Grading the 2018-19 Sabres at midseason

Though some may be reaching for the panic button right now, the Buffalo Sabres’ 2018-19 season has been very good for the most part as it nears the halfway point in January.

The team has struggled heavily as of late and has fallen from a playoff spot, but the Sabres are still in position to potentially end their eight-year playoff drought if they can right the ship and get back to winning consistently. Buffalo is one point behind Montreal for the second Eastern Conference Wild Card as of 1/13.

Apologies to my favorite pro wrestling critic Simon Miller for stealing his rating system, but the only thing I can think to do to review the first half of the season is grade the Sabres by department based on a simple scale: positive or negative. Let’s do it, Sports Chillers.

Goaltending: Up

We’ll start with the most obvious. It would be impossible even for the most cynical fans to deny that the Buffalo Sabres’ goaltending corps has improved substantially this season. The tandem of veteran Carter Hutton and youngster Linus Ullmark were tasked in October with picking up the shards of the Robin Lehner era and stabilizing the team’s shoddy netminding. The duo has delivered and then some.

Hutton has carried a majority of the load and generated All-Star buzz, though he was ultimately not named. Ullmark hasn’t seen as much time, but is proving more and more with each start that he is the future of the team in net and that GM Jason Botterill was smart to keep him Rochester as long as he did. Though Hutton is considered the no.1, Ullmark has seen far more time than most backups and head coach Phil Housley has managed the duo well, not allowing either to be overworked.

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Carter Hutton (left) and Linus Ullmark have carried Buffalo as a tandem.

It’s amazing how much better a team can be with solid and consistent goaltending. Lehner wasn’t the worst backstop Buffalo has ever had, but he never seemed to be able to come up with that big save when it counted most, and it’s effect on his team was evident. Now that Buffalo has a guy in net every night who can do that for the first time since Ryan Miller departed in 2014, things are looking up.

Defense: Up

Buffalo’s defense, which had likewise been woeful over the last three seasons, has also improved remarkably from top to bottom. The presence of rookie phenom Rasmus Dahlin has evidently energized the rest of the bunch and has brought out better performances all around. The 18-year-old got off to a slow start but has shown multiple glimpses of the freak he will become when he matures. The NHL is quite high on Vancouver’s Elias Petterson right now, but don’t rule Dahlin out of the Calder race.

A big problem for Housley last season was the minutes Rasmus Ristolainen was getting that couldn’t be dished out to Marco Scandella because he under-performed so badly. Ristolainen was massively overworked as a result and had a subpar season of his own. Entering this season, my biggest fear would be that Dahlin would get those minutes shoveled onto him to alleviate the weight on Risto, which wouldn’t have been good in any regard. Scandella continues to be awful, but Housley has found that relief, and it came in the form of two unlikely candidates.

Another reason why Buffalo’s defense left so much to be desired in a season in which it was expected to improve is because fellow newcomer Nathan Beaulieu also underwhelmed and Zach Bogosian turned in yet another season that was chopped up by injury. I admit I was barking for Bogo Buyout over the summer, but the team did not do that, and it turned out being the right call.

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A strong rebound season from Zach Bogosian thus far has helped rejuvenate a Sabres defense that has struggled for years.

If there’s any candidate for most improved player on the team this season, Bogosian is it. He’s finally managed to remain healthy and has appeared in 40 games as of Saturday. No injuries to worry about have allowed him to be more of the player Buffalo thought it was getting in 2015, and Housley has rewarded him with top-level playing time. This has kept the weight off Ristolainen and Dahlin as well.

Beaulieu too could be given the most improved award and looks like a completely different player than we saw last year. His second go-around has seen some solid offensive contributions and his positional play has too improved. Unfortunately, Beaulieu is one of many Sabres who have been bitten by the injury bug at one point or another.

Defensive defenseman Jake McCabe has been solid as always as the anchor of the Buffalo blueliners and continues to develop into one of the game’s better stay-at-home defenders. Casey Nelson has done so as well despite spending a great deal of time with Beaulieu on the IR. Defense-oriented defensemen are thought less of the by the League because they don’t light up the score sheet like contemporaries Erik Karlsson, Brent Burns and PK Subban. However, guys like Ryan Suter, Danny DeKeyser and Marc-Edouard Vlasic have proven that there is just as much value in playing conservatively as there is in rushing the puck up ice. McCabe and Nelson are providing just that for their team.

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Jake McCabe continues to be as valuable to the Sabres as he is underrated.

The only downside I can honestly think other than Scandella, which pretty much goes without saying at this point, is Lawrence Pilut. The 23 year old that was the talk of the Swedish Hockey League last season impressed Buffalo’s brass enough to earn his first taste of the action and was called up on November 30. I may be the only one who thinks this, but I haven’t liked what I’ve seen. Pilut is far too careless with the puck and has caused a lot of turnovers that have lead to goals-against. This isn’t a big deal because he’s young and young guys do this, but what gets me is that the commentators have been singing his praises in spite of this. What I see of Pilut thus far reminds me too much of Brian Campbell and Andrej Sekera. I will give him props for scoring his first career NHL goal against New Jersey last Tuesday, but the Swede has to be smarter with the puck and cause less turnovers.

Pilut is now “the next big thing” for Sabres and as a result it suddenly feels like Brendan Guhle doesn’t figure into the team’s long term plans anymore. It’s a bit baffling simply because of how fast this has happened, but Guhle doesn’t seem to be destined for a spot with Buffalo any longer and could be traded down the line. If this is the case, Botterill better get a big return for him,

Offense: Down

Unfortunately, we have to conclude on a negative here, but it’s the topic of endless discussion lately. The blockbuster trade made last summer that sent Ryan O’Reilly to St. Louis in exchange for Vladimir Sobotka, Patrik Berglund and Tage Thompson was devised to revamp the Sabres’ bottom two lines and provide more secondary scoring to supplement the likes of Jack Eichel, Sam Reinhart and Kyle Okposo. That hasn’t happened.

