Thursday, August 25, 2016

Vesey picking Rangers is a bummer, but c'est la vie

Frank Sinatra is known singing, New York, New York. He's also known for the title track to an album called "That's Life." Such is the juxtaposition of Jimmy Vesey's decision to sign with the the NY Rangers as the highly coveted free agent started "spreading the news" about "leaving today" to "be a part of it" in New York City. For the Buffalo Sabres and their fans, we flip to the other side of the coin with Sinatra singing, "that's life" while fully knowing that despite another miss, the Sabres will take the approach that "each time I find myself layin' flat on my face, I just pick myself up and get back in the race."

Let's get this out of the way right now, it sucks not being able to land Vesey. The Sabres offered the highly sought after Hobey Baker winner the opportunity to be apart of their future but it seems as if the allure of the NY Rangers and a chance to live in the Big Apple was too much for Vesey to pass up. "One of the things I definitely liked about New York was the top-notch lifestyle that the city offers,” Vesey was quoted as saying at his conference call last night.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Lookin' for that top-six left-winger.

Buffalo Sabres GM Tim Murray has done a lot of work putting together a lineup to his liking. He's come a long way since this lineup to open the 2014-15 campaign:

Matt Moulson, Tyler Ennis, Drew Stafford
Cody Hodgson, Sam Reinhart, Brian Gionta
Marcus Foligno, Zemgus Girgensons, Chris Stewart
Nicolas Deslauriers, Cody McCormick, Torrey Mitchell

Josh Gorges, Tyler Myers
Andre Benoit, Andrej Meszaros
Mike Weber, Rasmus Ristolainen

Jhonas Enroth

In the Press Box--Brian Flynn, Tyson Strachan, Nikita Zadorov

That said, despite fortifying his roster with young-vets like Ryan O'Reilly, Evander Kane, Zach Bogosian and as of July, Kyle Okposo, he still has some holes to fill.

In June Murray took a calculated risk sending third-rounder to the Nashville Predators for the rights to Hobey Baker-winner, Jimmy Vesey. Although the Sabres gave it their best shot, Vesey (in a curious move considering what other teams had to offer) opted for the NY Rangers. The 6'3" 195 lb. Vesey would have had the opportunity to land in a top-six/top-nine role in Buffalo despite not having any pro experience.

With him out of the equation, there is a top-six slot on the left side that needs to be filled. How will Murray do it?

Let's take a look at the contenders.

Monday, August 22, 2016

V-Z Day. Probably tomorrow? More time for erroneous conclusions.

The Jimmy Vesey watch continued today much to the dismay of many. Nothing has been leaked out that can be deemed concrete although some claiming to have sources inside Vesey's circle have tweeted their supposed info on his decision.

Vesey heard pitches from a number of teams, mostly in the northeast region of the country close to his hometown of Boston. Some examples of teams bringing out the big guns were the Pittsburgh Penguins brought Sidney Crosby, the New Jersey Devils--Corey Schneider, the NY Islanders--John Tavares and the Chicago Blackhawks--Patrick Kane in the room. Of course the NY Rangers not only had their contingent in person but also had the backing of celebrity tweets from the likes of Susan Sarandon, Justin Tuck, Boomer Esiason, Linda Cohn and Run DMC, among others, putting their two cents into the Vesey sweepstakes. It's New York.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Where will Jimmy Vesey land? The odds.

True to his word all along, at 12:01 a.m. coveted college winger Jimmy Vesey hit the open market hell-bent upon finding a home. Vesey and his agents have said all along that there are a number of factors that the 23 yr. old will weigh while making his decision including the opportunity to maximize his post entry-level deal (2 yrs.) via top-six/top-nine ice-time and time on the powerplay. And not to be dismissed is the pull of possibly playing for his hometown Boston Bruins.

Vesey had said from the start that he's interested in staying in the East (more specifically the northeast) and that he's also very much interested in a team's overall philosophy and their depth chart as well as how ownership takes care of it's own. The first part of staying closer to home was reiterated this morning as agent Peter Fish (via WEEI, Boston,) but he also did not completely rule out the Chicago Blackhawks who, with their recent record, three Stanley Cup rings and organizational quality from top to bottom usually has them at the top of anyone's list.

