TAMPA -- Back in the fall, there were few experts locally or across North America who pegged the Buffalo Sabres as a playoff team. But virtually no one pegged them to fall off a cliff, either.
After the disappointment of last year's 78-point campaign and the much-ballyhooed hirings of coach Phil Housley and General Manager Jason Botterill, the most common consensus was that this team should improve. Reasonable expectations were a season of 85 to 90 points and contention for a playoff spot deep into the schedule.
That theory was debunked early. The Sabres won just six of their first 27 games and were out of the playoff race by the first week of December. After Saturday's 7-1 demolition at the hands of Dallas Stars, they were 11-26-9 and had spent several weeks in last place in the Eastern Conference.
Where did it all go wrong? And is that three-game sweep of the Western Canada road trip a fluky blip on the radar -- even the 2014-15 tank team had one 10-3 stretch -- or a sign some momentum can truly be built in these final 33 games?
Heading into the All-Star break, here's our look at a cross-section of topics surrounding this club:
What they expected: Housley would quell the locker room discontent over Dan Bylsma's hours-of-video and structured-system approach and provide the kind of five-man attack system he helped Peter Laviolette play in Nashville. The Hall of Famer would restore pride in the Blue and Gold to the level he felt during his eight seasons with the team as a player from 1982 to '90.
What they got: Square peg, meet round hole. Housley's system won't work well here until a more mobile defense corps is built, starting with next year's full-time promotion of Brendan Guhle. Special teams have been disasters. The team's fundamentals lag, with one national writer stunned at the bad passing and offside rushes during a recent morning skate in Madison Square Garden. Some of Housley's public pronouncements -- like "playing pretty good hockey" while being outshot, 10-1, last week by Dallas -- have been downright goofy, as if he's sensitive to throwing his team under the bus even it deserves to be.
Now what? Housley is a rookie head coach in the NHL. He's learning on the job. He will have to mold some new lineups as a result of the trade deadline. But there's no question he's worked hard behind the scenes and has to keep doing so. The Western road trip was all about players performing, but there's no question the coach had to make some strong appeals to their professional pride as well.
What they expected: Former Sabre Botterill came from Pittsburgh with plenty of credentials, looking to build a winner at the AHL level that would translate into something similar in the NHL and taking a patient approach that belied Tim Murray's fast-track rebuild.
What they got: Botterill got a gift at No. 8 in his first draft, taking World Juniors MVP Casey Mittelstadt after the college-bound Minnesotan somehow slipped out of the top four. He built a strong front office core, with assistant GM and former Ottawa boss Randy Sexton doing a super job producing a big winner in Rochester than has fans there thinking Calder Cup for first time since 1996. Botterill made a big summer trade, getting Marco Scandella and Jason Pominville for fan favorites Marcus Foligno and Tyler Ennis, and tried to inject some winning feeling in the room by acquiring former Stanley Cup champions Jordan Nolan and Scott Wilson. He hasn't gotten much from free-agent signees Benoit Pouliot and Jacob Josefson.
Now what? Feb. 26 is a huge judgment day for the rookie GM. How much does he get at the trade deadline for Evander Kane? What other picks and parts can he pick up? How does he retool this team over the summer? And can he get Mittelstadt to turn pro after one year at Minnesota? A lot of work ahead.
What they expected: Continued growth from the core, help from the bottom six and more contributions from the defense.
What they got: The league's worst offense averages 2.3 goals a game and has broken three goals just 12 times in 49 games. The team has been held to one goal 11 times and shut out in four other games. No defenseman scored a goal until December.
Now what? Nine goals in the last two games is a high-water mark for the season. The team's passing needs to continue to improve, both among the forwards and in the defense's attempts to move out of the zone. The team was shooting at an NHL-worst 7 percent deep into January, a figure that most people figured had to improve. Maybe the market correction has finally started.
What they expected: A free-skating unit that could join the play and provide much more offensive support from the blueline.
What they got: No goals until December and slipshod defensive coverage most of the season. The big news is that Rasmus Ristolainen has three goals, 19 assists and a new-found beast mode over the last month.He has all three of his goals and 13 of his 22 points over the last 12 games -- third in the NHL in that span. Nathan Beaulieu has been badgered by illness off the ice and brutal turnovers on it. Victor Antipin also missed several games with the flu and has yet to engender the confidence of the coaching staff. Marco Scandella is a heart-and-soul guy better suited for the second pair someday soon. Jake McCabe has been up and down. Zach Bogosian is hurt. Again. The Sabres announced Friday that he will need hip surgery and will miss the rest of the season.
Now what? Count down the days until October when Guhle can become a top-four guy on this blueline. Search for more NHL-level depth.
