I'm on it...
How the Sabres take the next step
Goalie Robin Lehner has been through this before. Actually, this has been going on pretty much his entire career. The Buffalo Sabres goalie is now 25 years old, but he speaks with the wisdom of a veteran who is now in his fifth season on rebuilding teams, first with the Ottawa Senators and now with the Sabres.
He was coming off an impressive win over the Red Wings on Monday night, stopping 34 of 35 shots, to improve his save percentage this season to .922. There might be some issues in Buffalo, which we’ll get to, but goaltending hasn’t been one of them.
He was feeling reflective as he sat and chatted. Maybe he’s always that way. Either way, it was insight that only comes when you have a vantage point better than just about anyone in the building.
This was supposed to be the season we saw real growth from the Sabres. Maybe not Stanley Cup material, but certainly pushing for a playoff spot in mid-March. Instead, they’re back in the draft lottery.
Making it worse, the teams that dropped to the bottom of the standings with them have lifted themselves out of it. On Monday, the Maple Leafs beat the Bruins in a game that may be the one we point to as the reason they made the playoffs. They’re currently in the second wild-card spot.
The Edmonton Oilers? On Monday, they beat the Kings. Shut them out. Basically crushed the Kings' playoff hopes in the latest signal that the power is shifting dramatically out West. It wasn’t all that long ago that the Oilers had no business playing on the same sheet of ice as the Kings.
“You just don’t wake up one year and go to the playoffs,” Lehner said, echoing the words of his teammates. “It just takes time.”
And effort. And maturity. And a little bit of luck, which the Sabres certainly didn’t have this season.
But the maturity part? That seems to be the sticking point for this group of Sabres.
Lehner shared the moment he can just about pinpoint where the season went off the rails. Or as teammate Jack Eichel so eloquently put it earlier in the day, “the s--- hit the fan.”
The Sabres won three of four games heading into their late-February bye week. It looked like with the team finally healthy, they were going to make their long-awaited run.
Their first practice was in Colorado coming out of the break, and between time off and the elevation, it was a tough one.
“It was a lot of people who couldn’t really breathe,” Lehner said.
A game plan was set. The Sabres talked about playing a simple game coming out of the bye week. Don’t try to do too much. Get pucks in deep, all that.
They lost to Colorado that first game. Then they lost to Arizona, making it two straight losses to two of the worst teams in the league. Then came an overtime loss to the Predators, and after a win against the Coyotes, the wheels completely fell off.
The idea of playing a simple game coming out of the break? That was abandoned too quickly for Lehner’s tastes.
“I did not believe we played simple,” he said.
For him, it comes back to one thing.
“Again. Maturity,” he said. “If we’re going to play a high offensive game, we’ve really got to fine tune our details defensively. We’re putting a lot of energy going forward to score goals, make plays.”
Maybe not enough energy to prevent turnovers and prevent odd-man rushes.
“That’s a lot of what’s cost us,” Lehner said. “We look at every game afterward and there’s been a lot of tight games this year. A lot of the goals scored against us have been off turnovers and odd-man rushes from the offensive zone. That’s just going to come with maturity.”
Consistency also comes with maturity, and it’s something the Sabres clearly don’t have at this point in the process.
You see glimpses of real progress. There are impressive wins over the Blues or Ducks or Sharks or Senators. Then comes an ugly loss to the Coyotes or Flyers or Avalanche. This team isn’t good enough yet not to show up every night with a focused, game. It’s still realizing that.
“We don’t show up every night,” said captain Brian Gionta. “We don’t play the same way. We’re too scattered night in and night out. You never know what kind of effort you’re going to get.”
If that doesn’t sum up the Sabres' season, nothing will.
It’s not like there haven’t been positives.
Jack Eichel is completely healthy after starting his season with a high-ankle sprain, and his offensive production reflects it. Sabres coach Dan Bylsma estimated that he saw Eichel really start to hit his stride on February 1. He has 29 points in 24 games since then, a total topped only by Patrick Kane and equaled by Brad Marchand. Those are two guys very much in the Hart Trophy race.
He’s re-established himself in the conversation with Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews as the best young players in the game. He’s been that good.
Bylsma has seen real growth in Eichel’s defensive play, and had him out protecting a lead late in Monday’s game. Watching Eichel using his speed to track back on the puck and make plays defensively has become commonplace. He’s also improving his game in the defensive zone to help the Sabres' transition game.
“He’s finding where to be on the ice to support the puck,” Gionta said. “When he’s doing that, he’s able to get it in his hands more often. That’s the kind of guy you want coming through the neutral zone with the puck. When he’s coming over, supporting it on the strong side, and able to get it in his hands quicker, that’s when he’s going to be better.”
The thing that Bylsma likes best is how Eichel is taking ownership over the Sabres' wins and losses. He doesn’t see a young star concerned with his place in the game among players like McDavid and Matthews. He sees a young player who cares deeply that the Sabres haven’t made the same jump as other young teams.
“He takes a lot of ownership in us being a winning team,” Bylsma said.
You look at the Sabres' roster and wonder where the growth is going to come from. The defense needs to be upgraded in a way that free agency isn’t likely going to be able to provide. Perhaps there’s a trade to be made, but the Sabres aren’t deep enough at forward to move any of the significant pieces there without hurting the forward group. There’s also a new contract that needs to be done for Lehner, who expressed his desire to be part of the long-term solution in Buffalo.
“I’ve got to step up next year, if everything goes well with the contract,” he said.
And that’s where the improvement is going to have to be. It isn’t coming from the outside. It’s not going to arrive in the form of another lottery win, like the one that propelled a neutral Oilers organization.
The growth comes from the players taking ownership of the situation. The growth comes from consistently listening to a coach who has won a Stanley Cup, and showing up next season better than they were this season.
“I really hoped that we would have taken the next step this year, and it’s frustrating that we didn’t,” Eichel said. “I think everyone just needs to look in the mirror and get better.”