The Buffalo Sabres have gotten off to a 9-2-1 start in this early season, earning themselves a spot atop of the NHL Standings. However, one doesn’t have to look to far back to realize the Sabres have reached this spot before. One can look back to last year, where the Sabres had a ten game win streak into the end of November, landing themselves in first place in the NHL. They were 17-7-3 at the end of November, sitting atop with 37 points. They proceeded to go 16-32-7 in the final 4.5 months of the season to miss the playoffs for an 8th straight season – the highest active streak in the NHL.
What is Different?
Ralph Krueger brings a Presence
Ralph Krueger, new head coach of the Sabres, has the team playing a style more suited for this team’s talent and this “new NHL”. A coach that lasted just one season with the 2012-13 shortened season Oilers, missing the playoffs with 45 points in 48 games. Krueger gives the Sabres a new identity full of pep, accountability and a winning mentality. Eichel is quoted saying: “It's just the overall connection. He's done so much to get us to buy into what he's saying ... it's his delivery, it's his message, and it’s the energy he brings. He's such a positive person.” When a coach can get a captain, like Eichel, to buy into a message and an identity, the whole team will buy in as well. Last season, the Sabres were winning a lot of close games that they were blowing leads. They were winning games based off their skill, rather than their effort. This season looks different already. They are not only winning games, but they are holding off comeback efforts and have a couple of come-from-behind victories of their own. The effort is maximizing their talent, and it’s showing thus far.
Carter Hutton is loving the new system.
He is currently 6-1-0 with two shutouts, a 2.27 GAA and a .920 SV%. Last season he had an 18-25-5 record with zero shutouts, 3.00GAA and .908 SV%. Hutton has embraced the coach’s culture and it shows with his play. He seems calmer in the net and is seeing the puck much better than last season. There is also good news in terms of advanced stats… he does have room to improve. He has an actual save% on unblocked shots of 95.71%... 0.169% points less than his expected save percentage on unblocked shots. This stat takes on a lot of factors, including shot difficulty, time of game when shots occur and situations (PP, EV, SH) that those shots occur. With Hutton already playing very well behind a solid system, it is good news for the Sabres knowing they can get a little more from their primary backstop.
Rasmus Dahlin. No Sophomore Slump?
Dahlin has looked faster, stronger and just plain better thus far. He is sitting at ten points in twelve games, while quarterbacking a top three power-play in the league. (Dahlin has seven power-play points) His vision and skating abilities are really shining through this season. He is able to break into the offensive end or make a slick breakout pass from anywhere in the defensive end. His defensive play still needs a bit of work as he is a minus-3 on the season thus far. He is already ranked in the top-10 offensive defencemen, but if he can improve on his defensive side… Dahlin will be in talks for the Norris Trophy as soon as this season.
Jack Eichel is Growing Up
Jack Eichel has been an absolute force this season, racking up 16 points in his first 12 games, 8 on their lethal power-play. Eichel has not only grown as a player, but has also been calmer and developed as a true leader under Krueger. Carter Hutton mentioned a few games back that he noticed a difference in Jack Eichel, he was calmer in the room, calmer with the puck and more focused on winning the game. Eichel, like Hutton, still have some potential to grow with their underlying advanced stats. Eichel has 0.74 goals less than his expected goals for this season. It doesn’t seem like much, however if he carries the .74 / 10 games over the course of the season… it could impact him by 7 goals by the end of the season. His goal total should trend upwards because of the high number of high-danger scoring chances he is currently getting. Eichel has a different tone in the media and on the ice. He acts more professional and it’s showing in his game that he is able to let a small call go or at least influence him in a positive manner. I expect his numbers to continue to rise this season to a career year of over 100 points.
Beating Playoff Contenders
In an early podcast this season, I gave a list of all of the teams that I believed were going to make the playoffs. Although Buffalo was not one of those teams… they are contending with every projected playoff team so far. They have played six games against teams that I projected in the playoffs and six games against teams I projected to miss the playoffs.
Record against projected playoff teams: 6-0-0, 27 GF, 14 GA (FLA, DAL, NJD, MTL, SJS, SJS)
Record against projected non-playoff teams: 3-2-1, 15 GF, 16 GA (CBJ, ANA, LAK, PIT, NYR, DET)
This can be seen as good and bad. This means they are certainly able to elevate their game to any teams’ level as shown by their record against projected playoff teams. However, they seem to also have a tendency to play down to the lower teams level, as shown by their record against projected non-playoff teams.
The Sabres have a tough next five (5) games ahead that should give them a better understanding of where their team should be headed for the rest of the season.
Oct. 28 - at Arizona (Currently 6-1-1 in their past 8 games)
Nov. 1 - at Washington (Projected Metropolitan Division Leader)
Nov. 2 - vs New York Islanders (Currently on 7 game win-streak) – tail end of a back-to-back
Nov. 8 - vs Tampa Bay (Projected Atlantic Division Leader) – Home and Home Gm1
Nov. 9 - @ Tampa Bay (Record for wins last season with the same team) – Home and Home Gm2
As the Sabres sit atop of the NHL Standings early on for the second season in a row… they hope to continue their rise this year, instead of crashing out of a playoff spot like last season. Time will tell if the Sabres can continue their early season dominance. If they do, it would not be shocking to see them use some, if not all of their $4.9million in cap space to do something special heading into the playoffs.
Eichel proves to be the franchise centre they've been waiting on by contributing over 100 points on the season.
Dahlin gets enough votes to be a finalist for the Norris Trophy by providing over 70 points on the season.
Ralph Krueger wins the Jack Adams Trophy for coach of the year by breaking the 8 year playoff drought that the Sabres are currently having.
The Sabres finish top three in the division, knocking one of the Lightning, Bruins or Maple Leafs into a fight for a wild card spot.