Did we jump into the time space continuum and travel back in time to the 2014-2015 race to the bottom of the NHL standing with Arizona and Edmonton? Sure felt like it, especially in the final months of the year.
This is how the standings looked after that season:
Oilers – 62 points
Coyotes – 56 points
Sabres – 54 points
This is how the standings look after this season:
Coyotes – 70 points
Senators – 67
Sabres – 62
It’s like they say: The more things change the more they stay the same, and for the third time in five years the Sabres are the worst team in the NHL, becoming the first in league history to finish 31st, with the expansion Golden Knights joining the league.
Speed, skill and defenseman jumping into the rush and providing some additional offensive firepower were supposed to be the hallmark of Phil Housley’s first year.
Most nights, the Sabres skated around without purpose and seemed disinterested in playing.
A year after taking a step back, and one that featured little to no answers on nightly basis for their poor play, it was much of the same this season…both on the ice and in the locker room.
Ryan O’Reilly is getting paid $52 mil.
ROR: “I’m letting guys down.”
ME: “We heard that a lot last year…fans heard that a lot last year…”
ROR: “I wish I had an answer for you…”
Full exchange #Sabres @news4buffalo pic.twitter.com/YCL8XvWash— Nick Filipowski (@NEWS4_NICK) December 2, 2017
-“We have to look ourselves in the mirror.”
– “I have to play better.”
-“We didn’t follow the game plan.”
– “I wish I had an answer.”
Those shouldn’t have been in the lexicon of statements used this season.
So, where did it all go wrong?
Somewhat Optimistic Start
Things didn’t start off too bad — although a shootout loss to Montreal on opening night harkened flashbacks of a horrific 2016-2017 season in shootouts with Robin Lehner.
Sure, Buffalo dropped the season opener, but they played well against a perennial Cup contender.
Then, the Sabres proceeded to lose four straight games after that and never recovered.
Oh, and the Canadiens weren’t good this year, either.
Throughout the season Buffalo endured a seven-game skid, two five game losing streaks and four, four game losing streak.
They managed to string together two straight wins only three times and had one three game winning streak all season.
Buffalo didn’t win its first home game until Oct. 21 — three weeks into the season. Sure, they had the long Western road trip in the first month, but they were flat out atrocious at home.
To put things into perspective: They had three wins at KeyBank Center through November and ultimately finished the season tying a franchise worst with just 11 wins on home ice.
Coaches and players routinely talk about making KBC a place a tough place for opponents to play — but they were the ones routinely booed off the ice.
The home struggles reached a breaking point in February against Los Angeles.
After getting blasted during the previous Kid’s Game, a 7-1 loss to the Stars, the Sabres fell behind the Kings 2-1.
General Manager Jason Botterill had had enough, slammed his suite door and then proceeded to storm around the press box.
He was still heated three weeks later when asked about his level of frustration during the trade deadline press conference.
Fans were at their breaking point as well, selling tickets for as little as $3.
At least they got cool Dominik Hasek bobblehead for their support all-season long.
Let’s be honest: The defense remains a mess.
It didn’t’t help that Zach Bogosian continues to be injury plagued. He played in just 18 games before being shut down and hasn’t played a full season since his second year in the league.
Marco Scandella, who was acquired in a trade with Minnesota, performed well and was one of the lone bright spots of the players brought in by the first year GM.
Viktor Antipin showed flashes but is still learning the North American game. He was probably a healthy scratch way too often. Hopefully he bounces back and returns following a scary injury that ended his season early.
Josh Gorges was brought in several years ago to provide leadership and structure on the ice and in the room. He endured his toughest season by far. With his future uncertain at the trade deadline and now with the season close, you have to wonder if he’s reached the end of his career.
Ahead of the #NHLTradeDeadline I asked Josh Gorges about what’s transpired over the last few years.
