Tuesday, January 29, 2013

The charge of the youngins

Darcy Regier made it official today, center Mikhail Grigorenko will be in the lineup tonight vs. Toronto. With the move, the #12 overall draft pick in the 2012 draft will be playing in his sixth game for the Sabres making him ineligible to return to junior.

Barring any changes, the 18 yr. old Grigorenko will be joining 22 yr. old center Cody Hodgson and C Tyler Ennis, 23, to form one of the, if not the, youngest trios of top-three centers in the league.

It's a changing of the guard down the middle for Buffalo.

Regier's old core, or "the Rochester Guys" as President Ted Black called them, is slowly being dismantled. Only one center, Jochen Hecht (who was not a "Rochester Guy" but considered part of the core none the less,) is in the post-Chris Drury/Daniel Briere line up this season. Tim Connolly was not re-signed in 2011, Paul Gaustad was moved at the trade deadline in 2012 and Derek Roy was traded during the 2012 off season.

TJ Brennan will also be on the ice tonight. The 23 yr. old rookie will be making his first appearance this season. He has 11 NHL games to his credit--all from last year--and the Sabres carried him as an eighth defensman rather than risk loosing him to waivers.

He'll be joined on the ice by defenseman Mike Weber. Weber is far from a youngin, but the 25 yr. old only has a total of 132 games in his four seasons with the big club.

Both will be playing different roles for the team.

Buffalo is in need of scoring and they'll be looking to Brennan to help fill that role, especially on the PP where his wicked shot found the back of the net seven times while with Rochester this season. He'll be taking the place of journeyman Alexander Sulzer (healthy scratch) who has performed admirably, but is not considered an offensive threat.

The big, physical Weber will be replacing the big, physical veteran Robin Regehr who has a "lower body injury." He'll looking to bounce back from a very poor 2011/12 campaign which saw his minutes decline along with his plus/minus rating. He was a team worst -19 last season.

Although the team still has some vets in their prime like Thomas Vanek, Jason Pominville, Ryan Miller, Andrej Sekera, they are getting younger.

The 23-and-under brigade features the aforementioned centers--Ennis, Hodgson and Grigorenko--as well as LW Marcus Foligno (21) while Brennan will be joining fellow defenseman Tyler Myers (22) on the back end.

The changing of the guard is in full swing and the new core rising.

Monday, January 28, 2013

"D"ecision Day coming tomorrow

Mikhail Grigorenko played his 5th game as a Buffalo Sabre yesterday.

The rookie center had two shots in over 17:00 of ice time and with no points. He remains pointless through five games.

Points would have been nice although the coaching staff and front office are more concerned with what is best for him and the team. He hasn't done anything blatantly wrong, save for some rookie mistakes, and seems to have grown in this short "tryout" period.

Methinks there's no reason for him to be sent back to junior. He's adapted well to the speed of the NHL and seems to be loosening up enough to be able to focus upon his offense a bit more. Yesterday he drove to the net and had himself a beautiful scoring opportunity but was stifled.

Grigorenko is still trying to do a little too much, trying to make plays that worked in junior, but to a man, many of his teammates think that the kid is a well-rounded pro who is growing with each game and doing what's necessary to stick with the team.

Plus he has size--6'3", 200 lbs--and he looks big on the ice.

This team needs two things right now--size and skill. Grigorenko has both.

He should stay.


On Saturday, Lindy Ruff was remorseful concerning Grigorenko, pretty much apologizing for "burning" one of the kid's five "tryout" games.

The basis for putting him on the fourth line between fighter John Scott and diminutive Nathan Gerbe was an attempt to keep the Staal brothers, most notably Eric, the elder, in check.

Mike Robitaille was on WGR today saying that he'd rather have Jochen Hecht defend against Staal instead of Grigorenko because Staal would've "ate [the rookie] up." Then he followed up saying it's all about winning the game.

Quick reminder there, Roby, the Sabres lost that game 3-1.

Two things on this thought process.

First off, Eric Staal is 6'4", 205 lbs. Ruff was countering with Cody Hodgson, 6'0", 185; Tyler Ennis, 5'9", 160; Hecht, 6'1", 200.

Once again, Grigorenko is 6'3", 200 lbs. Which Sabre would have a better chance matching up physically against Staal?

Second. How will Grigorenko get better if not playing agianst the best?

Yes, he's a rookie. Yes, he has a lot to learn. And yes, Staal probably would have given him more than he could handle. But fact is, they lost with Ruff's scheming on that one. Youngsters playing against quality veterans offer an opportunity to learn. It also shows a player that the coach does have confidence in him. I'm not saying Grigorenko should've shadowed Staal, but Ruff had the last line change and could have managed the matchup.


Back in 2006 the Sabres rolled three lines playing stop me if you can. Since then Ruff has his team playing more of a defensive game trying to match up with the opposition, just like the aforementioned game vs. Carolina. Except for one season where it worked to a "t" in 2009/10, the results have been wildly inconsistent leaning heavily towards the negative.

A huge dose of talent left the team in 2007 with the departure of Chris Drury and Daniel Briere. Ruff, I believe did well in adjusting his game plan more towards the defensive side during the last five seasons. The results were pretty mediocre, but based upon the talent he had to work with, as well as the changing of the league towards a grittier style, they were what they were--not a Cup-contender, but simply a playoff contender.

This team has more skill now than at any point during the last five seasons.

Looking down the middle the Sabres had Derek Roy, the oft-injured Tim Connolly, Jochen Hecht and Paul Gaustad for many years. They were so weak that wingers Brad Boyes and Ville Leino were brought in to play center.

The top-three centers--Ennis, Hodgson, Grigorenko--are, in fact, centers and have the wherewithal to produce. Although very young, this group as a whole, seem to be getting better and have an upside that will surpass the previous groupings.

They seem to be meshing well with their linemates as well, at least on the top-two lines.

Wingers Thomas Vanek and Jason Pominville are playing a Sedin's-type two-player game on the top line and at one point were leading the league in points. Hodgson has learned to play off of those two--as opposed to Roy who always had to be the star--and potted three goals in four games before Vanek went down.

The Ennis line, with Marcus Foligno and Drew Stafford, had a miraculous late-season run last year. Although past performance is not indicative of future results, that line slowly seems to be regaining that chemistry as the individual players are beginning to find their games. Ennis is skating much better and Foligno seems to be finding out what made him successful last season. Stafford is still finding his way, but, he knows how to score.

The top-six, as a whole would easily match-up with any of the top-six post-Drury/Briere and with a little more seasoning, will surpass them.

The bottom six from years past featured Hecht, Paul Gaustad, Clarke MacArthur, Patrick Kaleta and a host of aged veterans like Mike Grier and Rob Neidermayer mixed with borderline NHL grinders like Adam Mair and Matt Ellis.

Right now they have Steve Ott who is an easy top-nine/solid top-six winger playing on the third line (until Vanek's injury) and Grigorenko, who has top-six skill. Noted NHL pest Patrick Kaleta can hold his own on the third line as well.

Rounding out the bottom-six are Hecht, the diminutive Nathan Gerbe and Big John Scott.

Waiting in the wings are the skilled Leino and solid fourth-liner Cody McCormick, both of whom are on IR right now.

When Leino returns, forming a Grigorenko/Ott/Leino line, the Sabres would have three scoring lines. When McCormick returns, the fourth line would consist of Hecht, McCormick and Kaleta--all solid--who would form a formidable checking line.

Point being, when this team gets healthy, they have the skill to dictate and force the other teams to play match-up.

With Grigorenko in the lineup, the centers fall into place, the lines fall into place (with the return of Leino and McCormick) and a good dose of size is added to a team that's still small relative to Cup-contenders like Boston, St. Louis, Pittsburgh and the NY Rangers. His skill-level wouldn't hurt either.

That's why he needs to stick.

There are still holes on the Sabres, and there will still be growing pains, but they have a nice collection of skilled forwards.

Pretty sure as a group they'd much rather attack and it would play to their strengths moreso than the defensive match-up scheming.

But, that's for the coach to figure out.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Thoughts on the Carolina home and home

After a 6-3 shelling at the hands of Carolina on Thursday, it didn't take head coach Lindy Ruff long to get that choking feeling and move veteran center/winger Jochen Hecht up to the third line.

Ruff used this as his excuse/reasoning, "We tried to be a little bit harder on [Eric]Staal. We used [Steve] Ott and [Patrick] Kaleta and Hecht against him," he said. "It was the only reason. I thought we had to try to slow [him down]." Staal had the hat trick vs. the Sabres in Carolina the night before.

Of course, that meant rookie Mikhail Grigorenko, playing in his fourth of possibly five "tryout" games was demoted to the fourth line.

Grigorenko, who had been middle-of-the road, but was showing signs of progressing, turned out to be a casualty of Ruff's reliance on the "tried and true." Hecht is one of Ruff's favorite players, one that he believes he can count on in all situations.

