The Buffalo Sabres have had a rough month of March this year, and as they have strived to finally break their playoff drought, they have been learning some hard lessons. Their last game against the New York Islanders was an outstanding example of how they need to play down the stretch if they want to compete with the higher-end teams. Granted, the Islanders are not a top-end playoff team this season, but they are still more likely to make it to the postseason than the Sabres.
The Sabres have had a bad habit of losing big games this season when they need to show up, and that trend has hindered them in their attempts to solidify a playoff berth. They need to make adjustments to their defensive game and shift how they play offense. All year they have used their speed and raw scoring abilities to win games, but in doing so, they sacrificed any level of defensive awareness. Seeing them adjust that mentality over the last week has been a breath of fresh air, and it gives a good sense of where this team could be headed going into next season.
Sabres’ Offense Will Not Drop Off
Scoring goals is always the best way to win games, but the Sabres have not been responsible with their goal scoring. They relied heavily on their hot power play early on in the season, but as the year progressed, teams have caught on to how they set things up, and it has been fairly poor over the last couple of months. As they progress into next season, they will not be losing any of their scoring talent as Tage Thompson, Dylan Cozens, Alex Tuch, and Jeff Skinner are all under contract for the long term. Combine them with young talents like Jack Quinn, JJ Peterka, and eventually Jiri Kulich and Matt Savoie, and they have some of the best offensive weapons in the league to ride into the future.
The key to adjusting these players and how they are used, is by developing a transition game that works for them. The Sabres’ forwards all have incredible offensive abilities, but almost none of them have any physicality. While their style of play has worked fairly well during the regular season, it will not pan out the same way in the playoffs if they make it there. Right now, they are learning the hard way that they will not win games if they forget to play defense, as they have been scored on at an alarming rate this month. Once they figure out how to bridge the gap between scoring and defending, this team will be on another level.
Sabres’ Defensive Structure Still Needs Work
The fact of the matter is that the Sabres’ defense is extremely young, and as they play more games, they will naturally improve. There is not a single defender that is over the age of 28, and only one of them has NHL playoff experience, so most of them do not know what it is like to be in that scenario. As this season has progressed, there has been significant growth shown by Rasmus Dahlin, Owen Power, Ilya Lyubushkin, and Mattias Samuelsson in every aspect of their game. These four players should be considered the defensive core, as they move out other pieces and fill in the gaps to improve.
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What they could use is a physical veteran defender that has significant playoff experience. Adding a player like that to the mix would take some pressure off the young defenders while also teaching them how to play the game at key points in the year. Right now they have been crumbling under the pressure as they fight for a playoff spot, and it is likely going to cost them that position by the end of the season. They simply do not have the appropriate roster to compete with the higher-end playoff teams, but they are close. Making some moves on the defensive end will fix some issues, but the reality is that the young defenders just need more time to learn, and then this defense will look miles better than it has this season.
Sabres’ Leadership Group Matters
Having a good leadership group in your locker room is more important than most people think. It is not just about slapping a letter on your best player’s chest, rather it is more about finding the best people in the room to motivate the other players and keep them together when things don’t go right. Captain Kyle Okposo has done a fantastic job of doing this over the past couple of seasons as the Sabres transitioned out of the Jack Eichel era, and it is important to keep the new positive message going. The alternate captain choices of Dahlin and Zemgus Girgensons made a lot of sense, but things will likely shift slightly as they move into the next couple of years.
The Sabres have a number of players that are “captain material”. Players like Alex Tuch and Dylan Cozens live and breathe the culture of this team and are definitions of what it means to be a Sabres captain. Players like Thompson and Jeff Skinner have big personalities and are the lifeblood of this team a lot of nights, so they lead in ways that the others do not. Then there are young leaders like Peyton Krebs and newly-signed goaltender Devon Levi who have a tenacity level and work ethic that are infectious to the players around them. With the Sabres having so many candidates for “official” leadership positions, it made Okposo the perfect choice to set the tone on what it means to be a part of this team long term.
Patience is Key For the Sabres
The Sabres have played above and beyond what was expected of them this year, and it has been tough to swallow the fact that they may not make the playoffs despite their efforts. At the end of the day, they made significant strides towards being an elite hockey team, and even if they fall short this season, next season is poised to be significantly better. They have a number of high-end prospects waiting in the wings to improve this current group, and they have significant cap space to work with in order to get some additional help in the defense and goaltending departments.
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While it would have been nice for the Sabres to beat the odds and make the playoffs this year, the likelihood of it has dwindled to almost nothing, and that is okay. It will sting for a bit, and it is frustrating to see the explosiveness of this season go down in flames, but it was not all for nothing. The lessons learned by every facet of this team, from the front office to the players, will not be for naught. They will finish this season strong, and they will take what they have learned into next year to be one of the best versions of the Sabres in over a decade.
I’m a journalist who specializes in investigative reporting and writing. I have written for the New York Times and other publications.