Buffalo has been the story this year when talking about teams that suck. This spring will mark 10 years since the Sabres have played a playoff game. They’re tied for second longest playoff drought in NHL history. But, of course, they aren’t the only ones who have had their struggles. Ottawa and Detroit have been two of the league’s punching bags in recent years. Currently, Detroit is second to only Buffalo for longest postseason drought, and Ottawa is third.
There have been glimpses of hope for all three teams. Eichel, Larkin, Tkachuk, Hall, Stutzle, Bertuzzi. But none of them have been able to reverse the course of these teams. They’ve tried swapping coaches and GMs, bringing in world-class players, drafting the brightest stars. But nothing has worked.
So what’s holding them back and how can they get back on the right track?
The Good (Okay)
It takes more than one player to make a team. Buffalo has a few quality players who are always chipping in on offense and making a difference. Victor Olofsson has been one of those for a few years now. While he’s not a superstar, he averages a little under a point per game. He’s a constant the Sabres need in order to succeed. His performance does not seem to have been impacted by the long off season, as he has 9 goals and 12 assists in 33 games. Olofsson was a 7th round pick in 2014 that’s proven he’s worth more.
Sam Reinhart was second overall in the same draft as Olofsson. He’s been another key in slowing the trainwreck of a season for Buffalo. He has the inverse of his teammate, 12 goals and 9 assists. Reinhart was named alternate captain this year. He and Olofsson are the stability desperately needed in the Sabres’ locker room.
It’s only his third season in the NHL, but Filip Hronek has become a name to remember in Detroit. As a defenseman, he averages about .5 points per game. At only a $700k contract, he’s a great piece on the Wings for a low price. His contract runs through the end of the season, and you can bet that Detroit will have to pay him if they want him to continue to progress in their system.
Anthony Mantha isn’t a new name in Michigan. He’s become a very consistent player in the last three years and improved to just under a point per game last season. Mantha has learned to throw his (massive) body around and become a defensive presence that makes him useful for the PK. He’s still improving and the Wings have to be glad his contract goes through 2024.
He’s only been in the league for 3 years so far, and yet Brady Tkachuk has become the face of Ottawa. At 21, he’s the definition of consistent. He’s on pace to match or surpass his previous 2 season points totals (45 and 44, respectively). He’s been named alternate captain alongside Gudbranson and Chabot this year. Brady is talented and has a lot of play time left in him in which to improve. He has a great work ethic that will take him far and I’m sure the Senators will want to keep him for as long as possible.
The second name you think of when you think of Ottawa is Tim Stutzle. He was the surprise 3rd overall pick in 2020 that everyone doubted until we got to watch him in the World Juniors. He’s as talented as the Senators had hoped for. In his rookie season, he has 19 points in 33 games. He’s brought his flashy moves to the US and it’s working well for him. Stutzle will likely be like his roommate Brady and be kept in Ottawa for the foreseeable future.
The Bad (Worst)
Jeff Skinner was meant to be the 2nd horse pulling the comeback cart next to Eichel. Buffalo was looking forward to a long and successful partnership between the 2. I don’t need to tell you how poorly this has turned out, especially this season. He’s the 2nd highest-paid player on the team. After his first season in New York, it was only a little too much of an overpayment, with 63 points in 82 games. Now, with 4 points in 30 games, Buffalo fans would argue it’s a crime. With the Hurricanes, he was consistent and even improved over the years. In Buffalo, he had a great debut, then dive-bombed. It’s impossible to say what exactly is going on with him, as he hasn’t come out and said anything about an injury or personal struggle. Skinner is pretty much just dead weight the team is now saddled with since the price tag is much too high for any other team to take on. Personally, I hope he turns things around. It sucks to watch a talented player tank so badly.
Eichel has been the shining star in Buffalo (though sadly that’s not really the most difficult thing to do these days). He’s battled through injury for his team this season until it caught up to him a few weeks ago. With him out, most likely for the year, there’s no light on the horizon for the Sabres. And when looking at his future, it’s looking pretty bleak, too. His contract goes through 2025-26, but if I were him, I’d be looking at my options in a trade. His $10mil contract is a fair price when he’s fully healthy, his last 2 seasons prove that with an average of over a point per game both years. There are plenty of teams who could use a star center, and I’m sure Jack has seriously considered asking for a trade.
