Monday, April 24, 2017

Trying to read the Pegula's tea leaves

Published by hockeybuzz.com, 4-23-2017


Perhaps it's best we not try and figure out what owner Terry Pegula was trying to say about the franchise at his 15 minute presser on Thursday, but then again, it can make for some interesting speculation. In this instance we're going to attempt to figure out the hierarchal plans he has for his hockey team, the Buffalo Sabres, and whom they might be inclined to hire as general manager.

When Pegula bought the team back in 2011 he kept on his GM, gave him a open checkbook and direct access to the big guy himself. It's been that way ever since save for a period of sanity when Pegula brought in former Sabres great and NHL Hall of Famer, Pat LaFontaine to head the hockey ops. At the time the team was going through transitional period where they were moving on from Darcy Regier and everything he built and were dead set upon a scorched earth rebuild. LaFontaine admittedly was not the GM-type so he was in charge of finding one, which turned out to be the recently fired, Tim Murray.

The plan, according to Bucky Gleason of the Buffalo News, was to have a three pronged-approach to the front office. LaFontaine, a well-liked and well-respected hockey man would head the hockey department and be the face of the front office as president. The roster and the mechanisms involved in that would fall on Murray, who would handle the personnel side of the equation from scouting to roster decisions, and a numbers-guy would work contracts and the salary cap.

It was a brilliant idea until LaFontaine reportedly had a distaste for the "rebuilding" approach favored by the organization. There may have been other things involved in his departure but his reign as President of Hockey Operations lasted all of four months, throwing that structure completely out the window.

Instead of replacing LaFontaine the Pegula's heaped the entire hockey operations on the shoulders of first-time GM Murray who was probably hired under the auspices of working the hockey aspects of the operation. We see how that turned out with Murray even saying that he wished he'd been able to scout a little more instead of being around the team day-in, day-out.

At Pegula's presser he was asked about the structure of the front office, which is devoid of any leadership right now, and he danced around the question. When a media member pressed the issue and asked Pegula if he intended to go back to the LaFontaine structure the answer was a quick and definitive "no."

Which seems about right. The Pegulas own both the Sabres and the NFL's Buffalo Bills under the umbrella of Pegula Sports and Entertainment. The only voice other than the Pegulas over both organizations is PSE President Russ Brandon who was CEO of the Bills under the late Ralph Wilson then was named President and Managing Partner of the team by the Pegulas and who also wears the hat of President and Alternate Governor for the Buffalo Sabres.

The Buffalo Bills structure the last two seasons under PSE had their GM and coach answering directly to Big Papa Pegula while Brandon continued to be involved in football related decisions. That plan was altered a bit as head coach Rex Ryan was fired and replaced by new head coach Sean McDermott who is making all the football decisions with GM Doug Whaley curiously remaining on as a figurehead. With the Bills effectively eliminating GM Whaley, McDermott is the lone voice in the new PSE "one-voice" mandate.

That's unlikely to happen with the Sabres and the Pegulas have started an ardent search for both coach and GM as they're looking to "build a stronger organization from top to bottom," according to Pegula. He mentioned that experience being important which lead us to believe that the GM position would be filled byu someone like Dean Lombardi or former Sabre Rick Dudley, both of whom have a long administrative resume.

That's what the tea leaves were reading post-presser, yet Sportsnet's John Shannon tweeted out yesterday that, "[the] Sabres have started building their list of candidates for GM. Sounds like they are looking for "new blood" as opposed to veteran manager."

Which leads us in another direction. Or maybe he does want to bring in an experienced VP of Hockey Ops to guide a newbie through his first GM position. Or maybe not.

Who the hell knows?

On the newbie front, the Sabres will have plenty of "new blood" to choose from for the GM position. The big name is Chicago AGM Norm MacIver who's been with the club for the duration of a Blackhawks dynasty that saw them win three Stanley Cups in five years.

In a recent interview with the Chicago Tribune, GM Stan Bowman was quoted as saying MacIver was "a stabilizing force" for the Hawks and much attention has been paid to his personnel skills with Bowman calling him a "co-architect" of the last two Cup-winning teams. When asked about his strengths MacIver talked about "just having a good feel for our team and ... (gauging) the pulse of the team and trying to help [Bowman] put this thing together. My biggest strength is recognizing the needs and strengths and weaknesses of our team."

MacIver seems like the type who won't rock the boat or rub ownership the wrong way. And from what I've gathered also sounds like a character-type guy which is huge buzzword ownership is throwing around right.

Based upon what they just went through with Murray, it would seem as if they'd like a little less personality and more suit. Murray was said to have rubbed Kim Pegula the wrong way and some of his moves, most notably that of the trade for noted off-ice "character" Evander Kane, probably didn't sit well with an ownership that seems to want a rigid adherence of their ideals. "New blood" certainly would allow them to mold a GM in the way they'd like.

Which probably rules out possibilities like Lombardi and Dudley, who would be coming in with their own ideals, and even a "new blood" like former Sabre Chris Drury who seems to have a self-confidence that would far surpass the Pegulas needs.

Jason Botterill is another candidate that would probably fit in with what the Pegulas are looking for. He started his management career with Pittsburgh in 2007 and is now associate GM for the Penguins. Botterill is a highly regarded up-and-comer and the Pegulas have a deep affinity for those from the Penguins organization. New Jersey AGM Tom Fitzgerald is also a candidate.

Other than MacIver, the only other button-down who seems to have the necessary experience and success to take on what the Pegulas are throwing their way (minus a VP of Hockey Ops) is Nashville Predators Assistant General Manager, Paul Fenton.

Fenton has been in his AGM position since 2006 and prior to that he was the Preds Director of Player Personnel beginning in 1998. He's a former undrafted NHL player who worked his way up from lower levels of pro hockey to a 400+ game NHL career and is highly regarded for his scouting and player development, especially on the blue line.

Back when the Edmonton Oilers were looking for a GM, Jonathan Willis of the Edmonton Journal picked a number of candidates to opine upon and here's some of what he wrote about Fenton, "While Nashville’s development record in all departments is one of the best in the league, they’ve really built a reputation for churning out NHL-calibre defensemen.  Meanwhile, the team hasn’t sacrificed winning while producing these prospects; Nashville’s AHL (Milwaukee Admirals) is one of the most consistently successful at a minor-league level.  Combine Fenton’s work in Milwaukee (as GM) with the Predators’ successes drafting and developing, and of course the team’s own ability to stay competitive with limited financial resources, and there’s good reason to think that Fenton would do well with his own franchise."

Sounds like a prime candidate, especially when defense is the weakest position in the organization.

Then again, who knows what the Pegula's will do.

No doubt Terry and Kim are well-meaning people who desperately want to bring a championship to the city of Buffalo, but what they've been finding out is that building said winner is quite different than running their previous energy business. Many are of the belief that they're in over their heads and simply winging it. It certainly looks that way with how their teams have performed the last few years and with the number of former coaches, along with a GM, whom they're paying not to be in the organization.

There will be plenty to speculate, write and opine about as the Pegulas search for their next coach and GM, which is fine. When all's said and done, we'll find out just who came closest to reading the tea leaves.



Sunday, April 23, 2017

Ode to Tim Murray

Published by hockeybuzz.com, 4-22-2017


I'm going miss Tim Murray, especially his candor when addressing the media and some of the off-beat language he used when making his point. I'm also of the opinion his tenure was cut a bit short when ownership decided to clean house.

One of things most in the Buffalo media talked about after the news of his firing hit was Murray's relative honesty when asked a question.  Even if he said he didn't want to address something, he'd still dance around a bit before giving a little insight into where his head was at on the subject. And the colorful words Murray used at times was refreshing especially with the parade of droll GM's the Buffalo sports community was subject to in both hockey and football dating back to the last century. Like when he talked with owner Terry Pegula about the trade for Evander Kane, who wasn't exactly a choir-boy off-ice. Pegula asked him about the move and Murray said that "he answered as best he could.

"It's not all unicorns and rainbows and jujus," said Murray of Kane and his off-ice issues, "I can tell you the best of the very best players have warts."

If you talk to any old timer, the stuff that goes on today is mere child's play compared to what athletes did decades ago. It's a different era and a different world. Even locker room talk and the antics that went on are now taboo and subject to intense scrutiny. When Murray talked of an incident post-game in February when his franchise center Jack Eichel verbalized his dismay with the home crowd's booing of the team. Murray's response, "[Eichel] certainly won't get his pee pee slapped by me for being a little more outspoken," a figurative expression with literal roots dating back to a different era.

That's all well and good for us outside the rink as within Murray's wry smile there seemed to be a precocious, child-like throw-back to the irreverence of days gone by. Hell, even the great Punch Imlach, the Sabres first coach and GM, had those qualities, going so far as to draft Taro Tsujimoto, a fictitious Japanese hockey player from the Tokyo Katanas (Japanese for sword,) in the 11th round of the 1974 NHL Draft, as a way of voicing his displeasure with the slow, lengthy draft process.

