Quick hits on the goalies and defenseman prior to the Dec. 19 trade freeze
That's the Buffalo Sabres record after 33 games. It translates to 23 points and the second-worst record in the league.
The 2017-18 season started with a new GM in Jason Botterill, new head coach in Phil Housley, a somewhat revamped defense-corps and expectations that this team would be able to start fresh and move forward from last year's 78-point disappointment. Unfortunately for the team and it's fans, it hasn't quite worked out that way.
The Sabres today, with two top-2 picks into their third NHL season and a group of young vets brought in to take the heat off the youngins, are struggling to the point where they're right between the two tank seasons from 2013-15, as we see below.
2016-17: 12-13-8 (32 points)
2015-16: 14-16-3 (31)
2014-15: 13-18-2 (28)
2013-14: 7-23-3 (17)
Alas, there are still 49 games to go and unlike those tank years, this team seems to be trending modestly upwards.
After 33 games, we've gotten a good look at players in coach Phil Housley's system and we'll take a look at how they've performed thus far beginning with the goalies and defensemen.
Robin Lehner--The 26-yr. old native of Gothenburg, Sweden boldly proclaimed that he "had nothing left to prove" as he signed his one-year contract extension. And he ended up eating a lot of those words early on. Lehner has been great as of late, but prior to this six-game run of good solid team play, he sported a 5-12-3 record, a 2.98 goals-against average and a .903 save percentage. And he lost another shootout. Still plenty to prove and if the Sabres ever want to really turn this season around, he needs to continue his recent strong play. It should also be noted that his name has come up in the rumor mill.
Chad Johnson--If the Sabres ever want to really turn things around, then odds are that Johnson won't be in net. Not sure what happened to him between now and the last time he donned the Blue and Gold, but he's had a real tough go of it this year. We expect a certain, sometimes rather large, drop-off from starter to backup, but he has been brutal this season. Once again, prior to the Sabres last six games, Johnson was 1-5-2 with a 3.64 GAA and .883 sv%. And after the 5-4 loss to Carolina on Friday in his only start during that stretch, those numbers became worse. Johnson's name is also in the rumor mill.
Rasmus Ristolainen--The 23 yr. old Ristolainen is still anchoring the Sabres defense and logging tons of ice-time which right now is at a career-high of 26:55/game (second in the league.) There's a group in Sabreland that no longer see him as even a top-pairing defenseman while others believe he is such and is still evolving. There's no doubt that Ristolainen struggled mightily at times this season but we've also seen spurts of a mobile power game from him on the backend, just not enough. His stat-line through 24 games is zero goals, nine assists and a minus-10 rating. Ristolainen was injured for a nine-game stretch (Nov.5- 22.) In his absence the Sabres went 1-6-2 scoring 18 goals and allowing 31. Although not untouchable, rumor has it that Botterill would only trade Ristolainen for a big return.
Marco Scandella--Botterill acquired Scandella in a trade with the Minnesota Wild this past off season saying that he believed the big, 6'3" 208 lb. defenseman could transition from second-pairing in Minnesota to top-pairing in Buffalo. He's in that role now and although he's had his good moments, that top-pairing designation looks to be a stretch. Speed is a problem for him, not so much his own, which is pretty good for a man his size, but the speed of the game playing against top players. In an ideal world he'd be on the second pair in Buffalo, but as we've seen, it's been anything but ideal with the club this year. The 28 yr. old Scandella is under contract until 2019-20 with a reasonable $4 million cap-hit.
Jake McCabe--Although he'll never be looked at as a top-pairing defenseman and some might question his abilities in a second-pairing role, McCabe has been holding his own and has generally played pretty well. He still has his gaffes and issues, but like Ristolainen, the 24 yr. old is still evolving. McCabe can play an hard-hitting, standup game which gets him in trouble at times, and he can defend pretty well too. But it should also be noted that he's the only defensemen on the Sabers to score a goal this year and has done so twice, which is good for him, bad for the team.
