The Buffalo Sabres are officially halfway through their 2016-2017 season campaign. Time flies, doesn't it? The first 41 games have been filled with ups, downs, and injuries, but who have been the Sabres top performers thus far?
Record -- 16-16-9
*Only active players with more than 10 games played will be graded*
G - Anders Nilsson -- Grade: A
Nilsson has been very impressive in the Sabres first 40 games, sporting a 7-4-4 record with a 2.41 goals against average and .928 save percentage. Remember, before the season Nilsson was expected to be just another run of the mill backup goaltender.
Early on he's proven to be far more valuable, and some, including myself, have argued that he deserves more games. I won't go as far as saying that Nilsson needs to be the Sabres starting net-minder, but I think a 50/50 split is fair until Nilsson cools off -- but who knows, maybe that never happens.
No, this doesn't mean that Nilsson is the Sabres best or most valuable player, it just means he's performing better than I think anyone anticipated.
D - Rasmus Ristolainen -- Grade A-
Sometimes we forget that Ristolianen is still only 22-years-old. He's cooled off a bit as of late but has some of the most impressive numbers for a Sabres defenseman in a long time. In 40 games Ristolainen has *27* points (3G, 24A) and a -2 plus/minus.
For some perspective -- only Brent Burns (44), Victor Hedman (38), Erik Karlsson (34), Duncan Keith (31) and Shea Weber (28) have more points than Ristolainen. You'll notice that three of the players ahead of Ristolainen are also in the Atlantic Division, which is the only reason I think Buffalo's young blue-liner isn't an all-star this season.
Ristolainen still needs to clean up his game in the defensive zone, but he's exceeding expectations and proving that he can be a defenseman a team can build around.
RW - Kyle Okposo -- A-
"Okposo only put up good numbers because he played with John Tavares in New York," -- every troll on July 1st.
2013- 69 points (nice)
2014- 51 points
2015- 64 points
2016 (so far) - 27 points, on pace for 57
Like Ristolainen, Okposo has cooled off a bit lately but leads the Sabres in both points and goals (12). He's played very well for most of the season in a brand new system with new players and is proving, at least to me, that he was worth the seven-year contract he signed in the off-season, at least now. Kudos to Okposo on his first all-star game, well deserved.
C -- Ryan O'Reilly -- A-
He's battled injuries early in the season, but it's very apparent that Ryan O'Reilly is one of the Sabres most important players. In only 30 games he has 24 points (8G, 16A) and an impressive +4 plus/minus rating. It says a lot that he's almost averaged a point per game when he's been in the lineup -- but what's more impressive is how he makes the other players on the ice better.
I know that this isn't a super fair way of looking at things (deal with it) but at his current pace in an 82 game season, O'Reilly would be on pace for 66 points with 22 goals and 44 assists. I know he hasn't scored as many goals as you'd probably like, but I have a feeling that'll change in the second half of the season.
C -- Jack Eichel -- B+
I can't think of a more crushing way to start a season than the high-ankle sprain Eichel suffered the day before the Sabres first game. Since returning, Eichel has been the Sabres most explosive player and has 15 points (8G, 6A) in 20 games played (61 point pace over an 82-game season).
With Eichel in the lineup, the Sabres are 9-7-4, compared to a 6-10-5 record without the 20-year-old. Who says one player can't make a difference?
C/RW -- Sam Reinhart -- B+
Same grade as his roommate, but Reinhart finds himself on the Merit Roll because of his slow start to the season. That being said, Reinhart is on a tear with 12 points in Buffalo's last 11 games.
In 41 games played Reinhart is tied for the Sabres lead in points with 27 (9G, 18A). Assuming he stays healthy, Reinhart is on pace to finish the year with 55 points (19G, 37A) -- not bad when you consider his slow start. Sure, Reinhart's goal production has been down, but I think he'll pick up his pace during the second half of the season. For reference, Reinhart had 42 points last season, so he's definitely made progress.
D - Jake McCabe -- B+
In 40 games McCabe only has eight points, but he's not a player who will light up the scoreboard. McCabe makes up half of the Sabres best pairing with Ristolainen and has been very consistent for the blue and gold.
It's also important to Remember that McCabe is still only 23-years-old. With McCabe and Ristolainen the Sabres have two defensemen they can build around moving forward.
LW -- Evander Kane -- B
When the Sabres traded for Kane general manager Tim Murray hoped he would flirt with 30 goals like he did in 2011-2012. He's scored 11 goals this season -- but he's accomplished that in 30 games. Kane, like so many others, has missed a large chunk of time (11 games) with an injury he suffered in Buffalo's first game of the season.
The 25-year-old winger returned from injury and had a very hard time finding the back of the net -- but has picked things up drastically with 11 goals in the Sabres last 18 games. Even with his cold start, Kane would be on pace for 29 goals if he played an 82-game season. Kane's biggest bugaboo is his struggles in the defensive zone, and while at times he looks fine, he needs to improve without the puck. I'm not a big plus/minus guy, but Kane's -9 plus/minus rating is pretty bad.
