Holding tight to 7th place in the Atlantic Division most of the season, labeling the Buffalo Sabres performance to this point “disappointing” might be an understatement. This was a team that was the favorite breakout candidate among many analysts after missing the playoffs last season by a measly point.
The goal scoring is down. The goaltending’s been a rollercoaster. There’s questions regarding the deployment of some of the team’s blueliners. Fixing these issues is an article for another time, but Buffalo’s 32 points in 36 games puts them on a 73-point pace. Needless to say, that’s not going to cut it.
The predictive model I’ve built for PuckLuck.com helps provide some insight on where the team stands going forward, and what has to happen to get themselves back into the playoff race.
Projecting the Sabres
The thing about underperforming is that there’s bound to be regression to the mean. In this case regression is a positive thing, as the Sabres aren’t nearly as bad as they’ve been playing per the model. Yes, perhaps last season included a bit of shooting luck, but with forward Jack Quinn back in the fold and Don Granato starting to open up the system a bit the Sabres should return to a 90-point pace.
Now that pace is only projected going forward, which means the slow start has likely cost them a chance at reaching 90 points. Still, that’s 51 points over the remaining 46 games, which is respectable. Add that to the 32 points already accounted for, and the team’s projected season-ending number is 83.
Projecting the Atlantic
The Atlantic Division has been considered one of the league’s toughest in recent years, but the parity this season makes playoff hopes more of a reality. A torrid pace for the division-leading Boston Bruins is starting to slow. They’re projected for 109 points and a comfortable first place.
It gets interesting for the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Florida Panthers, who should battle it out for seeding but both finish around the 99 point mark.
In fourth looks to be the Tampa Bay Lightning at 93 points. If you recall, the Sabres finished last season at 91 points, and 92 was the magic number to squeak into a wild card spot. This season looks to be a lot more competitive, with seven Metropolitan Division teams currently projecting to be in the chase. 93 points is where the eighth and nineth-best Eastern Conference teams project to be, so the magic number this year should increase slightly.
As for Detroit, Montreal, and Ottawa, well it looks to be another year on the outside looking in. Much like the Sabres, the Senators have simply underperformed in what looked to be a breakout campaign. The project really strong the rest of the season, but the hole is too great to dig out of completely.
The Red Wings also project to be a little stronger going forward should they get healthy. Still, a mediocre season is really the likeliest scenario in Detroit. Montreal, on the other hand, has overachieved. As these teams start to pick it up the Canadiens are likely going to dwindle and possibly look to revamp the roster for next season.
How to Make the Playoffs
However unrealistic of a chance you think there is for the Sabres to make the playoffs, there’s also some hope, right? Well, the projected 90-point pace the rest of the season isn’t going to cut it.
What if the goal scoring returns, and Devon Levi excels in net like at the end of last season. Could they reach from a 100-point pace?
Um, not quite. That would put Buffalo at 88 points this season. We’ve already determined that the magic number is around 93.
So what will it take? Well, to put it frankly, the Sabres would have to perform among the league’s elite. They would have to go on a torrid run of about 62 points in 46 games to get there. That’s something like 29-13-4 and the equivalent of a 110-point pace. Only four teams have been on that pace this season – the Bruins, Los Angeles Kings, New York Rangers, and Vancouver Canucks.
Can it happen? Yes, it can. The likeliness of such a spike in performance is rare, however. On December 28th, 2018 the St. Louis Blues were sitting at 34 points with 35 games played. The rest of that season, they were able to nab 65 points in 47 games to make the playoffs comfortably. That’s an astounding 113 season-long point pace. If you know your recently hockey history, you know that team ended up raising Lord Stanley’s Cup later that season.
Like I said, a lot has to be fixed. We’ll dive into that soon. Just know that the Atlantic Division is open this season for the taking. Someone will have to step up to challenge the Bruins at the top.