Remember the movie Titanic? You know the one. Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslett, the boat, the iceberg, that whole thing? Sure you do. Well, if you’re of a certain age, what you might also remember is that when Titanic was released on VHS – yes, VHS – the movie was split onto two cassettes. You had to physically switch from one cassette to the next somewhere in the middle. It was an unintended home-viewing consequence of the Academy Award-winning film’s runtime, which exceeded three hours.
Also exceeding three hours? The Buffalo Sabres’ scoreless streak. Not since March 7, when the Sabres were dropped 5-4 in a shootout by the Chicago Blackhawks, has Buffalo celebrated a goal. Not a one. In the game following their loss to the Blackhawks, the Sabres were blanked by the Colorado Avalanche. Again Buffalo failed to find twine in this week’s meeting with the Dallas Stars. And squaring off against the Pittsburgh Penguins Thursday with an opportunity to play thorn-in-the-side to a wild-card contending club, the Sabres were held scoreless once again, dropping the contest 5-0 while watching their winless streak stretch to six.
Altogether, the goal drought has now reached 192 minutes and 40 seconds. For those wondering, that’s about 80 seconds shy of Titanic’s runtime.
At the risk of stretching the analogy thin, too, Titanic might be the perfect metaphor for the Sabres’ season, and that goes beyond the current scoreless streak. Here was a team that entered the campaign with plenty of hope, and just when everything looked like it was smooth sailing, Buffalo began taking on water and in the time since late-November, the Sabres have done nothing but sink. On Nov. 27, after Buffalo put the capper on a 10-game winning streak with an overtime victory over the San Jose Sharks, the Sabres sat atop the Atlantic Division, atop the Eastern Conference and atop the entire NHL. Their 17-6-2 record was the league’s best. Their 36 points more than any other club.
But in the immediate aftermath of their double-digit win streak, the Sabres dropped five in a row and only once in the past 45 games has Buffalo won back-to-back contests – the Sabres downed the Los Angeles Kings and Arizona Coyotes one after the other in mid-December. Since Nov. 28, the Sabres’ 13 wins are the fewest in the NHL, Buffalo’s 13-25-7 record and 33 points make for the second-worst record over that span and there’s been little in the way of positives on which this team can hang its hat. The Sabres have surrendered 155 goals against since the culmination of the aforementioned 10-game winning streak, the fourth-most in the NHL over that span, and their 114 goals for are the sixth-fewest. Buffalo’s minus-41 goal differential since Nov. 28 ranks second to last. Only the minus-42 of the Anaheim Ducks has been worse. The Sabres have been dragged down by some of the worst goaltending in the league over that time, and Buffalo has the league’s worst shooting percentage.
Suffice it to say that the past few months have been a disaster for the Sabres, and there’s simply no saving the season at this point. With a dozen games remaining, Buffalo finds itself 12 points out of the final wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference. This season is over. It’s done. And all that’s left is to look ahead and wonder how the Sabres ensure this doesn’t happen again.
Some will suggest that the move should be to axe coach Phil Housley, that changing the voice behind the bench could make the difference. And, hey, maybe that’s the route the Sabres take. Maybe a Joel Quenneville or Alain Vigneault or another veteran bench boss with a track record of success is the answer, the necessary piece to propel this team forward. But the reality is that Housley, for whatever faults he may have, has done some good this season. The Sabres are a middle of the road team when it comes to most possession metrics. Buffalo has shown continued improvement in those areas under Housley, and that’s one of the few positives the Sabres have seen this season. So, while he may not be the answer, it would seem he’s not exactly the problem, either.
Righting this ship has to start with a makeover of the roster. And lest one think that’s a suggestion for a full-scale rebuild, it’s not. With Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart in place, the Sabres have necessary building blocks up front. Though he’s had a tough time adjusting as a rookie, add Casey Mittelstadt to that group, too. Rasmus Dahlin has all the makings of a franchise cornerstone on the blueline. And while it would be easy to lay a lot of this season’s failings at the feet of Carter Hutton, the Sabres’ starting netminder has outplayed a number of other top goaltenders. He’s been fine and he’ll be fine, if only for the time being.
But after those few pieces, it becomes decision time. Pending free agent Jeff Skinner is the major cap consideration for Buffalo and a player the Sabres must retain, particularly after making the decision not to ship the goal-scoring winger to the highest bidder at the trade deadline. A free agent decision will also need to be made on veteran Jason Pominville, and one wonders if he wouldn’t be worth keeping around so long as he’s willing to do so at a cut rate from his current $5.6-million cap hit given his age, his role and his level of production. After that, though, Buffalo GM Jason Botterill has to consider hacking and slashing to makeover this group.
What would likely be more beneficial is the addition of more offensive weapons, ones with which Eichel and Reinhart and hopefully Skinner can find success. It’s evident now if it wasn’t already that the Kyle Okposo signing hasn’t worked out for either party, be it due to injuries or otherwise, but there’s little hope Buffalo can escape that deal. What the Sabres can do, however, is rid themselves of restricted free agents-to-be Zemgus Girgensons and Johan Larsson, maybe move along veteran Vladimir Sobotka and attempt to find a suitor for Conor Sheary, and use what money is free to pursue another high-skill free agent or two. There will be options available, and every free penny should be used to add some finish to a roster that’s sorely lacking in that regard. Surely the Sabres can do better than supplementing their top talents with replacement-level talents.
The need for improvement doesn’t end up front. Matter of fact, it’s possibly greater on the blueline. Rasmus Ristolainen’s departure has long been speculated, and it could be time to finally pull the trigger on such a move. Zach Bogosian has had his run in Buffalo, but maybe (read: probably) there’s a better veteran fit to play alongside Dahlin. And then there are tweaks that can be made to the bottom pairing, where Matt Hunwick’s presence has been troublesome and the Sabres’ have had difficulties matching depth against depth.
No matter what the moves, though, it’s been evident for some time now that the Sabres aren’t yet ready to make a post-season push, aren’t yet ready to take the next step from rebuilder to perennial wild-card contender. The drop out of the playoff race indicated as much, and the goal drought and losing streak at such a pivotal point in the campaign has only served to shine a high-powered spotlight on Buffalo’s shortcomings. And if there’s going to be a light at the end of the tunnel for the Sabres, it is up to Botterill to do the work this summer to ensure Buffalo can see it.