When he was younger and playing out west, Jamie McGinn noticed a difference between the NHL’s conferences and divisions.
Midway through his first year with the Sabres in the Atlantic Division, McGinn has noticed his new rivals are essentially the same as his old ones.
He’s also noticed Buffalo is behind them all.
The NHL is in its second season of placing increased importance on division standing, and the Sabres are last in the eight-team Atlantic Division.
The top three will make the playoffs, with as many as two more eligible to claim a wild-card spot.
Buffalo is 16 points behind division-leading Florida, 11 behind third-place Detroit and 10 behind fourth-place Boston, which holds the final wild-card position. The Sabres have lost four in a row heading into Tuesday’s home game against the streaking Panthers.
“We’ve done a lot of good things in the last little bit, but we just haven’t had the results,” McGinn said in First Niagara Center. “At the end of the day, we need to win hockey games. That’s all I care about, you know? But we’ll take the positives from each game, continue to work hard and be ready for each opponent.”
The Sabres will need to be ready for Florida, which has shown itself capable of maintaining the top spot in the division. Propelled by rejuvenated Roberto Luongo, ageless All-Star Jaromir Jagr and blossoming youngsters Jonathan Huberdeau, Vincent Trocheck and Aleksander Barkov, the Panthers won their ninth straight game Sunday.
Here’s a look at how the Sabres’ division rivals have fared this season:
• Florida: In addition to their current run, the Panthers also won five in a row last month. They started just 8-9-4 but have gone on a 15-3-0 hot streak since Thanksgiving.
The Panthers entered Sunday’s game with the fourth-best goal differential in the league, showing they can score and stop pucks. Luongo, who was run out of Vancouver, has embraced playing in the area where he makes his offseason home. He has the Panthers in place to make the playoffs for just the second time in 15 years.
“You go through a lot of pain and suffering when you’re rebuilding a team,” General Manager Dale Tallon told Florida reporters over the weekend after signing a contract extension. “It’s fun, and I’m happiest for the players, seeing their development curve and them buying in to what we’re doing.
“We’re all on the same page, pulling for and believing in each other.”
• Montreal: A 9-0 start has allowed them to stay near the top of the division despite the loss of goalie Carey Price. While the Canadiens are just 3-11 in the last 14 games, they are 10-3-1 in the division.
The Habs announced Sunday that forward Dale Weise is out for at least two weeks with an upper-body injury, so ailments could keep them skidding.
• Detroit: The Red Wings improved to 9-4-2 against Atlantic Division opponents with Saturday’s 4-3 victory over the Sabres. Buffalo fell to 5-7-1.
“It’s a big point swing for a team we’re trying to catch,” Sabres captain Brian Gionta said.
The Red Wings have been masters of gaining at least a point, going 14-3-7 in one-goal games.
• Boston: The streaky Bruins have had unbeaten runs of eight, seven and six games, but they’ve also lost three in a row three times. The Bruins are 9-6 in the division.
• Ottawa: Erik Karlsson is offering further proof he is the top offensive defenseman in the world. He headed into Sunday night’s game against Dallas with nine goals and 41 points in 38 games to lead the Senators. Ottawa is 6-6-2 against Atlantic Division opponents.
• Tampa Bay: It’s been a quick eviction from the Eastern Conference penthouse. The status of pending unrestricted free agent Steven Stamkos has had the organization in a state of disarray, and now part of the team’s future wants out.
It’s not often a 20-year-old forward drafted third overall becomes available on the trading block, but that’s what has happened in the case of Jonathan Drouin. Allan Walsh, the agent for Drouin, acknowledged Sunday he has asked the Lightning to trade his client.
Drouin put up 213 points in two junior seasons with Halifax, and the Lightning selected him behind Nathan MacKinnon and Aleskander Barkov in the 2013 NHL Draft.
The 5-foot-11, 188-pound winger recorded four goals and 32 points during a 70-game rookie campaign last year but appeared in just six playoff games for the Eastern Conference champions.
Drouin has two goals and eight points in 19 games this season. The Lightning assigned him to Syracuse of the American Hockey League on Saturday.
“On behalf of Jonathan Drouin, I formally requested a trade from the Tampa Bay Lightning back in November,” Walsh said in a statement. “We have not said one word about this untenable situation publicly until today. It’s in everyone’s best interests that Jonathan be allowed to move on and play hockey.”
Sabres General Manager Tim Murray has made it clear often that he is in the market for young players with NHL experience.
• Toronto: The Maple Leafs are three points ahead of the Sabres with two games in hand. Folks in Toronto have begun praising new coach Mike Babcock as the team has gone on a 7-2-2 run after an 8-13-5 start. They are the only Atlantic team that is winless in division games, going 0-4-5 so far.
“There’s definitely no easy two points out there,” McGinn said. “It’s a strong division. Teams have some skill and can put some pucks in the back of the net.
“It’s the best league in the world for a reason, and it’s really proving it. Each night is a new challenge.”