By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
The biggest news stories surrounding the Buffalo Sabres this week – not including Jack Eichel’s apparent respiratory illness – involved the problems of a couple of their forwards.
And the lesson that they teach is that the infamous tank from the 2014-15 season – when the Sabres stripped the team of talent for a chance at getting Connor McDavid, only to leave everyone involved unemployed – is a gift that keeps on giving.
Taking the players’ status in chronological order, Casey Mittelstadt was assigned to Rochester a little less than a week ago. He had been struggling this season, with only four goals and five assists in 31 games. Mittelstadt had even spent some time watching from the press box.
This was not what was planned for the young center from Minnesota. It was only two years ago when Mittelstadt was one of the stars for the United States team in the World Junior Championships, played right here in Buffalo. He was named the top forward in that tournament. When Mittelstadt finished his college season around the start of spring in 2018, he had some leverage in contract negotiations with the Sabres. Buffalo needed talent, and it needed to get the fans excited about the future. Therefore, he signed a contract shortly before the end of the season.
The Sabres knew that by signing him early, his entry-level deal would expire in the summer of 2020 instead of 2021. That no doubt will cost Buffalo when the next agreement is reached in the upcoming summer. But that was part of the price tag of getting him in a Buffalo uniform immediately.
The problem was that Mittelstadt never looked overly ready in the NHL. He finished the 2018-19 season with 12 goals and 13 assists for 25 points, and rarely was a big factor in games. That carried over to this season.
The Sabres came to the realization this week that he needed to play in the American Hockey League, and re-learn how to dominate games. It was probably a year later than it should have happened, but that’s what happens when a team doesn’t have a great deal of depth on the roster and has to force-feed its young players. It takes a long time to rebuild the talent level of an organization, and the need and temptation to cut a corner or two is a large one.
Then there’s the case of Jeff Skinner, who entered Saturday’s game with the Los Angeles Kings without a point in his last seven games – ending that stretch with a well-earned assist on a goal Saturday afternoon. Yes, people have noticed. He also has had one two-point game since November 1, which has hurt a team that essentially has had to rely on its top line for much of its scoring this season.
Skinner was acquired as something of a rental from Carolina in the summer of 2018. The price to acquire him was quite modest under the circumstances, and Skinner proved to be a great fit. The winger had a magical first half of the season, scoring 26 goals by New Year’s Day. He finished with a career-high 40 goals – mighty good timing for a guy that was about to become a free agent.
Then it was time to re-sign him. Skinner had been one of the few reasons to watch the Sabres in in 2018-19, which featured the entire team playing like the original Kansas City Scouts for about half of the hockey year. He had all the bargaining leverage in negotiations with the Sabres, and his agent used that advantage well.
Skinner signed an eight-year contract at $9 million a year, which adds up to a $72 million investment. We all knew, or at least should have known, that it was an inflated number. But how much choice did the Sabres have? Very little.
I suspect that Skinner will rebound a bit offensively in the second half and put up better numbers. But that’s a lot of money for a guy who has been under 30 goals in three of the last five seasons. And remember, hockey players reach their prime statistically around the age of 25 to 26. Skinner is 27. The Sabres will have pay a lot of money for his declining years. It was the cost of doing business.
It’s tough to rebuild a franchise from scratch. This is the sixth year that the Sabres have been doing so. It’s important to remember that while Buffalo has made some good moves along the way, sometimes circumstances get in the way of making more of them.
It’s fair to say that Saturday afternoon’s game was a case of stopping the bleeding for the Sabres.
They had not played particularly well on Tuesday in a 5-3 loss in Toronto in spite of a rally that made the score at least interesting. Two nights later, everything went wrong in a 6-1 defeat in Philadelphia.
You don’t want to turn a small skid into a long-term spiral, especially when the schedule brings a last-place Los Angeles Kings team that has bigger problems into town. The Kings had been playing better lately, but they came up short against a Sabre team that did what was necessary in a 3-2 victory at the KeyBank Center.
“We knew we had two rough games coming into this one,” goalie Linus Ullmark said. “But we know what we need to do. It’s not about the opponent. It comes down to what we can change and what we can do. We didn’t feel like anyone was stressed out. It’s very nice this year. Guys are keeping their composure even though we had some rough games.”
“It’s a new day,” Marco Scandella added. “You don’t want to bring yesterday into today. Positive or negative, you don’t want to run with the emotions of the season. You just have to accept that it’s a new day.”
The defensemen for Buffalo scored to the biggest goals of the game. Los Angeles struck first early in the second period, but six minutes later Rasmus Ristolainen’s journey to the front of the net was rewarded when he slipped home a rebound.
The Sabres appeared to take the lead later in the period by putting the puck in the net, but the goal was nullified because of a referee’s whistle. No problem. Scandella’s shot from the blue line went off a Kings’ skate and slid right between the goal post and Jonathan Quick’s skate. That made it 2-1, and Buffalo killed off the next 33:12 for the win. Each team scored a goal in the final two minutes (Olofsson had an empty-netter, followed by a very late goal from LA’s Dustin Brown).
Sometimes it seems like you only have to watch the first two periods to figure out what might happen in a Sabres’ game. Buffalo is now 14-0-0 when leading after 40 minutes. On the other hand, the team is 0-13-2 when trailing.
“More than anything, it’s learning to deal with those situations,” Krueger said. “Every team in this league has the skill to press when their down in the third, and to go all in. It’s always very threatening. I’m proud of the guys understanding what it takes – the work, the positioning, the management of the puck especially. It’s something we’re getting better at all the time.”
With the win, the Sabres moved back into second place in their division. Having that still be true on Christmas morning would be quite a present for anyone connected with the team.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)