To their credit the Vesey camp has kept things close to the vest this summer with virtually no leaks. Some rumors have surfaced but none of them had any direct links to Vesey. "I think there’s a lot of things out there that either aren’t true or people are just searching to say things," Fish told Yahoo's Puck Daddy last week.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

After the Mark Pysyk trade, the 2010 Buffalo Sabres draft comes up empty

Last summer in a series called Prime Years (links below) we took a look at the 2005-2009 draft classes for the Buffalo Sabres that constituted a group of players who are now in their primes (ages 24-28.) The Sabres selected 37 players from those five drafts and as of last summer only three were with the team heading into the 2015-16 NHL seasons--Mike Weber (2006, 57th overall,) Tyler Ennis (2008, 26th) and Marcus Foligno (2009, 104th.)

This off season represents another year where players from the 2010 NHL Draft would just be entering their prime years and, ideally, making contributions to the Buffalo Sabres at the NHL-level. However, the 2010 draft class, much like the prior five classes, failed to have an impact.

In all fairness, there were some good players from 2005-09 who were traded away for other pieces, like the Tyler Myers and Brayden McNabb trades, and at one point the Sabres had the most draft picks by percentage playing in the NHL. But the fact remains--for a small market team like Buffalo, they did not hit on enough draft picks to rise above mediocrity. They missed on Marek Zagrapan (2005, 13th,) completely whiffed on Dennis Persson (2006, 24th,) ended up trading away their 2009 first-rounder Zach Kassian and didn't have a first round pick in 2007 after trading it away for a rental. The two best picks (both first-rounders from 2008) in Myers and Ennis are two very good players but there wasn't nearly enough talent around them during their formative years to sustain any of the success they had early on.

With that kind of track record at the draft and with overpaid veterans playing with a country-club mentality, it's not surprising that the Buffalo Sabres opted for a full rebuild as there was nothing in the cupboards to get them out of the never-ending cycle of middling finishes and middling draft picks.

The 2010 draft was the last one of the Tom Golisano-era. Kevin Devine was still at the helm as Head Amateur Scout and they still did't have anywhere near the number of scouts in the field necessary to build successfully through the draft. The edict from Golisano and Team President Larry Quinn was "just break even" and part of the equation had the team relying heavily on video (the VideoScout3000 as the late jtswinehart once called it.) Although it saved them money, it was a cost-cutting move that really hurt.

When the Sabres headed to Los Angeles for the draft in 2010 they'd just come off of a first-round loss to the Boston Bruins in the playoffs. Buffalo had clinched the Northeast Division behind the Vezina Trophy-winning goaltending of veteran Ryan Miller and the Calder Trophy season of defenseman Myers. All of their top-scorers that season were decidedly a plus in plus/minus column while centers Derek Roy (69 points) and Tim Connolly (65) lead the team in scoring. Myers was fifth with 48 points and was tied for second-best on the team with a plus-13 plus/minus rating.

Despite adding some serious heft at the previous draft, most still felt that the "soft-but-skilled" team Darcy Regier built still needed size and toughness as evidenced by the Bruins series. The Sabres had skill and Miller was on his game as well, but when the going got tough, the Sabres were no where to be found. Goals needed to be scored in the dirty areas and the only one that did that was Cody McCormick a player signed by the Sabres in the off season, played in the AHL and eventually got the call from Buffalo after Thomas Vanek was undermined by a questionable check to the lower body by Boston's Johnny Boychuk. The lasting image of that series in that regard is McCormick barreling to the net so hard to try and score that he crashed into it and received a penalty in the process.

The Sabres making it into the playoffs that season meant that they'd be drafting 23rd-overall. In the prior five drafts they drafted no higher than 12th (Myers,) had two 13th-overalls (Zagrapan and Kassian) and a 24th in Persson. And with the 23rd pick of the 2010 NHL Draft, the Buffalo Sabres selected defenseman Mark Pysyk.

Pysyk was a puck-mover, one in the long line of puck-movers Regier favored. He had decent size (6'1", 188 lbs.) on a projectable frame and was known for his smarts, leadership and defensive acumen. Unfortunately for him, when it was time for him to make inroads into the NHL, the Sabres were headed into rebuild-mode.

