Saturday, October 13, 2018

Carter Hutton and some words of wisdom, plus the "SHOOT!!!" people

Published by hockeybuzz.com, 10-12-18


GM Jason Botterill and the Buffalo Sabres may have found themselves a real gem in goaltender Carter Hutton. Although he may no be the second coming of Martin Brodeur or go on a late-bloomer run to the Stanley Cup like Tim Thomas did, what Hutton is bringing to the Sabres both on and off the ice is worth mentioning...again.

Hutton came to the Sabres after a pretty strong performance in a backup role for the St. Louis Blues and was ready for his shot as a starter. But he also knew that there were other responsibilities as well, like being helping his new team transition from cellar-dweller and taking the heat off of rookie Linus Ullmark.

"I think my role is to come in here, step in, play well and help the team win hockey games," said the 32 yr. old to the gathered media after his signing. What's been expressed to me is I think they kind of want me to protect [Ullmark] in the sense that this is going to be a big year for him. Playing full-time in the NHL is a lot different than playing full-time in the AHL. I just think they don't want to make any mistakes rushing him. They know he's their guy in the future and they have a lot of faith in him."

Botterill said at the time of the signing that his scouts focused on Hutton in free agency and they really liked what they saw. "What we've learned about Carter," said Botterill, is he has the confident in the No. 1 role and also has a history of working with young goalies.

"We think it's a great fit."

What we in Sabreland have learned about Hutton after four games is that he's a real calming presence both on and off the ice.

Hutton is a great puckhandler for a goalie and that aspect eases some of the burden on the defensemen heading back for the puck. With a league built on speed and pressure, the opposition forecheck can be a nightmare for defenseman. However, with Hutton back there handling the puck, it's almost as if there was another skater there already and instead of a defenseman starting the play on or beneath the goal line, Hutton is already there looking for an outlet pass or dump-off. He's already told his defensemen to let him handle things when the situation calls for it and they've obliged. The results are consistent breakouts from the back-end the likes of which we haven't seen in a long time.

Off the ice Hutton is a calming voice of reason regardless of the outcome. After the Sabres got spanked by the Boston Bruins by a 4-0 score at home and were booed of off the ice. When asked by the media if it was difficult not to over react to a game like that, Hutton said matter-of-factly, "For me it's pretty easy. It is what it is. Whether we lost 10-0 or 1-0 it's just one game. We've got to move on and take what we can from it."

The Sabres proceeded to win the next two games before dropping their second of the season last night 6-1 to the Colorado Avalanche and the general vibe was that they may have taken things a little for granted, according to head coach Phil Housley. He told the gathered media last night that his team should have "a good, valuable lesson to learn (from) last night" and that he still has a team that's "learning to win."

Good points.

The Sabres have been in the dumps so long, most recently a last place finish In 2017-18, that winning and maintaining that winning attitude is still somewhat foreign. Forward Kyle Okposo said last night that they "just weren't ready to go" while Hutton said that it might be "just one of those things where maybe we get a little too comfortable at home."

Hutton, who was with a 46-win St. Louis Blues team that advanced to the second round of the 2018 NHL playoffs, also mentioned "the grind of winning" saying that "it's not anything that's easy to do" and that they must learn to embrace it."

Buffalo is on the road for a season-long five-game road trip beginning in Arizona tomorrow night followed by trips to Las Vegas (the 16th,) San Jose (18th,) Los Angeles (20th) and Anaheim (25th.) Facing off against the one-win Coyotes would be a good way to hopefully start learning to win again.


*****

It took a while for the Sabres to get their feet underneath them last night but when they did they started playing much better and got back into the game.

Midway through the second period the second line of Patrik Berglund, Jeff Skinner and Okposo got a nice cycle going in the Avalanche zone that lasted over 1:30. After the puck left the Colorado zone Jack Eichel, Sam Reinhart and Conor Sheary, along with defensemen Jake McCabe and Rasmus Dahlin got it going again for over a minute.

That quintet were using every inch of the offensive zone trying to create space against a real solid defensive-five for the 'Lanche. The cycle was beautiful to watch as the Sabres did everything they could to get a good shot off and looked every bit in control. I could have watched it a lot longer as it's something we haven't really seen often.

Unfortunately at KeyBank Center a vociferous portion of the 15,000-plus were getting anxious and they displayed their impatience and displeasure with what was transpiring by yelling "SHOOOOOOOTTTTT!!!!"

McCabe eventually got a shot off from the slot that was just wide of the net.

If people pay money to go to a game, they can pretty much act as they choose as long as it's not offensive or causing physical harm.

People yelling "SHOOOOOOOTTTT!!!!" at that point with the beauty that was the Sabres cycle seemed rather offensive to me. Nobody in the Sabres organization will say it, nor will anyone in the Buffalo media mention it, but it should be said. Having money to go to a game, or spending that money to go to the game doesn't make one an expert on what should be done in any given situation.

At-me all you want, but that just wasn't warranted.


Friday, October 12, 2018

Can the Sabres make it three in a row?

Published by hockeybuzz.com, 10-11-2018


Phase-1:  Win one game.

The Buffalo Sabres accomplished that in their second game of the season after dropping their season opener 4-0 at home.

Phase-2:  Get above .500

The Sabres hadn't been over the .500 mark since January 2013 when Lindy Ruff was the head coach and Darcy Regier their GM. After 2083 days, 458 games, three GM's five coaches, two tank seasons and a partridge caught under an overturned nacho table, Buffalo was finally able to accomplish that feat with a matinee win over the visiting Vegas Golden Knights. They're now 2-1.

Phase-3:  Go for three in a row.

