Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Impressions of, and questions concerning--RW, Jason Pominville

Published by hockeybuzz.com, 4-22-2019

RW--Jason Pominville DOB: November 30, 1982 (Age, 35)
Draft: 2001, 2nd Round (25th-overall,) Buffalo
How acquired: Trade with Minnesota, June 30, 2017
Last contract signed: October 3, 2013, 5yr./$28 million
Final year of contract: 2018-19
2018-19 Stats:  73 games | 16 goals | 15 assists | 31 points | -4 | 12:28 ATOI

Buffalo Career Stats:  733 games | 217 goals | 304 assists | 521 points | +20 | 17:35 ATOI

What we wrote preseason:  Pominville has been in the league 13 seasons now and is approaching 1,000 NHL games played. If you don't know him by now you will never, never, never know him. The Repentigny, Quebec is about as solid as they come and has had the skill, skating, smarts and maneuverability to produce consistently throughout his career while also avoid serious injury. However, the years have begun taking their toll, albeit slowly and with his production dipping well below his career averages the last three years, Pominville is slated for bottom-six duty from here on in. 

Unless he's traded this preseason, which seems unlikely at this point, Pominville will probably be in the opening night lineup on October 4 and he'll be in the bottom-six somewhere. Regardless of where he is in the lineup, GM Jason Botterill and coach Phil Housley love the professionalism he brings to the table so a spot on the roster is almost a sure thing. Where he ends up is the question mark at this point.

What we wrote mid-season:  The 35 yr. old is in his 15th NHL season and is far removed from the days where he was scoring at least 20 goals and 60 points on a consistent basis. At this stage of the game Pominville is looked to for leadership on the ice and wisdom off it as he's is really beginning to show his age. The adrenaline of a new season has worn off and the long grind of the NHL season has set in. Like last season, Pominville started out strong scoring eight goals and adding seven assists in his first 16 games but has only one goal and two assists in his last 17 games. He went into the Christmas break on an 11-game pointless streak before being sidelined with a what looks to be a concussion for the last two games. The last time the Sabres made the playoffs was in the 2010-11 season, Pominville's last full season in Buffalo before getting traded, and this year they're in the driver's seat for a playoff appearance which would bring Pominville full circle. And probably make for a nice sendoff whenever their season ends.

Impressions on his play this year:  Pominville had some spurts of really good play for the Sabres this year, but he disappeared way too much for being a high paid leader and in looking at the raw numbers, you might say that he had a good season for a player his age. But save for a moment or two, he really didn't have any kind of impact. It was just a typical vanilla year for him, one we'd seen many years prior to his trade to the Wild back in 2013. He is what he is and what he always was.

The above was written last year at season's end and applies to this season as well.

Pominville is and always has been a genuine good guy in the National Hockey League and he had himself an excellent NHL career. As we marvel at what Tomas Hertl did last night to end the Sharks/Golden Knights game with an NHL-first game-winning, shorthanded goal in the second overtime, it should be noted that Pominville scored one of the greatest goals in Sabres history when he ended the Buffalo/Ottawa series with an overtime shorthanded goal, the only time a playoff series ever ended like that. We should also note that the Sabres waived him out of camp in 2005 and were lucky that no one claimed him as he was a key player and major contributor to the team up until he was traded to the Minnesota Wild in 2013.

If this sounds like a epitaph for Pominville's NHL career, it is. Or at least it should be in Buffalo. At 36 yrs. old and with the game as fast as it is these days, for as much as we might love Pominville, the game has passed him by. Much respect, good luck in your future endeavors and thanks for the memories. 

Questions moving forward:  Is his career worthy of a number retirement?

Contract info via CapFriendly, stats via sabres.com and hockey reference.com.

Monday, April 22, 2019

Impressions of, and questions concerning--LW, Conor Sheary

DOB:  June 8, 1992 (age, 26)
Draft:  Undrafted Free Agent, 2014 (AHL ATO, Wilkes-Barre Scranton) 2015 (NHL, PIT)
How acquired:  Trade with Pittsburgh, June 27, 2018
Last contract signed:  3yr./$9 million, June 30, 2017
Final year of contract: 2019-20

2018-19 Stats:  78 games | 14 goals | 20 assists | 34 points | -18 | 14:37 ATOI

Career Stats:  262 games | 62 goals | 65 assists | 127 points | +7 | 13:54 ATOI

What we wrote preseason:  The easiest route here for building the roster would have been to put recently acquired left-winger Jeff Skinner in this spot...But there's a lot to be said for Sheary skating on the top line in Pittsburgh and how he might help formulate the top-six whilst skating alongside Buffalo's top center, Jack Eichel. 

