Monday, May 30, 2016

Of the Sabres World Cup "snub(s)"

Reprinted with permission from hockeybuzz.com


The Buffalo Sabres landed three players on the recently announced final World Cup rosters which is pretty good for a team that just emerged from two consecutive last place finishes. Center Jack Eichel was a shoe-in for Team North America and it came as no surprise that Team Finland added defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen to it's roster. Sabres goalie Robin Lehner was one of seven players Team Sweden added and he'll be part of a goaltending trio featuring Henrik Lundqvist (NYR) and Jakob Markstrom (VAN.)

It comes as no surprise that Team Canada will be headed to the September 17-October 1 event in Toronto with a star-studded roster featuring some of the best the NHL has to offer. On a younger scale Team North America boasts a roster of burgeoning stars under the age of 23 lead by three franchise players who are still teenagers. And it was these two squads that would leave off a couple of Sabres players that made a strong case to make the World Cup.

Buffalo center Ryan O'Reilly just helped Team Canada to their second consecutive gold medal at the IIHF World Championships in Russia. The two-way center known for his faceoff acumen was an assistant captain for the Canadians and contributed eight points (2+6) in 10 games, was a plus-10, and took nearly every important draw during the tournament, especially in the medal rounds.

As a defensive cog playing a two-way, second-line role, O'Reilly held the fort while the likes of Edmonton's Taylor Hall (6 goals,) Colorado's Matt Duchene (5) and the NY Rangers' Derick Brassard (5) lead Team Canada to a tournament-high 46 goals in 10 games. On the defensive side, the Canadians were second to Team Finland in goals-against giving up only 11 for the tournament while the penalty kill, which O'Reilly helped anchor, allowed only two goals on 29 powerplay opportunities against for a 93.1% kill-rate.


Saturday, May 28, 2016

Teams will line up for Steven Stamkos but Buffalo might be the best fit.

Reprinted with permission from hockeybuzz.com


Unless you're the Pittsburgh Penguins or Chicago Blackhawks, two teams heavily invested in two players each for a lengthy period of time, there's no reason any NHL team shouldn't be at least entertaining the thought of making a pitch for Lightning center Steven Stamkos should he hit free agency on July 1st. Even teams like the Ottawa Senators or Arizona Coyotes with an internal salary cap may toy with the idea of fitting in a projected Stamkos cap-hit of $10M-plus.

Google "Steven Stamkos news" right now and you have writers covering teams like the NY Rangers, Boston Bruins and NY Islanders with articles concerning the 26 yr. old former first-overall pick (2008.) That said, as we head towards free agency five weeks from now, only a few teams with the right combination of financial wherewithal, cap-space, comfort and opportunity will be left standing to receive the rose from the hockey world's most eligible bachelor.

Why Stamkos is available is a drama worthy of an soap opera status. The loyal face of the franchise endures years of rebuilding and after the team came oh so close to the holy grail, said team investigates trading him.


Friday, May 27, 2016

Impressions of, and questions concerning--G, Linus Ullmark

Reprinted with permission from hockeybuzz.com


Goaltender--Linus Ullmark
DOB:  July 31, 1993 (age, 22)
Draft:  2012, 6th round (163rd overall)
How acquired:  Drafted by Buffalo
Last contract signed:  2014--3yrs./$2.3275M total  + $445,500 in performance bonuses
Final year of contract:  2016-17, RFA

2015-16 Stats:  20 games, 8-10-2 record, 2.60 goals against average, .913 save percentage, 0 shutouts


What we wrote preseason:  N/A

What we wrote mid-season:  "while Lehner and Johnson may be battling it out for the starters-role near-term, Ullmark should be in that mix a few years down the road. For a 22 yr. old rookie goaltender playing his first pro season in North America, he acquitted himself quite well. Early in the season Bylsma was impressed with Ullmark's calm demeanor under pressure. Still looks like a rook on many occasions, especially when he's lunging, but all-in-all, a fine NHL debut thus far for the 6'4" 212 lb. Ulmark."