Last season the Sabres never won more than three games in a row and they did so only once. Buffalo was on a western Canada road trip from January 22-25 and proceeded to defeat the Calgary Flames, Edmonton Oilers and Vancouver Canucks, the latter two teams by a combined 9-0 score with Robin Lehner pitching back-to-back shutouts.

Buffalo heads into tonight's matchup with a very talented Colorado Avalanche team looking for the three-game winning streak but also looking to continued success at home. Three wins at home is over 25% more than the 11 home wins they had last season adding up to an incredibly inept 11-25-5 record and enough boos to last well into the next decade.

This edition of the Sabres looks like a different team with an up-tempo style, good defense and very, very good goaltending. Head coach Phil Housley has four lines he can roll and defensemen who can get the puck to the forwards. And, finally after years of hearing about five-men-as-a-unit defensive responsibilities, they've actually looked like they're taking it to heart.

With two wins in a row, Housley is changing very little. The top-six and the fourth line are the same with the "big" change coming at left wing on the second line. Forward Johan Larsson, who'd been out with an injury, will make his season debut as Casey Mittelstadt's left wing on the third line. Here's the probable line combos for tonight:

43 Conor Sheary - 9 Jack Eichel - 23 Sam Reinhart
53 Jeff Skinner - 10 Patrik Berglund - 21 Kyle Okposo
22 Johan Larsson - 37 Casey Mittelstadt - 72 Tage Thompson
28 Zemgus Girgensons - 71 Evan Rodrigues - 29 Jason Pominville

Housley's blueline looks to be the same as well:

Marco Scandella-Rasmus Ristolainen
Jake McCabe-Rasmus Dahlin
Nathan Beaulieu-Casey Nelson

And, the coach will be going with the hot hand in net as Carter Hutton and his 2.06 goals-against average and .943 save percentage will be manning the crease again.

Mittelstadt's left wing has been a bit of a revolving door as he's had Vladimir Sobotka, Zemgus Girgensons and, now Larsson over there. All three players can carry a heavy defensive load for that line as well as take defensive draws. Although Mittelstadt has yet to score a goal this season, Housley told the gathered media he likes what he sees from the rookie in the defensive zone.

"He's been terrific," said Housley of Mittelstadt's defensive play. "He's coming back, watching his shifts with the coaches. He's really worked on that part of his game. He's made some steps in that area, coming back and supporting down low in the defensive zone. His reads are really good."

 Colorado also has a 2-1 record.

From Housley and team captain Jack Eichel on down, a quick start to the season was said to be an essential component to success. Tonight represents a good opportunity for the Sabres to get on a roll before they head out for a season-long five-game road trip out west.

Win this one and we can go on to Phase-4.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

What a strange feeling after a winning weekend.

Published by hockeybuzz.com, 10-9-2018


My notepad for yesterday's matinee between the Vegas Golden Knights and the Buffalo Sabres didn't have a lot written in it. Which is a good thing.

First off, the Sabres played a game that didn't warrant a lot of notes and the ones that did make it in are all of the positive variety. And when you look at their overall game, the passing and playmaking was so good that the highlights and the final score give a pretty good indication as to just how well Buffalo played yesterday.

The Sabres 4-2 win over Vegas featured leads of 2-0 and 4-1 for Buffalo before the Golden Knights made things a bit interesting with a goal midway through the third period. It also featured a solid transition game and team defense which made watching the game fun for a change. Add that onto a 35-save performance from goalie Carter Hutton and you have a lot of smiles emanating from the Sabres locker room afterwards.

For Sabres fans it was a fun game to watch. The crowd at KeyBank Center has been dying to roar for years and over the past two games the Sabres have given them something to roar about. From Conor Sheary's two goals on Saturday to captain Jack Eichel's two goals yesterday, the roar of excitement displaced years of booing at KeyBank Center.

Yesterday's win also put an end to a six-game winless streak of Kid's Day games under GM Jason Botterill and coach Phil Housley dating back to last year. Whereas last season parents had to cover their children's eyes while wondering why they'd ever submit them to the nightmare unfolding on the ice, this season's schedule of six Kid's Day games began with a good, solid win yesterday.

The win over Vegas came on One Buffalo Day, as designated by Mayor Byron Brown three years ago to celebrate the Pegula's purchase of the Buffalo Bills on October 8, 2015. Terry and Kim Pegula had owned the Sabres and their purchase of the Bills made for a nice One Buffalo package. On Sunday their Bills came back home after a tough, two-game road trip where they went 1-1 and proceeded to defeat the Tennessee Titans on a field goal as time expired.

That One Buffalo win came on the heels of a 3-1 win by the Sabres over the Rangers on Saturday and just for good measure, another Buffalo team, the Beauts of the NWHL, pitched an afternoon shutout on the road in their season-opening win.

Four games, four wins.

It's a strange feeling to come off of a holiday weekend and not go over what went wrong in losses although there's been plenty of back and forth arguing about how the Bills won. Sure, it wasn't a pretty football win as they won with a little old fashioned Ground Chuck offense backed by some strong and opportunistic play on defense. Yet from the end of the game until now, there've been yammerings as to a poor offensive showing and how that style isn't sustainable in today's NFL. The Bills are in the midst of a brutal opening to the season where they play five of their first seven games on the road and just came off of games at Minnesota and at Green Bay. I'm of the opinion that a win's a win, especially for both the Sabres and Bills at this stage of their team developments

As for the Sabres, they played a strong game yesterday in many facets and despite allowing 37 shots on goal they looked like they were in control for large chunks of the game. Their breakouts were particularly strong, they played with speed and got to the puck fast. There was puck support all over the ice and they buried their opportunities, most notably in the second period when they scored three goals on their first three shots and ended up with on only five shots the entire period. They also looked very calm with the puck yesterday, waiting for the play to unfold instead of forcing the issue.

