Thursday, July 28, 2011

A Series Of Events Highlight Ville Leino's Journey

Confused by the Ville Leino signing this past July 1st? Scratching your head at the amount ($27M) and term? Love the aggressiveness of the signing, but are cautiously optimistic that it will work out? Wondering if he can produce in a top-six center role?

Me too.

Whereas the trade for Robyn Regehr is a landmark trade on one level, the signing of Ville Leino to play a top-six center role on the team should be looked upon as another.

But, whereas the Regehr acquisition will probably end up being as solid as his stay-at-home play, the outcome of the Leino signing could be anywhere from a less-than-stellar/drunken sailor overpayment to pure genius and a tribute to the hockey minds within the organization.

Why the Sabres Went After Leino On July 1st

It's no secret that the Sabres were thin down the middle even before the departure of Tim Connolly (Leafs.)

It was also no secret that they were intent upon bolstering the center position via free agency. They had a considerable offer for free-agent darling Brad Richards ready, but, with the glamour-girl New York Rangers seemingly already in bed with him, a red-headed step-child like the Sabres really had no chance.

So they moved on, rather quickly, to Plan-B:  Philadelphia Flyers free agent, Ville Lieno.

Buffalo Sabres GM Darcy Regier, at the Leino-signing press conference (which can be accessed here through the Sabres Edge blog,) said that "[Leino's] coming into his own" and envisions him as "someone that will not only complement, but contribute significantly to improving and driving [the] offense."

As Plan-B in the quest for a top-six center, Leino will be moving to a position that he hasn't played in four years even though he says that he prefers to play there.

Head Coach Lindy Ruff said, "Leino enjoyed playing fact if you study the Philly's system, a lot of times he was the guy playing down low on the Hartnell/Briere line. I talked to him about all three positions, and he's comfortable about all three, but the position he likes playing most is center."

"In a long conversation about how we play and with the amount the defense join the play, that second wave of attack," Ruff continued, "Ville's strength is on the puck, he can make plays in tight areas, he can look for the second wave."

These attributes were not something Regier and Ruff plucked out of the air to either justify or convince. This is what they saw in his play, what they heard from the player himself and what has been a constant in his career since his days overseas.

The Good And the Questionable From Finland

Back in May, 2008, Matthew Wuest of redwingcentral talked with Jokerit, Finland Head Coach , Doug Shedden on Leino.

In an straightforward interview filled with insight revealing both the positives and negatives about Leino's future in the NHL, Shedden had this to say, “He’s a natural center and I moved him to right wing and it was better for him. He’s strong on the puck down low, he’s a good cycle guy, and he draws a lot of penalties because of his puck control.”

Shedden also says that it "is going to be tough" for Leino to make it in the NHL. He uses Leino's average skating and having to adapt to smaller rinks as possible impediments to Leino's success.

But, on the positive side, one thing that Shedden says may be the ultimate determining factor is that “[Leino’s] a heck of a competitor — he probably led the league in practice fights. He loves to come to the rink, he loves to practice, he loves to put his equipment on and compete.”

“The determination is there, and that can compensate for a lot of things,” Shedden continued. “He’s one guy who could (make it because) of that.”

The Red Wings Like Leino

Detroit is the first of two quality organizations that Leino has played for in his short NHL career, the other being Philadelphia.

No other organization in hockey is better at finding diamonds in the rough than the Red Wings with a scouting department that is unparalleled in hockey.

Grandmaster GM, Ken Holland, brought Leino into the Red Wings fold as an undrafted free agent and he produced well on the farm in Grand Rapids. In the latter part of the 2008/09 season Leino had the opportunity to play in 13 regular season games for Detroit. The results were five goals, four assists and a +5 plus/minus.

It was enough for Holland to sign Leino to a two-year, one-way contract with the Wings.

Holland was interviewed by Ansar Khan of mlive in July, 2009, and had this to say about the Leino, "We like his hockey sense, his ability to protect the puck in the offensive zone," Holland said. "He's got a scoring touch and he goes to the hard areas of the ice.

"He just needs to adjust to the pace of the game. His speed is average, but we can put Ville with different people. He can play on a skilled line or chip in offense on the third line."

Although Leino had a less than stellar 2009 post-season with the Wings, there was reason to believe that he'd be another Holland diamond in Detroit.

Crashing Back To Earth In Hockeytown

"As a Wings fan, we're all susceptible of asking the 'What have you done for me, lately?' question at times. In Leino's case, maybe it should be a 'What have you done for me, ever?' Thus wrote Eric Fish in the Flint Journal on December 10, 2009.

Leino had 27 games with Detroit and was playing with the likes of Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg for a third of the season yet only put up a paltry three goals during that time.

What happened? Was Leino turning into a "bust" for the vaunted Detroit scouting staff?

"I'm not knocking Drew Miller," Fish continues, "but it says something about what direction Leino is headed in right now when a guy the team picked off waivers three weeks ago is starting over one that was under a two-year contract before training camp."

This was after Leino was a healthy scratch yet again with expectations plummeting for the kid.

From "diamond-in-the-rough" to "underachiever" in a matter of five months with the best organization in hockey. And, at the time, an organization that was also heading into the 2009/10 stretch-run butting up against the cap with solid vets ready to return from injury.

           The Writing Was On the Wall. Or...

It wasn't exactly a "bag of pucks," but it was fairly close.

The February 6, 2010 trade went like this: Ville Leino to Philadelphia for borderline NHL defenseman Olle-Kristian Tollefsen and a fifth-round pick.

With Leino underachieving and the Wings having some vets returning from injury, the salary cap demanded that Holland make a move. The obvious choice at the time was Leino.

Two quick notes on Tollefsen. He is no longer in the NHL and the Sabres Drew Stafford bloodied the 6'2", 211 lb Norwegian "tough-guy" in a preseason fight October 2, 2008.

