Many so-called National Hockey League experts have been surprised by the early-season success of the Buffalo Sabres.
NBCSN and NBC hockey analyst Pierre McGuire isn’t one of them.
In the preseason, McGuire pretty much predicted the turnaround.
Consider this McGuire statement before the Sabres played a preseason game in Clinton: "The one thing that is exciting about Buffalo is they should be one of the bigger turnaround stories this year," he said. "I really think they have a chance to have a very good season. Rasmus Dahlin (No. 1 pick in 2018 NHL Draft) is going to be must-see TV. Jack Eichel should have a banner season for them … There's a lot of things to like about the Sabres. I think they can be a playoff team this year."
McGuire will be alongside NBCSN play-by-play man Kenny Albert in KeyBank Center at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday to call the Buffalo game with the Toronto Maple Leafs. The Sabres are looking to snap their three-game losing streak and can make McGuire's preseason prediction look good again.
In a telephone interview Monday afternoon, he acknowledged it won’t be an easy game for Buffalo since they played at Nashville Monday night in the third game of a road trip while the Leafs were here waiting for them. And he put some of the onus on Sabres fans, whose season ticket-holders often sell so many Toronto games to Leafs fans that KeyBank Center can seem like a neutral site or even a Toronto home game.
“The start is really critical,” said McGuire. “If the Sabres get off to a good start and the fans get behind them early, that is going to be critical. So the seventh man matters. That speaks to your point about ticket sales. If Sabre fans fill the building, I think it is really going to be an asset for them as long as the players have a good start. If they have a tough start, I think fatigue settles in a little bit more. And that is going to be the thing to watch. I think it is going to be a really good hockey game, and a fun game and I am sure Sabre players are really excited about the opportunity to play this game.”
McGuire doesn’t believe the Sabres have exceeded his preseason expectations and commends General Manager Jason Botterill and his staff for changing the culture of last year’s last-place team.
“No, I think I was one of the people – pardon the pun – that was very bullish on Buffalo,” he said. “I just love the way (coach) Phil Housley carries himself. I like some of the cleansing they did with their dressing room in the off-season. I love the character they brought in with Carter Hutton, Patrik Berglund. I’ve known Marco Scandella forever. He’s a pure character guy. They’ve got people that are coachable, valuable and really care. That’s one of the ways of turning a franchise around really quick.”
But did he think they would be this good? After all, they are third, behind only Tampa Bay and Toronto, in the 16-team Eastern Conference.
“I thought they would be battling for a playoff position,” said McGuire. “And that is basically what they are doing. It doesn’t surprise me.”
That is in no small part because of the play of goaltender Carter Hutton, who McGuire believes was “very underappreciated” during his career.
“You can see how the players rally around him and the timely goaltending," McGuire said. “He’s one of the guys who really makes a difference. Then you look at the leadership quotient of the team. I think now Jack Eichel is getting his opportunity to put his stamp on the team, which is really important. I thought they’d be what they are right now.”
This isn’t to say McGuire doesn’t think it is time for Sabre fans to get too giddy because there are some potential pitfalls down the road.
“There is a long way to go,” he said. “They’ve put themselves in a really good position. I think it is tremendous. There are peaks and valleys in every NHL season. This league is really tough. It can humble you in a hurry. I think the Sabres have put themselves in a magnificent position.”
One potential issue is injuries, which recently surfaced.
“They can’t afford a lot of injuries obviously because they are still an evolving team,” said McGuire. “If they do have injuries, it can’t obviously be the higher-end players.”
However, he thinks things are going well down in the farm with the Rochester Amerks to provide the depth the Sabres will need in the future.
“That is one of the things that is going to help them long-term,” said McGuire. “But right now, I just don’t know if there is enough internal depth to get them through a major injury crisis. Hopefully, that doesn’t happen. But I do think based on everything staying status quo and not having a lot of injuries, they should be able to maintain the position they are in. At least a playoff position as long as they don’t have a rash of injuries.”
He has been impressed with the play of the Sabres and the NHL’s top draft choice, Rasmus Dahlin, and the Sabres prized acquisition Jeff Skinner.
“I think Dahlin is what most 18-year-old defensemen are,” said McGuire. “Some nights he is excellent and some nights he is not as good. But I think he is tremendous. He invigorated this franchise. You can just see once he was drafted the energy around the group. The biggest thing for him is you can just see the potential for growth in his game. It is phenomenal. Phenomenal. I personally think he is a generational-type defenseman.”
“Skinner couldn’t wait to play in this situation. Where he is right now is a little bit of a surprise in scoring. But I thought he could get 20 to 30 goals. Obviously, he has exceeded those expectations. Skinner has always been a great pure offensive player. You put him with a brilliant player like Eichel and I think Reinhart has really started to evolve. He looks so much more comfortable on the wing. You put it all together, that is the making of a very solid threesome.”
He calls the Sabres much-watch TV this season, along with the Colorado Avalanche.
“I’m so pumped to be in Buffalo,” said McGuire. “I haven’t been here for a meaningful game for a very long time. And this is a meaningful game against two really good teams.”
Ratings Time: The Sabres' last appearance on NBCSN, a 5-2 win over Philadelphia, had a 13.8 rating in Buffalo. Nationally, it drew 290,000 viewers, which translates to a 0.17 rating. The NBCSN telecast was blacked out in Philadelphia. As low as that national rating is, it was up 25 percent from a comparable game in a blacked out market. The Sabres' ratings on MSG remain solid but not as strong as they were during their 10-game winning streak. The 3-2 overtime loss to Florida Friday night had an 11.2 rating, The Sabres' 2-1 loss to Nashville Monday night had a 10.4 rating. To put in perspective how impressive the ratings are, only four nonsports prime-time entertainment programs on broadcast television during the November sweeps had a live double-digit rating in Western New York.