Thursday, September 29, 2016

Building the 2016-17 Buffalo Sabres roster--D, Josh Gorges

The trade for Florida Panthers defenseman Dmitri Kulikov at the draft and the emergence of 22 yr. old Jake McCabe looks to have dropped Josh Gorges down the depth chart. All three are lefties which works well for the righty/lefty pairing Buffalo GM Tim Murray and head coach Dan Bylsma favor and all three are considered top-four defensemen.

Gorges, who is the elder statesman of the defense corps, was acquired by the Sabres in July, 2014 as part of a trade with the Montreal Canadiens. Murray sent a 2016 second-round pick (one he'd received in the Matt Moulson to Minnesota trade) to the Canadiens for Gorges after he waived his no-trade clause to come to the Sabres. Buffalo was originally on his no-trade list but he changed his mind.

The circumstances surrounding Gorges' destination were of a familial nature as he and his wife Maggie were expecting their first child at the time of the trade. Gorges and Brian Gionta had spent five years playing for the Canadiens and there was a trust-factor when re-considering Buffalo in a trade. Gionta, a Rochester, NY native, had briefed Gorges on the area and what it has to offer for their family and Gorges waived his NTC to accept the trade to Buffalo.

Both Gorges and Gionta, who signed with the Sabres as a free agent that same day, were going from a Montreal club that had just reached the Eastern Conference Finals to a Buffalo team that was destined to be at the bottom of the league for the second straight year and the shockwaves hit Gorges pretty hard. He slogged through the 2014-15 campaign with over 22 minutes of ice-time in 46 games before being felled by a knee injury that he'd been playing with for a good chunk of the season.

Regardless of what transpired the prior season, Gorges had enough history to be placed on the Sabres top pairing next to young Rasmus Ristolainen last season as Buffalo's top defense pairing. Although miscast in that role he was still able to his own. Gorges ranked third in even-strength average ice-time/game, second in ice-time amongst defensemen on the penalty kill. He led the team in blocked shots and hits as well.

With 683 games under his belt, logging those minutes seem to be a bit much at this stage of his career especially when you consider that since the 2006-07 season he's blocked 1357 shots (3rd most for any defenseman during that period) and was credited with 824 hits (50th.) At the age of 32 Gorges is entering that portion of his career where it all starts catching up to a defenseman with his style of play and backing off his minutes to a mid/bottom-pairing role may do both him and the team plenty of good.

Gorges has a quiet overall approach to the game while being vocal on the ice. He was an assistant captain in Buffalo last season and he mentored the 21 yr. old Ristolainen while the two logged huge minutes for the club. A veteran leader like Gorges, who is defensively responsible and can anchor the penalty kill, is always welcome on a team and he has all that going for him.

With Kulikov and McCabe presumably in the top-two spots on the right side of the defense, Gorges slides down to the bottom-pairing. Which isn't a bad thing. Getting quality play from the third-pairing goes a long way towards success and Gorges can always move up and down the lineup as needed. Plus he and Ristolainen can still anchor the Buffalo penalty kill which ranked ninth in the league last season (82.6%.)

Having a defenseman with a cap-hit of $3.9M on the third-pairing is a little high in a salary-cap world but for the final two years of Gorges' contract, it's not an albatross. He's a good, solid defensive-defenseman and with the parade of youngins already rolling through Buffalo, having a veteran presence like Gorges helps immensely in the transition.

