Reprinted with permission from hockeybuzz.com
Even with the 1-1 split of the season series thus far, the Buffalo Sabres have had a trouble with the Florida Panthers as of late. In their last 10 meetings Buffalo is 2-7-1 overall and just 3-6-1 at home. The Panthers come into First Niagara Center on a nine-game win streak.
Just a few years ago, before the Sabres pulled the plug on the Darcy Regier-era, Florida was in the midst of a complete rebuild. Three years later, the Sabres are now where the Panthers were--the "build" portion of the rebuild.
In 2010 Florida brought in GM Dale Tallon, the man who did most of the heavy-lifting for the Chicago Blackhawks juggernaut we see today, and he immediately began to tear down an inept franchise that hadn't been to the playoffs in 10 years. Tallon began the long haul upward with the 2010 NHL Draft where he selected three first rounders--D, Eric Gudbranson, F, Nick Bjugstad, F, Quinton Howden--all of whom are with the team.
From there he continued to build through the draft by adding more first rounders including three top-three picks--C, Jonathan Huberdeau (2011, 3rd-overall,) C, Alexsander Barkov (2013, 2nd,) and D, Aaron Ekblad (2014, 1st.)
Tallon didn't rush the rebuild, especially after the team made the 2012 playoffs. He gradually, methodically added youth to the line-up, continued to pick high, and eventually augmented the roster with seasoned vets, a few of whom have Stanley Cup rings. The long rebuild, five years in the making, is beginning to take hold and Florida now finds themselves atop the Atlantic Division, three points ahead of the Montreal Canadiens (with one game in hand,) 2nd in the Eastern Conference, and 5th in the league overall. Florida's rebuild is something Sabres head coach Dan Bylsma mentioned when he was on for his weekly segment on WGR's Howard Simon Show this morning.
"You look at the Florida Panthers and I think it's a similar looking team as to what we want to become and how we want to become it," Bylsma told Simon and co-host Jeremy White. "They've added some pieces in Barkov and Huberdeau and Bjugstad in successive drafts and they've improved through young players playing in their organization and they've added some veteran pieces along the way
"In a short [time], from three years ago they're looking like a very good team and right now they're atop our division."
Those key veteran pieces include Tallon bringing back Roberto Luongo who's 2.09 gaa ranks him fifth in the league (20 or more games) while his .929 save percentage is second amongst goalies with 20 or more games. He also brought in 38 year old defenseman Willie Mitchell who is their captain and is helping to anchor the defense in front of Luongo and back-up Al Montoya. The Panthers lead the league with a 2.15 team goals-against average. Shawn Thorton, Stanley Cup-winner with Boston is another vet brought in by Tallon.
And the ageless one, Jaromir Jagr, who's list of accomplishments include fiver Art Ross Trophies, one Hart, 13 All-Star selections and two Stanley Cups, not to mention 735 goals which places him fourth on the all-time list only six behind Brett Hull at 741, is still a threat at age 43.
As the Sabres continue to struggle in the first year of their climb from the abyss, Florida provides a solid blueprint to study over the course of the next few seasons.
Sabres forward Zemgus Girgensons turns all of 22 today. It wasn't too long ago that the 18 yr. old decided to forgo Vermont to sign with Buffalo and begin his pro career. His first season was spent in Rochester as the youngest player in the league and it took him most of the season to acclimate himself.
The following year he made the Sabres roster along with a bevy of other youngins like Rasmus Ristolainen, Nikita Zadorov, Mikhail Grigorenko, Mark Pysyk and Johan Larsson before the ceiling collapsed on the Sabres season and young players were disbursed to their proper developmental leagues.
Girgensons was not as the organization felt that his proper developmental league was the NHL. He finished the season with 22 points (8+14) on a team that finished last in the league while challenging the modern NHL mark for offensive futility.
The following season he once again remained with a club that finished dead last and couldn't score. Under former head coach Ted Nolan, Girgensons would be seeing top-line minutes and first unit powerplay time. The sophomore would finish with 15 goals and 15 assists in 61 games before his season ended early due to injury.
This season Girgensons has been relegated to a checking role for coach Dan Bylsma until recently when the head coach did a center swap out of desperation during a 2-0 shutout loss to Washington. Bylsma liked what he was with Girgensons and rookie phenom Jack Eichel and the two have been paired since.
I guess we could call it an early birthday present and Gus has responded well with a goal and two assists in his last three games.
Tonight Eichel and Girgensons may be joined by big forward Jamie McGinn as the three were on a line for the morning skate according to Sabres PR.
McGinn had been playing real well with Ryan O'Reilly up until the last four games where he's been held off of the scoresheet.
The rest of the forward lines according to Sabres PR:
Evander Kane-O'Reilly-Sam Reinhart
Matt Moulson-Johan Larsson-Brian Gionta
Marcus Foligno-Tim Schaller-David Legwand
Schaller got the call from Rochester after the news that forward Nic Deslauriers would be out for 5-5 weeks with a lower body injury. The 25 yr. old Schaller had a long stint with Buffalo earlier in the season but only appeared in six games logging two assists and a plus-1 rating. In nine games since his reassignment to Rochester on December 3, Schaller had four goals and four assists.
The pairings on defense look to be the same:
Rasmus Ristolianen/Josh Gorges
Zach Bogosian/Jake McCabe
Cody Franson/Mike Weber.
Linus Ullmark will get the start in net.
Good news on the injury front as the Sabres said defenseman Mark Pysyk and goalie Robin Lehner will be headed to Rochester for a conditioning assignment this weekend.