Jack Eichel won't be able to completely unplug from hockey during the break. The star center will represent the Buffalo Sabres at All-Star festivities this week in St. Louis.
The Hart Trophy buzz will make Eichel a hot topic during media day, and he'll likely compete in the fastest skater competition. His remarkable play before the break, including 28 goals, has Buffalo in the playoff mix through 49 games.
While he's been the catalyst for change in Buffalo, a number of factors have contributed to the Sabres' improved play this season. With that in mind, here are 20 thoughts and observations from the first half.
1. Ralph Krueger has fixed the Sabres' game at 5-on-5, an area in which they had a negative-31 goal differential last season. Buffalo has a plus-3 5-on-5 goal differential through 49 games. According to NaturalStattrick.com, the Sabres have allowed 69 fewer high-danger scoring chances compared to its first 49 games of 2018-19.
The turnaround is impressive considering they've received only 11 goals from Jeff Skinner, who is among the league's top 5-on-5 goal scorers since he was drafted in 2010.
2. Defensive-zone structure has been the difference. Krueger's concepts have the Sabres allowing fewer odd-man rushes and breakaways. The system allows more room for error, so a teammate is often in position to help when there's an individual breakdown. Most mistakes you're seeing are minor details such as stick positioning or not getting into a shooting lane.
"I’m really happy with the commitment of the guys to play without the puck and to really work together as a group," Krueger said. "Of course, every team will create chances as we do, no matter how you play. For us, it’s not the habits now or the team concept that’s in doubt. It’s, once in a while, details. ... We’re going to get some good players back after the break, and if we can continue to build on the defensive game with the added firepower that’s coming back at us we should be excited about what’s ahead."
3. Skinner has resumed skating and could return following the break. The Sabres' first game is Jan. 28 at home against Ottawa. Victor Olofsson, meanwhile, is still in a walking boot, though he's not worn it during off-ice workouts.
4. The power play is no longer predictable. The Sabres' puck movement has improved, and Rasmus Ristolainen has brought a physical element to the net-front. Imagine the damage they could do once Olofsson returns. He has a team-high 14 power-play goals this season.
The Sabres will need improved special teams to make a playoff push.
5. Eichel has become a superstar. The 23-year-old captain is now using his speed and stickhandling to take over games. He's already matched his previous career high in goals and has 62 points through 48 games. This isn't his prime, either. Imagine what his game could look like a few years from now.
6. Sam Reinhart is making himself a lot of money. The Sabres will likely need to offer the pending restricted free agent a lucrative long-term contract extension. He's on pace to set career highs in goals and points. More impressive, Reinhart has evolved into a responsible defensive player.
7. The Sabres have a possible No. 1 goalie. Linus Ullmark had a .932 save percentage while winning five of his final seven starts before the break. He's six games away from matching his previous career high in games played (37) and has a .914 save percentage this season. Ullmark tends to make his job more difficult than it needs to be by venturing out of the crease, but he's giving Buffalo a chance to win every game.
"When Linus breaks down it’s on the aggressive nature," former NHL goalie Martin Biron, an analyst for MSG, said. "That’s a positive. I would much rather have a guy that breaks down being overaggressive than a guy that breaks down being too safe and too passive and too comfortable. At least he’s doing it in an aggressive way, in a winning way as opposed to a losing way."
8. Remember all the talk about Rasmus Dahlin having a sophomore slump? Well, he's been outstanding since returning from a concussion, and his .682 points per game is on pace for the best mark by a Sabres defenseman since Brian Campbell (.683) in 2007-08.
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9. The Sabres finally have an identity. How would you describe what they were trying to do last season? I'm not sure I could put it into words. They struggled to forecheck and were a disaster defensively.
Buffalo's win Thursday in Dallas showed the formula it needs to follow to win a game when Eichel is not at his best. The break came at a perfect time. The chaotic schedule seemed to take a toll on players.
"Our schedule, I don’t think I’ve ever had one like this in my time here," Jake McCabe said. "It was a tough first 50 games. We put ourselves in a spot to be playing meaningful hockey games and be in the mix at the end of the year here. It’s time to recharge the batteries, step away from the game a little bit, clear our heads and come back ready to go."
10. The Sabres need Casey Mittelstadt to make an impact in the season's second half. The cap situation might make it difficult for General Manager Jason Botterill to make a significant trade. Mittelstadt, 21, has the tools to be the top-six goal scorer Buffalo needs.
Although Mittelstadt entered Sunday with just four goals among seven points and a minus-8 rating in 13 games with Rochester, he has shown progress with and without the puck.