Building the 2016-17 Buffalo Sabres roster:

LW, Evander Kane / C, Ryan O'Reilly / RW, Kyle Okposo
LW, Tyler Ennis / C, Jack Eichel / RW, Sam Reinhart
LW, Matt Moulson / C, Zemgus Girgensons/ RW, Justin Bailey
LW, Marcus Foligno / C, Johan Larsson / RW, Brian Gionta

D, Rasmus Ristolainen/ Dmitry Kulikov
D, Zach Bogosian/ D, Jake McCabe
D, Cody Franson / D, Josh Gorges

G, Robin Lehner

Building the 2016-17 Buffalo Sabres roster--D, Cody Franson

Last off season Buffalo Sabres GM Tim Murray was looking to bolster his defense with a top-four, left-handed d-man who could possibly play alongside Rasmus Ristolainen, a 20 yr. old right-handed shot who had just finished his first full season with the club and looked as if he had all the markings of a top-pairing defenseman. The free agent pool was mighty slim that summer and in September of 2015, Murray ended up signing veteran Cody Franson to a two-year, $6.65M contract.

It was a curious move on many fronts. Most notably that it was a two-year free agent deal but also in that Murray ended up with a right-hand shot who had said he was neither comfortable playing with, nor wanted to play on, the left side of the defense. After signing with the Sabres Franson couldn't have been more blunt about that as he talked with Kevin Sylvester and Andrew Peters on Sabres Hockey Hotline. "I don't play the left side," he told the hosts, "I actually struggle over there."

That he did.

After having some banner years with the Toronto Maple Leafs, Franson was traded back to the franchise that drafted him in the third-round of the 2005 NHL Draft, the Nashville Predators. Things had changed immensely on defense in Nashville since his first go-round with the Preds as they now boasted a deep blueline featuring an entrenched right side of the corps. Franson found himself on his off hand and in a reduced role which had him going from over 21 minutes per game in Toronto to under 16 minutes in Nashville.

Predators GM David Poile made the trade for Franson to add blueline depth as well as add his powerplay acumen which Franson displayed to the tune of four goals and 15 assists in 55 games for the Maple Leafs. None of it came to fruition in his short 23-game regular season stint and Franson's slow demise in Nashville ended with him being a healthy scratch in their final playoff game against the Chicago Blackhawks.

In Buffalo, Murray was intent upon adding a veteran presence to a very young Sabres blueline heading into last season and he was also looking for a player who could contribute significantly to an abysmal 2014-15 powerplay. Enter Franson.

The 28 yr. old got a break when the Sabres entered the season minus Zach Bogosian, a right-handed shot who ended up anchoring the second-pairing with left-handed rookie Jake McCabe last season. In the absence of Bogosian, Franson got his opportunity and was averaging about 20 min/gm, complete with ample powerplay time, through the first 14 games but he was unable to make an impact offensively. He had zero goals and five assists (three on the powerplay) and soon his minutes decreased with the return of Bogosian to the lineup. Sabres head coach Dan Bylsma gradually pared Franson's minutes to the point where he was averaging slightly more ice-time than he had with Nashville. Franson suffered what was originally diagnosed as a concussion in a February 19, 2016 game at Columbus and his season was done.

For the year Franson played in 59 games for Buffalo scoring four goals (one on the powerplay) and adding 13 assists (seven on the powerplay) while logging the second-most PPTOI amongst Sabres defensemen. With those stats, this is a big training camp for Franson as he heads into the final year of his contract.

Franson faces challenges on a couple levels as he not only needed to recover from his injury, but he also needs to make a strong impression and so far he's got the attention of head coach Dan Bylsma. “He needed to have a good summer,” said Bylsma to the gathered media last week. “He needed to get cleared, get fresh and then have a good summer working out. He came back with a little bit different body composition. He’s a little leaner. He’s moving better as a result of the summer he had, and it’s just got to translate to his play on the ice.”

The injury he suffered was eventually diagnosed as a vestibular disorder, as mentioned by Jon Vogl of the Buffalo News. Vogl wrote that it involves the parts of the inner ear and brain that control balance and eye movements and that Franson needed to wear special goggles and work with specialists all summer (for a link to the piece click here.)