After being drafted by the Sabres, Pysyk spent two more seasons with his junior club, the Edmonton Oil Kings and captained them to their first-ever WHL Championship in 2012 as well as a trip to the Memorial Cup that May. He began his professional career the following season with the Rochester Americans while the NHL locked out it's players. In 57 games for Rochester that season he had 18 points (4+14) and was a plus-8. He also appeared in 19 games for Buffalo scoring his first-ever NHL goal and adding four assists.

Pysyk started out the 2013-14 season playing for Buffalo but after turmoil engulfed the team he was sent back to Rochester. He continued to be a steadying force on the blueline in Rochester but new GM Tim Murray kept him in Rochester even after purging the team of a bevy of players including McNabb.  Murray was fully aware of Pysyk's defense and said of the move to keep him developing in Rochseter, "I want him to take big strides here. I don't want him to be happy being a safe, puck-moving defenseman, I want to see him push himself more offensively, push himself into the transition game a little more."

After full-time duty in Buffalo last season resulting in one goal in 55 games, Pysyk was part of a deal with the Florida Panthers at the 2016 NHL Draft in Buffalo. Pysyk and two picks (Nos. 38 and 89) were sent to Florida for defenseman Dmitry Kulikov and the 33rd-ovearall pick which was used to select center Rasmus Asplund.

A quick note on the trade. The Florida Panthers revamped their defense-corps by trading away physical players like Kulikov and Eric Gudbranson (VAN) in favor of more puck-movers like Pysyk.

Defenseman Jerome Gauthier-Leduc was selected in the third round with the 68th pick by Buffalo after an outstanding season for Rouyn-Noranda of the QMJHL. Gauthier Leduc was touted as a very strong skating offensive defenseman with good size (6'2" 192 lbs.) and exceptional vision.
Gauthier-Leduc would finish up his CHL career with Rimouski scoring 74 regular season points (28+46) in 62 games plus another 19 points (9+10) in 21 playoff games but could not transfer that scoring acumen to the pros. He spent four seasons in Rochester scoring 19 goals and adding 38 assists in 231 games before being traded to the Binghamton Senators in an AHL blockbuster on February 27th. His struggles during the 2013-14 campaign had him sent to the ECHL that season for an eight-game stint.

The Sabres selected center Kevin Sundher with the 75th-overall selection in 2010. Sundher put up some pretty big numbers in the WHL (94g+158a in 252 games) but his perimeter game didn't translate well to the pro ranks. His smaller size as well as lack of physicality and grit showed and after three seasons in Rochester and a nine-game stint with Elmira (NY) of the ECHL he went unsigned. Sundher played 10 games in the AHL and nine in the ECHL last season.

Matt Mackenzie (83rd-overall) came out of junior with a simple, two-way game and it got him a good look from the Sabres organization. At 6'2" 198 lbs. Mackenzie had decent size and did get some decent playing time on Rochester's third pairing but he also was sent to the ECHL in three of his four seasons.

Steven Shipley (98th,) Greg Sutch (143rd) and Cedrick Henley (173rd) all came out of junior without ever making it to the pro level. According to Jason Chen of Hockey's Future, Shipley finished his hockey career with St. Mary's University (Atlantic University Sport,) Sutch played a short time for York University (Canadian Interuniversity Sport) and Henley finished in the CIS with Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières.

Right Wing Christian Isackson was a high school star out of St. Thomas Academy and was a finalist for Minnesota's Mr. Hockey Award which was won by Florida's Nick Bjugstad that year. Isackson had great hands but couldn't adapt to play at the college level totaling eight goals 109 games for the Minnesota Golden Gophers. His pro career consists of 70 games in the ECHL.

Left Wing Riley Boychuk was Buffalo's last pick in the 2010 draft. The 208th-overall pick has been bouncing around the lower pro levels since turning pro in 2011. He last played for the organization in 2013-14.

In looking back at the final six drafts of the Tom Golisano-era, it's not surprising that Terry Pegula and his charges decided to blow the whole thing up as the lifeblood of the organization--drafting--was not adding much to the big club. When Pegula took over he pledged--while also following through on that pledge--to cut loose the financial chains of the club. Most people look at that free-spending 2011 off-season as an example of that, but most noteworthy was his undercover commitment to the scouting department.

