The Buffalo Sabres did not end 2018 on a high note, in fact quite the opposite. December was a rough month for the team after November couldn’t have gone much better. The Sabres posted a 4-6-3 record in the month of Christmas and lost considerable ground in the Atlantic Division race as a result.
The combination of Buffalo’s 3-1 New Year’s Eve loss and Boston’s 4-2 win in the Winter Classic gives the Bruins the third spot in the division, the Sabres have fallen to the first Wild Card spot.
The season up to this point has largely been good for Buffalo. The standout performances of Jack Eichel and Jeff Skinner and solid goaltending from Carter Hutton and Linus Ullmark has propelled the team from the cellar to a position to make the playoffs for the first time since 2011. But, with the team’s play as of late, their chances at the postseason suddenly seem jeopardized. As previously mentioned, Buffalo’s recent slump has resulted in a plummet to the first Eastern Conference Wild Card spot with 48 points. Montreal occupies the second with 47, and the New York Islanders are nipping at both team’s heels with 46.
Buffalo needs to start winning consistently again to get back into the thick of the race, and the team’s New Year’s resolution will have to be one thing to make this happen: get more scoring. Eichel and Skinner have been just about the team’s only source all season long thanks to Skinner’s 26 goals and Eichel’s 34 assists and 49 points. Outside of them, it’s been far more erratic. Sam Reinhart got off to a slow start for the second straight year but has also turned it around once again and has posted an impressive 30 assists alongside eight goals. The Rasmuses have provided steady contributions as well from the blue line, Ristolainen with 25 points and Dahlin with 20.
Unfortunately the list ends there. Many Sabres have left quite a bit to be desired this season. Most namely are newcomers Connor Sheary and Vladimir Sobotka. Neither were brought to the team with the expectation of being scoring leaders, but we definitely expected more from both. Sheary has just seven goals and assists for 14 points while Sobotka has just five points total. The Ryan O’Reilly trade was heralded as brilliant by some for its re-invigoration of the third and fourth lines. It hasn’t really worked out that way at all, but that’s a story for another time.
There are a few players whose production has been low, but they can’t be blamed for it. 36-year-old Jason Pominville was very hot to start the season playing alongside Eichel and Skinner to form the J-Crew line. However, since head coach Phil Housley has broken the trio up and inserted Reinhart, Pominville has found himself largely relegated to the bottom two lines alongside the likes of Johan Larsson, Zemgus Girgensons and Remi Elie, all grinders. Pommer has done well despite this and is a +4, but it’s not fair to stick him on the lower two lines when he was playing so well, it wastes the roll he was on.
Young bloods Casey Mittelstadt and Tage Thompson haven’t been lighting the scene on fire, but neither is truly ready to be playing full time. My biggest criticism of the ROR trade was that it left open a huge hole at center that the team would undoubtedly rush Mittelstadt into to fill it despite him clearly not being ready. I’m not a genius by any means but I was right in this regard. Mittelstadt has done well enough to stay above water, but with just 11 points on the year, it’s evident that more time in the AHL would serve him right. The exact same can be said for Thompson. Like Mittelstadt, the centerpiece of the ROR trade has shown glimpses of brilliance, but obviously still needs more seasoning before he can become a true force.
Then there’s Kyle Okposo, Buffalo’s biggest free agent signing in recent memory. Putting his John Hancock on a seven-year, $42 million contract on July 1, 2016, Okposo’s ride with the Sabres has been an up and down affair over his first three seasons. He immediately lived up to the hype and practically carried the team in his first year, but has struggled mightily since, both on the ice and off it. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not going to bash Okposo because we all know he’s had pretty serious head issues over the last years and, if there’s any truth to what his agent said over this past summer, he was in a considerably dark place for a while.
I’ve always liked Okposo as a player and as a personality, he’s a great veteran leader and the exact type of guy you want alongside the team’s younger guns as they continue to grow, but it’s very tough to deny that the guy has a reserved seat on the struggle bus. He scored on New Year’s Eve against his former team the Islanders and it was his first goal in 21 games. You read that correctly, 21 games. He has just six goals and 16 points on the year. The lack of goal scoring isn’t a big deal, Okposo has always been a setup man, not a finisher. 10 assists just isn’t enough for a guy who calls that his game. I like Okposo, but he needs to step it up and fast.
Buffalo’s case is not helped at all by the fact that Eichel left Monday’s game with an undisclosed upper-body injury and did not return. His status for tomorrow’s home game against Florida is unknown. If this injury turns into yet another long-term setback for Eichel, Buffalo may be up the proverbial estuary without the proper means of locomotion.
The team’s next few games are crucial. They need to win. No ifs, ands or buts.