In a season full of negatives for the struggling Buffalo Sabres, there is one shining positive awaiting at the end of the tunnel in the form of the 2015 NHL draft.

Everyone has heard of Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel by now and rightfully so. Dan Marr of NHL Central Scouting has sung the praises of McDavid and Eichel, going as far as saying that the CSS has "nothing negative to say about either player."

That notion was supported by the CSS ranking McDavid and Eichel Nos. 1 and 2, respectively, in its midterm ranking for the 2015 draft.

Many expect those two to remain in their spots until June, with Noah Hanifin, currently ranked third, likely to hold on to his spot as well. 

But while the Sabres sitting in 30th place in the NHL has the vast majority of the attention on what draft pick their own finish will net them, the Sabres and general manager Tim Murray also have two other picks in the first round to think about.

If the season were over today, the Sabres would currently hold either the first or second overall pick, the 25th pick (from the St. Louis Blues) and the 27th pick (from the New York Islanders).  

The negative for the Sabres is it seems that the Isles have gotten it together and, barring a Toronto Maple Leafs-like collapse, they will be a playoff team this year. The hope heading into this season was that the Islanders would also struggle and give the Sabres two lottery picks, but that dream has all but died. 

The positive is with the new NHL playoff system, the first round has much tougher matchups across the board than before. This translates to better teams exiting in the first round, which then translates to a potential mid-teen pick or two for the Sabres. 

This puts a lot of potential first-rounders in play for the Sabres, and many may be guys Sabres fans haven't heard a lot about given the hoopla surrounding the top two guys.

Now, the guys who should go from picks three to ten probably are not in the realm of possibility for the Sabres, ignoring the potential of trading up. That means some of the names that may have been floating around like Mitchell Marner, Dylan Strome, Oliver Kylington and Pavel Zacha are likely going to find a home somewhere else.

That list also likely includes Lawson Crouse, one of the most polarizing prospects in some time. Many see Crouse as a potential top-five selection in June despite his pedestrian point totals so far for Kingston of the OHL. Despite that, Crouse was a surprise selection for the Canadian World Junior team this year, beating out last year's fifth overall selection Michael Dal Colle in the process.

Many see Crouse as a north-to-south player who can be a possession wizard in all three zones. This is obviously a valuable skill set, but others feel that his lack of scoring puts a second- to third-line rating on him at best, and because of that he should not sniff the top five. 

So odds are a team in the first 10 picks will find space for him, but it's—very, very slighty—possible the Sabres will have him fall in their laps if enough teams feel his scoring, or lack thereof, is not worth the high pick.

So who else could the Sabres be drafting in the first round come the end of June?

One player who has somewhat forced his way into the conversation is Timo Meier, currently playing for the Halifax Mooseheads in the QMJHL. Meier, a native of Switzerland, has the benefit of playing on a line with Nikolaj Ehlers, the ninth overall pick from last year's draft, but he has shown he is an excellent player in his own right.

The Mooseheads have churned out three top-10 picks in the past two years, and Meier may play himself into the company of Nathan MacKinnon, Jonathan Drouin and Ehlers before his season is over. However, as it stands it seems as if Meier, ranked the 12th North American skater in Central Scouting's midterm rankings, will find himself in the mid- to high-teens in June, which could potentially be where the Sabres are making their second pick.

Another group of players to keep an eye on are a trio of current and former USA National Team Development Program standouts. Jordan Greenway, Thomas Novak and Jeremy Bracco all should be available to the Sabres later in the first round, and all have a ton of upside.

Greenway is likely the first of the three to go as his 6'5", 222-pound frame is sure to garner a ton of attention from NHL scouts. He needs to grow into his huge frame a bit, as most prospects his size do, but his hands and skating could make him a feared attacker in the NHL.

Novak is not nearly as big as Greenway but is uber-skilled. While displaying great offensive instincts, Novak is currently in the USHL, which means he's a long-term prospect. However, he is committed to the University of Minnesota, which would likely ensure two to three years of development in and of itself. 

Bracco is the smallest of the three, checking in at 5'9" and 173 pounds, but he arguably is the most skilled. He joins the likes of Mitch Marner and Travis Konecny as smaller guys with a ton of skill who hope to have enough physicality to be major contributors at the NHL level. 

There are a few defensemen that Murray may be keeping an eye on for later in the first round, with guys like Jakub Zboril, Rasmus Andersson, Brandon Carlo and Jeremy Roy potentially available at that point.

However, it's no secret that the Sabres need a lot more help at the forward position, so it's likely to see Murray grab as much first-round talent at the forward position as he can. Then he can add depth to the defense in the second round, potentially with one of the names mentioned above. 

