Last Sunday, a 2-0 loss to Montreal made the Buffalo Sabres the first team to be mathematically eliminated from playoff contention in the 2013-14 NHL season. Insofar as I’ve spent so much time chronicling the highs and lows of each team this season, it seems appropriate to look back at what went wrong for the Sabres.
The most you can say about this year’s Sabres is that they knew exactly what 2013-14 was about: with limited roster depth and the departure of long-time coach Lindy Ruff, and on the heels of a miserable 2012-2013 campaign, everyone recognized that this season would be a painful first step toward rebuilding in Buffalo. And the rebuilding steps are the only positives for Sabres fans to take from this season. By any metric, this team was a disaster on the ice. The numbers aren’t yet final, but the Sabres’ 41% Fenwick Close would make them the worst puck possession team in the NHL since 2007-08. No team has put fewer shots on goal than the Sabres, while only the Maple Leafs have allowed more shots. Ryan Miller’s 0.922 even-strength Sv% kept Buffalo’s goals-against in the “bad” range (as opposed to the “disastrous” range occupied by teams like Ottawa, Florida, Edmonton, and the Islanders), but the Sabres were almost comically inept this season when it came to goal-scoring. At even strength, no team had fewer shots on goal per 60 minutes than Buffalo’s 25.2; similarly, they were dead last in the rate of Corsi attempts. Lest you think this was about generating quality chances at the expense of quantity, Buffalo also ranked last in even-strength shooting percentage (5.9%). With the third-worst power play in the league, you can see what this all adds up to: the Sabres have scored just 127 goals through 69 games this season. To put that number in perspective, 14 NHL teams scored that many or more goals in 48 games last season.
There are other lowlights that I could mention – the disastrous Ron Rolston era, which began with a preseason line brawl against Toronto and culminated in John Scott’s ugly elbow to Loui Eriksson’s head, and the ugly break with Hall of Famer and team President Pat LaFontaine – but the best news in Buffalo is simply that the rebuild is on. The Sabres did well to acquire good assets in return for longtime standouts like Miller and Tomas Vanek, as well as flipping Matt Moulson and Jaroslav Halak for solid returns. Generally speaking, this is a team that projects to have tons of cap space moving forward; if they really wanted to go all in and ownership is willing to eat the cash, they could open up even more possibilities by using their compliance buyouts on Ville Leino and Tyler Myers. If smart people are given the reins (we’ll see), the Sabres have a lot of flexibility in how they choose to reconstruct their roster. If nothing else, they have a ton of high picks in upcoming drafts. It’s been a very rough year, but Buffalo’s position is not a bad one to be in.