A sense of normalcy returns to the Buffalo Sabres as they take on the Boston Bruins tonight. Buffalo says good bye to a rather rigorous opening 2 1/2 months to the season which saw them with compacted schedules before and after the 11 total days spent participating in the 2019 Global Series. The trip to Stockholm, Sweden had them play a back-to-back set with the Tampa Bay Lightning with a total of nine days surrounding their arrival and return from Sweden.
After a rough early November, consecutive losses to Tampa in Stockholm and a sluggish post-Global Series return, their poor early-mid November record balanced out their hot start and when you add inconsistent play for the remainder of their 21 games in 39-day stretch, you have a team that is presently 17-14-7 coming out of the Christmas break. Those 41 points have them on a pace for 88 points which is at the higher end of most preseason projections.
However, after seeing what this team was able to do when they're hitting on all cylinders, Sabreland has gotten a taste of what could be, they want more and they'd like to see it in the form of general manager Jason Botterill bolstering their top-nine forward group. Just like last season, there's a big hole encompassing much of the middle-six that can't immediately be filled by any player in the Sabres pipeline and Botterill needs to do something. His coach has gotten what he can from this forward group and the players have given what they have to give, but they could really use a shot in the arm and if he can pull off a trade for a top-nine, preferably top-six, forward it could put them in contention for a playoff spot.
In lieu of that, this is how the forwards looked so far this season.
--After roughly a half season, the Sabres captain is having a Hart-worthy campaign with his 24 goals second in the league and his 51 points currently 6th. You can point to his 18-game point streak, which turned into a "personal streak" as the NHL would not recognize it any further after missing a game due to injury, where he scored 16 goals and added 16 assists with many of those points being meaningful as definitely bolstering his Hart-worthiness. And though those 16 goals and 32 points were tops in the league during that span, for those of us who watch every shift of every game, we saw the maturation process of Jack Eichel unfold right before our eyes. Eichel's 200' game was on full display and he carried the team through much of that span. If he's finally arrived, we're in store for some great things moving forward but it also wouldn't be too surprising to think that he still has much more to give. And that's the fun part for the Sabres.
--Some had a problem back in 2016 when Artemi Panarin won the Calder Trophy as NHL Rookie of the Year at the age of 24. Panarin had an outstanding season for the Chicago Blackhawks (30 goals, 47 assists) and was deserved of the award despite many believing that he was "too old" to win it. The Sabres have themselves a similar candidate in 24 yr. old Victor Olofsson as his 16 goals and 18 assists has him on a pace for 72 points (34+38.) Olofsson is already in the NHL record books for the most consecutive powerplay goals to start an NHL career (eight,) a streak that was ended on a powerful individual effort in his native Sweden against the Lightning. The cool part about Olofsson, other than his wicked shot, is that he plays a 200' game and is pretty strong in one-on-one matchups. The Sabres may have found a gem with this seventh round pick (2014, 181st-overall) and any questions about whether he can hang with the big boys on the top line look to have been answered.
--"The Quiet One" moniker works well for Reinhart. You'll watch him on the ice and he's not the fastest skater, but has decent speed, he's not the strongest along the wall, but he manages to get the puck and he's not the flashiest with his stickwork but he gets the puck where it needs to go. Next thing you know he's third on the team in scoring with 30 points (12+18) and could very well end up surpassing his career point total for the fourth consecutive season. For as great as his hockey IQ and other attributes are, he was drafted as a center, and the Sabres desperately need a No. 2 center right now, but they won't put him there. And for as adept as he's been playing on the top line, the Sabres could really use some help on the second line, but they don't want to put him there. And there's the rub. They need him to shoulder more responsibility to help with secondary scoring and the coaching staff either doesn't want to mess with chemistry up-top or don't believe he can carry that load. With Reinhart in a contract year, it might not be a bad idea to figure out what they really have in the 24 yr. old.
--Where have you gone, Mr. Skinner, Sabreland turns it's lonely eyes to you. With apologies to Simon and Garfunkel, Sabres fans are searching for those better times from earlier in the season as Skinner is in one of his slumps. The 27 yr. old who just signed a very lucrative and very long-term deal with the club hasn't scored a goal in 10 games and is squeezing the stick harder with each passing game. Skinner is doing the work (perhaps a little too much on his own) and getting the shots but he's either being snuffed out by the opposition and/or stymied by a goalie and/or is having some horrible puck-luck. Despite his drought he's still fourth on the team with 11 goals, all of them coming at even strength which is tied for second on the team (Reinhart) behind Eichel's 18. With his $9 million cap-hit being the predominant theme during his goal-drought, Skinner is in the early stages of becoming the new whipping boy in Sabreland even though he's less than three months into an eight-year contract. Oh boy.