Despite all these promising names in the bottom half of the first round, Sabres fans are still looking to the top of the draft as the season begins to wind down. 

And they're in luck.

According to Sports Club Stats, the Sabres have a 76.72-percent chance of finishing between 49 and 60 points, with the most likely scenario finding them finishing with somewhere between 54 and 57 points. In comparison, the Edmonton Oilers have the best chance of finishing with somewhere between 60 and 64 points.

That translates to an 81-percent chance the Sabres finish 30th this year, with Thursday night's game between the two likely to push that significantly up or down depending on the result. 

But while the top of the draft—understandably—has the most allure, the bottom of the first round may be one of the most important in Sabres history.

 

Follow me on Twitter for NHL and Sabres news all season: @SwordPlay18

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So 2015 has been fun for Buffalo Sabres fans, hasn't it?

The Sabres are marred in a 1-14-1 slump that includes an 0-9-0 showing in the month of January. In that time, the Sabres have lost in any number of ways, including getting blown out a lot, two one-goal games and giving up a three-goal lead.

So what's standing between the Sabres and a winless January? A three-game Western Conference slate with stops in Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver.

To say Calgary and Vancouver are motivated squads right now is an understatement.

Calgary, which lost 4-3 to the Sabres during its 10-3-0 stretch in November and December despite getting outshot and out-Corsi'd by a significant margin, is currently in possession of the second wild-card spot in the Western Conference.

Vancouver is currently second in the Pacific Division, with San Jose, Calgary and Los Angeles breathing down its neck.

It stands to reason that the Flames and Canucks will come out and play some inspired home hockey against a team they should both handle easily.

That leaves the Edmonton game, sandwiched between the stops in Calgary and Vancouver, as the Sabres' best shot of winning in January.

The funny thing with the Oilers game is just how important it could be in the Connor McDavid/Jack Eichel derby. The two blue-chip prospects are listed first and second in NHL Central Scouting's latest rankings.

As it stands right now, the Sabres have an 81 percent chance of finishing in 30th place, according to Sports Club Stats, with the Oilers and Arizona Coyotes being the only other teams deemed to have a chance at it.

Therefore, the game in Edmonton may turn out to be one of the biggest games—if not the biggest gamefor the pro-tank contingent of the Sabres fanbase. If Edmonton were to beat the Sabres and open up more of a cushion in 29th place, it'd be hard to see the Oilers ending up lower in the standings.

Now, Sabres fans have been looking to the offseason since the puck dropped in October, so for many, this is not a surprise. In fact, a good portion of the fanbase is happy it's happening.

But no matter where you stand on the tank, the Sabres need to figure out how they're going to start to right the ship.

While there are obviously roster questions to answer, there are also plenty of other decisions that must be made.

The biggest one revolves around the future of head coach Ted Nolan and his staff. Sabres general manager Tim Murray has an extremely important decision to make on whether he should take the reins away from Nolan or allow him the ability to right the ship with a better roster.

This will become more of a hot-button item as the season winds down, mainly due to the general admiration Nolan gets from the Buffalo community, but the talk of Nolan potentially losing his job has been growing since this slump began in December.

The other storyline to watch is how the incumbent players handle what is essentially now a 35-game tryout for next season.

Murray has the financial flexibility and a stocked prospect cupboard to go out and sign some impact free agents and make a few blockbuster trades.

Yes, there are those who are obviously safe given the status quo, but it seems likely that Murray's list of untouchables probably only has a handful of names on itespecially when there are names like Ryan O'Reilly and Phil Kessel swirling in the trade winds.

But the trade speculation will only increase as the March 2 trade deadline gets closer and the Nolan talk will only intensify as the team continues to lose.

What can be said with certainty is the Sabres are a bad hockey team and the next 35 games have a real possibility of being even worse than the first 47.

Good luck, Sabres fans.

 

Advanced statistics courtesy of war-on-ice.com.

Follow me on Twitter for NHL and Sabres news all season long @SwordPlay18.

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The Buffalo Sabres are not a good hockey team, and general manager Tim Murray knows it. He’s so convinced of that, in fact, that even a stretch in which the club won 10 games out of a possible 13 wasn’t enough to shake his outlook.

Murray talked to NHL.com’s Dan Rosen on Tuesday and was frank in his assessment of the team. He talked about the necessity of evaluating individuals against the bigger picture, finding guys who were going to be useful for years down the road. He mentioned his belief that defenceman Tyler Myers, a fixture in trade rumours, would have better results “when we’re a good team.”