All-in-all, Holland did get a return for the undrafted free agent, but it was obviously a "bail" by the Red Wings organization when it came to Leino. A blemish on an organization that is usually spot-on with their talent evaluations.

Did the Wings Bail Too Soon On Leino?

If you look at the 2010 post-season that Leino had with the Flyers, in one word, yup.

The Philadelphia Flyers run to the Stanley Cup in 2010 ended with a six-game loss at the hands of the Chicago Blackhawks in the Finals.

Ville Leino had a playoff-run that left many scratching their heads wondering how the Wings could have bailed on a player who ended up scoring seven goals and adding 14 assists in 19 games in the playoffs for the Flyers.

Bill Hoppe on briefly wrote about Leino "falling flat on his face" in Detroit.

In the Hoppe piece Wings GM Ken Holland had this to say about Leino's rough go in Detroit, “To be fair, he hadn’t done much here,” he told the Detroit Free Press. “We really liked him. We felt he could be an NHL player, but when we had all those injuries and he got significant ice time, he really didn’t do anything with it.”

So what happened? How did Leino go from rising star, to healthy scratch, to a trade that was a low-point in his career, to a potential Conn Smythe-type player in the playoffs?

The Right Situation For the Time

Chemistry and hands-off coaching seemed to be big contributors, not to mention his own state of mind.

Leino put it this way, "I need a little freedom to play my hockey and make the plays I do,” [he] told the Free Press (via the Hoppe piece,) adding, “When you can play the way you want and play the hockey you like, and then you have success, your confidence goes up and then when the whole team is winning, your confidence just keeps growing. I’m very happy where I’m at right now – the small things have started to click, and I’m in a good position right now. It’s great.”

Playing with veterans like former Sabre Daniel Briere and veteran Scott Hartnell was huge for Leino. That line combination was the best line in the playoffs. And it wouldn't have happened had Jeff Carter and Simon Gagne not gone down with injuries. Before that, Leino was a healthy scratch for the first four games of the playoffs.

Dogged determination and puck-control ability, two traits alluded to by his Finnish coach, came to the fore in those playoffs for Philadelphia.

From Flyers Head Coach Peter Laviolette, “Right now, he seems to have so much energy out there. You can double-shift him … without taking him off the ice. He seems to have a lot of jam right now.

“I think what everybody is impressed with … is his ability to hang on to that puck and make plays,” he said. “It’s really beneficial for a team when you’re trying to create offense to have a guy that can stop and start and cut back and do a whole bunch of different things with the puck.

“Because other things open up, he’s able to see the ice,” he said. “He’s got a terrific skill level. It was a tremendous pick-up for Paul Holmgren to get him here for the playoffs.”

Red Wings Fans Take It All In Stride

That Leino "morphed" into a clutch player pretty much stunned everyone.

'Who the hell is this guy?'

'Where was this guy in November?'

'Why couldn't this guy do that for us?'

The "guy," of course, is Ville Leino."

Those thoughts by Matt Hutter of the bleacherreport pretty much encompassed the thoughts of most of "Hockeytown" when he threw that out at the beginning of his piece.

After laying everything out--Leino's ups and downs with Detroit and even in Philly--Hutter spins the tale and outcome in an appropriate way by saying that,  "If Leino's performance as a Philadelphia Flyer has any bearing on his former team, it reveals only that the Detroit Red Wings remain one of the best scouting organizations in hockey."

Sure enough, if you look back at it, the Wings did find a diamond in the rough, it just took a weird cosmical alignment to bring Leino's talents out.

Says Hutter, "The Red Wings saw in Leino the raw talent and puck-possession skills that have come to define Detroit Red Wings forwards and thought he'd find quick comfort and success in a red and white uniform. Unfortunately, he didn't."

"Fortunately for the Flyers, they reaped the rewards of the Detroit Red Wings scouting department, as Leino finally lived up to the potential the Wings new he had when they signed him in the first place."

Paul Holmgren Was Never Affraid Of Turnover in Philly

When Philly Chairman Ed Snider talks, GM Paul Holmgren listens.

For years Holmgren stocked up on talented skaters and paid them big money while leaving goaltending to a mix of journeymen and rookies.

In 2010, that formula failed to win a cup.

In 2011, it was a disaster as their goaltending roulette wheel nearly caused an upset by Buffalo in the first round of the playoffs. In the second round vs. eventual Cup-winner Boston, the Bruins exposed the Flyers for what they were and the Bruins dismissed them in a sweep.

Snider was sick of the roulette wheel in goal and apparently Holmgren and Laviolette were tired of the way Mike Richards and Jeff Carter were conducting themselves off-ice as well.

It ended up where both Richards and Carter were traded and Snider's wish for a legitimate starting goaltender was granted when Holmgren signed Ilya Bryzgalov to a nine-year contract.

As for Leino, one thing we do know is that the Flyers had the opportunity to sign the winger to a contract before he hit the market as an unrestricted free agent this past July 1.

Much to the chagrin of  phillysportsworld writer Wayne Cella, Leino should be ticked at the way the Philadelphia Flyers organization handled him.

Cella chronicles all of the moves that Philly made in the off-season, from trading Carter and Richards, to signing Bryzgalov, to trading Darrell Powe and letting Daniel Carcillo walk. All of it done so that the Flyers would have cap-room.

Through it all, Cella described Leino as "a good soldier," one that did the professional thing and kept quiet while he waited...

And waited.

And waited.

And he was still waiting on Philadelphia when Buffalo came knocking on July 1st with a six-year/$27M contract which he promptly signed.

What Do These Chain Of Events Mean For Leino As A Buffalo Sabre?

The constants throughout Leino's successful parts of the past three NHL seasons are based upon his work in the offensive zone, stickhandling in a phone-booth, holding on to the puck for a trailer, and finding those openings in the defense.

