Thursday, March 23, 2017

Will...

Published by hockeybuzz.com, 3-22-2017


With the shade slowly being drawn on Buffalo's hockey season and fans in Sabreland looking forward to an off season of moves that can hopefully get them into the playoffs next season, there are still a handful of games to be followed. Individual and team development form a thematic for the remainder of the season so here are some questions for the Sabres after they finished a back-to-back with a win at Detroit and a loss vs. Pittsburgh.

Will...

--the Sabres be able to match or exceed their 81 point total from last season?
Lest we forget, Buffalo went from 54 points in 2014-15 to 81 points last season which is significant regardless of how bad the team was. Expectations were for a modest to playoff contending point increase but they head into the final eight games of the season on an 80-point pace. Buffalo has games remaining against Toronto Maple Leafs (2,) Florida Panthers (2,) Columbus Blue Jackets, NY Islanders, Montreal Canadiens, and Tampa Bay Lightning.

--the Buffalo be able to play the role of spoiler?
The Sabres play three teams in the hunt for the final Eastern Conference wild card slot--Toronto, NY Islanders and Tampa Bay--with the Leafs in the driver's seat. Of the three, no doubt the Sabres would like to do the most damage to Toronto as there's a strong rivalry brewing. Hail to the Leafs, however, as head coach Mike Babcock has his talented, young group playing some impressive hockey when it counts including wins against foes from the east in Detroit, Philadelphia, Carolina, Tampa Bay and Boston as well as taking the Chicago Blackhawks to overtime before losing.

--Rasmus Ristolainen face suspension for his hit last night?
"The Angry Finn" as Sabres coach Dan Bylsma calls Ristolainen, had Pittsburgh Penguins forward Jake Guentzel lined up and ready to demolish in the neutral zone as soon as the puck hit Guentzel's stick. However the pass was picked of by Buffalo's Zemgus Girgensons and Ristolainen hit a man without the puck. Guentzel got to his skates bloodied and woozy while Ristolainen was hit with a five minute for interference and a game misconduct. Personally I thought he backed off as he turned to his back-side just before the collision. A game at most.

--Evander Kane be able to get on track before the end of the season.
From December 3 to March 11 Kane was on fire scoring all of his 25 goals but he's been goal-less in his last five. Much of it has to do with the March 2 injury to Kyle Okposo and Kane's consequent move off of Jack Eichel's line. In the 10 games after Okposo hit the injured list, Kane has only two goals both of them coming on the powerplay. The Eichel-effect no doubt.

--the loss of Okposo get the attention it deserves?
As a poster pointed out in one of our threads, not enough attention is being paid to the loss of Okposo who was at or near the top in Sabres scoring all season. Since he's been sidelined the Buffalo is 3-6-1.

--rookie defenseman Brady Austin continue to impress?
He was called up two games ago after Taylor Fedun (who was pretty impressive) and Cody Franson hit the injured list. Austin is a big guy at 6'4" 230 and was having a largely forgettable season with Rochester before being called up. He played a solid game against a quick Detroit Red Wings team and played another solid game against a faster and more talented Pittsburgh club. Austin skates well for his size and is fairly nimble, able to turn his hips like a man much smaller than him. Although expectations are tempered, he's exceeded what I thought he could bring to the table.

--Jack Eichel learn from Sidney Crosby and the like?
I love "Jack Flash" and think his skill-level and skating are off the charts but his desire and will doesn't seem to be at the level of Crosby. At least not on a consistent basis. When Crosby scores that scowl is his celebration of defeating the many who are draped all over him the entire game. Eichel shows that desire but there's still room for growth in that area.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

No real reason to continue overplaying Ristolainen and O'Reilly

Published by hockeybuzz.com, 3-20-2017


The facts:

--22 yr. old Buffalo defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen is presently fourth in the NHL in average time on ice (ATOI) at 27:01. Last season he was 10th at 25:16.

--For the second season in a row Ryan O'Reilly leads all NHL forwards with 21:39 ATOI. Last season the 26 yr. old logged an average of 21:44 minutes/game.

