As fall transitions into winter, the NHL season is almost 20% complete. At this point in the season, some teams have excelled that were expected to excel.
Of the 11 teams with at least 20 points on the season so far, seven made the Stanley Cup Playoffs last season (St. Louis Blues, Washington Capitals, Boston Bruins, New York Islanders, Nashville Predators, Las Vegas Golden Knights, and Calgary Flames). Two of those teams in the Blues and Bruins faced off in the Stanley Cup Final.
Of the remaining four teams, three of the four were surprising but were thought to be taking steps forward this season. The Edmonton Oilers have Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid and have gotten steady wing help from offseason acquisition James Neal, who has already surpassed his goal total from last year. The Vancouver Canucks revamped their team in the offseason and had received hype coming into the season. Also, the Arizona Coyotes just missed the playoffs last year.
That last team, though. Who is it?
Carolina Hurricanes? Strike one.
Toronto Maple Leafs? Strike two.
Anaheim Ducks? Good guess. They have had a solid season so far, but alas, strike three, you are out.
Low and behold, the Buffalo Sabres are that elusive eleventh team right now, currently sitting at 20 points.
The same Buffalo Sabres that have not qualified for the Stanley Cup Playoffs the past eight seasons? The same Buffalo Sabres that averaged 68 points a season in that span? The same Buffalo Sabres that, over the past six seasons have been no higher than sixth since the realignment of the Atlantic Division?
Correct. How did they get there, though?
Let’s start with the basics. Through 15 games played, the Sabres are 9-4-2 and sit at second place in the Atlantic Division, behind the Bruins. The Sabres sit at a decent 17th in all of the NHL in goals for with 44, averaging almost three per game. However, on the power play the offense has vastly picked up the slack, as they currently possess a 26.9 PP%, good enough for third in the entire NHL.
When looking closely at this, it becomes more and more noticeable what Buffalo was trying to do when they were drafting high in their years missing the playoffs. They were looking for offense. Offense at even strength and offense on the man advantage. In the eight-year span, they have not made the playoffs, they have scored the least amount of goals in the NHL (aside from the Golden Knights who started playing in the NHL in the 2017-2018 season). As such, their average goals per game was also last in the NHL. While their power play percentage in that span was better, it was still in the bottom 10, with their percentage being a paltry 17.7%.
So, what did the Sabres do to counteract this in the draft? In 2014, they drafted forwards Sam Reinhart (first round, second overall) and Victor Olofsson (seventh round, 181st overall). In 2015 they drafted Jack Eichel, most notable for being the player that went after Connor McDavid. In 2017 they selected Casey Mittelstadt eighth overall. Lastly, in the most recent draft, they took a defenseman, selecting Rasmus Dahlin first overall.
Why are these players significant? All are top ten on Buffalo’s roster in goals and points. When looking at national rankings, Olofsson, the lowest pick of the group, is currently third in all of the NHL in power-play goals with six, behind David Pastrnak of Boston (nine) and James Neal of Edmonton (eight).
In the goals allowed department, Buffalo ranks 5th in all of the NHL, allowing only 2.6 goals a game. When looking at the previous eight seasons they allowed the second-most goals in the entire NHL, ahead of only Edmonton.
Enter Carter Hutton.
Brought onto the team last season, Hutton has continued to be a veteran presence on the ice. The presence on the ice has not led to simple intangible results either. When he has been on the ice this season, he has been excellent, posting a goal against average (GAA) of 2.08, good enough for 6th in the entire NHL. His save percentage has also been great, as it currently sits at .928, tied for eighth in the entire NHL. As the second-oldest player on the team (behind defenseman Matt Hunwick) playing one of the most pivotal positions on the ice, he has provided every avenue for success the Sabres could ask for.
And, of course, the head coach. With Ralph Krueger getting a second crack at the NHL coaching gig, he has brought insightful experience from Europe, whether from ice hockey or from the English Premier League, where he served as the chairman of Southampton F.C. for five years. With getting the first-hand experience of the different styles of play different countries to possess, Kreuger has been able to transform a forgotten New York team into a well renowned and evenly balanced club that could make a run at the Stanley Cup Playoffs should the consistent play continue.
The season is not even 20% complete yet. There is still more hockey to be played. What the rest of the season holds is yet to be seen.
However, one thing is for certain. While some thought the Sabres would take a baby step forward in one aspect of the game, they have taken giant leaps in all aspects. The potential is limitless.