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Everything That Could Go Wrong For The Buffalo Sabres Has Gone Wrong

This was supposed to be the year things finally started turning around for the Buffalo Sabres. After missing the playoffs for almost the entirety of the 2010s — the franchise’s last postseason appearances were a pair of first-round losses in 2010 and 2011 — Buffalo was looking to build on the improvements it made in 2020 and launch a legitimate playoff bid in 2021. Enlisted to help in that pursuit: future Hall of Famer center Eric Staal,1 acquired via trade last September, and former MVP left wing Taylor Hall, who signed a one-year deal in October. Add in the emerging talent of franchise center Jack Eichel, who had 78 points (and 36 goals) in 68 games as a 23-year-old, and the Sabres were a team on the rise. So what could go wrong in Buffalo’s ascent?

As it turns out, basically everything. From an early season COVID-19 outbreak that sidelined nine players (plus then-coach Ralph Krueger) and may have been caused by on-ice viral spread from the New Jersey Devils, to the benching of left wing Jeff Skinner (the team’s second-highest paid player), rampant trade rumors, the inability to recall players from the AHL for a time (also due to COVID-19), Krueger’s eventual firing, Hall’s struggles to score (two goals in 30 games) and a recent long-term injury to Eichel, Buffalo has endured one of the most challenging campaigns by any team in recent memory … and it’s only slightly more than halfway over. After losing to the New York Rangers on Monday night, the Sabres have now lost 14 games in a row, giving them one of the 12 longest single-season losing streaks in NHL history — and both of the league’s last two 14-game streaks.

The Sabres are on a historic skid

Longest single-season losing streaks in NHL history, since 1917-18

Season Team Range of Game Nos. Losing Streak
2003-04 Pittsburgh Penguins 45-62 18
1992-93 San Jose Sharks 40-56 17
1974-75 Washington Capitals 59-75 17
1930-31 Philadelphia Quakers 7-21 15
2020-21 Buffalo Sabres* 17-30 14
2014-15 Buffalo Sabres 37-50 14
2010-11 New York Islanders 8-21 14
2009-10 Carolina Hurricanes 5-18 14
1992-93 Ottawa Senators 67-80 14
1990-91 Quebec Nordiques 10-23 14
1981-82 Detroit Red Wings 63-76 14
1975-76 Kansas City Scouts 37-50 14

*Active streak.

Streaks were not included if they spanned multiple seasons or were interrupted by ties (which still gave a team points in the NHL standings).

Source: Hockey-Reference.com

All of this continues what has secretly been one of the most brutal recent stretches in major North American men’s pro sports. The Sabres currently have an Elo rating of 1411, which recently dipped beneath the Ottawa Senators for second-worst in the NHL (ahead of only the Detroit Red Wings and their deep rebuilding project). And at least those teams have been competitive somewhat recently. The last time Ottawa’s Elo was over 1500 — or league average — was on Dec. 1, 2017, early in the season that followed the Sens’ narrow loss in the Eastern Conference finals to the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Red Wings haven’t been an average team for slightly longer; they last surpassed a 1500 Elo on Nov. 2, 2016, as their playoff empire was beginning to crumble. But the last time the Sabres cracked league average was more than three years and nine months before that — on Jan. 31, 2013. Ever since, over a span of 632 games (or eight years, one month and 23 days), the Sabres have been solidly below average at best.

No other major men’s pro team, in the NHL or beyond, can compete with Buffalo’s ongoing streak of subpar play. Major League Baseball’s longest current below-average Elo drought belongs to the Detroit Tigers and extends back to Aug. 5, 2017. In the NFL, the New York Jets haven’t carried an above-average Elo since Sept. 25, 2016. And over in the NBA, even the long-suffering Knicks can’t hold a candle to the Sabres’ run; New York’s last above-average game was on Nov. 4, 2014, a full 643 days after Buffalo’s streak began. (The Knicks have also flirted with 1500 just this very season, coming within 5 points of that mark as recently as March 23. They are much, much closer to average right now than their in-state hockey counterparts.)

The Sabres are in a bad league of their own

For teams in the “Big Four” North American men’s pro leagues, longest active droughts since finishing a game with an Elo rating of 1500 or higher

Team League Date of Last 1500+ Elo Game
Buffalo Sabres NHL Jan. 31, 2013
New York Knicks NBA Nov. 4, 2014
New York Jets NFL Sept. 25, 2016
Detroit Red Wings NHL Nov. 2, 2016
Chicago Bulls NBA April 26, 2017
Detroit Tigers MLB Aug. 5, 2017
Kansas City Royals MLB Aug. 26, 2017
Miami Marlins MLB Aug. 28, 2017
New York Giants NFL Sept. 10, 2017
Baltimore Orioles MLB Sept. 19, 2017
Ottawa Senators NHL Dec. 1, 2017
Washington Wizards NBA April 25, 2018
Jacksonville Jaguars NFL Oct. 14, 2018
Los Angeles Kings NHL Oct. 15, 2018
New Jersey Devils NHL Oct. 16, 2018

An Elo of 1500 is designed to represent a roughly average team.

