Analyzing the Start of the 2016-17 Season

Win one, lose two. Lose one, win two. It’s the life of a .500 hockey club…and yet a .500 record would actually be an improvement over the .421 and .474 records of the past 2 seasons. Now in the 6th season of Buffalo Sabres ownership and the 3rd season of General Manager Tim Murray’s leadership, Amerks fans expect and deserve more. Will 2016-17 be the season that marks a turn-around? It’s still too early to call but so far the stars are not aligning.

The 2016-17 season started with a promising, if not underwhelming 5-4 win over the Hershey Bears. Baptiste, O’Reilly, and Schneider all had goals and our special teams performed well with the power-play going 2 for 4 and the penalty kill going 3 for 4. The Amerks had trouble mounting offense registering just 12 shots to Hershey’s 29, but they made every shot count—the Amerks scored on 42% of their shots. Everything fell apart in the following two games versus the Syracuse Crunch. In the first match the Amerks lost 4-1 with Bailey being the lone scorer. In the second match the Amerks lost 6-3 with goals from Rodrigues, Strachan, and Nylander. The one bright spot remained the penalty kill, allowing 3 Syracuse goals in 10 opportunities. That being said, the power-play went 0 for 11 versus Syracuse and just 2 for 15 in the opening weekend. To make matters worse, the Amerks were outshot a collective 103-54 in their opening weekend. Statistically opening weekend was a bit of a nightmare. Currently the Amerks are sitting at exactly .500 with 5 wins and 5 losses.

10 games into the season there are a few bright spots. Cole Schneider is on fire with 7 goals and 8 assist. Cal O’Reilly has 3 goals and 10 assists. Justin Bailey has 5 goals and 2 assists. Evan Rodrigues has 3 goals and 4 assists. Alexander Nylander has had a shaky start to his professional career but has still managed 2 goals and 3 assists. Taylor Fedun has also had a good start to the season putting up 1 goal and 6 assists. Nicholas Baptiste has a 3 goals and 2 assists in just 5 games (he had been on recall to the Sabres). Our key offensive players are getting the job done. Everyone else…not so much.

Stats are great, but what’s working well and what’s not?

Special teams are vastly improved this season. The power-play might not have looked great through opening weekend but it has improved dramatically since. Now the 6th power-play in the AHL at 23.8%, the Amerks have allowed just 6 goals against (20 teams have more power-play goals against). For reference, last season the power-play was effective just 16.5% of the time and it allowed 53 goals against (only 10 teams allowed more). Puck movement is the best it’s been in a decade and power-plays are actually fun to watch. That’s not something I’ve said for many many years. The penalty kill has been excellent. At 86%, the Amerks penalty kill is ranked 8th in the AHL.

Goaltending is a different story entirely. At times Linus Ullmark has shown streaks of brilliance. In most of the Amerk’s wins Ullmark’s performance has been the deciding factor. The problem is he’s been unreliable. One bad goal seems to knock him off his game. That being said it’s hard to blame him for losses—defense hasn’t provided much assistance. Jason Kasdorf seems to have lost the faith of Coach Lambert. In last weekend’s 3 in 3 Kasdorf did not make an appearance. It’s anyone’s guess as to what’s transpiring behind the scenes but one thing is clear. Lambert would rather play Ullmark in 3 back-to-back games than give Kasdorf a start. I wouldn’t be surprised if we see John Muse and Kasdorf swap spots.

Defense might be the weakest area on this Amerks team. Not only have the Amerks been consistently outshot but they rarely clear the front of the net and they allow far too many cross-ice passes. While I dinged Ullmark for being inconsistent he’s also dealing with far too much traffic in the slot (and everywhere else). It’s easy to point a finger at the offense for not getting the job done but you can’t mount offensive pressure if you never have control of the defensive end. If the Amerks want to turn this season around they need to get back to the defensive basics. Cover every man and minimize traffic in front of their goalies. Once the Amerks gain control of their own end the offense will fall into place.

Fedun has shown he has a rocket from the point. The league is taking notice and Syracuse in particular was able to shut him down last weekend. Fedun can be even more effective if he starts taking more shots. You don’t need a clear path to the net every time. I think he can be really dangerous if he stops being so quick to abort shots.

Nylander has great hands. We’re not talking Armia hands but his shot is one of the most dangerous in the league. Give him an open path to the net and he can snipe just about any spot left uncovered. He’s having trouble adjusting to the speed of the AHL. He should come around as he sees more time in the league but he’s definitely timid when the game turns physical and he’s outpaced when it’s not. Hopefully his development accelerates as the season wears on.

Bailey hasn’t had the start I expected. He finished last season as one of the fastest and most confident players on the ice. This year he has enough points to put him near the top of the pack but he’s capable of a lot more. Whether it’s disappointment that he didn’t make the NHL cut or the mysterious demons that seem to drag Sabres prospects down, Bailey needs to start showing more of what he’s capable of. Otherwise I fear he’ll be another ex-Sabres prospect dealt off for a high draft pick.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out the role injuries have played this season. Dupuy had a sensational start to last season but has yet to play a single game this season thanks to an upper body injury. The Amerks are also short players due to Sabres injuries. Bogosian, Deslauriers, Eichel, and Kane are all injured. All of the injuries are long-term. Hudson Fasching, who is on recall, is also injured with a groin pull (day-to-day). At the time of writing this article Carrier, Fasching, and Nelson are all on recall.

Chris Schiffner is the man behind the Amerks Extra Twitter feed and the chief editor of Chris founded Amerks Extra in order to provide fans with a voice during one of the most tumultuous periods in the organization's history. Amerks Extra has evolved into a leading source for Amerks news and discussion. When not covering Amerks Hockey, Chris is on the ice playing the game himself.

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