Reprinted with permission from hockeybuzz.com
One year ago today, after starting the 2013-14 season with an NHL-worst 4-15-1 record, the Buffalo Sabres fired long-time general manager Darcy Regier and head coach Ron Rolston.
Owner Terry Pegula made the announcement and said of the decision, "[Regier] didn't do what he did by himself. There was input from many people, prior owners, myself.
"Why now? I just decided, and that's the only answer I can give you. We work together, and sometimes you get to the point where a change was needed."
Over the summer Regier told the fans to be prepared for some "suffering" as he was close to fully dismantling the team he constructed. Amongst his remaining core players, only goalie Ryan Miller remained as forward Thomas Vanek was shipped to the NY Islanders on October 27. Regier's core, or "The Rochester Guys" as team President Ted Black called them, also included Paul Gaustad, Derek Roy and Jason Pominville.
The Sabres squad that opened the 2013-14 was the youngest in the league and featured rookies Zemgus Girgensons, Mikhail Grigorenko, Mark Pysyk, Rasmus Ristolainen. They would be joined later by fellow rookies Johan Larsson and Nikita Zadorov.
In the 20 games before the dismissal of Regier and Rolston the team scored 35 goals (1.75 g/gm) while giving up 63 goals (3.15 ga/gm.)
After cleaning house, Pegula brought in former Sabre great Pat LaFontaine and named him President of Hockey Operations. LaFontaine got right to the point, "I can tell you right now that we've got a lot of work in front of us. We have to be patient. ... Our vision and our dream is to get the team to be a championship-caliber team year after year after year. And we'll get there."
He began with the hiring of former head coach Ted Nolan who was 73-72-19 during his previous stint with the Sabres from 1995-97.
Fast-forward a year and the Sabres are no better off then they were, in fact statistically they're even worse.
Through 17 games Buffalo remains in last place with a 3-12-2. They've scored 21 goals to date (1.23 g/gm) and have allowed 60 goals (3.53 ga/gm.)
LaFontaine wasn't kidding when he said, "We need the patience, the hard work and the support of the fans" as they were set to "do the right thing by the organization and by the player that fits into what we want to achieve."
The Sabres are at Minnesota tonight (8pm) and will be facing two former "core" players in Vanek and Pominville. The Wild are struggling mightily and are on a five game losing streak. In their last four games they've been shut out once while scoring only one goal in the other three.
Should be a barn-burner, eh?
Sabres forward Patrick Kaleta will hit the ice tonight playing in his first game in over a year.
Kaleta, who is in the final year of his contract, will be looking to make the right impression after a tumultuous 2013-14 season. Last season he was suspended and then placed on waivers before landing in Rochester. He was playing well in Rochester and was on the brink of returning to Buffalo after only seven games with the Amerks before he suffered a season-ending knee injury.
Bad luck followed Kaleta into September as he was felled by a Morgan Rielly slapshot during a preseason game in Toronto.
Perhaps he's gotten most of the bad luck out of his system. Or maybe some might say that karma came into play for his checkered past and he's served his time.
Regardless of one's view, Kaleta had been working hard to get back into, and stay in, the Sabres lineup. Whether he's changed his game enough to be a fourth-line contributor in the way the NHL is called today is another story.
Nicolas Deslauriers was given a match-penalty for spearing St. Louis forward Vladmir Taresenko on Tuesday and so far the league hasn't contacted him about the incident.
Deslauriers said yesterday of the spear that he "made a mistake there" as he was "caught in the moment." He also said that, after watching the video "a thousand times" that night, he didn't think it was as bad as Taresenko made it look.
"I just wanted to spear up the energy," said Deslauriers, in a bit of a Freudian slip. "I didn't think I hit him that hard. I looked at the replay a little bit and it was more on the pants."
The ref at the time saw it a bit differently as Tarasenko made it look as if he'd just been shot. St. Louis went on a five-minute powerplay and a 3-1 quickly turned into a 6-1 final score.
When Nikita Zadorov was drafted 16th-overall in the 2013 draft, you could feel a collective groan coming from the Buffalo fan base. It wasn't so much that Zadorov wasn't worthy of being picked there--to the contrary, it may end being a steal--it was more disappointment at not drafting a skilled forward.
The Sabres had already drafted a highly-touted, NHL-ready defenseman No. 8 in Rasmus Ristolainen and conventional wisdom had them going after a forward. But Kevin Devine, head amateur scout at the time, couldn't believe Zadorov dropped that far. Said Devine post-draft, "We kind of looked at each other and said 'this is a no brainer.' If somebody would have told me we got these two guys at No. 8 and 16, I'd be shocked."
With defensemen Josh Gorges sidelined by a "lower-body injury" and Andrej Meszaros still disinterested, it would look as if Zadorov will be on the ice again seeing a good chunk of time skating alongside Ristoalainen.
The "Twin Towers" have been playing very well together and Nolan seems to like what he's seen. After being blown out by Pittsburgh 6-1 with only one goal being scored with either of those two on the ice, Nolan said that they, along with forward Zemgus Girgensons, were "by far our best players."
He likes the chemistry the two are developing and despite the future coming a little quicker than expected, he sees both growing both individually and as a pair while being thrown into the fire. "They’re both young," he said. "When you go through things like this, you don’t know any better. You might just find your way through it.”
Zadorov seems to be "finding his way through it" as he took to finding his way towards the Blues' Ian Cole in retribution for his questionable hit on Tyler Ennis. The 6'5" 221 lb. Russian is a strong man-child as witnessed when he held Cole down with his left arm while throwing some quick uppercuts with his right.
There's a love for the game of hockey that shines through Zadorov and a child like innocence and honesty about him when he speaks of hitting and scoring goals. He has an infectious personality and is the type of person that teammates love to be around.
But within that child-like gait is a player who's still very young. He has a lot to learn about being a professional at the NHL-level and just how much work it takes to make it. The task at hand for the Sabres in developing Zadorov is emphasizing professionalism without taking away the joy he has at just playing the game and pairing him with Ristolainen may just do the trick.
The very serious Ristolainen is an excellent compliment to the care-free Zadorov, hopefully for many years to come. To contrast the two, while Zadorov was hitting camp out of shape, Ristolainen came into camp in the best shape of his career.
All of that can be worked on and worked out as they progress together. It's almost a natural paring. “If you look at both of them, one’s more on the defensive side (Ristolainen), one’s on the offensive side (Zadorov,)" said Nolan.
And how does it look from the other side of the rink?
When the Sabres were at Traverse City in 2013 they played the Columbus Blue Jackets. Ristolainen and Zadorov were a defensive pair and Aaron Portzline of BlueJacketsXtra wrote "I'm no scout, but those two looked beastly on the backend."
Here's to a "beastly" back end for years to come.