Reprinted with permission from hockeybuzz.com
Pat LaFontaine, Ted Nolan and Tim Murray.
They're all responsible for the high-character core that's pulling the Buffalo Sabres up from the depths of the NHL. With a 6-1-0 run in the last seven games, the once 3-13-2, last place Sabres have now risen to their present 26th-overall standing.
Back in mid-November the team had showed some signs of life while mired in an awful start. After getting shellacked in Pittsburgh, they played fairly well at St. Louis the next game, yet still scored only one goal. They would play a little better at Minnesota while scoring three times, but still gave up six goals to the Wild, the third game in a row they surrendered six goals.
Avenging an earlier 4-0 embarrassment to the hated Toronto Maple Leafs in their next game was to be expected, but to destroy them 6-2 certainly raised some eyebrows. Surely it was just a shot of adrenaline that would soon pass before they hit the ice in Washington. Coming out on top of a 2-1 score against the Caps wasn't all that far-fetched either, but had it some wondering how a bottom-dweller like Buffalo managed to bottle up "The Great-8" and company.
For a team that most felt would bounce along the bottom of the league all season, something just didn't seem right.
Everything was simple before. The Sabres dropped an atomic bomb on Darcy Regier's "core" and was in full rebuild-mode. A very bad team and plenty of "suffering" for the fanbase in 2013 lead to a last place finish and the second-overall pick in the draft and it was assumed a bottom finish in 2014 was in the cards as well. Back-to-back last place finishes would give Buffalo the top picks necessary to follow the Penguins/Chicago Blackhawks rebuild-model, which everyone assumed was their path all along.
Plus, while they were bottoming out for the second year running, the few youngins they had on the team would go through their growing pains.
But they took a leap somewhere along the way and now they've got us thinking.
Maybe it was the "Wall of Snow" that pummeled the Southtowns to the tune of over 5' in a 24 hour period and the resiliency Buffalonians showed during that trying time. Maybe it was the Sabres' continuing mastery over the San Jose' Sharks who were in town during that mess and proceeded to lose yet again before just 6,200 hearty souls in attendance that night. The Sabres were slowly transforming from a team with sporadic determination into a formidable foe.
A 2-1 loss vs. the Winnipeg Jets would help keep everything in perspective, but bubbling beneath the surface was the volcanic quake of a hot goaltender in Jhonas Enroth. Even so, just how hot would be determined as they had the specter of facing the league-leading Montreal Canadiens in a home-and-home that upcoming weekend. Surely things would fall back into place again. Right?
The final scores: 2-1 and 4-3 (SO.) Enroth would stop 71 of 75 shots thrown at him by the Habs in the wins and would stifle them on five attempts in the shootout .
OK. Fine. It was against a rival. The Sabres got a lucky bounce in the first one and rode a hot goalie in the next game at Montreal. Surely when the league-leading Tampa Bay Lightning came to town with guns ablazin' the Sabres would go down. Right?
Buffalo comes out on top 2-1 on a game-tying goal by Zemgus Girgensons with just under four minutes to play in the third period. They won the shootout goals by Cody Hodgson and Tyler Ennis while Enroth surrendered none.
This is run of character-wins the likes of which we haven't seen in a long time and those mentioned above are directly responsible.
The one constant through the multitude of changes over the last three-plus years has been Kevin Devine, and damn if he hasn't been doing his best Jimmy Devellano impersonation. Devine has been with the organization a long time and
had the role of AGM/Head Scout under then GM Darcy Regier before the latter was canned.
It was Devine who barked out, "They're gonna take our guy!" at the 2013 Draft when the Nashville Predators' entourage went to the stage to make their pick. "Our guy" was defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen whom the Sabres had targeted all along with the 8th-overall pick.
And it was Devine who rhetorically asked later, "Do you want to get tougher to play against?" to an audience of Regier and Sabres' owner Terry Pegula sitting on either side of him. It was a "no-brainer" that Devine would head to the podium and select defenseman Nikita Zadorov.
Ristolainen oozes character. Of all the defenseman not named Seth Jones at that draft (whom Nashville selected 4th-overall,) the big Finn was said to be the most NHL-ready. He would take a step back after starting the 2013-14 season in Buffalo, but he came back on a mission to make the team this season. Not only did he make the team, he looks like a seasoned vet and is a mentor to Zadorov.