After a horrid season-opening shutout loss at home against the Boston Bruins, the Sabres came back and won two in a row to put them over the .500 mark for the first time since January, 2013. The NHL was coming out of the lockout that year and into a shortenened 48-game season. Lindy Ruff was behind the bench in what would be his final days coaching the Sabres. Ruff and his charges got off to a 2-0 start then lost a home-and-home January 24-25 to the Carolina Hurricanes that would drop them to .500 hockey and they wouldn't surpass that mark until 2,083 days had passed with 458 games played.

This was the opening night lineup for Buffalo that season:

Thomas Vanek-Cody Hodgson-Jason Pominville
Marcus Foligno-Tyler Ennis-Drew Stafford
Jochen Hecht-Mikhail Grigorenko-Steve Ott
Patrick Kaleta-Matt Ellis-John Scott

Robyn Regehr-Tyler Myers
Jordan Leopold-Andrej Sekera
Christian Ehrhoff-Alexander Sulzer

Ryan Miller


The Sabres are now on their fifth coach since then and are on their third general manager. Since dropping to .500 that January, the Sabres have a 156-230-53 record finishing last in the league three of those five seasons.

So if things fell a little strange for you this fine Tuesday, know that you're not alone. The sense of optimism permeating Sabreland right now, isn't the norm at this time of year and when you have a winning weekend like Buffalonians just had, it's good to feel that way.

Just roll with it.


*****

Some notes on yesterday's game

--It was good to see Buffalo's fourth line come through with a goal. The trio of Evan Rodrigues flanked by Zemgus Girgensons and Jason Pominville have been the Sabres most consistent line in these first three games. All the zone-time and cycling they'd done finally paid off as Pominville took a feed from Rodrigues and buried it (see below.) Housley loves this line as he can put them out in any situation, anywhere on the ice.



--Sometimes Eichel makes it look so easy. Eichel found himself all alone in front of Vegas goalie Mark Andre Fleury and roofed a backhand from in tight as shown here:




--Adding Sheary to the line of Eichel and Sam Reinhart looks pretty good so far. Sheary is a whirling dervish on the cycle in the offensive zone and so far Eichel and Reinhart have been able to play into that. They just missed scoring another goal yesterday when Reinhart hit the post on a feed from Eichel.

--Marco Scandella chalked one up for the defense last night in Buffalo's third game as he sent a change-up from the point that deflected before going in. Last season it was Jake McCabe scoring the first goal from a Buffalo defenseman. But he didn't do so until December 5, Buffalo's 29th game of the season.

--Speaking of McCabe, he's been solid for Buffalo on the back end as more of a stay-at-home d-man to Rasmus Dahlin's offensive-minded play. In looking at this duo, it's not a pure Bill Hajt/Phil Housley-type pairing as McCabe loves to find that that soft spot in the offensive zone and won't hesitate to jump in while Dahlin's anything but a cupcake on defense.

--Forwards Johan Larsson and Vladimir Sobotka look to be ready to return to the ice and should both be activated, someone will have to go. If Larsson fits into Buffalo's plans, the easiest thing for the Sabres to do would be to sent winger Tage Thompson to the Amerks. Thompson has had a decent three-game stint with the Sabres but really hasn't done nothing to stand out save for some nifty stickwork against Vegas. He's also waivers-exempt which makes it a no-brainer. That is if they want to keep Larsson with the big club.

--And, finally goalie Carter Hutton's stat-line through three games:  2-1-0 record, 2.06 goals-against average, .943 save percentage. That includes the 4-0 drubbing in the season opener when he allowed three goals on 25 shots.

Oh, and just for good measure, here's Eichel's, Alex Ovechkin-type one-timer from the circle to open the scoring:





All videos via Sabres.com

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Sabres trying to avoid nightmarish matinees seen last year on Kid's Days

Published by hockeybuzz.com, 10-8-2018

We've all heard about the "large thud" last February coming from the area of KeyBank Center where Buffalo GM Jason Botterill sits for home games . It turns out that was the sound of a taco bar taking the heat for yet another matinee clunker by his Sabres team. The Los Angeles Kings were in town during a Kid's Day promotion on February 17 and it seemed is if the hometown team was still asleep when they hit the ice. After 40 minutes of sleepwalking, Buffalo found themselves down 4-0 at the end of two periods and the game, for all intents and purposes, was over.

That was just one in a long line of Kid's Day clunkers by the 2017-18 edition of the Sabres. It started in October as they got crushed by the New Jersey Devils 6-2, although they came back later that month with a good performance, they lost to the San Jose Sharks 3-2. The Kid's Day game prior to LA Kings/taco bar incident saw the Sabres get thrashed 7-1 by the Dallas Stars.

In all the Sabres played six games during the Kid's Day promotion and went 0-5-1 losing by a combined score of 25-10. That is not the way you cultivate future fans of the Blue and Gold.

Buffalo headed into this season looking to bury the past (and keep the taco bar open.) Botterill got a lot accomplished this off season and it seems as if they're heading in the right direction. The acquisitions of left winger Conor Sheary (PIT) and Jeff Skinner (CAR) added speed and scoring to the lineup and with Lady Luck smiling on Buffalo (for a change,) the draft lottery was kind and Buffalo won the rights to select defenseman Rasmus Dahlin, who's taking blueline skill and mobility to another level for the Sabres.

