able to at least keep Anaheim respectable in 2019-20 with a 29-33-9 record, the bottom fell out this year.

This wasn’t a case of a team going through ups-and-downs. Anaheim never won more than two games in a row en route to a 17-30-9 record, so while they did have some stretches that were worse than others, things were never particularly promising. This also isn’t a case of a team that was substantially held back by injuries. Starting goaltender John Gibson did miss some time, but he still ended up making 35 starts. Jakob Silfverberg to 47 games and Ryan Getzlaf to 48 games, which is all noteworthy, but not substantial. Every team has injuries and all things considered Anaheim was not unusually unlucky in that regard.

This was just a team that didn’t seem good enough. Getzlaf, once the offensive leader of the team, is past his prime and contributed just five goals and 17 points in 48 games. Rickard Rakell being limited to nine goals and 28 points in 52 games was disappointing, though it’s been a few years now since he last surpassed the 30-goal mark. Adam Henrique was somewhat disappointing too with 12 goals and 21 points in 45 contests, but even when he’s having a good year, he’s more of a supporting cast member than an offensive leader.

Which is a big part of the Ducks’ problem: They lack players who can drive their offense. The Ducks finished last in the league with 2.21 goals per game and their offense has been bad for a while now. The last time they were even a middle of the pack team was back in 2017-18 and that was when Getzlaf was still a point-per-game player, Rakell was playing like an elite forward, Perry was on the team and at least contributing at an okay pace, allowing Silfverberg, Ondrej Kase, Adam Henrique, and Andrew Cogliano to serve as the secondary scorers they were meant to be.

In 2020-21, the team lacked a star forward and rather than pick up the slack, their would-be secondary scorers mostly wilted. No one on the team came close to 20 goals and only two players even reached the 25-point milestone. Max Comtois was the closest thing to a bright spot with 16 goals and 33 points in 55 contests. He’s 22-years-old, so there is some upside there and some hope he can be a part of the Ducks’ long-term solution.

The Ducks didn’t fare much better at their own end of the ice. John Gibson is a well-regarded goaltender, but he couldn’t hold his own with the team in front of him. Instead he finished with a 9-19-7 record, 2.98 GAA, and .903 save percentage in 35 starts. Gibson doesn’t deserve all the blame for the Ducks’ woes, but it’s at least fair to say that he was unable to elevate the team. On occasion he did steal a win for Anaheim, but it didn’t happen often.

Going forward Anaheim does have some cap flexibility though. Getzlaf’s $8.25 million and David Backes’ $4.5 million cap hits are coming off the books. That puts the Ducks in a position to be a major player in the UFA and trade markets. Though that’s potentially a double-edged sword. The ability to sign or trade for a big-name player is great, but this doesn’t look like a team that’s one or even two key assets away from competing. So is making a big splash the answer or would that just push them towards mediocrity instead of the rebuild they seem to truly need to go through? We’ll have to see what they do, but this summer could define Anaheim for years to come.

John Gibson – Gibson can’t single-handily carry the team nor should he be expected to, but the Ducks do need him to be a leader. Back in August 2018, the Ducks made a long-term commitment to him, signing him to an eight-year, $51.2 million contract through 2026-27. So far he hasn’t really lived up to that contract, but then again the team in front of him has been rather bad. If the team is going to take a step forward next season though, Gibson is going to have to be a driving force of that.

Troy Terry – Terry set career-highs in 2020-21 with seven goals and 20 points in 48 games. Those aren’t amazing numbers, but it is a significant step forward and on the Ducks, it was good enough to make him one of their main offensive threats. It’s worth noting he also stood out from a Corsi/Fenwick perspective, having even strength plus-5.0 and plus-5.1 relative percentages in Corsi and Fenwick respectively. What that implies is that the Ducks were significantly better when he was on the ice compared to when he was off it.

Max Comtois – As mentioned above, Comtois was the Ducks’ offensive leader with 16 goals and 33 points in 55 games. He won’t celebrate his 23rd birthday until January, so he could continue to grow and become one of the Ducks’ key players for years to come. It’s worth noting that he’ll become a restricted free agent this summer, so it will be interesting to see what kind of contract he’ll get. I’m guessing the Ducks and Comtois will agree to a bridge contract so that he has more time to prove his worth before agreeing to a long-term deal.

Max Jones – With seven goals and 11 points in 46 games, Jones didn’t stand out offensively in his third NHL campaign, but he is becoming a well-rounded player. He finished third on the team with 100 hits and started 54.6% of his even strength shifts in the defensive zone, making it his first campaign where he started most of his shifts in that situation. That helps highlight Jones’ growing defensive responsibilities and if the 23-year-old can come into his own offensively too then he could be a valuable part of the Jones’ squad.