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The Sabres’ playoff hopes are all but dashed — What caused the slide? What are the solutions?


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Don Granato stood at the lectern in the Buffalo Sabres’ media room after their latest loss, a 7-3 beating at the hands of the Nashville Predators, and the passion in his voice was as strong as it has been all season. Since ending the weekend of Feb. 26 in a playoff position, the Sabres have lost 10 of their last 12 games. They’ve allowed 38 goals in their last seven games and been outscored 14-3 in their last two games.

But Granato isn’t wavering in how he feels about the direction of this team.

“I stand here with conviction knowing that we will be better through this,” Granato said.

How did the Sabres get here? How did a team fighting for the postseason fall out of the race so quickly? Here are three main reasons with some thoughts about potential solutions.

1. Goaltending

The Sabres’ team defense deserves plenty of blame for the inflated goals-against totals, but the team is also not getting the type of goaltending necessary to stay competitive in some games. It’s a bad combination of a defense that is putting its goalies in tough positions and goalies who aren’t coming up with big saves often enough. The Sabres have lost their last two games by a combined 10 goals despite the fact that they had 60 percent of the expected goals at even strength in both games. Since Feb. 1, the Sabres have allowed the most goals against on high-danger chances, according to Natural Stat Trick. They have the fourth-worst save percentage on high-danger chances, too.

Coming into the season, the Sabres knew they had to limit Craig Anderson’s workload. But as the playoffs came into view, Anderson was clearly the team’s best option to win games. He stood on his head against the Panthers in a game that pushed the Sabres into a playoff spot. They then started playing Anderson a bit more. He played four days later in a 5-3 loss against the Blue Jackets. He got a week off before his next start, a 3-2 loss against the Oilers in which he played well. They gave him another week off and he had a strong game in a win against the Leafs. Since then, he got four days off between each of his next two starts. He struggled in a 5-3 loss against the Flyers and then allowed six goals before getting pulled against the Predators four days later.

The rest Anderson had been getting not only was keeping him healthy, but it was also keeping him effective. Coming into the season, the Sabres hoped Eric Comrie would be able to bridge the gap between starts. He got hurt in November and has struggled to find consistency once he returned. Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen came up to fill in for Comrie. He’s had some bright moments, but he’s also shown a lack of consistency in his first full NHLseason. Since Feb. 1, he’s allowed seven goals in a game twice and has allowed at least four goals in seven of his 10 starts.

Devon Levi is now in Buffalo, but the Sabres need to start him when he’s ready to play, not just because the current goaltending situation has been a problem.

The solution: Buffalo’s solution in net will have to wait until the offseason. Anderson will likely retire at the end of the season. Comrie and Luukkonen are both under contract for 2023-24, but that doesn’t mean either one has to be handed the starting job. Levi is the goalie of the future. The Sabres have made that clear in their words and actions. Banking on him to take over as a starter or regular backup in the NHL next season is risky. This team will have playoff aspirations, and that will be a lot of weight on a first-year player. That’s not to say he can’t handle it, but relying on that outcome seems unnecessary. If Levi shows he’s ready, that’s great. But they need a more proven short-term option in front of him. Kevyn Adams needs to find a veteran goalie who can inspire the same type of confidence Anderson has when he’s played his best. Ideally, it will be someone who can play more regularly than Anderson has this season. Going into next season with just Luukkonen and Comrie in the NHL net would be asking for a repeat of the problems that have plagued this group.

2. Mattias Samuelsson injury

When Mattias Samuelsson signed a seven-year extension after just over 50 NHL games, those outside of Buffalo wondered what the Sabres were up to. This season should help clear some of that up. He’s been one of the team’s most reliable defensemen, and his presence in the lineup has been a major difference-maker. Hockey is not a one-person game, but it’s worth highlighting the Sabres’ record with and without Samuelsson. With him, they are 28-16-4 with a plus-19 goal differential. Without him, they are 5-15-2 with a minus-31 goal differential. Samuelsson has missed the last five games, and the Sabres are 1-4 in those games. He’s important as a player and as a leader on and off the ice. It doesn’t help that Rasmus Dahlin has also played through injury at various times this season, and when Samuelsson is out, more stress is on him.

