The Buffalo Sabres just concluded a stretch of 21 games in 39 days with an 8-8-5 record and head into the NHL Christmas break having lost four of their last five games (1-3-1.) All of those losses came on the road and contributed to a 6-11-4 road record that places them near the bottom of the league, which is in stark contrast to their 11-3-3 record at home.
For head coach Ralph Krueger and company, having the last change at home gives makes it very difficult for the opposition to matchup their best checking lines against Buffalo's potent top line giving his team a definitive edge. The Sabres know how to play a tight road game, and have done so on occasion, but having an inept middle-six up-front makes things extremely difficult and puts plenty of pressure on the defense and goaltending when the top line is being contained.
On the defensive side of things, overall the Sabres goaltending has middle of the road numbers thanks to a very impressive start to the season and the generally solid play of Linus Ullmark, who took over the starters role after Carter Hutton's game went into the tank. The Sabres have a 3.10 goals-against average on the season thus far placing them 18th in the league and goaltending is where we'll start our December quick hits.
--The 26 yr. old native of Sweden has had his moments through 22 games this year but generally speaking he's come up big at the right time to keep his team in the game and it would seem as if the skaters in front of Ullmark are playing more confident with him in net as opposed to Hutton. Ullmark has worked his way up the ranks since coming over for the 2015-16 season and now finds himself as a the teams go-to goaltender. Although he still overcommits and flops a bit, and has a suspect five-hole he's working to close, he continues to acclimate to his role well and is sporting an 11-8-3 record with a 2.82 GAA and .914 save percentage.
--Fell off of a cliff. That's about the only way you can put it and nobody has any answers right now. Hutton has the look of a goalie who forgot how to play the position and his plight is reminiscent of St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Rick Ankiel who had a promising Major League career on the mound derailed by...something. "'The Thing,' 'The Yips,' 'The Monster,' whatever you want to name it," said Ankeil in a 2017 WBUR interview. "You lose your ability to do something that you’ve done your whole life without the explanation of why." That's Hutton's plight right now as his 6-0-0 start with a 1.65 GAA and .943 sv% plummeted to a dismal 0-6-4 record with a 4.19 GAA and .867 sv%. The 33 yr. old Hutton is a class act both on and of of the ice and it will be interesting to see what happens to him moving forward, but if the Sabres have playoff aspirations, they'll need all the wins they can get and they'll need Hutton, or perhaps someone else, to do that in a back-up role.
--The 19 yr. old phenom was looking anything but phenomenal through the early part of the season. Dahlin, who wasn't known for his defense to begin with was looking lost in his own zone to the point where Krueger benched him in the third period of a November 14 game against the Ottawa Senators. Two weeks later, while still struggling with his overall game, Dahlin took a cheap shot to the head from Tampa Bay Lightning's Erik Cernak and missed eight games (oddly enough, the Sabres went 5-1-2 during that stretch.) However, Dahlin came back from his injury strong and when you watch the fluidity and maneuverability with which he skates, along with his stickwork, you can't help but see big things in the not too distant future for a player who's still a teenager. And there's the rub, he's still a teenager with tons of upside.
--Was left for dead last year after finishing with the "Green Jacket" of hockey for the worst plus/minus in the league at minus-41. Things have turned around for him and you can draw a direct line to Krueger. The not so tangible aspect of Krueger's coaching has to do with a belief in a players attributes and having that player find confidence in those attributes. The tangible has to do with ice-time. Both of Ristolainen's prior head coaches wanted to pare his ice-time but ended up using him as a workhorse to the tune of 25:42 average time on ice per game over the prior four seasons which was fifth in the league. Krueger has cut that ice-time down, especially as of late when he's gone with a lineup of 11 forwards and seven defensemen. Since November 24, when Krueger began using this structure, Ristolainen's ice-time has dwindled to 21:20, which is second on the Sabres (Jack Eichel.) He looks better, stronger and more confident. Opposition players are bouncing off of him like he's a wall, he's pinching in more and though he has his moments on defense, he might be playing the best hockey of his career.