But the product on the ice is what matters and instead of Murray's Sabres taking a step forward this season, they were beginning to spiral out of control. Discord and disconnect ruled the roost as his team went from 81 points in 2015-16 to 78 points last season. There was plenty of blame to be thrown around from players to coaches and Murray was on the hook for the team he assembled.

Murray stormed onto the scene in Buffalo with brazen blockbusters in his first year-and-a-half of his rather short stint as a first-time GM. He finished the work of former GM Darcy Regier when he traded goalie Ryan Miller to St. Louis in February, 2014 less that two months into his tenure and lead the franchise through an ownership approved "rebuild" that completely gutted the organization of talent. Bolstered by a ton of draft picks and prospects from his predecessor Murray elected to speed up the rebuild by acquiring young-vets.

There were two unhappy young-vets available whom Murray traded for, the aforementioned Kane and Ryan O'Reilly. Murray was able to land both as the primary pieces of blockbuster trades but used a boatload of draft picks and prospects to do so. Murray got himself two good players in Kane and O'Reilly and he furthered his young-vet theory by trading for goaltender Robin Lehner at the rather steep price of a first-round pick in 2015.

The Lehner deal was consummated with his former Ottawa Senators team whose GM was his uncle, Bryan Murray. Whether or not there was something else in the works may be up for discussion, but we'll never know as Bryan Murray stepped down from his GM position in April, 2016. But in the world of the NHL there are always backroom deals as Tim Murray mentioned when it comes to the upcoming expansion draft and the new Las Vegas Knights team.

While on WGR550 radio Murray was rather honest when talking about how he's approaching the upcoming expansion draft and how he may have already done a favor for new Knights GM George McPhee who at the time was GM for the Washington Capitals. "I’ve had a conversation or two with George on who I wouldn’t like to lose (in the upcoming expansion draft) and how we can make that happen. Maybe I’ve done a deal with George in the past that was considered somewhat of a favor. Maybe I’ve had a conversation with him reminding him of that, and he remembered the wordage of that deal word-for-word, which I was very happy to hear."

The prevailing theme is that Murray's rebuild with young-vets was flawed. With the set-back his team went through and his firing this week, old clich├ęs are being tossed around with the emphasis upon rushing things.

Murray may have been on the precipice of turning things around. He knew the teams flaws, especially on defense where another of his trades, the one for Dmitry Kulikov, blew up in his face, and he may have had a plan to fix it, but he didn't say what the Pegula's wanted to hear when he met them for the end-of-season meetings.

I'd like to have seen him around for one more season tp see how he addressed the flaws throughout the hockey department from Buffalo to the Rochester Americans to the now defunct Elmira Jackals formerly of the ECHL. He has some good talent coming up to Buffalo and will also have more talent heading to Rochester for their rookie seasons. During the next three seasons we'll be seeing Murray's draft picks come through the ranks as they continue their developmental process.

Where it all leads is up in the air but if the Pegulas move takes this team forward, good for them and good for those of us in Sabreland. That said, I'm going to miss Murray. He may not have been everyone's cup of tea, but for those who got him and how he approached things, it was a pretty cool ride.







Saturday, April 22, 2017

Pegula rolls solo in important press conference

Published by hockeybuzz.com, 4-21-2017


I highly doubt anyone thought earlier today that Buffalo Sabres owner Terry Pegula would roll solo with his most important presser since buying the team six years ago. Thanks to Sabres TV we saw Pegula stand at the podium by himself answering questions about the present, future and, unfortunately, an unpleasant past.

Everyone who's ever watched a Terry Pegula presser knows how awkward he is in front of the microphone. He'd much rather be doing other things or answering questions about the positives he and Pegula Sports and Entertainment have done like HARBORCENTER and Canalside. But after firing both his general manager and head coach yesterday this was a time for him to take ownership of his team.

It was a ballsy move considering the many questions surrounding the state of an obviously flawed franchise, but in his opening statement he stood at the podium stating that "we" as an organization weren't happy with our season and, very humbly I might add, said that "accountability starts with me."

The theme of his approach going forward will start with three words that he repeated throughout, "discipline, structure and communication" a theme that Pegula and his wife Kim decided upon after meeting with former GM Tim Murray and former head coach Dan Bylsma. Later in the rather brief presser he added a fourth, "character."

After watching the Sabres play this season, and also following them in the media, it's not surprising that those three words would be the foundation moving forward. Lack of discipline on the ice reared it's head in the many times they failed to buy-in while off the ice it manifested itself in the Sam Reinhart saga when he was benched after breaking a recently installed zero-tolerance policy on tardiness late in the season. This Buffalo team was a mess with structure out the window and an obvious lack of communication between coach and players and more than likely between GM and owner.

When Pegula mentioned character, one couldn't help but think about Evander Kane's off-ice issues, said to be severely frowned upon by Kim Pegula. Another event was the Ryan O'Reilly bout with a Tim Horton's wall two summers ago. And one couldn't help but think that as owner of the NFL's Buffalo Bills the bouts with stupidity that some of his football players had must have come to the fore in the addition of character. Murray said of Kane that he had warts, and that some of the best players of all time had warts, but Pegula just busted out the Compound W.

After a rather humble opening statement Pegula was thrown into the fire by a question about Jack Eichel and how much his discontent played into the firing of Bylsma, as well as Murray. The transition from defense to offense began as he quoted Eichel's agent Peter Fish, "I don't know where those stories come from. It's ridiculous. Pegula called it a "complete fabrication" and "not a true story."

Later in the Q&A Pegula would get on the offensive again when asked if the rumors of talking to former LA Kings GM Dean Lombardi before firing Murray. "We didn't talk to anybody," he said flatly, "pure fabrication.

"Put that in the 'Jack demanded his coach be fired' category."

All-in-all not much was said about the immediate future of the franchise save for head amateur scout Jeff Crisp handling the amateur side of things with "several people" heading the pro side. Pegula said that their goal is "to build a stronger organization top to bottom" but would not reveal if he's ready to put a Hockey Ops person in between him and the GM. A hint may have come when he answered with a definitive "no" when asked about a direct link between GM and ownership with no go-between.

We haven't seen Pegula at a Sabres presser for over three years and a lot has transpired. The hiring process of both Murray and Bylsma were done with him outside of the loop and it's something he said he regretted with the results being a second season outside of the playoffs after what he termed the Sabres "rebuild."

One reporter had a different review of the rebuild pointing to fans and media alike calling it a tank. Pegula was asked about his "point on character" and if he felt the organization was damaged in that respect from that "flawed plan, a plan that authorized and essentially hoped for losing as a way of building."

"I don't want to talk about the past," began Pegula, "but a lot of teams go through rebuilds..." The reporter mentioned that it was true, but not a lot hope to lose. "Hope to lose? We don't hope to lose," responded Pegula as he brought the past to the present.

The team tanked and perhaps they're reaping what they've sown. Some will let it go, while others while carry it to the grave.

Buffalo is in a rough spot right now with no GM to guide this team through the expansion draft, NHL Draft or free agency, not to mention the glut of 20 free agent contracts to decide upon as well as an extension for Eichel and a decision on whether or not to move forward with Kane.

Pegula is taking a methodical approach, which is good. He'll have the amateur draft covered with Crisp and even possibly former head scout and assistant GM Kevin Devine. He has Mark Jakubowski as his cap-guy and an AGM who handled much of the contract negotiations and he may tap into a trusted internal guy like Kevyn Adams for some help on the pro side.

Gotta give Pegula a lot of credit for standing up there solo in a position he's not very comfortable with, but then again, he owed it to Sabreland, as this mess is his.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Boom! Both Tim Murray and Dan Bylsma fired. Opportunity knocks

Published by hockeybuzz.com, 4-20-2017


It's been a rather contentious off-season for fans of the Buffalo Sabres as a very disappointing season turned to question marks in April as the NHL playoffs march on. Fans took sides when it came to who was most responsible for the step backwards the Sabres had taken this season with one side saying GM Tim Murray put together a poor roster and the other side saying the head coach Dan Bylsma couldn't figure out how to make things work on the ice.

Well, the owners of the Buffalo Sabres made it pretty clear today that they weren't happy at all with what transpired and fired both Murray and Bylsma. Here's the statement from the Pegulas:

"After reviewing the past season and looking at the future of our organization, Kim and I have decided to relieve General Manager Tim Murray and Head Coach Dan Bylsma of their duties. We want to thank Tim and Dan for their hard work and efforts that they have put in during their tenures with the club. We wish them luck. We have begun the process to fill these positions immediately."

Word of the firing came when in the early part of an interview I was having with long-time Rochester Americans announcer, Don Stevens, and to show just how split Sabreland was on responsibility for the Sabres poor season, he mentioned one, yet I was thinking the other. Neither of us, however, thought that both Murray and Bylsma would be shown the door as I assume most in Sabreland didn't think this bombshell was coming.

The national media has already begun jumping on the move . Pierre LeBrun tweeted, "Constant turmoil with the Bills and Sabres. The passionate fans of Western New York deserve so much better."

