Sabres look for a second half rebound

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At the halfway point of the 2015-16 Buffalo Sabres season, the team sits at 15-22-4 with 34 points and sitting tied for dead last in the National Hockey League standings with the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Probably not where many people expected the Sabres to be after a dreadful 2014-15 season where they finished dead last in the standings with just 54 points.

The season started out with Jack Eichel making his presence known with his first NHL goal in his first NHL game. However, the game also featured Robin Lehner suffering a high ankle sprain and missing every game since.

Buffalo got its first win of the season two games later at home against the Blue Jackets. Jack Eichel scored a highlight-reel goal that stood as the game-winning goal, but also put him on the map around the NHL for being one of the exciting, up and coming stars of the game.

498754766_slideFrom there, it has been a rollercoaster of a season for the Sabres. At points, Buffalo would lose four of five games, then come back to win six of eight, then lose six straight and so on and so forth.

Buffalo’s longest win streak this season was a three game streak from November 7 to November 12.

Right now, the Sabres are stuck in the midst of a season-high six-game losing streak, and have lost seven of the last eight hockey games. In addition, the Sabres have not won a hockey game in the month of January since January 30, 2014. Since then, Buffalo has suffered 15 straight regulation losses. In addition to this latest streak, the Sabres have struggled to find goals as they have been out-scored by a 21-8 total.

While the standings may peg Buffalo as one of the worst teams in the NHL, there have been many positive takeaways from the first 41 games of the season. At the same time, there have been some frustrating times with the play of the team and some certain players.

Perhaps the greatest takeaway from the first 41 games has been the play of forward, Ryan O’Reilly.

RORO’Reilly has, arguably, been the best Sabres player all season, and has quickly become a leader inside the locker room. O’Reilly is the Sabres leader in goals with 17 goals, and he also leads the team in points with 35. O’Reilly has already matched his goal total from last season when he was with the Colorado Avalanche.

Buffalo’s top line center has also led the entire league with average ice-time per game, as he’s averaging 21:56 a game, which is 46-seconds more than Los Angeles Kings forward, Anze Kopitar, who is the next closest forward. O’Reilly has also been one of the best faceoff guys in the NHL this season at 58.4 percent, which is good for third among centers who have played 30 or more games this season.

O’Reilly has been heavily relied on in both the offensive zone and defensive zone to win a faceoff or to make a clutch play. O’Reilly has also been an important role player on the top powerplay and penalty kill units. At times this season, O’Reilly has played two to three minutes straight if the Sabres are preserving a lead late, or if the team is trying to get a late goal to tie the game.

For his play this season, O’Reilly has been rewarded with a trip to the NHL All-Star Game in Nashville, Tennessee from January 30 to January 31. O’Reilly is one of eleven players selected to represent the Atlantic Division in the 3-on-3 format, and is the only Sabres player that will participate in the festivities.

As for the rest of the 2015-16 season, O’Reilly will continue to be heavily relied on by head coach Dan Bylsma, and the rest of his teammates. At this point, O’Reilly is projected to finish his first season with the Sabres as the team’s leading scorer, and could set a career-high mark in both goals and points. O’Reilly’s career high in goals is 28, and his career high in points is 64, which were both set back in the 2013-14 season. This year, O’Reilly is projected to finish with 30-35 goals, and is also projected to finish with 30-40 assists for a 60-75 final point total.

In a season in which Buffalo has had periods of scoring finesse and times of scoring droughts, O’Reilly has consistently found himself scoring the points.

Another player that has been finding his name on the score sheet is 19-year old rookie, Jack Eichel.

502564596_slideEichel has made an impression in the NHL this season, as he currently sits in the top five of rookie scoring. Eichel has made some highlight reel plays in his 41 games played, and other teams have had to take him into account, which has opened up room for others on the Sabres to get opportunities.

So far in his rookie season, Eichel has scored 13 goals and has registered 26 points, which is two points behind Arizona Coyotes forward Max Domi and Detroit Red Wings forward, Dylan Larkin. Eichel is also third among rookie goal scoring, as he sits one behind Larkin, and two behind Chicago Blackhawks forward, Artemi Panarin.

