Tuesday, October 21, 2014

A manic weekend ends on a high, and a quick look at the coming week

Reprinted with permission from hockeybuzz.com

When Buffalo Bills quarterback Kyle Orton tossed a touchdown pass to wide receiver Sammy Watkins with one second left to somehow pull out a victory, emergency rooms across Western New York let out a collective sigh. The area side-stepped a sports calamity the likes of which may not have been seen before in Buffalo.

The Sabres started it by getting shutout in back to back home games (Friday and Saturday.) According to Elias Sports Bureau, it's only the second time in franchise history Buffalo has been shutout in consecutive home games. The only other time it happened was in 1972 when they were shut out 2-0 by the Pittsburgh Penguins on Feb. 17 followed by a 4-0 shutout at the hands of Ken Dryden and the Montreal Canadiens on Feb. 20.

For their part, the Bills were set to give fans a reprieve from the malaise as they entered Ralph Wilson Stadium on Sunday with a game against a poor Minnesota Vikings team. Buffalo ended up as 6.5-point favorites which may be the largest spread as a favorite since Doug Marrone took over as head coach last season.

But, were it not for Orton and Watkins, with quick plugs to tight end Scott Chandler and wide receiver Chris Hogan both of whom made huge plays on the game-winning drive, sports fans in Buffalo would have been out of their minds.

Be it known that the Bills did their very best to give the game away. They gave up six sacks, were flagged for eight penalties and turned the ball over four times (1 INT, 3 lost fumbles.) Somehow, the gods smiled upon them and they were able walk off the field with the win and a 4-3 record.

It was Kim and Terry Pegula's first win as owners of the Buffalo Bills.

The tandem of Orton and Watkins is a study in extremes, but they're getting the job done.

Orton, a fourth round pick (2005,) is a much-maligned veteran QB with an inconsistent history whom the Bills plucked off of his sofa late in the off season to serve as a back-up. Watkins was taken with fourth overall pick in the 2014 draft after the Bills and GM Doug Whaley sent their 2014 first-rounder (9th overall) and their 2015 first rounder to the Cleveland Browns to move up.

In Watkins case talent evaluation trumps the mathematics of a trade calculator as 4 > 9+x, save for a scenario where x would equal 5 or less. In other words, the Bills gambled that they would be getting a superstar talent in Watkins, the top offensive talent in the draft and they gave up the equivalent of two upper-mid first round picks to land him. The only scenario that would be deemed a failure is if they totally crapped the bed and finished with a poor record giving the Browns a top-5 pick.

Which leads us to the Buffalo Sabres.

They probably won't need to worry about having to trade up to land a top-four pick this year as they've plummeted to 29th place after only six games and are looking like a bottom-dweller. They may do some wheeling and dealing to take one of their lower first rounders and try to move up if there's a player they like, but it's almost a certainty that they will not be trading out of their top pick for upper-first rounders, no matter how many are offered.

It will be weird when the team gets to the point where, eventually, they'll be drafting only one player in the first round. It was odd last year after going consecutive years with two first rounders. We kept waiting for GM Tim Murray to announce that they moved back into the first round, but it never materialized. No worries. In 2015 they'll have three first round picks which will be a lot of fun for the first day.

Planned? Absolutely. The Sabres received exceptional value for star players who never could gel as a team. From Gaustad to Miller and all players in between it was a case of parts being worth more in individual trades then they were worth collectively while trying to play as a team.

Unfortunately, when moving what little veteran talent they had during the purge, the Sabres left a huge void both offensively and in net.

Last season the team finished with an historically low of 150 goals scored, the likes of which hadn't been seen in the post-Original Six expansion era of the NHL. Granted, it would take a collapse of epic proportions this season, like an imploded building being sucked up by a sinkhole, for the Sabres to eclipse the 1928-29 Chicago Blackhawks for worst all-time. In only their third year in the league, the Hawks scored 33 goals in 44 games for an average of 0.75 goals/game. But at 1.17 goals/game the Sabres are on a pace to record a sub-triple digit, 95 goals/game.

It won't (shouldn't?) be that bad for the season, but it looks pretty ominous for the rest of the month at least. The NHL schedule-makers put the smack-down on Buffalo. They have the Sabres on a three game west coast trip (back-to-back, Anaheim/Los Angeles and San Jose') followed by a stop in Toronto before heading home to close out the month vs. Boston. Of that grouping, only Toronto (22nd in the league) finished out of the top-10 last season with the Kings winning the Stanley Cup and only Toronto (26th) finished outside the top-10 in goals against last season. (Any idea which team could be a target for the Sabres second win of the season?)

An inept offensive team like Buffalo is going to have a pretty tough time against a group like that, especially with an NHL-worst powerplay that hasn't scored a goal in 17 opportunities. In fact, the team has only four players who've scored a goal to begin with--Zemgus Girgensons, Tyler Ennis and Marcus Foligno, two each while Torrey Mitchell has one.

Hello, Monday, what a great way to start out the week, eh?

On a positive note for Sabres fans, the Rochester Americans look like they're going to have a pretty good season.

Granted, it's only three games in, but the Amerks have plenty going for them. They have scored 14 goals to start the season, never scoring less than four in a game, while giving up only seven goals against.

The organizational reset that's been going on for the past year has stocked Rochester. On offense they have a strong group of veterans lead by Luke Adam, Phil Varone and Matt "friggen" Ellis. AHL rookies like Mikhail Grigorenko and William Carrier are joining younger players like Joel Armia and Johan Larsson up front while the team seems to have landed a good one in Akim Aliu when they signed him to a 25-game tryout.

The defense is strong with a stout group lead by team captain Drew Bagnall. Youngster Chad Ruhwedel looks as if he's ready to break out (1g, 3a) while rookie Jake McCabe has all the tools, but just needs to put in some time on AHL ice.

The Amerks and head coach Chadd Cassidy also have goaltending. Nathan Lieuwen and Andrey Makarov are quality goalies with varying degrees of experience, but who both have proven to be very capable in net.


For the coming week, the Sabres will be playing on Wednesday Oct. 22 (10:30pm,) Thursday Oct. 23 (10:30pm) and Saturday Oct. 25 (4pm.)

The Amerks get into the groove of their season. They host the Rockford Ice Hogs on Oct. 22 (7pm,) and the Adirondack Flames Oct 24 (7pm) before travelling to Glen Falls, NY to take on the Flames on Oct. 25 (7pm.)

On October 22, Sabres fans will get the opportunity to see the consensus first overall pick in the upcoming 2015 NHL Draft as Connor McDavid and his Erie Otters take on the Niagara Ice Dogs at the First Niagara Center.

McDavid's competition for first overall status, Jack Eichel, has already hit the ice in Buffalo as he was a part of the All-American Prospects Game held at F'N Center on September 25th.

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