By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
Just in case you had any doubt that the competitive side of the Buffalo Sabres’ season as a team was essentially over, the latest medical update out of 1 Seymour H. Knox Plaza took care of that.
Jack Eichel is going to be out for “the foreseeable future” with an upper-body injury suffered last week against the New York Islanders. Eichel had gone out of town for more medical opinions, and the news wasn’t good. On Saturday, Coach Ralph Krueger didn’t rule out the possibility that Eichel had a chance of returning this season, but you’d have to think it’s going to be a while. Nobody wants to fool around with neck/spine injuries, if that’s what he has – and it sure looked that way on television that day.
There was a report today from the Associated Press that Eichel suffered a cracked rib shortly before the start of training camp. It certainly would explain what has been a less-than-expected season to date for Eichel, who only has two goals to go with 16 assists for 18 points.
If you are counting, that puts the list of key Sabre players who will be out for a good-sized period of time at three. Jake McCabe – the team’s best defensive defenseman – isn’t coming back this season after his knee injury, and it doesn’t sound like first-string goalie Linus Ullmark and Eichel will be around in the near future. Mix those facts in with an absolutely killer schedule for the rest of March, and it’s difficult to see how the Sabres will be able to climb out of last place in the overall standings in the near future.
If it wasn’t time for the Sabres to switch gears before, it certainly is now. That means they need to see what they’ve got on the roster for the proverbial foreseeable future – in this case meaning the fall of 2021 and beyond.
The starting point is Dylan Cozens, who missed Saturday’s game with an injury suffered on Thursday against the Penguins. Everyone believes that he’s held up well as a young rookie in the NHL this season. He’s mostly played on the wing as a way to break in, although he did line up at center earlier this week when Eichel left the lineup. Cozens hasn’t displayed that much of a scoring touch yet, but he did have 85 points in 51 games in junior hockey last season.
Then there’s Casey Mittelstadt, who was considered one of the top junior forwards in the world when he played in world championships here in Buffalo three years ago. He left the University of Minnesota early – probably too early – but hasn’t produced much offense during his time in the NHL. Mittelstadt has been playing a lot of wing lately, but it would be nice to see him get a shot at center under the circumstances. By the way, the Sabres almost have to find out if Cozens and/or Mittelstadt can develop some chemistry with Jeff Skinner, who without some sort of buyout/weighted trade is going to be a part of the Sabres’ future for a while no matter how unenthusiastic some might be about that.
We can throw Tage Thompson, a No. 1 pick of the Blues in 2016, into the pile of prospects. He was the talk of training camp in January, but has been unable to get on the ice much once the season started. His goal on Thursday was his first in about two years. Thompson is 23, and by NHL standards he’s running out of time to show he belongs up here. On defense, Will Borgen is hurt but earlier played like he deserved a good-sized look. There are other prospects playing in Rochester (at least when Covid-19 doesn’t get in the way), and this will be a good time to get their feet wet.
If you are wondering where the ice time might come for these players, you probably hasn’t noticed that the trading deadline isn’t far off. Buffalo has three unrestricted free agents that might be of interest to other teams, and therefore could be considered trade bait. Taylor Hall’s one-year contract was designed to help the Sabres take a step forward as a team, and that’s not going to work now. It’s difficult to see him returning here next season under the circumstances – particularly if there’s a coaching change coming. Eric Staal probably is worth more to a contender than to the Sabres at this point. Defenseman Brandon Montour hasn’t provided much offense in his stay in Buffalo. He’s not an obvious candidate to be dealt from the Sabres’ standpoint in terms of the team’s depth. But if he’s unwilling to sign by July, it’s better to get something now than nothing for him later.
If general manager Kevyn Adams is going to change the direction of the franchise’s course, he needs information. Seeing how the young players do will supply some of that data. Yes, it’s tough to wave the white flag of surrender, but sometimes it’s the best course of action.
As for the game …
The Sabres solved at least half of their problems in a sense on Saturday night. They gave up fewer than five goals, a big improvement over the previous five games. But the offense actually regressed to invisibility. Put those together, and the result was a 3-0 loss to the Penguins at the KeyBank Center.
The Sabres are winless in their last 10 games (0-8-2). This is the fifth time this season that the team has been shut out, and the team has scored more than two goals once in its last nine starts.
Let’s start with the good news from a Buffalo standpoint. The Sabres only allowed one goal in the first 59 minutes, with two scores coming into an empty net. Carter Hutton was sharp in making 31 saves in giving his team a chance to win, something that hasn’t happened often lately for Buffalo.
“He was outstanding today,” Krueger said about Hutton. “We’re excited to see that happen. He looked to be in a good groove. We’ve got to get him some goals. He’s got to be frustrated with that. But it’s good to talk about the things that are good about the game, and that was at the top of the list.”
What’s more, the Sabres didn’t allow Penguins’ stars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin to create much offense. That made a difference; the whole team needs to play better defense to provide some help for the guy in the net.
“Those are special guys,” Brandon Montour said about the two Pittsburgh standouts. “You have to be aware of them. The only time they were generating something was on the odd-man rush or broken play. It’s a 1-0 game, but we have to score.”
Casey DeSmith had 24 saves for the Penguins, as he blanked the Sabres for the first time in almost exactly two years. Buffalo’s power play wasn’t sharp (0 for 2), and that’s important in a game that didn’t feature a great deal of wide-open hockey.
“We lost an opportunity in the second period,” Krueger said. “That’s when we got a majority of the shots, but we weren’t able to capture the moment. It seems we were too complicated, and I’m not pleased with that part of our game. We have guys with a higher level of offense, and we have to continue to push for that in games.”
Half a loaf of improvement may be better than nothing, but it doesn’t help the team get out of a funk. Buffalo remains 31st and last in the league in points and winning percentage at .308 (which would be the worst in team history if it doesn’t improve). The Sabres will need to do better in both areas of their game to earn its first win since February 23 when Washington comes here Monday.
“It’s hard to describe,” Hutton said about the team’s situation. “I don’t know what’s going on. I’m accountable too. We’re in here as a team. I don’t know if I’ve ever been in this sort of funk as a pro. It’s certainly frustrating.”
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)