Watching the Sabres right now is a tortuous exercise; injuries have struck the team hard, and the team is having trouble scoring more than a goal a game. With Jack Eichel out long term and Evander Kane just returning, I, and many others, thought Ryan O’Reilly could pick up enough of the slack to keep the team afloat. But now he’s battling an injury, and Tyler Ennis is out too, and oh, look, Dmitry Kulikov and Zach Bogosian are out as well… it’s gotten bad. And when things get bad, everyone looks for something to blame. For sports media, particularly in Buffalo, this means you find one, and one thing only, to blame. So we’ve devolved, essentially, into two camps: “Too many injuries!” against “The depth sucks anyway, so don’t blame injuries!”
Dear readers of Buffalo Wins, do I need to tell you that anyone pushing either one of these narratives alone is someone you do not need to be listening to? Didn’t we all learn our lesson during the tank year, when the worst of the media set up the insanely frustrating TANKING = 100% GOOD vs TANKING = 100% BAD argument that consumed our twitter timelines for months on end? (Sidenote: Please don’t mention Nolan Patrick or show me a draft lottery simulator for, at the very least, a couple of damn months.)
Naively, I trust that most people already know this, but I’ll go ahead and say it loud and clear: The Sabres could be missing some key players AND have a bad roster / coaching setup that is depressing their scoring numbers. Wildly enough, these two ideas can exist at the same time. Let’s explore both sides for a minute.
The Sabres aren’t scoring because they have poor depth and less than stellar coaching. Every team has injuries, and good teams have the depth built up to withstand injuries. For example, when Steven Stamkos went down for the Lightning last year, they could bring in Jonathan Drouin, and barely miss a beat. (And it looks like they’ll do the same this year after Stamkos went down with a knee injury.) Losing your two best players is certainly a blow, but even with O’Reilly in the lineup, the Sabres were not consistently scoring. We knew before the season that the defense corps was thin, and now it’s abundantly clear that the forward group is too. The team that Tim Murray has built up to this point does not have top caliber depth. Even at full health, this team cannot roll out three dangerous lines, which is what Cup-contender teams are doing these days. And Dan Bylsma, so far, has not been able (or willing?) to adapt his style, lineups, and usage to create more scoring chances.
Is it fair to blame Murray for his roster construction? Yes, but only to an extent. While the best teams can survive losing one top forward, it’s hard to think of one team that would play well down their two best forwards, let alone minus two top four defensemen. If the Blackhawks lost Toews and Kane, if the Stars were without Benn and Seguin, or if the Penguins lacked both Crosby and Malkin, they’d struggle over a long period of time. The Lightning and Sharks are two teams I can think of that could maybe survive losing two top forwards, but even then they’d be somewhat limited. And, by the way, those two teams are the ones that made the Eastern Conference Finals and Stanley Cup, respectively – they’re top tier teams because of their superior depth. But building depth takes time, time that I’m not sure Tim Murray has had in comparison to other teams.
A lot of people expected the Sabres to compete quickly after getting Eichel, like the Blackhawks did after getting Kane and Toews. But not every team becomes a contender like that; there are teams that rely on top-heavy lineups like the Blackhawks, and teams that build elite depth. The Blackhawks or Penguins model requires injury luck – your stars can’t be out at the same time, and you fit pieces around those stars. Those pieces are usually high priced free agents and young players on entry-level deals – Marian Hossa and Artemi Panarin, for example, on the Blackhawks. We can’t even judge how well the Sabres are executing this model since they haven’t had the injury luck, but the signing of Okposo this offseason – a great complimentary player – seems to suggest that the Sabres were attempting to follow a Blackhawks-like model.
The other way to build a team, through depth, is a slower buildup, and not always a linear upward progression. The Lightning, now one of the East’s cup contenders, drafted Steven Stamkos in 2008, missed the playoffs for the next two seasons, made the conference finals the next year, then missed the playoffs two more times after that. And now they’ve made the playoffs three years in a row, mostly due to a long time accumulation of depth. They’ve survived injuries, they’ve survived losing Martin St. Louis, and they’re going to be fine this year with Stamkos suffering another long-term injury. Lightning GM Steve Yzerman has been on the job since 2010 building up the depth to its current level. Tim Murray hasn’t had the same amount of time to do that. I think he could’ve done more to this point – signed some high-upside fourth liners instead of trotting out, say, Nicolas DesLauriers on the opening night roster – but it’s not totally fair to expect so much so soon.
On the other side of the argument, we can also say: The return of Jack Eichel and Ryan O’Reilly from injury will have ripple effects on the team’s performance. Sam Reinhart, Kyle Okposo and Evander Kane are very good players, but none of them can carry a line the way that O’Reilly or Eichel can. With both of those players out, the offense is punchless. Some combination of Reinhart, Kane, Okposo and, well, Matt Moulson, makes up the ‘top’ line, and other teams can devote their best players to stopping that line, and know that the rest of the forwards are unlikely to hurt them. With O’Reilly in the lineup, it’s pretty much the same story – shut down his line, and the remainder won’t do too much. With Eichel back, however, the Sabres should have two full lines to worry opposing teams, which means other teams will have to metaphorically pick their poison – which line do we want to send our weaker defense pair out against? It also means that lines like the Foligno – Larsson – Gionta triumvirate get to play against weaker competition instead of shouldering top 6 responsiblities. Having a fully healthy Eichel and O’Reilly back should bump up the scoring to at least respectable levels.
(Same goes for the defensemen – I’m no huge fan of Bogosian, and the jury is still out on Kulikov, but having them in the lineup will make a fair difference over sending AHL call ups over the boards.)
These two issues are interconnected. The injuries expose the lack of depth, the lack of depth makes injuries harder to deal with. I think the depth issue is bigger than the injuries, but at the same time, we’re talking degrees of difference here – both can simultaneously be right. It’s annoying to have to stew and watch a bad, shorthanded team, but a fair bit of patience is in order. Rarely do teams become contenders overnight, without a hitch.
Any Sabres writer / radio host / etc. you see setting up a false binary narrative and arguing against egg avatar users on twitter is being lazy and reductive. Because it’s easy to make a simple argument and defend it; it projects confidence and deep hockey knowledge, as opposed to the above muddle of words. Beat writers and radio hosts have only a couple advantages over bloggers (analytic or otherwise): longevity and access. To hedge, to admit both sides, to not have a strong take or consistent narrative, is to deny the only thing that these people sell themselves on: a superior, unimpeachable knowledge compared to the common fan. Plenty of people can see through that, but it also works on a lot of people. So it’s easy for them to craft flimsy narratives and support them above all else, and good for their business. This is the state of sports media today; once you know that, it makes following your team a lot less infuriating. Your rule of thumb: any issue about your team can, and likely will be, due to multiple factors. Embrace the uncertainty, and embrace the nuance where you can find it.