Source: Jeffrey T. Barnes / AP
We’re a quarter into this hockey season and the biggest surprise so far has been the Buffalo Sabres. Last season they were dead last in the NHL with only 25 wins and won the right to draft Swedish defenseman Rasmus Dahlin first overall. On top of Dahlin, the Sabres began working and making moves in the offseason, signing goaltender Carter Hutton from St. Louis and acquiring Centre Patrik Berglund and Vladimir Sobotka as part of the Ryan O Reilly trade with the Blues. Plus getting two-time Stanley Cup Champion Conor Sheary in a trade with the Pittsburgh Penguins. The biggest deal Sabre’s GM Jason Botterill pulled was acquiring former 30 goal scorer Jeff Skinner from Carolina.
As much as the Sabres shook up their roster, nobody saw the jump to first place tied in the Atlantic with their longtime rival Toronto Maple Leafs. People expected Toronto to be atop the standings, especially after signing hometown boy John Tavares, but the Sabers though? No way anybody saw it coming. Yes it's only 25 games and there’s still plenty of hockey left to play but it’s still an impressive feat. During the Sabres 10 game winning streak, they have gone to OT (including shootouts) seven of those games. Beating teams like the Penguins, Lightning, Sharks and the Canadiens twice, both in overtime. For the Sabres, their 10 game winning streak was the longest since the start of the 06/07 season. That year the Sabre's broke franchise records in wins with 53 and points with 117 points. The Sabres went to the Conference Finals that season.
So are the Sabre's a legit team? The answer is yes. Right now they are. The Sabers are legit and that’s because unlike Edmonton, Jason Botterill is putting the right pieces together. Buffalo has been playing as a cohesive group, not just as one player. Veteran players are taking to their leadership roles while the young guns are stepping up. You can see the chemistry on this team and head coach Phil Housley looks like an early Jack Adams candidate. Jeff Skinner looks refreshed and has been a dangerous sniper scoring 19 goals, which is tied for first with Bruins forward David Pasternak and the Jets Finnish superstar Patrik Laine, he looks better than ever and is on pace to beat his personal best of 37 goals and 63 points. He’s been the player the Sabre's needed alongside Jack Eichel. Speaking of Eichel the former Hobey Baker award winner has averaged over a point a game with 28 points in 25 games and sits fifth with 23 helpers. That’s more than elite players like Nicklas Backstroke, Evgeni Malkin and Connor McDavid. The biggest plus though has been his health. Eichel has played all 25 games. As for the lineup, the Sabres have nine players with 10 points or more. Sam Reinhart notched a career-high 50 points last year, and has continued putting up solid numbers with 17 points. He has shown he can play with Eichel and Skinner on the top line, creating a top line trio you can’t sleep on.
The Sabre's secondary scoring has been helpful in the team's early success. Kyle Okposo hasn’t been lighting the world on fire since signing with the team in 2016 but has only put up some decent numbers so far. Despite dealing with some health issues in the past, Okposo's play has been good and he could hit 50 points, a mark he’s never reached in Buffalo. 36-year-old Jason Pominville is on the third line and having a resurgence. Pominville might have lost some of his quickness on the ice but is 3rd on the team in scoring with 18 points and is second on the team behind Jeff Skinner with 8 even strength goals. Despite his ice time decreasing on Buffalo compared to Pittsburgh, Conor Sheary has been a good pick up. With 6 and 12 points, Sheary needs to adjust more under Housley but has proved he can produce even without Sidney Crosby by his side.
Don’t forget about the young upstart Sabre's defensive core. Rasmus Ristolainen has had 3 straight seasons with 40+ points and has had 5 points in the last 5 games including a game-winner against San Jose Tuesday night to extend their winning streak. Ristolainen is 10th in the league in ice time with over 25 minutes a game. The late-blooming Jake McCabe has turned heads in the first two months of the season. Last year McCabe only had 12 points in 53 games and 32 in the last two seasons, he has picked up 10 points and has played better along Ristolainen on the top defence pairing. McCabe has made himself a solid defensive defenceman. The first pick overall, Rasmus Dahlin, has been playing a big role as expected. Dahlin has averaged close to twenty minutes per game. The 18-year-old rookie has helped the Sabres with his puck movement and impressive passing, Dahlin also leads all rookies in assists with 10 and is tied for fourth in scoring with 13 points. The kid has shown more maturity than your average 18-year-old on the ice. With more games under his belt, Dahlin will continue to get better and be the all-star we all know he has the potential to be.
Possibly the biggest question mark for the Sabres was the man between the pipes Carter Hutton. Hutton was given the starting job in Buffalo with his solid play in St. Louis the past two seasons, he has shown flashes of starter material as he played 40 games for Nashville in 12/14 season winning 20 games and stepping in for Vezina Trophy winner Pekka Rinne who was battling a hip injury that sideline home for the majority of the season. Last year Hutton had a great G.A.A. of 2.09 with 17 wins, to only 7 losses. With a much younger defensive group in Buffalo, Hutton might have had a tougher time playing good hockey. In 19 starts this season Hutton is 12-6-1. In his last five starts his save percentage is at least 900 or better and has given up less than 3 goals in 4 of those starts. He’s won 8 straight starts and hasn’t lost since November 4th. Carter Hutton might not be a flash in the pan like many thought he would once he signed in Buffalo.
The Sabres have been on a tear lately. Can the streak continue? We will see, but the Sabres are proving the doubters wrong. The Atlantic division has proven to be tough this year and the Sabres are looking mighty fine right now and could be the team to watch for come April. Good hockey is back in Buffalo.