What’s Up With The Buffalo Sabres?

During the 2021 NHL regular season, the Buffalo Sabres matched two league records. The first were the eighteen games the Sabres lost consecutively between February 25 and March 31, a record they now share with the 2003-04 Pittsburgh Penguins. The second was the ten years without winning a spot to the playoffs, a drought matched only by the Florida Panthers and the Edmonton Oilers, who broke their droughts before the eleventh year. 

After a historically poor 2021 season, most expected the Sabres would easily break the record for the longest playoff drought, missing out on the postseason for an eleventh consecutive year. However, if the start to the Sabres 2021-22 campaign is any indication of their likelihood of playoff success, the Sabres may avoid breaking the record. 

The Sabres are 5-1-1 to start the season, and it’s taken many by surprise. Perhaps it’s the absence of injured former captain Jack Eichel from the locker room, or head coach Don Granato (who took over midseason last year), or maybe it’s just the desire in the Sabres locker room to defy all expectations assigned to them by the hockey media this summer. Whatever the cause, the Sabres are playing genuinely good hockey, and they’re winning games too. 

So how are the Sabres winning games? What’s different about the way they’re playing this year from the way they played last year? I thought it prudent to dive into the data to get a closer look. 


Save Percentage Corsi For % (5v5) Actual Goals For (5v5) Actual Goals Against (5v5) Expected Goals For Expected Goals Against
Sabres 2021 Regular Season 0.915% 46.7% 86 136 104.8 125.4
League Average 2021 Regular Season 0.922% N/A 108 108 113.6 113.5
Sabres 2021-22 Regular Season 0.944% 50.1% 13 11 17.4 15.6
League Average 2021-22 Regular Season 0.927% N/A 15 15 16.8 16.8


High Danger Chances For High Danger Chances Against High Danger  % Scoring Chances For Scoring Chances Against Scoring Chances %
Sabres 2021 Regular Season 149 205 42.1% 527 696 43.1%
League Average 2021 Regular Season 166 166 N/A 632 632 N/A
Sabres 2021-22 Regular Season 46 53 46.5% 173 153 53.1%
League Average 2021-22 Regular Season 51 51 N/A 171 171 N/A

An initial glance at advanced analytics is very telling. During the 2021 season, the Sabres were consistently out-chanced and out-scored. They allowed more scoring chances and high danger scoring chances than the league average. They also produced fewer of those chances compared to the league average. Their Corsi For percentage, a statistic that measures puck possession based on shot totals, was consistently less than 50%, indicating that they did not control the puck when they were on the ice. Their expected goals for and against–which project scoring based on Corsi percentages–were also poor compared to league averages. 

This year, however, the story is entirely different. Albeit through a far smaller sample size, the Sabres are allowing fewer scoring chances and producing more. They are out-scoring their opponents, and although they are not producing more high danger scoring chances than their opponents, they’re still managing to win games. This, I suspect, is due to their impressive team save percentage. Last year, the Sabres goaltending tandem had a save percentage of 0.915%, well below the 0.922% league average. This year, the Sabres’ 0.944% is even further above the 0.927% league average. 

So the advanced analytics support the idea that the Sabres are playing better hockey, but does this assessment also hold up to the eye test? Perhaps unsurprisingly, the answer is yes. 

In their eight games, I’ve noticed a hustle in their step that wasn’t present last year. They possess the puck, yes, but they’re doing so because they’re winning puck battles. They’re forechecking hard and they’re chasing down their rebounds. Look no further than Buffalo’s October 19 victory over the Vancouver Canucks. Both Jeff Skinner and Tage Thompson scored goals from right in front of the net. 

The Sabres are playing better. The analytics and the eye test back that up. The team is finally gelling both on and off the ice, where Sabres forward Kyle Okposo says: “We enjoy each other’s company.” The question remains whether or not they can continue to play at the level they have. My honest prediction is that they can’t. As well as they have played, seven games are too small a sample size to project over the rest of their season. I doubt they will make the playoffs, but if they do, it would be one bad record they could avoid breaking. 


Hockey References

Kyle Okposo Letter to the Fans