And he told Rosen that even during an unlikely 7-3-0 run last month he wasn’t really convinced that the team had turned a corner, because the numbers strongly suggested it couldn’t possibly last:

I think that we played well. I think that we played hard. But the analytics were basically all the same. Our shooting percentage got higher in those wins. I don't want to think completely on that, but the numbers were pretty close to the same as when we lost other than save percentage and shooting percentage. So if you follow that at all you understand, and is that sustainable is the question you have to ask yourself. I answered it to myself and the people in my office, but that didn't change my outlook on this year, no.

Murray doesn’t come out and say that the Sabres got lucky—it’s hard to imagine that any general manager would—but it’s pretty heavily implied. Refreshingly, he acknowledges those spikes in shooting and save percentage as the aberrations they are, something which should be encouraging to fans in Buffalo. It suggests that Murray isn’t going to be taken in by an illusion of competitiveness; he’ll believe that the team is good when it’s actually good.

What does he mean when he mentions analytics? Undoubtedly he’s referring to shot metrics such as Corsi (a plus/minus of all shot attempts) and Fenwick (the same, but excluding blocked shots). The following chart should illustrate his point nicely:

Over all three segments of the Sabres’ season to date, Buffalo has done a terrible job of spending more time in the opposition's zone than their own. The Corsi rate doesn’t move much from the 37 percent range, meaning that their opponents were taking nearly two-thirds of all shot attempts in a given game; this is broadly true even during the Sabres’ brief winning streak.

There were three key differences separating the winning streak from the terrible runs before and afterward:

  • A tiny uptick in the number of shot attempts that were getting through to the opposition's net
  • Shooting percentage almost doubling
  • Save percentage improving dramatically

Shooting and save percentages tend to be fickle. Commentators talk a lot about how goal scorers tend to be streaky, and primarily that’s because goals are rare events; on average a shooter is going to score less than once for every 10 shots he takes.

This applies at the team level, too. Bad teams can look good when the shooters make their shots for a stretch, and good teams can look bad when their opponents manage the trick.

Over time, however, it evens out; the same scorer who goes 10 games without a goal will notch five in five games. That’s why it’s important to look at the long-term record when a player or team suddenly starts (or stops) scoring—percentages tend to be fickle but balance out over time, and if a team is doing a good job of controlling shots for or against, generally the goals will come around to reflect that reality.

This isn’t just hindsight talking with respect to the Sabres. From my previous piece on December 18, one game after that successful stretch came to an end (though we couldn’t know it was over at the time):

Their underlying numbers are brutal, and that hasn’t changed over this winning streak. ... 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.

It can be easy for someone close to the team to be taken in by the wins and losses over a short stretch, to believe that whatever the underlying numbers say, his club’s record is a truer indication of its ability. Murray wasn’t, and asked about it a month later by Rosen, he was able to put that run into an exact context.

He’s evaluating the Sabres with clear eyes, and in the long run that’s only going to be good for the team.

 

Statistics courtesy of NHL.com and War-on-Ice.com

Jonathan Willis covers the NHL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter for more of his work.

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With the Buffalo Sabres crashing back to earth in a big way over the past 12 games, the focus has again turned to the upcoming offseason and beyond. 

The Sabres currently sit in 29th place and have looked worse than ever at times in this 1-10-1 stretch.

Whether it's the goaltending falling off a cliff, the special teams remaining a special kind of awful, the injuries starting to mount or just general regression, the Sabres have had a lot of reasons to fall back near the bottom. 

So now, with the season comfortably lost, the murmurs of who will finish the season as a Sabre, and who won't, have picked up considerably once again.

The Sabres have a number of soon-to-be unrestricted free agents that have caught the attention of some teams, but the big fish is definitely defenseman Tyler Myers

Myers seems to have found the point he left off at in his Calder Memorial Trophy-winning season, a development that is a huge boon to the Sabres moving forward. Many seem to forget he is only 24 years old and has many good years of hockey left in him.  

That's why it should come as no surprise that general manager Tim Murray made it clear yesterday that he has not made any effort to trade Myers. 

In an interview with Dan Rosen of NHL.com, Murray was emphatic that he thought Myers was a big piece of the rebuild and that he was not actively seeking to trade him. 

There are not many 6'8", minute-hogging defenseman that can skate and move the puck as well as Myers. In fact, there really has only been one ever─Zdeno Chara─and his career is probably in its final act.

Chara is exactly why the Sabres have been so patient with Myers over the past few seasons when it seemed like he would never reclaim his Calder form. Chara was a tire fire when he started in the league with the New York Islanders. It was not until he joined the Ottawa Senators that he began to realize his potential, and that was with a lot of help from the then-dominant Wade Redden and Chris Phillips.

In fact, a reasonable argument can be made that Chara did not truly become a franchise defenseman until the age of 30, when he started to play for the Boston Bruins

But therein lies the problem for Myers. He's never had a Redden or Phillips to play with, and the ability to play with a guy like that could have hidden many of his growing pains over the past couple of years. 