From the moment Hecht was signed to a one year deal, everyone knew that it was only a matter of time before he climbed up the lines into a spot that was beyond his talents (that would be anything above the fourth line.) Sure enough, it was last night.

In years past, Ruff has been seen as stunting the growth of his young players either being too hard on them or putting them in a position to fail. Now, even though Grigorenko has done what's asked of him, he gets demoted to a line with fighter John Scott and little Nathan Gerbe.

At today's skate, Bill Hoppe of the Olean Times Herald thinks that Ruff may have some remorse. “It’s like burning a game,”  Ruff was quoted as saying.

Sure enough, they only have five games to decide whether the 18 yr. old center sticks or gets sent back to Jr. At 6:48 of ice time, to get a better "match up," Ruff did burn a game. And further burned his reputation of leaning on "his" guys into the brains of every Sabre fan.

Being on the third line getting 10-12 minutes a game is not a bad way to get introduced into the NHL. Doing what the coach tells you to do--focusing upon defense, even though you have mad offensive skills--should get you more ice-time, not less.

Ruff screwed up last night. Everyone in Sabreland knows it (except maybe for Terry Pegula and Darcy Regier) and I would hazard to guess that Grigorenko's a little perplexed at Ruff's decision.

Let's hope "Grigs" has the wherewithal to get past it and move forward.


There's a reason I dislike twitter, other than the fact that it's inane. One should never trust an initial reaction while dealing in disappointment.

After last night's loss. I wanted Lindy Ruff to be fired. I also wanted to see WGR's Paul Hamilton and Howard Simon and Chris "Bulldog" Parker canned as well. What the hell, I wanted Jeremy White and Mike Schoppsie fired too, like I always do.

It's an obvious overreaction, which is why twitter is pretty much useless, unless you want to laugh at someone.

But, here are the reasons why the aforementioned should at least be on notice:

Lindy Ruff--Relying on an old stand-by--Jochen Hecht--to get the job done. The Sabres lost 3-1. His "old standbys" have gotten him to the playoffs twice in the last five seasons, never getting the team past the first round.

Howard Simon--What a sore loser. Still. Before the 'Canes home-and-home, Simon had the audacity to belittle the organization with an article entitled 'Canes mediocre since raising the Cup. He is, of course, sure that Buffalo would have won it had they not fallen on hard times vs. Carolina back in 2006. But why bag on an organization that at the very least is not that far below the Sabres? Oh, and no comment section either.

Paul Hamilton--Sabres D-man Tyler Myers is off to a slow start--again. In an interview with Hamilton a couple of days ago, Myers had the "audacity" to laugh at a perceived lack of confidence in himself. A laugh Hamilton described as "condescending." Whoa there, pardner, nobody does that to THE Paul Hamilton. Myers has now got himself an overweight beagle annoyingly barking up a storm. Yesterday the hound almighty opened up his post-game article with, "Since I felt Tyler Myers was playing worse than he does, I figured I'd make him my focus this game." Talk about condescending. Really?  Oh, and as usual, no comment section.

Chris "Bulldog" Parker--Bulldog's been really annoying lately, especially when it comes to the Bills and specifically Ryan Fitzpatrick. The season's over, and despite a Syracuse reunion at the top two spots on the coaching staff, and a possibility of a reunion with their QB of the last three seasons, it's back to the old punching bag, Fitzpatrick, and Bulldog's article, Are we done with Fitz? Yes, Bulldog, we know you're done with Fitz as a starter. But your plan, "if [you] were the Bills--pick the best [QB] I can with the 8th pick and hope he's ready to play in September?" Really? I'm glad you're not the GM. Like the Bills don't have holes at linebacker (at least two,) CB and WR. Glad I don't listen to you and that Schoppsie guy anymore.

Mike Schoppsie--Shoulda been fired long ago. Arrogance and perceived "entertainment." This is the same guy that once had some suggestions to help Ryan Miller get out of his goaltending slump. Schoppsie's suggestions were based on his time as a goalie, in an intramural floor hockey league. This is also the same guy who said faceoffs are not as important as people make them out to be. My suggestion is that you ask the Sabres about Carolina's go-ahead goal last night. Or go ask Edmonton why Nail Yakupov was able to tie the score with 4 seconds left in the third. What a maroon.

Jeremy White--The Jim Rome wannabe shtick is old. Has been old for a while. A waffler who said that he's happy to have the NHL back, yet was willing to boycott NHL players during the lockout. Said that he'd watch AHL players play for the crest. Never went to a Rochester game during the lockout.

Like Mike Trivisonno said one time down here in Cleveland. Fire all the media.


Yeah, can fire 'em all, except for WGR's John Murphy.

Would like to say thank your, Mr. Murphy, for your knowledgeable and insightful journalistic approach to the Buffalo sports scene.

Oh, and thanks for letting us know that 2013 unrestricted free agent Logan Coture of San Jose' is a huge Buffalo Sports fan.


Back to the Sabres.

Lindy "the tinkerer" Ruff held firm to his top two lines for three games with only the top line scoring. It would seem as if he'll be changing things up a bit for the afternoon game tomorrow at Washington.

Tomorrow's skate will give us more of an insight, but making one simple move may be a good way to approach things--exchange Steve Ott for Marcus Foligno on the second line.

Having Ott replace Foligno will give Tyler Ennis and Drew Stafford the same kind of forward Foligno is, only he's more experienced, has played with star players in a top-line/top-six role and he has produced.

Plus, having Ott ready to take faceoffs will allow Ennis to "cheat" a little more knowing that he has an excellent face-off man in waiting should he get tossed. Maybe that's what Ennis was hinting at when he said,
"Maybe another big guy on my line, we could be mutual at it and cheat on draws and have them take some. I have to improve at it."

Ennis is presently 38.6% on draws. Ott is at 61.9.

Rookie Grigorenko is 57.2% on draws.

Foligno dropping down with Grigorenko and Gerbe on the third line would still give that line a power forward presence and it might even help Grigorenko.

Who knows?

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Grigorenko knows how to stick in the NHL

Although no one within the Sabres organization will say, at this point, just where center Mikhail Grigorenko will end up this season, the team seems to be leaning a certain way.

Sabres owner Terry Pegula made a surprise appearance on WGR yesterday. Apparently he was taking his dog, Sidney, for his "daily drive" and decided to call in.

Host Kevin Sylvester, although somewhat taken aback, handled everything well.

Among the things Sylvester got the Sabres owner to talk about were the contributions of Steve Ott, whom Pegula called "#9 out there," (a refreshing change from the other #9) and Jochen Hecht whom he called a "Steady Eddie."

Of course, ultimately Buffalo fans are dying to know about the status of Grigorenko, who has three more "tryout" games before the Sabres need to make a decision on his status.

Sylvester noted that a shortened season could come into play--a notion he says was dismissed by GM Darcy Regier--burning a year of Grigorenko's entry-level contract. Pegula effectively shot down that notion saying, "A lot of people talked about the shortened season, if that's a reason to send him back to junior," he hesitates, "boy, something's wrong."

The real factor involves Grigorenko's play.

On WGR's Howard Simon Show Lindy Ruff seemed to be giving the kid plenty of slack.

The "kinder, gentler" Ruff called Grigorenko's play "good" saying that he's "handled [his first two games] well."

He also wants to alleviate any pressure on the kid, "I'm not asking for anything special," he said, "I'm just asking him to play his game, to do his thing." The only thing Ruff asks, as he does of all his centermen, is a responsibility in their own end, and in Ruff's eyes, "[Grigoreko] has been."

The "mystery" of just where the 18 yr. old will end up after five games remains. But hints that he'll be with the Sabres for the rest of the season are out there.

Quebec Remparts coach, Patrick Roy, while speaking with lapresse.ca, had this to say (via kuklaskorner,) "I begin to think that there is a strong possibility that Mikhail does not return with us. Yesterday (Monday), he played 13 minutes in his second game in two nights. He is doing well with the Sabres. And he behaves well defensively."

Pegula also points to that theme of "defensive responsibility"--echoing Mike Robitaille--in assesing where Grigorenko presently stands. "he is a gifted player, passer, shooter, playmaker. What's been a surprise is his defensive responsibility. It's been the thing that sticks out."

Grigorenko deserves a lot of credit. He has some mad skills, yet is doing what's asked of him which includes playing on the third line with Ott and Hecht. It's not a glamor role, but he's doing what's asked of him at this point, and doing it well.

That's how he's going to stick in the NHL this season.

Thx to Kris Baker at sabresprospects.com for the lead on Patrick Roy's thoughts
Baker also notes that the Remparts are 4-8 in Grigorenko's absence since mid December

Monday, January 21, 2013

Darcy Regier had himself a pretty good weekend

On Saturday, Terry Pegula announced that the Sabres and GM Darcy Regier had reached an agreement on a contract extension.

According to Pegula they'd "had this agreement for quite some time."

