Sabres and Senators remain mirror images of each other at NHL season’s halfway point


Staff member

The last time the Ottawa Senators and Buffalo Sabres met in Buffalo, optimism and positivity filled the air at KeyBank Arena.

It was April 13, 2023, and in their home finale, the Sabres scored an exciting 4-3 overtime win over the Senators. Players from both teams skated over to congratulate Craig Anderson in his final NHL contest, a fitting conclusion to a solid career.

Both clubs also left the ice that night feeling buoyant about their respective futures. The Sabres would finish the regular season just one point shy of qualifying for the playoffs in the Eastern Conference. The Senators fell six points shy of the same goal, but both teams took a quantum leap forward by hanging around the playoff picture after the trade deadline.

But as they get set to meet again on Thursday — 272 days since that last electric meeting in Buffalo — things are drastically different for both franchises.

Or maybe it’s more fitting to suggest things are pretty much the same in both markets. Buffalo and Ottawa have reverted to the maddening, inconsistent versions of themselves that have led to prolonged playoff droughts in each city.

Heading into Thursday’s contest, they have a combined 4 percent chance of qualifying for the playoffs according to Dom Luszczyszyn’s latest model.

The Sabres and Senators are the NHL’s equivalent of that Spider-Man pointing meme. They are mirror images of one another. Two proud and passionate fan bases who are constantly having their loyalty and patience tested.

So ahead of their meeting this week, Sabres writer (Matt Fairburn) and Senators writer (Ian Mendes) take a look at five key questions surrounding each team at the halfway point of yet another disappointing season.

What’s the strategy heading into the trade deadline?

Fairburn: The Sabres’ trade deadline strategy isn’t cut and dry. In theory, they could go on a winning streak that might compel general manager Kevyn Adams to be a buyer at the deadline. Their place in the standings, however, suggests they should be a seller. The problem is their unrestricted free agents aren’t going to headline blockbuster deals. Zemgus Girgensons, Kyle Okposo and Erik Johnson might be attractive depth options for a Stanley Cup contender, but the return won’t be significant for Buffalo.

The Sabres are also loaded with draft picks and prospects, so the idea of dumping restricted free agents at the deadline just for future assets doesn’t fit what this team needs. Adams should be looking to make a hockey trade, which can be a challenge at the deadline. If he is buying, the Sabres shouldn’t be in the market for rental players unless they’re confident they can get them to sign beyond this season.

Mendes: At this point, the Senators have to be looking at moving on from pending UFAs Vladimir Tarasenko and Dominik Kubalik. They’ll probably have to retain some salary in order to make something work, but if they can fetch any type of asset for these players, it’s probably in everybody’s best interest to find a new home.

If the Senators want to do something bolder and trade one of their young impact players, that type of deal might be better suited around the draft when teams have more cap space and roster flexibility. Steve Staios, Dave Poulin and the new management team are probably going to use the time leading up to the trade deadline to gauge the roster and make some evaluations about which players truly belong inside the core of this team. Maybe they want to bring in some smart, savvy veterans in the interim, but the idea of a massive shakeup before the deadline seems a bit premature.

The one intriguing name is Jakob Chychrun, considering he’s set to be a UFA in the summer of 2025. If the Senators get the sense he’s looking to test the free-agent market, trading him before this year’s deadline might be wise considering the acquiring team would get at least two postseason runs out of him. But there certainly isn’t a pressing need to make a decision on Chychrun just yet.

How much has goaltending been a factor in the team’s struggles?

Mendes: The goalies certainly deserve a portion of the blame for Ottawa’s struggles to this point in the season. The Senators were hopeful that a veteran combination of Joonas Korpisalo and Anton Forsberg would give them a reliable and consistent one-two punch in the crease. Instead, each goalie only has seven wins and a save percentage below .890. And both Korpisalo and Forsberg sit bottom 10 in the league in goals saved above expected, which is a pretty damning statistic.

But there are other teams still successful with subpar goaltending. The Carolina Hurricanes have a worse team save percentage than Ottawa and boast a .613 points percentage. The Colorado Avalanche have an .890 team save percentage that is only marginally better than Ottawa’s and they are still vying for the Presidents’ Trophy. Given that Cam Talbot is putting together a Vezina-calibre season for the Los Angeles Kings, at some point the focus should also be on the structure of the team and their play in their own zone.

Fairburn: The Sabres took a different approach from the Senators, opting to trust three inexperienced goalies in a season with playoff expectations. The results haven’t been much better. Eric Comrie got sent to the AHL, while Devon Levi and Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen rank 47th and 57th in goals saved above expected, respectively. Goaltending hasn’t been Buffalo’s biggest issue, but the inconsistency has been frustrating.

The Sabres are also allowing the eighth-most high-danger chances per 60 minutes at five-on-five, so the poor play in the defensive zone hasn’t helped. That’s contributed to the Sabres allowing two or more goals in the first period 19 times in their 41 games. They’re 2-16-1 in those games.

How would you assess the head-coach situation?

