Monday, September 30, 2013

Buffalo Sabres 2013-14 season preview Part-1. Goaltending and...

The charge of the youngins.

The Buffalo News' Bucky Gleason has every right to whine about the Buffalo Sabres and their long-time GM, Darcy Regier.

He has every right to veil his unprofessional hatred for Regier in snarky little snippets.

And he has every right to dredge up the past for an "I told you so moment" as well.

Mike Zigomanis and the fax machine. Michael Peca and Gleason's rumor that had him and a goalie headed to Atlanta for the #1 overall pick which would have been Ilya Kovalchuck. Chris Drury/Daniel Briere and Thomas Vanek.

All dredgeable stories that are at least six years old.

Blah, Blah, Blah.

Gleason, because Regier is still in charge, isn't very optimistic and with the aforementioned mistakes from a GM who's "inexplicably in charge" as a backdrop, he sees a future that will be the same as the past and it isn't pretty for him. "I suppose [the Sabres] kiddie corps could come together and turn things around this season," he writes, "but there's a greater chance for failure. Fans are left with little hope."

The "kiddie corps" he's referring to is a Sabres roster that will have two rookies on the back-end in Mark Pysyk and Rasmus Ristolainen while four rookies--Mikhail Grigorenko (#12 overall, 2012,) Zemgus Girgensons (#14, 2012,) Johan Larsson (#56, 2010) and 2012 free agent Brian Flynn will be up front.

The rooks will be joining three 23 yr. olds from the 2008 draft class--top-line center Cody Hodgson, top-six forward Tyler Ennis and top-pairing defenseman Tyler Myers.

Marcus Foligno (#104 overall, 2009) will start the year on IR, but will be back in the line-up soon thereafter.

That's nine players 23 and under. As the roster stands right now, even with Ryan Miller (33 yrs. old) and Vanek (30,) they will have one of the youngest teams in the league.

The rebuild is on and there's a new core rising.

"You wonder how we’ll look back on the Sabres 10 years from now," writes Gleason as he ends his article.

We'll let him set himself up for that. Maybe it will be of use when Gleason pens one of his self-righteous, "GM for a Day" fantasy pieces which he and his fellow knitting-society members relish so much.

For me, the future is now and although it could be painful early on, this team seems to be headed in the right direction.

That being said, here's Part-1 of the 2013-14 season preview.

As always we start in goal.


Miller's in goal. But, for how long?

Since emerging from the 2004-05 lockout, back-up goalies have come and gone while watching from the bench as Ryan Miller has been the unquestioned starter.

This year he is in the final year of his contract. Trade rumors were rampant at the deadline but have since subsided, and it would look as if Miller will be here until either a #1 goalie is felled by injury or the trade deadline comes and a team with a need for an upgrade in net for the stretch-run or playoff run comes calling.

There's never been a doubt as to Miller being a #1 goalie. The argument is whether or not he is elite.

And after nine seasons, it's still up in the air.

Miller has been outstanding in net for the team. Post 2004-lockout, he had the burden of covering for the "Ferrari" Sabres who flew up and down the ice saying, "catch me if you can."

Time and again Miller was exposed to a barrage of odd-man rushes and breakaways. Time and again his defensemen couldn't figure out how to defend and left the opposition with easy "layups" for goals.

It's a trend that continued--save for Miller's 2009-10 Vezina season--up until last season when Ron Rolston took over as head coach. Rolston has been stressing fundamentals and it would seem as if defending a two-on-one properly is beginning to take hold.

Despite his mental lapses (which have diminished over the years) and despite his stats (which don't tell the whole story) Miller can be counted on to both intimidate and stifle the opposition.

As long as Miller is in net, the team will always have a chance to win. Which is a fact that has kept the Sabres from securing a top-five pick.

Once again, Jhonas Enroth will be backing Miller up.

At one point, Enroth had a 12-game losing streak and it looked as if the clock struck midnight.

He came back and looks as if he not only could be a reliable back-up, but also could handle starting duties as well.

Although Enroth is on the smaller side he's very agile and moves in the crease very well. Perhaps most important, though, is his mental approach. He's got a very good head on his shoulders and isn't intimidated by too much. Mano-y-Mano in the shootout, Enroth is money.

Regardless of where Miller ends up, the defense will be the key to the success of the Sabres netminders. If the defense can tighten things up, and embrace "defense-101," Buffalo should have much better numbers than their league-worst 33.5 shots-against and their 22nd ranked, 2.90 goals-against average last season.

No matter who's in net.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Sabres roster predictions

By tomorrow at 5 pm, the Sabres will need to trim their roster to a maximum of 23 players. Injuries to forwards Corey Tropp and rookie Joel Armia as well as rookie defenseman Nikita Zadorov has made the process a bit easier. Tropp and Armia will be out 5-6 weeks and Zadorov, who had a strong training camp, will be out a couple.

Zadorov had a real strong camp and were he on a team lacking NHL d-men, he'd probably join the club after his injury healed. On this edition of the Sabres he was caught up in a numbers game. Pretty sure they're reserving a spot for him for the 2014-15 season.

Putting together the d-pairings and line combos will be a bit tricky for bench boss Ron Rolston and his staff. Two rookie forwards--Johan Larsson and Zemgus Girgensons--have made strong pitches to stick with the team up-front. And according to WGR's Paul Hamilton, rookie defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen (#8 overall, 2013) has made the team.

It was said all along that Ristolainen was NHL-ready after playing two years against pros in the Finnish Elite League.

Veteran AHL'er Luke Adam was waived yesterday. He'll be in Rochester should no team claim him.

Without Tropp, Armia, Zadorov and Adam, the roster stands at 24. One more player needs to be trimmed, and it looks as if it will come from the forward ranks.

So, without further ado, this is where I think they'll be headed. We'll start from the goal out.

No surprise here, Ryan Miller will be the starter and Jhonas Enroth will be his back-up.

On defense, the top pairing should be Tyler Myers and Christian Ehrhoff. Forget the Myers/Hank Tallinder pairing, Myers came into camp with something to prove and proceeded to dominate the way he did in his Calder-winning rookie season, regardless of his d-partner.

The second pairing is where Tallinder comes into play as he should be paired with rookie Mark Pysyk. This is a smooth, puck-moving pairing what plays a smart defensive game. Pysyk is as steady as they come and has Calder potential.

Ristolainen will start the season on the third-pairing with Mike Weber. Weber has really stepped up his game and finally begins the season in the top-six. Weber's toughness and Ristolainen's smooth two-way game make for a very solid third-pairing for Buffalo.

On the bench will be journeyman Alexander Sulzer and recently acquired offensive defenseman Jamie McBain.

Offense is where it gets tricky for Rolston.

The top line will have Thomas Vanek on the wing and Cody Hodgson in the middle. What wing Vanek plays will be determined by their linemate who I think should be Tyler Ennis. Ennis can play both wing and center and can be placed anywhere in the top-six.

Putting Ennis there means that rookie Mikhail Grigorenko will have a strong comfort-zone with veterans Steve Ott and Ville Leino on the wings. That trio has worked well together in the past and it gives Grigorenko the best chance to succeed right now.

The bottom six is where the decisions will be made.

On the third line I think Larsson makes the cut. The steady, NHL-ready two-way center will likely be flanked by Marcus Foligno on the left and Drew Stafford on the right forming a big, gritty two-way line.

The fourth line will have veteran Patrick Kaleta on the right side (until, inevitably, injury strikes) but the rest is up in the air. As much as I like Cody McCormick, methinks he starts out in Rochester (if he doesn't get claimed) and Kevin Porter lands his spot. On the other side Brian Flynn continues in his bottom-six role.

Enforcer John Scott is the reserve.

Girgensons played real well in the preseason, but still looks as if he needs a touch more seasoning in the AHL. Might not be a bad idea to put a letter on him either.

The roster predictions:
Ennis/Hodgson/Vanek
Ott/Grigorenko/Leino
Foligno/Larsson/Stafford
Flynn/Porter/Kaleta
Scott

Ehrhoff/Myers
Tallinder/Pysyk
Weber/Ristolainen
Sulzer, McBain

Miller
Enroth

That's my story and I'm sticking to it.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Sabres/Leafs line brawl epilogue

The moral of the story is this:  There is no moral of the story.

Everyone did what they needed to do, or did what they felt like they needed to do.

--Corey Tropp showed disregard for personal safety and went at it with Leafs "apprentice tough guy," Jamie Devane.