Nothing could rile the fan base more than the timing of it. It was announced during a presser on Saturday the day before the season opener as the team apologized for its part in the lockout.

Most look at the Sabres as a failure under Regier.They're are coming off of a non-playoff season, their third in the last five years and sixth in the last ten, while not getting out of the first round since 2007.

Some troubling aspects of the last five seasons under Regier include a lack of identity for the team, lack of intestinal fortitude and a group of players who've been considered easy to play against.

Probably the most troubling issue for many fans is Regier being joined at the hip with Head Coach Lindy Ruff. He has said time and again that as long as he's the GM of the team, his coach will be Ruff.

So why would Pegula want to keep his GM?

One would think it was because of Regier's performance in the roughly two years since Pegula took the reigns of the team.

During that time the Sabres have made the playoff once and missed once. Not bad. They lost in the first round to the Flyers in seven games after a mad dash to the playoffs in 2010/11 and made an ill-fated run last year last year after going through a troubling year.

But most importantly, Regier seems to be getting the job done in fashioning a team that the Pegula and Co. seem to want.

Regier has pulled off a series of trades that, it would seem, ultimately convinced Pegula that he is his guy.

He traded for defenseman Robyn Regehr at the 2011 draft and traded for the rights to Christian Ehrhoff that same off-season. Both, especially Ehrhoff, were players coveted by the organization.

Regier also traded for C, Cody Hodgson in a move that bolstered their roster for the 2012 season yet did not mortgage the future. At the same trade deadline he was somehow able to land a first round pick for fourth-line center, Paul Gaustad.

He also traded much-maligned, "core" player Derek Roy for gritty Steve Ott and depth defenseman, Adam Pardy last off-season.

With four picks in the 2012 draft (the additional second-rounder coming in the Regehr trade) the team was able to draft two highly touted prospects--C, Mikhail Grigorenko and C, Zemgus Girgensons.

In a very shrewd move, the Sabres used their own second-round pick in the draft coupled with the pick they received in the Gaustad trade (#21-overall, Nashville) to move up to #14 (Calgary's pick) and draft Girgensons. Post-draft reviews of the 2012 draft for the Sabres had many looking at Grigorenko and Girgensons as eventually their top-two centers for years to come. In addition, that same draft produced the captain of the gold medal-winning US Junior squad this year--D, Jake McCabe (#44 overall)

In Pegula's eyes, based upon the work done since he took over the team, Regier is someone who is indeed "talented."

During the presser, Pegula said that he approached Regier concerning the extension. He seems to like working with Regier, saying that "we have great communication in the hockey department, no egos, everyone's pulling in the same direction and it's a very good situation." He also mentioned "the creativity, looking for players--drafting, free agents or whatever" in addressing what goes on "behind the curtains."

The "painting" that Pegula says he and his hockey department are working on was on display Sunday in the 2013 season opener. Two of Regier's acquisitions contributed to their 5-2 win over Philly as both Ott and Hodgson scored for the team and both were named stars of the game--Ott #2, an Hodgson #3.

In addition, 2012 first-round draft pick Grigorenko was on the team in his first NHL game. The 18 yr. old is said to be on a five-game tryout, but there's a chance he sticks with the club.

Regier, like every other GM, is at the beck and call of his owner. It's his job to craft a team in the image of his owner. He did that under former boss Tom Golisano's philosophies and he's doing it again.

The Sabres, and the work that Regier did during the previous regimes, does not exist in the eyes of Pegula. Regier's tenure as his GM for him began February 22, 2011 when Pegula took over the team.

It's still too early to tell what will transpire over the course of this season, but Regier couldn't ask for a better weekend to kick off the 2013 season.


Some notes on the game yesterday:

--I've never heard, nor ever plan on hearing again, the words "Thomas Vanek" and "burst of speed" in the same sentence. After Vanek hit the blueline for a semi-breakaway, one of the commentators used that phrase. Maybe it was because the whole leauge isn't up to speed and the Flyers were on a back-to-back but a "burst of speed" from Vanek?

--The Sabres "toughness" still looks eerily familiar to past seasons. Flyer Scott Hartnell ran Jason Pominville from behind and, once again, no one on the ice came to his defense. One shouldn't expect Vanek or Hodgson to come to the defense of a teammate, but Tyler Myers was on the ice and he wussed out. Didn't he say he wanted to be tougher this season?

--Steve Ott skated with a purpose every second of every shift--bent over, legs pumping, always moving forward. Tyler Ennis skates that way. So does Marcus Foligno. The rest? They could should take some notes.

--Jason Pominville is the best all-around player on the team.

--Jochen Hecht will be extremely useful in his fourth-line center role, and, except as a temporary fill-in on a higher line, he needs to stay right there.

Ole-Kristian Tollefsen (l) caught
a punch for the Sabres Drew Stafford
in a 2008 preseason game
at Columbus
 --When Drew Stafford dropped the gloves with Hartnell in defense of his teammate, it wasn't the first time he's done that. Ottawa punk Chris Neil elbowed Chris Drury with a cheap shot back in 2007 and Stafford immediately came to his defense. Staff isn't the greatest pugilist, but he can fight--he bloodied Ole-Kristian Tollefsen a few years back in a preseason game vs. the Columbus Blue Jackets. And in his fight with Hartnell, he showed he could take a punch and remain on his skates. His locker, by the way, is next to noted NHL heavyweight, John Scott.

--Defenseman Robyn Regehr had a rough game. He got called for a couple of tripping penalties and got turned around once. But he also had a couple of good breakups on Philly scoring chances. The jury's still out on whether the veteran defenseman has lost a step, may be in serious decline or is simply an old heavy-Chevy that will take a little while to warm up.

--Mikhail Grigorenko got his first taste of NHL action and played a simple game. He looked real good in his own end, positioning himself very well on most occasions. On offense his highlight was drawing a penalty on a drive to the net. Tonight's game vs. Toronto should give everyone a better idea as to whether his stay will be longer than five games.

--The Tyler Ennis, Marcus Foligno, Staffod line looked rusty, yet you could see it's only a matter time before they start clicking.

--None of the defensmen on the Sabres really stood out in a positive way. They all looked shaky, which makes it even more amazing that the team came out with a 5-2 win.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Let's roll

The long wait for hockey fans was over yesterday as the 2013 season got underway. Twenty-six teams went at it while fans in Buffalo chomped at the bit, waiting for their own opener which is today. Today at 12:30 on NBC--the lone game on national television vs. Philly who lost their opener yesterday afternoon.

The theme for this season seems to be leaning towards few things:  the transition from "the core" of old to "the new core," a tougher Sabres team to play against, and where they'll find more scoring.

Tyler Ennis, Cody Hodgson, Tyler Myers, Marcus Foligno and, now, Mikhail Grigorenko all represent pieces of "the new core" and will be expected to fill their roles competently. Unlike GM Darcy Regier's "core" from the 2007/08 season, this group will not only have a ton of veteran leadership around them, but they will also have true top-line/top-six talent surrounding them. Plus they'll have more grit and toughness on the team, more than any since the late-90's "hardest working team in hockey."

On paper, it wasn't hard to get caught up in the potential of the Sabres the last two seasons as new owner Terry Pegula took the reigns and cut the financial chains.

That lead to the 2011/12 season as one of heightened expectations. Unfortunately it ended up in disappointment. Ready-made excuses were built in to the failure of last year, mainly injuries and lack of center depth, not to mention the Milan Lucic/Miller incident, but it was a failure regardless.

In this shortened 2013 NHL season, the Eastern Conference looks to be wide open outside the typical heavyweights like Pittsburgh, Boston and the NY Rangers. Yet, any team can get off to a slow start to the season or go into a funk at some point, leaving them vulnerable to a hot rival.

Even in the Northeast Division, Boston is the prohibitive favorite, but they have a backup goalie taking over the reigns as full time starter, which is a difficult transition. Goaltending woes--whether a slump or injury to the #1 and/or a less than adequate back-up--could send a favorite down the conference battling for a playoff spot. So, a division crown isn't a lock for the B's this season, although it's clearly theirs to loose.

Still, with so many questions at the foot of Washington St. heading into the season, it would be hard to predict the Sabres finishing atop the Northeast.

Those questions include:  Will there be a definitive impact on the grit and toughness side of the equation from Steve Ott and John Scott? Will last year's hottest line of Ennis, Foligno and Drew Stafford continue to produce? How will 18 yr. old rookie Mikhail Grigorenko pan out? Will goalie Ryan Miller be able to focus completely through a 48 game season? Will back-up Jhonas Enroth be able to hold the fort while Miller gets a day off? Can defensemen Myers and Christian Ehrhoff stay healthy and up their poor-to-average production from last season? How will Lindy Ruff coach the team? Will he find chemistry throughout the line-up? Will the trade of Derek Roy be a positive (team chemistry, more heart) or a negative (lost scoring.) And so on.

Puckdaddy's Greg Wyshinski predicts that the second place finisher in the division will make the playoffs, and I concur. He also picks Buffalo to finish ahead of Ottawa and make the playoffs and I concur, once again.