The good thing for Buffalo is that they've got their first win of the season under their belt and did so by playing a strong game after being embarrassed in the home opener. After getting booed off of he ice in a 4-0 shutout loss vs. the Boston Bruins in the opener, the Sabres came back and beat Henrik Lundqvist and the NY Rangers 3-1 on Saturday. The win was punctuated by some play that hopefully is a harbinger of things to come.

Sheary scored Buffalo's first two goals of the season by burying two golden opportunities and did so against a top-notch goalie in Lundqvist. Its something that we haven't been able to say very often lately. The powerplay goals were great but equally important were the individual efforts leading up to them as centers Casey Mittelstadt and Jack Eichel set up the set-up.

On Sheary's first goal, Mittelstadt worked the wall at center ice and sent a deft backhand through traffic to a streaking Rasmus Ristolainen who was jumping in on the play. Ristolainen and Sheary went in on a clear 2-on-1 and Sheary beat Lundqvist for Buffalo's first goal of the season.


(via Sabres.com)


Early in the second period with the Sabres again on the powerplay, Eichel corralled the puck after his shot was blocked and proceeded to maneuver his way through a double-team on the half-wall before dishing to Sam Reinhart parked along the goal line. Reinhart fired a goal-mouth pass to Sheary who buried it past a sprawling Lundqvist.




*****

Housley's looks to be sticking with a winning combination as there are no changes from Saturday night's lineup.

43 Conor Sheary - 9 Jack Eichel - 23 Sam Reinhart
53 Jeff Skinner - 10 Patrik Berglund - 21 Kyle Okposo
28 Zemgus Girgensons - 37 Casey Mittelstadt - 72 Tage Thompson
81 Remi Elie - 71 Evan Rodrigues - 29 Jason Pominville

6 Marco Scandella - 55 Rasmus Ristolainen
19 Jake McCabe - 26 Rasmus Dahlin
82 Nathan Beaulieu - 8 Casey Nelson

40 Carter Hutton
35 Linus Ullmark


Monday, October 8, 2018

Sabres and Amerks looking for fresh start...in Game-2 of the season

Published by hockeybuzz.com, 10-6-2018


Perhaps Keith Wozniak of Let's Go Amerks said it best when he tweeted earlier today, "Happy Saturday morning!! A good day to relax, maybe get some errands done, eat a good dinner at home and pretend it's a new hockey season starting tonight in Rochester and Buffalo."

Opening night for both the Buffalo Sabres (Thursday) and their AHL affiliate, the Rochester Americans (Friday,) wasn't too kind for Western New York hockey fans as the Sabres were shut out by the Boston Bruins 4-0 and the Amerks lost to the Charlotte Checkers (CAR) 6-2. Good news for the Amerks is that despite there being much higher expectations on them heading into this season, they apparently weren't booed off of the ice like the Sabres were.

One similar theme that has to be troubling for both teams is that after training camp, preseason and practices leading up to their openers, they weren't prepared for opening night. Buffalo's Conor Sheary was quoted by WGR550's Paul Hamilton as saying that they weren't ready for what the Bruins were going to bring. This despite the fact that the Bruins weren't in a very good mood after getting drubbed 7-0 the previous night on national TV. Rochester captain Kevin Porter told the local media after their loss that, "We were not ready to play."

And for all the talk of having great practices with speed and intensity? It didn't translate for either team when it was for real.

Not sure what was up with that but both the Sabres and the Amerks will have an opportunity for redemption tonight as they continue with their season-opening homestands. Over in Rochester the Amerks will once again host the Charlotte Checkers while some 70 miles west as the crow flies on I-90, the Sabres are hosting the NY Rangers.

As for Buffalo, they'll be facing a Rangers team that opened the season with a 3-2 loss at home to the Nashville Predators and although it's not like facing a decidedly better Bruins team coming off of an embarrassing loss, the Rangers still have goalie Henrik Lundqvist and a good cast of characters. Buffalo is 3-5-2 in their last 10 vs. the Rangers, 0-2-2 in their last four and haven't beaten NY since January 3, 2017 (4-1 win at Madison Square Garden.)

Perhaps the big question for the Sabres tonight is, "who's gonna step up?"

The 4-0 shutout at the hands of the Bruins left little to like although some players played well. Sam Reinhart had a strong game pushing it to the net while the Sabres fourth line of Evan Rodrigues, Zemgus Girgensons and Jason Pomiville was the best and most consistent line for the club. Both Rodrigues and Pominville had golden opportunities but were denied by the quick left pad of Bruins goalie Jaroslav Halak.

Both 18 yr. old Rasmus Dahlin and 19 yr. old Casey Mittelstadt had good games. Dahlin, the first pick in last year's draft had his skills on display but also had some rookie mistakes, which is to be expected. Mittelstadt came off of a middling preseason and started on the third line but looked good enough to get bumped to the second line when head coach Phil Housley did some line juggling in the third period.

Some of that juggling took hold as this might be what the top-six looks like tonight:

Conor Sheary-Jack Eichel-Reinhart
Jeff Skinner-Patrik Berglund-Tage Thompson

Mittelstadt once again is in a third-line role centering Girgensons on the left and veteran Kyle Okposo on the right. Girgensons played a solid north/south game and worked the walls well. He got bumped up after Vladimir Sobotka landed on the injured list with an upper body injury. He's listed as day to day.

Here's what Housley told the gathered media today about putting "Z", as he called him, up with Mittelstadt. "I thought in that (preseason) game against Toronto, a big environment with [John] Tavares playing, we had to make some tweaks and when I put "Z" up there with him I think [Mittelstadt] settled down."

Replacing Sobotka in the lineup is former Dallas Stars winger Remi Elie whom the Sabres claimed on waivers. He'll be on the left on the fourth line with Rodrigues and Pominville.

