The breakout season the Buffalo Sabres were meant to have in 2023-24 hasn't slipped through their fingers yet, but the team is in worse shape today than it was a month ago.
Buffalo's .469 points percentage ranks 22nd in the NHL, and the club is already tied for seventh in the eight-team Atlantic Division despite playing one more game than each of its top-four squads. MoneyPuck.com's playoff odds give the Sabres a 14.9% chance of reaching the postseason with only seven teams carrying a lower percentage.
You could quibble with the particulars on those odds, which are undoubtedly on the pessimistic side, but they reinforce the notion that Buffalo is in a tough spot.
That idea goes beyond just the team's position in the standings, too. The Sabres also have to worry about the loss of star center Tage Thompson, who will be out for multiple weeks after an unfortunate shot block caused a hand injury on Tuesday night.
Thompson was just starting to heat up after a rough start and represented the club's greatest individual offensive threat. Without him, the Sabres will need to shake up its top-six while asking more from centers Casey Mittelstadt and Peyton Krebs — who has produced virtually nothing offensively this season.
Beyond Thompson's absence, the Sabres are dealing with the same goaltending issues they had last season.
Buffalo has a team save % of .898, which is virtually identical to 2022-23's .896. After all the hype around Devon Levi entering the season, he's struggled out of the gate and wound up sharing the crease with Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen.
the latter has been the better goaltender early, but his track record at the NHL level is unimpressive and his career AHL save percentage sits at .895. Riding him during moments when Levi struggles is logical, but he's not a long-term solution. Meanwhile, as talented as Levi is, he's still completely unproven. The duo is tough to trust and the team's other option — Eric Comrie — is currently dealing with a lower-body injury.
That mess is made worse by the fact that Buffalo hasn't made life easy on its netminders by consistently carrying the play. The Sabres have narrowly out-shot their opponents at 5v5, but they've allowed more scoring opportunities than they've created.
Buffalo is in the bottom half of the NHL in 5v5 scoring chance rate (48.12% / 21st), high-danger chance rate (46.55% / 24th), and expected goal percentage (48.13% / 23rd).
Taken together you've got a team that's already dug itself a small hole in the standings with an injury to its best offensive player and uncertainty in its crease. Those significant issues are tough to paper over under any circumstances — they are particularly difficult to mitigate as an unimpressive possession team.
Life isn't going to get much easier in the near term for Buffalo, either, as the Sabres have a difficult schedule ahead that has the team playing seven of its next eight games on the road. The eight teams the Sabres will go to battle with have a combined record of 64-42-7, and just one — the Chicago Blackhawks — has lost more than half of its games this season.
To be fair to Buffalo, there are areas where the team projects to be better than it has been so far. The power play is the most obvious example as the Sabres won't carry a 10.6% conversion rate all season. Getting that unit firing on all cylinders will be tricky without Thompson, though, considering he's scored more than twice as many power-play goals as any other Sabre since the beginning of the 2021-22 season.
Even without the towering center, this offense can clearly score more than the 2.88 goals they've managed on a per-game basis this year. Buffalo managed 3.57 last season and has more young, ascending talent than players in decline. A bounce back of some kinds seems inevitable, but whether it'll be enough is hard to say.
The Sabres are far from doomed as Thanksgiving approaches, but their chances of taking the step forward many predicted prior to the open of the 2023-24 season are getting slimmer and slimmer.