Berglund’s brief tenure with the team, similar to that of Dmitry Kulikov a few seasons ago, was marked by apparent dissatisfaction. He was reportedly unhappy after being traded to the Sabres because St. Louis used a technicality to snake around his no-movement clause and send him to Buffalo. It’s still bizarre because none of this seemed to be apparent at first, as Berglund even said in an August interview that he was excited for the opportunity with Buffalo and to serve as a mentor to fellow Swede Dahlin. Over the next two months, all the cracks started showing.

Buffalo suddenly announced on December 15 that Berglund was suspended indefinitely when he failed to report to the team after missing two games with an alleged illness. Four days later Botterill announced that Berglund’s contract had been terminated. In his 23 game career with the Sabres, Berglund scored just two goals and two assists. He walks away from more than $12 million in salary as a result. This doesn’t really hurt the Sabres at all, though. Berglund was hardly contributing and the team doesn’t have the hit of his contract on the cap to worry about anymore.

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Patrik Berglund’s tumultuous tenure with the Sabres is just part of the reason why the Ryan O’Reilly trade hasn’t worked out in the short-term.

Vladimir Sobotka has also been disappointing. Though you can give him credit for lasting longer than his former Blues teammate, the Czech has not contributed much more and has just six points through 39 games and is currently a -8. That’s not what Buffalo was expecting when it traded away it’s second-biggest offensive threat. Sobotka is a waste of a roster spot right now that could be filled by a younger, more promising talent like CJ Smith, who also scored his first career goal against the Devils on Tuesday. With Berglund being a complete bust and Sobotka turning in a point once every three weeks, it’s tough to argue that the ROR trade has worked out in the short term.

Another newcomer via a separate offseason trade, Connor Sheary has too produced very little. Botterill didn’t bring him here to lead the team in scoring, but it’s safe to assume more than 17 points in 41 games was expected. Sheary serves well as a pest of sorts who can frustrate opponents with his relentless play, but he needs more production to prove acquiring him wasn’t a gaffe.

Sympathy can be felt for a pair of young players have been forced to fight through growing pains. The centerpiece of the ROR deal, 21-year-old Tage Thompson can’t be blamed for his lack of contributions because it can be argued that he shouldn’t even be in the NHL right now. The towering winger has shown great poise at points so far, but it’s evident that he could use more AHL seasoning than just the brief stint he had with the Chicago Wolves two seasons ago. The same can be said for 2017 eighth overall pick Casey Mittelstadt, who was thrust into the role of no.2 center as a result of the trade. Mittelstadt has also displayed how good he’s going to be, but it’s quite obvious that he’s not ready. You can’t hold it against either of the young bloods, they’re getting a true trial by fire and should both be with the Amerks right now.

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Tage Thompson has shown promise despite his struggles.

Nearly 100% of Buffalo’s offense this season has come from Jack Eichel, Sam Reinhart and another offseason acquisition Jeff Skinner. Eichel is currently having his best season with 49 points while Skinner is second in the NHL with 30 goals. Reinhart on the other hand is continuing to prove that he has the brains to be an offensive super threat. If it wasn’t for these three, the Sabres may be in a far worse place seeing as a player that the team was counting on to be a key contributor is having a very tough go of it.

Kyle Okposo is mired in the worst season of his career right now. I understand that he was battling some pretty severe mental issues over the past year and it is very good that these have come to an end. But, with Okposo healthy and in good mind there’s no way to say that 18 points in 45 games from the alternate captain isn’t an issue. He’s one of the highest paid players on the Sabres, and as a leader his team needs more from him, especially if they want to snap this mid-season funk and stop it from becoming a free-fall.

Despite the Sabres’ recent struggles, it’s still very likely that Phil Housley’s name is in Jack Adams consideration for the turnaround that Buffalo has shown in his second season. That being said, one of his less intelligent moves was wasting a hot start from Jason Pominville. The 36-year-old appeared to be having a renaissance season playing alongside Eichel and Skinner to form the “J-Crew” line and worked seamlessly with them. The trio was putting out points at a torrid rate when Housley decided to break it up and insert Reinhart in Pominville’s place, which has worked out gangbusters for Samson, but not Pommer. He’s been relegated to the bottom two lines since and his production has decreased considerably. With Buffalo’s scoring woes as of late, reforming the line isn’t a bad idea.

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“J-Crew” was a force for Buffalo in the first half and turned into one of the NHL’s best lines. The team hasn’t had much offense beyond it.

Botterill has an embarrassment of riches to deal with in terms of Buffalo’s current trade assets. Thanks for the O’Reilly and Evander Kane trades, Buffalo is guaranteed four first round picks over the next two drafts. Botterill needs to spend one of those picks on a scoring upgrade sometime soon to help Buffalo get back on track. The team won’t be destined for much with such a dearth of scoring. It doesn’t really matter who it is, just get a good player that helps put the puck in the net. Packaging Guhle with one of them would bolster the likelihood of a big return.

Though the Sabres have been struggling to find any kind of consistency lately, I don’t think this season is beyond saving. Buffalo lost two games this weekend that it should have won and are now officially out of a playoff spot, but only by a single point. They can still turn it around if the pieces start getting back on track.

The team heads to Edmonton tomorrow night where Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel will clash for the first time as captains of their respective teams. Despite McJesus’s usual brilliance, Edmonton has had a difficult season and is playing .500 hockey. Buffalo can’t afford to lose another game to a team it can beat. Tune in at 9:00 PM ET for the action.

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