The Sabres have an inexperienced group of defensemen both in terms of age and games played. All of the defensive issues they’ve had don’t fall squarely on the blue line. The goalies share some blame, and so do the forwards. Oftentimes turnovers in the neutral zone or offensive zone are leading to chances the other way. Sometimes the defensive zone coverage from the forwards is lacking. Keeping the puck out of the net is a group effort, but the depth on defense has been a problem. The team’s addition of Riley Stillman hasn’t been enough to offset that. Samuelsson isn’t the only one who has gotten injured, either. Tuch missed multiple weeks with an injury and hasn’t looked 100 percent since his first game back. Untimely injuries exposed Buffalo’s depth.

The solution: Add a top-four defenseman in the offseason. You could argue the Sabres should have done this at the trade deadline, but the cost of some of the rental defensemen didn’t make sense for Buffalo. Some of those same names will be available again in unrestricted free agency. Beyond Dahlin, Samuelsson and Owen Power, there are questions on defense. Henri Jokiharju has been inconsistent this season, and while he’s still young, he might be better utilized in a third-pair role. Ilya Lyubushkin and Riley Stillman provide physicality to the blue line and have a place in the lineup, even if it’s on a rotational basis. What’s missing is a more experienced player to help anchor the second pair with Power. Samuelsson’s injury has had a ripple effect on the rest of the blue line, and the Sabres haven’t had the players to withstand it.

3. The pressure

Granato and the players have talked a lot about being in this position for the first time as a team. Whether all of that talk has created additional pressure or whether they would have felt it regardless doesn’t matter, because the team is obviously feeling it. Team psychology can be difficult to identify and impossible to quantify, but anyone who has watched the Sabres knows they are pressing. The team that was near the top of the league in goals has cooled off considerably. They’re trying to do too much and creating mistakes in the process. For a long stretch of the season, the Sabres were able to outscore their mistakes. That hasn’t been the case lately.

“There’s a lot of pressure,” Tage Thompson said. “We can feel that. I think it’s the first time in a while this team’s been close to playoffs. So we wanted to be the group that can push and get there. So with that comes that added pressure. But we got to learn how to play with that, and that’s something we’re learning to do right now. Like I said earlier, we’re the same team, we just got to continue to simplify when things get difficult, not complicate the game for ourselves. A lot of it is self-inflicted, so the good news about that is we can clean that up.”

Whatever the reason, the small details are missing for the Sabres. They aren’t finishing checks or converting on scoring chances. They’re allowing teams too much room to operate in their own end. They aren’t getting big saves at the right times. Their top-end scoring hasn’t been the same, and the secondary scoring hasn’t been there to make up for it. The pressure can explain some of that, but the Sabres need to make sure they don’t let this slump continue in the final 12 games.

The solution: The Sabres have to hope that this experience benefits them in the future. Getting close to the playoffs and failing to get over the edge is better than not being in the race at all. It doesn’t guarantee anything in the future, either, though. Adams and Granato need to recognize that and add the necessary pieces in the offseason to push this team further along. I don’t think there’s any reason to be concerned that core players like Thompson, Dylan Cozens, Power, Dahlin, Alex Tuch and others will be better for having gone through this. But this stretch also needs to serve as an evaluation for where that core needs additional support. When Grantato took over this job, the franchise was in a bad place. Hope was in short supply among the fan base. With the way it played early in the season, this team earned back a level of fan enthusiasm the franchise hasn’t seen in years. That is making this end-of-season slide sting more for those who have bought back in. The reasons for hope haven’t vanished, though. This is still a talented young core, albeit one that is showing some flaws. The prospect pool is deep, and Adams has plenty of draft resources and cap space to improve the roster in the offseason. But before any of that, the players on the current roster need to prove to themselves that they can dig out of this.

“You know what I walked into,” Granato said. “We’ll get through this. We will. We’ll be better.”


“There he goes. One of God's own prototypes.

A high-powered mutant of some kind, never even considered for mass production.

Too weird to live, and too rare to die.”

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I never really considered the effect that Samuelson had but obviously it’s pretty profound. I’ve been thinking over the last week that this stretch is mostly due to the pressure, like the article says. A team that has been in the basement that is all of a sudden making a push is going to put more pressure on itself to actually get there then it’s ready for and I think that’s the biggest problem we’re saying overall other than the worst defensive play, I think I’ve ever seen in hockey. 

“There he goes. One of God's own prototypes.

A high-powered mutant of some kind, never even considered for mass production.

Too weird to live, and too rare to die.”

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