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Offensive offense: No goals means no hope for Sabres

You can go through all kinds of reasons why the Buffalo Sabres are enduring another season headed to nowhere. Poor drafting, bad contracts, poor trades, negative impacts of tanking, transition of constant change at coach and general manager can all be cited.

But it's really very simple and has been for several years now.

The Sabres flat-out don't score nearly enough goals. And that is, after all, the whole point of hockey.

An article in Sunday's Boston Globe referred to the franchise as the "perpetually terrible Sabres" and it's hard to argue when you're talking about a club that hasn't made the playoffs since 2011 or won a single postseason series since 2007.

When you don't score, you're bad and you're boring.

The Sabres have an NHL-low 99 goals this season and are on pace to score 184. It would be the third-lowest total in franchise history, ahead of only the 2013-14 and 2014-15 tank seasons when the club scored just 150 and 153 goals, respectively.

A lack of scoring has been a trend for the Sabres since the 2013 lockout. Over the last five seasons, Buffalo has exactly 800 goals -- 62 fewer than any other NHL team. Its 5-on-5 total of 518 in that span is also last in the league, and only Arizona (577) and New Jersey (550) are even under 600.


Year       GF     Record
2013-14   150    21-51-10
2014-15    153    23-51-8
2017-18    184*  11-24-9
2002-03  190   27-37-18
2015-16    199    35-36-11
2016-17     199    33-37-12
1971-72     203   16-43-19
1998-99    207   37-28-17
1997-98     211   36-29-17
2001-02    213    35-35-12
1999-00    213    35-32-15
1970-71      217    24-39-15
* -- projected total


And it's not like this is a team bereft of goal scorers. Jason Pominville and Evander Kane are both former 30-goal men. Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart are former No. 2 overall draft picks, and Eichel is on pace for his first 30-goal season -- and the first by a Buffalo player since Pominville hit 30 in 2011-12. Kyle Okposo and Ryan O'Reilly have both scored at least 27 goals in an NHL campaign.

Speaking last week before his club went on the five-day bye portion of its schedule, coach Phil Housley said his club's status as the league's worst offensive club was a fate he never considered when the season began.

"If you would have asked me this question at the beginning of the season, I would have certainly disagreed with that," Housley said. "But where we are right now is where we are. We certainly can learn, try to find ways to score more goals. But the first thing for us is try to keep pucks out of our own net. When you do that, it seems the puck is on your stick, follows you around more. You're on the right side. You've got more possession because you're paying attention to detail coming back into your own end."

Housley wanted to play a five-man attack system, much like the Nashville Predators did last year when he was an assistant coach for the Western Conference champions. But the Sabres lacked the overall team speed and the puck control and skill from their defensemen to play that style. Too often, they've been unable to clear their zone because of poor passing skills and their goaltending has been spotty at times; starter Robin Lehner has struggled all year on the road while backup Chad Johnson has just one win overall after piling up 40 the last two years for the Sabres and Calgary.

It was Housley who raised eyebrows after Tuesday's 7-4 loss to Winnipeg when he said his team was "cheating" on the defensive side of the puck to create offense. It was bizarre to think that way, given the Sabres' lack of success at scoring, but players took the message to heart.

"I don't want to say that's the reason but maybe it's human nature to do it," said Eichel, who leads the club with 18 goals. "Obviously this season hasn't been the most productive offensively for our team. At times we've struggled to score goals. We've put ourselves behind in games and felt we needed to press and take chances and maybe not stick with the game plan.

"You see it in games like New Jersey (a 4-3 overtime win on Dec. 29) where even when we were down, we were playing the right way. Get pucks in deep, defend well and it turns out the right way. Maybe guys have been pressing with the fact we haven't scored a lot of goals and felt the need to do something we wouldn't regularly do."

Pominville is an alumnus of the Lindy Ruff era, when the Sabres were able to both score (308 goals by the 2006-07 Presidents' Trophy team) as well as defend (only 207 against the 2009-10 Northeast Division champions)

"We're not going to be a team to win games 7-5," said Pominville, who has nine goals on the season and just one in the last 15 games. "That's never going to happen. So we should stick to defending. You feel bad for our goalies at times because we let them hang out to dry at times and they have to bail us out. We have to defend if we want to win."

No offense, no 20-win season?

The lack of scoring is prevalent throughout games and in all situations. The Sabres hit their bye with an 11-24-9 record that leaves them on a 58-point pace. They're on pace for just 20 wins, which would be their fewest since winning only 16 games in 1971-72, their second year in the NHL. They won 21 and 23 games in the tank seasons.

In fact, the Sabres have a legitimate chance to become the first NHL team to fail to get to 20 wins since the 2001-02 Atlanta Thrashers finished 19-47-16. Atlanta won only 14 games in its 1999-2000 inaugural season and it's been since 1997-98 that a non-first year team went under 19 wins (Tampa Bay was 17-55-10).