--The 2016-17 Buffalo Sabres have a record of 29-31-12 and although they're not mathematically eliminated from the playoffs, their goose is cooked as they're nine points out of the second wild card spot with six teams to jump.

The Sabres have themselves a bit of a conundrum headed into tonight's matchup with the Detroit Red Wings as a thin blue line got even thinner. Taylor Fedun, who was called up because of an injury to Justin Falk, and Cody Franson will not be playing in Detroit tonight after suffering injuries in Anaheim on Friday. It got to the point where head coach Dan Bylsma was rotating three defensemen against the Ducks.

“You go from left D to right D to rest, and you came out and went to the left D, then right D and then rest,” Bylsma told the media. “It was a short time, but we had the rotation going there. The fresh guy goes to the farthest point on the ice, and you move toward the bench to get some rest.”

For Ristolainen, it was just another day at the office as he logged as smidge over 30 minutes of ice-time in Buffalo's 2-1 shootout win over Anaheim. It was the second time in the last four games he has logged 30 or more minutes of ice time, the eighth time he's done since breaking the mark 27 games into the season.

Being the hockey player that he is, Ristolainen is more than willing to carry a huge load for the team. He's been in tip-top physical shape since finishing his rookie season in 2014 and Bylsma, as we've seen, hasn't been shy about feeding him as many minutes as he can while the 6'4" 203 lb. Finn will never shy away from that load. “The workload is fine,” Ristolainen said via a Bill Hoppe piece in the Olean Times Herald. “I don’t feel it too much.”

However, playing that many minutes as a young player will catch up to you. Ristolainen, according to his coach, plays those minutes hard and that will eventually take it's toll.

“The problem with Rasmus playing 30 minutes is he just plays them so hard, so physical,” Bylsma said via the Hoppe piece. “He’s all in when he plays 30 minutes like that, and that’s tough for anybody to do. There are some guys who play that much in their careers and tend to manage it a bit better than Rasmus.

“Rasmus, he’s giving you everything he’s got. If he’s out there two minutes for a shift, he will give you everything he has at the end of that two minutes. That is on an empty tank sometimes.”

That is a sign of youthful invincibility, but it also should be taken as a warning sign.

At this point in the season, with the team effectively out of the playoff race and not much to play for except pride, paring back Ristolainen's minutes should be prioritized. A cautionary tale can be found in the story of Chicago Cubs manager Jim Riggleman and his use of phenom pitcher Kerry Wood.

We all know of the Cubs curse (which ended with their 2016 World Series win) and Wood came to Chicago bearing the weight of that. As a rookie in 1998 Wood fireballed his way to 233 strikeouts and Rookie of the Year honors. Wood, however, developed arm problems that would define his career and the opinion around the league is that Riggleman overused him.

Riggleman was in the fourth year of a marginal at best tenure with the Cubs and Wood allowed the Cubs to get into the playoffs for the first time since 1989 as a wild card. But the cost was high as Wood underwent Tommy John surgery and spent the entire 1999 season on the disabled list.

He was never quite the same after that.

You could also point to NFL phenom quarterback Robert Griffin III as a young player who looks to have been ridden into the ground. The Washington Redskins sent three first round draft picks and a second rounder to move up in the draft to select him as their franchise quarterback while the read option was the rage in the NFL. During his 2012 rookie year, RGIII was the master at that and it looked as if the Redskins move paid off..

However, defenses eventually caught up with it and by the end of Griffin's 2012 season, he was taking a beating. Head coach Mike Shanahan (who was also vice president of football operations for Washington) allowed Griffin to play through injuries in the latter part of the season and into the playoffs. The end result was RGIII on the turf against Seattle with his leg dangling at the knee. He's never been the same.

Unlike the Cubs and the Redskins as laid out above, the Sabres are not in the playoff picture so there's absolutely no reason to be playing Ristolainen that much. And what goes for overworking Ristolainen goes for O'Reilly as well.

O'Reilly has a few years on Risto and has a lot more NHL experience so he manages his game much better. But there's a different O'Reilly on the ice when he's fatigued. When on his game he's one of the best two-way centers in the game, one who's relentless in all three zones and can win a faceoff anytime, anywhere on the ice. When he's fatigued he doesn't have quite the same effect.