Regardless of the injury, Franson has a long, hard hill to climb in Buffalo as he's buried on the depth-chart on the third pairing. The defense he joined last season is a year older and although he'll probably get another shot at manning the point on the second powerplay unit, Franson will need to do something with that opportunity. Last year he played a rather passive game which seemed to be his nature but one would have thought that he'd ratchet things up a bit when his ice-time was on the line. Or that maybe he'd have went in with the attitude that he would do whatever it took, most notably playing on his off hand, instead of coming off as privileged when he said "I don't play the left side."

It reminded this blogger too much of the dismantled core who's country-club approach had those in Sabreland wading through years of mediocrity. Franson, like some of the players from that era, doesn't seem to have the temperament nor the drive to make an impact with this new group of Sabres. Nor does it seem like he has the skating to keep up with Bylsma's up-tempo system. That said, he can still play defense and is able to make some pretty good passes on the powerplay so a third-pairing, powerplay specialist seems to be in the cards for him. He's a bit pricey for that role, but for now it will suffice.

For now.

Building the 2016-17 Buffalo Sabres roster:

LW, Evander Kane / C, Ryan O'Reilly / RW, Kyle Okposo
LW, Tyler Ennis / C, Jack Eichel / RW, Sam Reinhart
LW, Matt Moulson / C, Zemgus Girgensons / RW, Justin Bailey
LW, Marcus Foligno / C, Johan Larsson / RW, Brian Gionta

D, Rasmus Ristolainen / Dmitry Kulikov
D, Zach Bogosian / D, Jake McCabe
D, Cody Franson

G, Robin Lehner


Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Building the 2016-17 Buffalo Sabres roster--RW, Brian Gionta

As of this moment,  Brian Gionta is the captain of the Buffalo Sabres. The 14 yr. veteran with a Stanley Cup to his resume' was signed by the Sabres as a free agent in 2014 to help guide this team through the dire straights of a bottoming out period. Gionta had spent five seasons in Montreal, wht last four as captain of the Canadiens and although he wasn't the first American-born player to hold that distinction, he's the only American-born player to wear the lone 'C' for the legendary Habitants.

While the Canadiens were coming off a an Eastern Conference Finals appearance with Gionta as their captain, the Sabres were hitting the off season in 2014 with a purged roster that netted them second-overall pick, Sam Reinhart. With all the salary GM Tim Murray unloaded that season there were questions as to whether the team would even make it to the salary cap floor. Murray was the voice of reason in the matter saying that it's rather easy to add salary, but he didn't want to add just any salary, he wanted quality players to help stabilize the club during a tough period of transition.

Here's how Murray put it after landing Gionta and defensemen Josh Gorges, among others, for his last place team back in July, 2014:  "We've got a lot of character now. We have leadership now. That's important to me when you're adding young players every year. There's a short term and a long term. The long-term is that your young players get better. Your young players become pros. They're not just good players, they're good NHL players, and I think that this group of people that we've added today can help in that regard."

At the heart of that group was Gionta who was signed to a three-year, $12.75M free agent contract.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Building the 2016-17 Buffalo Sabres roster--LW, Marcus Foligno

It's been bantered about in the Buffalo media that Sabres left winger Marcus Foligno could possibly play a scoring role while also seeing some time on the top line. No doubt his powerful debut back in March, 2012 of six goals and seven assists in 14 games made a strong, lingering impression but placing him in that role on a more talented Buffalo club might be a bit of a stretch at this point in time.

There's not a fan in Sabreland who wouldn't want a 6'3" 226 lb. powerforward in a role like that yet it's hard to see the 25 yr. old with too much more upside than the 10 goals and 13 assists from last season. Foligno averaged 13:11 of ice-time with the Sabres last year with very little coming in the form of special teams and unless head coach Dan Bylsma adds to the :34 seconds per game of penalty kill ice-time, that number will probably stay the same at best.

Although the Sabres are thin with natural wingers they do have one bona fide top-six/top-line left-winger in Evander Kane and any number of centers who can and/or already have slid over to the left side. That includes Tyler Ennis who looks to be headed that way this year after missing much of last season because of injuries and Zemgus Girgensons who played most of last season in a top-six, left wing role. Buffalo also needs to squeeze what they can out of a former top-six winger in Matt Moulson who was signed to a $5M, top-six contract but found himself near the bottom of the depth chart nearly all of last season. And the club also has a very talented, natural winger in 18 yr. old Alexander Nylander who they drafted 8th-overall this past June.

