There must be times when it’s hard for teachers to hand out grades. For example, imagine the Buffalo Sabres as a student.
They’re a hard worker. They stay after for extra help on a daily basis. They’re well-behaved. They’ll even take out the recycling bin on their way to the bus.
Then the test comes and they get a 44 percent. What’s a grader to do?
Well, this is professional sports. Results matter. With that in mind, here are the midterm grades for the Sabres as they reach the All-Star Break. As a group, they aren’t pretty. Nor should they be for a 27th-place team that:
• Has been outscored, 94-69, while playing five on five.
• Ranks 28th in goal differential at minus-22.
• Is the NHL’s worst at home with a 9-15-2 record, dropping the overall mark to 20-26-4.
• Can’t score in the first period (25 goals) and gives up too many in the third (58).
Head of the class
Ryan O’Reilly: There’s little doubt who has the inside track for team valedictorian. O’Reilly not only leads the Sabres in most offensive categories, he’s in the league-wide conversation with 17 goals (29th in the NHL), 23 assists (45th), 40 points (24th), 17 power-play points (10th) and 21:52 of ice time per game (first among forwards). He’s taken the most faceoffs in the league (1,267) and won 57.1 percent, which ranks tied for seventh.
The All-Star center will be the first to say it hasn’t been all good. Despite his recognition as a two-way forward, his minus-16 rating ranks 794th in the NHL. That includes a minus-10 at home and minus-14 in January. He has yet to score in the first period. Still, he’s been the leader and mentor the Sabres needed. Grade: A.
Jack Eichel: He is the Sabres’ human highlight reel, with nearly every goal and assist being worthy of another look. There have been quite a few as Eichel ranks second among rookies in goals (16) and points (34). He’s been eager to assert himself, with his 150 shots ranking 21st among all skaters. He heads into the break on a hot streak with three goals and seven points in five games. He still has to learn the finer points of the game, as his 41 percent faceoff rate suggests, but he’s lived up to the hype. Grade: A-.
Rasmus Ristolainen: The 21-year-old has grown into the Sabres’ defensive workhorse, producing points (31) and irritating highly regarded opponents (Alex Ovechkin, Oliver Ekman-Larsson). He ranks in the top 15 among defensemen in goals (eight), assists (23), points, power-play points (14) and ice time (25:11). Still, only 11 players in the league have been on the ice for more five-on-five goals (35), according to PuckAlytics.com. Grade: A-.
Sam Reinhart: There was plenty of preseason talk that a year in Rochester would suit him well. Instead, the rookie has latched on to O’Reilly and become a reliable contributor. Reinhart, whose longest point drought is just four games, comes through when it matters. His three game-winning goals rank 41st in the NHL and his four power-play tallies are 52nd. He hasn’t has the wild home/away swings that others have had, with a minus-4 in Buffalo and a plus-2 on the road. Grade: A-.
Jamie McGinn: He’s on pace for 16 goals and 34 points, just off his career highs of 19 and 38. He’s been vital to the Sabres’ seventh-ranked power play with four goals, three assists and countless screens. McGinn has either played his way into a contract extension or onto a playoff team via trade. Grade: B+.
Mike Weber: The oft-bashed defenseman has actually been the best in his own zone. During his 449 minutes of five-on-five time, opponents have scored just 10 times, the lowest total on the Sabres among players with at least 20 games, according to PuckAlytics.com. His 11 minor penalties (and the timing of them) have been troublesome. Grade: C+.
Evander Kane: The Sabres’ No. 1 case where appearances and production don’t match. His 21:09 of ice time trails only O’Reilly among NHL forwards. He ranks fourth in the league with 3.9 shots per game, and his 2.9 hits per game rank 19th among forwards. Clearly, he’s noticeable. But Kane is 101st in goals (11), 315th in assists (eight), 219th in points (19) and 781st with a minus-13. He’s been on the ice for 13 five-on-five goals for and 28 against. On the positive side, six of his goals have either tied the game or put Buffalo in front. Grade: C+.
Chad Johnson: Expected to be the backup goaltender, Johnson was thrust into a starting role and proved capable with a .917 save percentage, including .954 in November and .923 in December. Grade: C+.
Josh Gorges: The award for biggest improvement goes to Gorges. He was minus-28 in 46 games last year. He’s minus-4 in 45 games this season. Grade: C+.
Zach Bogosian: No one helps create more (Bogosian’s goals-for per 60 minutes of five-on-five time is a team-high 2.09) and no defenseman helps allow more (his goals-against per 60 minutes is 3.13, according PuckAlytics.com). Grade: C.
Mark Pysyk: He is the Sabres’ leader in Corsi at 53.72 percent, according to War-On-Ice.com, but he has just one assist to show for it. Grade: C.
Cody Franson: He averaged six goals and 35 points the previous two seasons. He’s on pace for six goals and 22 points. Grade: C.
Jake McCabe: His goal differential while playing five-on-five is minus-14, worst among Buffalo defensemen. The rookie is on pace for five goals. Grade: C-.
Brian Gionta: Given his appearances on the top two lines and power play, it’s easy to forget the Sabres signed him more for his leadership than his production. Still, the 37-year-old is on pace for the worst statistical season of his career (10 goals, 16 assists, minus-18 rating) despite averaging 17:58 of ice time. Grade: C-.
Robin Lehner: The high-ankle sprain suffered in the season opener has limited him to just five starts. The goalie has an impressive .936 save percentage. Grade: Incomplete.
On the bubble
Zemgus Girgensons: This certainly isn’t the encore that fans had in mind. He’s on pace for eight goals and eight assists after recording 15 of each in just 61 games last year. On the plus side, he’s the Sabres’ best at preventing five-on-five goals with just 1.24 per 60 minutes, according to PuckAlytics.com. Grade: D+.
Nicolas Deslauriers: He provides what a fourth-line energy player should with nearly three hits per game. Those players aren’t supposed to create negative energy, though, and Deslauriers is on the ice for a team-worst 3.21 goals against per 60 minutes. Grade: D.
Marcus Foligno: He came into training camp healthy and eager for big things. He has just three goals. Grade: D.
David Legwand: The 35-year-old center is producing what was expected - not much. His three-goal total would be higher if he cashed in on breakaways. Grade: D.
Tyler Ennis: The oft-injured forward has experienced the biggest freefall on the Sabres. He’s played 349 minutes at even strength during his 23 games, and he has just one goal to show for it. Ennis’ inability to control the puck has led to costly turnovers. Even when he was on the ice for goals, they were wiped away by offsides review. Grade: F.
Johan Larsson: He looked like he’d figured out the NHL game with five goals and 13 points in the final 17 games last year. He has just one goal and four assists in 47 games. He’s a nonfactor. Grade: F.
Carlo Colaiacovo: The eighth blue-liner and regular scratch trails only Deslauriers and Bogosian for goals allowed per 60 minutes (3.05). Grade: F.
Last in the class
Matt Moulson: He hasn’t scored since the day after Halloween. The 37-game drought has featured long stretches with barely a chance at a goal. The 32-year-old is rarely engaged and usually appears uninterested. The only thing noticeable is his $25 million contract that has three more years on it. He’s playing as if he’s ready for retirement. Grade: F-.