It's a shot at ownership and I'm sure there will be plenty more. Some of the things that will be pointed our are the Bills 17-year playoff drought, even though the Pegula's have owned the team for only two of those seasons as well as the Sabres six-year playoff drought, all of them under the Pegulas with two of those seasons being devoted to emptying the roster for a scorched-earth rebuild. We'll also hear a lot about how they fired the Bills Rex Ryan after two seasons with three years left on his contract and that of Bylsma, who has the exact same scenario.

And while talking about paying former coaches not to coach for them, we can add in Murray who just signed a three year contract extension which kicks in this off-season.

That being said, the Pegulas should be questioned as to how they structured the Sabres post-tank years especially in light of what the Toronto Maple Leafs were able to accomplish this season.

The Leafs went into their rebuild and began by hiring Hall of Fame player Brendan Shanahan as President and Alternate governor. According to the Sabres Media guide Buffalo's President and Alternate governor is Russ Brandon, a marketing guru who's spent the last 20 years with the Buffalo Bills, becoming Chief Operating Officer in 2008 when he took charge of day-to-day football operations. The Bills have had seven coaches during that time and had a record above .500 only once.

Sabres legend and Hall-of-Famer Pat LaFontaine was with the organization in the role of Vice President but parted ways with the Sabres not long after Murray was hired as general manager. No reason has ever been given for the split and it left a first time GM in charge of the entire hockey department.

The Leafs also have another Hall-of-Famer in GM Lou Lamoriello and an almost sure-fire Hall-of-Famer in head coach Mike Babcock, whom the Sabres courted but missed out upon. The Sabres had a head coach with one Stanley Cup but plenty of question marks as to how he got that Cup.

That the structure problem that probably lead to dysfunction and a season of disconnects.

There were a lot of reasons why the season went off the tracks and lack of depth certainly contributed to it. Murray built a roster that was pretty solid up front but when injuries hit, the replacements weren't quite ready. Lack of depth was a problem that stretched down to the AHL. And Murray's defense was in shambles all season, mainly because of injury but also in large part because they didn't have enough quality.

From the coaching ranks we had a coach that apparently wasn't on the same page as the team's star player--Jack Eichel. That disconnect also lead to reported discord between the veteran players and the younger ones.

It's not surprising that Bylsma was fired as coaches are usually first to go, especially when there's reported friction between him and the face of the franchise. But Murray was a real surprise.

Murray came into Buffalo with a ton of picks and potential in his arsenal and proceeded to come out with guns ablazin' as blockbuster trades became the norm. He took a lot of heat for the Tyler Myers/Evander Kane trade even though Kane looks to be the best player in the deal. That said, he also was the one that had off-ice issues which assuredly didn't go unnoticed by the Pegulas.

The Ryan O'Reilly trade was another big one with the Sabres getting one of the top two-way players in the league. Unfortunately Murray had to give up some prime prospects including a player in J.T. Compher, who may end up being O'Reilly 2.0, and defenseman Nikita Zadorov, a young player who had some off-ice problems but one who also played in a top-four role this past season.

Then there was the trade for goalie Robin Lehner. Murray gave up a 2015 first round pick for Lehner, a source of consternation from many in Sabreland as you don't usually give up a first-rounder for a goalie unless he's had some time to establish himself. Lehner was injured his first season in Buffalo and compiled a strong 2016-17, but even with solid numbers, many are not convinced he's a top-flight No. 1 goalie.

Put it all together and the Pegulas put an end to the dysfunction with in the hockey department. The process now is all about building a proper one although we're unsure of where they want to begin. Hopefully it's with a Vice President of Hockey Operations who will define what it means to be a Buffalo Sabre as throughout the Pegula's ownership, we're not really sure what they want to be.

The Sabres have a future superstar in Jack Eichel at center and have a strong No. 2 in O'Reilly. They have a top-pairing d-man in Rasmus Ristolainen and a good number of role players spread throughout the lineup. If Lehner isn't the No. 1 goalie of the future, Linus Ullmark is in the hopper having made great strides in Rochester this past season after playing real strong as a rookie during Lehners injury.

However, the Sabres also have a lot of dead weight to move and will need to make decisions on 20 free agents this off-season and should also be looking to extend Eichel beyond next season. The draft is coming up and the Las Vegas Knights expansion draft is before that meaning they'll need to formulate their protected list.

Today's news is a bombshell, but with all that said, it's an opportunity for the Pegulas to get it right beginning with the front office. If they don't, we'll just be going through this again.



Thursday, April 20, 2017

As the Sabres turn--a Disco Dan/Jack Flash conundrum?

Published by bockeybuzz.com, 4-19-2017


The old adage in Hollywood is "there's no such thing as bad press." Well, the Buffalo Sabres are certainly going to test that. It wasn't bad enough that they were chasited relentlessly for "the tank," and that this year their season went caput while two contemporary teams made the playoffs, now the team needs to deal with internal issues between a marquis player and the coach. Oh, and the backdrop has the Sabres missing the playoffs for the sixth consecutive season while the NHL's Buffalo Bills just finished a 17th season outside the playoffs.

This may be a job for Sean Spicer.

Buffalo Sabres GM Tim Murray scheduled to meet with ownership today, there's a question as to what kind of remarks he'll be packing in his briefcase when he opens it up for Terry and Kim Pegula. Murray finished his end-of-season interviews with the players and hit the podium for the presser with question marks all over the place. He began by taking full responsibility for what he called "a very disappointing season" but distributed some of the blame to coaches and players. It was the second season Buffalo missed the playoffs with this core group of players and the second with coach Dan Bylsma on the bench.

Bylsma had the team Murray built at his disposal and finished with a worse record than the previous season. A shored up forward ranks and a full season of health from goaltender Robin Lehner wasn't enough to offset a weak defense, undermanned bottom-six and a number of long-term injuries to key players. Among the injured was franchise center Jack Eichel who missed the first 21 games of the 2016-17 season. However, the biggest problem may have had less to do with the above and more to do with rumors that Bylsma lost control of the room somewhere along the way.

There had been reports of a disconnect between players and coach in Buffalo for a number of months culminating with a report from WGR550 radio today that Eichel won't sign a contract extension if Bylsma is retained as head coach. From WGR's Paul Hamilton, "Inside sources have told me that Eichel has no desire to sign a contract extension this summer if Bylsma remains the coach."

Eichel was drafted second-overall in 2015 after the Sabres and is the future of the franchise. He was the last player Murray talked with during last week's exit interviews and when the GM talked to the press a few hours later, he never gave an endorsement of Bylsma as the head coach moving forward. "He's my coach today," said Murray at the time before qualifying it later saying that things could change.

That change could be as early as today after Murray is finished meeting with the Pegula's.

Peter Fish, Eichel's agent, called the report "ridiculous" via John Vogl of the Buffalo News. “I don’t know where anyone is getting these reports, but they are ridiculous in a word,” Fish told Vogl. “Jack, he left Buffalo, he thought he had a real good meeting with coach Bylsma and a real good meeting with Murray. When he got home to Boston, he was genuinely excited with the thoughts that maybe they’re just a few players away from getting into the playoffs."

Not being in the playoffs might be a particular thorn in Eichel's side this season as he watches his contemporaries--Connor McDavid (2015, first-overall, EDM) and Auston Matthews (2016, first-overall, TOR)--battling it out in the post-season for the first time in their careers. The 20 yr. old Eichel has a competitive spirit and hatred to lose not seen in Buffalo since "The Dominator," Dominik Hasek ruled the crease, the last time the Sabres made it to the Stanley Cup Finals in 1999.

"He's an extremely, extremely, competitive kid who hates to lose, he just hates it," Fish said. "He's just sitting there at the podium after a long season, World Cup, ankle injury, he missed the playoffs and he's got microphones in his face. Yes, his frustration level is there, but it's his frustration. He didn't get the team to the playoffs and he's frustrated and he wants to do better."

For some reason known only to those inside of the locker room, supposedly Eichel and a band of younger players tuned Bylsma out at some point. Veteran players were more apt to publicly say that they're professionals and they showed it on the ice by strictly adhering to Bylsma's system, but the big knock against Bylsma being rumored was that his system was too rigid and that his devotion to X's and O's created a disconnect that didn't resonate with the younger players, especially a talent like Eichel.

It's the second time that this has happened in Bylsma's two coaching stints.

Bylsma took over the Pittsburgh Penguins mid-season in 2009 and coached the team to the Stanley Cup that season. From thence came a decline and a gradual disconnect between Bylsma and his star players.

Here's what Chris Peters of cbssport.com wrote and thanks to our very own I'm That Guy, who posted the link and the following quote in the last thread:

"There are a lot of reports and rumors swirling that Pittsburgh Penguins coach Dan Bylsma’s days with the club are numbered and will get his walking papers any day now. One of the reasons, as reported by Rob Rossi of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review was that there was a disconnect between the team and its head coach, most notably between captain Sidney Crosby and Bylsma.

More from Rossi:

Crosby and Malkin felt they needed one another this season when they grew frustrated with Bylsma, the sources said.

Crosby and Malkin grew disenchanted with perceived harsh criticism they received from Bylsma during meetings, the sources said. They and other veteran players were unhappy with Bylsma's numerous meetings and long practices and the decreasing sense of fun within the Penguins' environment, the sources said.

