Not built for a rugged MassMutual East division
From the get-go we knew here that this was going to be a very difficult season for the Buffalo Sabres as they were moved into a newly formed MassMutual East division in a realignment designed by the league to limit exposure in the world of Covid-19. The Sabres and their Atlantic division foe, the Boston Bruins, were thrown into a group of Metropolitan division heavyweights featuring the Washington Capitals, Philadelphia Flyers, Pittsburgh Penguins and NY Islanders. The NY Rangers and New Jersey Devils, both up-and-coming teams with young talent topped by first-overall draft picks, round out the division.
The Sabres have always had trouble with heavyweights, like the Bruins who combine skill, speed, toughness and a relentless pursuit of the puck. They've also struggled against the Capitals, a big, tough team with plenty of top-end skill and a ruggedness up and down the lineup. The Islanders are now presenting everyone with problems. Ever since Barry Trotz, who had coached the Capitals to the 2018 Stanley Cup Championship, took over the reigns on Long Island, his team has featured relentless forechecking and a lock-down defensive system that's harder to penetrate than Fort Knox when they have the lead. And they have some high-end skill that can get them out front as well.
Philadelphia plays an irritating brand of hockey predicated on sandpaper running through a team that has plenty of speed and skill. The Penguins aren't really a rugged team, but when you have a triumvirate of Hall-of-Famers who led the team to three Stanley Cups in nine years with veritable nobodies riding shotgun, as long as those three are on the ice, they're always a threat to win.
And in come the Buffalo Sabres, a team that hasn't had an identity since 2007 when they were the toast of the league after two consecutive Eastern Conference Finals appearances. Since an ignominious '07 off season that will live in infamy, they've been wandering in the wilderness trying to figure out who they are and/or what they want to be. In the last 10 years alone since Terry Pegula bought the team, they went from a general manager seemingly hell-bent on a rugged, west-coast style, to his successor who shunned that and began to build more of a skilled team. Both combined for five years of futility and burned through three coaches with their teams never finishing with more than 81 points in any one season. Oh, and one more thing, this non-descript Sabres team was left to carry a nine-year playoff drought into the toughest division in hockey this season.
Buffalo is not bereft of talent by any means. Captain Jack Eichel had a 2018-19 season that saw him on the threshold of joining some of the best players in the league. Winger Jeff Skinner was fifth in the league in even-strength goals from his 2010-11 rookie season to 2018-19 and had a 40-goal season that year. Right-winger Sam Reinhart was dubbed "The Quiet One" by this writer as he quietly racked up 205 points (87+118) between his rookie campaign and 2018-19, good for second on the team behind Eichel. And this past off-season, new GM Kevyn Adams used the relationship between head coach Ralph Krueger and free agent winger Taylor Hall to lure the 2018 league MVP to Buffalo with a one-year deal.
Despite questions in goal and the reliance upon an unchanged blueline that made many a hardened heart skip a beat last season, most expected this team to play a style that was conducive to scoring. But it hasn't been happening. Other than an impressive 6-1 victory over the Flyers in Game-3 (possibly giving them hubristic, false sense of security,) this group of players has struggled mightily and it doesn't look as if will get any better in a division that has no Ottawa Senators or Detroit Red Wings to beat up on.
Then again, as we delve a bit deeper into the past two seasons, it's really not surprising as collectively the top four Sabres' 2021 offensive roster players haven't done very well versus a combination of Boston, Washington, the NY Islanders, and Philadelphia, four of the toughest teams to play against in the entire NHL.
From 2018-19 through the Covid-shortenened 2019-20 season, the foursome of Eichel, Skinner, Reinhart and Hall (who played for New Jersey and the Arizona Coyotes those two seasons) combined for 189 goals and 450 points in 536 games worth an average of .35 goals/game and .84 points/game. Against their seven East division foes they've put up similar averages over that time frame with a collective 48 goals and 102 points in 128 games (.38 goals and .80 points per game, respectively.)
However, those numbers took a little dip in 77 games against those four heavyweights of the newly formed East division as they've combined for 19 goals and 52 points or .25 goals/gm and .68 pts/gm, respectively. Also of note, over those two seasons, the Buffalo's top four offensive players have a combined for a minus-73 rating in 536 total games overall but a minus-38 rating in 77 games versus the Bruins, Capitals, Islanders and Flyers (Eichel's minus-5 leads that group.)
Eichel, Reinhart, Skinner and Hall have fared better against Pittsburgh and the Rangers as they were on par with their overall averages. In 38 games against those two teams they have combined for 14 goals (.37/gm) and 28 points (.76/gm) and are a collective plus-1 (Reinhart plus-6.) And they do have one team that they like to play against, New Jersey. Eichel, Reinhart and Skinner (because Hall played for New Jersey most of the time) combined to play in 13 games against the Devils scoring seven goals and 14 points (.54 goals/game and 1.08 points/game.)
On an individual basis, against Boston, Washington, Philadelphia and the NY Islanders, Eichel was able to hold his own with 20 points (9+11) in 20 games, a point/game production just below his 1.10 points/game over that period, but the other three have faltered or failed miserably.
Hall's two goals in 14 games and Skinner's four goals in 21 games come out to only .14 and .19 goals/game respectively, exactly half of their overall average those two seasons. Reinhart posted .18 goals/game versus .29 and .59 points/game versus .76 overall. And while Eichel remained consistent against all four of those heavyweights, others faltered or failed against some teams in that group. Skinner had zero points in eight games against the Bruins, Caps, Flyers and Isles last season. Reinhart had zero points in five games versus the Isles the last two years and only one goal in 12 games against Boston and Philadelphia while Hall was shut out against the Bruins (three games) over two seasons, had zero goals in three games vs Washington, and two goals in eight games vs. the Islanders and Flyers.
As we look to this year's edition of the Sabres, they sit at 4-6-2 having just lost two in a row against the NY Islanders by a combined 6-1 score, which includes an entire third period in the first game where they went without a shot on goal. That lone goal in the two-game series was scored by Victor Olofsson with Reinhart getting the secondary assist. Here's how it's gone for the team against the rest of the MassMutural East division so far and how Eichel, Reinhart, Skinner and Hall have fared:
Eichel: 0 goals, 4 assists (1 shootout winner)
Reinhart: 0 goals, 2 assists
Skinner: 0 goals, 1 assist
Hall: 1 goal, 2 assists
Eichel: 0 goals, 3 assists
Reinhart: 2 goals, 0 assists
Skinner: 0 goals, 0 assists
Hall: 0 goals, 3 assists
NY Rangers 1-0-1
Eichel: 2 goals, 0 assists
Reinhart: 1 goal, 1 assists
Skinner: 0 goals, 0 assists
Hall: 0 goals, 1 assist
NJ Devils 1-1-0
Eichel: 0 goals, 2 assists (1 shootout winner)
Reinhart: 0 goals, 0 assists
Skinner: 0 goals, 0 assists
Hall: 0 goals, 2 assists
Eichel ($10M,) Skinner ($9M,) Hall ($8M) and Reinhart ($5.2M) combine for $32 million in salary for the Sabres while 'leading' the team to a 4-6-2 record. In 12 games they've combined for six goals and 28 points.
And Buffalo has yet to play the division-leading, 10-2-2, Boston Bruins who have given up the third-fewest goals in the league.