The Buffalo Sabres are not a good hockey team. The consensus pick for dead last in the NHL before the 2014-15 season even started, the Sabres in an average game allow the opposition almost two shots at the net for every one they take.
This is a team so self-admittedly terrible that it had presumptive first overall pick Connor McDavid’s Erie Otters come to town and play a game; McDavid himself noted to the Canadian Press earlier in the season that every time the Sabres lose his Twitter timeline explodes with mentions (h/t Sportsnet).
But then, the Sabres haven’t lost much at all lately. This is a team with nine wins in its last 13 games, a team that with 28 points sits closer to a playoff spot than it does to last place in the NHL.
The chances of the club finishing 30th overall and becoming the favourite to land McDavid are getting slimmer by the day. That’s a problem because even though the Sabres are winning games they’re still playing terribly.
Let’s start by unpacking that record a little. In the team’s current 9-4-0 run, it has a plus-one goal differential, scoring 35 times and surrendering 34 goals against. Winning hockey games comes down to scoring more goals than the other team; it doesn’t take a genius to understand that a team scoring 50.7 percent of the goals won’t go on winning 69.2 percent of its hockey games. The Sabres have done it by going 8-2-0 in 10 games decided by a single goal.
As an illustration that it can’t last, consider the Montreal Canadiens. A month ago, the team was 14-4-1 despite a modest plus-eight goal differential; at the time we noted the club’s ridiculous 7-1 record in one-goal games and said it was too good to last.
Since then the team has gone 1-5 in one-goal games and 6-6-1 overall, with the latter the kind of record the team’s goal differential and underlying numbers suggested all along. The Sabres too will see their record eventually reflect their goal differential.
A team’s record tends to regress to its goal differential. Goal differential in turn tends to regress to the level of a team’s shot metrics (give or take a brilliant goalie or a lights-out power play). That’s the second problem with the Sabres: Their underlying numbers are brutal, and that hasn’t changed over this winning streak.
In the interests of brevity, we’ll just look at shots. Over Buffalo’s lovely 13-game run, the team has surrendered 484 shots against; that ranks 28th in the league. Meanwhile, the Sabres have taken an NHL-low 337 shots; that’s 17 fewer than the 29th-ranked Rangers, a team which has played one less game in that span. At this, the high point of its season, Buffalo is the worst offensive team in the NHL married to almost the very worst defensive team.
The Sabres have been getting away with it because their goalies have posted a 0.930 save percentage while the opposition’s goalies have posted a 0.896 save percentage over the same span, which is the equivalent of Dominik Hasek at one end of the rink and a below-average AHL goalie at the other end. It’s a measure of just how terrible Buffalo is that even with that kind of goaltending imbalance it’s only breaking even in terms of goal differential.
Still, we know barely short of a certainty that Buffalo is going to collapse at some point. The percentages will even out, general manager Tim Murray will ship off the team’s long list of pending free agents and the Sabres' results will dive faster than Sean Avery getting hit by Jaromir Jagr.
For the sake of argument, let’s project the record of the NHL’s other 29 teams over 82 games. That’s probably a favourable projection for the Sabres, since a lot of bottom-feeders will get worse as they sell off free agents, but it’s a decent back-of-the-envelope figure. How bad does Buffalo have to be to end up at the bottom of the league?
To finish 30th, the Sabres need to underperform the Edmonton Oilers, now a draft dynasty the way they used to be an actual dynasty. Edmonton is on pace for 51 points; if that continues Buffalo needs to go something like 10-37-3 to finish in last. Even for the Sabres that’s going to be tough to do; that’s a significantly worse record than the team managed last season when it was 14 points back of 29th place.
Where would Buffalo finish if the team suddenly transformed into that wretched 2013-14 group? That team had 52 points in 82 games, which translates to roughly 32 points over the final 50 contests (for a 60-point season).