His dogged determination, competitive nature and willingness to go to the dirty areas are all aspects that come to the fore and guide him to success.

Briere, a former fan-favorite in Buffalo who was on Philly's top-producing line with Leino knows what he brings to the table.

Last January,'s Sam Carchidi wrote a piece about Briere's career-high scoring pace and how Briere credited his success to his line-mates--Scott Hartnell and Ville Leino.

Of Leino, Briere said, "Ville's a playmaker, and he gives me the chance to open up...when you play with a player [Leino] who likes to make plays, you give him the puck and try to get open."

When Leino signed with Buffalo, John Vogl of sabresedge talked with Briere about his former linemate and new Sabre, "The fans are going to love him," Briere said by phone. "I know personally I loved playing with him. He's a very creative player, very strong on the puck, exciting to watch. He's a clutch player, as you guys have seen in the playoffs.

"It's disappointing for me to see him leave but I'm happy that he's going to a place I know very well and a place he's going to be appreciated."

High praise from a trusted voice, one that really has no reason to sugarcoat anything.

It's All About Ice Time

The attributes that everyone from former coach Shedden to former linemate Briere expound upon, seem to disappear when Leino's confidence level is low.

Fact is, he loves the ice time. He needs ice-time.

“The player I am, it’s not always enough to just get ice time – you need to play a lot and play with good players,” he said in a piece. “I got a chance every now and then [with the Red Wings], but I didn’t really get a good chance that I wanted.”

We're not really sure what that was supposed to mean. Datsyuk, Zetterberg, Johan Franzen. Those guys aren't really chopped liver. Nor is the Detroit Red Wings organization.

And while he was a roaring success in the 2010 playoffs, his 19 goals and 53 points last season for the Flyers, although pretty solid, weren't spectacular. In fact, Buffalo winger Tyler Ennis, a possible linemate for Leino, had 20 goals and 29 assists in his first full season as a Sabres' rookie last season.

We also need to take into consideration Lindy Ruff's philosophy when it comes to ice-time--the players need to earn it. The caveat here will be to see just how much leeway Ruff gives to his players up-front. With the defense solidified and Ryan Miller in net, we could see a return to a style similar to the 2006/07 "run-n-gun" play.

But, that's neither here nor there right now.

For now, Leino finds himself in a period of transition. He went from a modest, six-figure salary to big-bucks. From big-city Philadelphia to small city Buffalo. And he will be expected to make the transition from winger to top-six center.

That would be a lot on anyone's plate and we'll see just how smooth the adjustment will be.

In the Stephen Whyno piece above, Leino takes the simple approach to the forces that affect one's play, “When things happen, I just try to make the best of them,” Leino said. “I just stick with it and do the best I can in the situation.”

Which Leino will show up when the Sabres open the season? Will he have the talent around him to make him successful the way he was in Philly? Will he mature enough in the next few seasons to the point where he'll rely on his own talent to bring out the best in him? Can he bring those talents to the middle as a center?

Maybe more importantly, can he play in Lindy's system? And will Ruff allow him the freedom to play to his strengths?

Plenty of questions that will be start to be answered at the beginning of the season.

All we have right now is a series of events that brought Leino to Buffalo. From the remote areas of Finland to "Hockeytown" to the streets of Philadelphia to a home in Buffalo for the next six years. At each stop, certain events have created markers to chronicle his journey towards the ultimate goal--the Stanley Cup--with the ultimate question being, will a future marker for Leino be one that sees him parading down Delaware Ave. as part of a Sabres' Cup-winning team?

Tune in. It should be as interesting.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

For Those Of You Jonesing For Any Sabres News

With Buffalo having almost finished their off-season check-list, Sabres news is pretty hard to come by these days.

Of the newsworthy options out there, you could delve into the world of high drama and worry yourself to death over the debt-ceiling.

You could spend hours watching ESPN as big shots on both sides of a $9B NFL-quarrel leave football fans biting their nails wondering when the season will start (too bad the NFL and NFLPA will lock-out pre-1993 retirees from any benefits that will make their lives a bit manageable.)

The Women's World Cup Soccer Team did great (I happened to catch the Brazil game as well as a good chunk of the Japan match and both were thrilling,) the Pittsburgh Pirates were in first place for a couple of days (something that hasn't happened this late in the MLB season for decades) and Tiger Woods fired his caddie. All stories that momentarily pique interest, but cannot fill the void.

In Buffalo, the goalie debate has begun (in fans minds) as Jhonas Enroth signed for two years. Andrej "Rej" Sekera signed a four year deal for $2.75M/year, much to the consternation of many Sabres fans. And former Sabres Clark MacArthur and Tim Connolly cashed in big time with the Maple Leafs which is always great blogger-fodder.

The only thing left to do on the Sabres list is re-sign RFA d-man Marc-Andre Gragnani. With the team being around $4M over the cap ceiling this off season, eventually they'll need to jettison some salary and moves will need to be made before the season opener.

For now, though, as we cool off from 100+ heat indexes caused by a heat-dome over much of the Midwest and east coast, there's really not much going on in Sabre-land.

Jonesing for some Sabres-related news? Here are a few articles to chew on while wondering why there always needs to be drama, posturing, dread and fear in the headline news.

Terry Pegula's Having Himself a Good Time

Jim Fink of Buffalo Business Journal says that Terry Pegula's spending spree may cause the billionaire owner/fan to "drill another well".

So far, Uncle Terry has committed over $120M to remaking the Sabres organization from re-signing Head Coach Lindy Ruff to flying to Saskatchewan to woo Robyn Regehr.

Fink touches on the well known aspects of Pegula's spending spree like $100M+ in players contracts doled out recently and underscores the fact that Pegula underwrote the Alumni/Fan Appreciation gathering and the Rick Martin Tribute.

