Each Wednesday throughout the regular season, Kevin Weekes will be offering his pluses and minuses for the teams competing in the NBCSN Wednesday Night Rivalry game in his Weekes on the Web blog. Weekes also will assist fans with three must-watch elements of the game.
The Columbus Blue Jackets and Buffalo Sabres each have something to prove this season.
The Blue Jackets want to show last season, when they finished with the most wins (50) and points (108) in franchise history, was no fluke. The Sabres hired a new general manager and a new coach, made several roster changes, including on defense, and want to show they can challenge for a spot in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
It's their first meeting this season when the Sabres (3-5-2) play the Blue Jackets (5-3-0) at Nationwide Arena on Wednesday (8 p.m., NBCSN, NHL.TV). Here's my breakdown of the game:
Pluses: Center Jack Eichel is starting to play better. He's tied for the Sabres lead with 11 points (four goals, seven assists) in 10 games, including four points (two goals, two assists) in his past four games. It's no secret the Sabres need him to carry the offense. Forward Jason Pominville, who was traded back to the Sabres by the Minnesota Wild on June 30, has 11 points (five goals, six assists), and has been getting top-line ice time. Forward Evander Kane, who also has 11 points (six goals, five assists), is an X-factor for them. He's skilled and brings a different element, whether it's his toughness, his agility or his ability to create for his teammates.
Goaltender Chad Johnson is starting to find his game. He made 37 saves on 40 shots in a 4-2 loss to the Vancouver Canucks on Friday and while his numbers aren't very good (3.84 goals-against average, .881 save percentage in five games), he is showing signs of becoming a solid backup to starter Robin Lehner. Johnson, who signed a one-year, $2.5 million contract with the Sabres on July 1, said he had unfinished business after playing for a personal NHL-best 45 games and going 22-16-4 with a 2.36 GAA and .920 save percentage with the Sabres in 2015-16. The Sabres need more performances like the one he had Thursday to be successful.
Video: VAN@BUF: Johnson reaches behind him for amazing save
In two of their past four games, they've come back from three goals down. They trailed the Boston Bruins 3-0 and 4-1 in the second period before rallying for a 5-4 overtime win Saturday. Against the Vegas Golden Knights on Oct. 17, they scored three times in the third period, including Kane's goal with 8.9 seconds left in the third period that forced overtime, before losing 5-4.
Minuses: The Sabres still are trying to develop their identity. With new coach Phil Housley coming in it will take time, especially with a young group. He wants to make them more defensive-minded but the early results haven't been great.
The Sabres tried to address their defense in the offseason, getting Nathan Beaulieu in a trade with the Montreal Canadiens and Marco Scandella in a trade with the Wild but it needs to be better. Josh Gorges (plus-1) Taylor Fedun (plus-1) are their only defensemen who don't have a minus rating.
Buffalo has been getting behind early in games. They've allowed at least four goals in six of 10 games this season and are allowing 3.50 goals per game. That can't keep up, especially since the offense is 23rd at 2.60 goals per game. Several players are getting more minutes with the Sabres than they would have elsewhere, but they must make the most of those opportunities.
Pluses: Goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, last season's Vezina Trophy winner, gives them a chance to win every game. This season he's 4-2-0 with a 2.16 GAA and .927 save percentage in six games. He was their MVP last season and has kept the numbers up from last season (41-17-5, 2.06 GAA, .931 save percentage).
Forwards Cam Atkinson (three goals), Nick Foligno (two goals) and Artemi Panarin (one goal) may not have lit the lamp much but they lead a team that can score by committee. Panarin has nine points (one goal, eight assists) and Foligno has seven (two goals, five assists). Rookie forward Sonny Milano leads them with five goals.
Video: LAK@CBJ: Milano roofs gorgeous goal on backhand
The Blue Jackets have one of the best young defense corps in the League, led by Zach Werenski and Seth Jones. I'm not just talking offensively, although Werenski has six points (three goals, three assists) and Jones has five (one goal, four assists). They eat up minutes and are a big reason the Blue Jackets limit opponents' scoring chances.
Minuses: The Blue Jackets are No. 29 in the NHL on the power play at 9.1 percent, and their 22 power plays are tied with the Minnesota Wild for the fewest in the League. Whether it's drawing more penalties to give them more looks or changing their power-play units, they need to do something. Special teams can win games, and right now that isn't the case for the Blue Jackets.
Another problem for the Blue Jackets has been their inability to generate much off the rush. The transition game from defense to offense needs to be better. When they have a chance to set up their plays in the offensive zone, their opponents can set up defensively. They need to take more chances and bring the puck up the ice faster.
They also need to stay humble. Last season is in the past and was viewed as a failure since they lost to the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Eastern Conference First Round. We know anything can happen in the playoffs, but they need to get through the grind like last season, and perhaps not having a 16-game winning streak will help keep the outside pressure off them.
Three things to watch
1. Forward Ryan O'Reilly is one of the Sabres' leaders. He's a great matchup center against the opposition.
2. How do Jones and Werenski take advantage of the Sabres' struggling defense?
3. Can Eichel take the next step now that he is healthy? Anything less than 75-80 points would be a disappointment for me.