Jack Eichel getting hurt in practice, a day before the start of the season is probably the most Buffalo thing to happen this year. Unless you include all the other injuries to key players. On both the Sabres and the Bills (#OneBuffalo).
The young and inexperienced Sabres were already working with a small margin of error if their goal is to make the playoffs, and the injury to Eichel narrowed that margin to near-impossible for many of the team’s watchers – particularly for the doomsday sayers parping on talk radio and in the pages of TBN, but not for us, the eternal optimists here at A Thousand Cuts.
Instead of doom and gloom, we got a team that was able to stay in games and claw out results. In a stark rebuttal of the Tank for a Savior Argument, we found out there is actually a team, leaders and a coaching staff around Eichel, all of whom capable of getting to overtime, and – gasp! – even getting wins.
Here a few takeaways from our time in No Jack City.
Moulson spilling points
Not having to do Eichel’s laundry has liberated Matt Moulson, as Jack’s former landlord has returned to form, racking up power play and timely goals. With 9 points over 21 games, Moulson is still a far way off from providing good value for his $5 million cap hit, but at least we’re not seeing him continue his Ville Leino impression.
Disco Dan making moves
Early in the season, with Eichel riding his therapy scooter, Bylsma was taking the hit for a bad start.
“His system isn’t working!” screeched talk radio heads who in the next sentence would admit they don’t know anything about fancy “systems.”
However, Bylsma’s system was effective at times. When they were disciplined, the Sabres were shutting down channels and passing lanes through the neutral zone. They were working an effective 2-1-2 forecheck, which was suffocating at times. They were out hitting, out faceoffing, and out chancing many opponents.
It should also be noted that Bylsma and his staff have brought the PP unit from last in the league to an 11th-place tie with the Pittsburgh Penguins in just one year.
You could legitimately criticize Bylsma’s staff for the OT unit. During the extra frame, the Sabres looked so focused on keeping possession of the puck, they didn’t have any ideas when it came to actually putting the thing in the net.
Young goalies getting it done
With Sabres forward racking up the shots (analytics!), but not the goals, it fell on Lehner and Nilsson to keep their team in games, and the duo has been largely up to the task. Both goaltenders have been able to keep games competitive while seeing more rubber than Transit Road during rush hour.
However, it should be said that the “book” is clearly out on each keeper: Lehner has been noticeably vulnerable high, stick-side – while Nilsson’s Achilles’ Heel has been the Old Two-Hole.
We’ve also seen different leaders momentarily emerge in Eichel’s absence, but no one man stepped up to claim that mantle night after night.
The one exception, when he was healthy, might be Ryan O’Reilly. His dominance on the face-off dot has been a thing of beauty, and something we haven’t seen since Paul Gaustad left to third line it somewhere else. O’Reilly was also the driving force behind the short-lived MOO (Mouslon-O’Reilly-Okposo) line.
We’ve also seen Evander Kane step up on some nights. Most recently, it was against Calgary at home. That night he was a one-man wrecking crew, thundering up and down the left wing, dishing out hits and driving to the net, puck on his stick.
Okposo, Foligno, Risto, Larsson and Gionta also contributed, at times.
The one glaring omission from that list is Reinhart. Touted as a future leader, Reinhart has kept a tidy game defensively, but should make a larger impact if the Sabres are going to make him a cornerstone moving forward.