LW -- Marcus Foligno -- B
In the off-season, Foligno signed a one-year 'prove it' deal with the club and has put together one of his best seasons with the Sabres. In 40 games Foligno has 15 points (7G, 8A) and is one pace to demolish his point total from last year.
Barring a rough second half or injury, Foligno should set a career best point total in 2016-2017. He's solid at both ends of the ice and is a player I think the Sabres should bring back next season.
G -- Robin Lehner -- B
Robin Lehner has been a solid goaltender for the Sabres this season. Of all the Sabres problems, goaltending *usually* hasn't been one of them.
Lehner has a 9-12-5 record, and while that's not great, his .921 save percentage is a better indicator of how he's played in his 27 games.
Shootouts have been Lehner's biggest problem (no kidding), but I'd expect him to improve once he finally is on the winning end. Don't fool yourselves, hockey can be mentally tough, too.
RW -- Brian Gionta -- B
In 2015-2016 Brian Gionta had only 12 goals in 79 games played. This year the Sabres captain has eight goals in only 40 games. Barring a late collapse, Gionta will surpass last season's goal total -- but he's cooled off significantly and only has one goal in Buffalo's last 12 games.
I like Gionta as a depth player and wouldn't be surprised if the Sabres brought him back for a more years after this season, assuming the 37-year-old doesn't retire.
D -- Taylor Fedun -- B
I'll be real with you -- before the regular season, I didn't know much at all about Taylor Fedun. That being said, I've been very impressed with the defensemen in his 12 games with the Sabres this season. In those 13 games, he has six points (all assists) but has also been solid in his own end.
I know that eventually players like Josh Gorges and Dmitry Kulikov will return to the lineup, but when they come back I'd like to see Fedun stay in Buffalo. He provides an offensive spark and can quarterback the Sabres second power play unit.
Nice start for Mr. Fedun.
LW -- Matt Moulson -- B-
In 41 games Matt Moulson has already surpassed his goal total this season (9) compared to last season (8). That being said, Moulson has cooled off more than any player on the Sabres roster and only has three goals since November 21.
Yes, he's having a better season, but he's starting to look more like the player we saw last season compared to the guy who started the season so hot.
LW -- William Carrier -- B-
Speed kills and Carrier is without question one of the Sabres quickest skaters. Carrier has played in 26 games this season (doesn't seem like that many) and has four points (2G, 2A).
Even with the lack of point production I've liked Carrier and think he gives the Sabres a spark. He's clearly doing something right, there's a reason he's remained in Buffalo for so long. Are there players I'd rather see in the lineup than Carrier? Yes, but right now he's one of their better options.
D -- Zach Bogosian -- C+
Bogosian has missed 20 games this season, but when he has been in the lineup he's looked unimpressive. The 26-year-old defender has made a lot of sloppy plays in the Sabres own end of the ice, some of them leading to easy goals by the opposition.
Despite his slow start, Bogosian is an important player for the Sabres because of his versatility and physicality. I fully expect that he'll have a better second half of the season.
RW -- Zemgus Girgensons -- C+
He's playing better lately but had a terrible start. Like many other players on the roster, Girgensons is on a one-year deal. If he continues to play how he has in the Sabres last ten games then maybe he'll be around next season. If not, his time with the Sabres may be winding down.
D-- Josh Gorges -- C-
Gorges takes more criticism than possibly any other member of the team on Twitter dot com. He's had some nice games -- but has also at times struggled. I'm not going to completely write him off like some of you, but he hasn't been as consistent as I expected heading into the year.
D -- Justin Falk -- C-
There's a reason Falk wasn't on the opening night roster. He doesn't make that many mistakes but at the same time, he doesn't bring that much to the table, either. I'd prefer to see Fedun than Falk, but I can understand why the Sabres may prefer the bigger, more experienced defender.
D -- Cody Franson -- C-
Franson's numbers actually aren't that bad -- but he just always seems to be a step behind everyone else on the ice. Franson has more points than every defenseman on the team not named Rasmus, but he also takes a lot of dumb penalties.
D -- Dmitry Kulikov -- D+
This isn't meant to suggest that Kulikov is the worst defensemen on the Sabres roster -- but he's really struggled this season. I had high expectations for Kulikov going into the season, but he's been a big disappointment.
Yes, injuries are a big part of that, but even when he has played he has an abysmal -10 plus/minus rating, the worst on the team, in only 20 games.
LW -- Tyler Ennis -- D+
This is solely based on injuries -- Ennis is a talented player and will provide the Sabres with some much-needed offense when he returns to the lineup. In his 12 games before having surgery Ennis had only two points, but I have to imagine that Ennis was playing through an injury. I'm excited to see what Ennis can do when he's back in the lineup.
LW -- Nicolas Deslauriers -- D+
He's done exactly what you would've expected him to do in the 19 games he's played this season. He's physical, not intimidated by anyone and virtually invisible in the offensive zone.
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