--Devane, who had bypassed potential encounters with Sabres tough guy John Scott, proceeded to break Tropp's jaw.

--Scott was fit to be tied and was going after whomever was next to him. It happened to be Phil Kessel.

--Kessel defended himself with a two-hander like any of us would have done. He also showed extreme malice two-handing Scott again and then showed what a little bitch he is when he jabbed/speared Scott. In both instances Scott was entangled with three and two bodies, respectively.

--Sabres coach Ron Rolston didn't change his line after the Tropp/Devane incident leaving Scott on the ice. Leafs coach Randy Carlyle tried to "diffuse" the situation by sending out a scoring line with Scott on the ice.

--Recently-inked, and very rich man, David Clarkson jumped the boards (receiving an automatic ten-game suspension and will forfeit over $270k in salary for the move) and joined the fray. He proceeded to grab Sabres d-man Drew Bagnall and hold him while teammate Carter Ashton sucker-punched Bagnall.

--Brian Flynn went after Kessel, with total disregard for personal safety, and proceeded to get his nose bloodied.

--Ryan Miller, who's name should never again be in the same sentence as "fight," took a few shots from Leafs goalie Jonathan Bernier, who's now a cult hero in Toronto for landing a punch on the 160 lb. Miller.

--The major sports networks had the opportunity to belittle the red-headed step-child of North American sports, which they never pass up, and mocked the NHL.

--NHL player safety czar Brendan Shanahan had the opportunity hand out suspensions and in true Department of Player Safety form, screwed it up.

--The NHL couldn't buy the kind of attention that this incident thrust upon the league.

Time to move on.

But before we do that...


***
In a move that's almost as lame as Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel getting a 1/2 game suspension for his autographs, NHL disciplinarian Shanahan handed out a three-game suspension to Leafs swashbuckler Kessel.

Three games for wielding a hockey stick like an ax with intent to injure is appropriate, save for the fact that it's three preseason games. Nearly all NHL vets, like Kessel, hate playing preseason so in effect, Kessel was rewarded.

Getting suspended for a preseason game is akin to a priest saying, "Take Sunday off from church, my son, to reflect fully on your sins."

Perhaps even more incredulous than the "suspension" itself was Shanahan's explanation.

Having reviewed the incident, Shanahan says that the first swing was self defense (fair enough,) but the second, while John Scott is engaged with two other Leafs, was landed even after Kessel was out of danger. Which is malicious intent to injure with a weapon, by the way.

Shanahan mentions that fact and proceeds.

Next he shows a video of a Leafs game vs. the Flyers just six days prior and points out that Kessel "engages in two similar stick-swinging incidents in a game vs. Philadelphia."

Then he says, "in summary, Kessel has no history of supplemental discipline, blah, blah, blah. Kessel is suspended for the remainder of the preseason."

Three times within the last six days Kessel used his stick as a weapon, supposedly to defend himself. It was only after the third incident that he faced disciplinarian action.

What happened with the other two?

Maybe the better question is, what is Kessel doing and/or saying that's pissing off the tough customers of the league? Is he barking like an annoying schnauzer? Is he being a little bitch? Should he really be playing for Vancouver?

Oh. And for good measure. Sabres coach Ron Rolston was fined $10,000 by the league for "player selection and player conduct" even though Scott was already on the ice, the Leafs had the last line change and Scott admittedly went after Kessel of his own accord.

*shakes head*

That ruling against Rolston has pissed off a number of coaches. QMI's Chris Stevenson penned a piece that delved into the "player selection" part of the ruling.

Said one coach, "So what am I supposed to do now? Do I call the ref over and call timeout so I can call (league vice-president of hockey operations) Colie Campbell and ask him who I can put on the ice?”

It's a good piece.

***

Rolston, though, took it all in stride.

As incredulous as the rulings were, he said "It's part of what they do. They have to make a decision on what's best for the league. Those are things we can't control so we do what is handed down and go from there."

He simply wants to move on, but does defend Scott and the role he played that game, "It's because it was John. It's just more reputation," he said. "But he had played the whole game, played well and was playing a good game for us. He had an assist [a primary assist] on the first goal. He's worked hard on his game to play hockey too. But I think obviously reputation is a big part of that."

Sabres GM Darcy Regier was on WGR yesterday (which starts at the 19:45 mark) and touched upon the incident later in the segment.

Regier was evasive, as usual, but really wanted to relay something Scott had said to him concerning what the enforcer had said to Kessel. Confidentiality dictated he couldn't so he simply offered, "John just wanted to," he chuckles, then continues, "I'm smiling because I can't tell you what he said to Phil [Kessel] but there's a lighthearted side to it. It's pretty funny, actually."

It's part of a great interview with Schoppsie and the Bulldog where Regier touches on a number of subjects including the line brawl, the rulings handed down, the state of defenseman Tyler Myers and the play of rookie d-man Rasmus Ristolainen.


***


Former Sabre enforcer Rob Ray who is a part of Sabres' broadcasts was on the show in the previous hour.

In addition to his disbelief over the penalties handed out by Shanahan, he added some insight into the incident that television viewers didn't get the opportunity to witness.

After Tropp was knocked out there was a TV timeout. During that two-minute span, said Ray, "the whole two-minute break the linesman was in the little box between the benches separating players. Coaches were yelling back and forth. It was a whole melee'. It cleared up about 10 seconds before they came back on the air."

"If Carlyle thought that putting Kessel out there would diffuse the situation," mused Ray, "then Randy Carlyle's not that smart."

It was a bizarre scene on the ice on Sunday, a situation that brought out the true colors of everyone involved..

Although the Sabres didn't win the fights or the game, they handled themselves well. They're growing up. No whining, no cursing, no bravado.

Just taking everything in stride.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Strong reactions from "The Center of the Hockey Universe"

Uh. That would be Toronto.

My oh my.

The Buffalo Sabres apparently broke some sort of code when their enforcer, John Scott, went after the Maple Leafs "star" Phil Kessel Sunday night.

And the Toronto media, as well as Leaf-nation, has been beside themselves ever since.

Buffalo, the bastard child of the red-headed step-child of North American cities, and their ghetto hockey team had the nerve to come to the hallowed grounds of hockey--Toronto--with total disregard for proper etiquette, according to Torontonians.

Some sort of "code" was broken when enforcer John Scott tried to muzzle the Leafs annoying little Schnauzer that is Phil Kessel.

It's not like Scott was going to "kill" Kessel or anything although Kessel's still cleaning out his drawers at the very thought.

Scott just wanted to pull a Hulk, slap Kessel around like the yapping little on-ice bitch he is, then skate away, "Puny little god."

Meh.

The Sabres took it all in stride.

It was simple. Although they wouldn't come out and say it, they did not like the way the fight ended between Leafs "tough guy" Jamie Devane and the Sabres Corey Tropp.

Devane looked as if he slammed Tropp's head to the ice with his forearm as both went down.

Sabres goalie Ryan Miller who dropped the glove and flipper for the first time in his pro career said, "from our side we felt that the fight prior with Tropper didn't end in a very classy way. We just felt it was poor taste definitely at the end."

Whoa! What does anyone in Buffalo know about taste?

Damien Cox of the Toronto Star blasted the whole shebang, hockey's "twisted view of manhood," ie:  fighting, called the goalie fight "the most comical sight of all" and proceeded to pshaw Leafs TV for promoting the melee' as if "the Leafs had really accomplished something special on this night."

But what's comical is how high-brow and ill-conceived Cox's article is.

His whole premise is that Sabres bench boss Ron Rolston, whom he slights as a "U.S. college guy no less," was the root of the problem.

After seeing Tropp go down, Rolston, "sent out Scott, because he is six-foot-eight and a fighter of moderate ability," wrote Cox. "It was the classic tap on the shoulder, the 'and don’t dance' wordless missive from the coach.

Rolston wanted revenge, and if [he] hadn’t sent out Scott, nothing would likely have happened. Or perhaps Scott, in the way it’s supposed to work, would have challenged Devane after he left the penalty box, " he concluded.

The only problem with Cox's misguided theory is that Scott was already on the ice. After Tropp scored at 9:57, Scott and Mike Zigomanis hit the ice for the faceoff. The Devane/Tropp fight went down four seconds after that puck drop. The line brawl commenced at 10:01, before the next faceoff.