But one thing that may have eluded many is the pricetag for the renovation of the Sabres locker room, with Pegula "Spending, according to Buffalo City Hall records, $6 million on renovating the Sabres locker room and training facilities at HSBC Arena."


I highly doubt that Uncle Terry will need to drill anytime soon, though. A return of 5% on his $3B worth would yeild $150M. More than enough cover for his spending spree out-of-pocket.

This truly is uncharted waters for the Buffalo Sabres and their fans.

Thomas Vanek Joins Some Pretty Big Names In Minnesota For Charity Event

Former Minnesota Golden Gopher, Thomas Vanek, spent this past Wednesday playing hockey with the likes of Zach Parise (New Jersey Devils,) Kyle Okposo (NY Islanders,) Paul Martin (Pittsburgh Penguins,) and Brent Burns (San Jose Sharks.)

Patrick Johnson of the South Washington County Bulletin covered the first-ever [Derek] Stepan/[Taylor] Chorney/[Jeff]Taffe NHL Players Charity Hockey Game. The event was held in the Cottage Grove Ice Arena, Cottage Grove, MN where 1500 fans packed the arena to watch and meet over 30 NHL players, including Vanek.

Among the group of players contributing their time and goodwill was United States Hockey Hall of Fame and Buffalo Hall of Fame Member Phil Housley. Housley, who was born in St. Paul, MN is a coach for the Stillwater Ponies High School hockey team in Washington County.

Tickets for the event were $25 pre-sale. (Boing!)

Brad Boyes On the Move To Vancouver?


That's the roomer from this Vancouver paper.

We're all familiar with the glut of wingers on the Sabres. We  also know that the Sabres will be over the cap by at around $4M after re-signing Gragnani. Even if they demote Ales Kotalik and Shaone Morrisonn and rid themselves of their $5M in salary, the team will be too close to the cap for comfort and another move will need to be made.

Jason Brough of The Province makes the case for Boyes to Vancouver for a draft pick saying that the team could use a right-handed sniper and could clear cap-space to get Boyes. Disregard (as the author did) the fact that Brough made a case for Chris Drury to the 'Nucks as well.

Boyes' weak playoff performance vs. the Flyers would justify the Sabres moving him. Although getting a draft-pick in return would be OK, maybe it would be better to somehow finagle the deal so that Cody Hodgson, who seems to be on the out and is a player we wouldn't mind bringing in, would be part of the return.

Regardless, it doesn't seem to make a lot of sense for Vancouver, but, hey, if they want to, I'm sure Darcy Regier and company would be willing.

Who Did the Work On the Jhonas Enroth Contract?

Finally, I don't know about you, but I consider Jhonas Enroth's $675K per year salary a steal for the Sabres.

No Sabres back-up since Martin Biron has instilled the a sense of confidence from the crease like Enroth did last season.

Case in point.

Last season Enroth played 14 games, went 9-2-2 with a 2.73 gaa and a .907 sv%. The year before, Patrick Lalime played in 16 games as a back-up. He went 4-8-2 with a 2.81 gaa and a .907 sv%.

Almost identical stats, but much different results.

The fact that the team negotiated a deal that was only $25K higher than Lalime's salary is fascinating. The fact that Darcy Regier wasn't at the table is intriguing.

According to WGR, Sabres' Assistant To the General Mangager Mark Jakubowski was involved in the negotiations with Enroth and his agent.


You know, Mark Jakubowski, the guy who's spent the last three years as Regier's assistant? The former Director of Hockey Administration for the team? The guy who's yet to have a wiki page?

From the 2010/11 Sabres Media Guide:

Mark Jakubowski begins his sixth year with the Sabres and third as the Assistant to the General Manager. His responsibilities include statistical and salary cap analysis, contract research relating to player negotiations and arbitrations, managing player transfers, team roster administration, and all matters relating to compliance with the NHL Collective Bargaining Agreement and other NHL agreements. Jakubowski also assists with the American Hockey League hockey operations of the team’s minor league affiliate, the Portland Pirates. Jakubowski graduated with an economics degree from the University of Rochester, where he also played baseball. He resides in Hamburg, NY.

This is the first time I've heard a name other than Regier involved in contract negotiations for the Sabres (no, you can't use Larry Quinn here.)

If this is Jakubowski's first contract, all I can say is, nice work.


Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Despite the Moves, the Core Remains Up-Front

Brad Boyes, Robyn Regehr, Christian Ehrhoff and Ville Lieno.

Four players who joined the Buffalo Sabres within the last five months and represent a definitive, and expensive, break from the past.

The team is markedly different from the 2007/08, post-Chris Drury/Daniel Briere edition which saw the Sabres miss the playoffs in 2008 and 2009 while getting knocked out in the first round of the 2010 and 2011 playoffs.

Or is it?

With Ryan Miller in goal, the biggest change for the Sabres was on the back-end.

Gone from that '07/8 team are top-five d-men Hank Tallinder, Toni Lydman, Brian Campbell, Jaro Spacek and Dmitri Kalinin. Also gone are Teppo Numminen and Nathan Paetsch.

They have been replaced, during this four-year process by Tyler Myers, Robyn Regehr, Jordan Leopold and Christian Ehrhoff as well as (for now, anyway) Shaone Morrisonn.

Three Sabres d-men from that '07/8 team will go from rookie/bottom-pairing/reserve roles to more prominent roles on the back-end:  (recently re-signed) Andej Sekera and Mike Weber as well as RFA Marc-Andre Gragnani.

That, my friends, constitutes a complete overhaul.

Much has been made concerning new owner Terry Pegula and his fiscal unchaining of GM Darcy Regier.

But, as of right now, the Sabres draft-picks up-front that have lead this team to mediocrity over the last four seasons--aka, the core--remain on the team.

