It’s unclear whether or not there’s actually a rock bottom when it comes to the Buffalo Sabres, but the 2020-21 iteration is doing its darndest to find out.
The Sabres’ 3-2 loss to the New Jersey Devils on Tuesday night ran their winless streak to 12 games and their overall record to a league-worst 6-18-4. For reference, the team’s points percentage of .286 is worse than that of both the 2013-14 (.317) and 2014-15 (.329) squads that were actively trying to lose games.
On Wednesday morning, general manager Kevyn Adams finally put Ralph Krueger out of his misery, firing the Sabres’ head coach at precisely the halfway point of the campaign. It’s a move that’s been long overdue in the eyes of many, though it won’t save Buffalo from extending its postseason drought to 10 years and counting.
With the Sabres officially halfway through their 2020-21 season, here’s a look at how the team grades out:
The Sabres are dead last in the NHL with 2.07 goals per game, and it’s not particularly close (the 30th-place Anaheim Ducks are at 2.20). There’s not much more that needs to be said about this team’s offense.
The reason this grade isn’t an outright “F” is twofold: first, the Sabres are also 31st in the league in shooting percentage (7.4%). This team just cannot find the back of the net. Whether it happens this season or next, that number simply has to go up.
Second, the team’s best player, Jack Eichel, has clearly not been at 100 percent this season and may very well be out for a large portion of the second half. That Eichel even has 18 points in 21 games is a testament to his talent, but his injury issues have had a cascading effect on the rest of the forward group.
Big names like Taylor Hall, Eric Staal, and Jeff Skinner are all having career-worst seasons, while the likes of Cody Eakin, Kyle Okposo, and Tage Thompson have done next to nothing in the bottom-six.
Former first-rounders Casey Mittelstadt and Dylan Cozens have shown promise that they can be contributors in the future. But by and large, the forward group has been a disaster zone for the Sabres.
It’s hard to overestimate how much the loss of Jake McCabe has impacted the Sabres’ blue line. The veteran d-man was playing the best hockey of his career, posting a 62.0 expected goals for percentage (xGF%), per Natural Stat Trick, before suffering a season-ending knee injury.
Meanwhile, Rasmus Ristolainen, who was also playing great before missing seven games due to COVID-19-related symptoms, hasn’t been the same since coming back. It was clear he was still suffering lingering effects of his illness while being asked to play top-pairing minutes, and as a result, has seen his xGF% drop to 45.2 percent.
Rasmus Dahlin appears to have been broken by Krueger’s defense-first system. The 20-year-old has lost confidence with the puck on his stick and has been a liability in his own end, boasting a league-worst minus-27 rating (in fact, Dahlin, Colin Miller, and Brandon Montour have three of the league’s 10 worst plus/minus ratings).
Jacob Bryson has shown flashes as a rookie, but Henri Jokiharju has taken a noticeable step back, and Matt Irwin doesn’t provide much at either end of the ice.
Buffalo’s defensemen have combined for just 11 goals this year; for reference, Montreal’s Jeff Petry has scored 11 by himself.
A lot of people pointed to Linus Ullmark’s lower-body injury suffered on Feb. 25 as the moment when Buffalo’s season was well and truly over. It may not have been the death knell, but it has certainly put the shortcomings of the team’s other goaltenders front and center.
Ullmark wasn’t in the running for the Vezina Trophy with a 5-4-2 record, .919 save percentage (SV%) and 2.44 goals against average. But it was a far cry better than what the Sabres have gotten from Carter Hutton and Jonas Johansson: the duo has combined to go 1-14-2 with matching .884 save percentages.
All three Buffalo goaltenders have negative goals saved above average marks, according to MoneyPuck. They certainly haven’t been getting much help given the play of the team’s skaters, but they also haven’t been anywhere near good enough to steal a win or two.
With both Ullmark and Hutton set to become unrestricted free agents after the season, the Sabres are poised to hit the reset button on the goaltending position.
Special Teams: B+
For as bad as the Sabres’ season has been, it’s surprising to look at their special teams numbers and find that they’re… actually pretty good.
The power play has cooled off considerably but still sits ninth in the NHL at 26.0%. Victor Olofsson may not provide much offense at even strength, but he’s continued to be a weapon on the man advantage, with 12 of his 19 points coming on the power play. While 10 different Sabres have scored a power play goal, only Olofsson and Sam Reinhart (five) have scored more than one.
Despite Buffalo’s struggles on the blue line and porous goaltending, its 79.7 percent penalty kill rate ranks 15th in the league. Curtis Lazar and Tobias Rieder have proven to be assets on the PK, and Casey Mittelstadt has even gotten some run at 4-on-5. It’s worth noting, though, that the Sabres are one of just three teams who have yet to score a short-handed goal.
It will be interesting to see what changes, if any, are made to the Sabres’ special teams with Krueger no longer around.
It’s no fun to pile on a guy who just lost his job, especially someone who seems as likeable and decent as Ralph Krueger. But the fact of the matter is that he went 36-49-12 (a points percentage of .433) in just over a full season as a head coach in Buffalo with a roster that had plenty of talent. He simply wasn’t good enough.
When a few players are having bad seasons, you can chalk it up to classic randomness and regression. But when pretty much every single player is having a bad season, you can’t help but look at the coach as the main reason why. For as much as the Sabres talked up Krueger, they simply could not succeed playing the style of hockey he wanted them to play.
There’s no doubt that there should be a place for Krueger in professional hockey. It just isn’t going to be with the Buffalo Sabres.
Interim head coach Don Granato will lead the Sabres as they open their season series against the Boston Bruins with a home doubleheader on Thursday and Saturday.
Born and raised in Buffalo, NY, Nick has a Bachelor’s degree in history from Boston University and a Master’s degree in journalism from Syracuse University. He interned at Little League International where he covered the Little League Baseball World Series. Nick then spent over three years as a newspaper sports reporter and editor at the Bradford Era in Bradford, PA and the Daily Freeman in Kingston, NY. He is currently living in Buffalo where he is still holding out hope for a Bills Super Bowl and/or Sabres Stanley Cup.