No doubt O'Reilly will take whatever Bylsma throws at him because he's a hockey player. However he's also one who started the season suffering from back spasms (which may or may not have subsided) and who also went under the knife for an emergency appendectomy on Christmas Day, of which he returned a week early because, he's a hockey player.

There might be one reason to continue overplaying Ristolainen and/or O'Reilly at this point, and that's for Buffalo to win as many games as possible to finish the season. Rumor has it that Bylsma's seat has gotten warm as the Sabres have had a disappointing season and finishing the season on a high note may alter that. But at what cost.

Maybe we should look at what it cost Kerry Wood and RGIII.


*****

With Fedun and Franson joining Falk and Dmitry Kulikov on the injured list, the Sabres recalled two defensemen from Rochester today. Casey Nelson (2016, FA) and Brady Austin (2012, 193rd overall) have joined the team in Detroit.



Monday, March 20, 2017

Buffalo wins a 10-round shootout...No...really

Published by hockeybuzz.com, 3-18-2017


As per usual lately, it was a shooting gallery for a Buffalo netminder as backup Anders Nilsson was peppered by the Anaheim Ducks with 40 shots last night. Nilsson was strong in net for the Sabres and was up to the task as he allowed only one goal-against in regulation/overtime then stopped eight of 10 shots in the shootout as he lead the Sabres to the 2-1 victory.

After a listless effort for much of the previous game in which they were shut out by the LA Kings 2-0, Buffalo was much more engaged from the get-go in this one. Instead of getting outshot by a huge, almost unthinkable margin (15-2) in the first period like they did up I-5 against the Kings, the Ducks were held to nine shots but managed to slip one by Nilsson.

The Sabres, however, would tie the game on a lucky bounce as a Jake McCabe shot would be deflected by Anaheim goalie Jonathan Bernier to the side of the net where Ryan O'Reilly was in a battle with a Ducks defender. From Bernier's glove to O'Reilly's skate and a carom from a sharp angle that trickled over the goal line, Buffalo tied the score. There was no scoring in the third period, none in overtime and Sabres fans (whomever was left watching at 1:30 EST in the morning) were left with the prospect of a shootout where the Sabres have been abysmal this season.

Prior to last night the Sabres were near or at the bottom of the league with a 1-6 shootout record, a 17.6 shooting percentage (3/17) and a .250 save percentage as their goalies managed to stop only four of 16 shots against.

Perhaps it was a case of the bling pig finding a nut last night as Nilsson was rock solid in the shootout while O'Reilly, Rasmus Ristolainen and Zemgus Girgensons all scored in the skills competition  looking like pure goal-scorers in the process. O'Reilly snapped one top-shelf, glove side, Ristolainen pulled off a "piece of magic," as called by Sabres play-by-play man Dan Dunleavy, using his reach for a long backhand reach-around and Girgensons, whom Bernier tried to fake out, looked cool as a cucumber as he went forehand over an outstretched right pad for the game-winner. Nothin' fancy for "Gus," just a simple forehand-backhand-forehand past an overconfident goalie.

For as much as we've seen a complacent Buffalo Sabres team, and for as much as it looked as if they'd packed it in on their coach and the season, deep down there's a competitive spirit that hates to lose and takes joy in winning. After Girgensons won it the Sabres bench erupted as if they'd just secured a spot in the playoffs. And for only the second time in the last seven games the post-game interviews would focus upon what went right in a win as opposed to what went wrong in a loss.

Girgensons was on the MSG post-game with Brian Duff and Brad May, a rare spot for him as it's not very often a bottom-six defensive forward gets to play the part of hero. He had an ear-to-ear grin with Duffer and May and continued with that smile in the locker room when he said of watching while the shootout went deeper, "every time I was just hoping we'd score and get to go home."

It was a pretty brutal two games prior to the shootout win for Buffalo. Between Jack Eichel's first goal 1:50 into the first period against San Jose' to O'Reilly's goal 15:35 into the second period last night, the Sabres went 153:45 seconds without a goal. It was also a rugged trio of games against three Western Conference heavies where bodies were flying everywhere, yet the Sabres held their own.