Word from the rink also has Housley sticking to his d-pairings of Marco Scandella/Rasmus Ristolainen;   Jake McCabe/Dahlin;  Nathan Beaulieu/Casey Nelson.

And, it looks as if starter Carter Hutton will once again be in net. Hutton looked  very good in his first start for Buffalo but was the victim of defensive breakdowns, one of which lead to a wide open Zdeno Chara waltzing in and firing a superb shot that beat him on the short side.

The good thing for Buffalo is that they're playing a Rangers team that doesn't have the impenetrable lockdown capability of the Boston Bruins. However, they're a very fast team that has a good amount of skill. And they have Lundqvist. The Sabres have had difficulties beating any goalies--from starters to backups, from hot to average--over the past seven seasons and they're going to need to find a way to get on the board early to open up some ice.

Housley said his message yesterday to the team was that they did a lot of good things right, especially early on and that they need to keep building on that.

The Sabres were off today save for some meetings. Perhaps the best way to approach tonight's game was to let Thursday go and get a fresh start tonight as they don't want to start the season in an 0-2 hole.


*****

One quick note:

Amerks defenseman Lawrence Pilut had a goal and an assist in his North American debut and was named the game's third star. According to Wozniak, Pilut "improved as the game went on."

That's a good sign for the organization.

Saturday, October 6, 2018

Flop

Published by hockeybuzz.com, 10-5-2018


It's really pretty simple, if the Buffalo Sabres continue to put on performances like last night, head coach Phil Housley will be joining his wife's senatorial campaign in Minnesota just in time for the November 6 mid-term elections.

It was yet another uninspiring home game for the Sabres as they were shutout by the Boston Bruins 4-0. Buffalo picked up where they left off last season at KeyBank Center as they were shut out for the third time in their last six home games dating back to last season where they had an 11-25-5 record overall. In those six games the Sabres have been outscored by a 25-6 margin.

The Sabres left the first period last night down 2-0 and headed towards the locker room to a chorus of boos, which seems to be the prevailing theme as of late. I guess that's what happens when "the suffering" was supposed to be long gone and the hope of a new season is dashed rather quickly and emphatically. Last season at least they put on a good showing in the first game before getting bulldozed into oblivion before Halloween.

This year the Sabres didn't delay, as they were driven into the ice in Game-1.

Housley's charges showed progress in certain areas ;last night. They showed some speed and better passing in the first period and looked fairly organized. However they were facing a Bruins team that had gotten their ass handed to them the previous night in a 7-0 beatdown by the Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals. It wasn't so much that the Bruins were ornery to the point where they wanted to overtly take out their frustrations the NHL's 2017-18 last place team. They really didn't need to waste energy on anger and stupidity. Boston simply worked their game by clogging up the middle, cutting off passing lanes, getting to a player before they could get a head of steam and forcing the Sabers to play a dump and chase game that Buffalo neither has the players nor the gumption to play.

Boston's core group of players has been together for years playing a Bruins system that generally been in place for decades. They frustrated the Sabres then took advantage of mistakes and missed opportunities by Buffalo and there's no better example than on Boston's first goal.

The Sabres forced a turnover inside the Bruins blueline and Sam Reinhart got the puck to captain Jack Eichel who barreled towards the net. Eichel had a clear shot on Boston backup Jaroslav Halak but decided to get cute and try a pass to linemate Jeff Skinner who was covered just enough to send the puck to the corner. Boston eventually corralled the puck and headed up ice on the counter attack where a gliding Zdeno Chara waltzed into an large area of open ice to the right of Buffalo goalie Carter Hutton and fire it home.

The breakdowns on that were numerous but one really needs to look at Eichel, Buffalo's new captain, on that play. He compounded his decision not to shoot the puck by cheating in the offensive zone then getting caught flat-footed behind the net when the play turned up ice. And to make matters worse he floated on the back check. Granted, he might not have been able to catch Chara, no matter how casual the hulking Bruins defenseman entered the Buffalo zone, but for a player who talked of playing with desperation in the opening game of the season, it sure didn't look like he had any on that play.

Every fan who watched last night's game can rattle off a list of Sabres players that disappointed and a number of moments that were downright awful. Bias will direct us to be harder on some than others but what it really comes down to is that the Sabres had no answers for what the Bruins were doing. Whether you fault the coach or the players or both, it doesn't matter.

Last night was a boo-worthy flop of an opening night.


*****

You've got to love it when Housley stands at the podium and says as angrily as he can, "We are NOT going through this again," when talking to the media about last night's flop. A couple of media members said that they'd not seen him this angry before.

Which is all well and good.

I'm not sure what Housley is like behind closed doors but based upon last season, his public demeanor is that of a maternal coddler and his anger doesn't seem as if it would shake a player to his bone. He doesn't seem like a strict "Iron Mike" Keenan/John Tortorella paternal disciplinarian, which is fine. If that's who he is than so be it.

The results are what they are. You can't say this team hasn't had upgrades, at least up-front, and to watch a re-run of last year's team to open the season does not bode well for his teaching/coaching methods.

Granted, it's one game, but you know what they say, you never get a second chance to make a good first impression. Even if it was his 83rd game as Buffalo's head coach.


*****

Some notes from last night:

--Buffalo's fourth line of Evan Rodrigues flanked by Zemgus Girgensons and Jason Pominville were the Sabres best line last night. Which is a scary proposition. When Housley mixed up his line combinations to start the third period that line was the only one that remained intact. They had two glorious opportunities that were snuffed out by two excellent kick saves by Halak.