NHL defenseman scoring since Dec. 29
Name, team GP G-A-Pts
John Klingberg, DAL 12 2-15-17
Brent Burns, SJS 13 1-15-16
Rasmus Ristolainen, BUF 12 3-10-13
P.K. Subban, NSH 11 5-7-12
Marc-Eduoard Vlasic, SJS 13 5-6-11
Jake Gardiner, TOR 13 0-11-11
What they expected: In year three, it was reasonable to think the 21-year-old would become a point-a-game player and push toward the superstar level. Especially after signing his eight-year, $80-million extension on the eve of the season opener.
What they got: A middling start that reflected the team, followed by the best two months of Eichel's career that produced his first trip to the All-Star Game. Eichel's line in the sand seems to be the 5-1 loss Dec. 2 in Pittsburgh, the game that saw the Sabres score a goal for the first time in four games and break the longest shutout streak in franchise history. That night ended an 18-game stretch where Eichel had just three goals and six assists. Since then? Eichel has 29 points in 22 games (13-16-29) and is third in the NHL in scoring behind Colorado's Nathan MacKinnon (16-16-32) and Boston's Brad Marchand (12-19-31).
It gets even better if you start with the Dec. 15 overtime loss to Carolina, the night of Eichel's first career hat trick. In those 17 games, Eichel is tied with MacKinnon for the league lead with 25 points (12-13-25). Only Pittsburgh's Evgeni Malkin (14) has more goals.
NHL scoring leaders since Dec. 15
Name, team GP G-A-Pts
Jack Eichel, BUF 17 12-13-25
Nathan MacKinnon, COL 17 11-14-25
Evgeni Malkin, PIT 18 14-10-24
Brad Marchand, BOS 17 9-15-24
Mathew Barzal, BOS 18 8-15-23
Ryan Getzlaf, ANA 18 5-18-23
Sidney Crosby, PIT 18 4-19-23
Brent Burns, SJS 18 3-20-23
Claude Giroux, PHL 18 1-22-23
For the season, Eichel is right on target with 49 points in 49 games (20-29-49). He's tied for 19th in the NHL in scoring with Chicago's Patrick Kane and Philadelphia's Sean Couturier, and is one of 28 players at the break with 20 goals. In terms of points, he's in the high-rent district: Just six behind Sidney Crosby, five behind Connor McDavid, four behind Alex Ovechkin, three behind Malkin, two behind Anze Kopitar and one behind Marchand. He's one ahead of Taylor Hall, two up on Jamie Benn, three up on David Pastrnak and Vladmiir Tarasenko.
Now what? Keep scoring and keep improving on the two-way game that has come miles in the last month. Plus-minus ratings are going to be bad on a Buffalo team that doesn't score but it's still noteworthy that Eichel's minus-14 is the worst among any NHL forward in the top 60 in the league in scoring. And his Corsi percentage of 48.3 is just 278th in the league among forwards. A lot of that can be pointed to a defense corps that can't handle the puck but plenty of blame also goes to the way Eichel floated at times over the first 25 games or so. There's been none of that for weeks now. The Eichel of December and January is what everyone was agog over during the tank season.
What they expected: The Sabres were No. 1 in the league last year, added Pominville and brought in Housley, who drew raves from John Tortorella for the way he ran Team USA's power play at the 2016 World Cup. The PP figured to remain elite.
What they got: Assistant coach Bob Woods left for Minnesota and the power play looked lost under Housley and new associate coach Davis Payne. An early flurry of short-handed goals killed the unit's confidence and it started the season 2 for 22 before also enduring stretches of 2 for 28 and 0 for 30. Eichel still has only two power-play goals for the entire season.
Now what? Momentum is building. Finally. More speed, better passing and more accurate shots have produced a 7-for-18 turnaround the last five games. From last in the league at 12.9 percent, the rating is up to 26th at 16 percent. Fifteen NHL teams are at 20 percent or higher. Trending upward but more work to be done.
What they expected: A steady combo of starter Robin Lehner and backup Chad Johnson. Lehner was coming off a season with a .920 save percentage while Johnson had delivered 40 wins the last two years, 22 for the Sabres in 2015-16 and 18 last year in Calgary.
What they got: A 3.27 goals-against average and .899 save percentage tell a lot of the story. Riddled by a lack of goal support, Lehner leads the league with 18 losses but has still managed to put up a 2.87 GAA and .912 save percentage. At the turn of the new year, Lehner was leading the league in both figures at home. He's struggled much of the year on the road (3.27/.902 -- even with shutouts in the last two games). Johnson has just two wins, an October game in Anaheim and Monday's overtime win in Calgary. He doesn't give up many bad goals but simply hasn't made enough key saves.
Now what?: Keep watching Linus Ullmark's development in Rochester. Botterill took pains to protect him in the expansion draft and it's his net next season. Lehner would seem to be an interesting target for a playoff team looking for depth.
What they expected: In his third full-time NHL season, a solid 20-goal, 50-point season and consistent role in the top-six seemed like a good starting point.
What they got: Just 10 goals and 10 assists through 49 games. And that's with three goals and four assists in the last five games. Do the math: Through 44 games, Reinhart had just 13 points (7-6-13). He didn't have a point in the season's first five games and had stretches of 10 and 16 games with no goals. He was invisible on many nights and it's hard to believe Housley never healthy scratched him.
