If anyone feels like they’ve used a time machine over the last month or so, you’re not alone.
When one watches this current incarnation of the Buffalo Sabres, you get a serious feeling of déjà vu. Almost as if you’re seeing a team that resembles the last roster to seriously challenge for the Stanley Cup – the 2005-06 Sabres.
Granted, this season is barely two months old. A lot can change by the time April rolls around and 16 teams begin fighting for hockey’s ultimate prize. But given the unexpected rise of the Sabres from dead last in 2017-18 to, as of this writing, third place in the Northeast Division and the third-best record in the Eastern Conference, a lot of parallels can be drawn between both squads.
How so? To wit:
In the fall of 2005, the National Hockey League was coming off of its second lockout under commissioner Gary Bettman – one that had canceled the entire 2004-05 season. The Sabres had missed the postseason in each of the prior three seasons, and had been in rebuild mode ever since the trades of Dominik Hasek and Michael Peca in June of 2001. Those factors, plus the losses of regulars Miroslav Satan, Alexei Zhitnik and James Patrick led most prognosticators to believe the Sabres would finish among the worst teams in hockey (Sports Illustrated, in particular, ranked Buffalo as the 26th-best team in the NHL.)
What most observers at the time didn’t realize, however, was that the Sabres had missed the postseason in 2004 by only six points, and finished ninth in the Eastern Conference, so they weren’t far away from being a playoff team. The losses of Zhitnik and Patrick were mitigated by the acquisitions of Teppo Numminen and Toni Lydman, and the development of Brian Campbell. Satan’s production was made up by the arrivals of Thomas Vanek, Jason Pominville and Paul Gaustad, and the return to health by Tim Connolly.
At the time, your trusty correspondent felt as if those improvements in depth, plus a bounce-back season by Martin Biron and the continued progress of young goaltender Ryan Miller would help Buffalo finish as perhaps a seventh or eighth seed. What I – and most people – didn’t foresee was that the rule changes that were created in order to crack down on obstruction would allow the Sabres the opportunity to showcase the speed and skill that they possessed in spades. Not in anyone’s wildest dreams did anyone believe the team would end up with the fourth-best record in the conference and be 20 minutes away from advancing to the Finals.
Fast-forward to the present. Buffalo is in the midst of a seven-year playoff drought and during that span has finished in last place three times. To fix this mess, general manager Jason Botterill made a number of shrewd moves during the summer – including trading for Jeff Skinner, Conor Sheary, Vladimir Sobotka and Patrik Berglund, signing goaltender Carter Hutton and drafting generational defenseman Rasmus Dahlin first overall in June.
All have lived up to their billing so far and have given the franchise more depth. Skinner is having a career year with 14 goals in his first 20 games while playing next to Jack Eichel, who is on pace to reach 90 points. Sheary and Sobotka have been as advertised while being slotted up and down Buffalo’s top-nine forwards, and Berglund has won 59 percent of his faceoffs and is key to the Sabres’ possession game. Dahlin would likely be the frontrunner for the Calder Trophy if not for the scalding hot play of Vancouver’s Elias Pettersson.
The biggest surprise of them all might be Hutton. Originally signed with the intention of splitting starts with the younger Linus Ullmark, the 33-year old Hutton is posting respectable numbers with a .919 save percentage and a 2.52 goals-against-average, and has come up clutch with big saves in order to keep the Sabres in games.
He’s had to. In the Sabres’ last seven wins – five of them consecutive dating back to November 8th – Buffalo has won six of them by just one goal. Which isn’t quite a sustainable way to win, but Hutton’s given his team a chance night in and night out. Not bad value for a goalie signed for three years at just $2.75 million per.
Similar to the ’05-06 bunch, this group is mainly young and didn’t have high expectations entering this season. They’ve snuck up on everyone and have been a major surprise thus far. It’s early, and there’s still a little more than four months left to go until the playoffs, but perhaps there’s a light at the end of the tunnel for the Sabres after all.
Winning breeds confidence, and Buffalo has that in bunches right now. Maybe, just maybe, it can translate to a playoff berth come spring.