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Observations from the Sabres' first 8 games

Looking at the big picture following the first segment of Buffalo's season

by Jourdon LaBarber @jourdonlabarber / Sabres.com

The eight-game mark seems like an appropriate time to take a step back and look at the big picture in 2021.

The newly formed East Division features eight teams. The Sabres play each of them eight times through the condensed 56-game schedule. Buffalo has earned eight points so far, at 3-3-2. 

You see where this is going. Here are eight observations from the Sabres' start. 

 

1. Checking in at the top 

Goals have come and gone for the dynamic duo of Jack Eichel and Taylor Hall. Eichel has consistently put up points - he leads the team with nine - but scored his first goal on Tuesday, in game No. 7. He followed up with a second against the Rangers on Thursday. 

Hall posted six points through the first three games but only has one in five contests since. The constant for both players has been the chances. Hall has generated 30 scoring chances, according to Natural Stat Trick, good for 13th in the NHL. Eichel ranks 16th with 28. 

"I think it's been good," Hall said. "I thought my first six games for me personally were really solid. The last two have slipped a little bit, but I feel comfortable enough that I can get to my game and help our team as much as I can."

In terms of his personality, Hall has come every bit as advertised. Assistant coach Don Granato referred to Hall as "the ultimate competitor," pointing to the forward's hunger to learn to play the middle on the power play after spending his career on the flanks. 

"Taylor's just been an amazing acquisition as far as the experience and the whole aura that he brings with him, the confidence that he has," Sabres coach Ralph Krueger said. "But also at the same time, the competitive fire that he is and the hunger for him to be a part of a winning team here is very, very large, and you can feel that and he emulates that all the time. 

"So, we're just excited to have him. He's a good teammate, he's easy to coach. When he explodes here, he's going to be extremely lethal for us. He's still, like all our new players, they're still processing some of the principles and driving to make them habits."

Something to watch in the coming games will be what mix strikes the best balance for the Sabres offensively, which could vary depending on whether the team is at home or on the road or what the situation calls for in-game. Hall practiced alongside Eric Staal and Dylan Cozens on Friday, a look Krueger went to during the second period against New York on Thursday. 

Eichel centered a line with Victor Olofsson and Tage Thompson. Sam Reinhart missed the skate due to an upper-body injury and is considered day-to-day.

"Whether I'm playing with Jack or Eric, that was my thought coming into this year," Hall said. "There are two really good centermen to play with here and that can create matchup problems for other team. … No matter where I'm playing I'm excited."

Video: Sabres Practice Report: Friday, January 29, 2021

 

2. Evaluating the team at even strength  

The Sabres have yet to establish consistent 5-on-5 scoring, tied for 17th with 12 goals. They have played .500 hockey in spite of that thanks to sound play systematically.

The loss to a desperate Rangers team on Thursday was an outlier. Since the third period of the opener against Washington, the Sabres had consistently outshot and outchanced opponents despite varying results. They entered Thursday ranked third in high-danger chance percentage (64.3) and fourth in expected goals percentage (57.4). 

Even after being heavily outshot by the Rangers, the Sabres rank 13th entering play on Friday with a 52.08-percent share of shot attempts at 5-on-5. 

The tenets of Buffalo's identity have been there - aggressive play in the neutral zone, quick puck movement, sound defensive tracking from the forwards. The next step might simply be a matter of bearing down on the chances that present themselves. 

"You're gonna go through stretches in a season where things seem to be clicking and you're gonna go through stretches where it's a little more of a battle and you have to work through those times," said Jeff Skinner, who is searching for his first goal despite being tied for the team lead with 18 scoring chances at 5-on-5. "It seems like we're in one of those stretches right now."

 

3. "A trust in the process" 

Buffalo won nine of its first 12 games last season. Then they lost 11 of 14 games in November and were never quite able to fully climb back into the playoff picture. 

Krueger hopes that the early adversity this season actually benefits the team in the long run. The Sabres saw strong outings go unrewarded, both individually and as a team, during a 1-3-1 start. They've managed to stick to their game and work through it, now having earned points in fourth straight games. 

"I really felt everything came way too easy for us early (last year)," Krueger said Thursday. "I was never extremely comfortable as a coach. I'm actually way more comfortable with this start and with all of the different challenges that we had to managed.

"… There is a trust in the process here, which is going through the group. We feel very comfortable with where we are right now. The bumps and bruises are always tests of your mettle and your character and the reactions, and the learning that's come through those has been deep."

 

4. Added depth from newcomers 

Krueger explained how a revamped lineup has led to greater balance following the win over New York on Tuesday. 

"For us, it was about building a balanced, competitive team," Krueger said. "We really felt on the defensive side we were weak last year. As an example, we might have had up to 10 players in a lineup at any given time where pretty well all 10 wanted to play the power play.

