If it seems to you that the Buffalo Sabres basically never score, you’re not imagining things.
The Sabres have the NHL’s worst offense, having scored a sickly 1.61 goals per game over their first 28 contests. Perform any deep analysis you want about all kinds of factors surrounding this club, but the bottom line is hockey is about putting the puck in the net.
The Sabres don’t do it and that’s the real reason they’re 6-20-2 so far.
But it gets worse. More than a third of the way through the season, the Sabres are well ahead of the pace needed to finish historically putrid at turning on the red light.
The Sabres have just 45 goals in their 28 games, and have been shut out or scored one goal in 13 of them. Saturday’s 1-0 overtime loss at New Jersey was the fifth shutout they’ve endured this season. (Buffalo’s team statistics show 48 goals, counting its three shootout winners).
Keeping their NHL-worst pace over 82 games, the Sabres would finish with just 132 goals – and that would be by far the lowest total in NHL history in the expansion era that dates to 1967.
That’s when the league doubled from the Original Six to 12 teams, and it’s the demarcation line for a lot of the league’s records. The 1997-98 Tampa Bay Lightning hold the current post-expansion mark for scoring futility with 151 goals.
“It’s been difficult for us,” said Sabres forward Marcus Foligno, who has three goals in 25 games. “We know we have to score more than one goal in order to survive in this league and win a game.”
“We’ve got to get to the net-front,” said interim coach Ted Nolan, who has seen the team score just 12 goals in his eight games at the helm. “It’s all creating those habits on a daily basis. We have to start doing that. Once we start doing that, hopefully the pucks will start going in.”
It’s almost certain this year’s edition of the Sabres will finish with the most offensive offense in the franchise’s 43 seasons. The worst output has been 190 goals by the 2002-03 team that finished 27-37-10-8.
Go back even before expansion and the Sabres compare badly in NHL annals.
The 1953-54 Chicago Blackhawks had 133 goals in just 70 games while going 12-51-7. The league went to a 60-game season in 1946 and the New York Rangers had just 133 goals in the 1948-49 season while going 18-31-11.
Prior to 1946, the schedule was no more than 50 games. The first total lower than the Sabres’ pace is the 99 goals scored in 48 games by the 1940-41 New York Americans.
So the Sabres are thus on pace for the lowest goal total in the NHL in 73 years. Ouch.
The Sabres’ leading goal scorer is winger Matt Moulson with 10 but six of those came with the New York Islanders. So for made-for-Buffalo offense, the team leader is Cody Hodgson with eight.
You look up and down the lineup and you see Sabres players who are struggling to score.
• Drew Stafford, who has three 20-plus seasons with a career high of 31, has just two goals in 28 games.
• Ville Leino, just switched to center to garner more puck possession, has not scored in 16 games.
• Tyler Ennis has four goals in 28 games, Foligno has three in 25 games and Brian Flynn has two in 27.
“There’s been situations before where guys have had two or three goals in November and finished the year with 30. It’s still early, believe it or not,” Stafford said. “There’s quite a few games left. If we can start burying those chances, you can get on a roll. That’s how it works for goal scorers. You score in bunches. Unfortunately, it’s just taken a long time.”
Stafford should know about streak scoring. In his 31-goal campaign three years ago, he collected 18 of the goals in just seven games, with four hat tricks and three two-goal outputs.
It’s hard to blame kids as much but they’re not producing, either. Zemgus Girgensons scored his first NHL goal on opening night in Detroit and hasn’t scored in his next 26 games. Mikhail Grigorenko has two goals in 18 games and both came in the dreary Nov. 9 loss in Anaheim.
Another problem is that the defense doesn’t contribute to the offense. Christian Ehrhoff had not beaten a goaltender all season until Friday’s overtime winner against Toronto. His only previous goal was an empty netter in Nolan’s debut victory over the Leafs. Tyler Myers has just two goals in 28 games, Mark Pysyk has none in 27.
Bad teams don’t score
Of course, one key characteristic of bad teams is they don’t score much. The Sabres are on pace for a franchise record-low 41 points – which would be the lowest total in the NHL since the shootout began in 2005. That mark is 56 points, set by the 2006-07 Philadelphia Flyers (22-48-12).
Since the NHL started awarding points for overtime losses in 1999, the lowest total is the 39 points accumulated by the Atlanta Thrashers in 1999-2000 (14-57-7-4, denoting wins, losses, ties and overtime losses).