Impressions on his play this year:  He was a rookie goaltender thrust into a position that no one foresaw at training camp. When starting goaltender Robin Lehner went down in the second period of the Sabres first game of the season, Nathan Lieuwen got the call as Chad Johnson's backup. Ullmark was in Rochester acclimating himself to not only his first pro game in North America, but his first game in months because of elective double-hip surgery.

The original plan was to have Ullmark return to the ice sometime between Thanksgiving and Christmas, but his rehab went marvelously and he started the season in Rochester. He played extremely well for the Amerks was brought up as Johnson's backup then got his first NHL start on October 24, 2015. Upon hitting the NHL ice one was struck by his poise and smooth positional play but as with all rookies, especially rookie goaltenders, the more tape teams have on a player, the more they'll exploit weaknesses. Ullmark had a solid rookie campaign for Buffalo but things fell apart when Lehner returned and he was sent back to Rochester and he was giving up goals in bunches.

Questions moving forward:  His manic end of season play in Rochester was somewhat disconcerting, but was it a matter of his hips giving him trouble? Especially because he came back months early from surgery? Can he maintain his poise if he gets off to a slow start next season, presumably with the Amerks? Has he adapted to the North American culture? How much will the coaching change affect him and the skaters playing in front of him? Will he have the same mental recuperative powers that he had when he recovered from hip surgery?





Thursday, May 26, 2016

Impressions of, and questions concerning--G, Chad Johnson

Reprinted with permission from hockeybuzz.com


Goaltender--Chad Johnson
DOB:  June 10, 1986 (age, 29)
Draft:  2006, 5th round (125th overall)
How acquired:  Trade with NY Islanders, March 2, 2015
Last contract signed:  2014--2 yr. $2.6M
Final year of contract:  2015-16

2015-16 Stats:  45 games, 22-16-4 record, 2.36 goals-against average, .920 save percentage, 1 shutout


What we wrote preseason:  Johnson's all that's left of the 16 men in the crease for the Sabres over the last two grueling seasons and he entered training camp as back-up to No. 1 goalie Robin Lehner. Johnson has the ability as shown during his 2013-14 season in Boston [but] Long Island was a far cry from Boston, however, as Johnson was a brutal in a backup role to starter, Jaroslav Halak.

At the time of the deadline day trade to Buffalo, Jonathan Willis of the Edmonton Journal called Johnson's season in New York a "nightmare" and explained that the team was even worse with him in net than the numbers indicated. At 29 yrs. old with and NHL five seasons under his belt as a backup, Johnson knows the drill [in Buffalo]. “I’m just coming in and trying to take care of what I can,” Johnson said [last off season]. “If I play 30 games 40, 60, whatever it is, that’s to be determined with my play. They bring in a great goalie like Lehner who has played well in the past. We’re trying to push each other and that will help the team be better.”
What we wrote mid-season:  "simply put, has been outstanding. Sabres head coach Dan Bylsma loves Johnson's calm demeanor in net. 'Johnny' has gained the confidence of coaches and players and seems to be getting better and stronger in net. Coughing up juicy rebounds has been a major roadblock to No. 1 goalie status for him but as of late he's been getting a handle on those. Not sure when the last time his confidence-level was this high, if ever. When Robin Lehner comes back from injury, it will be interesting to see how each react to the other as Johnson's making a case to remain the starter."

Impressions on his play this year:  When Lehner did come back, Johnson went back to his role as back-up until Lehner went down again in mid-March and the team shut him down for surgery on March 30th. Throughout the season, Johnson was the consummate professional and took whatever role he was in to heart. He appeared in a career-high 45 games and won a career high 22 of them while posting GAA and SV% numbers that were second only to his time in Boston behind a staunch Bruins defense.

As mentioned mid-season, rebound control seemed to be a major stumbling block to Johnson earning bona fide No. 1 goalie status. He gained a lot of confidence in Buffalo and timed a career year very well as he'll be a free agent during this off season. With all the travel, work and progress he's made during his six-year NHL career it's not surprising that he wants to become a starter and he started his search for that opportunity at the end of the season. "There’s four teams that need goaltenders or starting goaltenders or don’t have guys that have done well," he said to the media at locker cleanout.

Questions moving forward:  If Johnson's hell-bent upon becoming a starter, which team other than Buffalo will afford him that opportunity?