Head coach Dan Bylsma did nearly a full shuffle of his lines last night keeping only one intact--Marcus Foligno-Evan Rodrigues-Hudson Fasching. O'Reilly was on Eichel's wing along with Tyler Ennis. Girgensons centered a line featuring two fast power forwards in Evander Kane and Justin Bailey while Sam Reinhart, who is normally on Eichel's wing was centering a line of Brian Gionta and Matt Moulson.

Defensive call-up Taylor Fedun continued his strong play but was dinged up in the first period and didn't come out for the second forcing the Sabres to play with five defensemen. That's yet another defenseman down as Fedun was called up to replace Justin Falk.

The Sabres took a red-eye back to Buffalo last night and have a scheduled practice today. They take on the Detroit Red Wings tomorrow night for their last visit to storied Joe Louis Arena as the Wings will have a new home next year. Buffalo is 2-0-1 vs. Detroit this year.



Saturday, March 18, 2017

On the downward spiral, and the chasm between the players and Bylsma

Published by hockeybuzz.com, 3-17-2017


It’s more than just the fourth consecutive 2-0 loss for Buffalo in Los Angeles, which is strange in and of itself, especially when you consider the last Sabres player to score a goal at Staples Center was, of all people, Craig Rivet (nothing personal) back on January 21, 2010. It’s also more than the 2-8-2 swoon the Sabres have found themselves in since a three-game winning streak had those in Sabreland thinking about a possible playoff run.

After a rough start to the season and some inconsistencies along the way, the Sabres were seemingly righting the ship with a 13-8-2 record to start the 2017 portion of the season. But a decidedly tired Sabres team incurred a rough 5-1 loss at home against the Chicago Blackhawks just prior to their bye week and since then they've been spiraling out of control. Or should we say a surprisingly fragile team soon found themselves losing games they had no business losing and eventually succumbed to apathy. The result is that of a team that now looks content to ride out the season.

The Sabres are in a downward spiral and they neither have the will or the courage to play out the rest of the string as professionals playing for a sense of pride. As a group, they have no pride in themselves or the crest and the proof, as they say, is in the pudding.

Last night in Los Angeles most of the skaters looked as if they were taking a casual walk down the Hollywood Walk of Fame for the first half of the game, prancing and stargazing while Los Angeles was busy peppering goalie Robin Lehner with 15 first period shots. Were it not for a rather stodgy style the Kings play and the stellar goaltending of Lehner, the Sabres would have been in the same situation they were in when the Columbus Blue Jackets visited last week--down 3-0.

Despite being outshot 15-2 in the first period, the Sabres and Kings were tied 0-0 heading into the intermission. The Sabres allowed 36 Los Angeles shots on goal last night in what's been a very disturbing trend. In last eight games against teams not named Arizona and Colorado, the Sabres have hung their goalies out to dry giving up an average of 37.5 shots-against/game. That ain't right. In fact it's downright shameful and their 1-5-2 record in those games shows just how pitiful this team has been.

Look, I get it. Coach Dan Bylsma and his systems have been clashing with the on-ice personnel all season long, probably dating back to last season. That much has been coming out of the media and ever so subtly (or not so subtly at times) through the players all season and the numbers indicate that this is a group of players that has tuned out their coach. If Bylsma somehow makes it to next season, it will be a miracle, especially when you consider that the team is looking to start contract-extension talk with franchise center Jack Eichel, a player who's been at odds with Bylsma. We know how this ends. Coaches don't sell tickets, star players do.

I also get the fact that this team is pretty weak on defense. D-man Taylor Fedun was called up from Rochester yesterday and caught a flight to Los Angeles. Although he didn't make it in time for the team's optional skate, he was on the ice and played a real solid game. That he was probably the Buffalo's best defenseman last night tells us a lot about where the rest of the d-corps heads were at.

We should also give a shout out to the line of Evan Rodrigues, Marcus Foligno and rookie Hudson Fasching who took the play to the Kings nearly every time they were on the ice. But they, along with Fedun, got no help from the star players on this team.