Without Ristolainen, Zadorov would be somewhere other than the NHL right now. Zadorov looks like he's more of a character than a "character-guy," but Ristolainen is rubbing off on him as he's helped Zadorov add NHL work ethic and professionalism to his game. In a very short time Zadorov has managed to get his act together after being ill-prepared during the summer.
Leave it to Devine to select another high-character guy in Girgensons. The All-star vote leader (thanks to his Latvian countrymen) is everything they said he would be to this point in his very brief NHL career. His "will" proceeded his skill, just as his former USHL coach Jim Montgomery had been saying when he was drafted in 2012. The coach also said of Girgensons, "If there’s a challenge in front of him, then he’s going to attack it.
"Whatever situation he is put in the coach is going to love him and his teammates are going to love him. He is the ultimate team player that helps you win every night.”
Devine said similar things post-draft and added that the fans of Buffalo were going to love Girgensons too.
But it wasn't supposed to happen this quick. This was a season where Ristolainen would be ironing out the kinks while learning on the fly and Zadorov would be furthering his development away from the NHL. Now they're playing lights-out on the Sabres second-pairing.
Girgensons was looked at as a top-nine, defensive-minded center still finding his way. Now he's on the top-line developing chemistry with a three-time 30-goal scorer and a "greazy" wizard with the puck who's a two-time 20 goal scorer.
Maybe we should blame Regier for the quandary before us Sabres fans. Had he not gotten the first-rounder from Nashville for Paul Gaustad in 2012 and then conned Calgary Flames GM into trading the 14th-overall pick at the draft, the Sabres wouldn't have Girgensons. And had he not sent Jason Pominville to Minnesota for a huge haul, including the Wild's first rounder in 2013, they'd not have been able to land Zadorov with the Wild's 18th-overall pick that year.
Or maybe we should blame former president of hockey operations, Pat LaFontaine. It's his fault that he brought in a high-character coach like Nolan who somehow manages to squeeze blood out of a stone. Damn if he doesn't have us thinking that it might not have been all Dominik Hasek during his first stint behind the Sabres bench.
Nolan has the players believing in themselves while pulling out some tricks he learned coaching the Latvian National Team. He's also responsible for bringing in seven-time Stanley Cup winning Hall of Famer, Bryan Trottier to work on the offense as well as a pint-sized former NHL goalie Arturs Irbe to work with Enroth and Michal Neuvirth.
And if all this wasn't enough, Regier's replacement Tim Murray (also hired by LaFontaine,) had the audacity to bring in more character players this off season. In addition to signing the former captain of the Montreal Canadiens, Brian Gionta (who has a Cup ring,) he also convinced defensive stalwart and Gionta teammate Josh Gorges to accept a trade from the Habs (damn if he didn't use a 2016 2nd-round pick that Reiger acquired in the Moulson deal.)
Murray also brought back Moulson who was free to sign anywhere as well as high-character depth-forward Cody McCormick, both of whom were traded to Minnesota at the 2014 trade deadline. And he hasn't traded away any talent yet.
Put it all together and this sudden surge of winnng and positivity has Sabres' fans on edge. Wasn't this another year of being at the bottom then drafting a "once in a generation-type player?"
All along the organization was saying that they weren't tanking for Connor McDavid and that they believed they had a team that could surprise. And here we thought they were winking when they said it.
There's still a long way to go this season. Injuries will test the depth on any squad and for the right price, almost any Sabres player is tradeable. Any of those two factors combined with the cooling off of Enroth and lack of or minimal secondary scoring will put a severe strain on what this team can accomplish.
What we have found out to this point, however, is that high-character players combined with a little chemistry, some hot goaltending and a motivator for a coach can actually do some damage.
Not only that, I'm starting to feel an emotional attachment to this group of Sabres, something I haven't felt for a while. As detached as I'd like to be, we may witnessing the beginnings of something special and after a run like they're on, it's hard not to get a little caught up in it.
It's a little earlier than I expected, and that's why I blame those who put it together.