Buffalo Sabres Playoff Hopes Hinge On The Left Side Of The Ice

BUFFALO, NY - APRIL 02: Zemgus Girgensons
BUFFALO, NY - APRIL 02: Zemgus Girgensons /

The Sabres head into the 2017-18 season strong down the middle and on the right side of the ice, but major question marks abound on the left.

Buffalo Sabres fans, you have earned it: the right to dream about your team making the playoffs in 2017-18.

The defense has been rebuilt. The coaching staff wants to play 21st century hockey. Star players such as Kyle Okposo and Jack Eichel are motivated to play at a high level following seasons that were tarnished by injuries.

It is fair, then, to hope that the Buffalo Sabres are battling for a playoff spot right until the very end of the season.   Sure, the Sabres are still not the sort of team one would realistically expect to be battling for Lord Stanley’s Cup come June.  Even so, the team is strong up the middle and on the right side of the ice, giving the Sabres at least two lines that fans can expect playoff-quality scoring from . . . with the exception being scoring on the left wing, in which case, when it comes to projecting what kind of production we can expect, your guess is as good as mine.

As per NHL.com, the Sabres did not have a left winger crack the league’s top-30 players on that side of the ice in 2016-17 (although to be fair, Evander Kane ranked 10th among all left wingers in pure goal scoring).  With the exception of the Anaheim Ducks and the San Jose Sharks, every team that qualified for the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs had at least one left winger rank among the league’s top-30, with numerous teams (Washington, Calgary, St. Louis, Calgary, Columbus, and the New York Rangers) boasting two or more.

(St. Louis won the prize with three left wingers in the top 30, in case you were curious.)

While Kane is clearly capable of hitting the 30-goal and 50-point totals this season playing alongside Jack Eichel, the mercurial winger is the sort of player who doesn’t inspire confidence in fans. There are games in which Kane looks like he could be a 50-goal scorer for crying out loud, and then nights when he is virtually invisible. That sort of inconsistent play should hopefully diminish, if not outright disappear, under coach Phil Housley, so if we predict that Kane cracks the top-30 this season, where does that leave us?

Matt. Freaking. Moulson.

Yep: of all the players who could play on the left wing for Buffalo, Matt Moulson is the team’s second-best scoring option. Granted, Moulson bounced back from a forgettable 2015-16 season by producing 14-18-32 last season . . . but Moulson tallied only six goals in the final four months of the season, including just two goals in his last 24 games. This is not the sort of scoring production that a team fighting for playoff contention can live with come February.

The Sabres might get lucky with newly-acquired Benoit Pouliot, who is only one season removed from a 19-15-34 season. He’s topped 30 points five times in his nine-year NHL career, after all . . . but he crashed and burned last season in Edmonton, with just 14 points in 67 games. He was so godawful that TSN commentator Ryan Rishaug had this to say about him (courtesy of the Edmonton Journal):

"Watch him play, doesn’t work hard enough, not smart enough, makes terrible defensive decisions, isn’t committed enough, the list goes on and on and on. (I) could care less what the numbers say."

Yeah baby! And that was with the Oilers, who owned the sixth-best offense in the NHL and the league’s top scorer in Connor McDavid.

Next: Sabres Preseason Standouts

The good news? The Pittsburgh Penguins only had one left winger crack the league’s top-30, and we all know how the past two seasons have ended for that squad. Scoring can come from anywhere on the ice, and the Buffalo Sabres might be able to live with less scoring on the left wing if they are getting contributions from everywhere else. Even so, if there was ever a time for Evander Kane to revert back to his 2011-12 form, it would be now!