Much like in the abysmal 2014-15 campaign, the Buffalo Sabres find themselves wallowing near the bottom of the standings in 2015-16. That’s what happens when your team is full of younger players, not yet experienced in playing winning hockey on a nightly basis.
With 34 points in 39 games, the Sabres are second-last in the Atlantic Division and sit just two points ahead of the train wreck that is the Columbus Blue Jackets for the fewest points in the NHL. Still, there’s a big difference between this season and last. Not only are the Sabres more fun to watch, but they are showing signs of resiliency. In years past, if the Sabres fell behind, it was over. That is not necessarily the case this season.
Part of the change comes from the fact that the Sabres are getting nightly contributions from a group of rookies, some of them the most hyped in the NHL.
Jack Eichel, 19, C
Connor McDavid may have been the big prize in the 2015 NHL Draft, but Eichel wasn’t exactly a bad consolation prize. The Boston University product has been exactly as advertised this season: an incredibly skilled two-way presence with highlight-reel capability every night.
With 27 points, Eichel sits fourth in the NHL in rookie scoring through 45 games. His 13 goals is tied for the league-lead among freshmen with Detroit Red Wings pivot Dylan Larkin. Eichel has contributed a slew of highlight reel goals already, displaying an ability to pick-pocket opposing puck carriers on his way back into the defensive end. Averaging almost 19 minutes of ice time per night, Eichel has already established himself as one of the focal points of the offense.
At this stage in the game, Eichel has picked up his play after a slow start and should be very much in contention for the Calder Trophy given to the NHL’s top rookie each season. At just 19 years old, it is obvious why he was so highly coveted and it shouldn’t be long before he takes his place among the NHL’s elite players.
Sam Reinhart, 20, C/W
Though Eichel receives most of, if not all of, the attention as the top rookie in Buffalo, Reinhart is not exactly some scrub late-round pick. No, the second overall pick (like Eichel) from 2014 is a legit prospect in his own right, even if he comes with significantly less hype than his counterpart.
Seventh in the NHL in rookie scoring, Reinhart has 20 points in 45 games and has found himself as more of a focal point of the Buffalo offense. He has seen more time of late, especially as a part of the team’s top-six forwards, bringing his average to a shade over 16 minutes of ice time per night.
Though nowhere near as flashy as Eichel, Reinhart has all the makings of a top-line player thanks to deft playmaking ability, strong hockey IQ and the benefit of flying a little under the radar as Eichelmania overtakes Buffalo.
Jake McCabe, 22, D
The lone rookie defender for the Sabres this season, McCabe is still a work in progress as he tries to master arguably the toughest position in hockey for a rookie. At times, he has looked like the defenseman that Buffalo fans have been waiting for. Others, he looks like a rookie in over his head.
Known for his offensive ability at the University of Wisconsin and during his season with the Rochester Americans of the AHL in 2014-15, McCabe has just three goals and seven points through 36 games with the “Blue-and-Gold” this season.
Still, McCabe has shown himself to be more than adequate defensively and his responsibility is growing as he tries to fit in with a young Buffalo defense. With his ice time moving to an average of 18:33 per night, it is clear the Sabres are putting more and more on the young defender’s plate.
He might not get the recognition of some of the top rookies in the NHL, but McCabe has been a solid and improving presence since opening night for the Sabres. As he continues to learn and grow, he should become a focal point of the Sabre defense for years to come.
Tim Schaller, C, 25
Schaller hasn’t been with the Sabres much in 2015-16—just 12 games to date—but has been a solid fourth-line presence when he has been. The only true role player-type out of Buffalo’s rookies this season, Schaller will likely continue to bounce back and forth between Buffalo and Rochester.
With just a pair of assists in his six games, it is clear that Schaller’s game isn’t predicated around his offensive ability. Going forward, he will provide a checking/energy role in call-up spots for Buffalo.
Linus Ullmark, G, 22
With the injury to goaltender Robin Lehner came opportunity for other netminders in the system. Chad Johnson was already on the NHL roster, backing up Lehner before moving into the starting role after the injury. Taking over the backup spot would be none other than Ullmark.
The young Swede has served as backup primarily, appearing in 16 games so far in 2015-16. He sports a 7-10-2 record, a 2.58 goals against average and a .919 save percentage in that time. He has looked solid some nights, very much like a rookie netminder getting his first taste of NHL action in others, and seems as though the Sabres found a potential diamond in the rough.
When Lehner is cleared to return, it is likely Ullmark will head back to Rochester for more seasoning, but it is hard to complain about his performance in limited duty so far this season. The Sabres are far from a good team yet and Ullmark has not looked lost during his time in their crease.
Buffal0 Sabres Prospects in the World Junior Championships
Will Borgen of Team USA is the lone Buffalo Sabres prospect competing in the annual World Junior Championships and he played very well for the dominant Bronze-winning Americans. Though he didn’t have the flair and attention teammates Auston Matthews and Matthew Tkachuk have, he had three assists through seven games and played a solid all-around game.
Prospect of the Month: Jack Eichel
With all due respect to a few of the prospects performing well on the junior level, Jack Eichel has been the best player in the Buffalo system over the last month. In 14 games during December, Eichel showed a playmaking touch. While netting a trio of goals, he also tallied eight assists to bring his point total for the month to 11.
Eichel has picked up his play noticeably from opening night and continues to take on a larger role in Buffalo’s offense. His performance throughout December just goes to show the type of player he already is.