Welcome to What Went Wrong, our annual series where we look at the teams that failed to make the playoffs. Over the coming weeks, we’ll go through them team-by-team, discuss how their season went and then highlight the players that either significantly underperformed in 2017-18 or that they’ll need more from going forward.
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When the Buffalo Sabres drafted Jack Eichel in 2015, the hope was that it would be a turning point for the franchise. Eichel is developing into the player they were hoping for, but little else has gone as hoped and the Sabres found themselves with the worst record in 2017-18.
The Sabres did enter the season with some hope, but their performance killed that rather quickly. They got off to a 0-4-1 start and had plummeted to 6-17-4 by Dec. 2. They didn’t even get on a three-game winning streak until Jan. 22-25…and that proved to be their only three-game winning streak of the campaign.
One of the Sabres’ big issues was a lack of secondary scoring. When healthy, Eichel was great with 25 goals and 64 points in 67 games. However, only three of their players reached the 50-point milestone (Eichel, Ryan O'Reilly, and Sam Reinhart) and four got to at least 20 goals (Eichel, O’Reilly, Reinhart, and Evander Kane). By contrast, Tampa Bay had six players record at least 50 points and six record at least 20 goals.
Buffalo was the only team with less than 200 goals for in 2017-18 as a result. However, they were also the third-worst team in terms of goals allowed. Robin Lehner, who had been strong in his first two campaigns with Buffalo, struggled with a 3.01 GAA and .908 save percentage in 53 games. Chad Johnson was far worse though as he posted a 3.55 GAA and .891 save percentage in 36 contests.
With the season lost, the Sabres dealt Evander Kane to San Jose on Feb. 26th. It’s the type of trade that made sense, but even there the Sabres’ performance was suspect. Buffalo only gets a first-round pick out of that Kane trade if San Jose decides to re-sign him. If the Sharks decline to do so, then Buffalo will get a second rounder instead and the possible lack of a first-rounder as a return for someone of Kane’s caliber seems like a missed opportunity.
Fortune has smiled on the Sabres recently though. They won the draft lottery and the prospect of going forward with Eichel and Rasmus Dahlin, who has the potential to be an elite offensive defenseman in the NHL, is very encouraging.
Jason Pominville – His return to the Buffalo Sabres certainly didn’t go as well as hoped. He was coming off two rough campaigns with the Minnesota Wild, but Buffalo still had to be hoping he’d at least be a solid secondary scorer for them this season. Instead he finished with 16 goals and 34 points in 82 games, which is his lowest point-per-game total ever, not counting 2003-04 when he appeared in just one contest. His got one season left on his contract and the Sabres have to hope that he bounces back at least a little in 2018-19.
Zach Bogosian – The Buffalo Sabres rely on Zach Bogosian to provide them with big minutes, but that wasn’t possible this season. He sustained a hip injury during the preseason and only played in 18 games before finally being shut down on Jan. 26th so that he could undergo season-ending surgery. Getting him back next season would be a big boost to their defensive core, which was certainly lacking without him.
Sam Reinhart – He scored 23 goals and 42 points in 79 games as a rookie, which was a solid start to his career, but he hasn’t built on it much. He had 47 points in 2016-17 and 50 points last season. Those are decent numbers, but he was the second overall pick in 2014 and he should be able to find another level. The Sabres need to provide Jack Eichel with more support and Reinhart should be part of the long-term solution.
Robin Lehner – As mentioned above, Robin Lehner slid dramatically in 2017-18, posting a 3.01 GAA and .908 save percentage in 53 games after finishing 2016-17 with a 2.68 GAA and .920 save percentage. He had a difficult task this season given the team in front of him, but the Sabres still need him to be able to steal games for them. If he comes out stronger next season then that will go a long way towards addressing Buffalo’s issues.
While the Buffalo Sabres were hoping to at least be competitive in 2017-18, the Ottawa Senators had much higher aspirations. The Senators were just one win away from the Stanley Cup Final in 2017 and had their sights on another long playoff run.
The Senators season began as something of a mixed bag, but by Nov. 4 they were 6-3-5 so you couldn’t read too much into them yet. It was at that time that they decided to acquire Matt Duchene from the Colorado Avalanche in a three-team trade that involved Kyle Turris going to the Nashville Predators and the Ottawa Senators giving up a first-round pick to the Colorado Avalanche, among several other assets. The hope was that Duchene would be the last piece to the puzzle in Ottawa, but it wouldn’t be long before the Senators’ campaign turned into a disaster.
From Nov. 16th through Dec. 12th, Ottawa went on a 1-10-2 run where they shutout four times and only had just two games where they scored at least three goals. That wouldn’t be their last big slump as they lost six straight games from Jan. 18-30, five consecutive contests from Feb. 19-27, and finished the campaign with a 2-10-0 run. Between those slumps were moments of decent play, but it wasn’t nearly enough to cancel out those droughts. The result is that Ottawa finished with a 28-43-11 record, which made the Senators the second worst team in the league behind Buffalo. To add insult to injury, the Senators slipped from the second overall pick in the 2018 NHL Entry Draft to fourth due to bad luck at the draft lottery.
Ottawa’s problems were across the board, but probably its biggest issue was defensive and goaltending. The Senators allowed the 10th fewest goals in 2016-17 and that plummeted to 30th last season. Their offense wasn’t great either, but even if it had been, it might not have been enough to overcome the problems they were having at their own end of the ice. Just ask the New York Islanders about that, though they’re a topic for another day.
Craig Anderson – Anderson posted a 2.28 GAA and .926 save percentage in 40 starts in 2016-17 and then had a 2.34 GAA and .922 save percentage in 19 playoff starts. He was a big part of the reason for the Senators to get as far as they did in the 2017 playoffs, but he struggled in 2017-18. By the time the campaign was over, he had a 23-25-6 record, 3.32 GAA, and .898 save percentage in 58 games. He will turn 37-years-old on May 21st, so maybe it’s unfair to expect him to lead the Senators at this point, but he has two seasons left on his contract and they’ll need him to bounce back if they are to compete.
Matt Duchene – I was on the fence about whether to include Duchene because he didn’t do poorly for Ottawa, but the Senators gave up a lot to get him and they need him to be more than just good going forward. He had 23 goals and 49 points in 68 contests with Ottawa in 2017-18 and 59 points in 82 games overall. He’s capable of more than that, but we haven’t seen much evidence of it over the last four seasons as he hasn’t reached the 60-point milestone over that span. If he steps up next season though then that would go a long way towards making the Senators competitive again.
Bobby Ryan – Man has Bobby Ryan ever turned into a bad signing for the Ottawa Senators. His 11 goals and 33 points in 62 games in 2017-18 was actually up from 25 points a season prior, but it’s well below what they need out of him. Ottawa is a small market team that took a chance when they signed Ryan to a seven-year, $50.75 million contract and so far that deal has burned them badly. Ryan’s contract won’t be up until the summer of 2022.
Marian Gaborik – He’s not one of the reasons the Senators missed out on the playoffs in 2017-18. After all, the Senators didn’t even acquire him from Los Angeles until Feb. 13th. However, there’s some hope that he might be at least a solid secondary scorer for them going forward. Gaborik has been plagued by injuries throughout his career and as he’s gotten older, it seems to have gotten worse. He hasn’t played in even 60 contests in any of his last three games and was limited to 11 goals and 21 points in 46 games last season. He has another three seasons left on his seven-year, $34,125,000 contract and while the first half of that deal hasn’t gone as hoped, there’s still some bounce back potential here if he manages to have a healthy season.