Although at the time of the trade, which was before the Sabres traded for Skinner, Botterill said it wasn't a given that Sheary would be skating with Eichel, he did point out that he believed Sheary could be able to skate with any of Buffalo's centermen. What it will come down to is fit and chemistry. Buffalo's top-two centers are Eichel and more than likely Casey Mittelstadt and in keeping with that projection, which wingers would pair up better with which center will be something to watch at training camp and into preseason. The fact that Sheary had played with, subjected himself to and succeeded along side a player of Crosby's stature might give an indication that he should be able to do the same with Eichel.

What we wrote mid-season:  Botterill needed to bolster the left wing position and his first move was to acquire Sheary from the Pittsburgh Penguins. Sheary was a known quantity as Botterill had 10 years in the Penguins front office prior to becoming Buffalo's GM. He knew Sheary brought speed and was tenacious on the puck and he also was familiar with a player who could play along side a superstar like Sidney Crosby and light the lamp for 40 goals over two full seasons. Sheary was on the outs in Pittsburgh as his stat-line dipped and Botterill was happy to bring him aboard. Although Sheary is always in overdrive, he runs hot and cold in the scoring department. He was solid out of the gate with six goals in 16 games but has only one in his last 17 games. The Sabres need some consistent production at left wing outside of Skinner and it was hoped Sheary could be that guy. He still could be, but we're really not sure.

Impressions on his play this year:  First off, the fact that Sheary and his 34 points was fourth on the team amongst forwards in scoring is indicative of the struggles Buffalo faced with their middle six this season. Sheary was bumped up to the top line with Eichel and Sam Reinhart after the Sabres were shut out 4-0 at home by the Boston Bruins on opening night and the move paid off as he would chip in three goals and an assist as the Sabres went 3-1-0 in their next four games. However, then he went cold and was dropped down in a lineup shuffle at San Jose.

Sheary has a lot of great attributes like his dart-like skating and his relentless pursuit of the puck. He has a very capable shot, also has good vision in a setup role and can score at even strength (10 of his 14 goals.) He can also play with virtually anyone. One of Buffalo's best lines mid-season was Sheary, the versatile Evan Rodrigues at center and Reinhart and even though they didn't score a lot they displayed plenty of chemistry and actually looked the part of a viable second line, something we really hadn't seen to that point in the season.

At $3 million and with one more year on it, Sheary offers up enough versatility to be moved up and down the left side and he showed he can hold his own up with Eichel, at least for a handful of games. Most in Buffalo could probably live with Sheary in a third-line left-winger/second-unit powerplay. If the team ends up adding more to the top-six and eventually smooths things out, he could end up being an 18-20 goal scorer. Just don't expect consistent production game-in, game-out.

Questions moving forward:  Can he become a 20-goal/40-point player for the Sabres next season?  

Contract info via CapFriendly, stats via sabres.com and hockey reference.com.

Friday, April 19, 2019

Of the coaching search, Kane, O'Reilly and Lehner

Published by hockeybuzz.com, 4-18-2019

All's quiet on the Buffalo Sabres coaching front right now after Todd McLellan and Alain Vigneault were hired by the Los Angeles Kings and Philadelphia Flyers, respectively. Of the two, only McLellan was a consideration by the Sabres as he came in for an interview while his son was in the NCAA Frozen Four being held in Buffalo. Nothing came of it as reports suggest that the Sabres didn't even make him an offer.

If you're a fan like myself who is interested in seeing Buffalo hire a veteran hockey coach, pickins is mighty slim and none seem very appealing with a list that includes Mike Yeo, Todd Richards and Michel Therrien, among others. Former Sabres head coach Lindy Ruff's name has come up for whatever reason in Sabreland, mostly nostalgia, but it's a ship that's sailed even though I'd pick him over any of the "retreads" available on the coaching market right now.

It's not a good situation for the Sabres be in as they just finished a disastrous two-year stint with a rookie head coach and, barring any unforeseen firings of 2019 NHL playoff coaches, right now that's about the only thing left on the market. Toronto Marlies head coach Sheldon Keefe seems to be the front-runner for a NHL job while back-to-back NCAA Champion head coach Scott Sandelin of Minnesota-Duluth might be the other hot rookie candidate. Rochester Americans head coach Chris Taylor's name is always mentioned but as of now there have been no reports of the team contacting him about the position, and there's a possibility he may not be interested in the job at this time. Also, Sweden national coach Rickard Gronborg's name is getting hot for a head coaching position in the NHL and the Sabres have been said to be interested in him dating back to last season.