Thomas Vanek, Derek Roy, Jason Pominville and Drew Stafford will all occupy top-six roles on the team, just like they did (or in Stafford's case, tried to do) four years ago.

Sabres draftees Paul Gaustad and Patrick Kaleta also remain on the team as well Jochen Hecht.

Gone are Maxim Afinogenov, Tim Connolly , Adam Mair, Daniel Paille and Clark MacArthur as well as Andrew Peters and Michael Ryan.

Sabres GM Darcy Regier, despite all the financial wherewithal, still seems to be enamored with his core players up-front. Because of this devotion to the core, we may need to invoke the Albert Einstein definition of insanity here--doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results?

The only player from outside the organization to be brought in up-front was Lieno. He's expected to replace Connolly.

Tyler Ennis should have a spot in the top-six which means, as opposed to a 100% top-four turnover on defense, there will be a 33% top-six turnover up-front.

With the Sabres over the NHL salary-cap with two prominent RFA's--Jhonas Enroth and Gragnani--still to sign, it's possible that the team will end up being over the cap by $5M this summer. Which is OK until they need to be cap-compliant by opening day.

Something's got to give.

Ales Kotalik (also a part of that '07/8 team) and Morrisonn have a combined salary-cap hit of just over $5M.

Even if the team jettisons their cap-hit in one way or another, the team will be at the cap-ceiling with no wiggle room.

Regier will need to do something, although what that will be remains to be seen.

Forward Brad Boyes was Regier's big trade deadline acquisition this past season, and in the playoffs vs. Philadelphia, Boyes produced just like core players Roy and Connolly the year before--nothing (unless you count the meaningless goal he scored with Game-7 out of reach.)

Boyes ended up being a "core-like player," soft-but-skilled, good when it's easy a failure when it's tough.

Let's reiterate--2/3 of the top-six core up-front remains intact, despite a history of mediocrity and Darcy Regier's new-found freedom to do whatever is necessary to bring the Cup to Buffalo.

Should we expect Regier to disrupt his core this off-season?

Although based upon his track record it's not wise to hold your breath, odds are that there may be a shake-up.

We'll see.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Sabres May Need To Add A Tough-Guy

I know, I know. They want to skate. They want skill. And the memories of former 2nd-round pick, Andrew Peters--as well as his two minutes per game--still linger.

Fact is, there will be some tough teams in the Northeast Division and the Sabres' skill players will need at least a few tough guys to keep the opposition in check.

The Ottawa Senators just signed a tough, 4th-line centerman (who happened to be 4th in the league in faceoff percentage wins) to a one-year contract--Zenon Konopka--giving the team some tough customers to deal with.

Konopka is 6', 210 lbs. Not exactly a heavyweight in terms of size, but he lead the league in fights over the last two seasons dropping the gloves 58 times.

He joins Sabres-nemesis Chris Neil (6' 1", 215 lbs,) re-signed fourth-liner Zack Smith (6' 2", 210 lbs.) and big-dog Matt Carkner at 6'4", 230 lbs, as Sens With Attitude.

That's a lot of beef and aggression skating for the Sens, and they know their role. "I would put our team, toughness-wise, against anybody else, that’s for sure,” said Konopka, 30. “It’s going to be good for the young players, our skilled guys ... definitely make them more comfortable. It’s going to be a fun year. I’m pretty pumped.”

Buffalo Isn't Exactly Milquetoast, But They Could Use Some Ummph!!!

Where does that leave Buffalo on the toughness scale?

Who knows, but Boston is anything but wimpy with the likes of Zdeno Chara, Milan Lucic, Shawn Thorton and Adam McQuaid roaming the ice.

And in Toronto, Leafs GM,

(blaring trumpets sound)


(you may all rise from your knees now)

is still hellbent upon truculence, testosterone, pugnacity and belligerence as well as any other slogans he can sell to Leaf-nation.

The Sabres counter with recently acquired Robyn Regehr to go along with Mike Weber and Cody McCormick, both recently re-signed to multi-year contracts.

Three is good, but four may be better.

Right now on the fourth line at RW is well-known pest Patrick Kaleta and it would be safe to assume--based upon his style of play and past record--that Patty K. will more than likely miss quite a few games due to injury.

There's really no reason why the team couldn't give him a break and trot out a tough-guy in his place. 

Take a look at what happened in the Stanley Cup Finals this past season. Tough-guy Shawn Thorton took to the ice in Game-3 after teammate Nathan Horton was laid out and lost for the series in Game-2. With the Bruins down 2-0 in the series, and Vancouver prancing around like giddy little punks, Thorton's presence allowed the Bruins to get their mojo on. Boston outscored Vancouver 21-3 while winning four of the next five games and the team won their first Cup in nearly 40 years.

Right now the Sabres don't have a player like that on the team up-front, except for maybe McCormick.

Zack Kassian Would Seem To Be the Answer, Maybe

Ya gotta believe that 1st-round pick (13th overall, 2009) Zack Kassian is looked upon to add a strong, physical element to the team up-front.

Expectations remain high for the kid, with fans and media looking at Kassian as a Wendell Clark/Milan Lucic-type force on the ice. Mike Harrington of the Buffalo News wrote this about Kassian today, "There is no player in the Sabres organization like him, a physical specimen more than willing to check and fight who can also fill the net." (We're not sure if Harrington has managed to get his tongue back in his mouth, nor are we sure what the cleaning bill will be for his drool-fest.)

Kassian has promise, but despite his success in junior, the jump to the pros is huge and from the skill side of the equation, Kassian still has a lot of work to do to in order to start "filling the net."