Methinks the Sabres followed a similar path this season to what Ottawa did last year by adding more grit and toughness and they should be, like Wychynski said, "a pain to play against."

The Sabres, although flawed and incredibly young down the middle, should have enough firepower to at least match their offensive ranking last season (18th.) They have a legitimate top-line winger in Thomas Vanek and a legitimate top-six two-way player in Jason Pominville. They have a possible top-six winger in Ott who will be on the third line.

They have a solid enough defense to keep the opposition in check and they have a former Vezina-winner in goal with Ryan Miller--who may not need to be elite, only strong--to help carry the team into the post-season.

Add in some veteran leadership up and down the lineup and you have a team that should be able to hold its own in any contest this season.

Plus, most on the team have been playing under Ruff for a number of years. That continuity may be critical in this sprint of a season.

About the only thing that may hold this team back is over-coaching by Ruff. Nearly all of his players know "the system" and it will be up to him and his coaching staff to offer tweaks instead of drastic changes .

This team could realistically finish anywhere from 6th to 10th in the conference this season, so we'll split down the middle and predict they finish 8th.

A look at some players and the affect they may have upon team success this season.

W/C, Steve Ott and W/D, John Scott--Ott was brought in for his gritty play and his ability to skate a regular, top-nine shift. Scott was brought in to protect his teammates. Both are on the team to make the Sabres tougher to play against as well as make the skill players fell a bit more comfortable. The Northeast Division is rough, and the Eastern Conference is getting bigger and tougher. Ottawa trotted out four tough, gritty players last season and ended up making the playoffs. Will it work in Buffalo this season?

D, Tyler Myers--At one point, during his Calder-winning rookie season, Myers was looked at as a perennial Norris candidate. Since then his production, has taken a precipitous drop. The tall, lanky defenseman worked hard over the summer to add a little bulk and spent some time with Nashville Predators defensman Shea Weber over the summer hoping to add a definitive edge to his game. He will be looked at to add more production and to stay healthy.

D, Christian Ehrhoff--Ehrhoff is another d-man whose production was off from the previous year, going from consecutive 14-goal seasons with Vancouver down to five with Buffalo. He also had some injury problems last season and the team went 2-7-2 with him out of the lineup in January. The powerplay may be the key to upping his goals.

Note:  The team lost Myers and Ehrhoff back to back in a stretch that went from Nov. 23 when Myers went down through Jan. 21 Ehrhoff's last game on the sideline--a span of 28 games. Buffalo went 7-16-5. Both were in the back in the lineup after that and the Sabres finished the season on a 20-8-6 run.

C, Tyler Ennis and C, Cody Hodgson--Both are young and are getting a crack at full-time, top-six center minutes as well as prominent powerplay time. While Ennis will be starting out between Foligno and Stafford, a young line, Hodgson will be with two veteran, proven goal scorers in Vanek and Pominville. Both lines need to hold their own and solidify the top-six.

LW, Marcus Foligno--Foligno had a stellar stretch-run with the team last season scoring six goals and adding seven assists in only 13 games. He would be hard-pressed to score at that pace, but significant contributions on the scoresheet will gladly be accepted.

C, Mikhail Grigorenko--The wild card. The big, highly skilled center is only 18 yrs. old and no player under Ruff has made the jump to the NHL at that age. He had a great camp and earned a spot on the roster. If he can stick as a third-line center between veterans Ott and Ville Leino, Hecht will be able drop down to an appropriate #4-center slot and the Sabres will be set down the middle. Rolling three lines is how Ruff wants to approach this season. Having his centers fall into place like that will go a long way towards making that strategy a reality.

F, Ville Leino--Leino gets a mulligan for mitigating circumstances contributing to his woeful first season with the Sabres. As previously mentioned, he really needs to focus upon his play and just quit whining. He needs to significantly increase his .35 points/game production from last season. And should the team make the playoffs, we'll be able to see if he's the money player he was touted as when he came to Buffalo. If not, a compliance buy-out may be in the cards for him.

G, Ryan Miller--Focus. Too many times over the last few seasons, Miller was caught in la-la land for whatever reason. The moniker of "Mr. Softee" grew out of his lack of focus at times which inevitably lead to soft goals. When he's on, he incredibly tough to beat. When he's average, the Sabres usually come out on the wrong end of the score.

RW, Drew Stafford--The opportunity for a true breakout season is looking him right in the eye. Everything is in his hands, but entering his fifth full-time season with the Sabres, the question with him remains, is that a hockey stick in his hands or a guitar?

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Lindy Ruff and his coaches are really the keys to this shortened season

Unlike last season, when some of the prognosticators had the Sabres finishing atop the Northeast Division and nearly all had them in the playoffs based upon their off-season acquisitions, this year any "exuberance" has been tempered.

The Sabres made a big splash in the 2011 off-season with the trade for D Robyn Regehr, the trade for and contract extension of D Christian Ehrhoff and the signing of F Ville Leino. Unfortunately the team finished right where they'd been for three of the previous four seasons--in the playoff bubble mix.

This season most predict the Sabres to finish right in the playoff bubble mix again and nearly all of them point to having the stars align for the team to actually get in. They'll need a positive impact from new Sabres Steve Ott and John Scott, they'll need their young centers Tyler Ennis and Cody Hodgson to effectively fill their top-six center roles and they'll need to replace the scoring that left when Derek Roy was traded to Dallas.

All are valid points, but probably the most pressing issue with the team will be how Lindy Ruff and his coaching staff handle the team.

There's very little room for error in a shortened 48-game season. There's no getting out of the gate slowly and making a late season rally for the playoffs. Nor can any team, especially Buffalo, afford to go in a prolonged slump. With the Sabres, they can't look to the Western Conference for points (11-6-1 last season,) as all games will be vs. the East (28-26-10) and the powerhouses within (6-11-3 vs. the Atlantic Division.)

Ruff, it would seem, has been micro-managing this team ever since Chris Drury and Daniel Briere left in 2007, either by necessity or design, and the results have been pretty mediocre--two playoff appearances (booted in the first round both times) and three years on the outside looking in.

In defense of his record, the talent drop-off from the 2006/07 season was significant, especially down the middle where at one point last season his centers were Roy, Luke Adam/ Ville Leino/Jochen Hecht, Paul Gaustad, and Cody McCormick/Paul "Chewy" Szczechura/Matt Ellis. That was before Ennis landed in the middle and before Hodgson was traded for.

But some of that was of his own design as well. He kept Ennis on the wing, despite the kid's need for more ice, until necessity dictated his move to center. His insistence that Roy be between Thomas Vanek and Jason Pominville was a reliance upon (way) past success. He consistently placed Hecht in a top-six role and frequently gave fourth line centers extended minutes on the top line.

Ruff has no choice but to play his young guns at center this season as three of his four centers from two years ago are no longer with the team. But still, a dependency upon the "old tried and true" will have a chance to come to the fore as Hecht was re-signed and could find himself playing in the top-six for a period should one of the youngsters stumble.

Chemistry will be of the utmost importance this season as dictated by a compact schedule. That Ruff is a "tinkerer" with line combos is a given--to a negative extreme--and an abbreviated season will give him ample opportunity to further rationalize his tinkering

On many occasions the coach has had his lines on a short leash--save for his "tried and true" line combos from years past. The line of Ennis with Drew Stafford and Marcus Foligno was a revelation late last season, but will he keep this line together should they stumble? Is Hodgson looking over his shoulder at Hecht if Vanek and Pominville get into a funk?

Past results are not necessarily indicative of what's to come, but "old dog" Lindy may feel the pressure to juggle lines like he's always done. The end result of that juggling is inconsistency and weird combos featuring fourth-liners like Adam Mair or Ellis playing extended in-game minutes on the top line. Once again, his team has failed to make the playoffs in three of the last five seasons.

Another area of concern this year will be how he handles his goalies, one of Ruff's weakest areas.

Ryan Miller is a scrawny goalie who tires under a heavy workload. You can see it in his slow glove and lack of focus when he's played too much.

Ruff has never been able to find the proper rhythm to his goalie rotation, save for 2009/10 when Miller was dead-on in his Vezina-winning season. He'll talk about a rotation, then go on intuition and when that fails he'll start talking about a rotation again.

He's already stated that he expects to use Miller in 36-38 games this season, which really shouldn't be that much of a problem for the 30 yr. old netminder. Finding the right time to get back up Jhonas Enroth in the mix, though, will be key to the success of the team.

Enroth himself will be crucial to that success as he'll be looked upon to provide work similar to a stellar 2010/11 (9-2-2) as opposed to his inconsistent 2011/12 season (8-11-4.) He has a clearly defined role as back-up after flirting with dreams of starting last season when Miller went down. He was not ready to be a #1 then and barring injury he'll not get that opportunity this year. But in the 10-12 games he'll be slated to play in, he'll need to get as many points as possible.