Oh, and sorry, Damien there's also the point about Scott not challenging Devane, whom Cox calls the Leafs "apprentice tough-guy," before the 10-minute mark of the third period. 

Devane was on the ice with Scott eight times before the Devane/Tropp fight. In fact Scott was on the ice opposite Devane and Tropp at the time.

The "apprentice tough guy" was out to prove himself against the smaller Tropp? After cowering away from numerous opportunities with Scott?

It's Toronto, the "almighty Leafs" are always in the right. Just ask them.

Which brings us to another gem from The Leafs page at the star.com, Buffalo’s not important enough to hate.

Author Cathal Kelly, he of the unisex name, metrosexual flair and flaming hubris, writes, "on the long list of teams Toronto hates, Buffalo's buried beneath 50 feet of compacted garbage."
Cathal Kelly of
TheLeafsPage

Kelly is cute in this piece. He defends David Clarkson for jumping over the boards (not mentioning Clarkson holding Sabres d-man Drew Bagnall while teammate Carter Ashton sucker-punches him) and Kessel for using his stick "like a boning knife" (in the back of Scott who's engaged with Clarkson and a linesman at the time.)

He knocks Scott:  "He spends his Saturday mornings turning to people in the lineup at the grocery store and saying “Wanna go?” He can’t help himself.'

Kelly then proceeds to take shots at the Bills and the Bisons as well.

Buffalo's not worthy of any sort of recognition taunts Kelly, "[the city] is like the kid who won’t stop pinching you in the recess line, Buffalo keeps trying to start something."

Kelly is lucky he was top poodle at an all girls school. His lunch money would've made some South Buffalonians pretty rich.

It's a fun read and Kelly has a way with words, but it's not really a piece about hockey and rivalries. Nor is it about the line brawl because of one glorious, universal truth, "Toronto’s only natural rival is itself," he says.

Having dismissed all sports rivalries including Montreal and Ottawa, Kelly, with the smack of perfectly placed lip gloss, says Toronto has only one recourse while standing alone atop Mount Maple Leaf, "we go back to trying to catch the attention of the only people whose opinion we really care about – ourselves."

Uh, sweetie, when you're done admiring yourself, head to the Outlet Mall and find Kessel matching lip gloss for his purse.

OK?

Monday, September 23, 2013

Buffalo/Toronto line brawl brings old-time hockey back. And it's only preseason.

The photo at your left is not photoshopped.

It is an actual photo of the Sabres Ryan Miller and the Leaves Jonathan Bernier getting ready to square off in a preseason game in Toronto.

Miller had never been in an NHL fight (nor has Bernier.)

Although Miller lost the fight, he took all in stride and even took pride in going at it for the first time especially in Toronto, "I thought [Bernier] was just doing a little flair-for-the-crowd thing. Just kind of say, ‘Hey, Do you want to go?’ I wanted to just get my reps in. I’m not a fighter. I think Bernier even has me in weight,” Miller said.

“But you can’t pass up a fight in Toronto in Maple Leaf Gardens. Back off from that one and, you know, what kind of hockey player are you? So I figure might as well give it a shot. I thought I did OK. He got loose a little bit on me there but towards the end, kind of got back into it.

You gotta do what you gotta do. I thought it was actually kind of fun. Might as well have a fight on your resume in Maple Leaf Gardens.”

The bout was an addendum to the melee that ensued prior.

At 10:01 of the third period, the Sabres and Maple Leaves had themselves a good, old fashioned donnybrook with over 200 minutes in penalties, 11 misconducts, a 10-minute match penalty for the Leaves Phil Kessel, a 10-minute leaving the bench penalty for the Toronto's David Clarkson and three game misconducts.

Jonas Siegel of tsn.ca sets the scene:
"The story begins with a goal.
A third round selection of the Sabres in 2007, Corey Tropp had redirected an effort from the point by Jamie McBain, one that beat Jonathan Bernier and cut the Toronto lead to one midway through the third period. Lining up at centre ice seconds after his first marker of the preseason, Tropp takes a tug at the sweater of Jamie Devane, a player looming high above weight class. The pair exchange a series of awkward fisticuffs, capped by Tropp losing his bucket, his head landing square on the ice with an alarming thud.
Blood is chipped off the ice during the television timeout and order is seemingly restored. Lingering near the Toronto bench though at left wing for Buffalo is [John] Scott, he of 63 career fights, the 30-year-old with plans on redeeming his fallen teammate."

Toronto coach Randy Carlyle, who has the last change as the home team, sends out a scoring line featuring Kessel, Carter Ashton and Tyler Bozak.

The Sabres John Scott is at the bottom
of this pile with only the top of his head and
hands visible.

Kessel was next to Scott on the faceoff and according to Kessel, “[Scott] said he was going to jump me.”

Sure enough, Scott went after Kessel and Kessel did his best lumberjack impersonation swinging his stick wildly at Scott.

From there the fun began.

Ashton and former Sabre TJ Brennan as well as a linesman jump Scott. Burying him beneath a pile of bodies.

The Sabres Drew Bagnall jumps in to help. He gets double-teamed as Clarkson joins the fray from the bench and Ashton belts him with a sucker-punch.

Sabres d-man Chad Ruhwedel ends up ragdolling Bozak. Kessel ends up bloodying Flynn. Scott ends up dancing with Clarkson, a linesman clinging to his arm, and challenges the Leaves bench as they waltz on by.



Maybe what pissed off the Sabres is how it looked as if Devane purposely rammed Tropp's head into the ice with his forearm while the two were going down.

Or how just prior to Tropp's goal in the game, Marcus Foligno was boarded by Brennan, a play that should have been a penalty.

Said Flynn, "“It was obviously the shift before that. There’s a lot going on out there,” Flynn said. “That’s why we have John [Scott]. John handles those situations and their whole team jumped in, so we jumped in." Scott, by the way, had the primary assist on Nikita Zadorov's late first period goal.

The Leaves were an ornery bunch the night before as well. Ashton and the Sabres Steve Ott went at it while Dion Phaneuf harassed the Sabres' Patrick Kaleta trying to get him to drop the gloves late in the game.

Troy Bodie immediately followed Phaneuf's lead, goading Kaleta into dropping the gloves. The 6'5" Bodie got the worst of the fight with the 6'1" Kaleta.



And this was just preseason.

Can't wait for November 15th when the Leaves visit Buffalo. Or for a possible Round-3 when the Sabres head to Toronto the following night.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

As the preseason gets a bit tougher, spots on the Sabres roster are tougher to come by

Winning the first three games of the preseason basically says that one team's mix of youngins is a little beter than another on a given night. Vets sprinkled in with recent draft picks and second-year AHL'ers in the right combination vs. the right combination of the same doesn't really amount to much in the grand scheme of things.

Which is not to take away anything from the players who are busting their ass to make a good impression on the Sabres brass. Winning, as well as getting on the score sheet, is good for confidence, but as the preseason moves forward the chaff gets separated from the wheat and the competition becomes a little more NHL-like. A little tougher.

The Sabres have lightened the ship. They sent five back to their junior clubs--draft picks Nicholas Baptise, Justin Bailey, Justin Kea, Logan Nelson and free-agent signee Connor Boland--on Monday.

On Friday before this weekend's home-and-home with Toronto, the Sabres really took a chunk out of the training camp roster by cutting 14 players. They assigned 12 players to Rochester:  forwards Colin Jacobs, Eric Locke, free agent signee Jonathan McGuire, Jonathan Parker, Kevin Sundher, Shawn Szydlowski, and Frederick Roy; defenseman Alex Lepkowski, and Matt McKenzie plus goaltenders Connor Knapp, Nathan Lieuwen and Andrey Makarov.

They also announced that defenseman Nick Crawford was sent to Rochester pending waivers while defenseman Brady Austin and free agent forward Peter Trainor were assigned to their junior clubs.

The team just announced that they're down to 35 players after six more were moved off of the roster. Forwards Daniel Catenacci and Phil Varone along with defensemen Jerome Gauthier-LeDuc "of Earl" and Tim Schaller were sent to Rochester.

Jamie Tardiff was also sent to the Amerks, pending waivers.

Former Minnesota 1st-round pick Colton Gillies was released from his pro tryout contract.

The Sabres will need to get down to 23 players by September 30.


***

This is where things get pretty interesting for the Sabres, whittling away 12 players from their roster to get down to the league max.

The Sabres will have one less goalie before they hit the ice for their opener at Detroit on October 2.

