The last-minute Christmas rush is on. Gifts will be flying off the shelves and hurriedly wrapped for presenting.
There are a few things the Sabres should have on their shopping list if they want to be a jollier team in the future, starting with tonight’s home game against the Phoenix Coyotes.
•A No. 1 center.
The most glaring hole in the Sabres’ lineup continues to be their lack of a top-notch, all-around center. They’ve needed one since the summer of 2007.
Despite the six-year contract Cody Hodgson signed prior to the season, he isn’t suited for the role, at least not yet. The 23-year-old has eight goals and 19 points in 33 games. Florida is the only team whose top center has fewer points (Jonathan Huberdeau, 15).
Despite the low numbers, offense is Hodgson’s high point. During the newest “Beyond Blue & Gold” video series produced by the team, Hodgson reveals during an on-ice chat with coach Ted Nolan, “I play much better when I have the puck.” It’s comical in its truthfulness.
For those who prefer traditional stats, Hodgson is minus-10. Advanced stats show that during close games he has been outscored, 18-6, by opponents who have a 350-229 edge in shot attempts. The Sabres need a star two-way center.
•Skilled forwards with a scoring touch.
With the exception of Matt Moulson, who put up nearly half his stats with the Islanders, no Sabres rank in the top 130 in scoring.
Further proof Buffalo can’t find the net comes in the form of its shooting percentages. The Sabres are last in the NHL at 6.3 percent. Ville Leino hasn’t scored on 20 shots in 23 games. Drew Stafford has scored on just 3.5 percent of his team-high 86 shots. The only regulars above 10 percent are Marcus Foligno (13.5 percent) and Moulson (10.7 percent).
•Desperate trade partners.
One way to hasten the rebuild is to flip the marketable commodities into something more. That means aggressively investigating the trade value of Ryan Miller, Moulson and Steve Ott, three players who will be unrestricted free agents following the season.
There’s no doubt the Sabres are a better team with Miller in the crease. With the Olympics in his sights, he has a save percentage of .922. Jhonas Enroth is at .909.
Still, historical data shows goalies suffer a drop-off starting at age 34. The 33-year-old could put together a late-career run like Dominik Hasek or Martin Brodeur, but it makes little sense to bet on that in the form of a long-term contract.
Ott wants to stay, but he is aware UFAs are big business. Besides, there’s no rule against the Sabres trading him at the deadline and then re-signing him in the summer. St. Louis did it with Keith Tkachuk in 2007, getting a player and first-, second- and third-round drafts picks for a guy who was gone after just 22 games.
The Sabres have potential building blocks in place. They just happen to be several years away from being reliable contributors.
Zemgus Girgensons, 19, has the makings of a hard-working leader. Rasmus Ristolainen and Nikita Zadorov, this year’s first-round draft picks, might mature into defensive stalwarts. Mark Pysyk, 21, has the mind-set to be a shutdown blue-liner. It will take time, though.
The Sabres will skate into First Niagara Center tonight as an improved team, one that has points in four of its last six games. They still will enter the three-day Christmas break Tuesday as one of the NHL’s neediest clubs.