The coaching staff joining Ruff behind the bench should also be on notice.

The Sabres defensemen under James Patrick, have not looked solid since 2009/10 when the team took the Northeast Division. They've been very inconsistent despite having plenty of veteran presence on the back-end.

Amongst the problems that have plagued his defensemen:  they still haven't learned when it's appropriate to join the rush for the offense Ruff covets, and come crunch-time, at times they lacked the poise to lock down a late one-goal lead. Patrick has eight NHL defensemen to work with this season, many of them veterans. Can he guide them in their roles? Or will they continue their inconsistent play?

On offense, the power play under first year coach, Kevyn Adams, finished 16th last season. Adams will be integrating some new players into the powerplay units, due to Roy's departure, but in a "some things never change" move, Ruff and Adams look to be leaning towards Pominville on the point of the first powerplay unit. It's something that really hasn't worked in the past, yet it looks as if they'll continue to go to that muddy well.

And in another of Ruff's "tried and true" leanings, the first powerplay unit will probably feature Ehrhoff joining Pominville on the point with Leino and Vanek working the half-walls. They will be joined by Hodgson who will be Roy's replacement. The second unit will have youngsters Ennis, Stafford and Foligno down low with Myers and Leopold at the point.

Ruff has also mentioned that he's toying with the idea of using defenseman TJ Brennan in a "specialist" role on the powerplay. Whether or not that innovation comes to fruition is to be determined, but they needed to find a spot for Brennan. The fourth-year AHL d-man was second in defenseman scoring in the league and proficient on the powerplay for the Amerks. Exposing him to waivers would most certainly mean losing him.

Sabres owner Terry Pegula famously stated, "Ruff ain't goin' nowhere," at his first press conference so the longest tenured coach in Sabres history obviously has the full backing of his owner. Yet Ruff really seems to be too holding tightly to the reigns and it would seem as if that spills over to his players. On offense, how many times has he pointed out that x-player was "gripping the stick too tight" on a missed opportunity? And on defense, how many Keystone Cops incidents have we witnessed late in games?

With Pegula clearly on his side, and a GM who's said time and again that as long as he's in Buffalo, Ruff will be his coach, there's really no reason for him to feel pressure coaching. He has a veteran group of players punctuated by some pretty talented youngsters. He has an above average to elite goalie and a solid backup manning the net.

Ruff has the personnel to challenge for the Northeast Division crown, or at least a playoff spot, but micro-managing may be holding them back. If ever there was a time to "release the hounds," it's this season. Hockey is a game, let them go out and play.

But, is that within him?

Friday, January 18, 2013

Answering the prognosticators--Part 4, NHL.com's six questions

As a part of their 2013 season preview, NHL.com has six questions for each team heading towards the puck drop.

Amongst the six for the Sabres:  How will Ryan Miller play? Can Cody Hodgson play a top-six center role effectively? Will the new "tough guys" have an impact? Will rookie Mikhail Grigorenko (and they add in fellow rookie, Zemgus Grirgensons, who is not in camp) make the team?

But John Kreiser also touches upon two other areas that also should be looked at--how the defense will shake out with eight NHL-ready defensemen and Ville Leino.

Yesterday the Sabres waived defenseman Adam Pardy and his $2M salary bringing the number of NHL-calibre defensemen on the roster to a more manageable eight players. Normally the team would carry seven, but the Sabres would need to expose all of their remaining defensemen to waivers, and it would seem that they don't want risk losing any of them.

Christian Ehrhoff, Tyler Myers, Jordan Leopold, Robyn Regehr and Andrej Sekera are locks for the top-six, barring a trade. Alexander Sulzer (acquired from Vancouver last trade deadline) has the inside track on the sixth slot but will be battling it out with Mike Weber and long-time prospect TJ Brennan (Rochester's leading scorer this season.)

The real concern on defense, though, should be directed not at the number of defensemen, but at the production of Myers and Ehrhoff, both of whom are comining off an injury plagued down 2011/12 season.

Head Coach Lindy Ruff loves to have his defensemen join the rush, but the soon to be 23 yr. old Myers' production has dropped every year since his Calder-winning season three years ago going from .59 points/game to .48 to .46 last season. His decision-making has also been suspect, leaving him looking lost on the ice at times.

Ehrhoff, who was brought in for his sniping ability and powerplay prowess, went from consecutive 14-goal seasons (six goals on the powerplay, consecutively) with Vancouver to 5 goals (one on the pp) with Buffalo last season.

The Sabres need better production from those two to help offset the trade of C Derek Roy in the off-season.

Both will need to stay healthy and contribute if the team wants to go anywhere this season.

At forward, Leino is another player whose production left much to be desired in the 2011/12 season.

The winger turned center turned winger has gone through a number of changes throughout his NHL career and being somewhat confused and/or disgruntled is to be expected. But Leino took it to another level last year at times coming off as a primadonna while whining about his position and his line mates.

The Sabres signed him as a consolation prize in July, 2011 after they knew C Brad Richards would not be signing with the team. He had a strong performance with Philadelphia during their seven-game bout with Buffalo in the 2011 playoffs. It caught the Sabres' eye and prompted them to view him as a possible top-six center. A move which ended up being a disaster.

He has the skills and has proven that he can produce, but he needs to dump the desire for the perfect situation he had in Philly skating on a line with Daniel Briere and Scott Hartnell. And he needs to start carrying his own weight instead of relying on his linemates, if that's even within him.

Leino will not be in the top-six this season, barring injuries to the Sabres top-wingers, so he should look at his third-line role at $4.5M as a blessing.

For that amount and in that capacity, Leino just needs to shut up and play.

Although it's unlikely he'll be a compliance buyout right now, with what looks like a mulligan for last season, another eight goal, 17 assist performance this season will probably punch his ticket out of Buffalo.

Freisen does not make a preditcion as to the Sabres placement in the standings, but he does raise enough questions to show that the Sabres will probably, once again, be a playoff bubble team.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Answering the prognosticators--Part 3, Kevin Allen, USA Today

Most of the pundits are looking at the off-season trade for noted NHL pest Steve Ott and the signing of enforcer John Scott as defining the Sabres this summer as well as into the season. While USA Today's Kevin Allen does acknowledge that in his Northeast Division preview, he also directs his attention to some areas of concern for the Buffalo Sabres--mainly goals and goalie, Ryan Miller.

Allen's storyline for the team:  "The Sabres are looking for more goals, grit and gumption."

When the Sabres traded for Ott, it cost them one of their most consistent scorers in C Derek Roy. After being the top point producer on the team for three years running (2007-2009,) Roy was felled by an injury in the 2010/11 season and appeared in only 35 games, yet he was still on a point/game pace that would have lead the team again.

Last season, though, Roy's numbers took a precipitous drop and the team finished 18th in the league in goals/game. With him now in Dallas, the Sabres will need to replace his production.

The "tried and true" for Buffalo in the production department include Captain Jason Pominville, who has averaged about 25 goals a season since the lockout ended, and Thomas Vanek. Vanek lead the team in goals from 2006 to 2011 but finished second in goals last season with 26, his lowest total since his rookie year.

Both, be it noted, are wingers. After Pominville and Vanek, the Sabres will be drifting into the relative unknown when it comes to top-six scoring.

Another winger, Drew Stafford, has been wildly inconsistent in both production and effort, over the past few seasons, mostly on the negative side.

Three other Sabres will be looked at to produce on a full-time/top-six basis-- C Tyler Ennis, C Cody Hodgson and LW Marcus Foligno, none of whom are over the age of 23.

Ennis centered Foligno and Stafford late last season and that line became a force for the team as they made an ill-fated drive to reach the post-season. That line will be together, at least to start the season, and the impetus will be on them to continue to produce, hopefully somewhere close to the incredible pace they were at last season.

Vanek and Pominvlle will be centered by Hodgson this season (again, at least to start.) Just how that line gels is yet to be determined. Head Coach Lindy Ruff had always insisted upon Roy between the two even though in many instances it clearly wasn't clicking. He also continually references having chemistry between at least two of the linemates, so inserting a new center in Hodgson--or even 18 yr. old C Mikhail Grigorenko--should be very workable.

For most of the season, outside of Roy, the Sabres were severely lacking talent down the middle--look at the failures of Brad Boyes and Ville Leino at center--hence the trade for Hodgson. And in a chance move, Ennis found himself at center after playing the wing previously.

With Ennis and Hodgson slated for top-six center duties, the 3rd and 4th line centers are still somewhat of a question mark. The third line will be of the utmost importance as Ruff looks to roll three lines in this sprint of an NHL season. Ott and Leino will be on the wings there and may up being centered by long-time Sabre, Jochen Hecht who was just re-signed to a one year contract.

The wild card in all of this, though, is Grigorenko.

The highly skilled junior is presently working on a line with Ott and Leino and has been under great scrutiny, yet has received rave reviews thus far. That line is said to have great chemistry and should Grigorenko make the team and they stick together, it would allow all of their centers to fall into place with Hecht falling to the fourth line.