Those are the hurdles Foligno is facing if he wants to jump into a scoring role.

Fact is the Sabres will be counting on him to play on a checking line this season and he could very do so on the fourth line while staying with his linemates from late last season--C, Johan Larsson and 37 yr. old RW, Brian Gionta. That line gained traction in late February and was the most consistent line for Bylsma the rest of the way.

Foligno is a big body on the ice and he's thrown in around quite often during his short career but the one thing he hasn't been able to do consistently is use his frame to put himself in a position for a scoring opportunity. It's something he's been working on and he got things moving in the right direction late last year. After a practice session in late March, Foligno told the gathered media that he believes he's figured it out. “I just feel a lot more comfortable out there,” he said at the time. “I’m using my size, playing smarter with moving my feet out there, trying to protect pucks as much as I can. With the confidence up now, I think I’m just trying to hold on to pucks and do things myself down low."

When Foligno came on like a hurricane in his first 14 games many had visions of Cam Neely dancing in their heads but it didn't take Foligno long to make them disappear. The following season he put up a respectable yet inconsistent 18 points (5g + 13a) in a lockout shortened 47 games then hit the sheet for 15 goals and 24 assists in  131 games over the course of the next two seasons. In the meantime his plus/minus rating went from plus-6 in 2011-12 to minus-4, to minus-17 before he pulled it back up to minus-5 two years ago. Last season he was one of only two Sabres players, Girgensons being the other, to be in the positive as he finished the year with a plus-4.

“He’s been much more consistent in playing a big power-forward game, playing a checking game, being a physical guy,” Bylsma said that same afternoon. “That’s what I think has been the best thing about him has been the consistency to it. It’s not just a once-in-a-while type of attributes to his game."

Foligno's immediate success gave way to struggles but looks to have rediscovered the player the Sabres saw when they drafted him in the fourth round in 2009 (104th-overall.) Good on him. He looks to be carving out a nice, bottom-six, defensive role on the Sabres team and it would seem as if he wants to be in Buffalo beyond the one-year extension he just signed. Although fourth line might be a bit below his talent-level right now, if he can relish his role and become a consistent force, having a defensively sound bottom-six winger that can get you 10 goals and 20-25 points bodes well for the Sabres moving forward. It's just hard to see him in a scoring role for Buffalo.

Building the 2016-17 Buffalo Sabres roster:

LW, Evander Kane / C, Ryan O'Reilly / RW, Kyle Okposo
LW, Tyler Ennis / C, Jack Eichel / RW, Sam Reinhart
LW, Matt Moulson / C, Zemgus Girgensons/ RW, Justin Bailey
LW, Marcus Foligno / C, Johan Larsson

D, Rasmus Ristolainen/ Dmitry Kulikov
D, Zach Bogosian/ D, Jake McCabe

G, Robin Lehner

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Building the 2016-17 Buffalo Sabres roster--C, Johan Larsson

Buffalo Sabres two-way forward Johan Larsson was having a rough go of it in the scoring department through the first half of the season. He went scoreless in his first seven games and was without a goal through his first 27. Through 47 games his stat-line read 1 goal, 4 assists and a minus-9 rating.

Although he was doing plenty right during that time, nothing seemed to be working for Larsson as he trudged through a pretty difficult time. However in the latter half of the season he would gain some traction then put together a late season flourish after a move by head coach Dan Bylsma that would have him centering a line of Marcus Foligno and Brian Gionta in February.

