I’ve been harping on it for at least the last two seasons- goaltending makes a difference. This season has been a major disappointment, with the Defense, Offense and goaltending all performing well below pre-season expectations. Now, as we hit the halfway point and the Sabres begin their league mandated “bye-week”, let’s take a look back at the first half. Cover your eyes if you need to, it’s not pretty.
Let’s start with the Offense. Magic Jack Eichel leads the team with 41 points on 18 goals and 23 assists, keeping up his point per game pace which is what an All-Star should do. He has recently started scoring more and the only criticism I have of him is the same one I have for the rest of the team- they have been invisible at points this season. Guys like Ryan O’Reilly, Kyle Okposo and Evander Kane have at points this year just been non-factors. Good news is, in the last 7 games including the Winter Classic, these guys have all started producing more consistently; even though the Sabres lost 5 of these 7 games, the more consistent performances offensively are encouraging.
Next is the Defense. There is not much positive to report out of this group. We have the worst goal differential in the conference at -52. We’ve scored only 99 goals all season, which is by far the least, and have given up 151, which is the second most in the conference. The Islanders have given up 158, but have scored 146 which makes their differential only -12. The goal differential is not all on the defense and the blame should equally fall on the goaltending, or lack thereof, and poor defensive play by some of the lower pairings. Our second and third pairs have been very bad at moving the puck in the D-zone and starting rushes up ice. They have lousy puck handling skills and give up turnovers in the zone way too often. Also, we have basically no offensive output by our defense. Risto has 2 goals, Scandella has 1, McCabe has 2, and Beualieu has 1. Antipin, Bogosian, Gorges and Falk all have 0. That is just bad. Most of these guys, I’d say all of them except Risto and McCabe should be looking for new jobs next year. These guys are just not good enough, and when you combine them with Swiss (or should I say Swedish) cheese in the net, you get a -52 goal differential.
The Goaltending has been right up there in badness with the Defense. Robin Lehner has been a sieve this year and his numbers belie his poor performances on the ice. Yes, he was our best player for a 2-3 week stretch in December, but that’s not saying much on a team that forgot to show up for most of the first half and plodded along. He got pulled in his last game after giving up 3 goals on 12 shots. Phil Housley said after the game that the goalie has to stop some shots if we want to win. I hope that he and Botterill have finally seen enough of Lehner, but alas, Ullmark and Guhle are going to be sent back down to Rochester to try and help the Amerks win a Calder Cup. I think this is a fine decision by Botterill because there’s no sense in having these two prospects up here on a losing team to damage their confidence. Send them back down to win and then bring them up next year.
It was actually exciting to be at the game last night. People were genuinely pumped to see Ullmark in the net. And boy did he not disappoint. He was fantastic last night against a Columbus team that has 53 points and is in second place in the Metropolitan division. He moved fluidly, showed excellent athleticism, and stayed tall in the net. He made a great glove save on Seth Jones in the second. You could tell that the Columbus shooters were trying to go high, which is the book on Lehner, but Ullmark did not go down too early and open up that top shelf as Lehner consistently does. Columbus couldn’t find an answer to Ullmark and he shut them down. Their only goal came on a nifty move by Artemi Panarin who sliced through four guys from the neutral zone then cut in front of the net on his backhand and whipped one at Ullmark’s head and beat him. It was a great individual effort from one of the best scorers in the league.
As for an overall first half grade, I give this team an F. Honestly, for me, there are no positive takeaways from the first half of this season. It has been an utter failure. Really, the only bright spot I see is that Ullmark and Guhle look like the real deal, and that Casey Mittelstadt looks like the real deal having won most outstanding player at the WJC. Jason Botterill has some really important decisions to make as the trade deadline approaches. I say he should look to move anyone not named Ristolainen, O’Reilly or Eichel. This season is already lost and he should be out there trying to bring back a good haul for Evander Kane and if he can get something for Lehner, by all means do it. I know he has gotten phone calls and I hope he makes a solid deal that will position us for success next year with some of the prospects who are doing really well in Rochester.
Since the Sabres are on their bye week, MSG is televising the Amerks game tonight and are televising one other game of theirs next week. I will be watching.