During a discussion a few weeks ago, a member of the Buffalo media (who will remain unnamed) argued that the Buffalo Sabres would improve enough to make the playoffs next season. Once I eventually finished snickering, I was left wondering how much the Sabres were actually capable of improving.
Despite having a dreadful .324 PTS% this season, the Sabres are actually on the upswing after finishing at .317 in 2013-2014. With the likes of Sam Reinhart and the likelihood of a Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel joining the team as soon as next season, there is little doubt the team will become better. Can they improve enough to break .500, or make the playoffs in 2016?
Teams have been building their rosters through young players at the draft since the very first one that took place in 1963. The most recent example of success through the draft would be the Pittsburgh Penguins, who endured four straight last-place losing seasons before they found themselves back in the hunt for a Stanley Cup. The system is generally effective but not foolproof, as many Edmonton Oilers fans will certainly tell you.
The draft took on its' current “public” form in 1980, and that is where my investigation into terrible teams improving began.
Since 1980, only 40 teams have finished with a PTS% lower than .350, and by analyzing how much those teams have improved or worsened the following season we get some surprising answers for hopeful Sabres fans.
Of the 40 teams that finished a season below the .350 threshold, only five have finished the next season with a record that is worse. The 1992-1993 San Jose Sharks are the most recent team to finish with a record worse than the sub-.350 record that they posted the year before, proving that the modern drafting system is very effective at keeping teams out of the basement for an extended time.
Teams that improved did so at an average rate of .113, which is significant. That’s not enough to turn a .350 team into a .500 team, but it gets them pretty close at .463. Since the Sabres are currently sitting at .324, that would put them at around .437 next season if they continue with this trend.
Unfortunately for the Sabres, the lowest PTS% to get into the playoffs in the last two seasons is .567. It’ll take a little bit more than that to sneak in for 2016.
Only three teams since 1980 have gone from a sub .350 PTS% to .500+ PTS%. Those teams are:
How did these outliers achieve this success in such a short period of time?
The 1992-1993 Quebec Nordiques were the beneficiary of the infamous trade that sent Eric Lindros from Quebec to the Philadelphia Flyers. The main piece in the deal, Peter Forsberg, didn’t play in North America that year, but the team received quite the package that included Ron Hextall, Mike Ricci, Steve Duchesne, and more.
Duchesne and Ricci would put up 82 and 78 points respectively, and Hextall would bring his .888 save percentage to the team for 54 games. That was a massive improvement over Ron Tugnutt’s .864 from the previous season.
The 2001-2002 New York Islanders featured a massively revamped roster from the 2000-2001 version, courtesy of Mike Milbury.
Superstar Alexei Yashin, veteran Michael Peca, and offensive defenceman Adrian Aucoin were all brought in via separate trades that involved depth players, draft picks, and players with high future potential being given up. Goaltender Chris Osgood was also plucked off waivers from the Detroit Red Wings to round out their new roster.
An aging John Vanbiesbrouck, Wade Flaherty, and rookie Rick DiPietro were the goaltenders for the 2000-2001 Islanders, so Osgood’s Stanley Cup attitude – and more importantly .910 save percentage – was a welcome addition. Future GM Garth Snow was also acquired to play 25 games as the backup.
Milbury’s moves paid off, and the Islanders were playoff bound for the first time in seven years – one season after posting a .317 PTS%.
The 2007-2008 Philadelphia Flyers were also heavily re-tooled from the previous year’s version. The youth movement came in the form of breakout seasons from both Mike Richards and Jeff Carter, but the team also acquired 30-goal scorer Daniel Briere, 20-goal scorers Scott Hartnell and Joffery Lupul, and top-pairing defenceman Kimmo Timonen in the offseason.
2006-2007 saw a rotation of Antero Niittymaki, Robert Esche, and Michael Leighton in goal before they acquired a 30-year-old Martin Biron from the Sabres at the end of the season. Biron would post a .918 save percentage in 2007-2008, a career high for him at that point.
All three teams that jumped from .350 PTS% to .500+ PTS% in one season underwent drastic changes to reach that level in such a short period. It is fair to say that the Sabres may jump higher than we expect next season due to the quality of talent that they receive in the upcoming draft, but unless the team undergoes a number of drastic changes it would be silly to expect them to reach the .500 mark – let alone make the playoffs.
Luckily for the Sabres, it is a fantastic year to be in the possession of a high draft pick. It looks like it is going to be the deepest draft the league has seen in years, and that could speed up the Sabres rebuilding process. Whether the Sabres receive Eichel or McDavid, keep in mind that the Pittsburgh Penguins actually won one less game in Sidney Crosby’s first NHL season.
A generational talent will definitely help, but this will only be the second losing season in a row, so more patience is required from Sabres fans before they can expect to see playoff action in Buffalo once again.