Although there's always the possibility that Jhonas Enroth will be moved, odds are that either Matt Hackett will be sent to Rochester or Ryan Miller, who's in the last year of his contract, will be traded.

The battle for the remaining 11 roster spots is mostly on defense and rounding out the bottom-six forwards.

Save for one possibility.

Joel Armia was selected with the 16th overall pick in the 2011 draft by the Buffalo Sabres. Since then he's been plying his trade in his native Finland playing in the top league against men.

“You play against grown men that are stronger,” Armia said. “They know how to play hockey. So that’s been a big difference in my development.”

At 20 years old he still has a long way to go in his development despite having played against men. And as he begins his first season in North America, he'll also be acclimating himself to a smaller ice surface.

But one thing that can't be denied is the skill package Armia brings.

Kris Baker of sabres.com and sabresprospects.com has Armia ranked third in his 2013-14 prospects rankings saying, "Armia's size and speed have the look of the Sabres' next scoring line threat off the wing [and] will immediately compete for NHL minutes when he brings his scoring hands to North America in 2013-14."

Baker also mentions Armia's quick release, sense for open space and tip skills as attributes that might allow him to make the jump right to the NHL this season.

Armia has played in two preseason games, has one goal and one assist, both points while playing on the top line with Thomas Vanek and Cody Hodgson.

Vanek had some good things to say about the kid after the game, “You can see that he puts himself in good spots,” he said. “Those are things you can’t teach. You either have it or you don’t, and he seems to have it.”

Armia definitely has the "it" factor. But a willingness to fully engage on a consistent basis in all three zones is what he'll need to show.

If he can do that in the remaining preseason games, there may a chance for him to earn a spot out of camp.


***

That Armia as a talented right-winger should make Vanek happy.

For some reason Vanek seems to have an aversion to playing on the right side despite his right-handed shot. Having Armia on the right while he stays in his comfort zone on the left side certainly would make him happy.

To open preseason, Vanek was on the right with Hodgson in the middle and Marcus Foligno on the left. The trio formed a pretty good line. Foligno scored two goals with that line at Columbus.

Last night Vanek and Hodgson had the night off while Foligno was on the left side of Tyler Ennis, who was playing his first preseason game at center. Drew Stafford was on the right.

The trio almost single-handedly lead the Sabres to a playoff birth in 2011-12, but fell on hard times last season and were split up.

They regained their magic last night as the Sabres top-line. Although being somewhat limited on the score sheet with Foligno scoring a goal and Ennis garnering an assist, they looked real good as a line carrying the play much of the night.

The fate of Armia, as well as which side Vanek plays on, may very well rest on the play of this trio. If they continue to work well, a top-nine could feature Vanek/Hodgson/Armia and Foligno/Ennis/Stafford.


***

The other line should pretty much be etched in stone:  Mikhail Grigorenko centering Steve Ott and Ville Leino.

At 19 years old, Grigorenko will be entering his second NHL season. Because of NHL rules he is ineligible for the AHL. He can either play for the Sabres or be sent back to junior.

Sabres GM Darcy Regier has already said that Grigorenko will be with the big club.

And his best chance for success will be on a line with Ott on his wing.

Grigorenko is big--6'3" 200 lbs.--and his highly skilled. He tops Baker's list of Sabres top prospects. But he is also having a rough time acclimating himself to the NHL game.

His skating is average at best and he looks disinterested at times.

In his first preseason game, he finally kicked it into gear and looked like he could hang with the big boys. That was with Ott and Leino.

He looked good last night playing on that line again.

Sandwiched in between was a stint with Ennis on the left and Brian Flynn on the right. Grigorenko really didn't fare that well.

With Regier's insistence on Grigorenko being with Buffalo, his best chance for success would be with Ott on the left and Leino on the right.


***

There is quality competition at the forward position. But there's even more quality competition on defense.

Locks for the top six are Tyler Myers, Christian Ehrhoff, and Mike Weber.

Rookie Mark Pysyk is coming off of a good 19-game stint with Buffalo last season, and has looked even better this preseason. He looks to be a lock for the top-six as well.

Hank Tallinder was traded for in the off season and should be the veteran mentor of the defense corps. He and Pysyk had some excellent chemistry when paired together in the first game.

Probably the only question in the top-six is Weber's partner.

The Sabres traded for Jamie McBain at the draft and he has shown enough to be a reserve/bottom-pairing d-man. He also has no waiver options.

Chad Ruhwedel came straight from college into a 10-game stint with Buffalo last season. He played well, but can be sent to Rochester without clearing waivers. "Rudy" could also use some seasoning in the AHL.

The Sabres will probably carry eight defensemen like they did last season which essentially leaves three players vying for two spots.

The veteran of the group is Alexander Sulzer. He came over in the Hodgson trade with Vancouver and is a solid bottom-pairing d-man. The Sabres re-signed him to a one year contract this summer.

His veteran presence isn't really needed with the big club, but he could get claimed should he be exposed to waivers.

Rasmus Ristolainen was the teams first round pick (#8 overall) in the 2013 draft. After two years playing in the Swedish Elite League, he was said to be NHL ready. And he sure looks the part.

He looked real strong in the first two preseason games before taking a step back vs. Carolina. Last night vs. Toronto he got that step back.

Despite his "NHL-readiness" a short stint in Rochester may be the best way to go for him as he learns game-to-game management, an area which affected him in that third preseason game.

Brayden McNabb has been playing in Rochester the last two season after four seasons with Kootenay of the WHL.

He has the size, 6'5" 215 lbs and offensive instincts to make the team out of camp. And he's also having a pretty good preseason.

Jon Vogl rightly points out that McNabb is making a strong case to be on the Sabres opening day roster.

"Not long ago," writes Vogl, "McNabb was the Sabres’ hot prospect on defense. Buffalo figured his physical skills would plug a hole on the blue line for years to come. A few drafts, trades and injuries later, McNabb is almost an afterthought."

McNabb is in the middle. He's not a rookie any more, and with only 25 NHL games under his belt he's not a veteran either.

But a one goal, two assist night vs. Carolina certainly garnered some attention for the former 3rd round pick. "McNabb shined in his second game of the exhibition season. He ripped a slap shot home and directed two pucks toward the net that were tipped into the cage." continued Vogl.

If McNabb continues to get noticed for the right reasons, he may earn himself the opportunity to not only make the team, but get some bottom-six minutes as well.

2013 first round draft pick Nikita Zadorov should get one more game to whet his appetite for the NHL. He'll be headed back to junior next week.

The Sabres visit Toronto tonight and a good chunk of players will be playing their last preseason game for the club.

Just a part of the process.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Johan Larsson breaks out vs. Carolina, making a strong case to stick with Sabres

It doesn't matter who his linemates are, Buffalo Sabres forward Johan Larsson just keeps doing his thing.

The gritty two-way center plied his trade as a solid defender and faceoff man for the first two Sabres preseason games. But he made some plays and did some subtle things that went noticed while keeping rookie mistakes to a minimum.

In the first preseason game of the year at Montreal, Larsson had Zemgus Girgensons on the left wing and Drew Stafford on his right.

Larsson and Girgensons played together for Rochester late last season and into the playoffs. The chemistry between the two is impeccable as witnessed by Girgensons three goals in three Amerks playoff games. Larsson had an assist on all three.

That chemistry was not lost on Sabres head coach Ron Rolston.

Although Larsson failed to hit the scoresheet, he logged over 18 mins of ice time which included 3:57 on the powerplay and 2:53 on the penalty kill.

Girgensons first of two goals was shorthanded as Larsson spooked a Canadian into whiffing on the puck at the Sabres blueline.

Game 2 saw the Sabres head south to the Buckeye state for a game vs. the Columbus Blue Jackets.

This time Larsson was centering Tyler Ennis and rookie Joel Armia.

Once again, it was a largely unhearlded performance in a 3-1 Sabres victory.

Brian Duff of sabres.com laid out the scenario, " Larsson went from centering Girgensons and Drew Stafford in Montreal, to being a middle man for Tyler Ennis and Joel Armia, the latter of whom was playing in his first NHL preseason game.

The line produced 13 of the Sabres’ 49 shots that were either on goal, blocked or went wide. Larsson - as per usual - welcomed confrontations in the opposition’s crease and it was there where he had a goal called back for allegedly gloving it in."

Those "confrontations in the opposition's crease" finally got him on the scoresheet last night vs. Carolina.

