The Buffalo Sabres are not a good hockey team. The consensus pick for dead last in the NHL before the 2014-15 season even started, the Sabres in an average game allow the opposition almost two shots at the net for every one they take.
This is a team so self-admittedly terrible that it had presumptive first overall pick Connor McDavid’s Erie Otters come to town and play a game; McDavid himself noted to the Canadian Press earlier in the season that every time the Sabres lose his Twitter timeline explodes with mentions (h/t Sportsnet).
But then, the Sabres haven’t lost much at all lately. This is a team with nine wins in its last 13 games, a team that with 28 points sits closer to a playoff spot than it does to last place in the NHL.
The chances of the club finishing 30th overall and becoming the favourite to land McDavid are getting slimmer by the day. That’s a problem because even though the Sabres are winning games they’re still playing terribly.
Let’s start by unpacking that record a little. In the team’s current 9-4-0 run, it has a plus-one goal differential, scoring 35 times and surrendering 34 goals against. Winning hockey games comes down to scoring more goals than the other team; it doesn’t take a genius to understand that a team scoring 50.7 percent of the goals won’t go on winning 69.2 percent of its hockey games. The Sabres have done it by going 8-2-0 in 10 games decided by a single goal.
As an illustration that it can’t last, consider the Montreal Canadiens. A month ago, the team was 14-4-1 despite a modest plus-eight goal differential; at the time we noted the club’s ridiculous 7-1 record in one-goal games and said it was too good to last.
Since then the team has gone 1-5 in one-goal games and 6-6-1 overall, with the latter the kind of record the team’s goal differential and underlying numbers suggested all along. The Sabres too will see their record eventually reflect their goal differential.
A team’s record tends to regress to its goal differential. Goal differential in turn tends to regress to the level of a team’s shot metrics (give or take a brilliant goalie or a lights-out power play). That’s the second problem with the Sabres: Their underlying numbers are brutal, and that hasn’t changed over this winning streak.
In the interests of brevity, we’ll just look at shots. Over Buffalo’s lovely 13-game run, the team has surrendered 484 shots against; that ranks 28th in the league. Meanwhile, the Sabres have taken an NHL-low 337 shots; that’s 17 fewer than the 29th-ranked Rangers, a team which has played one less game in that span. At this, the high point of its season, Buffalo is the worst offensive team in the NHL married to almost the very worst defensive team.
The Sabres have been getting away with it because their goalies have posted a 0.930 save percentage while the opposition’s goalies have posted a 0.896 save percentage over the same span, which is the equivalent of Dominik Hasek at one end of the rink and a below-average AHL goalie at the other end. It’s a measure of just how terrible Buffalo is that even with that kind of goaltending imbalance it’s only breaking even in terms of goal differential.
Still, we know barely short of a certainty that Buffalo is going to collapse at some point. The percentages will even out, general manager Tim Murray will ship off the team’s long list of pending free agents and the Sabres' results will dive faster than Sean Avery getting hit by Jaromir Jagr.
For the sake of argument, let’s project the record of the NHL’s other 29 teams over 82 games. That’s probably a favourable projection for the Sabres, since a lot of bottom-feeders will get worse as they sell off free agents, but it’s a decent back-of-the-envelope figure. How bad does Buffalo have to be to end up at the bottom of the league?
To finish 30th, the Sabres need to underperform the Edmonton Oilers, now a draft dynasty the way they used to be an actual dynasty. Edmonton is on pace for 51 points; if that continues Buffalo needs to go something like 10-37-3 to finish in last. Even for the Sabres that’s going to be tough to do; that’s a significantly worse record than the team managed last season when it was 14 points back of 29th place.
Where would Buffalo finish if the team suddenly transformed into that wretched 2013-14 group? That team had 52 points in 82 games, which translates to roughly 32 points over the final 50 contests (for a 60-point season).
If the Sabres fall to that level immediately and the other teams continue as they are, they would finish 28th overall, ahead of Edmonton and Carolina. That would give them a 1-9 shot at winning the draft lottery and picking Connor McDavid.
In other words, it’s probably a good idea for Sabres fans to hold off on buying that McDavid jersey.
Jonathan Willis covers the NHL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter for more of his work.