--This was one of Botterill's key off-season moves as he signed a top-nine/top-six forward to a reasonable two-year deal. Johansson had done well with his previous three teams, most notably last year with the Bruins as they made a run to Game-7 of the NHL Stanley Cup Finals...as a winger. One of the Sabres shortcomings this year was not having a No. 2 center so Ralph Krueger and Johansson mutually agreed to put him in a position he hadn't played in a very long time. It worked swimmingly early on as Skinner and Johansson looked as if they'd been playing together for years. Then the bottom dropped out. Johansson's in a horrible slump with only one goal and five assists since November 1st with an injury keeping him out for a seven-game stretch. He recently stated that he just wasn't feeling right with his stick or mechanics and he doesn't look right either. Regardless of what happens the rest of the way, the Sabres got themselves a real solid vet in Johansson.
--While defensemen Rasmus Ristolainen and Marco Scandella were battling it out for the silver as Sabreland's "Most Deplorable Player" last year, Sobotka's took the gold. The uproar amongst the fan base when he wasn't cut was nothing compared to the eruption when they found out he'd be on the second line with Skinner and Johansson. Expectations were minimal and Sobotka met them as he focused mainly on defense while the scoring duo focused on offense. It worked early on then began to fade before Sobotka was downed by a Nikita Kuckerov cheapshot in Sweden. Though we shouldn't go as far to say that he's been the missing piece on that line, it was strange how it all worked, especially when you watched Skinner and Johansson combine for 10 goals and 15 points through the first 10 games of the season. Weird, isn't it?
--Krueger has relied heavily upon his checking line this season and he's getting more out of them than imagined. Larsson has looked like a new hockey player this season as he and his linemates are killing it on the forecheck and contributing on the scoresheet. With four goals he has a chance to match is season high of 10 goals and with 12 points already he should be able to top his career high of 17 points. Krueger often either trots out the Larsson line second after Eichel's or he has them start the game against the opposition's top line. That Larsson is seventh on the team in even-strength time-on-ice/game tells you a little something about the Sabres middle-six and it's not something that is pleasing to hear.
--For those who took notice that he was constantly falling last season, it's good to see that it hasn't happened very often this year and for others who often pointed out his hands of stone, Girgensons has displayed some skill with his shot. "Gus" has six goals on the season which puts him on a pace to come close to his career high of 15 when he was in a top-line role (with PP time) on the Sabres 2014-15 tank team. Say what you will about his faults, but when he's on the wall there may be no better Sabres player one-on-one (save for Eichel) and his stickwork and body positioning are perfect for the role he's reveling in. Girgensons and Larsson have played together dating back the AHL Calder Cup playoffs for Rochester in 2013 and they've developed an incredibly strong chemistry. Both are on one-year deals and if they continue to do what they've done so far, most in Sabreland won't mind them re-signed for another short-term deal.
--Ya gotta hand it to Okposo. The three-time 20-goal scorer has saw his production plummet since he signed a long-term free agent deal worth $6 million a year and he also watched his ice-time dwindle while his powerplay time slowed to a trickle. But through it all he's remained a constant professional and continues to work hard and give it his all. He completes the Larsson/Girgensons line he seems to be coming back to life, oddly enough after suffering a concussion on a seemingly harmless play during a line change. Any hit to the head could affect much more than his hockey career but Okposo came back strong with goals in consecutive games after his latest concussion. He's cooled a bit and still has only four goals on the season which is a thorn in the side of pretty much everyone in Sabreland. For as much work as Okposo puts in and for as great of a guy he is both on and off the ice, a $6 million checking line winger borders on obscene under a salary cap, especially when the Sabres could use some serious top-six talent on the right side. He still has three-plus years remaining on his contract.
--When the Sabres acquired Vesey from the New York Rangers they were hoping to get a top-nine forward who could skate, get in on the forecheck and pot some goals. He scored 16, 17 and 17 goals in his three-year career in the Big Apple and it was thought that he could really help Buffalo's secondary scoring, which had been severely lacking last season. It didn't happen, at least early on, as Vesey looked lost much of the time. He seemed to have found his game in late November but has since fallen back a bit. Expectations for a 16-goal season are effectively gone at this point, unless he gets hot, but he's never been a streaky goal-scorer. They need Vesey playing his game in the top-nine but that third line has been a mess all season and unless he can find some chemistry with somebody, he'll continue to be in a bottom-six role or, in Krueger's 11 forward/seven defenseman lineup, be one of two forwards without a full, three-player line.
