You know you’ve gotten things unfathomably wrong for an unfathomably long time when you are held up as an example of why teams in any sport shouldn’t rebuild. That was always the call when a GM was threatening to tear it down from paranoid fans and media alike. “Look at the Buffalo Sabres! They’ve been rebuilding for a decade!” They were that lot near your house where simply nothing ever went in and if anything did it lasted a few months before closing while you were sure it was a front for something.
The Buffalo Sabres weren’t a front for anything, other than maybe ennui. It is now 11 years and counting since they appeared in the playoffs, which is like going back to the Mesozoic era in NHL years. A playoff spot should just land on you one year in 10, especially with the smattering of shortened seasons the league has seen in that time. Unless you’re the Coyotes, of course. But if you’re matching the Coyotes’ record of success over a 10-year stretch, you need directions on how to get the hell away from there as quickly as possible.
The playoff drought may not be coming to an end this spring quite yet, but it does feel like there’s something finally bubbling on Lake Erie that isn’t Josh Allen-related.
The Sabres fustigated fellow up-and-comer (or wannabe up-and-comer) Detroit last night 8-3. Top center Tage Thompson had five points. Rasmus Dahlin piled in his sixth goal of the year. Dead-eyed sniper Dylan Cozens nearly took Alex Nedeljkovic’s ear off for his goal. New hotness Jack Quinn scored his first of the year. The Sabres…have weapons everywhere? What is this?
It was the Sabres’ fifth win in seven games. They aced a western swing, including beating the Flames and Oilers back-to-back to the tune of a 10-5 combined score. They’re the second-highest-scoring team in the league. They play fast and lively. They’re big as well. They can score from three different lines. They have dynamic passers like J.J. Peterka. They are very spicy indeed. Hell, Jeff Skinner might actually score goals that matter for the first time ever.
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The metrics back up what the Sabres have been doing for the most part, being above 50 percent in both attempts-share and expected goals share. Yeah, they’re shooting nearly 10 percent, which is probably a little high for where they’ll eventually settle, but they also have a plethora of talented if unestablished scorers, which might keep their shooting percentage up. They’ve even gotten plus goaltending from old man Craig Anderson. He’s only the backup, but has steadied the ship while starter Eric Comrie figures it out.
It’s obviously been a long time in the wilderness for the Sabres, which they now look to be coming out of. The first dive to the bottom netted Jack Eichel, but that all fell apart with other mismanagement, and the fact that Eichel just might not be that guy, meant that the whole project never got off the ground. The Sabres now appear to be trying to reemerge through a collective effort instead of hitching themselves to the back of one hoped-to-be generational star.
The big unveiling so far this year has been Thompson, who was the centerpiece of the Ryan O’Reilly trade. Thompson is a house at 6-foot-6 but with great hands, and it’s always a slightly longer arc for players like that to find the balance between their size and skill and how to balance it. They come up being able to dangle through everyone in juniors or college, while easily overpowering opponents not all that far removed from puberty without much effort. But then they play against pros, and they can’t always dance with the puck out of whatever jam they have and players can physically hang with them. Some never find it. Thompson showed what could be last year with 68 points in 78 games, and so far this season he’s been unplayable with 12 points in nine. His defensive game could still use some work, but he’s outrunning it so far with his scoring.
But he’s hardly alone on the list. Victor Olofsson has six goals already. Cozens has combined with Peterka and Alex Tuch (part of the return for Eichel) to form a nifty two-way line. Tuch especially always seems to make the exact right pass at the exact right time, while doing it all with a pretty annoying snarl (it’s not a bad thing if he’s on your team). While it took a month for Quinn to net, he flashes a predisposition to find the soft spots in the offensive zone and his vicious release is going to net a haul of goals quite soon.
The real root of the Sabres excitement though is on the blue line, with Dahlin and Owen Power. Dahlin is playing at a Norris Trophy level so far this season, with 12 points. But his metrics are off the charts, with 54+ percent marks in Corsi and xG percentage while starting only 40 percent of his shifts in the offensive zone. Power anchors the second pairing, and he’s also a monster at 6-foot-6 but skates like a ballet dancer. The points haven’t quite come yet, but they will given his aggressiveness and his vision. He’s just 19 and only 17 games removed from playing at the University of Michigan. He has all the runway left. Both allow the Sabres to play up the ice, not afraid to stop opposing rushes at the red line, confident in their recovery speed, or to keep plays alive at the offensive blue line while being skilled enough to carry the puck out of their zone or laser a breakout pass that starts an odd-man rush.
Is it enough to make the playoffs? That’s still some tall timber. In the Atlantic, the automatic spots are a closed club where even all of Tampa, Boston, Toronto, and Florida can’t be guaranteed entry. Which leaves only one wildcard spot in the East open, and that’s a scramble. Comrie isn’t enough to survive that, likely, as he only has one season of success as a backup in Winnipeg. And Anderson isn’t going to carry a team shortly before getting his AARP card.
Still, Sabres fans will be more than satisfied by being entertained every night, and the Sabres are going to pile up the goals. They’ll also be more satisfied, after all this time, to feel like it’s all headed somewhere with much better light. Buffalo and excitement, it still doesn’t quite roll off the tongue, but that’s the deal now.