Bylsma had been doing a lot of juggling for much of the season trying to find chemistry as well as overcome various injuries that hampered his lineup from pretty much the get-go. It was a period of adjustment for a number of players as well as for himself, but when Bylsma but that trio together for a game at Ottawa, they did enough things well that he kept them together. One game later No. 1 center Ryan O'Reilly went down with a lower body injury at Columbus the next game and Larsson found himself in a shutdown role against the leagues top centers.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Eichel and Ristolainen out of WCOH, Buffalo Sabres training camp is on

For Buffalo Sabres forward Jack Eichel and defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen, their World Cup of Hockey run is done. Eichel was on an electric Team North America with the likes of Edmonton's Connor McDavid, Toronto's Auston Matthews and Detroti's Dylan Larkin. The 23 and under squad played fast and played well but were eliminated from the tournament, much to the dismay of nearly every hockey fan, when Team Russia defeated Team Finland yesterday. Ristolainen patrolled the back-end for the Finns.

Both are headed to Buffalo to join their teammates for training camp. The Sabres have over 50 players in camp which officially began yesterday with physicals. Today they hit the ice.

From Sabres PR, this weekends schedule:

Friday, Sept. 23
Session one: 9 – 9:45 a.m. (New Wave Energy Rink)
Scrimmage: 9:50 – 10:35 a.m. (KeyBank Rink)
Session two: 10:40 – 11:25 a.m. (New Wave Energy Rink)
Session three: 12:50 – 2 p.m. (KeyBank Rink)  

Saturday, Sept. 24
Session one: 9 – 9:45 a.m. (New Wave Energy Rink)
Scrimmage: 9:50 – 10:35 a.m. (KeyBank Rink)
Session two: 10:40 – 11:25 a.m. (New Wave Energy Rink)
Session three: 12:50 – 2 p.m. (KeyBank Rink)  

Sunday, Sept. 25 Session one: 9 – 9:45 a.m. (New Wave Energy Rink)
Scrimmage: 9:50 – 10:35 a.m. (KeyBank Rink)
Session two: 10:40 – 11:25 a.m. (New Wave Energy Rink)
Session three: 12:50 – 2 p.m. (KeyBank Rink)

Beginning Monday all sessions will be held at the newly named KeyBank Rink. After a 10 a.m. morning skate at KeyBank Center the Sabres kick off their preseason schedule with a trip Pegula Ice Arena at Penn State University to take on the Minnesota Wild at 7 p.m.

The Buffalo training camp roster from Sabres PR:


56 Bailey, Justin RW
73 Baptiste, Nicholas RW
48 Carrier, William LW
43 Catenacci, Daniel LW
86 Cornel, Eric C
44 Deslauriers, Nicolas LW
72 Dupuy, Jean LW
15 Eichel, Jack C
63 Ennis, Tyler C
58 Estephan, Giorgio C
52 Fasching, Hudson RW
82 Foligno, Marcus LW
12 Gionta, Brian RW
28 Girgensons, Zemgus C
83 Glotov, Vasily C
27 Grant, Derek C
62 Hagel, Brandon LW
 9  Kane, Evander LW
74 Karabacek, Vaclav RW
42 Kea, Justin C
75 Lane, Matthew LW
22 Larsson, Johan LW
26 Moulson, Matt LW
85 Muzito-Bagenda, Daniel LW
70 Nylander, Alexander LW
21 Okposo, Kyle RW
19 O’Reilly, Cal C
90 O’Reilly, Ryan C
59 Pu, Cliff RW
23 Reinhart, Sam C
71 Rodrigues, Evan LW
10 Schneider, Cole LW


67 Austin, Brady
81 Bennett, Mac 
47 Bogosian, Zach
79 Budik, Vojtech
46 Burgdoerfer, Erik
41 Falk, Justin
38 Fedun, Taylor
 6  Franson, Cody
64 Geiger, Paul
 4  Gorges, Josh
45 Guhle, Brendan
77 Kulikov, Dmitry
54 Martin, Brycen 
29 McCabe, Jake 
34 Nelson, Casey
51 Osmanski, Austin
55 Ristolainen, Rasmus
53 Stephens, Devante
24 Strachan, Tyson