Sure Eichel and the like eventually woke up. They had spurts where they played extremely well and were all over Los Angeles, but it wasn't nearly enough. Buffalo got lucky once in the last handful of games as they eventually came back from that 3-0 first period deficit against Columbus to win, but for the most part they've looked like a team that packed it in.

The Sabres have 11 games to go. They're out of the playoffs and only a few of players are playing for a Buffalo contract next season. Captain Brian Gionta's one of them. He's been saying that he wants to return and at a reasonable price he very well could be back. Fedun is unrestricted as well and should be offered an extension. He played well on his first recall before a numbers-crunch sent him back to Rochester. Does he want to return is the big question. The other two UFA's are defensemen Dmitry Kulikov and Cody Franson.

Kulikov came over in a trade with the Florida Panthers and WGR550's Paul Hamilton said that he seemed devastated when he learned he was leaving Florida. Add a shortened training camp from Kulikov's participation in the World Cup of Hockey and the preseason tailbone injury that plagued him this season and one can see why Hamilton thinks this guy wants to be on the next train out of Buffalo once the season ends.

At one point in time Franson was considered a slow-moving defenseman with some offensive acumen who could man the point  on the powerplay. Take out the latter two positives and you have a defenseman that slowed considerably. It's been rough for Franson and despite his proclamations that he wants to return, we're not sure the feeling's mutual.

There will be changes that, more than likely, will include a coaching change thanks to their obvious display of disdain for Bylsma and his methods. However, it probably won't happen until after the season and there's still 11 games to play.

This group of players is not the first to pack it in because of their coach and they won't be the last, but there are 11 games to play and they should man up. I don't expect the Sabres stars to go all out to block a Shea Weber slapshot or to take on a heavyweight, but they should show a little professional pride and skate like it's an honor to play a game for a living.

Murray isn't a dummy. One would think that after watching this parade of stinkers over the past few weeks that he gets the hint--this team, or at least the key components of this team, are neither having fun nor are they winning and that's falls on the coach. Yet those same players should be forced to look at themselves in the mirror. They have enough talent to play to a higher level should they choose to but choosing not to, especially when they've made their message clear, is unacceptable.

The defense can be fixed, the schemes can be altered and the people in charge can make things better, but if you don't have enough character and/or maturity to know when to stop, that's on the individual. And it starts with the star players.

Tonight the Sabres finish their three-game West Coast swing with a trip down I-5 to Anaheim to take on the Ducks, a team that smoked them 5-2 on February 7 in Buffalo.







Friday, March 17, 2017

Sabres in Los Angeles, plus former d-men Brayden McNabb and Mark Pysyk

Published by hockeybuzz.com, 3-16-2017


The Buffalo Sabres are in Los Angeles tonight for Game-2 of their three-game West Coast swing. The Sabres defeated the Kings in Buffalo back in December as they overcame a 2-0 deficit with four unanswered goals in a span of 6:15 to eventually win 6-3. Ryan O'Reilly, Jack Eichel (2,) and Brian Gionta scored in the Sabres blitzkrieg while Evander Kane and Sam Reinhart finished it off with goals late in the third period.

With that win, the Sabres are assured of at least a season split for the fourth season in a row. Somehow, even through the down years of 2013-15, Buffalo has managed a win at home. However, haven't won in Los Angeles since 2003.

The Kings are battling for a wild card spot while the Sabres, for all intents and purposes, have only 12 games left before their season ends.

It's been a rough season for the Sabres with everyone feeling the heat from the players to head coach Dan Bylsma to GM Tim Murray. Injuries and inconsistencies have plagued the club since Eichel was lost for the first 21 games with a high-ankle sprain. Although they had many opportunities to get on a roll, Buffalo's longest winning streak reached three games while their longest points-streak reached four. Every team above them in the standings has had a winning streak of at least five games or more save for the NY Islanders who've had two six game points-streaks with five wins each time.

