Sabres’ Lack of Adjustment is Ruining Their Playoff Hopes

The Buffalo Sabres have fallen into a slump as the second half of the season presses on, and it could not come at a worse time. They are fighting for one of the last wild-card spots – to break their longstanding playoff drought – but they just cannot find a rhythm. From last season and this one, they have had the luxury of learning slowly, but if they want to make it to the postseason, their development process needs to be much faster.

Several players are enjoying tremendous success, but the team is not good enough to win on talent alone. Up to this point, they have been carried by the success of their power play, the dazzling work of Tage Thompson and Rasmus Dahlin, and some good coaching moves made by Don Granato. The problem is that the rest of the league has caught on and adjusted their game to shut Buffalo down. The Sabres, on the other hand, have not adjusted nearly enough to win these key games.

Sabres’ Pathetic Power Play

The Sabres went from having the most lethal power play in the league to looking like a minor-league squad. It’s the same thing over and over again: carry the puck to center ice, drop pass to their own blue line, the trailing player picks up the puck and tries to walk through a wall of six or more players, cross over the blue line, get the puck along the right-hand side boards to Dylan Cozens, pass it back to Dahlin at the point, pass it to Thompson on the left side for a one-timer, and rinse and repeat. It has become so predictable that the opposition has consistently shut them down in the new year.

Tage Thompson Buffalo Sabres Bench Celebration
Tage Thompson, Buffalo Sabres Bench Celebration (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The other glaring issue is the lack of shooting options on both units. The top power-play unit feeds Thompson, and the second unit feeds Victor Olofsson, but neither unit utilizes a net-front player to screen the goalie or a player waiting behind the net to move the puck around to get defenders moving. Every play is set up from the point or the sideboards, and it has become frustrating to watch. Finding something more fluid would give each unit more options rather than just praying Thompson or Olofsson can bury a 100mph one-timer every time. Adjusting their strategy would be best, but if they are intent on staying the course, a few small changes could go a long way.

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The first thing to change would be to take Jeff Skinner off the first unit and put Olofsson on it instead. They should put Cozens where Skinner usually is and have Olofsson as a second one-timer option on the right side. That way, goalies would need to worry about more than one player in shooting position, and defenders would need to leave a prime scoring lane open for Thompson, Olofsson, or Dahlin. The second unit would have Skinner in the one-timer position on the right side and Jack Quinn as the one-timer for the left side, while Owen Power mans the point, and the same strategy applies. If they refuse to change strategy, then they need to move players around to fit the scheme better.

Sabres’ Goaltending Not Good Enough

Weak goals against are not the defenders’ fault, and too many soft goals have been finding their way past the Sabres’ goaltenders. The overall defense has not been great, but if the goaltending made some of the simpler saves, then the final score wouldn’t be so out of balance. All three goalies have been subpar, and each of them has a glaring weakness that the opposition continues to exploit.

Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen Buffalo Sabres
Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen, Buffalo Sabres (Photo by Bill Wippert/NHLI via Getty Images)

Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen has struggled with his glove side this season, and that continues to be his biggest problem. Eric Comrie has struggled to find a general rhythm, and he makes simple saves look more difficult than they need to be, so finding more ice time and consistency could be his solution. Craig Anderson is getting older and slower, and while that is unfortunate, father time was bound to catch up with him around this time of year.

On Monday against the Los Angeles Kings, he did not have the sharpness that he had earlier in the season, and it is clear that he is slowing down more than the other two netminders. Buffalo will likely continue to roll all three, but they need every single one of them to step up and be better. Otherwise, blowout losses will start to pile up.

Sabres Have Solutions Available

The roster itself is solid, but a slight shakeup to bring in a veteran presence would be one way to improve the team. Upgrading the goaltending will be a bit difficult, but trading for a defenseman or upgrading the forward group with someone like Florida Panthers forward Anthony Duclair would be more realistic. The Sabres have the cap room to make some moves, and they have prospects available in their system to be traded. Exploring their options on the market will not hinder player development but rather enhance it by bringing in an experienced voice who knows what it takes to make it to the postseason.

Related: Sabres Must Find Consistency in the Second Half

It is not possible for the Sabres to sustain their goal-scoring pace set earlier in the season. Teams pushing for the playoffs tend to buckle down and shore up their defensive play, and that is only going to make the Sabres’ glaring issues more obvious down the stretch. Dahlin recently wrote a letter to the fans stating that the team understood what these final 30 games meant, but they have not shown that type of compete level yet.

They need to change the way they play and add in some physical aspects to open up more space on the ice. The Sabres are one of the worst teams at hitting, but if they made it a bigger part of their game, it would make them a more complete team. If they want to break out of this slump and make a real push, they need to make some key changes, or they risk ruining all hopes of making it to the 2023 NHL Playoffs.

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