Ownership believed Bylsma lost the dressing room this season, specifically the support of Crosby and Malkin, the sources said."

About the only thing missing from recent reports of disconnect in Buffalo was the "sense of fun" part. But anyone who watched this team through the last few months of the season could tell that this group of players lumbered through games often times with minimal passion.

Right now the Sabres have themselves a soap opera on their hands and it's sure to get noticed throughout the hockey world. Is it bad press? We shall see as there's a number of ways one could look at the situation.

Simply put, if the Sabres have any doubts about where this team will end up with Bylsma in charge, they need to pull the plug now. Murray is probably of the same thought as a disenchanted face of the franchise and/or a slow start to next season putting them in jeopardy of missing the playoffs again will probably mean a pink slip heading his way.

These are the days of our lives in Sabreland.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

On coaches, the Sabres and the Leafs

Published by hockeybuzz.com, 4-18-2017


Bucky Gleason has a very cool article in the Buffalo News today about the coaching carousel in the NHL which, he writes, is enough to make one's head spin. With Sabres head coach Dan Bylsma's status up in the air as he awaits the result of a GM/Ownership meeting this week, there is the possibility that the Sabres will have yet another coaching change, the fourth one since Lindy Ruff was fired. Ruff's tenure lasted just about 17 seasons and at the time of his firing was a part of the longest tenured head coach/GM tandem in the NHL.

But Ruff and GM Darcy Regier's long-time tenure is the anomaly in a league where coaches are hired to be fired, as the old adage goes. Professional sports is about immediacy and hockey is no different these days.

Gleason sets the ball rolling by starting with present St. Louis head coach Mike Yeo and does a Chronicles-like unwinding of the many coaches hired and fired. It's a pretty noble piece that moves well and in the end the simple conclusion is that there are three possibilities that preclude a coach being fired: "A) the general manager needed a scapegoat for a lousy roster he assembled because, heaven forbid, it's the GM's fault; B) the coach's message grew stale; C) players underachieved."

He concludes with "the most common factor is D) All of the above," which seems to be where Bylsma and the Sabres are at this point.

GM Tim Murray's 2016-17 team was flawed, maybe fatally although maybe not because of injuries. That's what he and owners Terry and Kim Pegula will be discussing when they meet in Boca Raton, FL this week to discuss the season. We also know that there was a disconnect between Bylsma and his players. How long this disconnect existed is up for debate but it could go back to the middle of December when disturbing trends on a team getting healthy again were starting to make their way into the picture.

And, no doubt, there were players that underachieved, most notably on defense and in the bottom-six. However, the top-six performed very well, at least statistically. Even Sam Reinhart surpassed his rookie output this season.

Something just wasn't right this season for Buffalo which brings it all back on the coach.

Gleason uses Buffalo captain Brian Gionta as a way go hoist some of the blame on the players. The supposed disconnect between Bylsma and the players had a lot to do with the coaches system, to which Gionta said two months ago that coaching systems didn't vary all that much in the NHL. Gleason writes, " It was the 15-year veteran's way of saying most teams approach the game in similar fashion and, therefore, his younger teammates and others needed to stop whining about Dan Bylsma," then concludes, "there are no secrets in the NHL. Hockey always has been, and forever shall be, an effort sport."

All of that is true, and motivating players to play their hardest in an "effort sport" apparently isn't one of Bylsma's strong points, at least with this team.

Former head coach Ted Nolan was a supreme motivator who employed (at most) basic X's and O's principles while touting the value of hard work, effort and accountability. His teams almost always overachieved yet he was always ridiculed as a dinosaur with no value in the modern NHL.

Yet, as Sabres fans watch the Stanley Cup playoffs for the sixth year in a row, it's not hard imagining a Nolan-coached team easily eclipsing the 78-point total that Bylsma's system-oriented team gathered.

And even if they didn't, there's one thing we Sabres fans could be pretty sure of.

When the Sabres met the Leafs for the final time this season at KeyBank Center with Toronto battling for a playoff spot and Buffalo in the role of spoiler, I'd almost bet the farm that a Nolan-coached team wouldn't have laid the colossal egg this team did in the embarrassment of that game. He'd have reveled in that playoff-like atmosphere.


*****

Speaking of that game.

Toronto eeked into the playoffs by one point. Buffalo had played a highly motivated game against the Leafs 10 days prior at KeyBank and totally manhandled them 5-2. Beating the Leafs again may have put them on the ropes to where they'd have missed out on the playoffs.

It didn't happen and much to the dismay of many a Buffalo sports fan, not only is Toronto in the playoffs, but they're leading the top-seed Washington Capitals 2-1 in the series. If a Sabres fan wants to beat his or her head every time they watch the Leafs this post season, they should do so against a 2016-17 Buffalo Sabres team picture.


*****

I get the consternation of Toronto in the playoff and as a Sabres fan I will always wish them to lose, expecting the same in return.

But when the anguish of a distraught fan comes in the form of "a little rant of 20+ reasons the Leafs have me bitter and salty," perhaps we're taking it a little too far.

When WGR550 morning host Jeremy White began is rant, I and every other Sabres fan can relate, but on the other hand, I get a kick out of watching Leaf Nation celebrate every goal as if it was the Stanley Cup winner.

The Leafs are a fun team to watch and it's good for the NHL as a whole that they're relevant again. Does it hurt a bit? Yeah, it does. Do I want to slit my wrists? Far from it.

I've said it before and I'll say it again. Toronto was the epitome of health this season and I'd bet the house that if Auston Matthews was injured for 21 games to start the season like Jack Eichel was, they wouldn't be in the playoffs. In fact if they also lost William Nylander and Mitch Marner like Buffalo lost Evander Kane and Ryan O'Reilly, they'd probably not be in the playoffs.

Everything went perfect for the Leafs this season and more power to them. And it's great for the NHL that in it's 100th Anniversary season, Toronto is back in the playoffs.


That's my story and I'm sticking to it.

Of the captaincy--Jack Eichel or Ryan O'Reilly

Published by hockeybuzz.com, 4-17-2017


There’s an amount of respect that should be given beat writers and media members who follow sports teams. Although this shouldn’t be confused with journalists covering human suffering in all it’s ghastly shapes and forms or those who are on the beat covering political processes that affect the vast constituency woven into our American fabric, sports journalists have a job to do and their sole focus upon the team(s) they cover is their livelihood.

Being a sports journalist in Buffalo has been particularly difficult, relatively speaking, when you consider that the Bills have been the laughingstock of the NFL for nearly the entirety of their 17-year playoff drought and the Sabres are beginning to enter snicker-territory as they just finished their six consecutive season outside of the playoffs. The Bills cast a particular pall over the Buffalo sports scene with their run of mediocrity while the Sabres took the dive away from middle of the road and were left to spin their wheels while supposedly climbing their way out of the basement of the league. A 25th place finish tells us that their not quite there yet.

So when a beat reporter or columnist opines about anything Bills or Sabres related, it's easy for us as fans to look at a piece and immediately have our emotions run the gamut anywhere from shrugging it off to ripping it to shreds.

In particular, the latest news hitting the Sabres, other than a "very disappointing season," in the words of GM Tim Murray, is the future of the captaincy for the team. There are many who say that being named captain is more of an honor and has very little to do with leading the team as all are expected to be professionals and play the game to their capabilities on a nightly basis. That may be true in the other major professional sports but I think of the captain of an NHL team directly contributes to successes and failures as they tend to embrace and/or define a franchise

Monday, April 17, 2017

Amerks end tough season on a sour note, but some bright spots emerge

Published by hockeybuzz.com, 4-16-2017


After making huge strides last season as the Buffalo Sabres emerged from two years at the bottom of the league with a season of progress before they took a step back this season. Among the issues that plagued Buffalo this season were key injuries, player/coach disconnect, vet/youngin disconnect, a weak defense-corps and severe lack of depth. Outside of disconnects on the Sabres, a troublesome aspect of the entire organization was lack of depth which was exposed when injuries hit hard, especially on defense and in addition to defensive woes in Buffalo, the Rochester Americans ended up feeling the brunt of it.

Whatever depth the Sabres had this season was stretched thin, something that didn't bode well for Rochester. It's a problem that's not unique to the Sabres/Amerks as an NHL club is constantly tapping into the farm team when injuries strike. With injuries mounting on the Buffalo blueline, the Sabres got help in the form of defensemen Justin Falk and Taylor Fedun, Rochesters top pairing. Both were called up in the middle of November and stuck with the Sabres well into December.

From November 12 when Fedun joined Falk in Buffalo to December 17 when he was sent back to Rochester, the Amerks went 4-11-1, were outscored by a 35-57 margin, were outshot 526 to 423 as a defense-corps of Casey Nelson, Eric Burgdoerfer, Brady Austin, Paul Geiger and Mac Bennett, and Brycen Martin, among others, were overwhelmed and undermanned. Rochester went from a middle of the pack 5-5-0 team to the lower levels of the conference.