Zach Bogosian--The 27 yr. old Bogosian was injured to start the season. And in other news, the sun rose today. After a rather poor season last year under a different coach, there was much anticipation involved in Bogosian playing under a coach like Housley who's system is predicated on an offensively involved d-corps. Bogosian has the speed, and the shot to be effective, but we've only seen him in eight games this year beginning on Dec. 1. During that time the Sabres went 2-3-3 which, sadly, is one of their better stretches of the season. With him and McCabe in the middle-pairing, the rest of the defense falls into place.
Nathan Beaulieu--Botterill sent a third-round pick to the Montreal Canadiens for Beaulieu with the thought was that he acquired a d-man with top-four upside. With Bogosian out, Beaulieu saw a lot of time there and it really didn't go all that well. From his torso on down, the left-handed shot from Strathroy, Ontario looks great as he's mobile and can get to a puck in earnest. But somewhere along the line there's a disconnect between what his head wants him to do and what his hands end up doing as he cannot keep the puck on his stick. Should that synapsis ever fully engage, the Sabres have themselves a nice find, but right now he looks like a mobile, bottom-pairing d-man.
Victor Antipin--The highly sought after Russian defenseman was pursued by Buffalo's former GM and Botterill closed the deal. In Russia, Antipin was noted for his mobility and having a nose for finding soft spots in the offensive zone. He's beginning to find those spots in the NHL after only 23 games. Twitter has a #FreeAntipin hashtag in that there are those in Sabreland who wanted to see more of him. He struggled early for a number of reasons including the language barrier but has really begun to get a feel for the North American game. His defense isn't bad either as he leads all defensemen who've played 20 or more games in plus/minus with a minus-3.
Josh Gorges--At one point during an extremely rough stretch, the Sabres needed a solid, defensive-defenseman like Gorges just to settle down the entire d-corps. It started in San Jose' as the Sabres were coming off back-to-back drubbings only three games into the season and Gorges got the job done. Of all the players who've played 15 games or more this season, he's is the only player on the positive side of the plus/minus rating (plus-1.) Gorges the consummate good soldier and will probably be acquired by a playoff team for depth. It would be great to see him hoist the Stanley Cup.
Justin Falk--Falk, like Gorges, is more of a defensive defenseman and props to him for earning a spot on the Sabres roster. Prior to signing in Buffalo the 6'5" 223 lb. Falk had bounced from team to team and from league to league, but last year an opportunity came and he impressed. He continued on with a strong training camp but was injured and in 17 games since his return, Falk has done yeoman's work in a third-pairing role. Not sure what the future holds for him as the Sabres (hopefully) add more speed and skill to the back-end, but he'll always be reliable in his own zone.
Matt Tennyson--Although probably ticketed for the Rochester Americans upon his signing in July, injuries to Bogosian and Falk meant NHL duty for the NHL/AHL tweener. Tennyson was thrust into a spot way above his skill-level, especially when Ristolainen was out, and held his own to the best of his ability. Kudos to him for that. However, as the injured returned, he fell down the depth chart to Rochester where he should be able to help the Amerks not only reach the playoffs, but succeed in the playoffs as well.
Taylor Fedun--Like Falk injuries created an opportunity for him, and Fedun took full advantage of it. Although he didn't make the opening night roster for the Sabres, the undrafted free agent did very well when he got the call this season and looked like a mobile, top-six defenseman or at least a quality No. 7. Then came a tough lower-body injury that still has him on the injured list. In seven games for Buffalo this year Fedun has one assist and a minus-1 rating.
Zach Redmond--Redmond came up for a quick cup of coffee with the Sabres skating in three games. Most of the time he looked a bit overwhelmed but he did have his moments like a plus-2 rating in a 3-1 win over Washington. Botterill traded Nicolas Deslauriers to the Canadiens for Redmond.