There are many ways to categorize the passage of time. For most people these periods of time are divided by weeks, months, and years. For entire civilizations time has passed by decades and centuries, and each can be broken down into other various periods, eras, and so on. With all those classifications, you would think people would settle with the choices we have, but sports fans have one more category: seasons.
Just as with time in general, seasons can be broken down and examined in a variety of ways. You can take a season month by month, week by week, or even game by game. The slow crawl of a hockey season leaves plenty of time for introspection, but the traditional benchmark for a look back is the halfway point. After 42 games you have a pretty good impression of the league, and can determine which teams are good, which teams are bad, and which teams still have time to be good.
We all know the numbers that represent this team’s progress. 21-16-5. 47 points. 7th in the Eastern Conference. These numbers indicate that the Sabres have a good chance of making the playoffs, and after last season’s disappointment it’s hard to say that wouldn’t be progress. The numbers don’t lie, Buffalo is in relatively good shape in the playoff race, and a finish just above .500 would get them a spot in the postseason.
However, when you take away the numbers and consider what you’ve watched this season, it’s hard to be satisfied with much. After a fast start the Sabres finished off October with a two game losing streak. Both games were awful performances at home, which would prove to be a trend as time passed. November saw another period of up and down hockey, with a five game losing streak anchoring the month. There were more terrible home games, most notably against Columbus and Philadelphia.
December started with another disaster at home, this time against the Predators. The up and down play continued, with a record hovering just over .500 and a home record on life support. Fans were getting restless, and the team was unable to string more than a few wins together at a time. While the new year has brought a 4-1 record thus far, we still don’t know if this team will be able to make a push towards the postseason or if they will continue to play mediocre hockey.
If there is a word to describe the first half, it is “uneven.” The effort from individual players as well as the team as a whole has fluctuated game in and game out, and no one is quite sure how to get things to change. The “last straw” of sorts may be the embarrassing 4-2 home loss against Washington on December 30th, but that remains to be seen.
Injuries can be given some of the blame, with captain Craig Rivet missing significant time as well as Tim Connolly, Patrick Kaleta, Jochen Hecht, and Paul Gaustad missing extended periods. This has resulted in a lot of rookies seeing lots of ice time, and while they have played well at times it was quite evident the holes in the lineup hurt the effort.
A discussion of season highlights begins and ends with Thomas Vanek, who led the league in goals for the majority of the season and only remains a few off the pace at the halfway point. He has had a few shaky performances here and there, but no one has played better for the Sabres than Atlas. Derek Roy leads the team in points, but his game has been noticeably lacking for periods of time. Even with his current numbers people expect more of him, and I have a hard time arguing against that sentiment.
The defense has struggled, with previously strong players such as Henrik Tallinder and Teppo Numminen playing poorly. With Rivet missing time the blue line has seen its share of youngsters, with Chris Butler and Mike Weber starting games with the big club. Andrej Sekera has continued to evolve into a top flight defenseman, seeing huge ice time in his first full year with the club.
The rest of the forwards have been a grab bag of moderate growth and utter disappointment. Maxim Afinogenov has been downright awful, and players such as Clarke MacArthur, Drew Stafford, and Daniel Paille have been uneven in their play thus far. A steady forecheck has come from the likes of Gaustad, Mair, and Peters, and Kaleta has done his job when healthy enough to do so.
When I look back on the season I see more missed chances and frustration than anything. So many home games were given away, and at times it seems little effort was put forth in a number of games. The Sabres are still in decent shape, but you can only look back on those lost points and wonder where they could be with a full effort in every game. This team is still looking for an identity and leadership, and until it finds it they will continue to lose games they should win, giving away points in the process.
The good news is that there is reason to think the Sabres will improve down the stretch. Play between the pipes has improved, and a capable backup behind Miller will allow the franchise goaltender to catch his breath in February and March. They have an abundance of forwards giving secondary scoring to the top line, with 15 players registering at least ten points. This means there may be a few chips available for Darcy Regier to make a move. The defense has played better recently, and if they can stay healthy down the stretch they may be able to find a solid top six to roll out on a nightly basis.
If there is anything you can appreciate about the Sabres thus far, it’s that they haven’t completely shot themselves in the foot this year. Last season’s halfway point brought a ten game losing streak that all but killed the postseason. The Sabres have been uneven, but they certainly haven’t been bad for an extended period of time.
The Buffalo Sabres are an underachieving team for sure, but not to the point where this season has been a failure. There is room for growth, room for improvement, and room for change if necessary. There is no free agent elephant in the room, no major expiring contracts to get upset about, and no salary cap crunch. For the next 40 games, all anyone has to worry about is playing hockey well enough to play another seven hockey games come April.
Based on that last sentence alone, I’d say things are looking up.