In a 5-2 victory for the Sabres, Larsson--who had Ville Leino and Corey Tropp on the wings--had two goals in 15:44 of ice time.

Both of his goals were tip-ins from the crease on Brayden McNabb shots.

Of note, the second goal was originally credited to McNabb who blasted a wicked shot from the point that rebounded out of the net about 15 feet. After review, Larsson was credited for tipping the puck.

Larsson captained Sweden's
2012 World Jr. team
to the gold medal.
And in typical fashion, Larsson's play was somewhat unheralded. Despite his three point effort, he was named the game's third star behind McNabb and Armia.

Maybe the fans don't notice what he brings to the ice. Maybe WGR's Matthew Coller doesn't think Larsson has enough to make the team out of camp. But Duff, through the tweet of an "old media friend" sees Larsson a bit differently.

Tweeted his friend of Larsson, "He’s got solid 10-year pro written all over him."

Duff follows by emphatically writing, "Thank goodness I’m not the only one talking about this guy in glowing terms!" (agreed)

He also points out that Larsson has been making adjustments from game to game and is progressing very well.

In fact, only three youngins have played in all three preseason games thus far--Larsson, Mikhail Grigorenko and Rasmus Ristolainen.

Grigorenko has had uneven performances. He, like Larsson, has had different linemates all three games, but unlike Larsson, is still searching.

After two strong games, Ristolainen took a step back in last night's performance. That could probably be attributed to lack of proper game-to-game management at the North American pro level.

Ristolainen's talent and poise are unquestioned, but there are tricks of the trade that separate an NHL pro from a rookie, among them, managing game-to-game performance on a consistent level.

Larsson's career has been progressing since 2010-11, his first year in the Swedish Elite League. He spent two year there before coming over and playing 62 games last season for the Houston Aeros, Minnesota's AHL affiliate, and got a taste of the NHL playing one game for the Wild.

He finished the season with the Rochester Americans (7 games) after being a part of the Jason Pominville trade. Sabres GM Darcy Regier was said to have insisted Larsson be a part of the trade.

It's been a step-by-step process for Larsson as he makes his climb towards a permanent place in the NHL.

Step-by-step he's been getting himself noticed this preseason, and it would seem as if his spot on the team as the Sabres' third-line center is his to lose.

Said Rolston after the game last night, "[Larsson] was arguably our best forward on the ice last night.For him we're just going to seem him continue to grow here. I think he's getting more comfortable."

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Marcus Foligno channels Bobby Orr's "the goal"

In 1970, Bruins defenseman Bobby Orr scored one of the most famous goals in NHL history.

It was Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Finals and it was overtime.

Orr collected a pass from Derek Sanderson, slid one by  goalie Glenn Hall and proceed to fly through the air in jubilation courtesy of Blues d-man Noel Picard.

The goal, as well as the 4-0 sweep of the Blues, brought the Bruins the Cup for the first time in 29 years.

Here's the video:





Last night in Columbus Sabres young gun Marcus Foligno found himself flying Orr-like through the air after his second goal of the game:




Special thanks to theoryneutral and the NHL for access to those two videos.



Monday, September 16, 2013

Zemgus Girgensons is a beast, nets two goals as Buffalo takes down Montreal in a shootout

During the second intermission on WGR, Brian Duff was quick to remind fans that this is preseason. Basically a Sabres split-squad faced off against their counterparts in Montreal last night to kick off the preseason.

There was a mix of draftees, juniors, and AHL'ers all trying to impress with a few veteran NHL'ers sprinkled in for good measure. It's preseason and because of the youth and lack of NHL experience the players on the ice have much more room to maneuver which leads to more room on the ice and more of an opportunity to really let their skills shine.

This was all in response to Zemgus Girgenson's two goals in the second period.

The Latvian Locomotive took over the ice in the second period scoring a short-handed goal just :58 into the second period. Linemate Johan Larsson spooked a Canadian at the Buffalo blueline and Girgensons jumped on the puck. He took it up ice on the left wing dug in towards the net behind the d and squeaked one under Peter Budaj.

It was a performance for Sabres fans to get excited about. But will he be able to do that at the NHL level?

Duff pointed out that draft projections had Girgensons in a solid third-line NHL role with the possibility of moving into a second line role if he can produce goals like we saw last night.

His second was a beaut as he rushed in on the right side and snapped a wicked shot top-shelf. Canadians goalie Zach Fucale went butterfly and Girgensons just zipped it over his shoulder.

Perhaps this is a harbinger of things to come.

Girgensons was the youngest player in the AHL last season and spent most of it getting a feel for the game. Despite not getting on the scoresheet often, he saw the ice very well, was in constant motion and always seemed to be in position. You could sense that he soaking up everything as he learned the game on the fly.

Come playoff time? Three goals in three games with Rochester coach Chadd Cassidy calling him the best player on the ice. Period.

The answer as to whether he had the ability to score at the pro level was answered during that short playoff appearance.

There's still a long way to go and Duffer was right to caution against getting too excited. After all there's a matter of being able to produce at the NHL level and then there's a matter of consistency.

Perhaps. But it's hard not to get excited.

Throughout his hockey career Girgensons has been extremely competitive with his will driving his skill. His former USHL coach, Jim Montgomery, talked about the work ethic, competitiveness and intangibles that Girgensons brings to the ice.

“This is a challenge he’s wanted. This has been his dream probably since he was 12 years old," said Montgomery in a piece by Sabres.com's Kevin Snow entitled The Legend of Zemgus. "If Zemgus has the belief that he can accomplish something," continued Montgomery, "and there’s a challenge in front of him, then he’s going to attack it.”

Girgensons' approach isn't overt therefore his game is a bit more subtle until an on-ice opportunity presents itself.

Last night he and Johan Larsson were going about their business on the penalty kill when the puck squirted out to center ice. Girgensons jumped on it and powered his way to the net for his first goal. Said Montgomery of his Dubuque Fighting Saints alum, "as a hockey player, it was like ‘wow, we’ve got something special.’ It was his power and strength, and his ability to do that at top-end speed and still make plays."

At the very least the Sabres look have themselves a top-nine forward in the making who can be counted on in all situations.

Who knows, with Girgensons skill and will, they may have themselves a top-six two-way center in the mold of Rod Brind'Amour or Mike Richards.


***
Girgensons really seemed to kick his professional game in gear when Larsson was acquired in the Jason Pominville trade.

They were a dynamic duo for the Amerks late in the season and into the playoffs last year and they're doing it again, first at Traverse City now in preseason.

While watching those two last night, I couldn't help but think of the chemistry between Don Luce and Craig Ramsay.

Lofty? Yes indeed. But Girgensons and Larsson's chemistry is just that good.

Prior to September, there might have been questions as to which one might end up on the Sabres roster to begin the season.

Now the question might be, who will be their right-winger on the third line in Buffalo?


***

A possibility for that third-line RW role might be Brian Flynn.

Flynn had an outstanding rookie campaign after getting the call from Rochester last season. In 26 games he had six goals and five assists playing bottom-six minutes.

He is the type of player who is in constant motion and seems to have sound hockey sense. Although he's not very big (6' 170 lbs.) he plays big.

As an undrafted free agent out of Hockey East with the Maine Black Bears, Flynn knows nothing will be given to him except the opportunity.

So far he's taken advantage of the opportunity afforded him by the Sabres organization.


***

On the other side of the "opportunity coin," Buffalo dressed their last four first round picks for this game.

Mikhail Grigorenko (#12) and Girgensons (#14) represented the class of 2012 while Rasmus Ristolainen (#8) and Nikita Zadorov (#16) were a part of the 2013 draft class.

Much is expected of Grigorenko this season. He's already been handed the #2 center role and looks to have veterans Steve Ott and Ville Leino on the wings.

Grigorenko had trouble adjusting to the NHL game last year and looked to be in the same boat last night.

But then he seemed to kick it in gear.

Although he didn't hit the scoresheet, it seemed as if something clicked last night. He still has a way to go as his decision-making leads to missed opportunities and holding onto the puck too long, but one cannot dismiss his skill-level.

He scored the only goal of the shootout last night, just plain smoking Fucale on a wicked snap-backhand that punctuated the net.

Confidence is the key for him and working with Ott on the wing certainly will be a major plus for him.


***

Ristolainen and Zadorov acquitted themselves very well last night, each in their own way.

Neither played completely mistake-free but their positives far outweighed any negatives.

