After a long off-season, the Sabres are scheduled to open training camp tomorrow before taking the ice on Thursday. And while it’s not completely accurate to say that expectations are sky-high for the team this year among the Sabres faithful, it is fair to say that expectations do actually exist.
The sense among those who crunch the advanced numbers or just generally evaluate the game, on the other hand, is that the Sabres will once again be at the bottom half of the league and the bottom half of the division for a 12th time in a row. Certainly those opinions are overwhelmingly based on sound rationality and a calculated look at what the Sabres have on their likely 23-man roster versus the quality of the players on opposing rosters. Some of that analysis can fall victim to a common pitfall, though, as there exists a tendency in professional sports to overrate teams who have been good recently and conversely, it causes some to underrate teams who have been bad for a very long time.
As ‘90s kids learned from the theme song of Bill Nye The Science Guy: Inertia is a property of matter. My checked-out 8th grade science teacher who regularly rolled in the TV and VCR set would likely expound on Bill's thought and say that inertia is “a property of matter by which it continues in its existing state of rest or uniform motion in a straight line, unless that state is changed by an external force.”
To put the concept more bluntly and in relevant terms for this conversation: the concept is that hockey teams that have been good will remain good, and hockey teams that have been bad will remain bad.
Case and point for the former is probably the Toronto Maple Leafs. FanDuel currently has Leafs with the third-highest odds to win the Stanley Cup at +1000, which feels very much like it’s at least partially based on their recent success rather than a holistic view of their roster, and certainly it’s coupled with Auston Matthews’s ability to score 60 goals over 82 games. However, as the aforementioned hypothetical science teacher would point out, inertia can be slowed or redirected due to external stimuli. In the case of the Leafs, that external stimuli could be the goaltending tandem of Matt Murray and Ilya Samsonov which looks nothing like a Cup-caliber couple and could potentially be a disastrous duo instead.
Does that mean the Leafs are going to be terrible or that they are in jeopardy of missing the playoffs? No, not at all, unless bad goaltending is also coupled with bad injury luck and poor PDO (essentially the fancy stats term for puck luck). The Leafs will probably be fine, but the betting money on their Cup chances seems a tad high when considering their lack of meaningful roster upgrades.
Now let’s take the opposite example of the recency bias as viewed through the lens of the betting line for the Cup: The Philadelphia Flyers are currently at +8500 to win the cup, compared to the Sabres who have the third-worst odds to win the Stanley Cup at +10,000. To be clear: there’s certainly not a rational argument to be made that the Sabres should have anything approaching good odds to win the Stanley Cup, but let’s put aside the cup odds and use the stat purely to evaluate which team the bettors believe to be better.
(Side note on using betting app odds as a benchmark here – It’s totally understandable if fans are already tired of the constant references to betting within sports and would prefer not to read about it all the time. I totally get it - the games are the games, and betting is something some people want to do and others don’t care about at all. The purpose of using it here is that it gives an overall view of what the general public and betting money believes will happen. If we disregard the betting line, and opt for a an editorial perspective instead, there are equally goofy predictions for success, like ESPN ranking the Blackhawks ahead of the Sabres in their rankings.)
The Flyers look like a potentially disastrous team this season, especially in light of the recent injury to Sean Couturier and the continued absence of Ryan Ellis due to lingering physical issues. Now, hey, maybe John Tortorella is able to guide the team in the right direction and the Sabres continue to be the flaming trainwreck they’ve been for more than a decade, but it feels like there is a little too much (somewhat) recent history being considered when contrasting the two teams’ odds. The Flyers haven’t been utter trash for length of a human’s childhood and the Sabres have been. Fair enough.
This is going a long way to say that perhaps the Sabres have a better chance to be at least mediocre – or dare we dream, almost good – rather than bad if they're able to counter the inertial effect of their past repeated incompetence, bad management, horrible coaching, and plain-old bad luck.
Don Granato’s current incarnation of this team has perhaps the most balanced roster of any team since Lindy Ruff’s 2011 team that last made the playoffs. There are no Jacob Josefsons or Seth Griffiths or Justin Falks on this team. They have a reasonable and balanced lineup that is admittedly devoid of star power, but overwhelmingly solid throughout the four forward lines and three defensive pairs. The same perhaps cannot be said about the goaltending, but the Sabres are also due for some positive luck in the crease, and it’s completely conceivable that Eric Comrie can cobble together a season of 45 starts at a 1A level.
Fans should absolutely be excited for the coming season and embrace it with a sense of hope because while inertia is a property of matter, an exterior force can also alter the trajectory of an object. For the Sabres, that object is the potential of their young and developing core of promising players who will be given the opportunity to show what they have at the highest level this season, and the velocity of that force is unknown until the puck drops.
For what it’s worth, this corner of the Sabresphere believes the team will finish with the highest point total of the playoff drought – a mark set by coach Dan Bylsma during his first season when he led the team to an 81-point season. This team looks capable and able to manage 85 points based on the signs the team showed last year.
Inertial energy can be countered, as fans in Western New York have seen with the rise of the current Bills following their 17-year playoff drought. Now it’s up to this young group of Sabres to prove that they too can alter their trajectory.