November was a turbulent 30 days for a young Buffalo Sabres squad that lost its first eight games before going 2-2-1 to finish the month. The team subsequently lost its first game of December as well, but even with that loss, the mini .500 streak at the end of turkey month did manage to pull the season out of the fire to some extent as the Sabres now sit at 10-13-1 on the year.
The month of November – and its effect on the season – was a little like cooking cheeseburgers over an open fire while camping: One of the patties slides between the grates while you’re trying cook them, and then you have to reach the tongs into the coals and slightly burn your hand in the process, but you manage to salvage the burger. Sure, one side has hardened into a blackened puck and the other side is slightly cold, but you still slap a slice of cheese on that bad boy and eat it. It’s fine.
Let’s take a look at some of the things that worked for the Sabres this month, some of the things that didn’t, and finally we’ll take a look at what’s happening between the pipes.
- Dylan Cozens has arrived. Prior to the season, the question was which young player would grab the title of second-line center behind Tage Thompson, and two months into the season, that question has been emphatically answered by Cozens. The Whitehorse, Yukon native potted 12 points in 14 games in November while primarily centering Jack Quinn and JJ Peterka, and he now has 21 points in 24 games this year. Cozens’ offensive production has finally taken the massive leap that fans had hoped to see in this, his third season. That young kids line has been aces analytically as well.
- Tage Thompson is a superstar. What is there to say about the transformation of the 6’6” center that hasn’t already been said? Maybe this: Thompson is on pace for a 109-point season which would end up as the fourth-best season in franchise history, ahead of any season by Rick Martin, Danny Briere or Rene Robert. If Thompson heats up even further, he could pass Gilbert Perreault’s 1975 career-high 113 points, and in that case, Thompson’s season would land third all-time behind Alexander Mogilny (127 points) and Pat Lafontaine (148 points), who both accomplished that feat in 1992-93. Thompson is now gaining league-wide recognition for his silky smooth mitts and his pterodactyl-like wingspan (Ptage Pthompson, as I’ve seen him called on Twitter). Any talk about the Sabres prematurely awarding Thompson a 7-year, $50m contract that kicks in next year has been fully extinguished. He’s already underpaid before the contract has even begun.
- Owen Power looks great for a rookie. Granted, the timing of this compliment is a little off given his recent parade to the penalty box (8 PIMs) over the past three games. Looking beyond that, though, he had only taken 2 penalties in the previous 21 games to start the season. He’s been solid defensively in a way that is extremely uncommon for young players entering the NHL. For the most part, there have not been the massive defensive lapses that often plague young defensemen, and when we consider that Power has been forced to play with multiple different partners due to injuries on the back end, his stellar play becomes even more impressive. It’s easy to forget that Power just turned 20 years old on November 22 when watching his mature game on the ice.
- The Spare Parts Line is Lost. With three other forward lines clicking nicely, head coach Don Granato has experimented with different combinations of Victor Olofsson, Casey Mittelstadt, Peyton Krebs, Vinnie Hinostroza and Rasmus Asplund to form a third or fourth line. Nothing has seemed to work. Olofsson has 3 points since November 4th, Krebs has 3 points all season, and Mittelstadt has been a disaster when viewed through the lens of the fancy stats – his offense and defense have been bad. Hinostroza and Asplund are just kind of there. The Sabres have a massive decision to make on Olofsson who can undoubtedly score some goals for this team, but who also disappears completely when the game is played at 5-on-5.
- Management has been subpar. When a rash of injuries hit the Sabres blueline in November, and with the Sabres hot start on the line, Kevyn Adams employed the strategy of his predecessor Jason Botterill following the 2018 team’s collapse post 10-game winning streak of 2018: do nothing. In both cases, the general managers allowed the team’s hot start to evaporate while waiting for the right time to strike. Also – and this is a more detailed conversation for another day – the build of this team is still wrong to some degree as the team still lacks a physical element on the bottom six. This ties into the point above as well, because if you’re going to have a line that doesn’t score, and looks bad analytically, it would be nice if that line would at least hit somebody occasionally. There are too many spare-part hangers-on the bottom-six of this team.
We’ll start with Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen who has played four games with the Sabres since being recalled earlier in November due to Eric Comrie’s injury. UPL is 1-2-1 with an .846 SV% and a 4.47 goals-against average. He has also allowed 9 (NINE) powerplay goals in his four games.
In four games. In listening to Marty Biron who has never really seemed like a huge UPL fan based on his various comments, the problem for the Finnish netminder lies in tracking the puck. Biron said on his radio show that UPL gets locked into a stance, is over-reliant on positioning, and he tends to lose the puck from long range. This has been a problem for him especially on pucks that are going high into the net. The Sabres desperately need him to turn this around with Eric Comrie still out week-to-week.
Meanwhile, the oldest player in the NHL has been solid for the Sabres. The 41-year-old is 5-4-0 with a .916 save percentage which is easily tops among Sabres goaltenders. Anderson has often said this season that he wishes he were 10 years younger so he could stay with this team and boy do fans feel the same way. Anderson is currently playing at a 34-game pace this season and the coaches clearly don’t want to push that too much further out of fear that the extra workload could lead to injury. Granato is in a tough spot here. Anderson is clearly the best goalie on the team, and he’s definitely pulling his own weight, but he almost certainly can’t handle an increased 45-50 game workload. They need Luukkonen to play better and Comrie to get healthy.