Sabres fans must keep in mind, though, that Grigorenko would be the youngest player to stick with the team in the 15-year Darcy Regier/Ruff era.

Scoring will be a concern for the team, although there is a lot of skill in the top six. The third line, even with veteran Hecht at center should be able to produce. Add in Ruff looking to roll three lines instead of four and there's no reason why they shouldn't climb higher than #18 in goals/game, last seasons finish.

Allen is also correct at directing team success towards the play of Miller.

Miller was often looked upon as an elite goalie post-lockout, but last season looked average at best on way too many occasions finishing with a 2.55 gaa and a .916 sv.% (both, btw, right around his career averages.)

This will be a telling year for the 30 yr. old netminder. There really are no excuses for him, and in a shortened season there's no reason that he should be out of focus at any time. In a 48-game schedule the playoffs start immediately and Miller needs to be on his game from the get-go.

It seems as if all three things Allen focuses upon--Ott and Scott, scoring, and Miller--are all interrelated as is his "goals, grit and gumption" storyline for the team.

Ott and Scott bring an abrasiveness and toughness to the team. That they need to provide additional cover for the skilled players as well as Miller--no stranger to being run at--can not be overemphasized.

One needs to look no further than what transpired in Ottawa last season to see the positive results of adding grit and toughness to the team, especially in a division that has the Bruins. As previously mentioned in, In Defense of John Scott, the Sens bulked up in 2011 and went from #29 in goals/game in the 2010/11 season to #4 last season. They went from a 13th place finish and a -58 goal differential in 2010/11 to an 8th place finish and a +9 differential during their "rebuilding" year in 2011/12.

Will "grit" lead to "gumption" and ultimately lead to more goals for, fewer goals against and a playoff spot for the team this season?

Allen has the Sabres finishing 9th in the conference with an outside chance of making the playoffs, which is par for the course in many of the season previews.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

In defense of John Scott

Everybody in the hockey world knows just why 6'8" 270lb John Scott was signed as a free agent by the Buffalo Sabres--his Bobby Orr-like end-to-end rushes, his Sidney Crosby goal-scoring savvy, his Bobby Hull-like slapshot and his Wayne Gretzky-like ice presence.



Now that I have your attention, despite the fact skating, scoring and stickwork aren't really his strong points, Scott is a good addition to the Sabres.

Yeah, everyone knows that he'll rival former enforcer, Andrew Peters, for the least amount of playing time by a Buffalo player in the last 15 years. But, please, spare me the stats, the Peters comparison and analogies concerning the "enforcer" going the way of the dodo.

And while you're at it, get over yourself and your delusions of a clean, wide-open, free-flowing NHL. Intimidation is still a factor in the NHL.

There are still a number of overage adolescents with anger management issues flying around in an enclosed area. They're armed with sticks and a desire to stay in the NHL by doing whatever's necessary--including, but not limited to, taking out the opposition's best player.

The Sabres have skilled players on their team. But can they really let loose knowing that, at any given moment, Chris Neil is drawing a bead on them or a Milan Lucic is looking to run them over?

Sabres owner Terry Pegula saw this, as did the rest of the Sabres front office, and they decided to do something about it. Enter, arguably, the best heavyweight/enforcer in the game--John Scott.

WGR's Paul Hamilton, was on the radio yesterday and he laid out just exactly what the role of Scott is--he will sit on the bench for most of the game and act as a deterrent.

He wasn't brought in for skill and probably won't find a dancing partner most of the time, but should an opposing player get out of line, he will hunt him down and make him pay, penalty be damned. And, at the very least, every Sabres player will know--from Pat Kaleta to Tyler Ennis, from Robyn Regehr to Ryan Miller--that Scott has their back.

That is his job.

If you don't believe Scott as a deterrent will work, allow nesn.com's Douglas Flynn to chime in. The day after the Sabres signed Scott, he wrote a piece entitled [Steve Ott,] John Scott have the Sabres loaded for bear.

Flynn knows that Scott will be ready for Boston this season and points to a tweet from the Buffalo News' Jon Vogl concerning the infamous Lucic/Ryan Miller incident. Said Scott, "Hopefully, with me next year, that doesn’t happen. If it does happen, there’s a different outcome."

We'll let Flynn continue with that train of thought:
Scott is no stranger to making threats against Bruins. Back in the 2010-11 season, Shawn Thornton suffered a 40-stitch gash on his forehead when accidentally kicked by a skate in a game against the Blackhawks. Thornton didn't take kindly to being chirped by an unidentified player from the Chicago bench as he skating off the ice bleeding. After the game, he vowed, "If I ever find out who it was I'll deal with it in my own way."
Scott, then with the Blackhawks but not dressed for that game, warned Thornton that if he tried, "I'll kick the [expletive] out of him." Scott was dressed when the Bruins visited Chicago last Oct. 15, but did not tangle with Thornton.

The Sabres have five meetings with the Bruins this season, which constitutes about 10% of their schedule. And this is not to imply that a mere Scott appearance will somehow magically allow the Sabres to dominate their nemesis.

But they should be playing with a little more confidence knowing that someone has their collective backs. And that includes pests like Patrick Kaleta and Steve Ott. Kaleta got under the skin of Lucic last season totally throwing him and the Boston team off of their game. The comfort-level, trickle-down effect works.

Case in point: the 2011/12 Ottawa Senators.

The 2011 Stanley Cup was awarded to the Boston Bruins who employed an old-school style of grit and intimidation that completely handcuffed the Vancouver Canucks. (of note:  'Nucks GM Mike Gillis traded for the Sabres Zack Kassian in 2012, in part to address "softness" issues exposed during their Stanley Cup Final match with the B's.)

During that 2011 off-season, the Sens, seeing the success of their division rival, augmented their line up when they added a tough and gritty bottom-six center in Zenon Konopka. He joined Chris Neil, Zack Smith and Matt Carkner to possibly rank the Sens as the NHL's toughest team.

Don Brennan, the author of the linked article above, saw it playing out like this, "The young, prized prospects in the Senators family grew a little Tuesday morning [with the Konopka signing]. A little taller. A little stronger. A little braver."

The result that season?

The Sens finished second in the Northeast Division and qualified for the playoffs in a rebuilding season when many of the "experts" had them near the bottom of the Eastern Conference. Rookie defensman Erik Karlsson roamed freely on his way to a 19 goal, 78 point Norris Trophy winning season.

Konopka, Neil, Carkner and Smith allowed the Sens' skill players to play a bit more freely knowing that someone always had their backs. Just like in Boston with Lucic, Thorton, Zdeno Chara and Adam McQuaid backing their players.

Said Konopka at the time of the signing, “It’s going to be good for the young players, our skilled guys ... definitely make them more comfortable."

Granted, those aforementioned players can actually play a regular shift in the NHL without being a complete liability, but until the Sabres can add more of that, having an enforcer will have to do. Looking back, the Sabres could have used more bulk last season, and it took the Lucic/Miller embarrassment for them to finally get with the program.

The additions of Scott and Ott to go along with the likes of Kaleta, Cody McCormick, Regehr and Mike Weber, all of whom will drop the gloves while playing a regular shift, will go a long way towards making the younger skilled players like Tyler Ennis, Cody Hodgson, Tyler Myers and maybe even Mikhail Grigorenko feel a bit more comfortable.

Hell, it will probably make Miller feel more comfortable, more able to focus. Same with Thomas Vanek and Drew Stafford, maybe even Ville Leino as well.

And that's why John Scott is on the team.

Of note:  Today marks the birthday of Frank Zamboni, who would have turned 112 today.


Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Answering the prognosticators, Part 2--CBSSportsline.com

"The Sabres have spent a lot of money putting a mediocre team on the ice."

CBSSportsline.com's Adam Gretz and Brian Stubitz tossed out that nugget in their "realistic expectations" finale to the Sabres 2013 preview.

So true, so true.

Gretz and Stubitz started off the preview by saying, "New owner Terry Pegula went crazy in free agency and was basically signing checks with a stamp, giving it to any free agent or player that would give him the time of day."

After the Golisano years, though, that's very refreshing to Sabres fans. Years of penny-pinching, watching their own walk because of finances and watching quality free agents sign with other teams left Sabres fans wanting. So when Gretz and Stubitz throw out Pegula spending like a "drunken sailor," we simply say, "Yeah? So? What's your point?"

Rest assured, guys, if a player is available, money is no object for Pegula (outside of cap constraints.) And the reason the Sabres were relegated to signing John Scott in the off-season is because pickins were mighty slim.

And that's OK.

What it comes down to last off-season is the continued dissolution of "the core" and a retool leaning heavily towards the "grit" part of the equation. One should look no further than the Derek Roy for Steve Ott (and big, reserve defenseman Adam Pardy) trade as the definitive move this off-season. And you can add in "core-like" forward Brad Boyes' departure and the arrival of Scott as another move in that direction.

