Final Look Back at the 2018-2019 Buffalo Sabres: What Happened to the Sabres of November?

*Image from Mark Mulville/Buffalo News*

I’m sure many of you who are reading have been asked by your friends, co-workers, or family;

“What happened to the Sabres this season?”

After having some time to digest all that unfolded this season many may still be asking; How could a team who seemed like a lock to make the playoffs after a decade of frustration miss by such a wide margin? We all remember the feeling in November and the voice in our head saying it was too good to be true. We were romanced by the OT thrillers, the swagger of Risto celebrating as he torched Brent Burns and a team who found a way to win against the top teams in the league every night.

Leaving the arena on November 27th after the 10th straight win there was a feeling I hadn’t felt in what seemed like an eternity. It was infectious and I was blinded to the PDO and randomness of Overtime wins which we were truly witnessing. Let me walk you through some numbers…

*Note all numbers were derived from http://www.naturalstattrick.com/teamtable.php *

The Buffalo Sabres finished the season with a .987 PDO (which is SV%+SH%) at 5v5 which accounts for 4th to worst in the NHL. Essentially, PDO can be looked at as “Puck-Luck” in the short term and over the course of the season, it can tell the story.

For example, the Buffalo Sabres from October 4th until December 1st had a 1.016 PDO at 5v5 which was 4th from league best. To add to this narrative I’m building, The Sabres were 3rd in the league in high-danger shooting % and 4th in high-danger save % while at even strength. The first two months of the season the Buffalo Sabres were scoring on their chances and the goalies were making incredible saves. 27 games are large enough of a sample size to make one think it is more than just a fluke, but not big enough to say it with any certainty. I mean, look at the New York Islanders who in the same time span had a PDO of 1.031 at 5v5 and finished with a tied for league-leading 1.022 PDO.

As you may have already guessed, The Buffalo Sabres from December 1st until the end of the season had a league-worst .975 PDO at 5v5. Rationally, you would assume a team with this dramatic of a drop in PDO would have to have been plagued with injuries. Over the course of the season, this is not true as the Sabres were below average in this category. If you were curious, the Sabres PDO at all strengths was a league-worst .983 over the course of the season while during the October to December run was 10th place with 1.011. Of the 14 teams who had a higher than 1.0 PDO, only two missed the playoffs, the Chicago Blackhawks with 1.005 and Montreal with 1.001. Inherently, PDO is a good determinant of where a team will end the season as we are taking Sv% (out of 1000 SOG how many are stopped by your goalie) and S% (out of 1000 SOG how many go in for your team). What is important to note is the Sabres number to start the year is not crazy high. It made sense at the time being as the Sabres had brought in two new goaltenders and Jeff Skinner who clearly raised the Sh% from laughable standards if removed from the equation. They didn’t lose these goalies. They didn’t lose Jeff Skinner, or Jack Eichel, or Sam Reinhart, or Rasmus Dahlin. So…what happened?

 

When you have this kind of a fall from the top there is always a lot of finger-pointing. The Buffalo media takes no prisoners, the fans echo their feelings, the signage around the arena begs for change. Where there was once the overwhelming joy of November 27th, there was now palpable anger. Being the punching bag of the league for a decade will do this to a fanbase. I don’t blame anyone for wanting Housley fired or booing the team as they glide off the ice after laying an egg. I do however want us to keep in mind the effect PDO can have. How many Jack Adam Award winners still coach the team they won the award with? Your answer is two. I don’t think you need the numbers to guess if there’s a correlation to high PDO and a coach winning the Jack Adams. I also think you can imagine when the well ran dry how quick the coach was sent packing. The Sabres experienced this all in one season which is essentially what Avalanche fans suffered to learn from 2013-2017. In this league, you can find short-term success by lucking into it. Building a dynasty does not happen overnight. The Penguins suffered to get Crosby and Malkin, the Blackhawks suffered to get Kane and Toews. The Buffalo Sabres have a lot of pieces to the puzzle, but it’s still not forming a picture. I’m not giving up on this core; I’m not giving up on the future of the team because I’m confident we can turn the corner.