It's quite the pickle general manager Jason Botterill has himself in right now and barring an unforeseen veteran coach hitting the market soon, we're in a situation where we could see another head coach go down the drain over the next few years and in the process the Sabres might be looking for another GM.

Considering the circumstances the Sabres find themselves in right now, the ideal situation in this bloggers eyes would be for any potential rookie head coach, if that's what it comes down to, to be surrounded by veteran assistants who command the respect of the players.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Impressions of, and questions concerning--D, Rasmus Ristolainen

Published by hockeybuzz.com, 4-17-2019

Defenseman--Rasmus Ristolainen DOB: October 27, 1994 (Age, 24)
Draft: 2013, 1st round (8th-overall)
How acquired: Drafted by Buffalo
Last contract signed: October 11, 2016, 6yr./$32.4 million
Final year of contract: 2021-22

2018-19- Stats:  78 games | 5 goals | 38 assists | 43 points | -41 |  24:38 ATOI  
Buffalo Career Stats:  424 games | 36 goals | 158 assists | 198 points | 24:24 ATOI

What we wrote preseason:  Ristolainen (selected eighth overall, 2013) is entering the prime of his career and has played a lot of hard minutes along the way. Over the past three seasons Ristolainen has averaged 26:04 ranking him fourth in the league behind Erik Karlsson (Ott,) Ryan Suter (MIN) and Drew Doughty (LAK.) That much ice-time is too much ice-time for him and it affected his overall game but neither coach had much of a choice considering the defense they had to work with. 

As Ristolainen struggled, so came a lot of questions, especially because last season, for the first time in his career, he had more offensive zone starts (53%) than d-zone. By Christmas Ristolainen had yet to register a goal, had only nine assists and was a minus-nine. He looked out of touch on many occasions, had puck control problems and defensive lapses and there were some in the media proposing that he wasn't playing the system.

Having said all that, the addition of Rasmus Dahlin on the back end changes a lot of things for the team and for Ristolainen. The Chicago Blackhawks Stanley Cup teams were anchored by a d-tandem of two-time Norris Trophy winner Duncan Keith and his sidekick Brent Seabrook and it's not too far-fetched to think that with less of a role, Ristolainen could be Buffalo's version of Seabrook to Dahlin's Keith. 

What we wrote mid-season:  The 24 yr. old "Angry Finn" struggled to start the season and his negative plus/minus rating was amongst the worst on the team. But something happened along the way and we're starting to see the emergence of the player he was drafted for. "Risto" could always skate well for a player of his size and is at his best when he joins the rush and works the offensive zone. He's been showing a very high confidence-level in those abilities with the way he's taking control and he's also been adding to those positive traits by playing with a load of sandpaper while leading the team with 116 hits, nearly double the next player on the Sabres. Although he may never be Bill Hajt from a defensive standpoint, having a 6'4" 215 lb. d-man heading up ice with a head of steam who possesses enough skill to both set up and finish makes for an intriguing weapon on the Sabres blueline. Ristolainen leads Sabres defensemen in all offensive categories with four goals and 20 assists while his 24 points is tied for 13th in the NHL amongst defensemen. His average time on ice of 25:42 is once again top-five in the league.

Impressions on his play this year: Ristolainen has always logged first-pairing, work-horse minutes for the Sabres and this year was no different. Over the past four seasons both coaches, Dan Bylsma and Phil Housley, said they wanted to pare back his minutes but neither really did, or felt they could until the second half of this season when Housley reigned them in. Ristolainen went from 25:42 ATOI pre-Christmas break and finished the season at 24:38, his lowest since his rookie campaign.

Unfortunately for the big Finn, despite putting up solid offensive numbers from the back-end, the number that sticks out, and has stuck out throughout his career thus far, is his plus/minus which was a league-worst minus-41. It's a number that leaves even non-plus/minus believers aghast. However, in an effort to frame said number a little better, perhaps we might want to take into consideration that Ristolainen was on the ice for a total of 16 short-handed/empty net goals against which count against the plus/minus rating. Take it for what it is but those are mostly team breakdowns and/or desperation situations.

Having said that, Ristolainen has been in a major cluster-fart in Buffalo ever since he turned pro and it looks as if it's wearing on him. He's trained his body for the rigors of the NHL but being a part of losing teams, including two last place teams over the past five seasons, would be a mental strain on anyone, especially the team leader in minutes. As a player, we've seen glimpses of greatness in his offensive game, like him schooling San Jose's Brent Burns this year, but not enough of them over the course of his career. We've also seen him use his size when clearing the crease and some sandpaper as well, but not enough of it. His mental lapses in the d-zone are well documented but you can also say, especially the last two seasons, that the defense has been a disaster.

