There are the playoff races and there is the other race that makes for a bizarre side journey to this NHL season.
It’s the “McEichel Derby,” the run for the top spots in the draft lottery and the best chances to take superstars-in-waiting Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel come June 26 in Sunrise, Fla.
Many Sabres fans obviously think that should be the focal point of the season. Coach Ted Nolan and his players clearly don’t agree, as their recent 10-3 spurt shows.
Still, the Sabres hit the holiday break in 27th place overall in the NHL and dealing with a depleted lineup.
The problem for Buffalo fans is that the three teams below the Sabres (Arizona, Carolina and Edmonton) all have major weaknesses and seemed destined to be near the bottom of the standings the rest of the way as well.
Look for the McEichel hype to really ramp up now that the World Junior Championships are starting on Friday. McDavid and Team Canada plays its opener Friday at 8 in Montreal against Slovakia while Eichel-led Team USA begins its tournament Friday at 3 in Montreal against Finland.
McDavid is healthy after missing the last month of his Ontario Hockey League season for the Erie Otters with a broken bone in his hand suffered in a fight.
In 18 games before his injury, McDavid racked up 51 points for Erie (16 goals, 35 assists). Eichel, meanwhile, leads the NCAA in scoring with 27 points (8 goals, 19 assists) in 16 games of his freshman season for BU.
So where might their NHL futures lie? Here’s a look at the candidates:
• Edmonton (30th, 7-21-7, 21 points): The Oilers are a complete disaster, with years of iffy drafting and shuffles behind the bench that claimed Dallas Eakins this year. The Oilers have the worst goaltending in the league by both goals-against average (3.36) and save percentage (.885) and will never get out of the bottom if they can’t figure out how to win against Western Conference foes.
After Tuesday’s 5-1 loss to Phoenix, the Oilers are 1-17-6 against the West. Only a 2-1 win Dec. 7 against San Jose stands between them and a 20-game winless streak. The Oilers also have an NHL-low two road wins, Nov. 7 in Buffalo and Nov. 9 at the New York Rangers, and are 2-9-5 away from home.
• Carolina (29th, 10-20-4, 24 points): Oddly enough, the Hurricanes became instant McEichel candidates on the September night when Jordan Staal broke his leg during a preseason game in Buffalo. Stahl hopes to be back before the new year, a big boost for an offense with just 69 goals in 34 games.
• Arizona (28th, 12-18-4, 28 points): Goaltender Mike Smith (3.48, .884) can’t stay out of his own way on an Arizona team that’s 2-6-1 in December and could be looking to trade several assets. The Coyotes went 5-0 against Edmonton this year – and are just 7-18-4 against everybody else. Wouldn’t it be the ultimate troll of Sabres fans if new Coyotes assistant GM Darcy Regier got to reap the benefit of a high pick over the team he openly tried to tank with last season?
• Buffalo (27th, 13-19-3, 29 points): The play in net of Jhonas Enroth and Michal Neuvirth has slipped some lately, but the Sabres are still 18th in overall save percentage at .909. And they have better marquee defensemen than the other teams at the bottom. Since starting the season 3-13-2, Buffalo is 10-6-1.
The Sabres will certainly make some trades as the season progresses and it will be interesting to see how that shakes up the roster. And they will be in McEichel territory if they don’t figure out their atrocious special teams. The Sabres continue to be dead last on the power play (9.2 percent) and slipped to 26th on the penalty kill (76.2 percent) after giving up four power-play goals Tuesday in Detroit.
• New Jersey (26th, 12-17-7, 31 points): It’s hard to judge the Devils because they’re 2-19 in shootouts the last two years. They’re 2-6 in them this year and that’s just one problem. There are injuries, the offense is far too silent and they’re last in the league at home with just four wins (even Edmonton has five). The players don’t want coach Peter DeBoer fired but you wonder if GM Lou Lamoriello will run out of patience. Or if he might just do a reset and go for the bottom.
• Columbus (25th, 14-16-3, 31 points): The Blue Jackets were decimated by injuries and seemed a good McEichel candidate when they lost nine straight and 15 of 17 at one stretch. Then goalie Sergei Bobrovsky got Enroth-level hot and they won seven straight. Now center Boone Jenner is out a month or two with back fractures. You wonder if that 8-1-1 December record is about to go South fast.
As per the league’s collective bargaining agreement, the Sabres are off Dec. 24-26 and won’t return until Saturday’s morning skate in advance of the game that night against the New York Islanders in First Niagara Center.
Joel Armia, Mikhail Grigorenko, Tim Schaller and Mark Pysyk were all returned to Rochester on Wednesday for the Amerks’ post-Christmas return game Friday against Lake Erie in Blue Cross Arena.
The Sabres should have Matt Moulson and Mike Weber back for Saturday, with Tyler Myers and Cody McCormick also possible.
Of the Rochester players on the ice Tuesday in Detroit, only Johan Larsson remains on the Buffalo roster. Of course, any of them could be quickly summoned back for Saturday if needed.