With nearly a quarter of the season in the books, the Buffalo Sabres are in playoff position. Is the rebuild ahead of schedule, or will they come crashing down?
Will the Buffalo Sabres make the playoffs this season?
Greg Wyshynski, senior NHL writer: Before the season, I said it was plausible that the Sabres could be the dark horse darlings many predicted them to be in the Atlantic Division. This was mainly because the division was underwhelming, the goaltending would be improved (it is, going from an .896 team save percentage to a .913) and the Jack Eichel-Jeff Skinner partnership would elevate both (it has, as both have the best points-per-game pace of their careers). But I didn't buy that the Sabres had a 35-point improvement in them to make the playoffs ... and right now, that improvement would end up being 44 points if they keep playing to their current points percentage (.650). Which would be a heck of a thing.
What gives me pause about the Sabres is that they're clearly a one-line show at this point. Eichel, Skinner and Jason Pominville have accounted for 47 percent of the Sabres' goals this season; as a line, they're rocking a relative goals-for percentage of 27.68 at 5-on-5, which is extraordinary. The good news is that sometimes all you need is one great line to make the playoffs, as any Colorado Avalanche fan circa last spring will tell you. The bad news is that a slump or an injury on that line -- Eichel hasn't played 80 games since his rookie campaign, and Skinner has a concussion history -- could knock the season off its rails. Something still tells me the Sabres are a year away, but this start and that line have me hopeful that I'm wrong.
As one GM told me in the preseason: "They were a really active team over the summer. And when you inject that much change, you expect to see different results." Jason Botterill's shrewd moves are paying off -- specifically, snagging Skinner (a three-time 30 goal scorer) to play on Eichel's wing and securing better goaltending (Carter Hutton has been steady).
As Greg noted, even though Skinner has relieved Eichel from some production pressure, secondary scoring outside the top line is still a problem. But the Atlantic Division isn't so clear-cut these days. With Andrei Vasilevskiy sidelined four to six weeks with a broken foot, the Tampa Bay Lightning might not run away in the standings. The Boston Bruins' blue line is as banged up as I've seen any group. Of course, the Montreal Canadiens are still lurking and the Florida Panthers are better than their 7-7-3 record, but if Buffalo plays as well as it did in the last week and a half -- five straight wins, including road victories over the Jets and Wild -- I don't see why this isn't a playoff team.
Sachin Chandan, ESPN The Magazine researcher: In the salary-cap era, nearly 80 percent of teams that have been in playoff position at American Thanksgiving, like the Sabres are now, have gone on to make the playoffs. Last season, however, the "Thanksgiving rate" was only 69 percent. What the Sabres may benefit from is a weak Metropolitan Division, making it likely that Atlantic teams grab at least one, probably two of the wild cards. Their .750 winning percentage in one-goal games is likely to regress, but strong play from goalie Carter Hutton and a top-10 penalty kill (currently 18.2 percent) should push them over the finish line into the playoffs.