The Buffalo Sabres have been on the road since the 25th. February 0-15-3. They hold the record for the longest streak without a win in the shootout era (since 2005-06) and have topped the Pittsburgh Penguins (2003-04) for most consecutive losses – including overtime and shootout losses – in the 21st century.
How did they get there and how can it get worse? Also: How do they get back on track – and could the jack-acorn swap finally happen?
ESPN’s Emily Kaplan and Greg Wisinski report:
Vyshinsky: Let’s start by defining the terms. The NHL maintains that the Sabres are 18 games on the winning side, not the losing side. I mean: The standings indicate that the current series is a loss in extension, not L18, as the NHL only considers a loss in regulation time.
I know it’s a strange concept, but a loss is a loss, and the Sabres have 18 in a row. The combination of a confusing roster format and a technical component that undermines the sensational narrative is truly the pinnacle of the NHL. What do you think of this show, Emily?
Chaplain: If you lose in extension, it still means you lost. I’ve never heard a hockey player count a point in extension as a win. My honest opinion: I hate the semantic debate almost as much as the band itself.
And when I say I hate it, I mean I hate how it affects the players. You could say they were really yelling at him. After Monday’s collapse in the third period (when the Sabres squandered a 3-0 lead in the third period), Brandon Montour used those words in an awkward and cruel way. Rasmus Dahlin said the team had a panic attack.
Interim coach Don Granato tries to instill positivity, but these problems are deeply rooted. Captain Jack Eichel (upper body injury) has been out of action for 11 games and has no plans to return. Eric Staal, one of general manager Kevin Adams’ top talents, has already been traded. The other, Taylor Hall, is likely to follow. And all that interests me: How do they get out of this situation?
Vyshinsky: Optimism and the 2021 Buffalo Sabres go together like a candle and a bunch of rotten fish. But they had a heartbreaker on Monday night against the Flyers before going down, and played two of their best periods in a month.
If we were caught in an open net, would we be talking about panic? I’d say we’ve made a few mistakes. I wouldn’t say we panicked. We’ve gone a bit too far.
The coach knows he took over the team looking for a glimmer of hope. After six games at work, he’s starting to find little moments, little segments to get a foothold in the film session. It’s easy and embarrassing for a collection of NHL players, but it’s the only way.
Buffalo has one more game against the Flyers, then four against the Rangers and Devils, teams the Sabres just won against this season. I wouldn’t be surprised if Buffalo is still winless in Game 19 either. I’d be surprised if this series is on the 8th. April wouldn’t be over if the game was over. Emily, do you agree that the Winnipeg Jets’ 30-win record from 1980-81 is safe?
Chaplain: I agree with you. The Sabres are a bad hockey team – and it will get worse if any players are taken off the roster before the trade deadline, but they are not completely incompetent. So far in the series, the Sabres have a 44% 5-on-5 success rate, according to Natural Stat Trick. It’s not great, but it’s not the worst in the league during that time either. The Coyotes, who have already won three games and are just one point away from the West Division playoffs, have an even lower bid. The Sabres’ Corsi ranks 26th in the league in 5-on-5 percentage during that time, followed by two playoff teams (Wild and Jets).
So there are signs of life. Buffalo goalie Linus Ulmark is back after a month’s absence and is struggling as best he can. One big problem that hasn’t been solved yet: When will the Sabres get Eichel back, if at all this season? The 24-year-old is the franchise’s most important player and the emotional heart of this team. She was a beautiful mother on the trauma front. Eichel is still rehabbing and feeling better, according to Granato, and the team hopes he can return this season.
But maybe the better question is this: What does the future of Aichel in Buffalo look like after 2021? A year ago I wouldn’t have thought so, but do you think there’s a legitimate chance the team would sell their captain?
At what point does it make sense for the team and the player to trade Jack Eichel? Patrick McDermott/NHLI via Getty Images.
Vyshinsky: In fact, these are two different issues. The first is whether Eichel has reached the tipping point. He was upset last summer. I don’t know if the world’s most comprehensive thesaurus can find a word to adequately express how Eichel felt after watching the Sabres drop back to .221 while the coach he admired was fired. If he wants to leave, the Sabres must honor that request.
If he wants to stay… Will the Sabres trade him anyway? Acorn’s centers for age, ability, and tenure are rarely available. There are teams like the Kings and the Rangers who can quickly replenish the cupboard in exchange for Eichel. I tend to think the Sabres have an interest in using Eichel as the basis for what their next construction will look like. But maybe it’s not entirely up to them. Emily, what’s the best plan for the Sabres?
Chaplain: First, the immediate plan: Pick up till 12. April, as many perspectives and sketches as possible. Make sober decisions – and that may mean abandoning the latest models that don’t work well yet.
Which we haven’t talked about yet: This season is not an isolated problem for the Sabres. They haven’t played a game in 9 years (soon to be 10), and that’s the longest in the league. The associations in the Free Agency did not help; they have to be rebuilt from scratch: During the pandemic, Buffalo cut its scouting department considerably, and many of those positions went unfilled. The Sabres have had no scouting in Russia in recent years. They don’t have a scout in Finland. They haven’t sent any scouts to the UHL or OHL this season either (although the OHL season isn’t over yet). They rely heavily on video scouting for the 2021 draft, which may not be ideal.
Organizationally, the Sabres must first strengthen the unit, but that means an even bigger financial commitment from team owners Terry and Kim Pegula. More importantly, the Sabres need stability. You can’t keep rotating coaches and managers. They need a voice, a direction, because this turnaround has gotten them nowhere. Greg, do you see any reason to be optimistic that a quicker solution is possible?
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Vyshinsky: I was talking to another team leader this week who told me something that surprised me. I don’t think the Sabres are that far away, he said. A new coach who can change the attitude of the team and they are not that bad.
You have the wrong coach. The season was interrupted by COVID-19. Today they are caught in a vortex of historic proportions and don’t know how to get their noses out of the gears.
I admit, looking at the Sabres and thinking about their potential for 2021-22 is like walking into a run-down haunted house and measuring for an open concept kitchen/dining room, but …. I love the floor and the accessories…. Am I not one of them?
Chaplain: Sometimes I get the impression that you are not on your side (for example, you insist that Central Jersey is a real place), but not here.
The hardest thing to get in the NHL is the number one center. The Sabres have a guy on their roster who signed a long-term contract and is about to reach his athletic peak. (Obligatory reminder that Eichel is only 24 years old).
Buffalo can use the rest of the season to determine if Ullmark can be the answer in goal or if they should look elsewhere. Dahlin, the No. 1 pick in the 2018 draft, was considered a generational talent. Sure, it’s funny to say the Sabres ruined him, but he’s only 20. Maybe they accelerated its development. More likely: They underestimate the negative effect that being surrounded by a culture of defeat can have on a young player. With a better support system around her, she still has time to grow.
But maybe I’m an optimist. Maybe it has to get worse before it gets better.
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