"You can see his game is coming. His confidence is coming back with the puck," Sabres assistant general manager Randy Sexton said last week. "His play away from the puck has continued to improve steadily, with some of the finer points. His faceoff numbers are good. ... He’s continuing to work on that. (Coach Chris Taylor) has him killing penalties, which will help round out his understanding of the defensive side of the game and will translate to the offensive piece. Everything we wanted to do is being worked on from a coaching perspective. He’s thrown his heart into doing it and doing it the right way. We’re very pleased with where his game is at."
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— Rochester Americans (@AmerksHockey) January 18, 2020
11. Acquiring Henri Jokiharju is among Botterill's best moves since coming to Buffalo. Jokiharju, 20, solves pressure on breakouts as well as any young defenseman in the NHL, and he has earned Krueger's trust with consistent play in the defensive zone.
The Sabres' 50.57% shot differential with Jokiharju on the ice ranks first among all defensemen on the roster and fourth among qualifying Buffalo players. He's the type of player the Sabres should build around.
"He’s a very, very proud player, but his skill set, right off the hop, and his ability to bypass pressure with the puck and his ability to solve pressure when the bodies are up on him is elite," Krueger said of Jokiharju. "That was evident right from the start."
12. Nine of the Sabres' first 10 games out of the break are in KeyBank Center. The stretch includes home games against Ottawa, Montreal, Columbus, Anaheim and two meetings with Detroit. Of those teams, only the Blue Jackets currently occupy a playoff spot.
13. Zach Bogosian shouldn't be playing over Colin Miller. In addition to reportedly requesting a trade, Bogosian struggles to defend around the net and has been prone to turnovers. He's not going to be with the Sabres next season and his play away from the puck has been a liability.
That said, Miller needs to be more consistent when given the opportunity. His double-minor last Tuesday against Vegas led to him being scratched in Dallas and Nashville, his 15th and 16th games in the press box this season. Like Mittelstadt, a rejuvenated Miller would improve the Sabres' chances in the second half.
14. Lawrence Pilut is an NHL defenseman. Don't worry about him being sent to Rochester on Sunday. The move allows Pilut to play at least three games with the Amerks and participate in the AHL All-Star Classic.
Pilut has shown he can help the Sabres now. Despite some revisionist history by fans, Pilut struggled last season when pressured on breakouts and while battling for the puck in the defensive zone. Those issues continued upon his return to Rochester. An offseason of training and a better structure in Buffalo has helped him flourish in six games with the Sabres. He should be back after the break.
15. Michael Frolik has been noticeable in each of his first six games with Buffalo. The 31-year-old has an empty-net goal and an assist while averaging 14:45 of ice time, almost three minutes more than he was playing with Calgary. Frolik has whiffed on a few scoring opportunities, but he has 16 shots on goal and should benefit from more practice time following the break.
16. The Sabres finally have impactful checking-line players. Remember when Phil Housley spoke repeatedly last season about Buffalo needing to be more difficult to play against? The Sabres' forwards are finally playing some heavy hockey.
Kyle Okposo, Johan Larsson and Zemgus Girgensons use their tenacity to wear down opponents. Curtis Lazar has also been a physical presence since rejoining the team last month. Give Krueger credit for how he's handling role players. They're rewarded with more ice time if they're performing well. The culture creates a healthy internal competition.
"There’s definitely coaches that have a good pulse on the game and some coaches their pulse on the game isn’t as good," Okposo said. "Ralph’s is pretty exceptional. If you’re playing well, if you’re going, he’s going to put you on the ice. That’s definitely something that’s welcomed as players."
17. Rasmus Asplund will benefit from going to Rochester this week. The 22-year-old forward was scratched in three of four games before the break. His role has decreased on the penalty kill since Frolik's arrival, and he struggled to make an impact when playing with Eichel. Asplund may remain with the Amerks after the break since Skinner could return. Don't worry about Asplund, though. He's not far from being a full-time NHL player.
18. The Sabres were wise to not give up on Ristolainen. In addition to his improved play on the ice, he's become a mentor to Jokiharju. Ristolainen is responding to Krueger's message and made necessary changes in the offseason. The 25-year-old defenseman also seems to be enjoying himself more. It's amazing what performing well can do for a player's psyche.
"He's been really great for me since I got here," Jokiharju said of Ristolainen. "He's played like 500 games in this league and has taught me a lot, like not dwelling on a mistake. You have to move past it quickly."
19. It’s impressive to see how Eichel and Reinhart, among others, are reacting to losses compared to last season. There never seems to be a sense of panic in the dressing room. The historic second-half collapse under Housley has the Sabres determined to make a playoff push. There's a healthy amount of urgency.
20. Marcus Johansson needs to start making more of an impact offensively. He has one goal in his last 19 games and entered the break with zero points in his last six games. Skinner’s return should help.
Story topics: Buffalo Sabres