The Sabres will face off against former defenseman Brayden McNabb who was traded by Murray to the Kings on March 5, 2014. In the deal Murray also sent two second round picks (both acquired from LA in the Robyn Regehr trade) and in return the Sabres received two "heavies," as Murray called them--forward Hudson Fasching and defenseman turned winger, Nicolas Deslauriers.
It was Murray's first trade of his own volition as the trade of Ryan Miller and Co. to the  St. Louis Blues on February 28, 2014 was in the works via the previous regime.

Murray is getting his fair share of the blame for a disappointing 2016-17 Sabres season as the defense he went into the season with has been sub-par at best, brutalized at worst. Although McNabb isn't anything close to a Bill Hajt-type shutdown defenseman, the 26 yr. old former third-round pick (2009) has managed to play a third-pairing role while also showing some capabilities when placed in the top four.

I'm not sure the left-handed McNabb would have brought much more to the table than any of the other bottom-four defenseman for Buffalo, but when you look at a poor season by Deslauriers, the injuries that have plagued Fasching this season as well, and when you add in that the Sabres defense looked to be in disarray for the better part of 2016-17, an argument could be made that he may have been able to help.

Fasching, who suffered a severe groin injury in a game October 30 may be back in the lineup tonight as rookie winger Justin Bailey has been dinged. The 6'2" 207 lb Fasching got the call from Rochester for the West Coast swing and is looking for his first NHL point this season. After returning from injury Fasching played in 23 games for the Amerks registering five goals and two assists in that span. He's had one point in his last six Amerks games.

It's another late start as the puck drops at 10:30 EST.


*****

There's a tendency in Sabreland, or most any fanbase for that matter, to consecrate a lost player as the second coming. Even though said player may have been a good player, when he leaves Buffalo he's placed a notch or two above where he really was.

We went through that with McNabb after he played next to Drew Doughty and acquitted himself well. All of a sudden, a projected third-pairing defenseman became was looked at as a top-two and the Sabres screwing up.

It's happening again with departed defenseman Mark Pysyk.

Pysyk was traded to the Florida Panthers along with two picks for defenseman Dmitry Kulikov and the 33rd-overall pick at the June draft. While Kulkove was struggling with injury and downright awful play at times, Pysyk was holding his own and playing well in a third-pairing role for the Panthers.

Good for him. When playing for Buffalo Pysyk was a steady defenseman who could move the puck and occasionally jump up into the play. He was the type of player that the Sabres could've used this season although how much of an impact he could've made is debatable as he probably would've been in the same bottom-pairing role he'd been in the previous season in Buffalo.

The Panthers had him playing big minutes the last three games and Pysyk has responded with two goals and an assist while the team has gone 1-2-0 in those three games. The last game was a 7-3 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs which prompted Cats color commentator (and NHL Hall of Fame defenseman) Denis Potvin to get fired up about Pysyk's potential.

That in turn was overheard by former Sabres defenseman Mike Robitaille who was on with the morning crew on WGR.

The talk moved toward "who's to blame" for the disappointing Sabres season and the focus was now on Murray and some of his trades. McNabb was the first name up then the host brought up Pysyk. Robitaille used Potvin's commentary as a springboard noting that Pysyk was said to be "taking over the Florida defense" with top d-man Aaron Ekblad out. Then he went on to say that Pysyk's "solid, money in the bank," and "a 15-year defenseman, top-four.

"He's the real deal," said Roby.

Pysyk may very well be "the real deal" but just how much of a "real deal" are we talking about. Normally when you use a phrase like that you're talking superstar or star playing in a top role. When Pysyk was in Buffalo, most thought he was a No. 4-6 defenseman which is probably where he'll end up his career. He's a smart player who knows how to play the game and will do so in a manner that may in fact last 15 years.

Once again, good for him. I always liked his game and if he's a good fit in Florida more power to him and the Panthers. If the trade ends up being a flop for Murray, and Kulikov's problems certainly make it that way for this season, and/or if Pysyk does become a Niklas Hjalmarsson-type or better, than so be it.

However, spare me the canonization of Pysyk at this juncture of his career.


*****

Defenseman Taylor Fedun has been recalled from Rochester and is headed to Los Angeles. Fedun was recalled to replace Justin Falk who's dinged up.