As a strong, smart positional d-man, Ristolainen was all that. He worked the penalty kill and was on the point with Mark Pysyk on the first powerplay unit and looked extremely comfortable in all those roles.

Zadorov was also used in every situation. He brought that physical edge whether it was leveling a Hab at the blueline or whacking away at any Canadian standing in the crease.

He was also on the ice for a crucial 4-on-3 later in the third with that unit not giving up a goal.

One thing Sabres fans will like about both on the powerplay is their shot from the point.

After years of watching defensemen Alexei Zhitnik and Andrej Sekera shoot high and wide (by yards, not feet or inches,) Ristolainen and Zadorov got most of their shots on net.

Ristolainen's shot from the point on a set play from Cody McCormick on the faceoff lead to a rebound goal by Colton Gillies.

Nothing fancy, just get the puck through and on net.


***

Probably the most solid pairing of the night belonged to Pysyk and Hank Tallinder.

Pysyk, a smooth, shutdown d-man and Tallinder, another d-man of the same ilk, worked real well together. In fact, during one segment, I saw both of them retreat in unison and go to their positions like a pair of synchronized swimmers. Just perfect.

Tallinder did what he always has done-smart, safe plays. If he can play that type of game during the regular season alongside Pysyk, the Sabres may have another defenseman in the running for the Calder Trophy.


***

Not all was great for the game.

Jonas Enroth was shaky letting in a couple that he should have had.

Jamie McBain showed some defensive flaws, but can wow by jumping into the play. He took a pass from Ott in the slot and rifled one past Budaj.

And although McCormick won a faceoff that lead directly to the game-tying fourth goal, he also did some ill-advised bullying that lead to way more time in the box than he had on the ice. I love the guy, but with a group of youngins that are charging fast, I'm not sure he'll have enough to make the NHL team.

The Sabres finding their way into the penalty box was a problem all night vs. the Canadians. The Habs fourth goal was a result of a powerplay and they also had a 4-on-3 in overtime, although they failed to convert.

All told the Sabres killed off four of the Canadians' six powerplays.

The parade to the box did offer some comic relief, though. At one point, Ott (roughing,) Zadorov (roughing,) McCormick (fighting and roughing) and Patrick Kaleta (double roughing minor) were all crammed into the box at the same time for various intimidation tactics.


***

Finally there's goalie Matt Hackett who also came over from Minnesota in the Pominville trade. Hackett was solid in net and stifled the Canadians during the shootout.

Throughout his portion of the game, Montreal continually tried to go glove-side only to shoot wide.

He was covering up a lot of the net with his angles, which is a good thing.



Notes from the boxscore:
  • McCormick had 5:22 of ice time, 24 penalty minutes. He had two fighting majors, instigator and roughing minors, and a 10-minute misconduct.
  • Nine different Sabres ended up on the score sheet
  • Only one player had a negative plus/minus--Luke Adam
  • Although Adam didn't have a penalty, he was in the box twice serving McCormick's instigator and roughing penalties.
  • Enroth had a .769 sv. %; Hackett's was .917%
  • Only three players failed to log double digit minutes and they comprised the fourth line:  McCormick, Kaleta and Gillies
  • Ristolainen logged over 23 mins of ice-time and lead the team with 5:20 on the penalty kill.
  • Zadorov had over 21 mins of ice-time. His 4:17 on the powerplay tied for the team lead with McBain.
  • McBain also lead the team in even strenght ice-time with 16:32.
  • Everyone got in on special teams save for McCormick and Adam. Neither Gillies or Kaleta were on the powerplay. They logged 0:07 and 0:04 on the penalty kill, respectively


Yesterday's lineup via sabres.com:

Line Combinations

Steve Ott – Mikhail Grigorenko – Ville Leino
Zemgus Girgensons – Johan Larsson – Drew Stafford
Luke Adam – Kevin Porter – Brian Flynn
Colton Gillies – Cody McCormick – Patrick Kaleta


Henrik Tallinder – Mark Pysyk
Mike Weber – Rasmus Ristolainen
Nikita Zadorov – Jamie McBain

Jhonas Enroth
Matt Hackett

Sunday, September 15, 2013

CBSsports eye's a last place Atlantic Division finish for Buffalo

"Let's put it this way: The most interesting thing about [the Sabres] this season will likely be seeing whether their two best players -- Thomas Vanek and Ryan Miller -- are traded away before it ends. Otherwise it figures to be a bad season in Buffalo, but that's something they are prepared for."

So wrote Brian Stubits for CBSsports.com's Eye On Hockey Atlantic Division Preview.

One can't blame him either.

Sabres beat writer Paul Hamilton was on WGR yesterday afternoon and admits that he has no idea where this team is headed. Unlike recently re-acquired Henrik Tallinder who optimistically said, "I expect the Sabres to be in the playoffs."

Stubits rightfully calls it like he sees it, "[Sabres] GM Darcy Regier finally committed to this rebuild. What you get is a very young team that doesn't have a high payroll and has the expectations to match. So this season is going to be more about learning on the fly with the team they have now and seeing how they look down the road."

When it comes to individual players, the focus is on Vanek and Miller, as it should be. Stubits takes a crack at Sabres C Cody Hodgson, "not that he's a bad player, but you're talking about Cody Hodgson being the best player not named Vanek or Miller. While Hodgson can score, his all-around game leaves something to be desired."

He mentions youngins Tyler Ennis, Marcus Foligno and Mikhail Grigorenko but, oddly enough, lays off Ville Leino (and his contract) as well as the woe's that Tyler Myers has faced since his Calder-winning season.

Perhaps he just didn't feel the need to delve too deeply into a last place team. Why put forth the effort? There are just too many question marks with this team right now.

Stubits is succinct and highlights all the major points including this about Miller and the team that played in front of him last season, "at this point they're still young and growing, not ready to challenge in this division. They can start by cleaning up the fact that they gave up more shots against than any team in the league last season. No wonder Miller got frustrated at times."

Well said.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Thomas Vanek showing signs of unease already?

As a long time Sabres' beat reporter for WGR, Paul Hamilton is pretty astute.

Through hundreds of interviews over the years he's been able to cut through coach-speak and player-talk to get and the root of where an individual is at mentally.

Which makes his latest piece on Sabres winger Thomas Vanek a bit troubling.

Hamilton writes that Vanek is not thrilled to be on the right wing for the Sabres at Day-2 of training camp. 'I have to be open to it,' said Vanek. It was their first day on the ice and head coach Ron Rolston put him on the right wing with recently inked center Cody Hodgson and young left winger Marcus Foligno.

Said Rolston of the line:  "We like [Vanek and Hodgson] together for sure. They were good last year. I think Cody can make plays, [has] really good vision and obviously [Vanek's] a good finisher. Right now we've got Marcus there to provide some heavy hockey on the wing. Hopefully Marcus can come in and continue to play that way, be physical and make some space for those guys."

Vanek is entering his eighth NHL season and as a veteran he's earned the right to play at a position he's more comfortable with. 'If I had a choice I'd rather play left because it's always what I've played,' he said in the Hamilton piece.

But here's the rub.

Foligno's future is just beginning in Buffalo. Vanek's future is more than likely somewhere else playing for another team.

Just as Vanek has said he's keeping his options open during the last year of his contract in Buffalo, so are the Sabres keeping their options open for the development of their assets.

It's no longer how the Sabres with Thomas Vanek will approach the season. It's more how the Sabres will approach the season as they transition away from Vanek on the team.

Throughout the whole process of Vanek entering the final year of his contract in Buffalo the star winger has been detached and business-like. Which is fine because professional sports is a business.

But sometimes emotions seep through the words, and in this case Vanek seems to be showing signs of disenchantment bordering on whining, 'We'll see,' he said. 'I guess I'm playing the right as of right now, which is something new for me so I guess I'll have to worry about myself right now.'

Worry about himself.

Just like he did when he signed that 7yr./$50M offer sheet in 2007.

Or his mention recently about how he's approaching the possibility of re-signing in Buffalo, 'I just want to see where it goes. I have that right, and I’m taking it. I don’t feel like I’m doing a disservice to anyone. Some people might agree with me, some don’t. That’s the way it goes either way.'

Or like he said over the summer while in Minnesota, "you'd like to be on a team where you feel like going into camp you're contending. Right now in Buffalo we're rebuilding which is not the best case scenario for me."

Or like back in April when he said ,"yeah, I’ve thought about [being traded]. If it looks like it’s a long rebuild, then it probably makes sense for both parties to move on.”