Where Eichel leads the rookie class is in shots on goal, where he has piled up 132 shots on goal in 41 games. Not only does it lead all rookie totals, but Eichel is tied for 13th in the NHL with shots on goal. Eichel is also leading the Sabres in that same category.

What is, perhaps, more impressive with Eichel’s rookie season is the way he has played in the situations he had been put in as a 19-year old rookie. Eichel has been taking some important faceoffs in both ends of the ice, Eichel has been playing on the point on the top powerplay unit, and has even gotten some penalty kill time.

As for the rest of Eichel’s season, he could rack up a 50 point rookie season if he continues to play the pace he is currently at. If Eichel gets to 50 points, it may not get him the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s Rookie of the Year, but it is a respectable number for the second overall pick from the 2015 NHL Draft.

While one second overall pick has made his impression, another former second overall pick is having quite the season as well.

After a nine game season last year before being sent back to juniors, Sam Reinhart has looked like a completely different player in his first full season with the Sabres.

Reinhart is one of just seven players on the roster to have played all 41 games so far this season.

Reinhart finally got his first NHL goal on October 17 against the Tampa Bay Lightning off a no-look set up from Tyler Ennis.

reinhart2To start the 2015-16 campaign, Reinhart struggled to find his game, and was in danger of possibly being sent to the American Hockey League with the Rochester Americans. However, when he started to play on the right side of a line with Ryan O’Reilly, Reinhart caught fire.

So far this season, Reinhart has put up nine goals and seven assists, and his role in the game is only growing. Reinhart has gotten more ice-time as he has a role with O’Reilly on the top line, and he is playing on the top powerplay unit with O’Reilly and Eichel.

Notice that O’Reilly’s name has come up a lot with Reinhart? It should, because Reinhart has been working hard every day with O’Reilly and learning the game from him.

But where Reinhart has looked noticeably better is his physical play and his skating. Last year, Reinhart was small and not physically capable of playing a full season in the NHL. This season, he looks bigger, stronger, and his play shows it on the ice. Reinhart has protected the puck well and is not afraid to get in the dirty areas to make a play, that includes the front of the net.

For the rest of the season, Reinhart will continue to learn how to play the game from O’Reilly, and he will continue to improve. If Reinhart can finish anywhere between 30 and 35 points for the season, it would be an impressive rookie season for the one they call, Samson.

On the defensive side of the puck, Rasmus Ristolainen has shown that he is becoming one of the best young defensemen in the NHL.

In 41 games this season, Ristolainen already has set a career high in points with 26, and is developing into a very good two-way defenseman. The 21-year old was expected to have a breakout year on the blue line for the Sabres, and he has not let anyone down on his expectations.

RistolainenRistolainen is averaging 24:43 of total ice-time per game, and has been a work horse in every possible situation for the Sabres. Ristolainen has been looked upon to play smart in the defensive zone, but has also been relied upon to join an offensive rush and make a play for a scoring opportunity. He has also been heavily relied on the penalty kill, at some times spending almost the entire time on the ice for a penalty kill. Also, Ristolainen is a key guy on the first powerplay until at the point along with Eichel. Ristolainen has also stayed very disciplined this season as he has only taken two penalties all year.

Perhaps the game of the season for Ristolainen was on December 10 against the Calgary Flames. With the Sabres down 2-0 after two periods of play, Ristolainen single-handedly put Buffalo back into the hockey game with two straight goals on the powerplay. After Calgary retook the lead, Ristolainen did it again and scored his third goal of the game for his first career hat-trick.The Sabres would end up losing the contest by a 4-3 score in regulation.

Ristolainen’s hat-trick was the first Sabres hat-trick since Thomas Vanek did it in 2013, and the first Sabres defenseman to score a hat-trick since Phil Housley did it on January 22, 1988. Housley was just elected into the Hockey Hall of Fame a few months back. That is some elite company for Ristolainen.

Ristolainen is having a similar breakout season to the one Victor Hedman had last season with the Lightning. Hedman may have not finished the season with higher point totals, but he became the dangerous two-way threat that he was expected to bring to the Lightning blue line. In the playoffs, he played some his best hockey and was a huge contributor to Tampa Bay’s eventual trip to the Stanley Cup Finals.