(Since 1990, not counting first-year expansion teams)
Team                                Year          Record
Tampa Bay Lightning       1999-00   19-47-16
Atlanta Thrashers             2001-02   19-47-16
Tampa Bay Lightning       1998-99   19-54-9
Ottawa Senators                1995-96   18-59-5
Tampa Bay Lightning       1997-98   17-55-10
Quebec Nordiques             1990-91   16-50-14
Ottawa Senators                 1993-94    14-61-9
Quebec Nordiques             1989-90    12-61-7
San Jose Sharks                  1992-93    11-71-2


Study some of the numbers and it's easy to see why.

---The Sabres have only 65 goals in 5-on-5 play, a paltry average of 1.47 per game that ranks 29th in the league. They have 14 games where they have been held to one goal or blanked, and endured three straight shutouts in one stretch for the first time in franchise history.

---Their overall shooting percentage is a meager 7.3 percent, last in the league. In one of the highest-scoring seasons since the 2005 lockout, there are 10 teams shooting 10 percent or higher, and another 13 clubs at least shooting 8.5 pecent. The Sabres are 17th in the league in shots on goal, which could mean they're shooting in bad luck some. It also means they're not creating enough traffic in front of the net or getting shots from danger areas.

---The Sabres are last in the league on the power play in both goals (16) and percentage (12.9) after leading the NHL last year at 24.5 percent.

The power play has been a particular sore spot for this club, as an early run of short-handed goals against eroded its confidence and constantly created negative momentum in games. Buffalo has given up eight shorties, one off the NHL-worst total of nine yielded by the New York Islanders.

"It can be shooting percentages for sure but a lot of it in the 'PP' really is confidence," Pominville said. "That's a big thing. Those guys last year every time they were out there, they thought they were scoring. It's weird the way it goes. Last year they went out there thinking we're going to score. This year at the start we're going out thinking, 'Hopefully we don't give anything up and don't get scored on.' You can't do that on the power play."

---The Sabres have scored just 18 goals in the first period of their games -- and no other team in the league has scored fewer than 27 in any period. They've given up 40 in the opening 20 minutes, a key reason why they've led at the end of the first period a league-low eight times in 44 games.

---Buffalo is 2-3-3 when leading after the first period, a pathetic .250 winning percentage that's last in the league. How bad is that? There are 20 NHL teams who have at least 10 wins when leading after one and 29 teams who have a winning percentage of at least .600 in those spots. The outliers are Arizona (4-4-3, .364) and Buffalo.

---The Sabres have a 47.4 percent Corsi rating at 5-on-5 play, which is 26th in the league in the comparison of shot attempts to your opponents. They're last in the league at 41.68 when they're leading in a game, showing the tendency they have to sit back and desperately protect any advantage they get rather than to keep attacking.

---The 12 players who have manned the defense for the Sabres this year have combined for six goals and no one has more than two. It's a problem that has stretched for many years; the Sabres haven't had a defenseman hit double figures in goals since Jordan Leopold had 10 in the 2011-12 season, and not since Brian Campbell in 2005-06 has a Buffalo blueliner scored as many as 12 in a season.

Individual issues

You can look up and down the lineup and find players who are struggling. Okposo, in the second season of a seven-year, $42-million contract, and Reinhart both have only seven goals. O'Reilly, in year three of a deal that carries a $7.5 million cap hit, has only 11.

"Obviously I'm not where I want to be offensively at this point of the season," said Okposo. "I have to make sure that I'm really focusing on the defensive side and trying to play a completely 200-foot game. We all need to do that. Phil has definitely harped on that point this year and we need a 100-percent buy-in.

"I want to get back to an elite level and I know I can do it. This year has been pretty trying mentally and I know what I'm capable of."

Their issues have stood out the most but they're far from alone.

Eichel had an 18-game stretch where he tallied just three goals. Kane has one goal in the last nine games and only six in the last 24 games, after he scored 10 times in the season's first 18 games.

Pominville had four goals in the season's first four games -- and has just five goals in the last 40. Veteran Matt Moulson had no goals in 14 games before finally getting waived and loaned to Ontario of the AHL. The Sabres will undoubtedly buy out the final year of his contract in June.

Zemgus Girgensons has three goals in 39 games and Johan Larsson has just two in 44 games, with one of the goals an empty netter. There's been little help from Rochester either as Justin Bailey, Seth Griffith, Nick Baptiste, Kyle Criscuolo and Hudson Fasching have combined for just four goals while playing 42 games.

"You're going to have some years when the puck is not going into the net," Okposo said. "You have to keep working, keep grinding and trusting that it's going to turn. Over the course of a season, it should turn. We just have to believe that, keep working and try to steer the ship in the right direction."

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