The thin defense corps left goaltenders Linus Ullmark, John Muse, Jason Kasdorf and Jonas Johansson as ducks in a shooting gallery all season long. Ullmark had a pretty strong season for the Amerks going 26-27-2 with a 2.87 GAA and .909 SV%. He faced a league-high 1,678 shots while his 1,525 saves also were tops. Of note for those of us in Sabreland who watch shootout struggles from Buffalo's goaltending duo, Ullmark stopped 10 of 14 shootout attempts for a .714 SV%.

The Amerks were shut out 3-0 by the Albany Devils (NJD) last night and finished the season with a good stretch going 8-4-1 in the final 13 games. That included a 5-3 home win the prior night against the Devils to close out the home portion of the season. A couple of players also left the ice on the upswing. Forward Nick Baptiste finished with nine points (5+4) in his final eight games and Justin Bailey had seven points (4+3) in his last 10. Both will be expected to make a strong push for the Sabres roster next season as will forward Evan Rodrigues who played very well in his 30 games with Buffalo. Although four goals and two assists isn't mind-blowing Rodrigues held his own in a bottom-six role while showing he has the tools to stick with the big club.

Falk ended up playing 52 games for the Sabres and earned a contract extension from Murray in the process. Fedun is an unrestricted free agent and may be looking for greener pastures after he displayed solid two-way acumen at the NHL-level as his seven assists and plus-3 rating in 27 games would indicate. We're no sure if any bridges were burned this season, but he'd be a nice re-sign for the club.

When the team went in the tank for two seasons, the roster on both clubs was left in shambles. Murray began filling his NHL club with talent, but acquiring that talent sometimes meant plucking prospects from the farm system. That depleted system, especially on the blueline, really hurt this season and it will take more than one off season to address it properly. We can expect an influx of draft picks and free agents to make their way to Rochester this summer but how many and how much of an impact they will make is to be determined.

The Amerks recently signed defenseman Anthony Florentino (2013, 143rd-overall) to an AHL contract and he looks to be a solid defender. "Flo" spent the last five games of the season with Rochester and was an even plus/minus. Up front they'll have Alexander Nylander in a scorers role should he not be able to crack the lineup and in goal, Johansson looks to be the starter next season as Ullmark looks to be NHL-bound.

Although it's not all doom and gloom over there, a 25th place finish in the league for Rochester isn't' exactly rainbows, unicorns and jujus either. Murray has a lot of work to do with both clubs this off season and building quality depth in Rochester is something that won't be overlooked.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Would Murray gamble on a first-time coach with his job on the line?

Published by hockeybuzz.com, 4-14-2017


Tim Murray's end of season presser was hardly vote of confidence for his head coach after a "very disappointing" Buffalo Sabres season, but then again, he said nothing of moving on from Dan Bylsma either. Murray even said that he "hadn't had any thoughts of firing him" as well. Yet the door was left open as Murray still has a meeting with ownership next week.

"He's the coach today," said Murray of Bylsma, "like I'm the GM today. There's going to be a review top to bottom.

"The reason I always say today is that something could happen tomorrow."

Murray has been general manager since January, 2014 which is a little over three seasons. He began his tenure with the continued tear-down of the previous roster, and drafted forward Sam Reinhart second-overall in his first-ever draft as GM. He's on his second head coach and has reworked his lineup somewhat to his liking. There have been failures along the way and places where he could have done better with the bottom line being, his team regressed this season.

When he goes in with his "book full of notes" to discuss this past season, Murray will make his case to ownership. No doubt he'll point to injuries that felled Jack Eichel for the first 21 games as well as a host of others, but owner Terry Pegula will probably focus upon the stumbling that took place after Eichel, and Evander Kane and Ryan O'Reilly were back in the lineup for the last five or so months of the season.

That's where Bylsma comes into play.

The Sabres fell apart post bye week but there were cracks and fissures noticeable before that. Those cracks stemmed from a disconnect between some players and the coaching staff--between the players abilities on the ice and the rigid system Bylsma employed. Murray framed the disconnect this way, "I think that maybe [the coaches] are stuck in that (video) room and maybe they could put a coffee in their hand once in a while and do two hours of video instead of three and get out and get to know our players and talk to our players.

"It's about coaching individuals a little more and coaching systems a little less."

At his own end of season presser, Bylsma sais there wasn't a disconnect, but Murray had just finished player exit interviews and it would seem as if the players thought there was a chasm between themselves and the coaching staff lead by Bylsma. Amongst the most visibly irritated at the way things were going during the season was Eichel. As the future of this franchise his words hold a lot of clout with upper management and ownership and one might assume that the disconnect between him and Bylsma that we saw on the ice and that was mentioned in the media during the latter stages of the season likely came out during his exit interview. Eichel, by the way, was the last of Murray's player interviews and was said to be held just before the GM's presser on Wednesday.

There was talk in Pittsburgh that Bylsma lost the room before he was fired and it looked as if he'd lost the room in Buffalo less than two years into his tenure. Perhaps the rigid way he coaches is just the way he is which means if he's still around next season, any ill will between players and coach may will eventually manifest itself in losing ways. Bylsma has three years left on his contract and when Murray said "he's our coach today," perhaps the prevailing thought is that he'll need to get the OK from ownership that they're willing to eat the last three years before he gives Bylsma the pink slip.

If the team has serious reservations about whether Bylsma is the right man for the job, it's better if they fire him now. Waiting until the season begins severely limits the coaching pool from which to draw from. Just this week, a prime candidate in Gerard Gallant was just snatched up by the expansion Las Vegas Knights.

Gallant was a veteran coach, some would say retread, on the market and there remains another one who might be of interest to the Sabres--former Los Angeles Kings head coach Darryl Sutter.

Sutter finished his six-year run in LA with two Stanley Cups wins with the Kings including their first-ever in 2012. He has a long history of coaching that dates back to the  1992-93 season and his teams missed the playoffs only three times in his 18 years behind the bench.

When Murray took over the Sabres it seemed as if he was modeling his build after the Sutter-coached Kings as he used the term "heavy" on more than one occasion. However the game has changed and it's probably what caused Sutter and his GM Dean Lombardi, to get canned. After struggling for two seasons, Murray himself is devoting more of his focus to "speed and transition" which may leave Sutter out of the equation.

Regardless of NHL styles, hiring a veteran coach would be safe for Murray. Perhaps the ideal one would have been Gallant who guided a young, up-and-coming Florida Panthers team to a 103 points and a division crown two years ago. With him gone, as well as another well known coaching retread in Ken Hitchcock, the last of the big-name vets that might be appealing to Buffalo would be Sutter.

Then again, there are two young coaches that will in the very least get long looks from teams with coaching vacancies.

Former Sabre and NHL Hall of Fame defenseman Phil Housley has been working his way up the coaching ladder having been hired as a Nashville Predators assistant after he coached Team USA to the gold medal at the 2013 World Juniors in Ufa, Russia. The captain of that USA team was Buffalo Sabers defenseman, Jake McCabe. From Preds GM David Poile, "Phil brings a unique skill set to our coaching staff. He was one of the most talented offensive defensemen to play in the NHL, and he has worked extensively with young players during his coaching career. He will continue to focus his efforts on our young defensemen and assisting on the power play."
At the NCAA level is up and coming Denver University head coach Jim Montgomery who just lead the Pioneers to the 2017 NCAA championship. Montgomery team was the epitome of speed and transition and will be a hot commodity in an NHL that is all about speed and transition these days. Montgomery also has a bit of a Buffalo connection as he coached Zemgus Girgensons with the Dubuque Fighting Saints 2010-12.

Montgomery has also been working his way up the ladder. He started as an assistant at Notre Dame in 2005-06 and went to RPI for four seasons as an assistant. After three years in the USHL he was hired by Denver and since taking over the head coaching position in 2013, his Pioneers are sporting back-to-back Frozen Four appearances with a Championship this year.

Should Bylsma get fired, Murray will have a tough decision to make. Were he in this position last year he'd have a bit more wiggle room as his team was still feeling the effects of the "tank years." However, should Murray make a change, the focus would be squarely on him and there'd be a tremendous amount of pressure placed on a rookie head coach as Murray is headed into his fourth season as GM with the club.

Housley or Montgomery, or even Boston University's David Quinn, might be well worth it but it might take a couple of years for them to establish themselves. Sutter, on the other hand, would have the best chance for short-term success. Hiring Sutter and having him succeed at getting the team to the playoffs may end up saving Murray's job.

On the other hand, if Murray hired a rookie head coach, he may end up falling on the sword in the event of another team failure.

This is all speculation at this point as Bylsma's still the head coach but in the event of change, one would hope that Murray keeps the best interests of the organization in mind.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Buffalo Sabres 2016-17 Team Stats--Final

Published by hockeybuzz.com, 4-13-2017


When Buffalo Sabres GM Tim Murray meets with ownership next week he'll be packing a dossier loaded with information about the performance of head coach Dan Bylsma in the form of exit interviews with Sabres players. Mixed in with that will be Murray's personal views on Bylsma as a case will be made as to whether or not he feels the second year coach should be back for a third season.