It wouldn't be surprising to see Ristolainen and the team part ways via a trade this off season in a move that might benefit him more than the team. He's got a lot to offer but his role and the toll playing for the Sabres has taken no him screams "fresh start."

Questions moving forward:  Has he played his last season in Buffalo? What's his value on the trade market? If he comes back, can a new head coach place him in a position to succeed? Can he ever succeed in Buffalo? Is Tampa Bay, against whom he played some of his best hockey, a potential landing spot for him? If so, how much do they like him and feel they need him? How many other teams might be interested in his services?

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Impressions of, and questions concerning--D, Rasmus Dahlin

Defenseman, Rasmus Dahlin
DOB:  April 13,2000 (age, 18)
Draft:  2018, 1st-overall
How acquired:  Drafted by Buffalo
Last contract signed:  3y./$11.25 million ELC ($925K/yr. base salary)
Final year of contract: 2020-21

2018-19Stats:  82 games | 9 goals | 35 assists | 44 points | -13 | 21:09 ATOI

Buffalo Career Stats:  Rookie

What we wrote preseason:  This should be the one and only time that Buffalo Sabres defenseman Rasmus Dahlin will be placed this low (second-pairing) in the lineup heading into a season. When Dahlin hit the ice in Buffalo for development camp the skills he displayed were that of a forward with skating that was fluid and fast. For those who were seeing him for the first time live, it was a wonder to behold his hip movement, stickwork and angles on defense showing that he's not just a pure offensive-defenseman.

As an 18 yr. old rookie, Dahlin will have a lot to work on and will go through a lot of growing pains but his skating alone will ease the workload and dull some of the pains. He has a poised demeanor on the ice (and off the ice as well) projecting a confidence in himself and his skill-level. Hockey, unlike other North American pro sport, is usually spot on when they dub draft prospects as franchise-changers. They don't come along that often but when they do, if you're lucky you'll be in a position to land one.

What we wrote mid-season:   Most of the time we forget how young Dahlin is while marveling at some of the things he does on the ice. The top overall pick in the 2018 NHL Draft is only a few months into his NHL career but the way he's adapted to the game has been impressive. The Sabres have eased the 18 yr. old into more ice-time and more responsibility and Dahlin has impressed every step of the way. Although he has made rookie mistakes, sometimes many of them in one game, he keeps on keepin' on and plays an extremely poised game. Dahlin is mobile and smooth-skating, has a high hockey IQ, is a wizard with his stick and has an overall skill-level worthy the all the pre-draft hype thrust his way. He already has 20 points on the season (4+16) which is good for second on the team amongst defensemen and third in the league amongst all rookies and though he still has a lot of learning to do, Dahlin has the wherewithal and drive to get there. Perhaps the biggest hurdle he's facing right now is dealing with the grind of an 82-game NHL season and some of that began to show a few games ago. Coach Phil Housley dialed things back a bit with a third-pairing designation in Saturday's game and Dahlin came through with a plus-1 rating an his first goal at home.

Impressions on his play this year:  Yeah, he's all that, and it was a pleasure to watch what he had to offer which included incredible poise for a teenager playing a big role on the blueline. As one would expect from an 18 yr. old, Dahlin did get burned on a number of occasions most of which had to do with underestimating the speed of his competition and not taking the proper angles, something that every rookie NHL d-man struggles with. Other problems Dahlin faced had to do with his puck-carrying which centered around him trying to do too much like going 1-on-3 or more on the rush when it might have been better to get teammates involved. When he tried to force the issue like that, most times it ended up with a turnover. 

Having said that, Dahlin played in all 82 games, the first time an 18 yr. old defenseman has ever done that in the NHL and his 44 points were second all-time for an 18 yr. old behind only his coach, Phil Housley (57) a defenseman who's defense was so bad as a rookie that Hall of Fame head coach Scotty Bowman moved him up to wing for a portion of the season. Dahlin has all the offensive upside Housley displayed as an 18 yr. old and is already better in his own zone.

Questions moving forward:  Can he shrug off the turbulence of a losing season while also seeing his coach fired? Who will the new head coach be? Will said coach be able to refine Dahlin's game a bit beginning next season? How much can he improve in the defensive zone? How will he handle the brunt of carrying the d-corps as a 19 yr. old? Did he get a good feel for the grind of an NHL season and how will he manage it better next season? 