At this pace, Ristolainen is projected to fall anywhere between 45 and 55 points, and could be due for a nice pay-day at the end of the season. Ristolainen will be a restricted free agent, and maybe signing him to a long-term deal right now may be the smartest way to go about it.

While the Sabres have had a few bright spots throughout the season, and a few streaks that has put Buffalo in a better place, the Sabres’ latest struggles have put into perspective of how this season has not gone to plan.

Sabres-CapitalsAt the halfway point of the season last year, Buffalo was 14-24-3 with 31 points, in 28th place in the NHL standings, and in the midst of a five-game losing streak that would eventually become 14 consecutive games.

At the halfway point this season, Buffalo is 15-22-4 with 34 points, tied for last place in the NHL standings, and in the middle of a six-game skid.

That sounds way too familiar.

And while the Sabres have made some incredible upgrades to help the future of the franchise for years to come, there are still many areas that general manager, Tim Murray has to try to fix.

Right now, the Sabres are really struggling to get the puck in the back of the net. Buffalo currently sits in 28th place in goals per game with an average of 2.24. Only the Anaheim Ducks with 1.88 and the New Jersey Devils with 2.21 are averaging worse numbers.

It is not like the Sabres are not shooting the puck, because they are averaging nearly 30-shots per game, which is in the middle of the pack in the NHL. With their lack of scoring, Buffalo’s shooting percentage is currently at 7.51-percent. Dreadful numbers.

Buffalo is the worst team in first period scoring, as they have just 15 goals in the first period this season. The Sabres are tied for 25th in the league with 32 second period goals, but have been one of the best teams in the third period with 43.

Sabres-DevilsWhile the Sabres’ powerplay has been pretty good this season at 19.8-percent and is currently eighth in the NHL, the penalty kill could be better. After a dreadful 75.4-percent penalty kill through the months of October and November, Buffalo has rebounded to increase the percentage to 77.3-percent, which is 26th in the league. And while Buffalo has only been shorthanded 97 times this season, tied for lowest number in the NHL, Buffalo cannot be giving up goals while down the extra man.

With the lack of goals and lack of chances, there are a few guys that have had lack-luster seasons and that need to step things up in the second half.

Right at the top of the list if Matt Moulson. When Moulson was re-signed by the Sabres in the 2014 offseason, he was expected to provide some of the goal scoring that he had previously shown in New York with the Islanders. In 117 games since, he has only scored 17 goals, and just four goals this season.

Moulson has not scored a goal since November 1 when he scored against his former team in a win in Brooklyn. Moulson’s last point came in the game on December 10 against the Flames, which means he is currently riding an eleven game pointless drought, and has not registered a point in 14 of his last 15 games.

MoulsonIn addition, Moulson has not been putting pucks on goal, and getting to the net for a shot, which is his bread and butter. Moulson has only put up 66 shots on goal this season, and his 6.1 shooting-percentage shows how much of a struggle he has had.

If he continues to slide the way he had, Moulson could see himself sitting in the press box more often. Who knows, maybe a team will find some value in him and will maybe want to trade for Moulson. However, that $5 million cap hit is not going to garner much attention.

Another notable player that has not been producing at what he has been expected to is captain, Brian Gionta.

The Sabres’ captain has put up similar totals to Moulson with four goals and eight assists, and missed the first three games of the season with a lower-body injury. Gionta may not be in the drought that Moulson has had, but Gionta has had plenty of quality opportunities to put the puck in the back of the net. What is so frustrating about Gionta is when he misses, he misses by a mile and a half.

GiontaMaybe Gionta’s age is just catching up to him. Maybe a few years back, he could make certain plays and out-skate other players. However, Gionta is 36, and will be 37 in about a week. There are certain things he cannot do today that he could have done years ago with Montréal and New Jersey. It is showing as well because Gionta’s ice-time continues to fluctuate game-to-game.

For Gionta, he will have one year left on his deal that includes a no trade clause at a $4.25 million cap hit. It is hard not to like the guy for his work ethic, and him being a local product. However, his play needs to step up and he needs to find ways to put the puck in the net.

One player who was hoping to have a decent year, and prove that he can be a full-time NHL forward is Johan Larsson.