If the Sabres fall to that level immediately and the other teams continue as they are, they would finish 28th overall, ahead of Edmonton and Carolina. That would give them a 1-9 shot at winning the draft lottery and picking Connor McDavid.
In other words, it’s probably a good idea for Sabres fans to hold off on buying that McDavid jersey.
Jonathan Willis covers the NHL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter for more of his work.
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So this was unexpected.
In those five wins, the Sabres defeated the Canadiens, currently in a four-way tie for first in the Eastern Conference, twice, the San Jose Sharks, the Washington Capitals and the Toronto Maple Leafs.
All five are solid wins against solid opponents. Ignoring an uninspired performance against the Winnipeg Jets, one might surmise that the Sabres are likely out of the basement for good.
Well, maybe not.
The Sabres' Fenwick-for percentage is still solidly last in the NHL at 37.49 percent on the season. The Colorado Avalanche, the 29th-place team, sit at 45.43 percent. To put that disparity in perspective, the Avs are less than 11 percentage points away from being in second place in the NHL. If not for a truly dominant Chicago Blackhawks squad, they would likely be closer to first than the Sabres.
And if you think the last six games have improved upon that Fenwick-for percentage by much you would be very wrong.
In this six-game stretch, the Sabres' best Fenwick-for is 43.75 percent, and that was in the loss to Winnipeg. In their last five wins, the Sabres have had a Fenwick-for percentage under 40 percent, and the highest total came during the 6-2 win against Toronto at 41.96 percent.
Yes, you read that correctly. In a six-goal game, the Sabres were still only able to hit about 42 percent on the Fenwick-for chart.
And many who are not accustomed to or a fan of advanced stats may laugh and say these numbers don't matter and that it's just the performance on the ice that means anything at the end of the day. But these numbers do say something.
What they tell Sabres fans is the Sabres are still woefully bad in terms of puck possession and that they are giving up a hilariously high number of scoring chances every game.
So how have they been able to come up on top then? Stellar netminding from Jhonas Enroth and Michal Neuvirth.
Enroth has played in five of the six games due to a lower-body injury Neuvirth suffered Nov. 18 against San Jose, and he has played spectacularly. In his five appearances, Enroth stopped 157 of 165 shots for a save percentage of .951. It doesn't need explaining that that number is well over the league average and almost 20 points better than Pekka Rinne's .933.
Needless to say, that level of netminding is unsustainable in long stretches. If Enroth were to have played at Rinne's league-best level (Jets backup Michael Hutchinson has only played in eight games this season) during that stretch, he would have allowed three more goals, enough to arguably lose the Sabres two of those games.
To take it a step further and use Enroth's career average save percentage of .913, the Sabres probably would've lost all those games, as they would have allowed about seven more goals.
This is obviously not to take away from the performances Enroth has had—it's just to say that it is next to impossible for him to maintain this level of play for much longer, let alone the entire season. And if the Sabres are going to be outshot close to a 2-1 margin every game, he needs to play like this for them to have a shot.
But on a more positive note, the Sabres look to have something special in both Tyler Ennis and Zemgus Girgensons. In this stretch, Ennis has two goals and seven points, and Girgensons has three goals and five points. Both have stood out and showed they will be a big part of turning this Buffalo team around in the future.
So with everything that's been discussed above, where does that leave the Sabres?
Tampa Bay and Los Angeles are good and getting better as the season goes. Florida is in the middle of the pack possession-wise, but the Panthers always seem to give the Sabres fits with their speed and size down the middle. Calgary is the only poor possession team coming up in the next five games, but the Flames are still almost 10 percent better than the Sabres on the season.
These next five games will go a long way to showing where the Sabres actually are this season. The hope for the playoffs is dim at best; so will they be a middling team, or will they find themselves back where they started the season?
Sabres fans will soon find out.
Advanced stats courtesy of war-on-ice.com.
Follow me on Twitter for NHL and Sabres news all season: @SwordPlay18.
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