Will Ott and Scott make the Sabres tougher to play against? They should. Add in up-and-comer Marcus Foligno and there's a significant change at the foot of Washington St. heading into this abbreviated 2013 season.

Will it lead to the playoffs, though?

Gretz and Stubtiz end up having the Sabres finishing 10th in the East Conference writing that Buffalo could make the playoffs, and if they did, a first-round loss would be a "likely result."

Which is no departure from the previous five seasons and, therefore, a pretty safe prediction.

Maybe it's because many of GM Darcy Regier's "core" remain--Jason Pominville, Thomas Vanek, Drew Stafford and maybe most importantly, Ryan Miller. These "Rochester Guys," as Sabres Team President Ted Black prefers to call them, will be joined by re-signed forward Jochen Hecht, the longest-tenured Sabre (nine years,) and defensive "puck-mover" Andrej Sekera, all of whom stretch back to that first post-Chris Drury/Daniel Briere season. A season in which they finished...*drum roll*...10th. Four points out of a playoff spot.

All were a part of the team when Buffalo missed the playoffs in 2007/08 (10th in the conference,) 2008/09 (10th,)  and last season (9th.) And they were all there when the Sabres got bounced in the first round in 2009/10 (Boston, six games) and 2010/11 (Philadelphia, seven games.)

One thing Sabres followers have known for years--Regier is slow to change. And he's also very slow and methodical during the process itself. That's just his nature.

There have been changes since Terry Pegula took over the team in February, 2011 and more changes since the Sabres last game in April of 2012. The question is, have there been enough?

Monday, January 14, 2013

Answering the prognosticators, Part 1--SI.com

'Tis the season for the "experts" to chime in on the 2013 NHL season.

Some are right, some are wrong. Some are close. But, usually, outside the top teams like Pittsburgh, Vancouver and the NY Rangers, prognosticators are too far removed and simply grab some scraps, stats and transactions to justify their placement of a specific team.

Conversely, sometimes those close to the team have their team-colored glasses on and fail to find definitive flaws on their team.

There have been a number of "experts" chiming in on the Buffalo Sabres and where they might start/end up in this abbreviated 2013 NHL season. Chronologically we could go back to last summer for the Hockey News.

But, instead, we'll start by heading to Sports Illustrated.com and writer Adrian Dater.

Forget the fact that Dater is based in a state that legalized marijuana during the last election. Forget also that he placed the Edmonton Oilers at #3 behind Pittsburgh and the NY Rangers (he asks his readers to check back in a few months, expecting the Oilers to get off to a strong start with a number of their core players have been playing in the AHL the past few months.)

Other than that little blip, Dater does some yeoman's work in his placement of teams and his reasonings behind that placement.

For the Sabres he has them at #21 surrounded by Ottawa (#19,) Winnipeg (20,) Dallas (22,) and San Jose (23, because, he says, the Sharks have too much "failed playoff baggage" coming into the season.)

With the Sabres at #21 he writes:
They got red hot late in the year and nearly snuck into the postseason. But other than adding super-pest Steve Ott, they didn't do a whole lot to the roster in the off-season. The defense and goaltending have some big names, but underachieved too much of last season. It just seems like this team is a little off composition-wise. They spent a lot of money before last season, but got little in return. It'll be up to guys like Christian Ehrhoff, Robyn Regehr and Ville Leino to give more proof that they were worth more than they showed in 2011-12.

His overall assertion that "it just seems like [Buffalo] is a little off composition-wise" is pretty much right on.

After going with "the core" post-Chris Drury/Daniel Briere the Sabres are somewhat of a transitional period moving away from the "soft-but-skilled" team of the past five seasons into a grittier one. This has been a directive from Uncle Terry Pegula since he took over the team, "I want to keep not only statistically good players," he said at the press conference, "but winners, gritty players."

Pegula's introduction to hockey was in the mid-70's, stating that "It was the Flyers-style of play that got him into it." That would be the "Broadstreet Bullies" style of play during that time.

"Then I moved to Western New York," he continued, "and I became more or less a Buffalo Sabres fan [The French Connection and Co.]... The Flyers and Sabres played for the Stanley Cup, and it was difficult. I liked both teams."

The transition to a "grittier" team actually began before Pegula took he reigns when the powers that be realized that their team, as constructed, would need to get bigger and tougher. It started back in 2008 with the trade for Craig Rivet. Then in 2009 they continued that thought process during the NHL Draft. In that draft the team picked Zack Kassian, Brayden McNabb and Marcus Foligno--all big prospects who had an edge to their game--to beef up their "soft-but-skilled" team.

Through the acquisitions of defenseman Robyn Regehr (2011 off-season) and Steve Ott (2012 off-season) and the signing of free agent heavyweight John Scott, there's no question where the team is headed.

And it should serve the team well. The Milan Lucic/Ryan Miller incident from November, 2011 really exposed how fragile this team was and seemed to serve as a wake-up call. The "Big, Bad Bruins v. 2011" showed that intimidation could nullify what skill the team had.

Will it come out this season?

No question their overall skill-level went down a bit as Derek Roy, one of their top scorers over the past five seasons was sent packing in exchange for Ott.

And that's where Dater is right on as Ehrhoff and Leino will need to pick up the slack after unimpressive (or dismal in the case of Leino) seasons in 2011/12.

But picking up the slack should not rest fully on their shoulders. LW Thomas Vanek, RW Drew Stafford and D Tyler Myers all had off-seasons a year ago, and all will need to contribute. They'll also need contributions from newly annointed top-two centers Cody Hodgson and Tyler Ennis.

The 2013 edition of the Sabres is, in fact, "a little off composition-wise." Like many other teams they lack a true superstar, so meaningful contributions by committee will be the key to their success, not only on offense, but defense as well.

All-in-all, it will be the responsibility of Head Coach Lindy Ruff to put the pieces together. It's a drastically different team from the one they had two seasons ago, especially down the middle, and he'll need to turn a team that may be "off a little composition-wise" into a cohesive, two-way unit.

That's what coaches are hired to do.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Defenseman TJ Brennan leaves Rochester with a bang

Sabres prospect TJ Brennan probably played his last game for Rochester last night. In fact, he probably played his last game in the AHL for now.

The 6'1", 213lb. offensive defenseman will head east to Buffalo for today's start to training camp after pulling off a "Gordie Howe Hat Trick" last night in Syracuse during the Amerks 4-1 win over the Crunch.

Brennan started out the trick last night by coming to the defense of Amerks forward Zemgus Girgensons who was leveled by Crunch forward Richard Panik. Although it wasn't much of a fight, Brennan did not hesitate to drop the gloves for what he considered a late/dirty hit on his teammate.

Next up, mid-way through the third period with the Amerks up 2-1, Brennan go the primary assist on Kevin Porter's goal to make it 3-1.

And lastly, Brennan connected on the PP with less than five minutes to go on a wicked one-timer from the circle (for video, visit sabresprospects.com).

Brennan left Rochester for the Sabres camp with a team-leading 14 goals, 21 assists, 35 points and seven powerplay goals in 36 games.

Drafted with the first pick in the second round (#31) of the 2007 draft, the former lacrosse player who didn't start playing hockey until he was 10, spent his first three seasons working on his defense. Although he still put up respectable offensive numbers.

During his first two seasons in Portland and last season in Rochester the defenseman was finding his way. In an interview with the Cherry Hill (NJ) Courier Post's Randy Miller, Brennan admits to 'kind of stressing a bit' during those seasons. But this season he may have finally "got it." 'It’s been a really fun year,” he said, "I think I’ve learned to just work on my game and do what’s in my control.'

What's in his control right now is a shot at making the team for this abbreviated season.

The Sabres, though, have eight NHL defensemen on the team already, and it will be a tough road to make the club.

But he does have two things working in his favor.

First, Head Coach Lindy Ruff seems as if he may be tinkering with the idea of incorporating specialists including a "specialty defensman" while givining his top-six forwards and top-four defensmen the bulk of the minutes. This could open the door for Brennan to be used as a powerplay specialist on the point.

And secondly, Brennan is on a two-way contract and is out of waiver options. Should he be exposed to waivers, there's little doubt he'll be picked up by any number of clubs who are in the market for defensemen.

Regardless of what happens, Brennan seems intent upon 'doing the best [he] can' while 'letting the people with power make the decisions,' and if he continues where he left off in the AHL, it will be a most difficult decision for the Sabres.

Training camp opens today, eyes fixed upon Grigorenko

The Buffalo Sabres are known for letting their players develop in the minors before bringing them up to the big club. And that's a good thing.

Prospect Mikhail Grigorenko, though, may be the exception this season as the 2012 first rounder is set to hit camp today with the goal of making the team.

The 6'3" 200lb center has had a stellar season in Quebec thus far and acquitted himself very well on the Bronze Medal-winning Russian team at this years World Jrs.

