Thursday, June 26, 2014

Sisyphus' boulder, Buffalo sports and my No. 2 overall pick.

Reprinted with permission from

It's not hard for Buffalo sports fans to relate to the myth of Sisyphus. In Greek mythology Sisyphus will forever roll a boulder up a hill only to have it roll back down just before it gets to the top.

In 1975 and again in 1999, the Buffalo Sabres rolled that boulder up the hill to the Stanley Cup Finals only to see it roll back down after Game-6 losses.

And the Buffalo Bills in the 90's had it happen four times in a row as they got close to the top only to have it roll back down.

Some call it a curse and others bad luck. But no fan in Buffalo who has watched their teams fall short so many times will take these words by Albert Camus to heart, "The struggle itself [...] is enough to fill a man's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy."

Not here.

I don't think there's a Buffalo fan out there who's happy just partaking in the journey. Sure, back in '75 there was a "wow" factor as the Sabres made the Finals for the first time. But after being the bridesmaid six times, it kinda gets old. Or worse yet, might give someone a complex.

Invariably when a stranger hears you're from Buffalo, a little compassion, and maybe some empathy is thrown your way. Maybe a little shake of the head or a pat on the shoulder for encouragement.

They'll mostly marvel at the four consecutive Super Bowl appearances and/or snicker at the four consecutive Super Bowl losses.

Personally, I'd rather have loved and lost than never have loved at all. There's an adrenaline rush that goes with it that makes one feel as if they're truly alive.

The 2014 NHL Draft is this Friday and the Buffalo Sabres will have the second overall pick in the draft. Only two other times has the franchise had a higher pick and it's the highest they'll be drafting since 2003 when they picked Thomas Vanek fifth overall.

For a rebuilding franchise who just finished completely dismantling an underachieving core group of players, the No. 2 overall pick carries a lot of weight. Although they won't be looked upon as a "savior" in Buffalo, whomever is picked--and this is regardless of any team, any year--will be looked upon as a top-end contributor.

The Sabres, for their part, have done a nice job setting things up over the course of the last two drafts.

They already have a top-nine NHL player in Zemgus Girgensons who still has plenty of upside. And both of the Sabres 2013 picks--towering defensemen Rasmus Ristolainen and Nikita Zadorov--got a taste of the NHL last year.

Those three young players are very strong-willed and have the intestinal fortitude to do a lot of the heavy lifting.

There are others as well who have strong constitutions and are leaders who will also do some heavy lifting as well--D, Jake McCabe (2012, #44,) JT Compher (2013, #35,) and Nicholas Baptiste (2013, #69.) And in this year's draft there's said to be a plethora of players to be found later in the first round and into the second who will be high-quality bottom-six players. Buffalo has three second round picks with which to use in that area.

These are the players that will be doing the heavy lifting as the team begins rolling that boulder up hill.

Not to be dismissed, though, is the need for skill.

Buffalo was an historically low scoring team last year and although they have many well-rounded two-way players, they only have one pure sniper in the group--2011 first round pick, Joel Armia. And he's still developing, while adjusting to the North American game.

Right now, as it's laid out, the team that's being built is the complete opposite of the team it replaces.

Whereas the previous regime went "soft, but skilled" the new mantra is "tougher to play against." Whereas the previous core was on the smaller side overall, this group is bigger and stronger.

The previous team had plenty of high-end skill, but was notorious for folding under pressure. The "new core" of recent draftees have will that goes with and/or proceeds their skill.

The Sabres can't or shouldn't go the "hardest working team in hockey" route with this rebuild. That was tried in '99 when a group of pluggers with one sniper were carried by one of the greatest goalies of all time--soon to be Hall of Famer, Dominik Hasek (who, BTW, I believe will don Blue and Gold or his induction.)

And down rolled the boulder.

It's gonna take a Herculean effort from 23 guys to get this thing over the top. It's gonna take a rock solid group of heavy lifters augmented by some never-say-die skilled players and a pure sniper or two for this team just to become a Cup contender.

Once at that level, many variables will remain and it may eventually take a little bit of luck for a Buffalo team to finally rid this city of "the Boulder."

As Buffalo adds to their new core at the draft, the top-end this year is said to have a variety of players with differing skills.

Defenseman Aaron Ekblad is said to be the consensus first-overall pick whether it be the Florida Panthers or any team that might work a trade with them.

That being said, it could very well "The Battle of the Sams" for the Buffalo Sabres.

Both are considered to be fairly equal in terms of prospect rankings but are different players with different skill sets.

Sam Reinhart who tops both ISS and Craig Button's list of prospects, is said to be the smartest player in the draft with off the charts hockey sense.

Kris Baker of, had Reinhart as the No. 2 overall prospect in the draft.

Wrote Baker of Reinhart, "He can slow it down and speed it up, and his ability to see open passing lanes is a skill that cannot be taught. Reinhart is also a highly proficient finisher who finds space down low to pop off quality wrist shots and bang home second chances. [His] knack for knowing where everyone is at all times could plug into any team’s future plans as a legitimate top line center prospect."

The biggest knock against Reinhart seems to be his skating and Devine's criteria for rating a player begins with skating.

"The first thing you do when you go to the rink is check out his skating," he said. "What's he like as a skater? Is he going to be able to play at the pro level skating-wise? The second thing is probably his compete level--how he battles in the one-on-ones, does he come back hard on the back check. Then you get into hockey sense after that."

When asked about Reinhart's skating Devine said, "I wouldn't say he has breakaway speed [but] he's a pro skater, for sure."

Reinhart would be a solid choice for Buffalo at No. 2, but the Sam that combines the top-two attributes Devine mentioned is Bennett.

Said Baker of Bennett, "[He]combines a great skating game with superior speed and quickness to make things difficult for the opposition at both ends of the rink."

Baker goes on to write that Bennett "packs the offensive bite of a Corey Perry with a two-way style comparable to Mike Richards."

He has the skating ability for the way the game is played today, he's got plenty of skill and he's fearless. That's a heckuva combination.

After the combine, Devine said of Bennett, "not only does he have the high skill level, he's got the emotional fire. [He] puts teams on his back. That's the thing that distinguishes between him and some of the other guys at the top."

In the grand scheme of things Bennett is probably the best pick for the Sabres as they try to roll that boulder to the top. He's a fearless player with high-end skill and a 200' game is the type of top-end player the Sabres need to add to the group of heavy lifters they already have.

Bennett is not a general, he's the type of player that will dig down deep and get dirty, the type of player that will keep that boulder from rolling backwards while the others get their footing.

Like the aforementioned Richards, Bennett's relatively smaller size (6' 178 lbs.) and rugged playing style may lead to a shorter career. But, as Los Angeles will attest, having a player like him may have been an essential piece in winning that first Stanley Cup.

It's something for the Sabres to consider.

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