Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Old-Time Hockey Is Back...

...and the Bruins have the formula for success.

Let me ask you. Did you ever see Daniel Paille do this while wearing a Sabres sweater?

I didn't think so.

Paille was traded to the Bruins in 2009 for a third round pick and a conditional fourth (not exercised.) In Buffalo the former 1st rounder was expected to use his speed and skill to contribute offensively, but it never worked out that way. Boston put him in a depth role on a checking line and placed him on their top penalty kill unit and in his second season with the Bruins he helped them win their first Stanely Cup in 39 years.

The Boston Bruins are back in a big way both literally and figuratively. They have size--Zdeno Chara, Milan Lucic, Adam Mcquaid and Shawn Thorton. They have skill in Patrice Bergeron, Nathan Horton, Lucic and #2 overall pick, Tyler Seguin. And they have attitude.

They are the beasts of the East. In fact, right now, they are the beasts of hockey. GM Peter Chiarelli has built an old-school team that can skate, score, and intimidate. It's the type of team that Gordie Howe would fit right in with.

Coming out of the lockout, the Buffalo Sabres were a team dubbed as "the team built for the new NHL." Unfortunately that was six years ago. The league has changed and that trend has come and gone.

What new owner Terry Pegula is left with is a team that has an identity that's passe'. That's if they even know what their identity is.

Because of recent run-ins by the opposition on goalie Ryan Miller, it would seem as if management, led by GM Darcy Regier, wants to legislate grit, toughness and intimidation out of the game. It would seem as if it's easier for him that the league would change back and be more in line with the team that he wants to ice, than it is for him to ice players capable of defending themselves. His "Ferrari," once the darling of the league, is now in a stock car race on a short track with no room to maneuver. And he doesn't know what to do other than turn back the clock.

The trendy team he built still exists, but the style is passe' and as much as he'd like for the league to change back, it can't and its evolution is leaving Regier in the dust.

Lindy Ruff is also looking at an identity for his team and for his part seems to want players patterned after those on the Detroit Red Wings--a team that was built around puck control, intelligence and skill. Wings coach Mike Babcock can guide his team through any dire straights with the above mentioned traits, even if they have average goaltending. They simply get the puck and hold on to it better than any team in the league. And they bury their chances better than nearly every other team in the league as well.

Unfortunately, the Sabres do not have that type of hockey intelligence as a whole right now.

There are other teams as well who have qualities that the Sabres are lacking.

Who wouldn't want the center depth of the Pittsburgh Penguins who boast #1-overall pick--presently the best player in the game--Sidney Crosby, #2-overall pick Evgeni Malkin and #2-overall pick Jordan Staal down the middle. Not to mention #1-overall pick Marc-Andre Fleury in net.

The Sabres, on the other hand, counter with journeyman Jochen Hecht, 2nd-rounder Derek Roy and 7th-round pick Paul Gaustad down the middle. Miller, who is well respected around the league is a former 5th-rounder who many compare to Fleury.

The Chicago Blackhawks won the Cup with an impressive top-six led by #2-overall pick, center Jonathan Toews, #1-overall pick, right winger, Patrick Kane and former first-round pick Marian Hossa who was signed as a free agent. The Blackhawks overspent on other free agents, including former Sabres d-man Brian Campbell and goalie Christobal Huet as well.

Back in 2007, the Anaheim Ducks hastened the decline of "the new-NHL" with their Cup-winning formula predicated upon hard-hitting and intimidation. They were led by future Hall-of-Famer Chris Pronger and augmented by the likes of 6'4", 221 lb. center, Ryan Getzlaf and the aforementioned Shawn Thorton who now has two Stanley Cup rings. They also had league heavyweight champion George Parros.

The overt brawn of the Ducks was balanced by future Hall-of-Famers Scott Neidermayer on defense and Teemu Selanne up-front. The team was balanced with a myriad of role players that came together to bring the franchise their first-ever Stanley Cup.

Now that we've gone through a quick overview of the last five Stanley Cup winners, how does it relate to the present state of the Buffalo Sabres?

Well, post-Chris Drury/Daniel Briere, they still have an identity problem. With "the new NHL" trend come and gone, and a Sabres team heavily weighted on the skill side, they're behind the curve. Although the transition towards a more old-school, Bruins-like grit and tenacity seems to be happening, it's at a very slow pace and began late.

Regier and his Director of Amateur Scouting, Kevin Devine, began the transition with defenseman Mike Weber in 2006 (2nd round, #57 overall)  and kicked it in with the 2009 draft featuring 1st-round pick Zack Kassian (#13,) and third-rounders Brayden McNabb (#66) and Marcus Foligno (#104.) But these are very young players.

Throughout the last few years they've managed to acquire a few bottom-tier old-school players but nothing up-top, save for the recent acquisition of defenseman Robyn Regehr.

Their top-six has pretty much been unchanged since 2007, with a core of Thomas Vanek, Jason Pominville and Drew Stafford on the wing, Derek Roy and bottom-six winger turned top-six center Jochen Hecht down the middle. This is a core that has missed the playoff two years and got bounced in the first round the next two years.

It's well known that, save for the 2005/06 and 2006/07 seasons, Regier has been financially handcuffed by ownership. Pegula came to town last season and took off the chains giving Regier the financial freedom to do what's necessary to bring the Stanley Cup to Buffalo. And Regier has spent this team to the point where they needed to buryh two contracts just to stay under the cap on opening day.

