Buffalo Sabres: What went wrong in 2016-17?

By Klipper1967
Mar. 10, 2017

The Philadelphia Flyers celebrate a 6-3 victory on Tuesday night
Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports

Reality has sunk in that the Buffalo Sabres will not qualify for the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Needing to make up 9 points in just 15 games gives the Sabres' a 0.1% chance of making the playoffs (and with a regulation loss to Columbus tonight will set it at 0.0%), that according to Sports Club Stats, and the team would have to go 13-1-1 or better over the final month of the season just to raise its odds to above 50%.

The Sabres’ failure to make a concerted playoff push was not for lack of trying; as imperfect as this team is, there is no doubt that the players in the locker room wish things had turned out differently and would not be hitting the links in April. The team has clearly demonstrated the inability to play 60 minutes of solid hockey and maintain that pace every night.   

But as challenged as the Sabres are to put together  consistent effort every night, you can easily make the argument that, had it not been for two major setbacks, we would be talking about playoff hockey in the 716 right now, instead of lamenting what might have been.

Those two setbacks, of course, are the number of injuries that the Buffalo Sabres have experienced this season, and their absolute ineptitude in overtime and the shootout. The question is, which of these two setbacks proved to be more influential in derailing the Sabres’ post season?

As of March 4, the Buffalo Sabres led the NHL in Cumulative Minutes Lost to injury (CMLP) according to Man Games Lost, with over 4,600 minutes of ice time lost to injury and counting. Making matters worse, the Sabres also have “enjoyed” the greatest cumulative impact (IIT) of the players it has lost to other teams in the NHL this season.  Translation –  the Sabres have not just lost players due to injury, they have lost KEY players due to injury, and have paid the price for it.

Based on that, it is easy to assume that injuries were the single-biggest reason that the Sabres currently sit 7 points behind the New York islanders for the second wild card spot in the Eastern Conference, and that the story would have been different had the team stayed moderately healthy. While that might be true – sounds obvious enough – if you take a close look at both CMIP and IIT figures over at Man Games Lost, you notice some interesting results. there are actually three playoff teams that rank among the league’s top ten in CMIP: the Edmonton Oilers, the Anaheim Ducks, and the New York Islanders. This is not too surprising – a team’s CMIP is simply the sum of ALL minutes lost to injury, whether the players lost were good, bad, whatever. Losing a lot of third- and fourth-line minutes to injury will inflate a team’s CMIP, but will it have it have much of an impact on the team’s success in a given season?

More telling is a team’s Injury Impact to Team  IIT, and if you look at that number, you will see something far more interesting, in my opinion: along with the Sabres, the Pittsburgh Penguins, Montreal Canadiens, Edmonton Oilers, and Boston Bruins all rank among the league’s top ten in IIT rankings. There is no dispute the Buffalo has the worst IIT skater-metric, so that would indicate that yes, the injury bug has played a part in the Sabres not reaching the playoffs.

Which brings us to the team’s outright terrible results in overtime. Even with the staggering amount of minutes the Sabres have lost to injury, this team has still managed to force overtime 19 times this season. Sadly, 12 of those 19 games have resulted in losses for these Sabres – the second highest total in the NHL. I didn’t sign up to do math, but it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that this means that the Sabres have left 63% of the points available to them in those games decided by overtime on the table – and counting.

Adding to Buffalo’s overtime  woes is the fact that this team is not built for success in the shootout format, which is evidenced by Buffalo’s 1-6 record in the format, which amounts to a winning percentage of just 14.3% (statistic courtesy of Sporting Charts). Only the Maple Leafs have lost more games in the shootout than the Sabres, so I guess loyal Sabre fans have that to hold over their neighbors to the north . . . except the Leafs still have a chance to make the playoffs, while this team does not. Isn't it pathetic to watch our #1 goalie Robin Lehner flop around on the ice like a fish out of water while he is supposed to being saves in the SO? 

Can injuries be blamed for Buffalo’s terrible results in overtime? Well, the Sabres did play 5 games that went into overtime or the shootout before Jack Eichel returned on November 29, and wound up losing 4 of those, so the Sabres’ success in OT has improved slightly since Jack returned (the team is 6-8 in OT and the SO since Jack came back). Still, a 43% success rate if overtime even with Eichel in the lineup is nothing to write home to mom about. And if I look hard enough I will find games that went into OT and the SO without Ryan O’Reilly or (more recently) Kyle Okposo. While missing these key players at different times of the year, the simple fact is that the Sabres have left too many points on the table that were within their reach, and those points are currently making the difference between the Sabres being a have or a have not.

While we can turn to the two reasons for the Sabres missing the playoffs again, it is also clear that serious upgrades need to be made on the blue line to aid in the moving the puck through the neutral zone quicker.  This will help Buffalo become a team that has speed and make them more competitive.