“When I first got here, we had a goal in mind to take a step forward …it feels like you’ve failed. That’s not easy to swallow.” #Sabres @news4buffalo pic.twitter.com/sgm6qc3QbJ— Nick Filipowski (@NEWS4_NICK) February 21, 2018
There’s no easy fix on the blue line, although Brendan Guhle provided a glimpse into the future , one that fans were happy to see.
Securing the top overall pick at the draft lottery would be a small victory on a lost season, considering top defensive product Rasmus Dahlin is the reward.
Offensive Defensive Woes
Phil Housley is the greatest American scoring defenseman in NHL history.
There was excitement — a special buzz — with the style he wanted to unleash.
The Sabres didn’t get a goal from a defenseman until 28 games, 82 periods and a grand total of 1,658 minutes and 59 seconds into the season.
Jake McCabe’s goal broke the streak with a tally against Colorado on December 5.
The blueliners combined to score 19 goals.
Tampa’s Victor Hedman and Calgary’s Dougie Hamilton paced the league with 17 apiece. Nashville’s P.K. Subban is one of five D men with 16 goals.
Speaking of scoring — there wasn’t enough of it, again.
The Sabres are the only team in the NHL this season to not score 200 goals. They finished with 199, and minus-81 goal differential.
Jack Eichel missed 12 games with an ankle injury and still led the Sabres in scoring with 25 goals and 39 assists.
Evander Kane had 15 goals through December. Then, with the calendar flipping to 2018, like the Winter Classic, he was ice cold with five goals and eight points before being traded to San Jose.
On a cup contender, Kane has nine goals and five assists in 16 games with the Sharks, which includes a four-goal outing against Calgary.
When Jason Pominville arrived, and within the first few days of training camp, he was vocal about wanting to turn things around.
He had two goals in the season opener and then disappeared, going 20-games without seeing the red light go off.
Zemgus Girgensons endured a stretch of 25-games without a goal.
Sam Reinhart’s year couldn’t have started any worse. He had five goals through the first half of the season and managed just one point in the month of December. He went 16-games with a goal before turning things around.
Maybe there was pressure knowing he was playing for a new contract. Jason Botterill made that perfectly clear before the puck dropped on the season.
Reinhart is going to a nice payday especially after the second half he put together.
In the Winter Classic on New Year’s Day, Reinhart got a goal that he said felt was a weight off his shoulders.
Over the final 44 games, Reinhart finished with 20 goals and 19 assists, which included a 14-point (9 G, 5 A) explosion in March.
He’s at his best when he’s competing and battling in the “dirty areas,” creating screens, re-directing shots out front or jamming home a rebound.
Nothing went right for Robin Lehner or Chad Johnson in the crease. They were left out to dry by the guys in front of them on most night and allowed bad goals routinely.
Lehner took a bad wrap a year ago. But, his struggles continued as he posted some of the worst marks in his career in goals against (3.01) and save percentage (.908).
Even as a restricted free agent, it’s tough to imagine Lehner being back.
The Rebuild Starts…Now
Is there an easy fix? Absolutely not.
General Manager Jason Botterill has quite the reclamation project on his hands.
The Pegulas have shown they’re willing to make changes when things aren’t working.
That’s not an option.
Botterill is safe. He’s at least fulfilled one of his goals in turning around the Amerks, who secured a playoff berth for the first time in four years.
Fans want the axe to swing on Phil Housley. If that happens, there isn’t a coach that would willingly walk into this mess knowing the axe would be re-sharpened and ready to swing under another failed season.
Terry Pegula famously started the sole purpose of the Sabres was to win championships — something he wanted to do within the first few years of taking ownership of the franchise.
That was in 2011.
Throughout the years, he’s scoffed at questions about giving the order to rebuild*.
In 2013 Pegula referenced a “rebuild” and noted Boston Bruins owner and Buffalo native Jeremy Jacobs took nearly four decades to build the B’s into a Stanley Cup winner.
Bottom line: This going to take time and that’s not anything fans want to hear. But, after hitting rock bottom this season and finishing dead last in the standings, the only way for the team to go from here, is up.