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Mike Harrington: With season sliding away, Sabres are facing tough choices

As the Buffalo Sabres hit their bye week and the All-Star break, their season to date is in two distinct packages.

It's clear they weren't nearly as good as their 17-6-2 record over the first 25 games suggested. And they can't possibly be as bad as their 7-12-4 mark over the next 23 games would indicate either, even though it's the worst record in the NHL since the dramatic finale of their 10-game winning streak, the Nov. 27 overtime victory over San Jose.

Through 48 games, the Sabres are 24-18-6 according to NHL math. That's 24-24 to me. Taken in the context of last year's 25-57 (25-45-12), they're obviously progressing.

But taken in the context of what they put together to get this point, there's a gnawing question hanging over the franchise: When will the decision be made that it's time to win?

When they won 10 straight, the Sabres became the first team in NHL history to jump from last overall one season to first overall through 25 games of the next one. Are they going to fritter that away?

Only one team in history – the 2016-17 Philadelphia Flyers – has had a 10-game winning streak during a season and failed to make the playoffs that spring. Are the Sabres going to become No. 2? An improvement from 62 points to, say, 88 points that would have been notable in October will now be bitterly disappointing in April.

Enough about plans, progressions or processes. When you're ahead of schedule, the plan should change. You never know what the future holds.

•••

Top 5 since Nov. 28
(Through Sunday)
Team               W-L-O   Pts
Tampa Bay      20-3-1   41
Calgary           18-4-4   40
Winnipeg       18-7-0   36
N.Y. Islanders  17-6-2   36
Vegas               16-5-3  35

Bottom 5 since Nov. 28
(Through Sunday)
Team     W-L-O   Pts
Ottawa      9-13-2   20
Chicago     8-13-4   20
Colorado   8-12-4   20
Detroit      8-14-4   20
Buffalo      7-12-4    18

•••

This is a franchise with a roster that features nine first-round draft choices, including six taken by the Sabres. It's Year Four for Jack Eichel, five years since Sam Reinhart was drafted, six years since Rasmus Ristolainen was taken. You have a career year going for Jeff Skinner, whom you assume would want to re-sign but nothing is certain in that area.

It's clearly incumbent on General Manager Jason Botterill to make some moves here. Shore up the defense. Shore up the second line. Get C.J. Smith back in the NHL and tell Phil Housley to stop using him on the fourth line. Is Alex Nylander ever going to contribute in the NHL? The Sabres have spent a whole season developing Tage Thompson in the NHL, a bizarre strategy, while their former No. 8 overall pick continues to lag in the AHL.

Sure seems like another example of Botterill de-emphasizing one of Tim Murray's players while pushing one of the guys he traded Ryan O'Reilly to get. In his defense, Nylander  has hardly been a world beater in the AHL but how much longer do we have to watch Vladimir Sobotka contribute almost nothing on a nightly basis before Botterill & Co. try somebody else?

One ridiculous argument you'll hear in response is "they can't win the Stanley Cup this year so why do anything?" News flash here: Only perhaps seven or eight of the 31 teams probably have a legit chance to win the Cup. Does that mean everyone else should just go into a shell and not try to improve?

This team was first overall the last week of November. So we're all just going to say a 10-game winning streak was luck and the best record in the league over 25 games was luck? Fair enough. So is the worst record in the league over the next 23 games simply luck as well, with most of those overtime wins turning into losses?

How do you explain this Western Canada road trip, with a win over conference-leading Calgary sandwiched between losses at Edmonton and Vancouver? The Sabres outshot the Canucks, 39-23, and had more attempts, 70-40. But they lost, thanks mostly to terrible defensive coverage and turnovers. It was a bad loss as Vancouver had just 14 goals in its previous seven games. The kind of game you can't lose. Tap in after tap in. Just terrible work defensively.

Sabres plan to 're-energize' during long, challenging break

The view here is that it's critical the Sabres make the playoffs this year. They haven't been there since 2011 and if you ever have designs on them playing deep into a future spring, their key guys have to find out what it's like.

The playoffs are a completely different animal in terms of intensity, style, officiating, overtime strategy, media coverage. All of it. The Sabres' roster includes the two NHL players with the longest active careers having never made the postseason in Skinner (627 games) and Zach Bogosian (595).

And look at the career games total of some other Sabres who have never appeared in the postseason: Ristolainen (394), Zemgus Girgensons (389), Johan Larsson (300), Reinhart (297), Eichel (254), Jake McCabe (253).

That's pretty unbelievable to have eight players with more than 250 career games who have never appeared in the postseason on your roster. It's time for the Sabres to change that now. Not next season. Not in two years. Now.

You don't suddenly become a Stanley Cup contender without playoff experience (the 2012 Los Angeles Kings are merely an outlier to that point). Even a five-game first-round wipeout would be beneficial to the Sabres.

And here's a point to remember: If they claim the second wild card and end up in a first-round series with the Tampa Bay Lightning, that series may not automatically be a drubbing. In the three meetings so far, the Sabres have one win and lost the other two games despite leading both in the third period.

If the Sabres claim the first wild card to likely meet the Metropolitan Division champion, how intimidating would it be to play the New York Islanders? Or Columbus, a franchise that has never won a postseason series? Even defending Stanley Cup champion Washington, which looks like a mess of late with five straight losses, would have no gimme against the Sabres. The two meetings this year have both been decided by a goal.

The Sabres' penalty kill, faceoff and Corsi numbers are virtually identical from Games 1-25 as they are from Games 26-48. The Sabres have suffered offensively, especially on the power play, and the goaltending has dropped off precipitously. A lot of that is due to games like Friday night, when Linus Ullmark had no chance on three tap-ins, and because starter Carter Hutton hasn't been anywhere close to where he was in the season's first 25 games.

•••

 Stat                                          First 25 games             Next 23 games
Team record                              17-6-2 (.720)                     7-12-4 (.391)
Goals for                                        76 (3.04)                        61 (2.65)
Goals against                                 68 (2.72)                       75  (3.26)
Power play                                     19.8 percent                 13.6 percent
Penalty kill                                      81.9 percent               82.5 percent
Corsi (5 on 5)                                 49.1 percent                49.2 percent
Faceoffs                                           47.8 percent               48.9 percent
Hutton GAA/Save Pct.                  2.50/.920                    3.16/.898
Ullmark GAA/Save Pct.                 2.52/.926                    3.17/.907

•••

Then there's the seemingly daily driven-by-social-media question about Housley. It seems absurd to think the Sabres would fire another coach after two years, but Housley will bear heavy responsibility if this season continues to go down the drain. He's 49-63-18 in two years, and that's counting a 10-game winning streak. Is the system at fault or is it Botterill's roster construction?

Botterill certainly wants to harvest the four first-round picks he has over the next two seasons, but the Sabres are improving to the point that none of those players are likely to deliver any instant help because they will be taken too low in the round. At least one of the picks should be in play right now to upgrade this roster with an NHL player.

The Sabres' core is clearly defined, especially with the addition of Rasmus Dahlin. Go get a couple of veterans to fill out this forward group. Find another defenseman, so the world can be spared Housley's bizarre over reliance on Marco Scandella. His shot-blocking and penalty killing acumen have not been nearly enough to override his abominable defensive-zone play.

Botterill can't just let this season turn into nothing and then let Housley take all the blame. The trade deadline is just over a month away. Other teams are already making moves. Get to it.

Repeating: When are the Sabres going to decide it's time to win?

Blessing or curse? How Hall of Famers like Phil Housley fail or succeed as coaches

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