 






Wednesday, May 25, 2016

On the recently completed 2016 IIHF World Hockey Championships

Reprinted with permission from hockeybuzz.com


I really hope that I never see a Buffalo Sabres roster player on Team USA again for the IIHF World's as I'd rather see them competing in the NHL Stanley Cup playoffs. Prospects? You Team USA can have all the prospects they want, and hopefully there will be many competing at the Worlds, but next year I want to see the likes of Ryan O'Reilly, Sam Reinhart, Jake McCabe and maybe even Hudson Fasching chasing Lord Stanley with the rest of the Sabres.


Canada and the rest of the world put their souls into this tournament

Matt Duchene (COL) scored an empty-netter with 0.9 seconds left in the gold medal game and the Canadian team rushed on the ice to celebrate. The horn didn't sound but they were so pumped they couldn't help themselves. After order was restored and Team Finland was forced to line up at center ice for the final puck-drop, the finality of emotions set in on the Finns.

NBCSN had shots of Team Finland fans weeping in the crowd while their dejected hockey club watched Team Canada rush back on the ice for a rather anti-climatic second celebration. It was a crushing blow for Finland as expressed by the emotions of their players during these few moments.

In the bronze medal game, Team Russia crushed Team USA 7-2. As the home team the Russians enjoyed a packed house cheering and jeering throughout the game and their players responded with a resounding victory over the Americans.

Except for the opening five or six minutes when the Americans took it to Team Russia, it was a pretty lame effort from the Red, White and Blue. They were playing, but you could see their heart just wasn't in it. Words like "waltzing through," "disinterested," and "ready for the off season" defined the emotional output of Team USA as a whole, even though there were a few players who played with heart. Even after two Americans, Jordan Schroeder (MIN) and JT Compher (COL) got leveled by the Russians, Team USA still didn't figure out that Team Russia was playing for keeps.

It seems as if there's not as much emotional investment from America in international competition (save for the Olympics) as there is in other countries. And that's too bad as the US is starting to produce quality and quantity from their hockey programs nationwide.


Monday, May 23, 2016

Jake McCabe and the US to face Canadian onslaught

Reprinted with permission from hockeybuzz.com


Buffalo Sabres GM Tim Murray has mentioned on more than one occasion that he’s in the market for a left-handed, top-four defenseman, presumably to play along side the team’s top d-man, Rasmus Ristolainen. And with Sabres fans well into off season-mode thanks to the team missing the playoffs, speculation runs wild as to where we, the keyboard GM’s, will find said defenseman.

Free agent names like Keith Yandle (NYR,) Brian Campbell (FLA) and Alex Goligoski (DAL) have been thrown around in trying to find a fit and trades with teams like Minnesota, who have a healthy stockpile of defensemen, also come up in the discussion as well. There's a focus on the upcoming draft where the Sabres sit at No. 8 and any one of Olli Juolevi (FIN,) Jakob Chychrun (OHL) or Mikhail Sergachev (OHL) fit the bill but are probably at least a year or two away from hitting he NHL and as prospects, no one's even sure if they'll even hit their potential.

One prospect already in the fold, Brendan Guhle (2015, 51st overall,) looked the part in training camp last fall before he was felled by a Dion Phaneuf check in the preseason. Guhle was sent back to his junior team, Prince Albert of the WHL, and progressed nicely scoring 28 points (10 + 18) in 63 games for the Raiders before seeing his first pro action with the Rochester Americans. In six games for the Amerks, the 6'2" 189 lb. Guhle had a goal and three assists while never looking out of place.

However, a soon to be 19 yr. old on the top-pairing of an NHL team is a rare occurrence.

One defenseman already in the stable for Buffalo is Jake McCabe.

The 6'0", 214 lb. Eau Clare, Wisconsin native just completed his first full NHL season with the Sabres and acquitted himself quite well. Buffalo head coach Dan Bylsma had McCabe on the second pairing with young-vet Zach Bogosian and the two were solid as can be posting 14 points (4 + 10) in 77 games with a team-leading plus-6 in 19:07 of ice-time/game.

