Sunday, October 30, 2016

On Florida, Pysyk/Kulikov and Kevin Oklobzija

Published by, 10-29-2016

“Every time they got [the puck on a turnover], they put it in the back of the net. Transition is a big part of the game and three of the last four goals we've given up were in transition. We've made some bad decisions at the blue line and gave them Grade-A scoring chances. They score and that's it.

"I would be lying if I thought that (injuries) didn't have a little bit to do with it, but I think we're playing good hockey, guys are buying in and competing. Sometimes they try to do too much. We have a lot of new bodies in our lineup, guys are feeling their way with new partners, linemates>"

That was Florida head coach Gerard Gallant talking to the gathered media (via the Miami Herald) about his Panthers team after practice at KeyBank Center. Florida has a matinee game against the Buffalo Sabres this afternoon and the young team is struggling a bit early in the season.

Florida is coming to Buffalo on a two-game losing streak but for Gallant it's not that they lost both, but it's how they lost. “We were leading and then gave up two on turnovers," said Gallant of their most recent loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs. "Overall, I liked our game, thought we were good enough to win them. We just made some bad mistakes.”

Kinda sounds familiar, doesn't it, Sabres fans?

Turnovers and bad decisions at the blueline have plagued the Sabres so far this year except for one game, a 6-2 win at Edmonton (Buffalo's only win of the season.) The Philly game was a prime example as turnovers lead to penalties where the puck eventually ended up in the back of their net. The horrors of that blown thee-goal, third period lead carried over into the 4-0 loss vs. Minnesota where Buffalo fell behind in the first period before finally waking up.

The Sabres are looking to build on what they were able to do in the second and third periods of their last game when they outshot the Wild 30-9 in the two stanzas. Even though it was a classic case of  advanced stats being  proved meaningless as Buffalo was outscored 2-0 by Minnesota, the team applied the pressure but were unable to beat a hot goalie.

It's a trend that's been going on for years in Buffalo and the only way to buck it is to keep applying the pressure. "I think that (the shots are) gonna go in and we've got to believe that, and we've just got to continue with the way that we need to play," forward Kyle Okposo told the team's website. Or, like Bruce Cockburn sang, "Got to kick at the darkness 'til it bleeds daylight."

The Sabres are in a dangerous time right now. With every point give away points--like the overtime and shootout losses in Calgary and Philadelphia, respectively after blowing third period leads--their playoff hopes grow a bit dimmer. At present the Sabres are 1-3-2 and with only four points are sitting in 29th place ahead of only the Arizona Coyotes.

Today's game is Buffalo's first back-to-back of the season as they'll play in Winnipeg tomorrow in another matinee (3 p.m. ET.) According to Sabres PR it's the first of a league-high 19 back-to-back sets for Buffalo. Last year the team went 6-9-0 in the first game, 6-7-2 in the second.

Buffalo is 2-8-0 in their last 10 against Florida, 2-7-1 at home. Sabres PR also points out that Buffalo is 0-2-2 in their last four games and looking to avoid their first five-game winless streak since December 28, 2015 to January 8, 2016.

Last season the Sabres had a 2-4-0 record and headed into their seventh game against Montreal having been outscored by a 15-10 margin. They proceeded to get smoked by the Canadiens 7-2 in one of their worst games of the season. This year through six games they've been outscored 19-14.

Anders Nilsson gets his third start in a row for the Sabres. Starter Robin Lehner was sidelined by illness the last two games and has been cleared to play but the Sabres decided to give him one more day to get back up to speed. Nilsson is 0-1-1 with a 2.90 GAA and a .903 Sv%.


It looks as if Bylsma will be sticking with the lineup of skaters he's gone with the last two games as the lines and d-pairings look to be the same. Bylsma did make a change on the second powerplay unit taking Derek Grant off and replacing him with Hudson Fasching.

Fasching is a big body (6'2" 207 lbs.) who made a name for himself at the University of Minnesota by scoring from the paint and in Bylsma's eyes, he's earned an opportunity with the Sabres. "Hudson deserves a bigger opportunity and a bigger role," Bylsma told the gathered media yesterday, "and putting him at the net-front on the powerplay where he's strong and has good hands and instincts hopefully to cash in."

Buffalo's powerplay has taken a dive since starting out the year strong. They've converted on six of 27 powerplay opportunities (22.2%) slipping to 13th in the league. Their penalty kill has slipped to 18th in the league allowing four goals on 20 opportunities (80%.)


Buffalo's Dmitry Kulikov and Florida's Mark Pysyk will be skating against their old teams for the first time since a the draft-day exchange of the two defensemen. Buffalo GM Tim Murray sent Pysyk along with the Sabres' 38th and 89th picks in the 2016 draft to the Panthers for Kulikov and the 33rd overall pick in the same draft.

Florida has been re-tooling it's defense-corps with a focus upon analytics, most notably puck possession, and has been leaning heavily towards acquiring mobile puck movers. It began with the May 12, 2016 trade of hard-hitting defenseman Eric Gudbranson and was followed up with the Kulikov trade on June 25th. Prior to that the Panthers acquired analytics darling Keith Yandel from the NY Rangers and promptly signed him to a seven-year contract extension.

How ironic that the exact defense Florida GM Tom Rowe put together is the same one former GM Darcy Reiger predicated his entire post-'05 lockout upon--mobile puck-movers.

The Pysyk trade was a little more than that as Rowe had wanted a right-handed defenseman and the Sabres needed a lefty. Also involved was the 33rd-overal, a pick that Murray insisted upon in the trade. The object of his affection was center Rasmus Asplund, a player whom the Sabres deemed a first-rounder who'd dropped to the second round. The 18 yr. old Asplund has six points (2+4) in 12 games for Färjestad BK of the Swedish Elite League.

For the season Pysyk has one goal in seven games for Florida and is a plus-2 averaging 15:13 of ice-time per game. Kulikov has zero points and is a minus-2 in five games for the Sabres averaging 21:38 of ice-time. For good measure, Gudbranson has an assist in eight games for the Vancouver Canucks. He has an even plus/minus rating in 19:18/game.


Rochester Americans beat reporter Kevin Oklobzija has been laid off by the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle after over three decades of covering the Amerks. The Chronicle's parent company, Gannett, laid off two percent of it's workforce, according to John Vogl of the Buffalo News, and unfortunately Oklobzija was one of the casualties.

Wrote Vogl of the news, "The Sabres have to be worried how Oklobzija’s departure will affect the Amerks. He was a daily presence. In the four days after the layoff, not one story about the hockey team appeared on the Democrat and Chronicle website. Out of sight, out of mind would be troubling as the Sabres fight with the city of Rochester for improvements to the arena."

Good luck, Kevin. You deserved better.

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