But freedom is a funny thing. How many stories have you heard where million dollar lottery winners are broke after only a couple of years? They don't know how to deal with this new-found wealth and simply revert to what they know. It's comes down to the ole' leopard changing his spots cliche'. And as of right now, Regier doesn't seem to be changing his spots at all.

Last year he acquired winger Brad Boyes at the trade deadline when they really needed a center. Boyes is a good-sized, former 40-goal scorer, who has skill but seems to lack the tenacity that's necessary in the playoffs for success. He socred one meaningless goal in game seven of the loss to the Philadelphia Flyers.

This off-season Regier acquired the rights to former Vancouver Canuck Christian Ehrhoff. He was part of a Canucks team that got beat by the Bruins in last years' Stanley Cup finals. A Canucks team, by the way, that's very similar to the Sabres.

Ehrhoff is an excellent player who has a knack for getting pucks from the point through heavy traffic and is a welcome addition to the team. He also has some pretty good hockey sense and can move the puck very well. But, what he doesn't have is that tenacity to get the job done versus a tough opponent as evidenced in his 0 goal, 1 assist, minus-6 performance in the Stanley Cup Finals against the Bruins.

He's an upgrade, though, over the likes of Andrej Sekera and former Sabre Chris Butler, while his experience makes him a bit more adept than Tyler Myers. But, they're all pretty much the same player. Add in Marc-Andre Gragnani who also lacks an edge on defense and you have five of the top-six d-men being the of the same ilk.

Recently acquired Robyn Regehr and 7th d-man Mike Weber are the only two outside of the prefered Regier mold. And it should be noted that it was Lindy Ruff who accompanied Terry Pegula to meet Regehr after he waived his no-trade clause to come to Buffalo on day two of the 2011 NHL Draft. Although Regier was available, he attended to other business.

Ville Leino is another big-money acquisition by Regier this off-season. He came from the Detroit system, flourished in the Flyers potent offense and was brought to Buffalo with the hopes that his puck-control could translate into a top-six center role. He fits Regier's mold as highly-skilled and fits Ruff's desire to have Detroit Red Wings-type hockey-sense as well.

"Ah say!, Is
that Ville Leino
or Derek Roy
out there?
He is off to a poor start, although he seems to be perking up, and may end up being an upgrade for the top-six. But as of right now, he's playing like another Derek Roy with his fancy dangling. A whole lotta choppin' with no chips flyin'.

As mentioned in a previous blog concerning him, Leino is deluged with transitional pressures right now and it will take him much longer to acclimate himself to the newness of his surroundings.

Based upon the additions of Boyes, Ehrhoff and Leino, Regier doesn't seem to be able to acquire players outside of his preferred mold even though he had free-reign to do what he wanted. And the Sabres remain a team heavy on skill, light on tenacity.

As shown with the Milan Lucic/Ryan Miller incident followed by the Jordin Tootoo/Ryan Miller incident, the team is still learning old-school hockey. And that puts them behind the curve, especially with their Northeast rival Bruins playing old-school, Adams Division hockey as the defending champs romp through the NHL right now.

The Sabres aren't built for that and Boston showed that they can be beaten with tenacity and intimidation.

The Sabres lack the skill of the Pittsburgh Penguins--a team that may overcome the Bruins with a heavy dose of talent. But confidence rules supreme, and Boston is skating like no one can beat them.

Last night they beat the Pens 3-1 and Daniel Paille laid out Pens star Evgeni Malkin with a wicked check--something uncharacteristic in Paille and something we never saw in Buffalo.

Paille's hit showed that he can play out of character, something Lindy Ruff has been asking this core of Sabres to do for a very long time. But one must remember that Paille now has a team behind him with some serious attitude. Not only does that attitude permeate the entire team, it allows players like Paille to play "out of character" and let that aspect to come out in his game. Just notice who's on the ice when he crushed Malkin yesterday--Chara and Thorton.

In Buffalo, he never had that. He was a part of the "Ferrari" that was Buffalo, and any attitude they may have had was tame in comparison to the new "Big, Bad Bruins."

The Bruins are the defending Stanley Cup Champions and unlike the Carolina Hurricanes who won in 2006, they are not champions of a trend. They are built to play in any NHL era. Sure they would have had some trouble with the 80's Edmonton Oilers or the early 90's Pittsburgh Penguins, but at the very least, they'd have made both teams earn it.

As for the Sabres, they've got a ways to go to be at that level. It's not so much a "compete" aspect, but a lack of unconscious intensity, anger, attitude and confidence--that's found in nearly every player on the roster. They're searching for that inner attitude so aptly displayed by Paille. They're searching for that pack mentality as displayed by the Bruins, maybe ingrained in the Bruins.

And they're learning it. The best thing to happen to this club was the Lucic/Miller incident. It showed the world, and more than likely the organization and individuals, what they were made of. Not much of anything, really. They did the proper thing after Tootoo ran Miller over the other night. They're learning. But one would believe that more challenges like that are yet to come, more than likely the Bruins next calendar year. That's the way it was back in the days of the Adams Division where Sabres like Jim Schoenfeld, Jerry "King Kong" Korab and even Danny Gare went toe-to-toe with the Big Bad Bruins.

A little while back I did a piece on the Sabres current roster and whether or not they would succeed in the 70's. With Bruins in control right now, the Sabres will need to find more spine because the Boston Bruins and old-time Adams Division hockey is back.

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