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What Went Wrong: Buffalo Sabres

by Corey Abbott

What Went Wrong is our annual series where we look at the teams that failed to make the playoffs. Over the coming weeks, we’ll go through them team-by-team, discuss how their season went and then highlight the players that either significantly underperformed in 2018-19 or that they’ll need more from going forward.

You can check out our previous editions on the the Ottawa Senators, Los Angeles Kings, and New Jersey Devils.and Detroit Red Wings.

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The Buffalo Sabres have the longest active postseason drought at eight straight seasons.  Buffalo finished 27th overall in the league in 2018-19 with a 33-39-10 record.  The Sabres have not been in the Stanley Cup Playoffs since 2010-11 when the club lost in seven games in the first round to Philadelphia.      

Buffalo got off to a strong start with a mark of 17-7-3 through the first two months and it finally looked like the team was in the process of turning things around.  That included a 10-game winning streak from Nov. 8-Nov. 27, which made a return to the playoffs seem like a real possibility.  However, that notion came to swift end after the team came crashing back down to earth following the streak.  The Sabres posted a league-worst 16-33-8 record with a minus-55 goal differential.  The Sabres became just the second team in NHL history to miss the playoffs in the same season that featured a spree of 10 victories in a row.

Buffalo didn’t win back-to-back games after Dec. 13 until the last two matches of the regular season. The Sabres also ended a 14-game winless skid on the road in the final contest of the year.  The team had the third-worst road record in the league at 12-24-5.  That came after the club struggled mightily in March with only two victories in 16 games (2-12-2).  Buffalo was shut out five times in 12 games from Mar. 9-Mar. 31, including three in a row.

The Sabres had a .901 save percentage and minus-45 goal differential.  The team also allowed the fifth-most 5-on-5 goals against (185), which tied them with the Chicago Blackhawks.  Carter Hutton was excellent early in the year and his play masked the team’s struggles defensively for a while.  However, once he cooled down it turned into a forgettable first season with Buffalo for the 33-year-old netminder.  The Sabres placed 24th in the league with a 3.27 goals against per game.  

Buffalo will need much more supplementary scoring after Jeff Skinner, Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart carried most of the load last season.  The trio combined for 90 goals, which amounted to 40% of the Sabres' total for the season.  Skinner can become an unrestricted free agent in July and losing him would be a big problem.  The team already needs scorers and Skinner’s 40 goals would be difficult to replace.  After Skinner, Eichel and Reinhart, who all topped the 20-goal plateau, the club’s next-highest scorer was Jason Pominville, who had 16 markers.  The 36-year-old is also a pending unrestricted free agent this summer and retirement could be an option for him as well.       

The Sabres will have a top-10 pick for a seventh straight year, which will be the seventh overall selection in the 2019 NHL Entry Draft.  Rasmus Dahlin, who was the first overall pick in last June's draft, lived up to expectations and then some during his rookie season in 2018-19.  However, he was one of the team’s few bright spots in a disappointing campaign.  

Buffalo fired head coach Phil Housley after just two seasons.  He posted a record of 58-84-22 and the team was outscored by a 546-419 margin during his tenure.  The Sabres hired Ralph Krueger as the club’s new bench boss last week.  He will be tasked with improving the team’s defensive structure, while also putting the core players in situations to succeed in the offensive end.  Eichel and Reinhart are coming off career years offensively, but they need help or else the Sabres won’t be going anywhere anytime soon.      

Carter Hutton - Hutton had a successful start with the Sabres.  He went 12-6-1 in his first 19 appearances, while posting a .920 save percentage.  However, Hutton won a mere six games over 31 outings afterward and he had a .900 save percentage during that span.  He concluded the 2018-19 campaign with a .908 save percentage and 3.00 goals-against average.  Hutton still has two seasons remaining on his three-year, $8.25 million contract.  He will need to be better, but he also needs more support from his teammates both defensively and offensively.    

Casey Mittelstadt - There were heightened expectations for Mittelstadt going into the season after he registered one goal and four assists in six matches with the Sabres to finish the 2017-18 campaign.  However, he produced just 12 goals and 25 points in 77 matches in his first full NHL season.  He didn’t display the playmaking ability and skill with the puck that was featured prominently during the 2018 World Junior Championship when he took the tournament by storm.  Sabres GM Jason Botterill thought the 20-year-old forward wore down and he expects Mittelstadt’s conditioning to improve.  He should be better next season and his offensive creativity should eventually shine through.  The Sabres would like to see that happen as soon as possible because the team desperately needs some secondary scoring.   

Kyle Okposo - Okposo slipped to 29 points over 78 matches in 2018-19.  He had 45 points in his first campaign with the Sabres and then he had 44 points in 2017-18.  Okposo hasn’t been the contributor he was during his final three seasons with the New York Islanders.  Not having a linemate like John Tavares has predictably had a negative impact on his game, but injuries have also been an issue for him.  Okposo is poised to earn $6 million per year for the next four seasons and Buffalo needs to get more out of him.

Rasmus Ristolainen - Ristolainen has topped 40 points in each of his last four seasons, but his struggles defensively have led to him being surrounded by trade speculation.  He had a league-worst minus-41 rating in 2018-19.  Ristolainen has been a minus player every year of his NHL career and he has accumulated a minus-143 rating in 424 career contests.  Plus-minus isn’t a very reliable statistic, but his possession numbers have never been anything to write home about either.  If Ristolainen stays with the Sabres then new coach Krueger will need to find the best way to deploy him.  He can be an impactful defender with his offensive ability and his ruggedness. 

Corey Abbott

Corey Abbott is an Editor for Hockey on Rotoworld. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @CoreAbbott.