BUFFALO, N.Y. (WKBW) — With 41 games down and 41 games to go the Buffalo Sabres boast a 22-13-6 record as they prepare for the second half of the season. For some perspective, last year after 41 games the Sabres were 10-22-9. There is no denying the Sabres have plenty of problems that need to be addressed. But they are leaps and bounds better than the team that finished in the league basement last season.
So at the halfway point, who has stood out for the Sabres?
Midseason MVP: Jack Eichel
This was easy. Eichel is having his best season as a pro and if he keeps producing points at his current pace, he'll be a strong candidate to win the Hart Trophy at the end of the season. In 40 games the Sabres 22-year-old captain has 15 goals and 34 assists good for 49 points. His hot start has earned him a second consecutive trip to the NHL All-Star game and has helped put the Sabres in a playoff spot after 41 games.
Midseason Unsung Hero: Zach Bogosian
When Zach Bogosian is in the lineup the Sabres are a more difficult team to play against. After an injury-plagued stretch for the last few seasons, Bogosian is healthy and helping his team at both ends of the ice. On average Bogosian plays nearly 22 minutes a night, logging the second most ice-time on the team behind defensive counterpart Rasmus Ristolainen [25:38].
Biggest Surprise: Linus Ullmark
In 14 games played this season, Ullmark has only one regulation loss. It's hard to believe Ullmark is still a rookie but the 25-year-old netminder has an impressive 9-1-3 record and is playing his best hockey as a member of the Sabres. With the second half upon us, I wouldn't be surprised if Ullmark started getting a few more starts.
Here is a statistical comparison for Carter Hutton and Linus Ullmark:
27 games started
13 wins, 12 losses, 3 OT/SO losses
.917 save percentage, 2.63 goals against average
14 games started
9 wins, 1 loss, 3 OT/SO losses
.922 save percentage, 2.74 goals against average
The above numbers show a lot of similarities between the two goaltenders. That's a good "problem" to have thanks to solid starts for both Ullmark and Hutton.
Needs Improvement: Forwards not named Jack Eichel, Sam Reinhart or Jeff Skinner
To single out one player would be unfair considering secondary scoring has been an issue for this team all season. Right now, the Sabres are a team with one great line [when Eichel returns to the lineup] and a whole lot of question marks on the second, third and fourth lines. At times certain depth players have flashed great ability and found the back of the net. But those moments have been few and far between and need to start occurring more regularly.
Kyle Okposo, for example, has just six goals and 10 assists [16 points] in 41 games played. Conor Sheary, who has often played alongside Okposo, has seven goals and eight assists [15 points] in 37 games. Their center Casey Mittelstadt has also struggled to find the back of the net with just five goals and six assists [11 points] in 41 games.
But the criticism shouldn't just be focused on the Sabres usual 'second' line. Jason Pominville has drastically cooled off after he separated from Eichel's line. Pominville doesn't have a single point in 14 games and has bounced up and down the lineup trying to find a spot where he is most effective. Tage Thompson, despite scoring some pretty goals, has only eight points [5G, 3A] in 34 games while Vladimir Sobotka has just three goals and three assists [6 points] in 38 games.
Moral of the story -- the Sabres top line needs some help.
Rookie of the Year (so far): Rasmus Dahlin
Every night Dahlin shows us he's already a very good player and will likely one day be one of the best defensemen in the NHL. Yes, he's made some ugly mistakes in the first half of the season and had some rough games. But the brilliance he displays with the puck on his stick is something Sabres fans haven't seen from a defender in decades. With four goals and 16 assists [20 points] in 41 games, Dahlin has the fifth most points on the team. Oh yeah, did we mention he's 18-years-old? Kudos to you if you sarcastically rolled your eyes after reading that last sentence.