Detroit’s troubles are a little more veiled than just bad contracts and frustrated players. The Wings have a scoring problem. In 35 games, they’ve only scored 75 goals. The only team to score fewer is the Sabres. Not scoring many goals wouldn’t be too big of a deal if they can keep other teams from scoring. I’m sure you won’t be surprised that they’re the 7th worst in the league for goals against. There are issues from front to back in Detroit. Greiss is really struggling, with only 2 wins under his belt. The 3rd and 4th lines need to start producing more points. The whole team needs to start pulling the rope equally.
After a very promising start to the season, the Sens have had a steep decline. One player the team was excited to add this year, Derek Stepan has found himself on the LTIR with a shoulder injury. After only 20 games, his season is over. This is a blow to their offense, as his faceoff win percentage was 50. He was never supposed to be the point guy, but he brought physicality, faceoff wins, and leadership to Ottawa that they’ve been hurting without.
The really glaring issue for the Senators is goaltending. Matt Murray seemed to stand on his head in Pittsburgh, but one state over, he can’t seem to find the same mojo. His record is 7-12-1 so far, a far cry from his 32-10-4 season when he won his 2nd Stanley Cup. The Sens can’t figure out who to back Murray, either. Hogberg has been a bust (2-5-0), as has Daccord (1-3-1). They’re going with Gustavsson, a 22-year-old rookie who has only had 1 out of 2 winning seasons with the Belleville Senators. He’s 2-0-1 in the NHL, but 2-4-0 in the A, so only time will tell if he’s really the answer Ottawa is looking for.
One potential silver lining in Buffalo is that they have some young players with bright futures. What makes these players valuable to the Sabres doesn’t only have to do with their skill, but that they have trade value. Whether or not any party involved wants to keep players like Dylan Cozens, Rasmus Dahlin, and Jack Quinn in Buffalo is up in the air. But there’s enough value in these players to get more experienced players, or more high draft picks in the future. Who knows if the Sabres want to spend any more time “rebuilding” through the draft, seeing as that hasn’t been working so far, though.
Speaking of the draft, Detroit should be excited about the 2021 draft. As of today, the Wings have 3 2nd round picks and 2 3rd round picks. While 2 1st rounders might be more exciting, 3 2nd rounders are huge. If they’re looking to continue to rebuild through the draft, this year could be key in finding valuable middle 6 players, or even potential top 6.
Another consideration is that Detroit currently has $8mil in projected cap space. There are a few higher-end contracts they’ll be looking to re-up in the off-season, but with that much room now, there should still be a good amount to be able to offer good deals to good players. If the team’s record can’t attract good players, money sure can.
Ottawa is in a similar situation with their cap space. I’m sure they’ll be looking to re-sign players like Dzingel and Gudbranson, but again, they’ll still have plenty of room within which to work.
In addition to their cap room, they have 2 2nd round picks for the next 2 years. They have fewer total picks than Detroit, but high picks like that can be more valuable in the long term.
In the more immediate future, their 2020 1st round pick Jake Sanderson has done well in the shortened NCAA season with North Dakota. He’s becoming a skilled and balanced defenseman. He’s not fully an offensive defenseman, but he can score more points than a strictly defensive defenseman. It seems like he may not sign with the Senators this year, but come next year, they may have a new defenseman.
This very quickly spiraled into being very long, but there’s a lot to say when it comes to these teams. There’s no short answer as to what’s wrong, just as there’s no quick fix for any of them. No matter what team you root for, we should all be at least a little invested in how these teams can get better. The higher the quality of play, the easier it is to grow the game. It looks pretty grim for Buffalo especially, but I have hope that they’ll figure things out in the next few years. The good news is that their front office seems to be dedicated to turning the ship around and they’re not giving up any time soon. As for Detroit and Ottawa, I think we’ve seen small glimpses that they are capable of doing better. It’s just a matter of learning how to maintain success.
-Heidi Thomas (@DamselOnDrums)
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