The Buffalo Sabres shocked the hockey world by overachieving in the month of October. We reflect on the highlights, lowlights, and the most Buffalonian moment of the opening month!
Wow, Buffalo Sabres fans.
The month of October has come and gone, and the Blue and Gold emerge from the first month of the NHL season as one of the league’s biggest surprises. Buffalo came out hot and never slowed down, compiling a 9-2-2 record and earning 20 points, good for second-best in the Eastern Conference.
If you spend more than five seconds on Twitter, you will come across plenty of people who are already saying that the sky is falling, and to be fair, the Sabres are still very much a work in progress. Still, Buffalo Sabres fans are allowed to have nice things! The jury is still out on whether the Sabres can remain in the playoff hunt for a full 82-game season, but that is neither here nor there right now. Let’s take a look back at a month that was full of reasons to be optimistic about the season. . . and a few things that are worth keeping an eye on in November.
1. The Power Play
NHL teams around the league beware: you don’t want to give the Buffalo Sabres too many man-advantages this season. Buffalo scored on 29.8% of its power play opportunities last month, the second-best mark in the NHL. The Sabres already have four players with five or more power points, with Victor Olofsson scoring all six of his goals during the man advantage. Jack Eichel leads all Sabres players with 9 points on the power play, while Rasmus Dahlin has chipped in 7 assists, despite his struggle to find his game this season.
2. Studs producing
By now, it’s a given that Eichel is going to be the Sabres’ leading scorer as long as he remains healthy, and Captain Jack certainly did not disappoint in October. His 17 points put him in some pretty good company – tied with Sidney Crosby and Nathan MacKinnon for the 6th highest point total in the league thus far – and are the most points he has scored in the opening month so far. (Eichel scored 14 in October last season).
But October was not simply the Jack Eichel show. Jeff Skinner, who the front office wisely signed to an eight-year contract during the offseason, has matched Eichel goal-for-goal. Sam Reinhart, kind of the forgotten man since Skinner came to town, is actually Buffalo’s second-leading scorer. Throw in Olofsson and Dahlin, and the Sabres boast five players who have cracked double-digit points, with Marcus Johansson one point away. The big dogs came to play!
As great as Eichel has been, you can make a strong case that both Carter Hutton and Linus Ullmark were the Sabres’ MVPs for the month of October. Despite each goaltender having had to stand on his head a few times last month, both Hutton and Ullmark find themselves among the league’s top ten in save percentage, with Hutton also cracking the top ten for goals allowed. Somehow, Hutton also managed to notch two shutouts. Buffalo’s defense has often hung these guys out to dry, but Hutton and Ullmark stood tall and stole a few wins.
1. Five-on-five play
The Buffalo Sabres scored 43 goals in October, which was good! However, 14 of those were scored on the power play, an astounding 33%. The Sabres scored power play goals in 10 of their 13 games during October, which is great – they call it a man advantage for a reason, so yay to Buffalo for capitalizing on these opportunities – but man, the Sabres were just godawful at even strength. Just take a look at Buffalo’s offensive zone start percentages at even strength for the month: 54.7%, 68.2%, 65.6%, 44.8%, 45.5%, 43.4%, 42.0%, 35.9%, 41.7%, 32.3%, 39.1%, 38.1%, 36.1%. We could look at more advanced stats, such as Corsi for% and Fenwick for%, but they will all show you the same result: the Sabres dominated play early in the month, then gradually began to spend more time in their defensive zone and watch as teams took it to them. This is not a good trend heading into what looks to be a brutal month of November.
The Curious Regression of Rasmus Dahlin
I’m not sure what it is about Buffalo – maybe it’s something in the water? – but lately, this team has no idea how to develop its talent at the blueline. It’s easy to blame it on the coaching staff, but this problem goes back almost a decade. Remember Tyler Myers? He won the Calder Trophy back in 2010, after scoring 48 points his rookie season. After that, he only topped 30 points once for the Sabres, and now he’s playing in Winnipeg.
Next comes Brendan Guhle. For years, Sabres fans were dying to get a glimpse of the defensive prospect wearing blue and gold. Instead, he played 23 whole games with the Sabres and was shipped out of town in exchange for Brandon Montour – not a bad trade, mind you, but another sign that the organization doesn’t know how to develop their blueline talent adequately enough, since they had to go outside of the club in order to bring in a more develop asset.
And what about Rasmus Ristolainen? He’s scored 40+ points in four consecutive seasons, but he’s a dumpster fire in the defensive zone and has seen his game flat-line the past few seasons. Word on the street is that he might be worth more to the Sabres as trade bait than he is on the ice, although that is still debatable – but you cannot deny that fans thought he would be a better, more complete player than he is by now.
All of which brings us to Rasmus Dahlin, the number one pick in the 2018 NHL Draft and a finalist for last year’s Calder Trophy. His reward? Limited minutes down the stretches of close games, and what appears to be some reluctance to play his game due to his being afraid to make a mistake. Are the Sabres trying to cripple the confidence of their budding young star? Because that would be the most Buffalo thing ever.
The Sabres return to the ice tonight, taking on the Washington Capitals on the road! Let’s go Buffalo!