33 Kasdorf, Jason
40 Lehner, Robin
60 Muse, John
31 Nilsson, Anders
35 Ullmark, Linus 

Veterans Ryan O'Reilly and Dmitry Kulikov are still playing for Team Canada and Team Russia, respectively, at the WCOH.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Building the 2016-17 Buffalo Sabres roster--RW, Justin Bailey

The safe bet here at third line right wing would be the Buffalo Sabres with 36 yr. old Brian Gionta who served as the team's captain last season and was instrumental in helping center Johan Larsson and winger Marcus Foligno gain traction. But the youth movement is on in Buffalo and there's room for another youngin to start making his mark with the big club.

Enter Justin Bailey.

Bailey is a burgeoning 6'4" 206 lb. powerfoward who has been methodically making his way to the NHL ever since he was drafted by the Sabres with the 52nd pick in the 2013 NHL Draft. That pick, along with a fifth rounder that netted Buffalo defenseman Anthony Florentino, was acquired when the Sabres sent d-man Jordan Leopold to the St. Louis Blues at the 2013 trade deadline.

Back in June we evaluated the top three Sabres prospects at each position and Bailey was on top. Here's what we wrote:

"Level-by-level Bailey has grasped the nuances of the position as well as the game and has made impressive strides. In junior he went from 36 points (17+19) in 57 games his draft year to 43 points (25+18) in 54 games the following year to 69 points (34+35) in 57 games for Kitchener and Sault Ste. Marie his last year of junior. Bailey started slow in his first professional season for the Rochester Americans last year but finished with 15 goals and 18 assists in his last 30 games."

What should get Sabres fans excited about the prospect of Bailey manning the right side in a top-nine role is that not only does he have the size, but he has speed something long-time Amerks broadcaster Don Stevens pointed at when I talked to him last spring.  "I think [Justin Bailey] fits the mold of the up-and-coming player more than any other player I saw [in Rochester]," longtime Amerks broadcaster Don Stevens told me in April, "and that mold is speed. I think that's where the game is."

Sure enough, there was plenty of speed on display in the Stanley Cup Finals with the Pittsburgh Penguins and San Jose Sharks going at it.

Bailey's bedrock of size and speed has given him a presence at every level he's played thus far and those traits were on display last season during an eight-game stint with the Sabres. Although he didn't hit the scoresheet during those games, he still left an impression as he did everything but score. It was a performance that put him right on the cusp of playing in the NHL.

Kris Baker of has Bailey ranked as his No. 2 overall Sabres prospect behind only defenseman Brendan Guhle. In his April rankings Baker wrote of Bailey and how he fits into GM Tim Murray's team building around athletes, "performance and pedigree may very well make him the poster child for what's being branded as a new Murray-minded movement."

Baker notes Bailey's spikes in production over the last two seasons, and simply states that "it's all about patience and reps from here as Bailey builds off an impressive second half of his first AHL campaign."

Bailey could very well end up in Rochester again to start this season and in no way would that be a bad thing. If he continues to progress as he has thus far by mid-season he should be getting a long look from Buffalo. Yet somehow I get the impression that Bailey is looking at this training camp, which begins next week, as a supreme opportunity to stick with the Sabres. And I get the feeling he'll take advantage of it.

The charge of the youngins, Wave-2, is about to commence with Bailey and possibly Guhle at the fore. Whether it takes place this year or next is about the only thing to be determined.

Building the 2016-17 Buffalo Sabres roster:

LW, Evander Kane / C, Ryan O'Reilly / RW, Kyle Okposo
LW, Tyler Ennis / C, Jack Eichel / RW, Sam Reinhart
LW, Matt Moulson / C, Zemgus Girgensons / RW, Justin Bailey

D, Rasmus Ristolainen/ Dmitry Kulikov
D, Zach Bogosian/ D, Jake McCabe

G, Robin Lehner