Some of that was already revealed yesterday as Murray held a 30 minute end of season press conference and fielded questions on what he described as a "very disappointing season" for his team. He spread the blame around beginning with part of his opening statement which read, "I'm [at] the top of the food chain when it comes to hockey and I take full responsibility." He also stretched it to the players later during the question and answer session of the program when he asked rhetorically, "Where's the accountability on the players when we can't beat Colorado and Arizona (the two worst teams in the league) when we have a sniff of a playoff spot?"

A good chunk of the presser yesterday had to do with head coach Bylsma of whom Murray said, "he's my coach today," leaving him an out if his meeting with the Pegula's ends with a different view of Bylsma's future as coach.

Murray referred to injuries earlier in the season to key players like Jack Eichel, who missed 21 games as well as Evander Kane and Ryan O'Reilly, both of whom missed time during the first two months of the season. Eichel and O'Reilly finished 1-2, respectively, in points on the team this season while Kane lead the team in goals. Having them out of the lineup meant a significant shift in how Bylsma wanted to operate. Out went the hope of scoring and in came an extreme focus upon defense and goaltending--1.95 goals for/game (30th in the league) and 2.45 goals against/game (10th.)

With Eichel back in the lineup and Kane coming to life after returning a bit too soon from his four broken ribs, the Sabres ramped up their offense to finish with 2.43 g/gm, which was right where they were last season. However, it came at the expense of defense. When the team opened things up it turned on them as their shots against and goals against increased.

Therein lies the rub. There had been reports of a disconnect in the way the players felt they could play and how Bylsma wanted them to play once they got healthier. The tug of war lasted from December through February pre-bye week and the team managed to eek it's way ever so slightly up the standings but the bottom was about to drop out.

With the playoffs still in sight, the Sabres went 2-7-2 after their bye week and lost their interest as shown in the statistical drops across the board.

The only bright spot on the season was the powerplay which finished No. 1 in the league. It's the first time the Sabres had a powerplay in the top-five since they finished third in 2005-06 and it was only the second time they'd finished atop that category, the other being 1991-92, according to Sabres PR, who also pointed out the 25.4% conversion rate is third-best in franchise history and 13th best all time since 1987-88.

That said, when Murray heads into the office with the Pegula's he'll have some explaining to do as the team took a step backwards in nearly every aspect as shown below.

The numbers below added to the reported disconnect between Bylsma and his players plus some of the things Murray said yesterday like "it's about coaching individuals a little more and coaching systems a little less," makes it hard to believe Bylsma will make it through.

Until then, here are the final team stats for this season.



Buffalo Sabres Team Stats (League Rankings)...(Leader):


Wins

--October: 3 (T-23rd)...(MTL, 8)
--November: 8 (T-28th)...(MTL, NYR, 16)
--December: 13 (28th)...(CBJ, 26)
--January: 20 (T-27th)...(WSH, 33)
--February: 26 (T-23rd)...(WSH, 42)
--March: 32 (24th)...(WSH, 51)
--2016-17:  33 (25th)...(WSH, 55)
--2015-16: 35 (23rd)...(WSH, 56)
--2014-15: 23 (30th)...(ANA, 49)


Atlantic Division Standing

--October: 7th...(MTL)
--November: 8th...(MTL)
--December: 8th...(MTL)
--January: 7th...(MTL)
--February: 7th...(MTL)
--March: 7th...(MTL)
--2016-17:  8th...(MTL)
--2015-16: 7th...(FLA)
--2014-15: 8th...(MTL)


Eastern Conference Standing

--October: 12th...(MTL)
--November: 15th...(MTL)
--December: 16th...(CBJ)
--January: 15th...(WSH)
--February: 13th..(WSH)
--March: 14th...(WSH)
--2016-17:  15th...(WSH)
--2015-16: 14th...(WSH)
--2014-15: 16th...(NYR)


League standing/Points

--October: 20th/8...(MTL/17)
--November: 28th/21...(MTL/34)
--December: 28th/34...(CBJ/56)
--January: 27th/49...(WSH/72)
--February: 22nd/63...(WSH/91)
--March: 24th/76...(WSH/110)
--2016-17:  26th/78...(WSH/118)
--2015-16: 23rd/81...(WSH/120)
--2014-15: 30th/54...(NYR/113)


Points Percentage

--October: .500 (T-15th)...(MTL, .944)
--November: .477 (26th)...(MTL, .739)
--December: .472 (28th)...(CBJ, .800)
--January: .500 (24th)...(MIN, .724)
--February: .500 (T-22nd)...(WSH, .734)
--March: .494 (24th)...(WSH, .714)
--2016-17:  .476 (26th)...(WSH, .720)
--2015-16: .494 (23rd)...(WSH, .732)
--2014-15: .329 (30th)...(NYR, .689)


Goal Differential

--October: -1 (16th)...(MTL, +17)
--November: -13 (25th)...(NYR, +29)
--December: -23 (27th)...(CBJ, +50)
--January: -21 (26th)...(MIN), +54)
--February: -24 (23rd)...(WSH, +73)
--March: -28 (24th)...(WSH, +75)
--2016-17:  -36 (24th)...(WSH, +81)
--2015-16: -21 (20th)...(WSH, +59)
--2014-15 -113 (30th)...(NYR, +60)


Goals/Game

--October: 2.50 (21st)...(NYR, 3.89)
--November: 1.95 (30th)...(NYR, 3.67)
--December: 2.14 (28th)...(CBJ, 3.46)
--January: 2.43 (24th)...(PIT, 3.55)
--February: 2.46 (24th)...(PIT, 3.46)
--March: 2.48 (24th)...(PIT, 3.36)

--2016-17:  2.43 (24th)...(PIT, 3.39)
--2015-16: 2.43 (25th)...(DAL, 3.23)
--2014-15: 1.87 (30th)...(TBL, 3.16)


Shots/Game

--October: 27.4 (28th)...(TOR, 34.7)
--November: 29.4 (20th)...(PIT, 33.9)
--December: 29.5 (17th)...(PIT, 34.8)
--January: 29.8 (17th)...(PIT, 34.4)
--February: 29.7 (20th)...(BOS, 33.9)
--March: 30.4 (13th)...(PIT, 34.1)

--2016-17:  30.4 (15th)...(PIT, 33.5)
--2015-16: 29.5 (17th)...(PIT, 33.2)
--2014-15: 24.2 (30th)...(CHI, 33.9)


Goals-against/Game

--October: 2.50 (12th)...(MTL, 1.44)
--November: 2.45 (10th)...(SJS. 2.09)
--December: 2.67 (14th)...(MIN, 2.06)
--January: 2.78 (17th)...(WSH, 2.10)
--February: 2.79 (18th)...(WSH, 2.08)
--March: 2.79 (19th)...(WSH, 2.22)
--2016-17:  2.82 (19th)...(WSH, 2.16)
--2015-16: 2.62 (15th)...(ANA, 2.29)
--2014-15: 3.28 (29th)...(MTL, 2.24)


Shots against/Game

--October: 30.6 (20th)...(WSH, 25)
--November: 32.5 (26th)...(LAK, 25.4)
--December: 32.6 (27th)...(LAK, 25.9)
--January: 33.3 (29th)...(LAK, 25.9)
--February: 34.1 (30th)...(LAK, 26.0)
--March: 34.2 (30th)...(LAK, 26.0)
--2016-17:  34.3 (30th)...(LAK, 25.9)
--2015-16: 30.6 (22nd)...(NSH, 27.3)
--2014-15: 35.6 (30th)...(LAK, 27.0)


Powerplay

--October: 25.0 (7th)...(NSH, 35.7)
--November: 22.7 (5th)...(CBJ, 27.8)
--December: 21.6 (9th)...(CBJ, 27.4)
--January: 22.7 (5th)...(CBJ, 24.6)
--February: 22.2 (4th)...(TOR, 23.0)
--March: 25.3 (1st)
--2016-17:  24.5 (1st)
--2015-16: 18.9 (12th)...(ANA, 23.1)
--2014-15: 13.4 (30th)...(WSH, 25.3)


Penalty Kill

--October: 86.7 (7th)...(MIN, 96.2)
--November: 78.7 (25th)...(CAR, 89.7)
--December: 73.9 (30th)...(CAR, 88.8)
--January: 74.3 (29th)...(CAR, 87.8)
--February: 75.8 (29th)...(CAR, 86.0)
--March: 77.3 (26th)...(FLA, 85.7)

--2016-17:  77.6 (25th)...(BOS, 85.7)
--2015-16: 82.6 (9th)...(ANA, 87.2)
--2014-15: 75.1 (30th)...(MIN, 86.3)


Faceoff Percentage

--October: 54.7 (3rd)...(ANA, 59.3)
--November: 51.5 (5th)...(ANA, 56.8)
--December: 51.1 (9th)...(ANA, 56.0)
--January: 50.6 (11th)...(ANA, 55.1)
--February: 49.9 (14th)...(ANA, 54.7)
--March: 49.7 (16th)...(ANA, 54.6)
--2016-17:  49.6 (17th)...(ANA, 54.7)
--2015-16: 49.4 (21st)...(ARI, 54.7)
--2014-15: 44.9 (30th)...(BOS, 53.6)

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Sabres GM Tim Murray to face a lot of questions after a lost season

Published by hockeybuzz.com, 4-12-2017


On day when the 2017 NHL playoffs begin,it would have been much easier for Buffalo GM Tim Murray to answer what it felt like to break a five-year playoff drought and face the Washington Capitals in the first round. Or to describe the progress his team had made while being in the hunt late in the season. But neither scenario came true this season as the Sabres finished with 78 points, three fewer than the previous season, and were out of the playoff picture in early March.