From Pegula's first presser as owner:

"Starting today, there will be no financial mandates on the Buffalo Sabres hockey department. There is no salary cap in the National Hockey League on scouting budgets and player development budgets. I plan on increasing...our scouting budgets, both with bodies on the ground, and in areas we may not be hitting capably, and also enhancing our video department. Starting today, we will bring in more player development coaches, to help these guys become better hockey players, work on their weaknesses, or whatever the coaches think. We will aspire to be the best in the league at finding, developing, and keeping our players in their new Buffalo Sabre family."

Pegula's first draft was in 2011, but the full weight of his financial commitment to more scouts and better player development wouldn't begin to start taking shape until the following year. In saying that, the 2010 draft should be considered the last one where the Sabres were stuck "VideoScout3000" mode, a failure of an era that limited their success to two players--Ennis and Foligno--being on the team in the prime of their careers.

 Prime Years past columns:

2005--Prime Years. Past drafts and players who'd be in their primes today
2006--Prime Years: The void grows bigger as the 2006 draft flops
2007--Prime Years:  2007, Another draft class with nothing to show for it
2008--Prime Years:  2008--a seismic shift, poor season, solid draft
2009--Prime Years:  2009, Where's the beef? Sabres bulk up at draft

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Charge of the youngins--The first wave

It's been a little over four years since the Buffalo Sabres ushered in their rebuild by trading core player Paul Gaustad, and just over three years since they hastened the teardown by trading away Jason Pominville.

The 2012 and 2013 drafts would represent the beginning of the future for the team and. Defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen (2013, 8th-overall) has made the biggest impact on the team thus-far as he anchored the top-pairing last season. Jake McCabe (2012, 44th) hit the pros after his junior season at Wisconsin and looks to have solidified a spot in the top-four on defense. And despite coming off of a very poor 2015-16 NHL campaign, forward Zemgus Girgensons (2012, 14th) is still considered a top-nine forward with enough upside to possibly crack the top-six.

Those three young players essentially held the fort, along with longer-term Sabres Tyler Ennis and Marcus Foligno during this period of transition with the youngest of that group, Girgensons, playing in 202 NHL games through the two bottom-dwelling seasons and last year's rise from the ashes. Buffalo GM Tim Murray's goal after taking the reigns in January, 2014 (other than dismantling what was left of the former core group of players) was to begin laying a foundation by adding seasoned vets into the mix. Through the next three drafts he was able to add to the stable of quality prospects he inherited and with the volume of picks and prospects that Buffalo had acquired over the course of the rebuild he was able to use them to acquire young-vets.

Through it all the Sabres were able to finish 8th in the league last season with one of the youngest teams in the league.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016's 30-In-30: "This current group of Sabres in uncharted territory.”

Every year gives hockey fans something to digest during the precipitous lull that is the off season--30 Teams in 30 Days. Today it was Buffalo's turn as the staff moves their way up from the bottom to the top giving an overview of each team.

Simply put,'s Dan Rosen said the bar has already been set and expectations have risen, so said head coach Dan Bylsma through an interview with Rosen back in July. The Sabres had been a doormat two years running but made great strides going from 54 points in 2014-15 to 81 points in 2015-16. In the last of his five questions from that interview Rosen posed this, "Nobody had any expectations for the Sabres last season, but I don't think we can say the same thing now. What can you do to manage the expectations? Or do you even want to manage them? What do you think about having expectations to potentially be a playoff team?"

"I think it's a really valid point and it's one we're going to be dealing with right from the start of training camp," began Bylsma's reply. "We're going to have that and we're going to want that expectation for our group.

"When we talked about our plan starting last year, we thought we were going to be an 80- to 85-point team last season even though we were obviously trying to make the playoffs right from the start. Prior to getting Kyle [Okposo] and the possibility of getting Jimmy Vesey, we thought we could be a 90- to 95-point team this year. Now Kyle and Dmitry Kulikov, and if we can add Jimmy Vesey into our top six, we should expect to be 95 points or higher than that. We think we're better on defense. We think we're stronger. We're deeper. If you're looking at expectations from within, we should be above 95 points at the end of the season. It took 95 points to get into the playoffs in the East last season."