The 2015-16 season has been a living nightmare for Larsson. He was held goalless for the first 27 games of the season, and has not been able to produce at the level that some thought he could with being a strong third line center.

LarssonIn 38 games played this season, Larsson has his lone goal, and also three assists. While Larsson plays a gritty style of game without taking too many penalties, many would love to see Larsson put more pucks on net and crash the goal looking for rebounds.

Lately, Larsson has been throwing more shots on net, but 44 shots in 38 games is too low of a number.

While head coach Dan Bylsma and other teams have praised about how tough he is to play against, his physical play with and without the puck could be better. Larsson has only put up 48 hits this season, which may seem like a lot of hits, but he has looked, at times, to be physically outmatched by the opposition.

With the NHL Trade Deadline just about a month and a half away, Larsson could get a look from a number of teams if Murray is willing to deal him. Plus, his $800,000 cap hit would make him a nice addition for a team looking to make a deep run with size issues down the middle of the ice.

While the defense has had its ups and down this season, so has the goaltending for the Sabres.

With Lehner going down early in the season due to a high ankle sprain, the Sabres would look to Chad Johnson in net, and eventually Linus Ullmark.

San Jose Sharks left winger Patrick Marleau (12) scores the game-winning goal as he fires the puck past Buffalo Sabres defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen (55) and goaltender Chad Johnson (31) as Sharks center Tomas Hertl (48) watches during overtime of an NHL hockey game, Saturday Nov. 14, 2015 in Buffalo, N.Y. San Jose won 2-1. (AP Photo/Gary Wiepert)

Johnson started out the season with a decent run, only to struggle and give up some time in net to Ullmark. Then, Johnson has bounced back very nicely and has put up some outstanding number over the past handful of games.

As for Linus Ullmark, in his first professional season in North America, he has shown some flashes of brilliance with his unique style of play. While at the same time, Ullmark definitely needs some time in Rochester to further develop his game. His positional game has been very shaky at times, and he needs to learn to better control his movement in the crease. However, for a young kid put in his situation, he has fared very well.

While both guys can play a solid game in net, both players have shown that they can give up an untimely, soft goal that could cost the Sabres in the end. At the same time, both goalies have kept Buffalo in games and have given the Sabres plenty of chances to win.

Goalies can only do so much, but they usually do not score goals.

One area of concern this season has been the amount of injuries and man-games lost due to those injuries.

So far this season, the Sabres have suffered 173 man-games lost due to injury, which is the second highest total in the NHL behind the Edmonton Oilers.

Lehner has been out since the first game of the season with his ankle injury. Evander Kane has missed some key time with an MCL sprain in his knee. Mark Pysyk has been out since mid-November with a chipped bone in his foot. Zach Bogosian missed the first 17 games of the season due to a lower-body injury. Tyler Ennis is currently nursing an upper-body injury after suffering a separate injury earlier this season. Others like Marcus Foligno, Zemgus Girgensons, Mike Weber, and Nic Deslauriers have missed time with injury.

LehnerAt least some good news on the injury front is that both Lehner and Pysyk are in Rochester right now for conditioning stints, which means that both should be back in Buffalo at some point later this week.

With Lehner’s return, we can finally get a look at the guy that Murray traded a first round pick for to acquire, along with David Legwand. Also, Lehner should bring some stability in net and eliminate most thoughts of who will start in goal on a night-to-night basis.

For Pysyk’s return, he will help a defensive group that has struggled to play some solid hockey. Pysyk’s absence has been felt, especially for a guy like Jake McCabe who has partnered with Pysyk ever since their days with the Amerks. Pysyk’s calm demeanor will also be welcomed back to the blue line.

So, 41 games left in the season, what could we expect to see with the Sabres in the second half of the season?

Right now, unless the Sabres go on some remarkable run, the playoffs should not be in the minds of many. Perhaps people are thinking about who is available to draft in the upper-portion of the NHL Draft already.

What should be focused on is how much more guys like Eichel, Reinhart, and Ristolainen can progress this season and get a glimpse at what could be in the upcoming future. People should be excited for the return of guys like Lehner and Pysyk to the lineup to return some stability to the lineup. Also, people should pay attention to guys like O’Reilly and Kane to see how they will both finish out their first seasons with Buffalo.