Murray will be facing a multitude of tough questions from the media today beginning with his decision on head coach Dan Bylsma.

Perhaps there's no decision to be made in Murray's eyes as Bylsma guided this team through a multitude of key injuries with a defense-corps that was generally panned league-wide . Injuries were an excuse up to a certain point but after most of the team returned to health, they could not get the job done. From that point forward, was it the coach or the construct that lead to the Sabres' demise?

Bylsma has three more years left on his five-year contact and his team followed a season of strong progress with a giant egg this year. From a construct perspective, his defense was a huge weakness as they could not consistently do what either the team needed or what his system was predicated upon. Then again, a seeming lack of adaptability on Bylsma's part when the team was near full health lead to a reported disconnect between some players and the coach.

Despite what Bylsma said at his end-of-season presser, something was amiss and it centered around 20 yr. old Jack Eichel and his reported disconnect with Bylsma's system. Eichel is the franchise player this team spent two years in the gutter for and has shown that he should be in the same conversation as young studs Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews.

It will be interesting to hear how Murray approaches this aspect of the conversation and whether or not he still believes Bylsma and his system are right for his team and whether or not it will have an adverse effect on his franchise player.

Murray himself is squarely in focus as a supposedly "tough to play against" team he constructed (or wanted to construct) turned out to be paper tigers. When the heat was turned up this edition of the Sabres turned to mush. All may have been forgiven had they made progress this season, but they regressed and one would think that owner Terry Pegula is uneasy with what transpired with the team Murray built.

If Murray decides to retain Bylsma, he'll be passing up the opportunity to land a veteran coach like Daryl Sutter who won two Stanley Cups with the LA Kings or Gerard Gallant who guided a young Florida Panthers team to a 103 point season and an Atlantic Division crown last season. They may also miss out on a young, up-and-coming coach in former Sabres defenseman Phil Houlsley who's been working his way up the coaching ladder for years.

Keeping Bylsma represents a huge leap of faith by Murray and failure may cost him is job.

Also on tap is the status of left-winger Evander Kane.

We all know the story of Kane's off-ice antics and his on-ice attributes. Kane has one more season on his contract and lead the team with 28 goals, most of them 5v5 which was a huge weakness on the team. Murray has already said that Eichel and Sam Reinhart, who have one more left on their entry-level deals, are on tap first and that Kane would be addressed later.

Another contract to discuss is that of goalie Robin Lehner whom Murray traded a first round pick for. Lehner had a solid season and looks to be a good No. 1 goalie in this league. Lehner had the numbers, and presumably still has the confidence of his GM, but he had his moments, especially in the shootout where he failed to stop a single shot in eight attempts.

The contract with Lehner may have huge implications when addressing the Cal Petersen situation. Petersen was a standout goalie through three seasons at Notre Dame and may turn pro. Should he decide to, the Sabres have until June 1 to sign him, according to Kris Baker of sabresprospects.com/sabres.com, or he'll become a free agent. How he fits into Buffalo's plans will be the key talking point in any Petersen/Sabres talks.

There's Kyle Okposo's health, the expansion draft and the NHL Entry Draft to address as well as the team's approach to free agency, but most of the questions should center around what happened and who's to blame. If Bylsma's still the coach after Murray's opening statement, then we'll have a pretty good indication that the players will bear most of the responsibility in Murray's eyes. If not, then old adages like "it's easier to fire the coach instead of trading players" and "coaches are hired to be fired" will come into play.

Murray's presser is scheduled for 2 pm today. Should be interesting.

Requiem for a season of disconnects

Published by hockeybuzz.com, 4-11-2017



To put it the only way we can and should, the 2016-17 Buffalo Sabres season was a bust as injuries and inconsistencies sent the team and it's fan base on a roller coaster of manic ups and downs with the Sabres finishing last in the division. Buffalo missed the playoffs for the sixth consecutive season and the 78 points they managed fell short of their 81 points total from previous season. No one in this organization from owner Terry Pegula on down should be anywhere close to happy with what transpired and none should skirt responsibility either.

In retrospect, this may have been a lost season from the get-go as the newly christened World Cup of Hockey got things going in the wrong direction in Buffalo. The whole idea of a Olympic-style tournament sounded like a good idea with players playing for their countries, but having it during NHL training camps may not have been the best thing for a player like newly acquired defenseman Dmitry Kulikov.

Kulikov spent his time playing for Team Russia instead of being in Buffalo acclimating to his new surroundings. After Russia was eliminated from the tournament Kulikov finally hit the ice for his first practice as a Sabre later in September. He made his Sabres debut on September 29 and during the game he was checked into an open bench door. He injured his tailbone and back and although he tried to play through the injury, it basically derailed his season as Kulikov was either trying to nurse it back to health on the fly or missed games.

The injury to Kulikov had an impact on the defense corps but what happened to Jack Eichel the day before the season opener dealt a blow to Buffalo's offense. Eichel's high-ankle sprain kept him out of the lineup for the first 21 games of the season and to keep with the theme of key players going down, left-winger Evander Kane broke four ribs in the season opener and was lost for 11 games. Added into that injury was an ailing Ryan O'Reilly, who was suffering from abdominal issues as a result of playing in from the WCoH. Those injuries crippled the offense as vets and youngsters alike failed to adequately fill the void.

On defense, injuries to Kulikov, Zach Bogosian and Josh Gorges created openings that were partially filled by depth defensemen called up to Rochester as well as an emergency call-up for Canadian junior defenseman Brendan Guhle for three games in November.

In all the injuries were many and the lack of depth forced head coach Dan  Bylsma to change his approach early in the season as he employed a tight defensive system at the expense of offense. At one point in November, the Sabres were averaging under 1.70 goals/game yet somehow managed to stay around the .500 point mark through those games.

With the return of Eichel for the last game of November, the Sabres seemed to find their offensive legs in a 5-4 victory over the Ottawa Senators. The run-and-gun game that night was fun to watch for fans but gave the coaches ulcers as both teams produced scoring opportunities seemingly at will.

That game seemed to be a harbinger of things to come as players would struggle with their natural instinct to play shinny hockey in seeming opposition to Bylsma's systematic approach to the game. To the uninitiated Bylsma's system seemed too rigid a system for the speed and talent he had to work with, especially with a player like Eichel who has no trouble getting up ice and scoring when the opportunity is there, most times at the expense of defense. Throughout the second half of the season there were plenty of reports from the media that there was a disconnect between Eichel and Bylsma because of their differing apporaches.

This seeming clash of styles was not only on display from game to game but also within games as well. On more than a few occasions with Eichel back in the lineup, the Sabres would fall behind early in the game playing a tighter game only to come back when they opened things up with nothing to lose. It began against the Los Angeles Kings in December and really came to the fore as they won three consecutive come-from-behind games in overtime playing games just like that. Buffalo almost made it a fourth in a row but a couple of questionable calls didn't go their way and they lost in regulation to the Dallas Stars.

That reported disconnect between Eichel and Bylsma also reportedly seeped into the locker room. According to some reports a vet/youngin disconnect began bubbling with the young guns wanting to play one way and the vets following Bylsma's system.

Goalie Robin Lehner called out players for not following the game-plan and O'Reilly placed the blame on poor play during a string of losses on himself and his fellow teammates. Brian Gionta, Buffalo's 38 yr. old captain, also put the blame on the players, but there was a sense that the young brigade lead by Eichel and his 21 yr. old roommate and linemate, Sam Reinhart, had trouble getting on board with what Bylsma wanted. This supposed tug of war between vets and youngins, as alluded to by some members of the press, certainly didn't help unify the locker room.

There's a lot of blame to go around for the disappointment that was this season and no doubt injuries made for an uphill climb all season. But fact of the matter is, Buffalo was in a playoff race in February, but wilted. They also had many opportunities to jump teams ahead of them in the standings from December onward but came up woefully short nearly every time.

Buffalo GM Tim Murray's got himself some work to do for next season which includes shoring up the defense, finding another top-six talent to round out that group and moving some expensive dead weight. But maybe his most important work will involve becoming a conduit between players and coaches as well as vets and youngins. Despite what Bylsma said at his year-end presser, there are and have been disconnects all over this season and it started early and it looks as if that was a big contributor to the Sabres regression.

It wasn't supposed to go that way.

While talking to John Wawrow of the associated press less than a week before the start of the season, Murray told him that his team "should be getting better" then followed it up by saying, "When we stop getting better, than we've done something wrong."

