Sabres Slowly Losing Grip of Hot Start

After entering December 17-7-3, the Buffalo Sabres have stumbled a bit into their final game of 2019 sporting a 21-12-6 record. There isn’t one specific area where the Sabres are faltering, there are multiple. I’ll give the dead horse another whack. With a lack of depth scoring, consistent playing over a full 60 minutes and mental errors are beginning to pile up, the increasing loss and overtime loss column is a direct result of this.

It’s evident that Kyle Okposo is under performing his $6 million per year contract, there is no dancing around that. It continues to be a pain point for fans and will continue to be until the Sabres see some return on their investment.

There are some other players that I think are deserving of some blame other than Okposo. First, Casey Mittelstadt needs to start producing points. It’s not like he’s been a disaster by any means, he’s looked like he’s focused on his 200-foot game and being stronger on pucks.

That being said, at some point the rookie is going to have to put up more than five goals and five assists in 39 games. “The points will come” only works for some long.

While some preseason expectations were astronomical for an 18 year old center, it seemed safe to predict 40 points for Mittelstadt. Right now he’s only on pace for around 21. The Calder Trophy is no longer in his sights, but there needs to be some kind of resurgence in his game. He wasn’t the direct replacement for Ryan O’Reilly this year, but he along with Sobotka, who we will get to, were supposed to alleviate that loss in the lineup.

Mittelstadt has absolutely shown flashes of his vision, passing ability and creativity, but he’s still making mistakes. Some worse than others like you see below:

Speaking of Ryan O’Reilly, two of the players involved in the deal have stumbled through their first (almost) half of the season. Starting with Tage Thompson, take out a six game stretch where the 6’5″ winger had four goals and an assist, he’s only produced two assists in the other 26 games.

Now, that could be attributed to the Sabres refusal to send Thompson down for some seasoning. Their plan is to keep him in Buffalo, even if that means burying him on the fourth line with Johan Larsson and Zemgus Girgensons (who are both settling in nicely on a 4th line role, but Girgensons is on the IR with an upper body injury).

Like Mittelstadt, he’s shown flashes. You’ll see his highly touted shot, his reach to break up plays and create opportunities, but it’s simply not enough. His passing isn’t up to snuff yet and he’s shying away from the dirty areas even with his large frame.

Like Thompson, Vladimir Sobotka is had a forgettable first half in which he’s only produced one point since November 10. That’s 23 games and one point from a third line center. Sobotka said he has been a scorer in the past and while he may not be wrong about that, it’s also not like he’s a frequent flyer in the red light district. He has 50 career goals in 499 career games.

I will take this time to congratulate Sobotka among all the harping on him and his teammates for playing 500 NHL games, that in itself is an impressive feat. Even though he’s starting to look a little better offensively (as you can see below), he needs to start creating more plays and burying the puck to be seen as a serviceable top 9 forward.

Other players like Evan Rodrigues (33 GP 2-9-11) and Conor Sheary (35 GP 7-7-14) need to start producing as well. They are the skilled players in the bottom 9 that are supposed to be your depth scorers, especially Conor Sheary who only has one goal in the last 19 games, which was an empty netter. Rodrigues had a nice assist to Larsson for their first shorthanded goal of the season (below), but in 17 games he only has a goal and two assists. Again, that’s not a recipe for success.

Now, you can point out a player’s shortcomings, but they also have to go with the situations they are put into by the coaching staff. Players besides anyone on the first line are seeing a regression of their play and it doesn’t look like it’ll change.

Jason Botterill finally made a move this morning bringing up the C.J. Smith, a speedy winger with 13-16-29 in 33 games for Rochester this season. Whether he actually gets the call tonight is up to Head Coach Phil Housley, but after putting Remi Elie on Mittelstadt’s wing, I hope Housley will make the correct call and put a scorer on Casey’s left side. I don’t think that means Smith will play 2nd line minutes, but I do believe he’d be more beneficial than Elie.

Sobotka shouldn’t be relied upon to take over 2nd line center duties, so you need to roll with Mittelstadt and surround him with linemates that can help finish scoring plays.

While it could be easy to go after Carter Hutton’s slight regression, he and Linus Ullmark (along with 53-9-23) are the reason the Sabres are in good shape. Rebounds at crucial times like this are back breakers, but also don’t let your own man beat you to the front of the net off their own shot.

It shows Jeff Skinner isn’t a defenseman, there was no gap control and no box out to control the oncoming player’s speed. Plays like this can come back and haunt your season if you’re on the doorstep of the playoffs in need of points.

Regardless of the issues plaguing the Sabres as of late, they still hold 3rd place in the Atlantic division with 48 points, but Boston is on their tail with 46 points and Montreal, yes Montreal, is still in the thick of things with 45 points. It’s also important to note the Islanders are surging and are now up to 44 points sitting just outside the wildcard race.

With a win tonight, the Sabres will hit 50 points by January 1st for the 1st time since the 2009-2010 season. The 2017-18 Sabres didn’t get their 50th point until February 28, 2018.

The Sabres hot start is holding them over for now, but their season can start to slip away if the current trend becomes the norm. While expectations needed to be tempered after the 10 game win streak, it should still be the expectations to make the playoffs as a wildcard team.

It’s not the Sabres year to make a deep run and GM Jason Botterill is not looking for rentals, but if the defense stays strong and the secondary scoring finds it’s way back; there is no reason Buffalo can’t make the playoffs.

Things are still looking up in Buffalo, don’t let a bad stretch leave a sour taste in your mouth to end 2018. There is still plenty to be excited about, but there still needs to be improvements in all facets of the game.

Regardless of how Buffalo has been playing and what the result is tonight, Happy New Years! Have a fun and safe holiday everyone.

For more Sabres coverage, follow: @TheChargingBUF and @BillTCB

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