The National Hockey League had only six franchises until the late 1960s, and today the sport now involves 32 teams across North America—including 7 franchises in Canada. For our second NHL Saturday miniseries, we are ranking all NHL organizations to highlight the best teams in those respective histories. We’re only going back to the start of the Expansion Era, though, so keep that in mind going forward.
Today we take on the Buffalo Sabres, a team that has never won the Stanley Cup, although it has reached the Finals twice (1975, 1999). That doesn’t mean the organization has not had its high-water marks, however. Interestingly enough, its five best squads come from a 7-year stretch in the early days of expansion, however. This means the Sabres that (perhaps?) got screwed out of the Cup by a controversial decision once upon a time are not on this list. Shocking, really, but on with the ice show, nonetheless!
No. 5: 1980-1981 Buffalo Sabres
Despite posting only 99 points, these Sabres won the Adam Division with just 39 victories in 80 games. The team’s overall .619 winning percentage was impressive, however, thanks to 21 ties. In the postseason, Buffalo swept the Vancouver Canucks in a best-of-five series, but the Sabres were eliminated in 5 games in the second round against the Minnesota North Stars. The team was seventh in goal scoring and third in goal prevention, putting its potential very high overall in the NHL as a whole.
Right wing Danny Gare was the skating star, posting 85 points (46G, 39A) in 73 games while also piling up 109 PIMs. Defenseman John Van Boxmeer (18G, 51A, 69 PIMs) also established a strong presence on the blue line for the Sabres. As a sign of the times, the Sabres gave up 3.05 goals per game with two stoic goaltenders, but again, that was good enough to finish third in the league. However, the combined .891 save percentage ended up betraying Buffalo in the playoffs.
No. 4: 1976-1977 Buffalo Sabres
Despite a 48-24-8 record for 104 points, the Sabres finished second in the Adams Division, trailing the Boston Bruins by 2 points. They were fourth in both goal scoring and goal prevention, so clearly Buffalo was one of the best teams in the league this season. But after beating the North Stars in the first round, best-of-three series with a sweep, the Sabres themselves were swept in four games by the New York Islanders in the second, surely a disappointing finish to an otherwise promising season.
Center Gilbert Perreault anchored the offense with 95 points (39G, 56A), scoring on 20 percent of his shots on goal. The defense was led by D Jerry Korab (14G, 33A, 120 PIMs) and bolstered by primary G Gerry Desjardins (31-12-6). Five teams finished the regular season with over 100 points, and four of them made it to the postseason semifinals. Alas, the Sabres were the odd team out, unfortunately for them.
No. 3: 1975-1976 Buffalo Sabres
Another second-place finish for Buffalo in the Adams was on the docket, this time on the back of 105 points and a 46-21-13 record. The Sabres were second in scoring and sixth in defense, showing themselves again to be one of the best teams in the league. But the Bruins were 8 points better, and they got the top spot in the division. In the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, Buffalo beat St. Louis in three games, but then the Isles dropped the Sabres in six games to end the season early.
Desjardins was solid in net with a 29-15-11 record, while Perreault once again led the team in scoring (44G, 69A, and an 18.6-percent shot rate). D Jocelyn Guevremont (12G, 40A, 57 PIMs) was the leader on defense. Just like 1977, though, five teams finished the regular season with over 100 points, and four of them made it to the postseason semifinals. The Sabres just couldn’t seem to bust through after that 1975 run to the Finals.
No. 2: 1974-1975 Buffalo Sabres
With 49 wins and 113 points, this squad was the first in team history to make it to the Stanley Cup Finals. The 49-16-15 record produced a franchise-best .706 winning percentage and a first-place finish in the Adams Division, by a whopping 19 points over the Bruins. The Sabres dropped the Chicago Black Hawks in 5 games and the Montréal Canadiens in 6 games, before losing in the Cup Finals to the Philadelphia Flyers in 6 games. It would take the team 24 years to get as far in the postseason again.
The team had a trio of top-flight skaters: left wing Rick Martin (52G, 43A, 72 PIMs), RW Rene Robert (40G, 60A, 75 PIMs), and Perreault (39G, 57A) once again. Korab was the best defenseman, with 12G, 44A, and 184 PIMs. All this added up to a team that was second in goal scoring overall. The one weakness was the lack of a top-flight goalie, though, as four backstops combined for a bland 2.98 GAA, even as Buffalo finished sixth in the league for goal prevention.
No. 1: 1979-1980 Buffalo Sabres
This team was coached by legendary leader Scotty Bowman, and he led the Sabres to a 47-17-16 record and 110 points to win the Adams Division by 5 points over Boston. After beating the Canucks, 3-1, in the first round, Buffalo then swept Chicago in the next round before losing to the eventual champion Islanders in the league semifinals over 6 games. The defense ruled the day for these Sabres, as they were No. 1 in least goals allowed while scoring the third-most goals in the NHL themselves.
The top scorer was Perreault once again, with 40 goals and 66 assists to go along with 57 PIMs and a 22.2-percent shot percentage. Gare finished with 89 points (56G, 33A, 90 PIMs), while Van Boxmeer (11G, 40A, 55 PIMs) held down the defensive fort. Two different goalies each won 20-plus games, too, combining for a 2.49 GAA during the regular season. Overall, Buffalo posted 6 shutouts on the season, and the sabermetric rating for this Sabres squad was the best in franchise history—and No.1 this year.