Odds are that he will be sent back to the Remparts and continue his development under coach Patrick Roy, but there is a possibility that he gets a audition of a few regular season games for the Sabres.

As of right now forwards Nathan Gerbe and Cody McCormick are out with injuries and will probably miss the start of the season, if not longer, and that opens up the door for a possible extended audition for Grigorenko.

Many picks have come and gone since GM Darcy Regier took the reigns of the club some 15 years ago, and no player under his guidance has made the jump immediately from draft pick to the NHL. "If you were to go to Vegas and place a bet on it, most 18-year-olds go back and play juniors, " he said recently when asked about Grigorenko making the team out of camp this season.

The closest was defenseman Tyler Myers who spent one year in junior after his draft year before joining the team as a 19 yr. old.

Which begs the question, why not?

First off, the Sabres like to let their prospects learn the professional game before they're thrown to the wolves in the NHL.

Second, they've had a pretty decent (read: average to above average) team most of the time and the roster was usually filled with some pretty competent players who had them in the playoff hunt for many of those years.

Because of that, the highest draft position for Buffalo during that span was #5 overall in 2003 when the team took Thomas Vanek. In most instances, any prospects taken outside the top three picks in the draft usually need some seasoning, and generally speaking, the lower you go down the board, the more seasoning is necessary.

Then there is the fit on the team and within the organization. In nearly every case, the Sabres drafted the "best player available." Recently, when the team was in need of quality centers, their draft position lead them to a better defenseman or winger because the top centers were already gone.

The case of Grigorenko is a bit different, though.

Circumstances lead him to fall from a pre-draft mock that had him as high as #3 overall to #12. Amongst the contributing factors at the draft was the rush on defensemen (eight of the first 12 picks,) of which the Sabres have an abundance of prospects. Plus, Grigorenko had a poor second half of the season, which some (many?) attributed to his bout with mononucleosis later in the season. And, if that weren't enough, there's always the lingering possibility that a player of Russian decent will be lured to the KHL to play in the Motherland.

So he fell to Buffalo with the 12th pick. He was the fourth forward taken and second center taken (Alex Galchenyuk, #3 overall.)

The intrigue with Grigorenko begins with his skill level, which is pretty high, and the reason that some had him going 3rd overall in the draft. He has soft hands and excellent on-ice vision and he has a wicked accurate wrister. The question marks, as with nearly all forward prospects, are:  what he does without the puck, how he handles himself defensively and does he have the intensity to play amongst men.

From a team standpoint, there are still obstacles in the way for Grigorenko to make the squad as the Sabres do not have major holes to fill down the middle, at least with their top two centers. And in this shortened season, a 48-game schedule is a sprint so Head Coach Lindy Ruff more than likely will go with his "tried and true" rather than put an 18 yr. old in a tough position. In addition, the kid will get much more quality minutes, and will have more time to hone his game, if he gets sent back to junior.

Grigorneko is the most intriguing prospect since Myers back in 2008. Just where this all leads in 2013 is up in the air, but it's great to have hockey back and it's great to have the #1 prospect in the organization be a center.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

"It is what it was, which is sad."

Thus spoke Sabres forward Thomas Vanek about the lockout, albeit without the Dennis Green, "They are who we thought they were," melodramatic emphases.

Simply put Vanek, like a lot of hockey fans and writers (maybe even some owners as well,) felt that the lockout could have been resolved months ago. When asked if he had any message for the fans by WGR's Paul Hamilton, Vanek bluntly and dryly states "I think this whole lockout is stupid."


Fortunately, it's over save for some "i"-dotting and "t"-crossing and the formalities of official ratification.

The game of/business of hockey is back, and in a brief encapsulation/opinion I will say that the league got what they wanted--got what they knew they'd get--but were stymied beyond the 50/50 split and player contract issues. The Proskauer Rose lockout scenario played out and were it not for Donald Fehr, the union would have been trampled under foot--again.


The Stanley Cup Champion odds are in and the Pittsburgh Penguins are the favorites at 8-1 followed by the NY Rangers at 17-2. Vancouver leads the Western Conference at 9-1.

The Sabres come in at 25-1, middle of the pack. Which is about right.

TSN quickly posted their hockey preview, which is normally rolled out over the length of the summer.

Buffalo was middle of the road last season, and it wouldn't seem as if much has changed. Their defining quote for the team is, "The silver lining for the Sabres is that they played their best hockey of the season from February onward in 2012 and – had it not been for a New Year's slide – could have caught Ottawa for the eighth and final playoff spot in the East."

Looking back on last season, the "New Year's slide" was actually an extension of an incredible December fold which followed a mediocre November. Their solid, if inconsistent, start to the season was demolished with the Milan Lucic/Ryan Miller incident.

And, as for catching Ottawa, had the line of Tyler Ennis, Marcus Foligno and Drew Stafford not caught fire, they'd have finished much worse. Which means they would have drafted Mikhail Grigorenko much higher and wouldn't have got the steal they did at the #12 pick.


Grigorenko leads a group of prospects who've had a stellar year thus far.

The big center is coming off of a Bronze medal performance with Russia at the World Jr. where he scored two goals and had four assists. Not big numbers, but the points that he scored could be considered clutch (for more on the WJr's, visit Kris Baker at sabresprospects.com.)

Before the tournament, Grigorenko was having a great year with the Quebec Remparts of the QMJHL. He's presently 5th in the league in goals (1st on the team) with 29 in 30 games.

Remparts coach Patrick Roy confirmed that he'll be invited to training camp saying, 'I spoke to Darcy Regier [Sunday] morning, and he was very clear,' Roy said Sunday evening during his regular appearance on the RDS panel show L'Antichambre. 'He wants to bring him to Buffalo for the entirety of training camp. Afterward, they will see if [Grigorenko] can make the team or not. But I'm still hoping he will back with the Remparts to finish the season. For us, his loss would obviously be devastating, because we count on him a lot.'

Another Blue and Gold prospect who aquitted himself very well at the World Jr's was 2012 second-round pick, Jake McCabe.

The two-way defensman was part of the Gold-medal winning USA squad and was named to the tournaments All-star team. He'll be returning to the University of Wisconsin for his sophomore season.

In addition, the Sabres other 2012 first-round pick (#14 overall,) Zemgus Girgensons has been plying his trade with the Rochester Americans as the youngest player in the AHL. The shutdown center is learning the professional game playing mostly third-line minutes.

With the NHL gearing up, Girgensons should be moving up the ladder as a number of Amerks forwards are slated for the big club.


Two of those Amerks players are expected to be a big part of the Sabres this season--C, Cody Hodgson and the aforementioned Foligno.

Hodgson is at a point/game pace and is coming back from hand issues while Foligno is second on the Amerks in scoring (27) and leads the team in plus/minus with a +7.

Probably the most interesting prospect coming up from the Amerks will be D, TJ Brennan.

A 2007 second round pick (#31 overall,) Brennan presently leads the team in scoring with 31 points in 33 games. He has been prolific on the powerplay with six of his 12 goals coming with the man advantage.

What the Sabres do with Brennan will be interesting as he'll need to clear waivers if he isn't on the big club. Normally that wouldn't be a problem, but this season the Sabres have eight NHL-ready defensemen presently on the roster.

The NHL is presently putting together the 2013 schedule and the Sabres players are beginning to gather for the opening of training camp later this week.

Game on.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Blue and Gold fingerprints all over the World Junior Semifinals

Sabres d-prospect Jake McCabe
celebrates one of his two
goals in the US win over Canada.
Two of Buffalo's top three draft picks this past June made an impact in Russia during the World Junior semi-finals. Albeit with differing end results.

Defensman Jake McCabe (2nd-round, #44 overall) potted the first two goals for the US in their clash with Canada, and the Americans never looked back in a dominant 5-1 victory.

McCabe, captain of the US squad, was named the teams' player of the game notching a 2g, 1a, stat-line.

Sabres center prospect Mikhail
Grigorenko has been clutch for Russia
the last two games, but the team
came up just short today.
In the "feature presentation," Center Mikhail Grigorenko (#12 overall) drove hard to the net to chip in a game-tying rebound midway through the third period as the Russians came back from an early two-goal deficit to send the game to OT and eventually a shootout.

Grigorenko would get stymied in the shootout as did fellow teammates Nail Yakupov and Nikita Kucherov, as the Swedes advanced to the Finals to meet up with the US.

In addition to the quality contributions of McCabe and Grigorenko, the US squad is coached by former Sabres defensman Phil Housley who, not surprisingly, has his defensemen constantly jumping into the play. McCabe's two goals came just like that as he moved into the slot to pot his goals. (for video, visit our good friend, Kris Baker at sabersprospects by clicking here.)

Link extra:  The Hockey News' Ryan Kennedy says Grigorenko is really the man for Russia, not Yakupov http://www.thehockeynews.com/articles/49142-THN-at-the-WJC-Grigorenko-must-lead-Russians-USACanada-ramp-up-for-rematch.html