Devon Levi allows a goal Dec. 19 in a 9-4 loss to Columbus. ©2024, Micheline Veluvolu

Expect trades, significant changes after Sabres’ playoff drought hits 13 years

BUFFALO – That’s it. Having been eliminated from playoff contention for the 13th consecutive year, the Sabres are playing out the string of a bitterly disappointing season. Three games are left, starting with tonight’s home finale against the Washington Capitals.

How might the Sabres be received? Well, based on recent contests at KeyBank Center, those who bother showing up to “Fan Appreciation Night” might be in a surly mood.

You can bet a crowd beaten down and disenchanted by an NHL-record postseason drought will boo and direct some its ire toward the higher-ups.

After falling one win short of cracking the playoffs last season, this was supposed to be the year the Sabres earned their placed among the league’s 16 best teams again.

After all, they stayed on an upward trajectory as they rebuilt for two seasons. It was only natural to think they’d keep maturing and take additional steps this year.

As their regression illustrates, the Sabres are flawed.

It took them until late February to win three games in a row, a streak they’ve equaled once but not surpassed. They’ve started games slowly, getting outscored a stunning 95-63 in the first period. They’ll likely average a half a goal per game less than last season.

Yes, they still have a dynamic core of young talent. But significant changes – for starters, they need more grit and veteran experience – will almost certainly be made during the offseason. Expect some firings and trades.

After Tuesday’s 3-2 road loss to the Stars eliminated the Sabres from playoff contention, coach Don Granato told reporters in Dallas he wanted to focus on that night’s game.

He knows, however, he and others must discuss the Sabres’ failures in the coming days and weeks. Here’s a short examination of some of what went wrong and will be brought up to Granato, general manager Kevyn Adams and others.

They took too long to anoint Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen their starting goalie

Luukkonen, 25, has morphed into the Sabres’ backbone and MVP.

Since Jan. 1, he has compiled a 19-14-1 record with a 2.30 goals-against average, a .918 save percentage and a league-leading four shutouts in 34 games.

Those, of course, are difference-making numbers. The Finn has earned his place among the NHL’s elite young netminders.

It’s easy to forget, but he started the season backing up or sitting as a healthy scratch behind rookie Devon Levi, who started the first four games, and Eric Comrie. He did not play until the seventh game.

After they awarded Luukkonen the starting job in late November, he became sick. He finally took over the net in January.

If the Sabres had utilized him as their No. 1 from the get-go or a bit earlier, they’d likely have at least a few more wins.

Too many scorers underachieved

Almost across the board, the Sabres’ top scorers from last season have experienced a significant drop in production.

For example, the forwards who regularly comprised the first line last season and much of this one have combined to score 44 fewer goals this campaign.

Center Tage Thompson has dipped from 47 goals and 94 points to 29 goals and 55 points. It should be noted he missed 10 games with a broken hand, an injury that hampered him following his return.

Winger Alex Tuch has fallen from 36 goals and 79 points to 21 goals and 58 points.

Thompson and Tuch, however, have come on as the season has progressed. Winger Jeff Skinner, meanwhile, has struggled over the past few months, losing his spot alongside them. He has gone from 35 goals and 82 points to 24 goals and 45 points.

There are more underachievers. Fresh off a 31-goal breakout season, center Dylan Cozens has 15 goals. Winger Victor Olofsson has followed up his 28-goal campaign with seven goals and a regular spot in the press box.

The power play was feeble

The Sabres’ weak power play, having converted at just a 16.5 percent clip, the league’s fourth-worst total, has been perhaps their most visible problem all season.

In Tuesday’s loss, the Sabres had three late opportunities but couldn’t tie the game.

With much of the same personnel last year, the Sabres scored on 23.4 percent of their chances, the league’s ninth-best total.

Teams have clearly keyed on Thompson, whose wicked one-timer from the circle has often been nullified. He has seven power-play goals, down from 14.

Little has worked, including Granato taking a bigger role coaching the power play, which is handled by assistant coach Matt Ellis, a respected hockey mind.

They couldn’t get enough games to overtime

Simply being tied after 60 minutes and receiving at least one point for reaching overtime greatly impacts the standings.

To wit: the Sabres have more regulation wins than (31) than the New York Islanders (27) and Washington (29), two teams in playoff spots. But the Islanders have 15 “loser” points and Capitals have 11. The Sabres have just five, so they trail them in the standings.

They lost to the Anaheim Ducks twice

If the Sabres had simply beaten the hapless Ducks, who have 57 points and rank 30th in the 32-team NHL, they’d have 83 points and be alive for a playoff berth.

The Sabres won their other four “gimme” games by defeating the Chicago Blackhawks and San Jose Sharks, the teams below Anaheim.

But the Sabres lost 4-2 on Jan. 23 in Anaheim and blew two leads and fell 4-3 on Feb. 19 in Buffalo.