During the Sabres development camp last week, Kassian had minimal impact, which left Sabres Director of Pro Scouting, Jon Christiano, reaching for the right words when addressing Kassian's camp (2:08 mark):

As for the "more than willing to check and fight" aspect, in junior, Kassian's over-aggressiveness and physicality went mostly unchallenged and he'll soon recognize that there are some mean SOB's in the NHL, all of them playing for keeps.

That is, if he hasn't recognized it already.

Take this September 28, 2010 pre-season game vs. Ottawa where Kassian had the opportunity to show he could hang with the big-boys.

The play begins at the 4:15-mark of the following video with fellow Sabre Dennis McCauley laying out the Ottawa's Carkner with a strong check. As the two tangle, Neil cross-checks McCauley a few times. Kassian and Neil end up side-by-side soon thereafter:


Not much to say about his physicality with the big-boys, eh?

Although this particular "first impression" is a fail, the kid is young and could use some seasoning in the minors which is typical of the Sabres and how they approach player development anyway.

And it's a good thing, especially with Kassian needing to grow and mature. He has a long way to go, and it doesn't bode well for him if he doesn't take coaching seriously (see this video.)

The Sabres still have three restricted free agents of their own to re-sign--d-men Andrej Sekera, Marc-Andre Gragnani and back-up goalie Jhonas Enroth--and presently have three roster spots to fill.

Are they intent upon having a $3M player--Ales Kotalik--ride the pine as a 13th forward?

Doesn't make sense.

Perhaps they'd like to add one more tough-guy to alternate with Patty K. on the fourth line to help the skill-players "feel more comfortable."

Might not be a bad idea.


From WGR's Matthew Coller 1-20-12:

Throughout the game, Kassian was taunted by the Barons. They yelled at him from the bench, he chirped back several times. They tripped him. He skated back to the bench. He halfheartedly tried to lay a couple hits. He did nothing when his team needed someone to do something.

Not to mention, this was the same Barons team that had injured teammate Evan Rankin during the two teams' last series.

Doesn't sound much like Milan Lucic.

After the 5-2 loss, most of the media approached center Paul Szczechura, one of the team's better ambassadors.

I asked to speak with Kassian. Here is the transcript of my question about physical play and his answer:

WGR: “Zack, they were talking a lot of trash to you tonight, a lot of fans have been asking why you haven't been more physical and why you haven't gotten in more fights?”

Kassian: “I don't go looking for fights. I don't know what kind of question that is, that's a pretty (expletive) stupid question.”

WGR: “It's a question fans are asking”

Kassian: “You aren't the coach of the team.”

Kassian then walked away, back down the hall way in toward the showers.

“He has to play a physical game and if he has to fight he has to fight,” [Head Coach Ron] Rolston said. “I think it's part of the game and part of what he's here to do is be a physical player. If it happens, we are not in a situation where we're telling him not to fight, that's for sure.”

Monday, July 11, 2011

Unearthing Sabres-Related News While Wondering...

whatever happened to "Rocky" Farr?

It's gonna be a long summer.

With the draft over and Buffalo seemingly done with free agency, there shouldn't be too much happening in Sabreland for the next month or so. At least when it comes to players, although they do have a couple of coaching positions to fill, which is pretty important--Lindy Ruff's Associate position in Buffalo as well as the Head Coach and assistant coach in Rochester.

According to GM Darcy Regier, the latter should be filled within the next two weeks.

While surfing the web this morning, I came across Keith Wozniak, in his column, Amerks Week In Review...In Case You Missed It, has links to Rochester Americans happenings including this video from the Sabres' development camp at Niagara University last week:

Cool stuff as Ruff and Player Development Coach Kevyn Adams provide guidance for the youngsters. (that Kassian, to me, was very unreceptive to both Ruff and Adams is troublesome.)

Also, with the camp over, check out our good friend Kris Baker as he reviews the two scrimmages last weekend and provides insight into some of the camp invitees through his site devoted to "The Future Of the Blue and Gold,"

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Why Lindy Ruff Called Christian Ehrhoff "A Shooter"

How much do you know about Christian Ehrhoff?

If you're like me, not a whole helluva lot.

Yahoo's Puck Daddy Headlines guided me to a website--Pass it to Bulis--that gathered together videos of all 14 Ehrhoff goals this season (complete with little captions.)

On this particular one, #7, the caption reads:

"Ehrhoff may have chosen Buffalo because of the way he loves to roam. Here’s another example: he begins this play down along the wall, before drifting back to the point. Then, after Ryan Kesler backs the Washington powerplay way off, Ehrhoff drifts back to the blueline, then steps way in and wires the puck from the top of the left circle."

In a July 1 appearance on WGR's Howard Simon Show, Ruff laid out exactly what the team saw in Ehrhoff, "if you look at Ehrhoff's game it fits the pace of the game we play.  We are in the top five in goal scoring (for defenseman).  Ehrhoff's game is similar to how we like to activate our D...His shot is one of the best in the league.  I don't think he is in the quarterback category (for the power play).  He is a shooter." 

Thanx to Pass it to Bulis for compiling the video's and to Yahoo's Puck Daddy for the link.

Have fun.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Pegula's 10-Day Sabres Makeover

OK. So it's not anything close to Philadelphia GM Paul Holmgren blowing up the Flyers roster, but in Sabreland, the additions of defensemen Robyn Regehr and Christian Ehrhoff (via trade and trade-and-sign, respectively) as well as free agent signee, Ville Leino, were significant moves on many levels.

Although the Sabres didn't blow up the team, they totally blew up their approach to players and cost while completely shattering their image as a curmudgeonly tight-wad organization.

Plus they got themselves some pretty good players to fill some holes they had.

Robyn Regehr, Let the Off-season Begin

On June 25, the Sabres finalized a deal with the Calgary Flames:  Regehr and former Sabre Ales Kotalik plus a 2012 2nd-round draft pick for Chris Butler and Paul Byron. The deal actually began on June 22nd with Flames GM Jay Feaster proposing a trade with Darcy Regier to alleviate cap-pressure. It took a few days for Robyn Regehr to approve of the trade because of his no-movement clause.

