What’s gotten into the Buffalo Sabres? Last year’s NHL doormats have suddenly sprung to life as the league’s hottest team heading into the second quarter of the season by riding an eight-game winning streak, including several come-from-behind victories. This is something the team’s youngest fans have never experienced before as the last time the club ran off eight consecutive victories was at the beginning of the 2006/07 campaign when they reeled off 10 straight. So why the turnaround? Well, there are a couple of major reasons the Sabres flying so high in the standings.
The club can be thankful for winning the NHL Entry Draft lottery last year as the Edmonton Oilers didn’t pick first for a change. Sabres’ GM Jason Botterill didn’t have to think twice by taking 18-year-old Swedish defenseman Rasmus Dahlin to kick off the proceedings. And owning the first-overall draft pick can do wonders for a struggling team. Just look at the Toronto Maple Leafs and Auston Matthews. But as well as selecting the top pick this summer let’s not forget the Sabres also had the second-overall selection three years earlier.
As expected, Connor McDavid went to Edmonton first in 2015 and Buffalo got an excellent franchise player themselves as the consolation prize when they took Jack Eichel. The 22-year-old definitely hasn’t disappointed anybody as the 6-foot-2, 206 lb center entered this season with 73 goals, 104 assists and 177 points under his belt in 209 games (stats by Pucky). Eichel has even picked up the pace this year by scoring over a point per game in the first quarter of the campaign and has boosted the power-play with 71 career points with the man advantage. The Sabres also have some peace of mind regarding Eichel as he recently inked an eight-year deal for a cool $80 million.
The Sabres didn’t have anywhere to go but up since they finished last season in the NHL basement with just 62 points. It was something they were accustomed to as it was the third time finishing dead last since 2013/14. In reality, Buffalo should be better this season with Eichel maturing each year and the addition of Dahlin. But nobody thought they’d be this good this soon, especially since they lost one of their top players in Ryan O’Reilly in the offseason. Still, it looks like they could take part in the postseason for the first time since the 2010/11 season.
Dahlin, at 6-feet-3-inches and 185 lbs, has been as good as advertised in both ends of the rink and the Sabres now have two of the league’s top blue line prospects in their top pick and Rasmus Ristolainen. The defense corps also contains Jake McCabe and Zach Bogosian with Marco Scandella, Casey Nelson and Nathan Beaulieu chipping in. Botterill has also put together a solid forward unit led by Eichel, newcomer Conor Sheary, veteran Jason Pominville, Sam Reinhart, Kyle Okposo and Casey Middlestadt. He added some depth when trading O’Reilly to the St. Louis Blues in the summer by acquiring young prospect Tage Thompson along with a second-round draft pick, Patrick Berglund and Vladimir Sobotka.
However, Botterill’s master offseason stroke was trading prospect Cliff Pu to the Carolina Hurricanes along with a sixth, third and second round draft pick for 2010/11 Calder Trophy winner Jeff Skinner. The 26-year-old is a three-time 30-goal scorer who banged in 89 goals over the past three seasons with 74 of them coming at even strength. At the time, he was the youngest NHL’er to be named rookie of the year after notching 31 goals and 32 assists in his debut season. Skinner had a no-trade clause in his contract, but believed the Sabres unlimited potential and waived it to join them. The left-winger has quickly fit in with his teammates and was second to Eichel in scoring after 23 games with 25 points and a team-high 17 goals.
We can’t overlook the solid goaltending the Sabres have been getting either as Carter Hutton and his backup Linus Ullmark have been pulling their weight and then some. The 32-year-old Hutton joined the squad as a free agent from St. Louis in the offseason and the 25-year-old Ullmark was drafted 163rd overall in 2012. Hutton was 11-6-1 at the quarter mark of the season while Ullmark was unbeaten at 4-0-1. Both netminders were well above the league average in goals-against and save percentage and were enabling their teammates to play with confidence in them.
As a team, the Sabres have been middle-of-the-road in goals scored and top-10 in goals against. Their power-play was ranked 11th and the penalty killing unit was fifth best. Buffalo head coach Phil Housley has taken a lot of criticism in the past and the Sabres hired Steve Smith this summer as an assistant to help him out with the defense. However with the coaching staff now having a solid roster to work with, thanks to Botterill, Buffalo is now starting to put everything together and proving they’re going to be a handful night in and night out.