Fairburn: A little less than a month ago, Sabres fans were chanting “Fire Donny!” during a brutal home loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets. So it’s safe to say Granato’s seat is warm. Only seven coaches have been in their current job longer than Granato. He’s done a fantastic job developing some individual players, and getting this team to 91 points a year ago was no small task, either. Players enjoy playing for Granato. But it’s gotten to the point at which it’s fair to wonder whether a new voice would help get this group to the next level.

I expect Granato will get the rest of the season to turn things around. Adams might even give him until the start of next season. By then, Adams should have made some moves to improve the roster and injuries won’t be an excuse. The type of regression the Sabres have shown typically lands a coach on the hot seat, though.

Mendes: The Oilers (18-6-0), Wild (12-8-0) and Blues (7-4-0) are all enjoying a new coach bump this season. The Senators, however, have introduced us to the new coach slump. Ottawa has only posted a 3-7-0 record in the 10 games since Jacques Martin took over from D.J. Smith last month.

But Martin is wearing the interim label on his suit jacket because he isn’t going to be the head coach of this team in October. And nobody is placing the blame on Martin for the team’s recent slide under his watch. The club simply brought him in as a placeholder to try and shake up a team that was sliding off the rails. The question for Staios and Poulin becomes whether or not they want to put their full-time head coach into the role this season. If the candidate they want is available, it might make sense to bring him into the fold now to set the expectations and template for how he wants to run the program in the fall.

Should fans be worried that a young star will demand a trade out of town?

Mendes: For years, there was a fear in Ottawa that star players never wanted to stay. After signing the core of young players to massive, long-term deals, that fear dissipated. But you can start to hear the whispers from insecure Senators fans that we’re headed down that road again.

The only thing I’ll go with is some quotes from players in the past few months about wanting to stay in Ottawa and specifically win with this group.

In November, Brady Tkachuk told The Athletic: “You look back at old videos of past playoff runs in Ottawa. We all want to provide to this city. We want to feel that energy and excitement. I know it will happen one day. And I’ll be counting down the days.”

After signing his eight-year extension in September, Jake Sanderson said: “You see the chemistry in the locker room. It’s something that will be here for a while. We’re going to win within the next couple of years. We know that. I want to be here for it. That’s the main thing why you play hockey, is to win the Stanley Cup. So you know that group in there, we’re ready for it.”

And as part of a feature with The Athletic in the fall, Tim Stützle said: “With everybody making under $9 million in our young core, I think we have a really good chance to win. And the only goal I really have is to win a Stanley Cup with this group of guys.”

For now, I will say the players are extremely frustrated and disappointed with the way this season has played out. But I’m not ready to declare that any of the young stars want to push the eject button.

Fairburn: I don’t think the Sabres have reached that point yet. Rasmus Dahlin, Owen Power, Dylan Cozens, Tage Thompson and Mattias Samuelsson are all locked up long-term. I would argue all of those players have underperformed this season, and there is obvious frustration in the locker room and on the ice. I’m not naive enough to think it couldn’t reach the point of players wanting trades, but it doesn’t feel like a concern right now.

The bigger issue is attracting outsiders to play in Buffalo. The Sabres started to turn their reputation around and come off some no-trade lists this summer. I wonder if this season is changing some thoughts about this franchise. That can ultimately become a roadblock for Adams when he tries to sign or trade for players who can get this lineup over the top.

Since making the playoffs is a long shot, what would constitute a successful second half of the season?

Fairburn: Anything short of the playoffs is a failure for this team. Sure, getting another high draft pick wouldn’t hurt. But it’s going to be really hard for the fan base to look for silver linings if the Sabres miss the playoffs for a 13th straight season, extending what is already the longest playoff drought in league history. These fans have watched this team pick second or first in the draft four times since 2014. They’ve picked in the top 10 every year but one in that time frame. I don’t blame fans if they aren’t excited about the idea of another top-10 pick.

So, what would success look like? The Sabres either need to crawl back into playoff contention or get answers to some of the big questions facing this team. Is Granato the right coach to get this group over the top? Who are the next leaders of the team? Can that core of players signed to long-term contracts start playing up to those deals? Who among the restricted free agents and rising prospects fits into the long-term plans and who needs to be moved out to strengthen the roster in other areas? This team is talented enough to have playoff expectations again next season, but they need to answer those questions and show some life in the second half of the season.

Mendes: I think we’re at the point where getting the best possible draft lottery odds is a major consolation prize for this fan base. Ottawa currently has the fourth-best odds of landing the No. 1 selection.

The problem is that if Ottawa stays buried at the bottom of the standings, it means it hasn’t been able to shake that losing culture over the final three months of the season. So in an ideal world, the Senators find a way to inject confidence back into Stützle and Tkachuk down the stretch. Find out where Shane Pinto fits into the lineup alongside the likes of Ridly Greig. Nail down the line combinations they think have promise moving forward and hope to turn things around on the ice. Maybe give young defencemen like Jacob Bernard-Docker and Tyler Kleven a real look to see if they’re ready for a full-time role in October. And landing the desired head coach and giving him some time to work with the roster might be viewed as a step in the right direction.

If they can achieve some of these things while still ending up with a top-five pick — maybe thanks to some lottery luck — I think that’s about the best-case scenario for Ottawa fans. Winning a ton of games only to miss the playoffs and lower their draft odds feels like a cruel conclusion to an already disappointing season.