The Regehr trade, as mentioned previously, was huge for the Buffalo Sabres. A quick recap:
  • The Sabres had a player with a no-movement clause waive it to go to Buffalo
  • Ales Kotalik, who's set to make $3M next season, was part of the trade, yet he and his salary might be off the books via a demotion to Rochester. A Flyers/Rangers-type of move to alleviate cap-pressure.
  • Sabres owner Terry Pegula would not be denied and was a big part of convincing Regehr to wave his nmc
  • Pegula, his wife Kim and Head Coach Lindy Ruff flew to Saskatchewan to help allay any family fears the Regehr's may have had with the move to Buffalo. This was done during Day-2 of the NHL Draft.
  • And, the cool part? GM Darcy Regier got a second-round pick ta-boot.
A salvo fired by the Sabres organization that things were changing, that they had a plan to fill holes in the line-up and that they would do everything in their power to get it done.

Onward Towards July 1, the Start of Free Agency

With the draft over and the Regehr deal done, the Sabres turned their attention to the up-coming free-agent market.

This year, they did not wait for a late Day-1 or Day-2, reasonably priced, third-tier player to sign. No Jocylen Thibault, Patrick Lalime, Mike Grier or Rob Neidermayer this time. In fact they didn't even wait for July 1 to jump into the fray.

With the Sabres emboldened by the Robyn Regehr trade, Darcy Regier did something unheard of in Buffalo:  traded for the rights to negotiate with an unrestricted free-agent before July 1.

Vancouver d-man Christian Ehrhoff's rights were traded to the NY Islanders on June 28th for a 4th-round pick. When it was clear the the two sides would not come together (the Isles reportedly offering $33M over six years), the Isles traded his rights to Buffalo, for a 4th-round pick.

The Sabres then signed Ehrhoff before he hit free agency to the tune of 10 years, $40M.

All-in-all, the Sabres organization blasted away the past with this move:
  • They traded a draft-pick, once considered precious--the life-blood of the organization--just for the right to negotiate with a pending unrestricted free agent.
  • That they out in front of almost every organization was a very peculiar phenomenon.
  • That they succeeded in reeling in what many considered the second-best pending-unrestricted free agent.
  • A ten-year contract, unprecedented in Sabres history.
  • The contract being front-loaded with $18M coming in the first two years via bonuses.
  • An Ilya Kovalchuk-type finish to the contract where the Sabres spend $1M/year over the final three years of the contract when Ehrhoff will be in his mid-to-latter 30's.
  • The fact that they worked the long-term deal to the point where they have a $4M cap-hit.
  • An NHL "investigation" into the legitimacy of the 10-year contract.
  • Drawing the ire of clubs throughout the league for "circumventing the cap."
  • Doing everything within the bounds laid out by the NHL and the NHL Players Association, yet stretching it to its limits.
Such was the contract of a 6' 3", 205 lb offensive defenseman and former 4th-round pick.

Such was the desire for the Sabres to have the services of Ehrhoff.

The Sabres Are Players For Brad Richards

A Sabres offer to free agent Brad Richards would be "welcomed with open arms" by the Richards' camp. Or at least it seemed so.

The team, fresh off of upgrading their defense while having an owner with deep pockets and a desire to get things done up-front, set their sights on the "crown-jewel" of the 2011 Free Agent market.

Pegula and Co. were ready to duke it out with the leagues financial heavyweights like Toronto and the NY Rangers,to snag the only superstar-quality player on the market in Richards. Not only had he put up the numbers the last two seasons, but he also has a Cup-ring and Conn Smythe Trophy on his resume'.

Oh, and Richards is a true #1 center, the only one on the market, and one of only a handful in the National Hockey League.

Richards and his agent were holed up in their Mississauga, Ontario offices--Brinks truck by the back-door--waiting for his suitors ala Lebron James last summer.

When it came to the Sabres, Pegula and Regier had a significant offer ready, but the Richards' camp pushed them near the back of the line.

The Sabres did not take kindly to it and bowed out to focus solely on former Philadelphia Flyer, Ville Lieno.

Of note in the Richards episode is the fact that:
  • Sabres fans were not accustomed to a legitimate shot (albeit, long-shot) at the NHL's top free agent.
  • The team did not feel out of place going after Richards.
  • They were willing to go to Mississauga to present their case and offer their deal.
  • The Richards camp took the Sabres seriously.

Ville Leino, the "Consolation Prize"

With the writing on the wall concerning Richards, the Sabres bailed, allowing themselves enough time to go after Flyers winger, Ville Leino.

You read that right, Flyers winger.

Another winger when the team really needed a top-two center?

Another winger to join the ranks of Thomas Vanek, Jason Pomminville, recently re-signed Drew Stafford, youngster Tyler Ennis, and trade-deadline acquisition Brad Boyes?

Another winger who's salary would add to the $21.2M combined cap-hit for the aforementioned?

Where's the center?

Turns out that Leino prefers to play center having played wing for two teams--Detroit and Philadelphia--who were deep down the middle.

OK, so it's somewhat of a gamble. Maybe more of a gamble in that he's played all of 149 games scoring a grand total of 30 goals, 19 of them last season.

Actually, it's a huge gamble considering that the Sabres signed him to a 6-year, $27M contract.

Some people around the league are looking at this even more quizzically than the Ehrhoff re-signing, some laughing at the signing, some miffed at the price-tag.

$27M for a winger for a team that was thin at center? $27M for a player with such a limited body of work? $27M for potential?

Twenty-seven Million Dollars?

Sure. Why not? He was the guy they targeted.