--For as disappointed as fans are with Girgensons being a first round flop, he did not deserve some of the hate that was directed his way. He's a fourth-liner on the team and having waiver-claim Remi Elie and his 14 points (6+8) from last season replace Girgensons (who had 15 points last season) doesn't seem as if it would be a game-changer no matter how good the new toy might look.

--The Sabres needed game-changing moment from their scorers and the didn't get any. Reinhart worked his way into a couple of scoring chances and their line converged on the net after an Eichel shot from a tough angle in the second period but other than that they provided little.

--Speaking of that play, Chara clearly put his hand over the puck in the crease but the ref was slow to the scene and wasn't at a good angle to see it. A few minutes later Rodrigues was tackled to the ice at the Sabers blueline by Boston's Sean Kuraly in full view of the official. No penalty was called. At the time the score was 2-0.

--Tage Thompson got his opportunity to skate in the top-six and didn't take advantage of it. He didn't register a shot on goal and his 11:02 of even strength ice time was a team low.

--Housley had Vladimir Sobotka out there taking defensive zone draws with the former St. Louis Blue often times on the ice with Eichel and Reinhart. Sobotka was second to Eichel in the number of draws taken for Buffalo (15-14,) and was second to Eichel in even-strength time on ice amongst forwards (19:04-18:42.) With Eichel at 60% (9/15) on draws and Skinner at 80% (4/5,) why bother?

--I hate to say this, but about the best thing defenseman Nathan Beaulieu did all night was blast a slapshot off of Charlie MacAvoy's foot which sidelined the Bruins d-man for a short period of time.

--Conor Sheary was put on Eichel's left wing in the third period and the line had perhaps the best cycle of the night for Buffalo. Sheary whizzed around the ice like a whirling dervish and the and got his teammates into a groove.

--Casey Mittelstadt had a real good game. In preseason it looked as if the 19 yr. old would struggle but he once again showed he could skate with the big boys. Housley's line changes had him between vets  Patrik Berglund and Kyle Okposo

--The much anticipated debut of defenseman Rasmus Dahlin came and went with the 18 yr. old rookie also looking real good. I'm not sure what people expected of him but he was as advertised with his skating, stick work and deft passing abilities. Sure, he made some rookie mistakes but he has that on-ice presence and vision and knows what the hell he's doing back there.

--And finally, the Rochester Americans open up their season tonight at home vs. the Charlotte Checkers. Although they flopped in the Calder Cup playoffs last season, good things are expected from the Amerks in their second season under head coach Chris Taylor.

Friday, October 5, 2018

Buffalo Sabres 2018-19 season preview

Published by hockeybuzz.com, 10-4-2018


Every team, no matter what sport, no matter where they are on the totem pole, starts out with the same equation that will dictate where they end up in the season--if ______ can...

For instance, in a team sense it might be something like, if the Washington Capitals could ever get by the Pittsburgh Penguins, they might have a good shot of winning the Stanley Cup. Or, if the Philadelphia Flyers could get solid goaltending, they'd be a serious threat.

Within those broader team if/cans, there are a lot of individual question marks and for a Buffalo Sabres team that finished dead last in the NHL last season, that certainly is the case heading into 2018-19. It's not just the fact that the Sabres finished with only 62 points in the league last season, this is a franchise that has finished in last place three of the past five seasons and they've been pretty bad in a playoff drought that has lasted seven years. The changes have been many, the bright spots few and despite having some pretty good individual talent to work with, it's been an overall disaster.

G. Thomas Scott, in a piece for Buffalo Business First, laid out some the Sabres low points during that seven-year stretch:

--Buffalo was one of only two teams to finish with less than 70 points last season (OTT, 67)
--Their record of 197-273-70 the last seven seasons was far and away the worst in the league
--Their 464 points in that span was by far the worst as every other team picked up at least 499 points
--The Sabres also finished last in the seven-season rankings of goals scored (1,262) and goal differential (minus-372)

It wasn't all bad as the Sabres finished 27th in the league in goals against, but it just goes to show just how bad the hockey has been in Buffalo.

Most wouldn't have thought that the Sabres were going to be a 62-point, last place team in 2017-18. They were expected to have more growing pains and with a new coach and a GM that added some players, most expected they'd finish in the general area of where they did the prior season, around 78 points with optimists (like me) thinking they could be in the 90-point area.

It didn't happen. Not by a long shot.

The Sabres got steam-rolled early in the season and by the time it all ended, one of their leaders had said he checked out at numerous times during the season while implying that the team as whole just didn't seem to care. Among the others low points for the team, Buffalo's top winger was eventually traded, a top-six forward had a long, hard road recovering from a difficult medical issue and their No. 1 goalie had bipolar and addiction issues that lead to thoughts of suicide.

This was on top of a roster that had little top-six talent, a shaky (at best) defense-corps, suffered from poor goaltending and also lacked depth


If Jason Botterill can...

For the Sabres, putting last season (and the previous seven seasons) as far in the rear-view as they could mirror began with GM Jason Botterill and his work this off season. Buffalo's forward group was barren of talent on the left side after the trade of Evander Kane and lacked quality depth on the lower lines. If the second year general manger could shore that up, it would go a long way towards having success this season and into the future.

Botterill started by landing left wing Conor Sheary in a trade with his old club, the Penguins. Sheary was a good get for Buffalo despite having a poor 2017-18 campaign and immediately was pegged for top-six left wing duty on the club. It was a good, but not great, move by Botterill however he did manage to trump that by landing a bona fide top-line left winger in Carolina's Jeff Skinner.

Skinner and the Hurricanes, the only team he'd ever played for, were parting ways and Botterill pulled off a trade for three-time 30-goal scorer. The Sabres went from having no scoring left wingers to having two, albeit for only one season as Skinner is a pending unrestricted free agent.