Who could we see moved out by the Trade Deadline come February 29?

Bet It

1.) Jamie McGinn

McGinn could be having a career year with the Sabres in his first year with the team. In 41 games this season, the ninth-year veteran has scored eight goals and added eleven assists. McGinn is projected to set his career-high in goals with 19, and could break his career-high in points with 38.

McGinn is currently in a contract year, and his cap hit of $2.95 million could be a worthy pickup for a contending team this offseason. If Buffalo is lucky, and McGinn continues to play as well as he has been, maybe Murray could get as high as a second round pick for the 27-year old winger.

Who knows, maybe McGinn decides to re-sign with the Sabres coming up this offseason and continue to play with his buddy in O’Reilly. Either way, if you can swing McGinn and get more assets down the road, it is a win-win situation.

2.) David Legwand

While Legwand’s numbers have been slipping over the past few years of his career, his veteran leadership could be of use to a contending team down the stretch.

So far this season, Legwand has two goals and six assists, but that may not stop Buffalo from getting a later draft pick down the road. Legwand could provide some fourth line depth, and will certainly be a “father figure” in the locker room.

Plus, if this could be Legwand’s last year in the NHL, he may want one last crack at a chance for a Stanley Cup. If that is the case, Murray could try to make that happen for the 35-year old.

3.) Josh Gorges

A couple of days ago, it was reported by Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman that the Los Angeles Kings had inquired about the status of Gorges before trading for Luke Schenn from the Philadelphia Flyers.

With that bit of news coming through, it seems as though Gorges could be on the move come the NHL Trade Deadline. Gorges would certainly get some interest around the league, and could be a value defenseman for a contending team, or a team that could legitimately contend next season. Not saying the Sabres will not contend next season, but a chance at a Stanley Cup still seems like a few years away.

The only thing that may sway teams away from Gorges is his contract, which has two years remaining at a cap hit of $3.9 million. However, if a team can take on the cap hit, or move another asset to make room for him, he would be a nice pickup.

Forget It

1.) Matt Moulson

Many people are hoping that the Sabres could, somehow, swing a deal with another team to get rid of Moulson for his lack of production this season. However, there are a ton of factors that will not allow the Sabres to trade him.

First, his contract is going to kill any chance of a possible trade. Moulson has three years remaining after this season on his current deal at $5 million. Second, the asking price for Moulson will most likely be way too high for what teams would want to give up for the 32-year old winger.

It would take a much bigger deal with another team that would exchange larger money contracts in order for Moulson to get dealt. It would get way too complicated.

2.) Brian Gionta

He has a no movement clause, so if Murray wanted to deal him, Gionta would have to give permission to waive his no movement clause to go to a team.

Just wait until the offseason. Maybe then we will either see Gionta get moved, retire, or stick around until the 2017 NHL Trade Deadline.

3.) Mike Weber

It seems very likely that Weber would not gain any attraction from anyone in the trade market this Trade Deadline. Even though he is on the last year of his deal at just $1.666 million, Buffalo could probably put him on waivers and send him to Rochester without anyone claiming him.

Weber will most likely stay in the Sabres organization until his contract expires in July. Until then, expect to deal with Weber for a few more months.

Finally, the season projections for the team heading in to the second half.

Right now, the Sabres are projected to finish the 2015-16 season with somewhere between 25 and 35 wins, and finish anywhere between 65 and 80 points on the season.

buf phiIf the rest of the league keeps up with their play, Buffalo could be selecting anywhere between one and eight in the 2016 NHL Draft in Buffalo on June 24 and 25. That is taking into account the new format for the NHL Draft Lottery, which is for the top three picks this season instead of just the first overall pick.

It may be tough not to see this season go as another failed effort, and to tank to get at the top of the draft. This season has been, and will continue to be about progression as an organization. It will continue to be about seeing the kids develop in Buffalo and in Rochester, and for the new guys to continue to fit in and become leaders and role models for the kids.

Give it this year, maybe next year as well, but the Sabres are in a much better place than where they have been over the past two to three years. The “Suffering Era” in Buffalo is coming to an end.

Keep it locked to BLTD Sports for all the latest news from the Buffalo Sabres!

Written by Brayton Wilson

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