You have to like the gumption Ralph Krueger has shown in sticking to his system of beliefs. With his Buffalo Sabres on a five-game losing streak (0-4-1) and mired in a 1-5-1 slump with litany of offensive woes plaguing his team, Krueger is standing firm to what he laid out in the beginning of the year and continues to defend his players work-ethic. The first-year Sabres head coach was on the WGR550 radio this morning and once again he talked about how hard everyone has been working on the ice but not having the results there.
It's common theme Sabreland has heard dating back the Lindy Ruff years and unfortunately, on the whole, it's led to full-season results that have kept them out of the playoffs or worse for a NHL-long eight seasons. Last season we heard head coach Phil Housley talking about playing a good team over there while coddling his players despite some despicable efforts and we found out, among a number of things, that he wasn't really cut out for the job and that his team was lacking in a few key areas. Although that's not to say that Krueger is in that same category, it's simply to point out that we've heard this before and it wasn't a pretty ending.
Overall things have changed for the better with the Sabres, at least incrementally, as general manager Jason Botterill added key pieces to his blueline and added to his forward ranks. Early in the season it looked like it was a huge step in the right direction but this recent streak has them stuck in the mud and despite Krueger's optimism and belief in his players, the prevailing theme seems to be that Botterill needs to make a move if he wants his team to get out of this rut and hope to take a big step forward over last season. Perhaps there are things in the works, but the third-year GM runs a pretty tight ship with very few leaks coming out during his tenure.
The Sabres hit the ice for practice this morning less forward Vladimir Sobotka who was submarined by the Tampa Bay Lightning's Nikita Kucherov on a dirty hit in Stockholm, Sweden during Game-1 of the NHL's 2019 Global Series. It was just announced that Sobotka will be out 4-6 weeks with a lower-body injury while Kucherov skated away scot-free from the incident, which is a total miscarriage of justice.
In losing Sobotka they lost a player who was, at best, holding down a spot in the top-six that was a couple of notches above his pay-grade and with him out Krueger was forced to revamp his middle-six in Stockholm. For Game-2, third-line center Casey Mittelstadt moved up to Sobotka's spot on the right side of center Marcus Johansson along with new left-winger in Jimmy Vesey. Versatile forward Evan Rodrigues was moved to center on the third line with 40-goal scorer Jeff Skinner on his left an Conor Sheary on his right. Both the first and fourth lines remained the same.
When all was said and done, the Sabres lost both games against Tampa in the Global Series.
Buffalo has become a one-line team lately with the top line of Jack Eichel, Sam Reinhart and Victor Olofsson accounting for all five Buffalo goals in Stockholm. That trio has also accounted for seven of the Sabres paltry 12 goal total over the last seven games. The fact that Buffalo is averaging only 1.71 goals/game over that span is troubling enough (as their record indicates,) but of the remaining five goals scored outside the top line three were scored by defensemen and one by Sobotka (his first of the season) while the other was scored by Skinner.
This is the same problem they ran into last season as teams tried to contain Buffalo's top scorers (Skinner, Eichel and Reinhart) as much as possible and bottled up the rest of the team.
The Sabres saving grace through the early part of the season was their powerplay, but that's dried up. Although their early-season success was clearly unsustainable, scoring only two powerplay goals in 17 opportunities over the past seven games (11.8%) has really put them in a bind. Krueger has stated more than once that the powerplay has a way of jumpstarting his team and in all five of Buffalo's regulation losses, they've failed to score with the man advantage (0/9) and that includes all four games of their present losing streak. In all, Krueger said this morning that he was pleased with their possession and O-zone time but that they "need to come up with more options that'll surprise teams."
What they really need more than anything is secondary scoring and their answer to that was to call up Curtis Lazar from the Rochester Americans to replace Sobotka.
Lazar is a former first round pick (2013, 17th-overall, OTT) who has struggled to find his footing at the NHL-level. The 6'0' 211 lb. versatile two-way forward has only managed 51 points (15+36) in 246 NHL games while tallying 45 points (23+22) in 70 AHL games. Lazar has attributed some of his struggles at the NHL-level to entering the league as a teenager with the Sabres agreeing as they signed the pending restricted free agent to a one-year, one-way deal. After 11 games with the Amerks, Lazar is tied for second on the team with nine points (4+5) and is also tied for second with a plus-6 rating.
It was a little bit of a surprise seeing Lazar called up over Rochester scoring-leader Tage Thompson who'd spent most of last season with the Sabres. If Buffalo wanted to fill that top-six right wing spot vacated by the Sobotka injury, Thompson seemed like the logical choice yet Lazar has a defined role to replace Sobotka, brings an impeccable positive attitude to the ice and locker room and should match or exceed any motivation Thompson has to offer. However the big question will be, can he contribute offensively?
In an interesting configuration, here were the lines at practice today as tweeted by those at the rink:
Olofsson - Eichel - Reinhart
Skinner - Rodrigues - Sheary
Vesey - Mittelstadt - Lazar
Girgensons - Larsson - Okposo
Take it for what it is.
Krueger had two extra bodies on the ice today in defensemen Marco Scandella and Zach Bogosian, both of whom are recovering from injuries and are skating once again with the team. Buffalo had already sent defenseman Lawrence Pilut back to Rochester upon returning from Sweden but when both Scandella and Bogosian are activated, they'll need to make some room on the blueline. Today's pairings:
McCabe - Ristolainen
Dahlin - Miller
Scandella - Jokiharju
Bogosian - Montour - Gilmour
A Scandella activation probably means it's off to Rochester for Gilmour who's played fairly well in a reserve role for Buffalo. It also means that the Sabres best, most consistent d-pairing prior to Scandella's injury will be back in action on the third pairing. Scandella went down in the loss at NY against the Rangers and the Sabres blueline hasn't been the same since.
The top pairing of Ristolainen and McCabe remain intact for Buffalo. They lead Sabres defensemen with 24:04 and 20:56, respectively, in average time-on-ice and are a combined minus-6 on a team with a +2 goal differential.
Dahlin represents the most interesting scenario for Buffalo moving forward. The first-overall pick in 2018 has regressed this season as his brilliant skating has been kept in check while his puck-errors have taken a decided turn for the worse. None of his d-partners to date have been able to get him rolling and perhaps Bogosian coming back into the lineup soon will help with that. Prior to Bogosian's injury the duo had looked very good as a pairing and maybe the 29 yr. old veteran who started his career as a teenager offers the 19 yr. old Dahlin a degree of comfort no other defenseman can.
We shall see.