--The 20 yr. old has been rock solid for Buffalo this season. Jokiharju came from the Chicago Blackhawks in a trade and has shown the capacity to do everything the team has needed from a defenseman. His stickwork and maneuverability has allowed him to use all of his 6'0" 195 lb. frame to retrieve the puck without getting killed by an incoming forecheck and when he gets it, he knows what to do with it displaying deft passing skills and a high hockey IQ. Although his offense needs some work, he and his D-partner have given the Sabres solid, dependable third-pairing play and he still has plenty of upside which may take him as high as a No. 2 on the top pair at some point in his career.
--Last season, the 29 yr. old battled Ristolainen for the second most deplorable player according to Sabreland. Fans hated his game and there was plenty to hate about it. Krueger came in and things changed for Scandella as the first year Sabres coach paired him with Jokiharju and they found immediate chemistry. Does Jokiharju make Scandella better? Yes. Is the opposite true? A veteran d-man of over 500 NHL games in more of a defensive-defenseman role most certainly will help a 20 yr. old still learning the ropes as evidenced by how well Jokiharju is developing. Scandella is what he is, a third-pairing d-man who can accept a bit more responsibility but is most effective in that role and he's found a nice, complimentary player in Jokiharju who has him playing the best hockey of his Sabres career.
--Started the season out on the injured list and missed 14 of Buffalo's 38 games. It took a little bit for him to get into game shape and he's done very well since returning. Montour is a better version of Nathan Beaulieu in that he skates well and can move the puck while also possessing offensive acumen and a bit of an edge to his game. However, unlike Beaulieu, Montour is far less prone to mental lapses that end up in the back of the net. Montour plays some smart hockey, can get the puck where it needs to go and has shown the adaptability to play with any d-partner at any point, something that's pretty important when Krueger rotates seven defensemen in-game.
--Is firmly in the running for Sabreland's Most Deplorable Award. As we look at social media or check into any chatrooms during a game, it's only a matter of time before a fan picks a play and dissects it to show just how bad they believed McCabe was in that moment. Fact is, he's really struggled after getting off to a solid start. Although there's been no mention of it, he may have a nagging physical issue that's hampering him, which is something that wouldn't be too surprising considering he's played less than 60 games in each of the last two seasons. When he's on, McCabe's standing players up at the blueline and being physical on defense while showing a propensity to find open space in the offensive zone. He hasn't been doing that on an even a semi-consistent basis since the first few weeks of the season.
--Has been a disappointment. Two years ago there was a "Free Victor Antipin" movement as fans wanted to see more the of free agent rookie defenseman on the ice. Antipin was in the press box for a reason--he wasn't playing better than the perceived deplorables who were on the ice. The same can be said for Miller. People like to point to the fact that Miller played on the top-pairing for the Vegas Golden Knights and has a cannon of a shot that can be potent on the powerplay. Fact is, although he did play on the top pairing in Vegas, he eventually ended up on their third pairing on a blueline that isn't much better talent-wise than the Sabres, if at all. And though Miller does have a cannon, he doesn't seem to be able to get it on net. Miller has been looking like a third-pairing/reserve d-man to this point and with the number of NHL defensemen Buffalo has, all the lower ranked ones need to take their turn in the press box.
--Yes, Zach, all of the lower-pairing defensemen need to take their turn in the press box. Bogosian had hip surgery late last season and had some complications that set back his return to November 24, which coincided with Kruger rotating seven defensemen in-game. The coach essentially gave him a nice 10-game window to get up to game speed and to see how he fit into what they were doing. Bogosian struggled and Krueger put him in the pressbox. Apparently that didn't go over very well for the 11 year veteran who had never been a healthy scratch before. He and his agent immediately asked for a trade. If there's one thing that all of Sabreland can agree upon, it's that general manager Jason Botterill should grant his wish as soon as possible.
--Had a brief cup of coffee with the club to start the season when the Sabres were without Montour and Bogosian but appeared in only four games before being sent to Rochester on November 23. Gilmour has speed and offensive acumen but really didn't show much of it in the regular season for the Sabres but in the 12 games he's played for the Amerks, the 26 yr. old has eight points (3+5) and a plus-4 rating.