Buffalo probably thought it escaped sporting hell this past fall when the Bills finally won their division and got to the AFC Championship game, looking poised to be a competitor for the next couple years. A city that hadn’t even had a relevant team for a couple of decades could finally cheer something.
Don’t worry, the Sabres are here to keep everyone on Lake Eerie grounded.
The Sabres lost their seventh in a row this afternoon, a third-straight 5-2 loss to the Islanders (and the Isles have used this series against the cycle of ennui that is the Sabres to propel themselves into first in the East without anyone noticing). Not only are the Sabres last in the East, they’re last in the whole NHL, which is a great spot to be in a year where there might not even be a draft.
If you’re only a casual NHL fan, this might not sound all that abnormal. The Sabres have been a synonym for incompetence, waste, and misfortune for nearly 10 years, with 2011 being the last time they made the playoffs. But it wasn’t supposed to be like this. Buffalo didn’t convince Taylor Hall to take a one-year audition deal to end up with their dick in the dirt every night. They didn’t hand Jeff Skinner $9 million a year to choke on vomit from now until the oceans gobble up the city. Bringing in Eric Staal for one year is the maneuver of a team that thinks it can make the playoffs. And all of this is with Jack Eichel pulling the Marissa Tomei-stomping-her-foot act about staying in town, possibly.
So what’s gone wrong? Just about everything. Of late, goalie Linus Ullmark’s injury has completely ravaged the Sabres’ goaltending. Carter Hutton is the definition of “a guy” (so you can expect him to be an NHL Network analyst in the next couple of years), and Jonas Johansson is clearly a made-up person. The Sabres have given up 27 goals in regulation in these seven losses.
But that’s not nearly it. Hall was imported to give Eichel a winger on his level, his wavelength. They have four goals combined. To be fair to the duo, they are dominating play when out there together, but both are suffering from simply devious career-lows in shooting-percentages right now, with Eichel at 3.3 percent and Hall at 3.5.
But other than that line, the Sabres get nothing from nowhere. No player other than Rasmus Ristolainen is above water in possession stats, and yesterday Mat Barzal showed everyone just how pointless Ristolainen is anyway. Jeff Skinner and Kyle Okposo have the same amount of goals this season as you do. It’s hard to pinpoint what even the foundations are supposed to be here.
All of this led to the report on Hockey Night in Canada yesterday that the Sabres are “open for business,” and will listen to anything. It’s start-over time, which means there’s an undercurrent of whether or not Eichel will be included in the clearance sale. Reports of Eichel’s unhappiness have surfaced before, and seem to get louder each time they pop up. Being the league’s wooden spooner in his sixth season, never having come within radio distance of the playoffs, is almost certainly not what he had in mind nor was promised when he signed his big extension.
That doesn’t mean everything is happening to Eichel, and not necessarily because of him. While a very good player, if he were some franchise-shifting talent we would probably know by now. He was taken right behind Connor McDavid and promised the same organizational floor as McDavid while allowing for dreams of the same ceiling. While McDavid’s organization is no more competent than the Sabres, at least McDavid keeps the Oilers around the playoffs. Eichel hasn’t managed that, though he’s never had a Leon Draisaitl type to aid the cause (which is what Hall was supposed to be). Until this year, Eichel had gotten his points but never really dominated play. It has to be asked whether he’s a real number one center on a Cup-winning team, and if he is, whether he can ever be that in Buffalo. One player can’t carry a whole team, but it’s fair to ask if it can be more than this with Eichel, or what Eichel was supposed to be.
The Sabres are still paying for all the missteps of previous GM Jason Botterill, but the Sabres are always paying for the mistakes of a previous GM. Botterill handed all the money to Jeff Skinner, who has spent his whole career earning the label of the king of “Yeah, But Who Gives A Shit?” in that he’ll score 35+ goals every year and not a single one of them will matter. Kyle Okposo has scored 57 goals in five seasons. Ristolainen has been Benny Hill on the blue line for his entire career and yet got a six-year deal out of Botterill.
In addition, Botterill couldn’t draft for shit either, netting the Sabres Eichel and Rasmus Dahlin, who were top-two picks, and Casey Mittelstadt in three attempts. There isn’t much on the way either.
Moving Eichel would net the most return, but moving a $10 million contract in a flat-cap NHL will take more than a smile and a nudge. It will also signal yet another multi-year rebuild, which the Sabres have been through two or three times since their last playoff appearance. Eichel, whatever he is or isn’t, is the type of player whose trade a team can almost never win. And then the Sabres would just be looking for another Eichel, or the idealization of Eichel. It’s a slippery slope.
Dahlin would appear to be the only building block in town, and the Sabres are lucky that he’s four years away from being able to force his way out of town. It’s never completely sunny in Buffalo.