The Buffalo Sabres were one point out of the NHL playoffs this season. That’s not much consolation to a Sabres’ fan base that hasn’t seen a Buffalo playoff game since 2011.
But the Sabres, boasting a team of improving younger players, should be able to find a way to pick up one extra win this season.
It doesn’t seem like much to ask.
Here are five steps the Sabres should take to improve their chances of qualifying for the postseason next season:
Sign or Trade For Veteran Goalie
Some fans seem comfortable with the idea of Buffalo going with a Devon Levi/Ukko-Pekka Luukkonon tandem. Talented youngsters to be sure. But 21-year-old Levi has played seven NHL games and Luukkonen’s grand total is 46 NHL games.
Given the importance of making the playoffs, the safer short-term move probably is bringing in a veteran to work with Levi.
That doesn’t mean they have to chase a Connor Hellebuyck trade. That will require giving up assets. Doesn’t seem wise given he only has one season left on his contract. They could pursue a free agent such as Semyon Varlamov, or Cam Talbot, or one of the other older free agents with experience on their resume.
And signing a veteran doesn’t removeLuukkonen. Given the likelihood of goalie injuries, the team probably will need three netminders.
Acquire A Right-Shot Top 4 Defenseman
The Sabres are building an impressive defense, but they aren’t there yet. They need a proven right-shot defenseman to play in their top four.
A player like pending New York Islanders unrestricted free agent Scott Mayfield would be ideal. He’s 6-foot-4, defensive minded and blocked 168 shots this season.
Other right-shot D Men include Matt Dumba, Damon Severson, John Klingberg and Radko Gudas.
Improve Penalty Killing
The Sabres’ 73% penalty kill efficiency ranked 28th out of 32 NHL teams this season. This needs to be a priority: no team ranked in the bottom eight in penalty killing made the playoffs this season.
Fourteen teams had a penalty killing effectiveness of 80% or higher. The Boston Bruins and Carolina Hurricanes were the top two penalty-killing teams in the NHL and finished No. 1 and No. 2 in the NHL overall standings. The Devils were No. 4 in penalty killing and they were No. 3 in the overall standings.
Penalty-killing matters. How do the Sabres fix it? Might just need a different penalty kill strategy or maybe it involves changing personnel already on the roster. But it might require signing a veteran with a history of being a strong penalty killer. Quality penalty killing can be as much about attitude as anything else.
Create Winning Culture
Qualifying for the playoffs is so important to this organization that it might serve general manager Kevyn Adams to bring in some players with a pile of playoff games or a championship on their resume
The Sabres have salary cap room (just under $17 million, according to CapFriendly.com) with 21 players already signed.
Should the Sabres attempt to persuade a bigger name UFA, such as Alex Killorn, to bring his ability and championship rings to Buffalo to play in their top six? Or, maybe they simply trade for some playoff style players. Several high-caliber teams need to shed some salary.
Complete Buy-in to Tighter Defense
It doesn’t matter who plays in goal if their team doesn’t clean-up their defensive play. They ranked 28th when it came to surrendering high danger scoring chances (HDCA). The Sabres surrendered 888 chances. That’s an average of 10.8.
High danger chances are those given up in the “home plate” area in front of the goal crease.
That’s not all on the defense. There has to be total buy-in from both forwards and defensemen.
Of the 17 teams that gave up the highest number of high danger scoring chances, 15 of them missed the playoffs. The game is still about defense.