As mentioned earlier, the Sabres had trouble in net. They moved on from troubled No. 1 goalie Robin Lehner and based upon his locker cleanout interview, backup Chad Johnson seemed as if he couldn't get out of Buffalo fast enough. Faced with no NHL goalies to start the off season, Botterill brought on late-bloomer Carter Hutton (St. Louis) by signing him to a free agent deal after promising that young goalie Linus Ullmark would be with the club.

Buffalo also had dreams of upgrading the blueline through the draft. If they could win the NHL lottery, something that they hadn't done the previous two times, they could select Swedish defenseman Rasmus Dahlin, who's expected to be a franchise defensemen. It happened. Buffalo won the rights and selected Dahlin who so far has looked every bit as projected.

With some crafty trades and a some luck, Botterill certainly did his part filling some pretty big holes on the team and this is what they'll be moving forward with.


The Forwards

It all begins up front with Jack Eichel and an emphasis on that point was made yesterday as the 21 yr. old was named captain of the Buffalo Sabres. Eichel's last two seasons have been marred by injury and inconsistency but when he's on the ice and when he gets hot, we see the franchise center he was drafted for.

Buffalo will start the season with Eichel being flanked by Skinner and Sam Reinhart providing the Sabres with the most complete and formidable top line in a decade if not longer. In the past they've had pieces that made up a good top line, but this trio has much more going for it.

The Sabres scoring woes over the past seven seasons reached near historic levels for incompetence. Lack of talent was a huge issue during the tank years and lack of chemistry and depth  marred the last few. Although this is no where near '06-07 when Buffalo was rolling three scoring lines on their way to a league-leading 308 goals-for, they're trending in the right direction.

Veteran Patrik Berglund will start out centering the second line. The 30 yr. old who was acquired from St. Louis as part of the O'Reilly trade is more of a third line, two-way center than scorer but should be able to hold his own in this role for the Sabres. Berglund will be flanked by Sheary on the left and Tage Thompson on the right to start the season. Thompson also came from St. Louis in the O'Reilly trade and has an envious skill-package within a 6'6" 205 lb. frame. He played 41 games for the Blues last season as a rookie (3 goals, 6 assists, -12) and has a golden top-six opportunity in front of him.

The bottom-six should see plenty of flux this season and a lot of that will based upon the progress rookie center Casey Mittelstadt makes. Mittelstadt had an impressive six-game cup of coffee with the club after the 19 yr. old signed out of college. Top-six expectations might have been a bit high for him coming into camp, but he got off to a slow start and the Sabres look to be easing him into his first full NHL season by starting him in a third-line role.

A big part of the bottom-six flux will involve Mittelstadt's probable left winger tonight. Vladimir Sobotka also came over in the O'Reilly trade and can play any position up front. If he ends up on the fourth line sometime this year, it means that the Sabres top-nine is looking pretty good. Kyle Okposo is slated to be on Mittelstadt's right to start the season. Okposo had survived dire medical conditions in Spring, 2017 and spent a good chunk of last year getting up to speed and gaining confidence. The 30 yr. old is a three-time 20-goal scorer looking to rebound from possibly his worst season in the league.

As Botterill added to the top-nine, players dropped down the depth chart and the fourth line looks to be a capable checking line that should be able to chip in offensively. Forward Evan Rodrigues is an example of that as he's more than capable of holding down a third-line role but numbers pushed him down to the fourth line. Rodrigues right-winger is another example as 35 yr. old veteran Jason Pominville finds himself in the same situation. Just last year he was skating top-six minutes that included stints on Eichel's line.

The left side of the fourth line has three players battling for a spot. Scott Wilson may have been the front-runner to start there but he suffered an ankle injury and is out 8-10 weeks. Zemgus Girgensons is the longest continuously tenured Sabre and has been used literally all over the place during his five seasons in the league. He may find a home on the fourth line in Buffalo. The Sabres claimed Remi Elie off waivers from the Dallas Stars on Tuesday and he'll add even more depth in a checking line role.


The Defense

Dahlin wasn't drafted as a second-pairing defenseman but he'll start out there adjusts to an NHL game that's played on a smaller rink but perhaps his biggest adjustment will be knowing the players he'll be up against.

Heading up Buffalo's d-corps to start this season will be Rasmus Ristolainen and Marco Scandella. It's no secret that the Sabres defense has been below average at best and a train-wreck at worst while Ristolainen has been the No. 1 d-man on the team. This will be a good season to see whether or not the 22 yr. old and his less than stellar numbers are a product of him being over used and overrated. Ristolainen has averaged 26:04 of ice-time over the past three seasons, fourth most in the league, on Sabres teams that have not finished higher than seventh in the Atlantic Division.

Scandella was traded for in 2017 to help stabilize the defense and has been pretty solid for Buffalo. Although a first-pairing role is above his skill-level, he can hold his own but the mark of a Sabres defense on the rise would see him as more of a second-pairing player.

Buffalo head coach Phil Housley has had a long relationship with defenseman Jake McCabe dating back to their gold medal win for Team USA in the 2013 IIHF World Junior Hockey Championships. The trust factor that began back then continues as Housley has McCabe on the second pairing with Dahlin as Buffalo's future No. 1 defenseman learns the ropes.

The third pairing for Buffalo might give fans the heebie-jeebies on any given night. For the opener college free agent defenseman Casey Nelson looks to get the start alongside Nathan Beaulieu. Nelson has some high-quality traits which includes a high hockey IQ and getting his shot through from the point while Beaulieu has the high-end skating skills that Housley wants from the back-end. However, Nelson still has his moments while Beaulieu is prone to egregious turnovers that often lead to goals against.


