Sabres notebook: Are injuries a legitimate excuse for Buffalo’s struggles this season?

BUFFALO, N.Y. — The Buffalo Sabres haven’t had the best injury luck this season. That continued on both ends of the All-Star break. Heading into the break, the Sabres found out forward Jack Quinn would miss eight weeks with a lower-body injury. Coming out of the break, the team learned defenseman Mattias Samuelsson will miss the rest of the season with an upper-body injury,

Add that to the list of bad breaks the Sabres have gotten this season as they emerge from their bye week with a 22-23-4 record.

“You can’t dwell on stuff, you can’t be dragged from behind, from what may have just happened, or didn’t happen,” Sabres coach Don Granato said.

The Sabres entered this season with playoff expectations. That was the bar players, Granato and general manager Kevyn Adams all set publicly. So as the team struggles to hang on in the playoff picture and faces the possibility of a 13th straight season without the playoffs, evaluating how that happened is paramount. In particular, how Adams assesses the Sabres’ shortcomings is crucial. And with each new injury, the question becomes how much should injuries factor into the evaluation of this team.

According to NHL Injury Viz, the Sabres have 147 man games missed due to injury. That’s the 14th most in the NHL, so right around league average. The cap hit of their injured players ranks 15th in the NHL.

NHL Injury Viz also measures the Lost (positive) WAR of injured players, which is a weighted three-year average of Evolving Hockey’s Wins Above Replacement stat. By that measure, the Sabres are 16th in the NHL.

A year ago, the Sabres were the fourth-healthiest team in the NHL, according to NHL Injury Viz with only 150 man games lost across the entire season. So the Sabres have been more banged up this season than last, and that’s caused some of their regression this season.

But whichever way you measure the Sabres’ injury luck, they’re right around league average. There are teams that have had it worse than Buffalo and teams that have been more fortunate when it comes to injuries. With Samuelsson out for the season and Quinn missing the next two months, the Sabres will add at least 50 games to their man games lost total from this season, which won’t make things any easier as they try to make up the ten-point difference between them and the Red Wings for the final wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference.

But a closer look at Buffalo’s injury situation this season shows it’s not an entirely valid reason for the team’s struggles. Of those 147 games lost that NHL Injury Viz measured, 32 of them belong to Quinn, who missed the start of the season with a torn Achilles that happened during his offseason training in June. Adding Quinn to the lineup had a major positive impact on the Sabres when he returned in mid-December.

But the Sabres also made no effort to replace him in the offseason when they learned of his injury. They brought back the same group of forwards they had a season ago. The only new forward in the lineup was 18-year-old rookie Zach Benson, who is going to be taking Quinn’s spot on the second line after his latest injury. If Quinn’s absence was going to have such an adverse effect on the team, the Sabres should have made more of an effort to add a replacement over the summer or early in the season.

They did trade for Eric Robinson to add forward depth, but that didn’t come until early December. Prior to that, the Sabres called up players like Lukas Rousek, Brandon Biro, Isak Rosen and Jiri Kulich from the AHL to try to fill the void. But none of those players stuck in the NHL.

That 147 man games lost number also includes 13 from Matt Savoie, who stuck around on the roster to get practice time but only played 3:55 in a single game before the Sabres sent him back to his junior team. Outside of Savoie and Quinn, Zemgus Girgensons is the only player on the Sabres who has missed double-digit games.

That’s not to say the Sabres haven’t been impacted by injuries. Tage Thompson missed three weeks with a broken hand in November. He’s missed nine games this season. Alex Tuch has missed seven games, and Jeff Skinner has missed eight. Those three made up Buffalo’s top line last season. They played a total of 581 minutes together at five-on-five across 67 games. As a group, they missed only 15 games total and had 118 goals. This season, they’ve already missed 24 games and only have 45 total goals. They have played just 144 minutes together at five-on-five, and Don Granato has split up that line at times to balance the lineup due to other injuries.

This is also the NHL, so there are inevitably players who are fighting through injuries we don’t know about. But that’s nearly impossible to measure and something each team in the league deals with.

Granato said Sunday he thinks when the Sabres dealt with injuries earlier in the year, players didn’t handle it well from a psychological perspective. He’s not worried about that with the latest injuries, which is good, because this team can’t afford to use it as an excuse.

“I feel the other guys that are going to have to step up, that you’re going to call on and are going to fill more minutes are in a way better mind frame than they were,” Granato said. “Their psyche’s way better than it was a month ago. So we lose these guys but I still feel very confident in the group that’s going to have to pick up the slack for missing these guys.”

Quick hits

1. This is officially Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen’s net for the time being. After the California trip, the Sabres sent Devon Levi to the AHL so he could play in Rochester’s games during Buffalo’s bye week. The team didn’t bring him back after the break, and part of that is because Luukkonen has established himself as the clear No. 1 in the Sabres’ net, according to Granato. The Sabres don’t play a single back-to-back in February, so Luukkonen could conceivably play every game this month and not wear down. Levi needs to play games, and he won’t get a ton of chances to do that in Buffalo in the short term. This is a great chance for the Sabres to see how Luukkonen holds up in an extended run as the team’s top goalie. If he proves himself capable of sustaining his excellent play in January, that will be a nice development for the Sabres heading into the summer.

But at the moment, something would have to change for Levi to get back into the picture in the NHL.

“We’re in a situation where wins are imperative, so all indicators are you’re going to go with the guy who is going in as many games as you can when he’s separated himself from the group,” Granato said. “Uppie has done a really good job of that. What does that mean for Devon? Today it means he’s in Rochester. Tomorrow circumstances could change and we would make a decision based on changing circumstances. So for Devon, it would be changing circumstances, I guess is the answer.”

2. The All-Star Game was in his hometown, but Owen Power got far away from the festivities, spending his break in Punta Cana. He couldn’t even get the game on television, so it was a real chance for the Sabres’ second-year defenseman to unplug from the game for a while.

Power hasn’t taken the step forward the Sabres were hoping for when they signed him to a seven-year extension worth $8.35 million per season in October. By most advanced metrics, Power is performing at a similar level to what he did as a 20-year-old rookie. The consistency hasn’t been there, particularly when it comes to defending in front of his own net. He still needs to add strength, both as a defender and with his shot. He doesn’t seem as decisive, either. His self-assessment was pretty simple coming out of the break.

“Normally when my gap is good I’m playing good,” Power said. “That’s a big one. And then there’s some little things. Just defending harder and moving my feet a little more. It’s all nothing crazy or nothing mind-blowing. It’s all little things that you have to continue to work at and improve on.”

The Sabres have shuffled defensive pairs a lot this season, which hasn’t helped Power. With Samuelsson’s injury, though, there could be more consistency. Granato had Power on a pair with Connor Clifton at practice on Monday. Some stability could be a benefit to both players.

3. The Sabres had some different looks on the power play on Monday. On one unit, Kyle Okposo was at the net front with Rasmus Dahlin at the point and Tage Thompson, Jeff Skinner and Dylan Cozens working the other forward spots. On the other unit, Jordan Greenway was at the net front with Power at the point and Casey Mittelstadt, Alex Tuch and JJ Peterka working the other forward spots. The Sabres’ power play has been awful this season. The numbers are alarming. The Sabres have 20 goals with the man advantage. Only the Capitals and Blackhawks have fewer. The Sabres have also allowed eight short-handed goals, tied for the most in the NHL. Their 71-percent goal share while they have the power play is by far the worst in the NHL. And they are also last in the NHL in expected goal share and high-danger-chances share while they are on the man advantage. We’ll see if these new units spark anything.

(Photo: Bill Wippert / NHLI via Getty Images)

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