The 28 yr. old Fedun last played for the Sabres on February 12 against Vancouver. In 25 games for the Sabres the soon to be unrestricted free agent had seven assists and was a plus-3 while averaging 13:38 of ice-time.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

From Russia, with love? Sabres said to be signing KHL's Viktor Antipin

Published by hockeybuzz.com, 3-14-2017


First there was the swap with Florida where the Sabres traded defenseman Mark Pysyk and two pick for defenseman Dmitry Kulikov and the 33rd overall. Then Buffalo GM Tim Murray selected Vasily Goltov, a Russian center whom Sabres selected later that day in the seventh round.

Now word has it that the Sabres are about to sign a free agent defenseman from the Kontinental Hockey League once his season is over. Sportsnet's Elliot Freidman wrote in his "30 Thoughts" today that "24-year-old Viktor Antipin is expected to join Buffalo."

Antipin is a 5'11" 179 lb. defenseman who has played for Metallurg Magnitogorsk of the KHL for the past six seasons compiling 98 points (36+62) in 266 games with a plus-66 rating. In 69 playoff games for Metallurg he upped his .37 regular season points/game to .45 ppg with 31 points on 13 goals and 18 assists.

The Sabres are left to span the globe to find defensemen because of a very thin pool. It's a situation that's caused problems with the big club but has really wreaked havoc with their AHL affiliate, the Rochester Americans. Going into the season the Amerks had three veteran d-men they were going to anchor their defense with--Justin Falk, Taylor Fedun and Eric Burgdoerfer. However, because of injuries most notably to Kulikov (who's injured again) and Zach Bogosian (missed 26 games) the Sabres pulled Falk to the big club for 45 games (and counting,) Fedun for 25 and Burgdoerfer for another two. Casey Nelson, a 2016 college free agent signee (Minnesota State) was also in Buffalo for the first nine games of the season because of the Kulikov injury.

What remained in Rochester was a skeleton crew of defensemen that have been overwhelmed all season.

Help is on the horizon in that highly touted prospect Brendan Guhle will be turning pro next season, although it looks as if he'll be headed straight to the Sabres. St. Cloud State defenseman Will Borgen (2015, 92nd overall) will be in Rochester next season and Devante Stephens (2015, 122nd) will also be eligible to play in the AHL next season. The only Rochester defenseman under contract for next season is Nelson. Brady Austin (2012, 193rd) will be a restricted free agent at the end of the season and whether or not they re-sign him is up in the air.

The Sabres were once again looking at the college free agent market and were said to be in on Minnesota State sophomore defenseman Daniel Brickley but he intends to return for his junior season. With him out of the equation Buffalo is said to be going after St. Lawrence d-man Gavin Bayreuther. According to Elliot in the same piece,  "It’s believed Dallas was the most aggressive pursuer, with Buffalo and Colorado lurking."

With the college FA market really thin this season and the team not expected to sign 2013 fifth round draft pick Anthony Florentino (Providence Friars,) I was told by Kris Baker of sabresprospects.com that the Sabres "were going hard for Euro FA's" right now and sure enough, with the news of the impending signing of Antipin, "There's the Euro."

Murray put himself in a tough spot when he focused almost exclusively on the forward group while using defensemen as currency in trades. There's been a huge shift in talent away from d-prospects and young players when he did his wheeling and dealing for young, veteran forwards. It's a self-inflicted bind he's got himself in and it will be interesting to see how they come out of this.

Right now Baker called Buffalo "desperate" and it's to the point where a real good (according to Baker) but not "amazing" prospect like Bayreuther will probably be able to burn the first year of his two-year contract this season, something they did with Nelson.

Prior to last year's draft Murray had not used a draft pick on a Russian as GM in Buffalo. There's always been this thought that he's had an aversion to players from the Motherland. Perhaps it's gotten to the point where every area in the world's been scouted so much, from North American colleges to Denmark, Finland and Sweden that there's really not much uncharted territory out there, except for maybe Russia because of the so-called "Russian Factor."

Times may be changing, see Artemi Panarin and Nikita Zaitsev, to name a couple, and teams may have no choice but to scour Russia for players.