The Sabres have been outscored, 33-6, in the first period of their games and their six goals are the fewest for any NHL team in any period this season. Their play off the hop, however, has been better of late as they’ve been outscored by just 6-3 in the opening period under Nolan.
“If you don’t get wins, you don’t get the extra goals and things like that that come from having a lead,” Leino said. “There’s guys who can score here but nobody’s scoring right now. It’s going to have to start sooner or later.”
The lack of offense produces some astonishing numbers. The Sabres have scored first in just five of their 28 games and have not held a 2-0 lead all season. And if they’re trailing after two periods, the game is over. Their record in such situations? It’s 0-17-0. Not even a single loser point.
What can the Sabres do short-term to generate offense? There will certainly be some roster changes, along the lines of former 20-goal man Matt D’Agostini getting claimed on waivers and fourth-liner Corey Tropp being lost on waivers to Columbus.
They can do some schematic changes, notably putting Stafford on the right point on the power play in the same vein in which former captain Jason Pominville once excelled. Leino’s move to center has greatly increased the Sabres’ puck possession numbers, and the law of averages says that should create scoring at some point as well.
“I’m more comfortable in the middle than I was before so I can’t complain,” said Leino, who asked out of the center slot shortly after his arrival in 2011. “The only thing I complain about is not getting the puck in the net but that’s my own fault.”
Nolan is taking a specialized look at the lack of offense in practice. The Sabres are an often-brutal passing team, so they’ve stepped up those drills on off days.
“You look at every other sport and golfers go to the driving range every day,” Nolan said. “Tiger Woods just doesn’t show up and play golf. He practices that skill. Same thing here. We have to practice that skill. We have to pass a lot, we have to jump into holes a lot, we have to move our feet a lot, we have to learn how to battle a lot.”
Nolan is trying more of a traffic approach on the power play, which is currently 25th in the NHL. It worked great on Friday’s overtime winner, as D’Agostini screened Toronto goalie James Reimer on Ehrhoff’s shot just after a Leafs penalty had ended.
“Goaltenders in this league are very, very good,” Nolan said. “You’re not going to score too many goals with point-blank shots, even from the slot. They’re that good. You’ve got to get pucks and people in front of the goaltender and make it difficult for him to see.”
“There’s a lot of chances, a lot of plays. Sometimes it’s going to bounce it and sometimes it’s not,” Leino said. “Obviously right now it’s the whole team. There’s an attitude with scoring. When you get a chance, you’ve got to bury it.”
The Buffalo Sabres’ worst offensive seasons
YEAR GF AVG. W-L-OT(T-)-OTL**
2013-14 132* 1.61 6-20-2
2002-03 190 2.31 27-37-10-8
1971-72 203 2.60 16-43-19
1998-99 207 2.52 37-28-17
1997-98 211 2.57 36-29-17
2001-02 213 2.60 35-35-11-1
1999-00 213 2.60 35-32-11-4
1970-71 217 2.78 24-39-15
2000-01 218 2.66 46-30-5-1
2011-12 218 2.66 39-32-11
* - projected total
** - Overtime was adopted for the 1983-84 season and any game not settled by a goal after five minutes ended in a tie; a shootout to break ties was added for the 2005-06 season.
The Buffalo Sabres’ worst offensive seasons
The lowest-scoring NHL teams since the 1967 expansion
(excludes lockout-shortened seasons)
YEAR GF AVG W-L-OT(T-)-OTL
Buffalo Sabres 2013-14 132* 1.61 6-20-2
Tampa Bay Lightning 1997-98 151 1.84 17-55-10
Oakland Seals 1967-68 153 2.07 15-42-17
Columbus Blue Jackets 2001-02 164 2.00 22-47-8-5
Los Angeles Kings 1969-70 168 2.21 14-52-10
Minnesota Wild 2000-01 168 2.05 25-39-13-5
Oakland Seals 1969-70 169 2.22 22-40-14
Atlanta Thrashers 1999-00 170 2.07 14-57-7-4
New York Islanders 1972-73 170 2.18 12-60-6
Carolina Hurricanes 2002-03 171 2.09 22-43-11-6
Carolina Hurricanes 2003-04 172 2.10 28-34-14-6
Philadelphia Flyers 1967-68 173 2.34 31-32-11
* - projected total