Contract info via CapFriendly, stats via sabres.com and hockey reference.com.

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Impressions of, and questions concerning--LW, Jeff Skinner

Left wing, Jeff Skinner
DOB:  May 16, 1992 (age, 26)
Draft:  2010, 7th-overall (CAR)
How acquired:  Trade with Carolina, August 2, 2018
Last contract signed:  August 8, 2012 6yr./$34.350 million
Final year of contract:  2018-19

2018-19 Stats:  82 games | 40 goals | 23 assists | 63 points | even | 18:31 ATOI

Career Stats:  661 games | 241 goals |  198 assists | 442 points |  -95 | 17:17 ATOI

What we wrote preseason:  After taking the NHL, and Carolina, by storm as an 18 year old scoring 31 goals and 63 points while on his way to 2011 Rookie of the Year honors, Skinner continued make his mark as a goal-scorer posting a total 204 goals in 579 games over his eight seasons playing for the 'Canes. However, despite his individual successes Carolina hasn't made the playoff in nine seasons and their new owner with a new front office decided change was needed. That included Skinner, a fan favorite. The seventh-overall pick in 2010 was put on the block this summer after it was clear that he wouldn't be signing a contract extension with the team.

It's no secret that Buffalo has been the worst scoring team in the NHL for quite a while. In the last five years the three-time last place finishers averaged a league-worst 2.19 goals/game which included being the only team to finish a season under two goals per game. And they did so twice in a row (2013-14, 2014-15.) It was also no secret that heading into the off season the Sabres had a gaping hole at left wing. Buffalo GM Jason Botterill filled it partially when he traded for Pittsburgh Penguins left winger Conor Sheary, a player he'd watched up close as a part of the Penguins front office, but the trade for Skinner was on another level.

Where he plays in the lineup will be dependent upon training camp and what kind of chemistry is built within the top six leading up to the regular season. The book on Skinner is that he likes the puck on his stick, has the speed, wicked maneuverability and stickwork to get into prime scoring areas and, obviously, has the skill-level to finish. Whether that meshes better with Eichel or Casey Mittelstadt is yet to be determined but for at least this year, no matter which line he's on, the Sabres have themselves a true goal-scorer on the left side.

What we wrote mid-season:  When Botterill mentioned Skinner's scoring at even strength, he wasn't kidding. The three-time 30-goal scorer is presently second in the league with 26 goals with 21 of them coming at even strength, which is also second in the league. Skinner already beat his 24 goals from last season and he's on pace to shatter his career high of 37 set in 2016-17. The guy most definitely has a deft touch around the net but the most fascinating part of his game might be his skating. Skinner learned figure skating as a young lad and as we've been lucky enough to see through 37 games in the Blue and Gold, he uses those skills to advantageously square himself to the play. In the offensive zone it's proven to be deadly. The chemistry between him and Eichel is unmistakable.

Impressions on his play this year:  Everything we heard about Skinner is true. His figure-skating background allows extensive maneuverability in tight quarters, which is often found around the net, he squares himself to the play and can finish. Botterill talked of Skinner and his propensity to score at even strength and he was proven correct. Of Skinner's career-high 40 goals this season, 32 of them came at even strength which placed him fifth in the league. 

In Buffalo we've had the opportunity to see his skating and his goal-scoring up close for a full 82-game season but an underrated aspect to Skinner's game is his moxie. No matter the situation, the 26 yr. old Skinner plays the game with confidence and an edge that has him chirping and butting heads with whomever draws his ire in the heat of the moment. But, he doesn't take stupid penalties (34 PIM) and when it comes time for the puck drop, he's gets back to the task at hand.

A lot has been said here in hockeybuzz threads about Skinner "disappearing when the team needed him most." He went 13 games without a goal from February 17 to March 14 and went goal-less for another eight games after finally scoring against his former team. Buffalo went 3-16-2 during that stretch in a dismal run that obliterated any hope of reaching the playoffs. However, Skinner pumped 73 shots on goal during that span, an average of 3.32 shots/game which was a hair above his season average of 3.27 shots/gm. Was Skinner choking under the pressure of a playoff run? Or was his goal drought more a product of the puck not finding the back of the net? That debate will rage on in chat rooms and social media but the two big questions facing Skinner and the Buffalo Sabres are...

Questions moving forward:  Will he re-sign in Buffalo and if so, what will the price be?

Contract info via CapFriendly, stats via sabres.com and hockey reference.com.