The Goalies

Hutton had a career season for the Blues last year. The free agent signee willingly came to Buffalo on a modest three-year deal as he saw an opportunity to win the starters role. Although his 2.09 goals-against average and .931 save percentage look awfully good, we're left to wonder just how much those number were a product of the strong group of skaters, including a upper-level defense-corps, in front of him. That said, one thing that really stands out is Hutton's puck-handling abilities and for a team that has had all kinds of trouble moving the puck up ice, he'll add a dimension conducive to kick-starting the offense from the back-end.

Ullmark has been a workhorse for the Rochester Americans the last two seasons while seeing a ton of rubber in the process. Like most goalies it's been a long learning curve and at times he looks unbeatable. Then there was the Calder Cup playoffs where he looked anything but. Backing up Hutton while getting plenty of games in will be a nice step in his development.


Special teams

The worst thing that could have happened to the Sabres last year happened as they began the season in a hole so deep that they couldn't climb out of it. A contributing factor to their early season implosion was the powerplay. Buffalo came into the season having had the league's best powerplay (24.5% conversion rate) in 2016-17 but it started off as a train wreck and they were dead last for a big chunk to start the season while also giving up an inordinate amount of shorthanded goals.

The addition of Skinner and his sniping ability should give the powerplay a huge boost as will Dahlin who will be in the mix somewhere. After their slow start, Buffalo's powerplay came to life and finished 20th in the league at 19.1%.

Buffalo's penalty kill units ran roughly at the same pace over the prior two seasons--77.6% in 2016-17 and 77.9% last season.


Coaching

To put it plainly, Housley looked to be in way over his head last season. As a Hall of Fame defenseman who was an assistant on the 2016-17 western conference champion Nashville Predators, Housley had the background to make the jump to NHL head coach. It was a rough ride and not all of it was his fault as he came to a team that was in the midst of a front office transition. And while the group of players he had at his disposal had some talent they lacked the overall speed he needed to get his system rolling.

That said, what happened with the powerplay using the same top unit was inexcusable.

Also to be questioned was his choice of a rookie assistant in Chris Hajt, who was in charge of the defense. In what might be one of the most crucial off seasons move by Botterill, the Sabres hired former NHL defenseman and three-time Stanley Cup winner Steve Smith to take over for Hajt behind the bench.

There's a lot to be said for credentials and commanding respect as a coach and Smith's got that as he was in charge of the Carolina Hurricanes defense and penalty kill that last four seasons. Although you won't see him flashing those Cup rings, Smith can boast a 'Canes defense that allowed the second-fewest shots per game (28) over that span and the fifth-best penalty kill (82.7) while molding Carolina's defense into one of the best young groups in the league.


The Prediction

It's no reach to see the Sabres making big strides this season as they've added talent, speed and competent coaching. However, just how big those strides are will be dependent upon a number of factors. This edition of the Buffalo Sabres might have a range of points anywhere from the upper-70's to lower-90's as there are a lot of "if _____ can's" that could get them to the upper level of that range.

Like:

--if Eichel can stay healthy and score at or near a point/game while bearing the burden of being the captain
--if Skinner can have another 30-goal (or more) season
--if Reinhart can have a breakout season on Eichel's right wing
--if they can beat a hot goalie or even a backup
--if Okposo can return to his 20-goal/55-pont self
--if the Sabres can get secondary scoring down to the third line
--if Mittelstadt can make the jump up to second-line center
--if the fourth line can lock down the opposition and meaningfully contribute offensively
--if they can get a surprise or two offensively and/or defensively
--if the powerplay can reach top-five status
--if the defense can become tighter
--if the defense can contribute offensively as a group
--if Ristolainen can continue to score but play better defensively
--if Dahlin can eventually become that driving offensive force from the back end
--if Zach Bogosian can stay on the ice and be the big, all-around defenseman he was drafted to be
--if the defense in general and Beaulieu in particular can limit their brain farts
--if Hutton can hold his own in a starters role
--if Ullmark can provide quality back-up minutes
--if Smith can turn the PK into a top-10 unit
--if Buffalo can get off to a fast start
--if they can go on a couple of runs
--if they can avoid prolonged slumps
--if they can win in overtime and the shootout
--if the Sabres can turn around the 21, one-goal losses they had last season...

And if they can play with speed, gumption and finish their chances than were possibly looking at one of those worst-to-playoff type seasons.

It's a lot to ask. Yet for a fan base that's coming off one of the worst seasons in the history of the franchise, methinks something as small as a watchable product, especially on home ice, with a Sabres team decidedly pointed in the right direction would constitute a huge leap for the club.

There' are many reasons to believe they'll make great strides this season, however it probably won't include the playoffs as they look to be a team that will end up in the 84 point range, give or take a few. Anything more than that would be a bonus.


*****


The Sabres open up the 2018-19 season at home tonight vs. the Boston Bruins (who lost 7-2 last night in Washington.) The projected lineup from Sabres twitter:

53 Jeff Skinner - 9 Jack Eichel - 23 Sam Reinhart
43 Conor Sheary - 10 Patrik Berglund - 72 Tage Thompson
17 Vladimir Sobotka - 37 Casey Mittelstadt - 21 Kyle Okposo
28 Zemgus Girgensons - 71 Evan Rodrigues - 29 Jason Pominville

6 Marco Scandella - 55 Rasmus Ristolainen
19 Jake McCabe - 26 Rasmus Dahlin
82 Nathan Beaulieu - 8 Casey Nelson

40 Carter Hutton
35 Linus Ullmark