 

Another question many of you reading were presumably asked and if not you were yelling your answers to others without them actually asking was whether or not you thought Phil Housley should be fired. The resounding response was “Yes” and I was right there with the majority. We can point to a number of line-up decisions which have been highly publicized throughout the year and now after his termination. But I want to raise a different point than what has already been published by so many media members… How much does the coach actually affect the outcome of a season? There are obvious intangible variables that make this hard to answer so I’m going to stick to a few facts.

  • There is 1 Stanley Cup winning coach who is still with the team they won the Cup with. That would be Mike Sullivan of the Pittsburgh Penguins who just got bounced in 4 games. I know, I know “Two were fired this season and Trotz seems like a “one-off” nonetheless this is a fact.
  • Let’s talk about Trotz who won the Cup last year in Washington before being let go and picked up by the Islanders. Throw hindsight out the window, The Islanders were set to fail after losing Tavares. Yet, as I mentioned their PDO was tied for the league best with Washington, ironically. Trotz took two goalies that many looked at as replacement level at best and turned them into above 920% goalies.
  • Oh, and about that fact of “Two Jack Adams award winners who still coach the team they won the award with”. One of them is John Tortorella and the other is 2017-2018 winner Gerard Gallant who was famously fired in Florida and literally left to take a taxi after a loss in Carolina. (Look this up it’s bizarre)

One opinion (not so bold take) I have based on these facts is that coaches have different systems and styles that fit certain roster types and cultures. Trotz clearly has the ability to create a system that is goalie friendly. It hurts their offensive upside, but with the NYI roster, it worked. Trotz and Gallant clearly have an ability to motivate a team of “misfits” to buy into a system and narrative. There’s a reason they met in the Cup final just a year ago. I don’t think you can simply take one of these coaches and put them in a vastly different situation as we have in Buffalo and would see the same success. Another opinion I have is that the Sabres should look to hire a much younger coach to fit the current roster.

 

…back to the original question: What happened to the Buffalo Sabres this season. Housley’s demeanor and style were not a fit in Buffalo. How many times did a Sabre enter the zone and throw a weak shot on net? His system did not foster creativity and for that reason, the Buffalo Sabres had the lowest high-danger scoring shots/60. The overall talent of the Sabres roster is also a factor here, but this is a very telling sign of a coach who is diminishing and punishing creativity. When Botterill is calling up skilled, young players to see what they can do Housley was benching them for making mistakes. There was a disconnect there and Housley couldn’t seem to get the most out of his younger players. The PDO fell off a cliff which shows me an inability to adjust as the season went on. Teams figured the Sabres out and it showed every night. On top of this, the few chances the Sabres were creating were not finding the back of the net while the tough saves Ullmark/Hutton once made were beating them. It’s not rocket science and finger pointing to the coach or Risto is incredibly unproductive and a waste of your time. I don’t think Housley is/was hopeless, but I am happy he was let go as he was not a fit for our team. The whole “Look at Ristolainen’s +/-“narrative is also incredibly stupid. Risto was 9th in the league in TOI, he took a disproportionate number of D-zone faceoffs (See this), and was on a team with an awful goal differential. Doughty was right there with him at the bottom of the league in this meaningless stat. I’m not saying whether to trade him or not, but he’s 24 and with Pilut he looked very good.

 

The roster the next Sabres head coach will inherit needs work. I’ll save the speculations for after the playoffs, but the rumors are out there, and we can dream of an L2 Center while we watch good hockey teams until June. The lottery balls did not land in our favor and the 7th overall selection is sure to be a talented player *Cough, Cole Caufield*, but more than likely not an immediate impact. With a roster that screams “wait and see” and a fanbase that is numb we look forward to an off-season of change. The past is behind us and in this league, a team can go from worst to first to keep your head up Sabres fans. As we learned from Columbus, JUST GET INTO THE PLAYOFFS!

Oh and if you think the Sabres should trade Eichel go take a long walk off a short dock!

Thank you for reading! Please follow me and give me any feedback on Twitter dj_mitchell94

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