Agreed.

It would seem as if Vanek checked out a while ago and is ready to move on. And for their part, the Sabres look to be moving on from him as well as indicated by placing young left winger Marcus Foligno at his natural left wing position.

If the situation dictates a short-term vet be placed somewhere other than his accustomed position, so be it.

It's just business.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Notes as the Sabres ready themselves to hit the ice. Cody Hodgson extended

It's time.

Let the hockey season begin.

A few notes as the Sabres hit the ice today for the first time as the second day of training camp gets under way.

But first, the Sabres and Cody Hodgson have agreed to a contract extension. The 23 yr. old center signed a reported 6yr./$25.5M contract yesterday for a cap-hit of $4.25M.

The pros and cons of the long-term deal are many and will undoubtedly be hashed out and beaten to death for years to come. That's simply the way things work in Sabretown.

With the six-year commitment from Buffalo, Sabres GM Darcy Regier and his staff look at Hodgson as a top-six, potential top-line, center for years to come. Hodgson showed great chemistry in the offensive zone with bonafide top-line winger Thomas Vanek.

In the 68 games since coming to the Sabres from Vancouver, Hodgson has 18 goals and 24 assists for .62 pts/game.

But, on the negative side his plus/minus for Buffalo is minus-11. Which brings us the cons.

Matthew Coller of WGR wrote an extensive piece about Hodgson's defensive lapses using a boatload of advanced stats and concludes, "by all statistical measures, he was one of the worst defensive players in the NHL." He also throws in a couple of videos to stress his point.

Nothing earth-shattering. Even Canucks GM Mike Gillis openly admitted that he hid Hodgson's defensive shortcomings and anyone who has watched the Sabres for any length of time will tell you that he needs some serious work in the defensive zone. Something that's not lost on Hodgson.

One should also not dismiss Hodgson's skill and vision on the ice, though. Nor should one dismiss his realtively young age. Nor should one dismiss his commitment to an off season conditioning  program which keeps him in top shape. Regier said that Hodgson has been working with Sabres skating coach Dawn Braid this summer in addition to his annual visit to Gary Roberts' camp.

The skill is there and the dedication seems to be there as well, which makes for a real solid contract, if not steal, down the road.

Hodgson is a very good player right now and seems like a pretty solid character-guy. After travelling from Vancouver to Buffalo to Rochester and back to Buffalo in a matter of 10 months, Hodgson must be pretty happy to establish some roots for the next six years.

For the Sabres, at the very least they have themselves a solid #2 center who should be good for around 60 points per season at a $4.25M cap-hit within an eventual $70-80M salary cap.

Which is a pretty good deal for all parties involved.

***

The Sabres have four players signed long-term, Hodgson, Ville Leino, Christian Ehrhoff and Tyler Myers.

Leino and Ehrhoff were signed at the start of free agency in 2011 while Myers signed an extension later in that off season.

Myers has seen his confidence and performance decline since he won the Calder Cup in 2010 when he was partnered with Henrik Tallinder (Ryan Miller won the Vezina that same year.)

Tallinder was allowed to walk in the 2010 off season (of which owner Terry Pegula was said to term the departure as "unbelievable,") which may or may not have affected Myers' play. But the team thought it would be advantageous to bring Tallinder back and made a trade with New Jersey to get him.

The tall, lanky former 2nd-round pick for Buffalo (1997) came to the defense of his former d-partner, "I think Tyler is an exceptional young man and player," Tallinder said. "When he came in his first year, I've never seen a guy that talented and that good at that age. Or very few of them, that I"ve played with at least. I think he's still young. I think you guys have been pretty hard on him too. He's going to be an exceptionally good player still. Just give him time. Let him play."

Oddly enough, Sabres head coach Ron Rolston has Myers paired with Ehrhoff to start camp while Tallinder will be with rookie defenseman Mark Pysyk.

Tallinder should prove to be a steadying force for a very young Buffalo Sabres squad and looks to be a very busy man.

In addition to helping Myers mature, he'll be mentoring Pysyk and bestowing fatherly advice on fellow Swede, goalie Jhonas Enroth.

Who knows, if he's healthy, maybe he'll even get some 2nd-pairing minutes.


***

This will be Rolston's first full season behind the bench for Buffalo and his first NHL training camp.

Among the things he mentioned:
  • Forward Tyler Ennis, whom Rolston likes at center, will start the season on left wing. Mikhail Grigorenko will join Hodgson down the middle
  • He and his staff will decide the captain, not the players, and they will take their time
  • All players look to be healthy, including Leino who's coming off of hip surgery, save for Chad Rhuwedel. The defenseman suffered an upper-body injury at Traverse City and is day-to-day
On his coaching staff, Rolston said "It was an interesting process. It was the first time I've constructed a staff of this magnitude."

Two of his assistants, Joe Sacco and Jerry Forton were professional acquaintances.

On Sacco who was hired July 2, Rolston emphasized his experience and success as a head coach (Jack Adams candidate with Colorado.) He talked about Sacco's work ethic, knowledge of the game and his communication skills who has been with young teams and knows how to develop them.

Rolston had known recent hire Forton for years through college connections. Forton, he said, "has a lot of character, a lot of integrity and a tremendous passion for the game. He shows a lot of grit as a person overall.

The final thing, which is probably most important, is he's an outstanding communicator and relationship-builder."

Forton will be up in the pressbox replacing Teppo Numminen.

Numminen has been up in the press box for the Sabres for two years and will now be on the bench.

Rolston said that Numminen wasn't in as prominent a position before as he will be now. "He'll be running the defensive core and he'll be working with our powerplay," said Rolston. "He in the position now where he'll be able to make a big difference for our hockey team."

Defense and powerplay? With the performance of the team in those two areas over the years, I'd say Numminen has his work cut out for him.


***

Regier took to the podium and talked about impending free agents Thomas Vanek and Ryan Miller.

Not much needs to be said. Everyone's in a holding pattern, just like the league in general when it comes to player movement.

Late July, after second-tier free agent signings, and August are usually devoid of player movement and this summer was no exception. Especially with the salary cap diving to $64M from $70M.

Regier said the trade-window was "closed right now" and that he doesn't expect much to happen on that front until the deadline approaches.

Vanek addressed the issue in his cold, business-like fashion (which isn't necessarily a bad thing.) He basically said that he was here as a Buffalo Sabre and from his standpoint he'd like to see where this rebuild goes before talking extension. And he expects the Sabers to take the same approach.

Vanek has said before that he likes to keep his options open.

As for Miller, he was a bit warmer to Buffalo and the thought of an extension, "Darcy [Regier] has to build a team and maybe he feels he wants me here," said Miller. "I'm happy to be here, I have a great connection with the city."

He reiterated that he and his agent Mike Liut never asked for a trade yet also knew that it was a possibility and said of a possible trade, "I don't know if that was the best thing for me anyway."

Regier was on WGR this morning and made it clear that the organization would welcome the opportunity to talk to both players but emphasized that the club does not have a standing offer for Vanek or Miller.

Another player that will be a free agent at season's end is forward Steve Ott. Regier said that the two sides have had some preliminary conversations.