Source: Sports-Reference.com

In a salary-capped sport such as the NHL, long stretches of noncompetitive performance are supposed to be nearly impossible. That’s particularly true when a team snags an elite prospect like Buffalo did with Eichel, who has been more than merely the consolation prize behind fellow 2015 draftee and current Best Player in the NHL Connor McDavid. But while rebuilding after a relatively successful decade in the 2000s, the Sabres didn’t manage to accumulate much else around Eichel in the 2010s. In the drafts since Buffalo’s last playoff appearance (in 2011) for which we can measure five-year value relative to expectation using goals above replacement (GAR),2 only the Dallas Stars and New York Islanders got less immediate value from their draftees (relative to where they were picked) than the Sabres. This is despite Buffalo owning the second-most-valuable set of draft picks (behind Edmonton) and Eichel being one of the more successful picks of that span, having exceeded expectations by 30.7 adjusted GAR over his first five seasons.

Hockey’s best- (and worst-) drafting teams

NHL teams whose draftees produced the most and fewest goals above replacement (GAR) relative to expectation in the first five seasons after being drafted, 2011-16 drafts

Best drafts: 5-year GAR value
Team Picks Expected Actual Diff.
Boston Bruins 39 116.5 229.6 +113.1
Anaheim Ducks 38 110.6 196.9 +86.3
Calgary Flames 40 147.1 233.2 +86.1
Tampa Bay Lightning 46 136.7 213.7 +77.0
Winnipeg Jets 44 167.2 242.1 +74.9
Worst drafts: 5-year GAR value
Team Picks Expected Actual Diff.
Dallas Stars 44 122.9 47.3 -75.6
New York Islanders 42 153.9 92.5 -61.4
Buffalo Sabres 50 216.4 177.5 -38.9
Florida Panthers 44 203.8 168.1 -35.7
Ottawa Senators 42 125.4 91.0 -34.4

Expected GAR is based on the long-term history of players taken at each pick slot.

Source: Hockey-Reference.com

The draft isn’t everything, of course. For example, the Stars, Islanders and Panthers have found recent success despite a low ranking on the list above, through a combination of savvy acquisitions and patience with their late bloomers. But the Sabres have mostly struggled to replicate that formula.

In 2019-20, when the Sabres showed signs of improvement, the team’s six most valuable players, by adjusted GAR, had all made their NHL debuts with Buffalo — and only 9 percent of total team value came from newcomers, well below the NHL average of 15 percent that season — underscoring the Sabres’ reliance on developing talent despite a mediocre track record in the draft. But that plan falls apart when your homegrown core stalls out, as has happened in Buffalo this season. While Eichel’s possession numbers were fine before his injury, his overall production — just two goals and 16 assists in 21 games, with a -9 rating and 5.1 adjusted GAR — was way down from his borderline MVP-caliber 20.3 adjusted-GAR showing in 2020. (His 0.25 goals created per game in 2021 is tracking for a new career low.) That has also been true for most of his fellow homegrown products, including Sam Reinhart (7.4 adjusted GAR, down from 8.7 last year), Rasmus Ristolainen (3.0 versus 8.8 in 2020) and especially Rasmus Dahlin (-0.2 versus 9.9 in 2020). Overall, Sabres holdovers from 2020 are on pace to decline by 53 net goals in 2021 (by GAR per 82 games), relative to a year ago. Only returnees to the Philadelphia Flyers and Columbus Blue Jackets have regressed more this season. 

And when Buffalo has ventured outside the organization to acquire new talent from other teams, the results have been almost uniformly disappointing. Hall and Staal are just the latest examples; both had solid 2020 campaigns and were outstanding as recently as 2018, but they’ve contributed very little this season, and each is firmly on the trade block. Before them, however, there were Skinner and Kyle Okposo, Evander Kane, Matt Moulson, Brian Gionta, Andrej Meszároš, Christian Ehrhoff and Ville Leino (just to name a few). All carried sizable cap hits, and none came remotely close to matching their track records with previous teams. Just this year, Skinner, Hall, Okposo and Staal are eating up 32.7 percent of Buffalo’s salary cap while generating a combined -2.7 adjusted GAR.

With Eichel out and so many of his teammates missing the mark, it’s no wonder the Sabres are so lousy right now. (And it’s no wonder that Krueger had to go as head coach.) The real question is what’s next. Although Eichel reportedly is not looking for a trade out of Buffalo — and the Sabres would be fools to deal away a 24-year-old whose most similar retired comparables are Bernie Geoffrion, Owen Nolan, Bobby Hull and Rick Nash — the team is generally open for trade-deadline business. However, this year’s deadline, which would normally carry at least some future promise for a clearly rebuilding team such as the Sabres, comes with unique complications — such as mandatory 14-day quarantines for players dealt to Canadian teams, and a leaguewide salary cap squeeze — that could depress the trade market for Buffalo’s more alluring rental targets. With a lot of salary coming off the books next offseason, the Sabres would have figured to be active sellers, but it remains to be seen how much activity this strange deadline will actually see.

Beyond the nuts-and-bolts mechanics of another rebuilding cycle, though, Buffalo badly needs to change the culture of losing that sets in when a team hasn’t been above average in more than eight years. The 2021 Sabres were supposed to do that … but instead they just deepened the franchise’s woes. For now, the best Buffalo can hope for is to survive this Murphy’s law season and move on to something less snakebit in the future.

Footnotes

  1. Some experts consider Staal to be borderline for the Hall. But an analysis of his career arc using goals above replacement finds that his four most similar retired players — Frank Mahovlich, Dale Hawerchuk, Adam Oates and Ted Lindsay — are all currently enshrined.

  2. Choosing a five-year window to roughly match the NHL’s entry-level contract length, plus any “slide” years or extra seasons before a player debuts.

Neil Paine is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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