But, what the Sabres did by signing Leino was:
  • Initiate Plan-B immediately once they decided to bow out of the Richards sweepstakes.
  • They brought in what some would consider a top three-to-five free agent this off-season.
  • They continued to show that they were hell-bent on bringing in high-quality players to help the team immediately, regardless of the cost.
  • Although they may have (probably) overpaid, it mattered not. They wanted him, they went out and got him.
  • What they also did with the Leino-signing was put the onus completely on Regier and his scouting staff as well as the coaching ability of Lindy Ruff to make this move work.

This Is Not Your Father's Buffalo Sabres

Fact is, we're not accustomed to having a top-notch player waive his no-movement clause to accept a trade to Buffalo.

Nor are we accustomed to the team pushing the limits of the collective bargaining agreement to sign a player.

Neither are we accustomed to having the highest payroll of any NHL club at one point.

June 22nd thru July 1st will be 10 days to remember in Sabreland.

Although delusions of Stanley Cup grandeur have been held in check for this season, the desire for Pegula and Co. to do what's necessary is a definitive split from the past that should make the Buffalo Sabres a perennial playoff team with the potential to get to the promised land in the future.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Ville Leino Is Jammin' In Buffalo To the Tune Of $27M

Sabres RW Drew Stafford put
down the guitar and put up enough
points for the Sabres to sign
him to a $4M/yr. contract extension.
Drew Stafford was a burgeoning "guitar-hero" (in his mind) for much of his short NHL career with the Buffalo Sabres. That was, up until last off-season when he finally ditched the dreams of the big stage in the pursuit of his real talent--putting up points in the National Hockey League.

The big winger with all the tools, was burdened with inconsistency for his professional career, but showed that when he put in the off-season work and put his mind to it, he'd put up some serious numbers. He was rewarded recently with a $4M/year contract from the Buffalo Sabres for his efforts.

Newly-inked Sabres forward Ville Leino is a self-taught guitar player who started getting serious about playing guitar just about the time he was beginning his NHL career. "I always wanted to do that," he stated in a bio. "I started when I was a bit younger, when I was 15 or 18 or so, but this time I bought a really good guitar. I wanted to buy a good one so that I would have to keep playing and it wouldn't just sit there."

Newly-inked forward Ville Leino is getting
paid by the Sabres to hoist a hockey stick
not a vintage guitar.
With a contract from the Sabres that will averages out to $4.5M/year, Leino can now buy himself a really, really, really good one. Maybe a 1958 Gibson Les Paul where he can pretend to be Jimmy Page. Or he could snag a vintage '58 Strat and scream out some blues like Eric Clapton.

Hell, if he wants to he could plug an SG or Flying "V" into a Marshall stack that would make Neil Young envious.

He can do all of that, but the Buffalo Sabres are paying him (like they did with Stafford) to be more like Steven Stamkos as opposed to Stevie Ray Vaughn.

Yesterday, after being shown the back of the line by the Brad Richards camp, GM Darcy Regier and Co. turned their attention to an unrestricted free agent who they "felt very strongly about." He said, "[Leino] was someone we identified early and moved him to the top of the list" while bowing out of the Richards sweepstakes.

Leino was the third player the Sabres added this off-season. He joins 11-year veteran d-man Robyn Regehr and  long-term signee, defenseman Christian Ehrhoff, as players that the team targeted, but who are somewhat unknown quantities in Buffalo.

Fans aren't overly familiar with Regehr, having played his entire career out west in Calgary.

They may have followed Ehrhoff in the Stanley Cup Finals with the Canucks, but outside of that he was probably not on anybody's radar having played out west in Vancouver.

And, as for Leino, Sabres fans did have the chance to catch him this season through a seven-game playoff series with Buffalo that saw him score the overtime game-winner in Game-6 at HSBC Arena.

Statistically speaking, his numbers don't warrant that kind of deal, although he had a banner 2010 playoffs with the Philadelphia Flyers scoring seven goals, adding 14 assists and going a plus-10 in 19 games as the team lost in the Stanley Cup Finals to Chicago.

Still, fans look at his six-year, $27M deal quizzically. Leino is a 27 year old player who played in 149 NHL games with two teams over three seasons on the wing. His early years were spent in Finland playing one professional season in the Finnish Elite League, SM-liiga, with Jokerit. He had 77 points in 55 games on the wing and was named the league's best regular season player.

And why, pray tell, would the Sabres organization add to the abundance of high-priced wingers and disregard glaring holes down the middle?

Even though Leino's entire professional career has been on the wing, in a post-signing conference call with the Buffalo media, Leino said that for him, "[center] is a more natural place to play."  He's the type of player that likes the puck on his stick and has the slipperiness to find holes in the defense, just like the overtime goal he scored in Game-6 vs. the Sabres.

Regier believes that Leino will "contribute significantly to the team, improving and driving [the] offense." Lindy Ruff echoed Leino's sentiments and went on to say that "[Leino] enjoys playing fact if you study the film, a lot of times he was the guy playing down low." "I talked to him about all three positions," Ruff said "and he's comfortable about all three, but the position he likes playing most is center."

Ruff continued, "In a long conversation about how we play and with the amount the defense join the play, that second wave of attack, Ville's strength is on the puck, he can make plays in tight areas, he can look for the second wave."

So, in their eyes, the Sabres did, in fact, land a top-six center as opposed to a player that we've seen only on the wing.

Leino said that he's looking forward to being settled into a city and has said that he's excited to play for Buffalo.

Fair enough.

But, will he eschew any thoughts about being a guitar-hero, ala Stafford, and focus soley upon putting the puck in the net instead?

Hope so.

It'll be interesting to see how this pans out, but if all the things said by all parties are true, and Leino turns out to be a highly-skilled, offense-driving, top-six center, the Sabres will have done well for themselves.

Darcy Regier and Lindy Ruff talk about signing Ville Leino.