--The 21 yr. old rookie earned the call to Buffalo in November and has done a good job for the Sabres while finding out that it's a much bigger jump from the American Hockey League to the NHL than it is from the Swedish Hockey League to AHL. Asplund adapted to the smaller North American rink last year and brought his strong two-way game to a nice finish in Rochester where he ended the season with 10 goals and 41 points while sporting a plus-7 rating. In limited time with the Sabres, and while also being moved around, Asplund was able to score his first NHL goal and tack on two assists with an even rating in 20 games. With the veterans around him struggling and a middle-six lost in the wilderness, Asplund is basically left to fend for himself while he adapts to the increased pace and many nuances of the NHL game and there's no reason to believe that the heady center can't do so while taking a step forward developmentally.
--He has his moments. Most notably against his former team, the Pittsburgh Penguins. Sheary had a two-goal game against them early in the season and he had another two-goal game against the Devils two months later. That's the good Sheary. Other than that he has one goal the rest of the season and that's not so good. It's hard to think that he'll develop consistency this far into his career but it would be nice to see those bursts of offensive prowess more often. Expectations for Sheary were a little higher coming into the season as it was hoped he could be a solid top-nine contributor but he's come up woefully short so far. The trade for him doesn't look as if it worked out all that well for Buffalo but they only gave up a fourth-rounder and him and he's a pending free agent.
--When Rodrigues was re-signed, there were some good vibes in that he just came off of a solid first full season in the NHL and had decent numbers (nine goals, 20 assists) in a bottom-six role. The $2 million price tag might have been a tad high but roughly 30 points for that number isn't that far off. However, when said player has been a healthy scratch and has zero goals in 22 games, it becomes a problem. Rodrigues plays a good game, can play with place and has helped out on the penalty kill but they need more from him. Sure, he's been robbed a couple of times but he reallyl needs to start producing.
--There's only one way to put it, the kid was rushed. "Mitts" looked very good in his short, six-game stint coming out of college, then struggled last year. He has the skating and skills to live up to a top-10 draft pick but there's a lot more that needs to be done before he can even think about unleashing them. Perhaps another year in college would have helped his development and/or helped him get stronger and know how to better use his strength. He put the work in the weight room this past summer but it wasn't a cure-all tonic as savvy NHL'ers easily moved him off of the puck or his spot. After 31 games this year, the Sabres sent him down, which was the best thing for him. He needs to reset his game and rebuild his shattered confidence. Social media is killing him and calling for his head after an o-fer in his first three Amerks games but you don't give up on a 21 yr. old this early in his pro career, especially when his skills and skating ability are NHL quality. Sure, this has been said before with other players, but there's no harm in giving him whatever time he needs to develop properly.
--The former first round pick was looking at a new lease on life after signing in Buffalo with NHL-opportunity awaiting him. It didn't go all that well for him as he started out in Rochester then bounced between the two clubs a bit. Lazar has played some good hockey for the Sabres nut not nearly enough to earn a permanent spot on the roster. Was he better than some players on the team in his eight-game stint? Yes, at times, and many wouldn't have a problem keeping him up and sending a player like Rodrigues to the Amerks. However, it really depends what Botterill and company want out of Lazar. He's playing very well in Rochester and if they have designs on taking the Amerks as far as they'll go this season, the 24 yr. old, former 17th-overall pick (OTT) would fit right into those plans. And right now that's where he might best be served.
--After watching Thompson struggle last season, hindsight demanded a reason why he played 65 games for the Sabres with little to show for it before finally being sent down. Thompson didn't make the opening night roster this season but proceeded to work on his game and had a rather solid stat line of six goals and 12 points in 16 AHL games before getting the call to Buffalo for a November 17 game at Chicago. There was some anticipation in Sabreland but then he suffered an upper-body injury (possible shoulder) against the Blackhawks that was expected to keep him on the sidelines for 3-5 weeks meaning his projected return is right about now. We'll see how he recovers from that.
--Is one of many similar, smaller forwards in the mold of Sheary, Rodrigues and fellow AHL'er C. J. Smith who play a quick game but seems to struggle at the NHL level. Dea was a nice pickup for Rochester as he put up 17 goals and 44 points the prior season split between the Wilkes-Barre Scranton Penguins (PIT) and the Springfield Thunderbirds (FLA.) This year he has 20 points (10+10) for Rochester and he got one game in at Calgary where he skated 5:53 for the Sabres.