Do you believe now?
Sports fans tend to be exceptionally polarizing people and that doesn’t lend itself well to early season analysis. The bad teams are quite bad, the good teams are quite good, and everyone in between is going to be fighting all season for a fringe playoff spot. Or so we tend to react.
But the win and loss column is always fickle this time of the year, especially in a sport where it takes nearly an entire regular season for skill to supersede luck. Remember the 2018-19 Buffalo Sabres? They had 10 points in the first nine games, and actually led the entire NHL through Thanksgiving. They followed that up by being the worst team in the NHL between Thanksgiving and the end of the regular season.
That team, although respectable early on in the standings, was quite vulnerable to a performance regression. Why? The Sabres had one incredibly productive line, but obvious depth issues further down the lineup. Through almost two months of the season, Buffalo rested their laurels on their top line staying hot, and the goaltending duo of Carter Hutton and Linus Ullmark continuing to stop shots at an exceptional rate. Absent that, the Sabres were still a team routinely out-shot and out-chanced, and had to offset a volume disadvantage by continuously converting on a high percentage of their opportunities (and, correspondingly, denying their opponent on a high percentage of their opportunities).
We know how that story ended. The goaltending had a dizzying collapse, and while the Jack Eichel and Jeff Skinner combination continued to make magic, the rest of the Sabres' lineup didn’t have much to offer. It’s hard to imagine anyone could have saw such a collapse in the crease, but the rest of Buffalo’s performance – or lack thereof – seemed fairly predictable.
That brings us to the 2019-20 season. Fans are tremendously excited about another hot start – 15 points in the first nine games of the season. Those points have already created daylight between other playoff hopefuls, but I think there is this innate fear that the season is going to take a turn for the worse.
I don’t expect Buffalo to sustain a 136-point pace, but the team’s underlying numbers are much more encouraging. In fact, the only Sabres teams that have looked similarly in recent history pretty much cover the three-year span between 2009 and 2011. In those three seasons, the Sabres made the playoffs twice and averaged 97 points per 82 games.
And what made them appear similar? They are the only teams in recent history that were winning the shot and territorial advantage.
I don’t think I need to remind Sabres fans that the team's last playoff appearance was in that 2010-11 season, and even the “disappointing” year in 2011-12 meant missing the postseason by just three points. Every other season has ranged from outright disappointment to “coming as close to intentionally losing as possible,” like whatever the heck the 2014-15 year was.
You might ask why I think that shot volume is a better lead indicator of future performance than the team’s win-loss record, especially over the same nine-game interval. And the answer is relatively simple – shot numbers are much more saturated in volume than goals for or against or wins and losses, and shot advantages tend to be very closely tied to the success of teams long term in the standings.
To that end, even nine games of shot numbers can be a strong predictor of a team’s future goal differential and associated standings record. In fact, it might be the best predictor we have.
So what’s the cause of the change in performance? What is driving Buffalo into the offensive zone, both for longer shifts at a time and more frequently in nature? I shared my thoughts last week, but the overhaul on the blue line – the obvious weak link in recent Sabres seasons – has been tremendously obvious. (We shouldn’t discount the impact Ralph Krueger might be having on this team, too.)
The point of all this? Be cautiously optimistic about the direction of this team. It might still be October, but we are starting to see contenders separate from pretenders. Some of them just don’t know it yet.