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Life Without A Game Breaker

October 25, 2021, 8:07 AM ET [376 Comments]
Hank Balling
Buffalo Sabres Blogger • RSSArchiveCONTACT
The Buffalo Sabres have made it through their first five games with a completely respectable 3-1-1 record that has them sitting second in the Atlantic Division behind only the unbeaten Florida Panthers. The Sabres have largely demonstrated that they are who were thought they were: a fast a team that plays hard, but also a team that doesn’t have any game breakers due to the absence of Jack Eichel.

Through Eichel’s first six seasons in the NHL, he proved that he was capable of willing the team to victory with multi-point performances even if the rest of the team behind him was pretty poor. Eichel had eight games in which he scored 3 or more points during the 2019-2020 season. The Sabres were a perfect 8-0-0 in those contests. While there is no perfect definition for what constitutes a game breaker, that benchmark serves pretty well to demonstrate the impact that elite talent can have to determine the outcome of a game. There are zero Sabres with a three-point performance through the first five games of the season with Eichel on the shelf.

It’s currently looking unlikely that any Sabre on this year’s squad will manage to come close to eight performances with at least 3 points this year. Sabres fans have been down this road before as the team was devoid of elite talent post-2007 free agency when Danny Briere left, and pre-2014 when they decided to tank for that game changer. The results were mixed. The Sabres sometimes made the playoffs when Ryan Miller would go on crazy hot streaks or when Thomas Vanek managed to score a lot of goals. Other times they would find themselves on the outside looking in come playoff time, and that had fans pining for the elusive number one center.

There are some positives to not having a superstar, so let’s start there. The most obvious positive is that a team is less likely to win or lose based on the performance of one player when the best player is asked to carry the load for the rest of the squad. Zemgus Girgensons or Anders Bjork can have a rough night and it’s possible that Dylan Cozens or Tage Thompson can step in and take some more minutes from players who aren’t feeling it on that given night. If Jack Eichel had a rough night, a coach would mostly likely keep trotting him out there all night in the hope of getting him going. Sometimes that was an active detriment to the team when it was clear that Eichel didn’t have it on that give night.

This iteration of the Sabres doesn’t need to worry about spoon-feeding minutes to a highly paid player just because of his status with the organization. There is no one on the team who is capable of single-handedly dominating a game and bringing home two points.

Some would also say that clearing the $10m salary of Eichel could be a positive as the Sabres could then reallocate those cap dollars to a couple of serviceable $5m players. This logic is inherently flawed, as I see it. Having a franchise player – and specifically a franchise center – is akin to having a franchise quarterback in the NFL. You don’t worry about what the franchise quarterback gets paid. You’re just grateful to have one as he gives the team a chance to compete year-after-year. You wander the desert looking for that elusive player and then you pay that guy because the search is over.

The downside to not having that “franchise quarterback” is what fans saw on Friday and Saturday night during the Sabres’ losses to the Bruins and the Devils. A combined two goals from two contests sunk the team’s chances as the Sabres no longer have a player who can generate offense at will. It’s nights like those that show how short-handed the Sabres are in the elite talent category. Perhaps the one player on this team who has a chance to be a difference maker on any given even is Rasmus Dahlin who has the smooth skill-set to create offensive scoring opportunities when he’s on the ice. He also has a tendency to give back chances at too high of a rate to be considered a true, game-breaking talent at this point.

Elsewhere in the organization, Dylan Cozens, Casey Mittelstadt, JJ Peterka, Jack Quinn and Tage Thompson are developing into nice players, but at this point it doesn’t look like any of them will reach the level of elite, game-breaking talent. I’ve not been as high on Owen Power as some, so I would put him in that category as well, although it is admittedly, very soon into his career.

So what does this mean for the Sabres?

Well, there are really only two realistic avenues for them to acquire high-end talent within the next year or so.

The first is via a trade of Jack Eichel.

The proposed trades have been beaten to death. Fans know the names of prospects on teams that have been rumored to be in on the Eichel sweepstakes: There’s Connor Zary with Calgary, Trevor Zegras with the Anaheim Ducks, Quinton Byfield with the Los Angeles Kings, Peyton Krebs with the Golden Knights, and literally everything that the New York Rangers have because all of their prospects are amazing and untouchable. Were you thinking about a prospect from the Rangers? Stop it, he’s untouchable.

Without delving into the specifics of each player, there’s a chance that a couple of those players could end up becoming a first-line talent or even a franchise player. It’s no sure thing that any of them will be an elite difference maker, though, and besides, the Sabres are going to have it tough to pry those prospects lose given the sticky injury situation regarding their now-former captain.

The second way to acquire that high-end talent is via the top of the draft. Therein lies the paradox of this season.

Fans are enjoying the fact that the Sabres aren’t getting their teeth kicked in so far this year. Well, at least the few thousand that bother to go see them at the arena, combined with whatever number tune in from home. It’s a refreshing change of pace to see a team that isn’t totally incompetent at basic things like outlet passes and maintaining possession during a line change rather than airmailing a puck into the far corner before heading to the bench. The downside is that this edition of hockey under the perfectly capable Don Granato looks like a team that could finish somewhere around 25th place, rather than at the bottom of league, and therefore the Sabres could miss out on drafting a real stud at the top.

Drafting 7th or 8th can get you a nice player like Cozens, Mittelstadt or Quinn. It can also get you an Alex Nylander if the team doesn’t do its due diligence. Those outcomes range from bad-to-good, but all fall short of the “elite” descriptor.

Maybe this is all premature as there is a lot of season left and the Sabres could have the wheels fall off their season due to injury, attrition and fatigue. Perhaps, too, the Sabres can figure out a way to trade Eichel for a real difference maker on a different team.

What if this season ends with the Sabres outside of the playoffs and in a mediocre draft position, though? What if Eichel doesn’t return a high-end prospect?

Can the Sabres find their way out of irrelevance without a game breaker?
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