As ridiculous as it might sound, those games could’ve changed the landscape of the season.

11 thoughts on “Expect trades, significant changes after Sabres’ playoff drought hits 13 years”

  1. All they had to do to open up the power play was put Olofsson on the other side, but, they were too stubborn to do so. Even with their severe lack of dynamism, having that threat on the opposite side would have done exactly what it did last year….stop teams from keying on the one real threat they had remaining on that PP when they all hunker down and just pass around from set positions on the ice. We can all say whatever we want about Olofsson, and we have, but no one can doubt that the guy has an absolute laser of a shot from the right side circle. Not too long ago people were complaining that he only scored from there….alas.

    1. The first thing that needs to change is the Ownership. Terry wants to be an NFL owner, not an NHL owner. He needs to sell the team to someone who will put in the funds and the work to make it into a successful franchise once again. Clearly, he doesn’t want to do so, and as a result, the culture inside and around the team has accepted mediocrity. This was clear when one of the greatest Sabres of all time left his GM position with no explanation. Clearly, Patty saw things happening that he wanted nothing to do with, and so he punched out of a bad situation.
      Terry, do all us loyal Blue & Gold fans a favor, and sell the fucking team to someone who demands excellence and results.

  2. What irritates me is watching the power play passing the puck 12 times to each other before they lose it and have to go back and get it from their own zone. SHOOT THE DAMN THING

  3. Trade Power. He doesn’t hit anyone. He doesn’t move anyone. He’s always late. His DNA isnt going to change. He’s soft and always will be.
    Trade Krebs. He’s a Smurf. He gets knocked off the puck all the time, and he has a weak shot.
    Get some bigger bodies with grit that can win puck and wall battles and win faceoffs.
    This babyface team is Soft.
    Quit drafting Smurfs.
    It’s time for Kulich, Savoie, Johnson, Rosen, plus a couple seasoned veterans who compete at a high level.
    Ostlund could be an important piece, because he can win faceoffs

    1. The Sabers will continue to miss playoffs until they learn to win face offs. The 45.3% from this season isn’t going to get the job done. My goodness it’s so frustrating to watch game after game. Bring back Zenon Konopka, by NHL standards he wasn’t very talented but at least he knew how to win face off.

  4. “Too many scorers underachieved” Hmmm. What if too many players overachieved last year and this year is actually closer to their real output. Seems more likely. This season may be closer to what the Sabres “core” is than last year was. This is the 2nd missed year due to the GM. Last year, had he somehow secured a better goalie, they probably make the playoffs. This year if he hadn’t stood pat with the young guys and secured a couple of better forwards, they probably make the playoffs. It appears the Sabres fall too in love with their players and are paralyzed by what might happen if they traded a couple. I’m guessing we’ll be here again next year. just wait and see. It’s the Sabres MO.

    1. Elements of both outputs can even be true. I prefer to split the difference between the 2 different campaigns. With proper coaching & the right acquisitions: this team CAN be a playoff team, no doubt about it. Seems laughable to say after missing the postseason for a 13th year, but they can do it. Will they is a different story of course lol.

  5. Let’s review, the Sabres stood pat except for two underwhelming defensemen they brought in the building. They brought back two veterans who have no playoff experience as a Sabre, the effect was what you might expect. They kept three goalies all year. One of them finally became good enough in January (but the experiment cost them 15 points). They traded their best center man while the two with fat contracts underwhelmed us. Someone should answer for these decisions. Have the correct players been extended? Samuelson can’t stay healthy, Power was paid too soon , Cozens forgot how to play center.

  6. I like it. Olofsson is to Granato what Skinner was to Krueger; they don’t know how to use each of them. They complain he didn’t play D and now his +/- numbers weren’t bad but it messed up his scoring and he’s afraid to make a mistake. I know he doesn’t put the body on anybody but he scored more goals last year than most everybody this year. Peterka and maybe Thompson might score more. He’s a scorer. Seems like the whole team got handcuffed with trying to be defensively minded, but maybe we needed a few more tough guys. Every time we get a tough guy we get rid of them and now we are pushovers.

  7. ^^^^^^ agree with just about everyone’s points.
    Pegula does accept mediocrity. Just look at the Bills and McDermott’s failures year after year in big games.
    Adams loves baby-faced Smurfs.
    Peterka made a significant jump this year. Cozens took a step back IMO.
    Powers, Jokijarhu, Bryson, Clague are not getting us into the playoffs. Im all in kn Byram & Johnson. Totally agree above that our PP needs a lot of work, more SOH, and a big body in front of the net. If Im GM, Im trading Power, Krebs, Sabres 1st rounder. Improve the D. Add 3-4 bigger bodied, gritty veterans, and we’ll get into the playoffs

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