"Now we have real, clear role definition within the group and everybody embraces the role that they have, is proud of that, and carries it out with that kind of diligence, preparation. Tactically, we're a much stronger team at the moment just because of that depth."

Video: Ralph Krueger After Practice

Curtis Lazar may have been the team's foremost example of role acceptance last season, when he carved out a full-time role as a physical, checking centerman who could win key draws and also chip in on offense. He's brought that same energy this year to a line with Skinner and Riley Sheahan. 

But it now goes beyond Lazar. Sheahan and Cody Eakin have become go-to players in the faceoff circle and on the penalty kill, while Sheahan has also flashed an ability to create around the net. Tobias Rieder was touted as a threat to score shorthanded, a trait he showed with his breakaway goal Tuesday. 

The penalty kill now ranks 12th in the NHL with an 80-percent success rate after finishing 30th last season. All of these details have gone into the Sabres' ability to play at a .500 pace while they wait for the scoring to come. 

 

5. The Staal effect 

Staal let out an emphatic celebration after scoring a goal during practice on Friday, the kind of lighthearted energy fans first got a glimpse of when the veteran was mic'd up for a training camp scrimmage. (You can check that out below.)

Video: Eric Staal mic'd up during the Blue & Gold Scrimmage

Staal admitted the process of acclimating to a new team has taken time (although he does have four points through his first eight games). That said, the intangibles have been apparent from the start. His presence has given the Sabres a second power-play unit with the ability to score, a nod to both his skill and his ability to communicate with teammates. 

It's no accident that Staal was situated next to first-round pick Dylan Cozens in the dressing room. 

"Not only a great job communicating, but the messaging is great as well," assistant coach Don Granato said. "He's a very experienced guy by virtue of games, but (also) success. He just knows what intricacies matter and he's really conveyed that. It certainly makes our job as coaches a lot easier."

 

6. Cozens' unique quality

It's common for young, highly skilled forwards to have an uphill climb as they adjust to the defensive responsibilities of the NHL. With Cozens, the inverse has been true. 

Krueger has said often that the Sabres have been pleasantly surprised with how Cozens has embraced the game away from the puck. With that in check, the 19-year-old can focus on offensive detail and finding ways for his top-end talent to translate into points. 

Video: BUF@WSH: Cozens picks off puck, buries first NHL goal

"I know that's the way I'm gonna stick in this lineup is if I'm good defensively," Cozens said. "If I'm good offensively but not defensively, I know I'm gonna be out. So, that's the biggest thing is just focusing on defense first. Good offense comes from good defense."

 

7. Settling down in net

The Sabres have already dealt with their share of adversity in net. Linus Ullmark missed a pair of games after learning his father had passed away in Sweden. Carter Hutton missed the next road trip in Washington after taking an elbow to the head. 

Both goaltenders are now active and ready to play with back-to-back games coming this weekend against New Jersey. Ullmark turned in a highlight-laden, 36-save effort on Thursday to improve to 2-1-2 with a .915 save percentage. Hutton had stopped 40 of 42 shots in two games against the Flyers prior to his injury.

Even when the team does play back-to-back, Krueger has reiterated that decisions in net will be made on a daily basis. 

"We're gonna be really making that call on a need-for-that-day basis, on our gut, what it's telling us and what the sports science is telling us and so on," he said.

 

8. The new normal

The first eight games provided early answers to the questions wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic. How would teams utilize the taxi squad? What effect would the condensed schedule have? Would intra-division play breed new rivalries?

In Buffalo's case, the taxi squad has served as an extension of the active roster. It travels with the team and often practices with it, too. Most of the taxi-squad players are able to move back and forth without clearing waivers, making the situation ever more fluid (the exception is defenseman Brandon Davidson). 

The Sabres have shown a willingness to rest young players in an effort to keep them fresh, with Cozens and Tage Thompson both having received rest days. When Cozens rested, Casey Mittelstadt stepped right in both on the second line and the second power-play unit. 

As for recurring opponents, time will tell whether the seeds planted during early-season series sprout into rivalries when the Sabres meet teams like Washington and Philadelphia again. Tactical adjustments will be another storyline to watch for. 

"We spoke about it as a team today," Krueger said Friday. "There's a lot of opportunity for instant adjustments within games and you try to find ways, especially on the specialty teams, to bring some surprise. The 5-on-5 game, what happens here is we're just going to get know each other so well.

"Every single team brings a different personality. It does remind me a lot of my world championship or Olympic past where you're playing the same countries over and over again but they are completely different in their character, makeup, and tendencies. We're seeing that in our division and it's actually a lot of fun."

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