***

The Sabres training camp roster:

BUFFALO SABRES 2013 TRAINING CAMP ROSTER
# DEFENSE POS HT WT S BIRTHPLACE DATE 12-13 TEAM GP G A PTS PIM
67 Austin, Brady D 6-3 232 L Bobcaygeon, Ontario 6-16-93 Belleville (OHL) 64 8 15 23 22
24 Bagnall, Drew D 6-3 220 L Oakbank, Manitoba 10-26-83 Houston (AHL) 47 1 5 6 88
42 Boland, Connor D 6-2 200 L Whitby, Ontario 11-29-94 Peterborough (OHL) 49 1 2 3 34
62 Crawford, Nick D 6-1 192 L Brampton, Ontario 2-23-90 Rochester (AHL) 53 5 14 19 18
10 Ehrhoff, Christian D 6-2 203 L Moers, Germany 7-6-82 Buffalo Sabres 47 5 17 22 34
34 Gauthier-Leduc, Jerome D 6-1 190 R Quebec City, Quebec 7-30-92 Rochester (AHL) 48 3 4 7 8
51 Lepkowski, Alex D 6-4 202 L West Seneca, New York 4-8-93 Barrie (OHL) 60 0 9 9 78
47 MacKenzie, Matt D 6-5 212 R New Westminster, British Columbia 10-15-91 Rochester (AHL) 30 0 4 4 66
Gwinnett (ECHL) 2 1 0 1 2
4 McBain, Jamie D 6-2 200 R Edina, Minnesota 2-25-88 Carolina Hurricanes 40 1 7 8 12
44 McNabb, Brayden D 6-5 212 L Saskatoon, Saskatchewan 1-21-90 Rochester (AHL) 62 5 31 36 50
57 Myers, Tyler D 6-8 227 R Houston, Texas 2-1-90 Buffalo Sabres 39 3 5 8 32
3 Pysyk, Mark D 6-1 193 R Sherwood Park, Alberta 1-11-92 Rochester (AHL) 57 4 14 18 20
Buffalo Sabres 19 1 4 5 0
55 Ristolainen, Rasmus D 6-4 224 R Turku, Finland 10-27-94 TPS (SM-liiga) 56 3 12 15 32
5 Ruhwedel, Chad D 5-11 182 R San Diego, California 5-7-90 UMass-Lowell (H-East) 41 7 16 23 20
Buffalo Sabres 7 0 0 0 0
52 Sulzer, Alexander D 6-1 204 L Kaufbeuren, Germany 5-30-84 Buffalo Sabres 17 3 1 4 10
20 Tallinder, Henrik D 6-4 215 L Stockholm, Sweden 1-10-79 New Jersey Devils 25 1 3 4 10
6 Weber, Mike D 6-2 199 L Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania 12-16-87 Buffalo Sabres 42 1 6 7 70
61 Zadorov, Nikita D 6-5 219 L Moscow, Russia 4-15-95 London (OHL) 63 6 19 25 54
# GOALTENDER POS. HT WT C BIRTHPLACE DATE 12-13 TEAM GP W-L-OT GAA
1 Enroth, Jhonas G 5-10 166 L Stockholm, Sweden 6-25-88 Buffalo Sabres 12 4-4-1 2.60
31 Hackett, Matt G 6-2 173 L London, Ontario 3-7-90 Houston (AHL) 43 19-20-3 2.66
Rochester (AHL) 3 3-0-0 1.62
Minnesota Wild 1 0-1-0 5.08
49 Knapp, Connor G 6-5 215 L York, New York 5-1-90 Rochester (AHL) 7 1-6-0 3.34
Greenville (ECHL) 12 5-7-0 3.05
50 Lieuwen, Nathan G 6-5 192 L Abbotsford, British Columbia 8-8-91 Rochester (AHL) 4 1-2-0 2.65
Greenville (ECHL) 27 14-10-2 2.93
35 Makarov, Andrey G 6-1 193 L Kazan, Russia 4-20-93 Saskatoon (WHL) 61 37-17-5 2.62
30 Miller, Ryan G 6-2 175 L East Lansing, Michigan 7-17-80 Buffalo Sabres 40 17-17-5 2.81
General Manager: Darcy Regier
Head Coach: Ron Rolston
Asst. Coach: Joe Sacco
Asst. Coach: Teppo Numminen
Asst. Coach: Jerry Forton
Goaltending Coach: Jim Corsi
Strength & Conditioning Coach: Doug McKenney
Admin. Asst. Coach: Corey Smith

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Sabres prospects drop championship game to Detroit at Traverse City

After scoring 16 goals through the first three games of the Traverse City Tournament, the hard-charging Buffalo Sabres prospects were throttled by the Detroit Red Wings prospects as Buffalo lost 4-2 to Detroit.

The Sabres squad got no production from their top-two lines as only Fredrick Roy--a Rochester Amerks bottom-six pest--and Peter Trainor, who was added to the prospects team after Mark Pysyk was withdrawn from the team, scored.

For the first time all tournament Buffalo found themselves playing catch-up as Detroit took a 2-0 lead on powerplay goals by Anthony Mantha (#20-overall, 2013.) He scored at 18:29 of the first period with Zemgus Girgensons in the box for interference.

Thirty seconds later, Buffalo's Nikita Zadorov took a high sticking penalty and a mere :29 into the second period Mantha potted another powerplay goal.

Roy cut the lead only to have Detroit's Zach Nastasiuk (#48, 2013) put the Wings up by two goals once again.

With six minutes left in the game, Trainor pulled the Sabres to within one. Red Wings forward Tomas Jurco (#35, 2011) iced the game with :26 left on an empty net goal.

Players don't have a lot of time to reflect as Sabres training camp starts tomorrow.

Many will be headed there while others will be headed to their respective junior team.

Much will be said about the perfomances of Nick Baptiste, Rasmus Ristolainen, and Zadorov. All three 2013 draft picks had strong performances. Baptiste for his relentless play and work-ethic, not to mention his team-leading seven points (4g, 3a); Ristolainen for his rock-solid steadiness on the back-end; Zadorov for his goliath-like presence, hard hits and a glimpse into his offensive up-side.

Girgensons and Johan Larsson showed that they'll have a good shot at making the big club out of camp. Chad Ruhwedel was excellent until his upper body injury and will make a strong push for a spot on the Buffalo blueline. And Trainor earned himself a long look for the Amerks.

But, conspicuously absent from the score sheet as well as any mention at all in re-caps is the Sabres Joel Armia.

The 2011 16th overall pick disappeared.

The book on him is that he'll pull a Houdini for long stretches only to make pot an important goal.

None of that this tournament, even playing on the top line with Grigensons and Larsson the last two game.

The excuses will come out--he's adjusting to a smaller rink, penalties kept him on the bench, he couldn't get warmed up, etc--but the fact is, he was invisible.

That's not a good sign. Anyone who thought he could make the Sabres out of camp got a sharp dose of reality.

Armia still has camp and preseason to make a strong impression, but a ticket to Rochester may be his best hope.

If not, it's a shame the team wasted a first rounder on an highly-skilled, inconsistent forward who can't handle the rigors of a smaller rink and tough competition. All traits, by the way, that we've found with Darcy Regier's "core" over the last six seasons.

There are only two "core-like" players left, Armia and Mikhail Grigorenko.

Let's hope at least one of them can have the impact they were drafted for.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Johan Larsson and Zemgus Girgensons dominate in prospects win over Carolina

Zemgus Girgensons and Johan Larsson are the two most NHL-ready forward prospects for the Buffalo Sabres at the Traverse City Tournament.

The duo had played on the same line in Rochester for the Amerks ever since Larsson came to Buffalo at the trade deadline in the Jason Pomiville trade.

For the first two games of the tournament coach Chadd Cassidy had them centering the top two lines, Larsson up top and Girgensons on the second. For yesterday's game, though, he put Girgensons up at left wing with Larsson at center and rookie Joel Armia on the right side.

One would suspect that Cassidy felt it was a pretty big game and he didn't want to experiment too much. Buffalo needed to get one point in the contest vs. Carolina to advance to the Traverse City Championship game vs. the Detroit Red Wings prospects to defend their title.

With those two on the top line, the Sabres cruised to a 4-0 lead with just over four minutes gone in the second period. Larsson scored the Sabres first goal, his first of the tournament, on the powerplay with Girgensons getting the lone assist. Girgensons would assist on Jerome Gauthier-Leduc's goal just over a minute later to put Buffalo up 2-0.

After a Nick Baptiste tally, Girgensons scored the fourth goal, his first of the tourney, with Larsson getting the lone assist.

"They control the game for us at both ends of the rink," said Cassidy.

Larsson and Girgensons had been plying their trade in a two-way role throughout the tournament with not a lot ending up on the scoresheet. But "whenever we get into trouble," said Cassidy, "they're the guys we can send out there that can steady the ship for us."

A steadying presence certainly was needed later in the game on the penalty kill.

After Buffalo jumped out to that 4-0 lead, Carolina roared back with three unanswered goals, all on the powerplay.

The Canes would have two more powerplay opportunities later in the game with the score close, but the Sabres closed the door as Cassidy shortened his penalty kill units. "The big part of [killing those penalties] was personnel. Larsson and Girgensons got a lot of time. [Daniel] Catenacci got a lot of time there. Those are three guys that do a lot of penalty killing for us. That's a role that they excell at."

That Larsson and Girgensons were able to finally get their first goals each in the tournament after being steadying forces through the first two games wasn't lost on Cassidy either,  "It was great they could get some reward for that."

One would expect to see them in a prominent role again as Buffalo meets host Detroit for the Traverse City Championship tonight.