And that includes Murray and the Buffalo Sabres.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Will Buffalo have room for Evander Kane and a d-man like Shattenkirk?

Published by hockeybuzz.com, 3-13-2017


Buffalo Sabres left wing Evander Kane has played his way into a contract extension with the team. Scoring 25 goals and looking every bit the powerforward he's always been touted as has brought the conversation in Sabreland from "trade him for a bag of pucks!" to "will he want to re-sign in Buffalo? And for how much?" Because of Kane's exceptional season, it won't come cheap for Buffalo GM Tim Murray, but then again, nothing ever worth having does.

Kane still has one year remaining on his old contract which comes in at a $5.25 million dollar cap-hit.
Dollars and term are the big hurdles for the team and player, but I'm going to get this out of the way right now and say based upon his past history which includes off-ice incidents and solid but not premier production between 2011-12 when he scored 30 goals and this year where he' on a pace to equal that (which amounts to 21 goals/season,) dancing around that $7 million/year average seems a big high. A cap-hit of $6 million would be about right using that past history, however $6.5 million might very well be where this all ends up.

In looking ahead to the 2018-19 season, Murray has a few huge factors working in his favor when it comes to cap-management--some dead weight will be off the books by then, he will have a trove of forwards filling in at low cap-hits around his core group and two of his longer-term, top-four d-men, which includes Rasmus Ristolainen on the top pair, will account for a combined $7 million cap-hit.

Before we get to Kevin Shattenkirk who may end up signing a long-term deal somewhere (maybe Buffalo) for $6.5-7 million, let's take a look at the potential forward group heading into the 2018-19 season. There will be two players for sure on the team moving forward:  Ryan O'Reilly and Kyle Okposo. Matt Moulson and Tyler Ennis will be in the final year of their contracts and I can't see either being on the team at that point. Moulson looks to be a sure buyout candidate after this season and if Tyler Ennis can stay healthy enough his $3.65m salary but $4.6m cap-hit could be enough incentive for a team looking to get to the cap floor to take him off of Buffalo's hands.

In adding to the forward group we'll go high on Eichel and put him at an $8m cap-hit while Reinhart may be in the $4m range, which is a pretty hefty hike. The rest of the roster can be filled in using the present lineup which includes a lot of youthful speed and talent.

Here's how the forward group would stack up with Eichel at the top of the food chain and the rest falling in place behind him:

Eichel--$8m
O'Reilly--7.5
Kane--6.5
Okposo--6
Reinhart--4
Foligno--3
Girgensons--2
Larsson--2
Rodrigues--1
Carrier--1
Bailey--1
Baptiste--1
Nylander--.975
Reserve--.650

Approximate cap-hit forwards:  $44.6 million


On defense the Sabres will need a significant upgrade and Shattenkirk may be their ticket. With him and Ristolainen anchoring the right side, Jake McCabe and Brendan Guhle will probably be rounding out the top-four on the left side. Zach Bogosian who is under contract through the end of 2019-20 is a big question mark as his $5.14 million cap-hit makes things extremely tight, but here goes with him in the lineup:

Shattenkirk--$7m
Ristolainen--5.4
Bogosian-5.14
McCabe--1.6
Guhle--.700
#6 FA--1
#7 FA--.75

Approx. total cap hit d-men:  $21.5m

I'm of the opinion that Murray will be able to re-sign goalie Robin Lehner to a contract that won't exceed a $3m cap-hit and that for the 2018-19 season either Linus Ullmark or Cal Petersen will be his back-up. My bet is on Ullmark (if he's not taken in the upcoming expansion draft) which leaves us with a goalie tandem of:

Lehner--$3m
Ullmark--.9

Total for goalies:  $3.9m

Grand total for the entire roster:  $70 million

Add in Moulson's approximate buyout number of $2.83 (according to cap friendly.com) and the grand total for this roster as constructed in 2018-19 is about $73 million which is this year's NHL salary cap.

Add in that the cap will probably go up anywhere from $3-5 million in the next two years and the Sabres will be in good shape using the players and numbers laid out above.