The Buffalo Sabres are currently 29th in the NHL standings. They sit just three points, and one team out of 30th, occupied by the Columbus Blue Jackets. The same Columbus Blue Jackets that clinched 30th for the Sabres last season. Looking up, the Sabres are 13 points out of a playoff spot, and have seven teams to climb over.
According to sportsclubstats.com, the Sabres current playoff odds are 0.5% or 1 in 200. For them to make the playoffs it would take a run similar to the one Ottawa pulled off last season. The Sabres playoff chances do not reach even 50% unless they go 23-7-4 and even then they are only 55%. For the Sabres to have a 100% chance of making it, they would need to go 26-5-3 the rest of the season. I wouldn't bet any team does that well the rest of the way except maybe Chicago. The Sabres certainly are not going to. Kiss the playoffs goodbye fans, it's not happening this season.
So, at some points fans are going to remember the goals of last season, and wonder if they could apply to the last few months of this season. To better understand the difference in 30th place this year, we must first understand the prospects in the 2016 NHL Draft. Brayton Wilson of BLTD Sports does a great job previewing the prospects here.
Essentially what it boils down to is Auston Matthews is the front runner to go 1st overall, with Finnish forwards Jesse Puljujarvi and Patrik Laine hot on his tale. All three could be playing in the NHL next season. The top three are not as highly touted as Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel, but are more highly touted than Sam Reinhart, Sam Bennett, and Leon Draisaitl. Matthew Tkacuk and defenseman Jakob Chychrun are the next two ranked prospects. I personally have had my eye on Chychrun since he went 1st overall in the OHL draft a few years back. He was a man-child coming into the OHL, and his 6'2", 195 pound body could be ready for NHL action next season. In my opinion there is a drop off after 5th.
Jesse Puljujarvi (left) and Patrik Laine (right)
Another difference this season is the lottery. Instead of drawing just the 1st pick like in past years, the first three picks will be drawn this season. This means that the 30th place team could drop all the way to 4th overall. The 29th place team could drop to 5th, 28th could drop to 6th, and so on.
Here is a lottery simulation, via nhllotterysimulator.com, where neither the Sabres (29th) nor the Blue Jackets (30th), get any of the top three picks. Ironic that Edmonton wins again, am I right?
As you can see above, the Sabres drop to 5th. They would avoid the drop off from 5th to 6th, but would not get one of the top three forwards.
The odds for the 1st pick are the same as last season. 30th gets you a 20% chance, 29th gets you a 13.5% chance, and so on. The odds to get any of the top three picks, changes depending on who the teams that win are. Generally, the 30th place team has around a 65% chance to get a top three pick, 29th has a 43% chance, 28th has a 36% chance, and it continues to drop by about 5%.
It would be a shame if the Sabres ended up without a top five pick in the NHL draft. To guarantee a top five pick, the Sabres cannot finish higher then 29th. Now I'm not saying the Sabres should fix their roster to make that happen, like they did last year, but it wouldn't be the worst thing in the world if it happened.
There are little things Tim Murray could do to help finish lower in the standings. Trading Jamie McGinn and Chad Johnson are the easy things to do. I would advocate keeping McGinn, considering he could be a useful piece for years to come. That's better than a 2nd or 3rd round pick that will take years to develop. If Murray wants to go a step further, he can trade away Tyler Ennis when he gets healthy. When healthy, Ennis helps this team even when struggling. This has been a disappointing year for Ennis, and yet he still manages 11 points in 23 games. If he starts to do what many thought he would, he's nearly a point a game player.
This year is not like last year in the sense that there were several god awful teams in the NHL. The Sabres were maybe the worst team in league history, the Coyotes were historically bad, the Leafs lost seemingly ever game for the final three months of the season, and the Oilers were the usual Oilers. That hurts the cause of trying to climb over teams to get into the playoff race, but helps the cause of staying in the bottom.
My opinion is that it's better to finish 30th than 23rd. The Sabres are not going to make the playoffs, and they can show improvement while now climbing in the standings. The teams around them are playing better than last season. Saying they've made no improvement as a team because they haven't improved in the standings is idiotic. In that world of logic, a game between the Columbus Blue Jackets and Toronto Maple Leafs impacts how the Buffalo Sabres are progressing as a team? No. Finish as low as you can this year, get another stud in the draft, and we'll go from there. This isn't a tank, I'm not going to stand up and cheer when the Sabres lose, but that doesn't mean I won't know in my head that it is the more beneficial result. And how cool would it be to have the 1st pick with the draft in Buffalo?