McCabe doesn't have the flash or offensive acumen of the players being mentioned for top-pairing duties, but he does the smart things in all areas of the ice. Team USA head coach John Hynes (NJD) has him paired with Connor Murhpy (ARI) as the team's anchor on defense both even strength and five-on-five. Murphy's three goals leads Team USA and his offensive acumen has paired well with a defensive stalwart like McCabe.

But the duo will face a huge challenge today as Team USA faces the juggernaut that is Team Canada.

The Canadians are rolling four lines featuring some preeminent talent  like Taylor Hall (EDM,) Matt Duchene (COL,) Connor McDavid (EDM,) Corey Perry (ANA) as well as Buffalo's own Ryan O'Reilly and Sam Reinhart. Although the Canadians aren't boasting their usual All-Star line-up for international competition, Team Canada is loaded with talent up and down the lineup and is leading the tournament with 40 goals in eight games on a 15.09 shooting percentage.

There will be plenty of intrigue within the Canadian/American rivalry which is renewed at 1:15 PM EST today. The headliner features presumed 2016 first-overall pick Auston Matthews leading Team USA against 2015 first-overall pick, McDavid. Both are franchise players with the latter being hailed as generational. And for Sabres fans there's McCabe and Hudson Fasching facing off against teammates O'Reilly and Reinhart.

Fasching has been playing solid for Team USA in a fourth-line role and also has gained the trust of Hynes on the penalty kill. In last game's upset of the Czech Republic, Fasching got to a puck in the slot and swept it out of harm's way denying the Czech team a golden opportunity. The importance of something like that shouldn't be overlooked in a 1-1 game that was decided in the shootout.

Overall this should be a good game to watch featuring plenty of speed and skating, but Sabres fans should keep an eye on the 22 yr. old McCabe. Seeing how he handles the pressure of playing against top-notch talent with a trip to the gold-medal game on the line a should give some indication as to whether he's ready for top-paring duties at the NHL-level.




Saturday, May 21, 2016

USA vs Czech at IIHF World's. Plus, a d-man to keep an eye on.

Reprinted with permission from hockeybuzz.com


Today begins the march to gold and it's do or die for the eight remaining teams in the IIHF World Men's Hockey Championships in Russia. Although Team USA lost to Slovakia in their final Group-B preliminary round game, they did so in overtime and barely squeaked into today's quarterfinal matchup vs. the Czech Repbulic, the top team in Group-A.

Buffalo Sabres defenseman Jake McCabe and winger Hudson Fasching will hit the ice for the Americans today for the 9:15 AM EST start while center Ryan O'Reilly and forward Sam Reinhart will play for Team Canada at 1:15 PM EST as the defending champs take on Team Sweden.

McCabe has been anchoring the back-end for Team USA and hits the quarterfinals with a goal, an assist and a plus-1 rating in five games. The 6'0" 210 lb. defender from Eau Claire, Wisconsin was injured in the first period of the first game vs. Team Canada and proceeded to miss the next two games but has come back strong becoming the Americans steadiest defenseman. Fasching has been placed in a fourth-line role and has one assist and a minus-3 rating in seven games.

Team Canada boasts a wealth of offensive talent but O'Reilly has staked his claim as the best two-way center on the team. In seven games he has two goals and four assists with a plus-5 rating. Reinhart, who scored 23 goals for the Sabres as a rookie, is playing on the fourth line and has two assists in seven games.

It's been very quiet in the Sabres front office these days, but the wheels are churning as GM Tim Murray and company are looking to add to the team, especially on the blueline.

Sportsnet's Elliotte Friedman in his 30 Thoughts, has the Buffalo Sabres in on Czech defenseman Michal Kempny. Friedman wrote that "Kempny has some outstanding possession numbers. Buffalo, Chicago and Vancouver are among his most serious pursuers."

Kempny, who wears No. 6 for the Czechs, is a 6'0" 194 lbs., left-handed d-man who has been playing in the Kontinental Hockey League in Russia. The 25 yr. old had 21 points (5+16) in 59 games for Omsk Avangard last season.

Keep an eye on No. 6.

One more quick note. Despite the discrepancy in the standings, Team USA beat the Czech Republic to win last year's bronze medal.