Friday, October 24, 2014

Wanted. Difference-makers

Reprinted with permission from

After dropping a 4-1 decision at Anaheim last night, the Buffalo Sabres head up Interstate 5 for a meeting with the defending Stanley Cup Champion Los Angeles Kings. It's a tall task for the reeling club and doesn't get much easier as the rest of October looks like this: @ San Jose', @ Toronto, vs. Boston. At this stage of the game, and with the Sabres playing like they have, a win against the Leafs would constitute a minor miracle while anything more would be akin to St. Jude making an appearance.

This is not a bad team, though, unless you define a bad team as a lack of difference-makers. The 1974-75 Washington Capitals were a bad team. They had absolutely nothing to work with. I challenge anyone to go down that roster and find any player of consequence on that club. And if you thought Mike Weber's league worst minus-29 was bad last season, he would have been middle of the pack on that Caps team. In only 59 games played, defenseman Bill Mikkelsen was a minus-82.

Keep in mind that it was Washington's inaugural season and there really wasn't enough talent to go around the 18-team league especially with 12 teams in the rival WHA poaching players. Plus, there was another expansion team, the Kansas City Scouts (Colorado Rockies, NJ Devils) who had to stock their roster as well. The scraps that were thrown to the Caps and the Scouts to get their franchises moving amounted to some stale bread crumbs and chewed gristle, so an 8-67-5 record for Washington was not too surprising.

Forty years from now, people will have at least heard of Brian Gionta, a Stanley Cup-winner with the New Jersey Devils, and anyone who's even slightly interested in delving into the sport would probably recognize Tyler Myers' name. And when they look at the roster, they certainly will have at least seen the name Sam Reinhart, or even have had an opinion as to how his career went. Does anyone remember Greg Joly? He was the Caps first draft pick ever and the first player taken in the 1974 draft.

Contrary to what haters might think, this Sabres roster is not completely devoid of talent. They've just been playing like it. It's been a struggle as the team is trying to push through a difficult time both collectively and individually. Do they have holes? Absolutely. Some as big as the gap Jhonas Enroth leaves top-shelf when he's down in the butterfly.

Are there some players playing poorly? Absolutely. And most are on defense which isn't good because that would entail half their defense-corps.

Are some crumbling under the weight of another abysmal start to the season? Not as many as last season. One thing that GM Tim Murray did was bring in players with character and thick skin. Gionta and Josh Gorges go about their business as professionals without regard to the won-loss record. They've been around long enough to know that things can and will change. We'll see how many follow.

Is this team as bad as last year's Buffalo Sabres team? No. Not quite. They have a decent amount of talent and more veteran players, but what's missing from this edition as opposed to last season is the presence of difference-makers.

Last season the team started out the year with veterans like Thomas Vanek and Ryan Miller. Granted, the contributions of Vanek and Miller were outweighed by a coach who was in over his head and a line-up that featured six rookies--four of them teenagers--but Vanek is a bonafide top-line LW while Miller is a true #1 goalie. The opposition had to game-plan for both of them.

Buffalo played a pretty good game last night vs. the Ducks and kept things close until the bottom fell out with just under three minutes left in the game. No Sabres player could come through for the team and when Anaheim's Corey Perry rifled a seeing-eye shot past Michal Neuvirth for another two-goal cushion, Buffalo was finished. He would add an empty-netter for his second hat trick of the season.

Perry is a difference-maker for Anaheim. So is teammate Ryan Getzlaf who, by the way, almost took off Reinhart's head when the rookie had his eyes in his skates. Cam Fowler is that way on defense and the Ducks have a host of youngins like Hampus Lindholm, Jakob Silfverberg and an extremely stout goaltender in Frederik Andersen who are following the lead of Perry and Getzlaf.

As the building process in Buffalo ambles on, the players on the roster are getting the opportunity to prove that they can make a difference on the ice. But as their 1-6 start would indicate, there's very little happening in that department.

There was some success last night as Tyler Ennis showed that he can make a difference. He worked hard all night, eventually found a soft spot in the defense and didn't hesitate when he buried his team-leading third goal from the crease. It pulled the club to within one goal with just over five minutes left in the third period.

Zemgus Girgensons continues to play well and is looking like he's hell-bent on making a difference. He would have had his third goal were it not for a stellar toe-save by Andersen. Girgensons also sent a beautiful feed to Drew Stafford that his teammate didn't see.

Stafford could have made a difference on that play, but he was focused on getting off of the ice after a long shift. Girgensons had grabbed a turnover in the neutral zone took it to the left of Andersen while Stafford skated around the net. After fighting off a Ducks defender Girgensons spotted Stafford all alone at the right side of the net for an easy tap. The clean pass went for naught and worse yet, the Ducks corralled it for an eventual 3-on-2 where Ryan Kessler buried a shot from the slot a mere 15 seconds later.

What could have been a 1-1 score turned into a 2-0 Sabres deficit.

It was a missed opportunity. And so it was for Chris Stewart who found him self one-on-one with Anderson but opted for maneuvering left instead of shooting. It was midway through the third period and a goal would have cut the lead to 2-1 with over 11 minutes to play. But it didn't happen.

One player who has been continually beating on the door to make a difference this season is Myers. He's been logging mega-minutes, has been sound in his own end (minus-2 on the season) and has been skating like the wind.

Once again Myers busted his ass but couldn't break through. His frustration showed after Sami Vatanen took a dive and he was called for holding. Myers went up to Vatanen and gave him a shove calling him a diver in not so kind words. And in what's becoming par for the course for Myers, the ref got overly aggressive and whistled him for an additional 10-minute misconduct penalty, which took him out the rest of the game.

Even Neuvirth made a difference last night. He kept the team in the game whilst facing 29 of Anaheim's 34 shots before Ennis' could break through with his goal.

Fret not, Sabres fans as all is not lost (at least after this season.) Should the Sabres end up at the bottom of the league again, one of two (maybe three) difference makers will be there for them at the 2015 draft and none of them should be confused with Greg Joly.

Connor McDavid took care of business last night with a goal and three assists as his Erie Otters downed the Niagara Ice Dogs 8-4 in front of 11,391 fans at the First Niagara Center. Nearly everyone of those fans were there for one reason, to get a glimpse of a "can't miss" prospect who very well could be wearing the Blue and Gold next season.

But regardless as to where McDavid ends up, the team that drafts him will still need more than just him. Leo Roth of the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle called him "the LeBron James of hockey." We get the point, but basketball, unlike hockey, is the only sport where an individual can completely dominate a game. Roth's comparison might be just a tad too giddy for my tastes. Even in basketball, James, and Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, etc., all needed a strong supporting cast to get them to the promised land.

That's neither here nor there right now as the Sabres are looking for someone to step up and make a difference in games this season. Those are the players that will be on the team three years from now supporting a supreme difference-maker like McDavid (should he live up to expectations.) Or those are the players that will carry the load should the Sabres not be in line to draft a "franchise player" like him.

Either way, if a player wants to be on the team with a new-core rising, the time is now to show it.

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