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By the end of Wednesday’s games, the Buffalo Sabres found themselves officially eliminated from the playoffs. Of course, that had been a foregone conclusion for a while. No team will say at the start of the season that they won’t be making the playoffs, but the Sabres odds were never good. They were a disastrous 15-34-7 in 2020-21 and responded by restarting their rebuild, trading away Sam Reinhart, Rasmus Ristolainen, and eventually Jack Eichel in the process. All things considered, the Sabres performed alright this season and with three first-round picks this year (Vegas’ is top-10 protected, so potentially two first rounders), there is reason for cautious optimism with this franchise.
That said, Buffalo also just broke an NHL record by missing the playoffs for an 11th consecutive campaign. The Florida Panthers from 1999-2000 through 2011-12 and Edmonton Oilers from 2005-06 through 2016-17 were previously tied for the record for the longest postseason drought in NHL history at 10 seasons.
The Sabres’ previous rebuild attempt serves as something of a cautionary tale. There is logic in the idea of stripping a team of almost everything in the hopes of getting a franchise player, as Buffalo did when they set their eyes on the 2015 NHL Entry Draft featuring Connor McDavid and Eichel and ended up with the latter. However, after you need to then be able to build around your new star talent and that’s hard when you’re starting from square one. As we’ve also seen, it’s hard to construct a winning culture after a particularly rough rebuild.
Buffalo ultimately wasted Eichel. They need things to be different this time. Their a solid base here between Tage Thompson, Dylan Cozens, Rasmus Dahlin, and the prospects still coming through the pipeline. Jack Quinn has been amazing in the AHL and the Sabres have a standout goaltending prospect in Devon Levi in the NCAA. And let’s not forget Owen Power, who had a strong season with the University of Michigan or the fact that the Sabres are in line to add even more during the draft.
This time could be different. They will also have a lot of cap space over the summer and hopefully they keep an eye out for veteran players who can help them develop not just their talent, but also the team’s culture. With the Sabres having known nothing but playoff misses and rebuilding seasons, they need to import players who have enjoyed recent success in the hopes that some of that mindset will rub off on the new generation.
Elsewhere, the Montreal Canadiens have long since been out of the playoff hunt. It’s a little weird to see a team go from the Stanley Cup Final to the bottom of the NHL standings in the span of a year, but it does make sense when you consider the key players Montreal has been missing. Carey Price was a huge part of that playoff run and Shea Weber played major minutes throughout the 2021-22 postseason.
Unfortunately, it’s unlikely that Weber will ever be able to play again, but Price appears to be very close to returning from his knee injury. I’ve seen some people ask why the Canadiens would even bother having Price play at this point of the season, given that Montreal has nothing left to play for, but there are some benefits to it.
Price has gone through a lot in recent months and giving him the opportunity to make a couple starts before the end of the campaign would allow him to go into the summer on a more positive note. It would also help him shake off the rust and give him something to work off before he begins his summer workout routine. It might even take a bit of the pressure off him during training camp next season given that the gap between games would be substantially shorter. Certainly, there’s no reason to push Price if there’s any risk of a setback, but if it’s medically safe to have him play, then they may as well do so. From a fantasy perspective, if Price is available in your league, it’s not a bad idea to grab him in the hopes of getting a little late boost out of him. It’s risky given how long it’s been since he’s played, but he’s still Carey Price.
Moving away from teams that will miss the playoffs, I’m very interested to see how the battle for the Hart Trophy plays out over the final weeks. Connor McDavid, Jonathan Huberdeau, Johnny Gaudreau, Auston Matthews, and maybe even Roman Josi all look like potentially deserving candidates.
McDavid is currently leading the pack in terms of scoring with 41 goals and 106 points in 70 games. He’s already won the Hart Trophy twice before and frankly he might have claimed it in 2017-18 as well had Edmonton made the playoffs that year. Regardless, his value to the Oilers is tremendous. He does have Leon Draisaitl to work off but consider that Florida is averaging 4.16 goals per game and Toronto is averaging 3.83 goals per game, while Edmonton is averaging 3.48, so McDavid is providing a bigger percentage of the team’s offense than two of his major competitors for the Hart Trophy. Beyond that, he’s just an amazing talent. He might not end up winning the award, but I don’t think anyone would be seriously offended if their preferred candidate lost to him.
Huberdeau is just a hair behind McDavid in the scoring race with 26 goals and 102 points in 70 contests. He’s been leading the high-powered Florida Panthers’ offense and is one of the hottest players in the league right now with 10 goals and 43 points in his last 26 contests. If he keeps producing like that, he might end up overtaking McDavid in the Art Ross Trophy race and if he does, then his Hart bid will naturally become a lot stronger too.
Matthews won’t be winning the Art Ross Trophy, but in terms of goal scoring, he’s been almost unrivaled this season. He has 54 goals and 95 points in 65 contests. Milestones are arbitrary, but they do impact how people perceive a season and I think if he reaches the 60-goal mark then voters will be a lot more inclined to back him.
Speaking of milestones that might sway the voters, what if Roman Josi becomes the first defenseman since Brian Leetch in 1991-92 to reach the 100-point milestone? Josi has 19 goals and 84 points in 69 contests. Getting 16 points in his final 13 games isn’t farfetched given his pace. It is pretty rare for defensemen to win the award though. The last time it happened was when Chris Pronger got the honor in 1999-2000.
When it comes to Gaudreau, I don’t think many people would cite him as their favorite to win the award, but he’s been on fire going into the final stretch. He has six goals and 17 points in his last eight contests alone, which has pushed him up to fourth place on the NHL leaderboard with 34 goals and 97 points in 70 contests. If he keeps this up, maybe he’ll end up being the surprise winner of the award.