Now what? Like the entire team, is this a blip in the radar or has Reinhart embarked on a turnaround? Will it make him more attractive to other teams at the deadline or to Botterill on a bridge deal of two or three years? If he stays, Reinhart is one of the more interesting players to watch the progress of the rest of the way.
What they expected: In a contract year, a 30-goal season seemed reasonable. Once the season headed south and Kane continued to play well, a huge return at the trade deadline seemed in the offing.
What they got: Kane has 16 goals and 20 assists and, nearly as important, has stayed healthy and played in all 49 games. But his play has tailed off considerably in recent weeks, with just one goal in the last 14 games and just one point in the last nine. Kane's minutes have dropped and he's now on the third line with Larsson and Pominville. If the Sabres wanted to pump his value at the deadline, this isn't the way to do it. And is Kane holding back to prevent injury?
Now what? The trade return awaits and you wonder if Botterill should pull the trigger sooner rather than later to avoid injury and a continued drop in Kane's value. The rumors he's unpopular in certain segments of the locker room persist, with Justin Falk's use of the word "selfish" during their recent practice dustup a continued flashpoint. The real item to watch is to see which team ponies up for Kane, and for how long, in free agency come July.
Kyle Okposo/Ryan O'Reilly
What they expected: For a combined cap hit of $13.5 million, you had to pencil this duo down for 50 goals. They needed to produce on the power play. And O'Reilly had to continue to develop as one of the league's top two-way centers.
What they got: O'Reilly has 13 goals, 33 points and has led the league in faceoff percentage (61.4) and faceoffs won (707) for most of the season. But he had just two goals in 21 games at one stretch and is minus-12 for the season. He simply hasn't been good enough at either end of the ice for the money he makes. Okposo, coming off the serious neurological scare he had last spring, didn't get a goal for the first 11 games and is now at nine. Okposo has three goals and seven assists in the last seven games and has thrived on Eichel's wing.
Now what? People who want to offload either of these contracts will be sorely disappointed. Okposo has a no-movement clause and it seems preposterous to think another team would take O'Reilly's deal off Buffalo's hands. These two guys need to be core players if this team has any chance. The coaching staff seemed to think, and most observers agreed, that Okposo was too slow to play with Eichel and didn't put him there at all until a couple of weeks ago. Okposo is proving everyone wrong, easily playing his best hockey in his two seasons with the Sabres. O'Reilly had two goals in Edmonton, his first multi-goal game since October. More please.
What they expected: Reasonable contributions from returnees and newcomers to augment what they hoped would be big years from Eichel, Kane, O'Reilly, Reinhart and Okposo.
What they got: Pominville has nine goals -- but only three since Halloween. Larsson has three goals and two are into empty nets. Pouliot had six goals on Nov. 14, only has three since and keeps taking a seat in the press box. Zemgus Girgensons has four goals in 44 games. Evan Rodrigues has two goals in 21 games. Jordan Nolan has two goals and both were in the same game. No one from Rochester has made an impact.
Now what? Botterill brought in Scott Wilson from Pittsburgh and he is a growing presence in the room and on the second line. He would be a quality third- or fourth-liner on a good team as he was last season. The GM has to keep retooling this area in the offseason. Whether it's C.J. Smith, Nick Baptiste, veterans from the outside or a big training camp in the fall from Alexander Nylander, the depth at forward is a major issue heading into 2018-19.
What they expected: The Sabres were looking to take a big jump forward in this area after last year's 20-15-6 mark in KeyBank Center -- their first 20-win season at home since 2011-12. You have to win at home to have any chance at the postseason: There are 10 teams that hit the break with at least 16 wins in their own rink. The Sabres, of course, have just 14 wins overall.
What they got: An utter disaster. The Sabres are 6-12-3, tied with Arizona for the fewest home wins in the league (the figure counts the overtime loss in Citi Field, which was considered a home game). They're on pace to challenge the worst home mark in franchise history, the 11-19-9 mark set by the second-year squad of 1971-72. They've been outscored, 68-44, been shut out or held to one goal seven times and have 10 fewer goals at home than any other team in the league. The 7-1 disaster against Dallas was one of the worst performances at home in franchise history.
Now what? There's plenty of chances to fix this, with an incredible 20 home games still to play. A five-game homestand begins Tuesday night against New Jersey. A six-gamer runs March 10-23 and opens with a four-game juggernaut of Vegas, Toronto, Chicago and Nashville. The final five home games in February are brutal (Colorado, Tampa Bay, Los Angeles, Washington, Boston).
The road trip can't be frittered away by laying an egg Tuesday against the struggling Devils -- who are just 2-7-3 in their last 12 games and have scored only three goals in dropping their last four in a row. A lot of the public's ticket-buying decisions for next season and beyond could be impacted with improvement in these 20 games.