Buffalo is out to a 6-12-0 start on the young season, and the frustration must be evident for GM Thomas Gidlow and his troubled Sabres club.
Expectations were high for the Buffalo Sabres coming into the 2021-22 campaign. Though the club barely made the playoffs last year, they pushed the eventual Eastern Conference champion Montreal Canadiens in six tough games. The offseason came with it some buoyed hope in the form of young players expected to make the jump, along with key additions.
And none of it is working.
Already, GM Thomas Gidlow has made some moves to try to salvage the hopes of a quickly fading season. Sam Reinhart, Joe Pavelski, Alex Radulov, Morgan Rielly, and others have been sent packing in recent weeks. And although the young players brought in through those trades have looked promising, the problem has remained the same.
The Sabres are simply bad.
The marketing campaign to start the season spoke of returning to the mantra of the late 1990's. "The Hardest Working Team in Hockey" represented the lunch pail, hard hat approach of the clubs of that era, where the total was always greater than the sum of its parts. True, they had the greatest goaltender of all time bailing them out, but anyone who followed the team in those days knew exactly what they'd get when they came to see the game - gumption, hard hits, and a tough out at worst for the team on the other end of the ice.
This club is not even remotely close to capturing that mantra. In their 12 losses so far this year, they've been outscored by an average of 2.5 goals per game. Inexplicably, they've outscored opponents 23-8 in their six wins, which only speaks to the wildly inconsistent nature of this club to date.
Darryl Sutter was brought in as head coach to mentor the young players and give structure and identity to a team in need of both. His approach has worked for a handful of periods at a time. But most often, Buffalo looks lost, uninterested, and lacking the focus required to remain competitive in a highly competitive league.
Reilly Smith has 11 points in 18 games but is a -9 and hasn't gelled with any combination of linemates despite being inserted all over the lineup. Ryan Ellis has a pair of goals - both on the power play - and 7 points but is a -10. Martin Necas has two goals and two assists in 17 games. Carl Soderberg has 3 points. William Carrier, Miles Wood, and Mathieu Joseph have a combined four goals in 41 collective games played and are -11 in around 10:30 of ice time per game. Cam Talbot has a GAA over three.
Dylan Cozens is progressing with 7 points in 18 games and leads the club with 42 hits. But Ville Heinola has just 3 points. Even the captain, Dylan Larkin, has just 14 points. All but two of his six goals have come on the power play.
Speaking of special teams, the Sabres are actually halfway decent here. At 24.4% on the power play, Buffalo is good for 7th in BEARD Hockey. Their penalty killing units are at 81%, which is right at the league average (17th overall).
Clearly, the issue is at five-on-five, where the Sabres have a tendency to give up goals in bunches. They've been particularly lacking punch in the second period, scoring just 10 goals in the middle frame - dead last in the league - and taking only 156 shots (an 8.7 average), which ranks 31st.
At some point, GM Thomas Gidlow is going to have to wave the white flag. Throw in the towel. With 12 points in 18 games, the Sabres have a huge hill to climb just to get back into the thick of things. That's assuming Sutter can find a way to get more out of those that started the season here. Smith and Ellis have no-trade clauses through mid-season, but GM Thomas Gidlow can't trade his way up the standings. He's spending around $76 million on this club and if things don't improve, that will have to come back down to earth.
At some point, the answer has to come from within.
The question remains - who will answer?