This is not meant to be read as an excuse for Myers and his past subpar play, it's merely to illustrate the fact that his closest contemporary in the NHL took a while to get to his Norris Trophy-winning self too. 

And if you think Tim Murray is not acutely aware of that, you are gravely mistaken. 

This is why a Myers trade seems to be more of a media and fan driven pursuit than a legitimate desire of the Sabres front office. 

Now, as Murray acknowledged in the interview, if an offer comes in that "knocks his socks off," he would be willing to move Myers, but the same goes with essentially everyone on the Sabres roster. If Colorado offered Nathan MacKinnon and Ryan O'Reilly for Zemgus Girgensons, you would have to assume he would take it. They won't, but the point remains the same. 

It may also not be a coincidence that this show of support for Myers comes as the team that has been most interested in him, the Detroit Red Wings, are in Buffalo to take on the Sabres Tuesday night. Could it be a backdoor negotiating tactic on Murray's part to make it clear that the price is high and will remain high?

Only Murray knows for sure, but it's likely that Sabres fans will be seeing Myers in the blue and gold for a while. 

 

Follow me on Twitter for NHL and Sabres news all season long: @SwordPlay18

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At first glance, it seems two Buffalo Sabres teams have taken the ice in the team's first 41 games this season. 

There's the version that has gone 4-21-3 in two long stretches, and there's the team that went 10-3-0 and gave the fans hope that maybe this team was good enough to make the playoffs. 

As it stands now, the Sabres are 14-24-3, good for 31 points and 28th in the NHL. Any realistic Sabres fan would not have expected much more out of this team to start the season, and aside from the late-November through early-December run, things could be much, much worse.

To say the Sabres have been embarrassingly bad for most of the first half of the season is an understatement. Just looking at the more commonplace statistics, the Sabres are last in the NHL in shots for per game and last in shots against per game. They also have the least amount of goals for, averaging a meager 1.76 goals per game, while allowing the most goals per game at 3.39 per contest. 

Those stats alone say everything that needs to be said about the Sabres' season. 

But it gets worse.

The Sabres have a Corsi differential of -1086 for the season so far. That means that the Sabres have about 26 more shots, whether they are on net, missed or blocked, directed toward their net per game than they attempt on the opposition's net. 

What this means at its simplest level is the Sabres spend way too much time in their own zone, and despite all the attention of the coaching staff on this, it's really only gotten worse.

Including the Sabres' 6-2 win against the Toronto Maple Leafs on November 15, they have won 11 games. Of those wins, they have controlled possession─had a Corsi-for percentage of 50 percent or more─only once, their 4-3 shootout victory over the Florida Panthers on December 13. 

In fact, including the Panthers win, the Sabres only cracked 40-percent Corsi-for four times. Four times! That in turn means that the Sabres were the beneficiaries of a high shooting percentage and a very hot goalie in Jhonas Enroth.

Well, since that win against the Panthers in December, the Sabres are 1-8-1, and Enroth has cooled off.

Granted, the Sabres have done a bit better with possession (in a relative sense) having carried possession twice in the last 10 games, but Enroth and Michal Neuvirth have combined for a .867 save percentage, a stretch that has normalized the season numbers for both.

Now, circling back to the initial premise of the article, it was said that the Sabres seem to have skated out two different teams this season, a winning one and a losing one.

In reality, the stats show that the Sabres have been the same team all along but a team that rode a hot streak—also known as luck—to a record that had them four points out of a wild card at one point.  

And with that realization in mind, Sabres fans should expect a long second half of the season. 

Ted Nolan can kick and scream all he wants, but until he institutes any semblance of a power play or tightens up the penalty kill—ranked 30th and 29th in the league, respectively—this team will not improve. 

General manager Tim Murray also has a few players that he can likely corral for a few more future pieces. Armed with three first-round picks in June's draft, Murray likely will be hard-pressed to land another one unless the player going the opposite way is named Tyler Myers, but names like Drew Stafford and Chris Stewart may yield a second-rounder for the Sabres. 

But the picks or players that may be the Sabres' is entirely speculative and not worth the time. What is worthwhile is the simple fact that this roster is going to have some potentially significant turnover in the very near future. That turnover, especially if it includes Enroth, Stafford or Myers, could make this team even worse, much like the Ryan Miller-Steve Ott trade did last year. 

So while the tanking talk is understandably divisive among the Sabres fanbase, it may not be much of an issue to debate for much longer. If this current 1-8-1 stretch is indicative of the next 41 games, 30th place is a given, not a possibility. 

 

All advanced statistics courtesy of war-on-ice.com

Follow me on Twitter for NHL and Sabres news all season long: @SwordPlay18.

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