Despite revamping their defense on the fly, and bringing in a new coaching staff, the Sabres are once again in lottery-pick territory this season. Worse still, after recording 81 and 78 points the last two seasons, they’re on pace for just 57 points this season, almost as bad as their purposeful tanking seasons in 2013-14 and 2014-15 of 52 and 54 points, respectively.
That level of stepping back looks bad on everyone, from the new coaching and management staffs to the players, but it’s got to be especially frustrating for the organization and fan base since Jack Eichel is stealthily having a breakout season that should put him among the league’s elite players, if not for the abysmal power play the Sabres have.
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Looking at each season of Eichel’s career, his progress at even strength is quite linear.
Eichel scored at a solid rate and did some nice things with the puck in transition as a rookie, but the lack of depth in the Sabres lineup and some defensive deficiencies in his game had his impact below team average. That’s not surprising for a teenager, and he scraped himself up to being a positive presence last season at 20 years old, but this season he’s been incredible.
A breakout from Eichel couldn’t come at a better time, considering he just signed a massive extension that kicks in next season, paying him $10 million per season, a cap hit that will bring an extra level of criticism to his play on the ice. Had Eichel continued to put up nice personal numbers but not drive play for his teammates, it could get ugly fast.
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What’s unfortunate, though, is that despite this breakout at even strength, he’s almost at the same level of individual production as last season, and the Sabres are no better.
The problem there is all on the power play.
Last season, Buffalo had one of the league’s most dangerous power plays despite being a lower-tier team, and Eichel ripped home 10 goals and 24 points with the man advantage. This season, he’s yet to score on the power play and has just three power play points.
The change in Eichel’s numbers are likely largely due to some poor shooting luck. But it can’t be ignored that first-year Sabres coach Phil Housley ran the Predators’ power play last season, and it was driven almost entirely through that team’s defensemen.
The Predators happened to have four excellent power play defensemen in Roman Josi, P.K. Subban, Ryan Ellis, and Mattias Ekholm, and still that system was extremely underwhelming for the talent involved, executing at the 16th-best rate in the NHL.
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The Sabres, meanwhile, don’t have anywhere close to the Predators’ level of quality at defense, with the only highly regarded offensive talent being Rasmus Ristolainen, and he’s been as poor on the power play as Eichel has.
Fixing the Sabres’ power play won’t immediately make them a contender, but it would likely put them exactly where they’ve been the last two seasons, if not a little bit better. The same issues that have plagued the team since they’ve begun to try to dig themselves out of permanent tank mode still remain: they don’t have any high quality top-four defencemen. It’s the same problem the Oilers faced before signing Andrej Sekera and the development of Oscar Klefbom.