Something, or a number of things, went wrong for Murray's team this season and a good starting point moving forward might be to make sure everybody's on the same page.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Linus Ullmark says, "Hey. Don't forget about me," in season finale



Published by hockeybuzz.com, 4-10-2017






When it comes to goaltenders in the Sabres organization, GM Tim Murray traded a 2015 first round pick for Robin Lehner to be his No. 1 goalie in Buffalo. Lehner, who's up for a new contract, appeared in 59 games for the Sabres and put forth a solid campaign in net despite floundering in the shootout. In the system, Notre Dame Cal Petersen (2013, 129th-overall) just finished his junior season with an NCAA Frozen Four semi-final loss which his 90th consecutive game played for the Irish. If he decides to forgo his senior season, the Sabres have until June 1 to sign Petersen or he'll be free to shop his services elsewhere.




Swedish netminder Jonas Johansson made his North American pro debut on March 25 for the Rochester Americans. The 2014 third round pick (61st) came over from the homeland and now has six starts under his belt. At 6'4" 204 lbs. Johansson certainly has the size that NHL teams seem to covet these days, but like the fellow Swede he's set to replace in Rochester next season, Johansson needs to further acclimate to the AHL/NHL style of play.




Lehner and Petersen have been grabbing all the attention in Sabreland lately and with Johansson crossing the pond, 2012 sixth round pick (163rd) Linus Ullmark, seems to be the forgotten man in all of this.




Ullmark has been in the system longer than any of them and his journey has been a long, step-by-step process was fraught with successes and failures from Sweden to Buffalo. It's a journey that incorporates five years of pro development that began with MODO Ornskoldsvik of the Swedish Elite League and continued in North America with a quick stint in Rochester before an extended stay in Buffalo before he headed back to Rochester for a full year of AHL seasoning. Along the way he won the Honken Trophy in 2013-14 for the SHL Goalie of the Year and helped keep a bad MODO team from being relegated in 2014-15. He elected for double hip surgery that off-season and healed remarkably fast to the point where a December, 2015 return date ended up being a call to Buffalo in October and a 20-game stint as a rookie in the NHL that fall/early winter.




The events of the prior  10 months finally caught up to him while playing for Rochester and he would finish his 2015-16 Amerks campaign with a 10-16-0 record, 3.41 goals-against average and .902 save percentage.


The 6'4" 212 lb. Ullmark came into this season as Rochester's undisputed starter and after a rough start settled in behind an Amerks team that struggled everywhere on the ice, especially on defense. This year in 53 appearances he's 25-26-2 with a 2.86 gaa and .909 Sv%. The 1611 shots he's faced are by far the most in the AHL.




This past weekend with the Sabres finishing their season in Florida, Ullmark got the call up to Buffalo. He backed up Lehner on Saturday vs. the Florida Panthers but got the nod for the finale in Tampa yesterday evening. The Sabres, however, ended up losing 4-2 to the Lightning through no fault of Ullmarks. He gave up three goals on 37 Lightning shots (.919 Sv%) with the game-winner being a deflection off of his defenseman. He was smooth in net, calm, cool and collected and flashed some leather to rob Tampa's Jonathan Drouin blind.




The Sabres are heading into this off season with only one signed goalie in the organization--Jason Kasdorf, who spent most of his time in the ECHL. Lehner and Ullmark are both restricted free agents while backup Anders Nilsson is unrestricted and unlikely to return. Johansson was signed by Rochester and we're still waiting on word as to what the future holds for Petersen.




That said, Ullmark showed yesterday that he's progressing nicely. Sure, it was a meaningless game for most players, but for others like Ullmark, he's still trying to make an impression. His strong game yesterday in the season finale was a way of reminding Murray that he's still around.

Monday, April 10, 2017

What the players might be thinking while sitting thru their exit interviews

Whelp, one more game and then we can say goodbye to a very disappointing 2016-17 Buffalo Sabres season.

After the Sabres finish up this evening at Tampa Bay, it’s back home for locker cleanout and exit interviews with the players and eventually the coaching staff. Word on the street is that head coach Dan Bylsma, as well as GM Tim Murray, will have some explaining to do when they meet with owners Terry and Kim Pegula to review the season and the Pegula’s will be looking for reasons as to why the team finished with a worse record than the prior season.

But most important for the future is what Murray can glean from his players concerning Bylsma and the coaching staff.

There seemed to be some serious disconnects as to how the players and the coaching staff wanted to approach the game and although njuries certainly were a factor early on, as the season progressed and the team got healthier they failed to make progress as a team.

While we’re not sure exactly what the individual players might be saying about their experience with Bylsma this season, perhaps this is what they may be thinking as they sit down for their exit interviews:

Jack Eichel: Hang on a second, am I in the right spot to do this?

Ryan O’Reilly: It’s my fault. I have to be better. Does that sound right?

Robin Lehner: Everyone’s responsible and if anyone disagrees, look into my eyes.

Rasmus Ristolainen: He should’ve played me until I collapsed.

Sam Reinhart: Sorry I'm late. Jiminy Christmas, I wish Jack would do the dishes. At least once.

Brian Gionta: I’m a professional professing about professionalism. And after this season, I'm done professionally playing for the Sabres.

Zemgus Girgensons: God, I really hope we don’t end up in Vegas together.

Evander Kane: Shoulda played me with Jack more.

Dmitry Kulikov: Sorry, can’t talk. Gotta catch next flight outta here.

Kyle Okposo: It doesn’t matter. I’ve got my health to think about right now, and even if I didn’t, it still doesn’t matter.

Jake McCabe: I want to stand somebody up.

Zach Bogosian: Screw the stretch pass.

Marcus Foligno: I love that guy. Second-line minutes with Jack? Who wouldn’t?

Josh Gorges: I’m confused. What did he want us to do?

Evan Rodrigues: I’m cool. Hope the next guy realizes I played on Jack’s wing in college.

Cody Franson: I never thought a coach could make me play slower than I actually am.

Justin Falk: I’m better than Franson and a faster skater too.

Sean Malone: I’m Ivy League and I can’t figure out his system .

Matt Moulson: Man, I love the powerplay. Hope he stays.

Alexander Nylander: It’s gonna suck at the family gathering this summer.

Will Carrier: I just wanna skate. Can I just do that?

Nicolas Deslauriers: Why didn’t you let me loose?

CJ Smith: Friggen’ A. I made it.

Tyler Ennis: I hope I impressed him with my fancy stickwork. Hope he stays if I did.

Taylor Fedun: I’m better than Franson and a much better skater, scorer and passer too.

Anders Nilsson: I told him to put me in for the shootout. He wouldn’t listen and now we both may be out of a job. (God I wish Lehner would stop with the death-stare)

Brendan Guhle shows his stuff.

Published by hockeybuzz.com, 4-8-2017


When Sabres d-prospect Brendan Guhle finished his 2015-16 WHL season he went to the Rochester Americans and proceeded to score a goal and add three assists in six games for the Amerks. Expectations remained high for the 6'3" 194 lb. Sherwood Park, Alberta native coming into Buffalo's 2016 training camp, but Guhle ended up back in junior.

An emergency call-up in November when the Sabres d-corps was devastated by injuries gave Guhle his first taste of NHL action, and just like in Rochester, the 2015 second-round pick never looked out of place. Unfortunately he had to go back to junior for the remainder of the season but he's back in the pros once again skating with the Amerks.

Last night was his first game back and he proceeded to score a goal as he joined the rush and sent a quick snap-shot home. Thanks to the Rochester Americans, here's what it looked like:




Guhle possesses NHL athleticism and skating ability and although he's known more for his savvy in the defensive zone, that shot and his ability to join the rush gives him the look of a mobile, two-way puck-mover. That he can step right in to the pros after his stint in junior bodes well for both him and the Sabres. That Guhle has continued to progress at a quick pace means he could very well be on track for the NHL next season.


*****

The Sabres announced the signing of West Seneca native Sean Malone to an entry-level contract and he'll be in the lineup tonight at Florida vs. the Panthers. Malone's Harvard Crimson was eliminated in the NCAA Frozen Four on Thursday and the 6'0" 190 lb. will don No. 42 in his pro debut. According to Jourdon LaBarber of sabres. com, Malone will be on the fourth line with Zemgus Girgensons and Nicolas Deslauriers.

Malone finished his college career with 42 goals and 57 assists in 115 games for the Crimson.


 *****

Only two games left for the Sabres this season--tonight at Florida, tomorrow at Tampa Bay--and only the game against the Lightning may carry any meaning.

Last night Tampa defeated the Montreal Canadians to draw within one point of the Toronto Maple Leafs for the second wild card spot in the Eastern Conference. Toronto plays tonight at home vs. the Pittsburgh Penguins and tomorrow vs. the Columbus Blue Jackets. Should the Leafs win this evening, they're in. Should they lose it will come down to tomorrow. The Lightning take on the Sabres beginning at 5 p.m. and the Leafs and Jackets face off at 6 p.m.

And let's not forget about the NY Islanders who are also only one point behind the Leafs.

They're on a four-game winning streak riding the hot hand of Jaroslav Halak and are on the road at the New Jersey Devils tonight and then finish off the season with a home date vs. the Ottawa Senators tomorrow.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

The Cal Petersen situation.

Published by hockeybuzz.com 4-7-2017


The Notre Dame Fighting Irish exited the NCAA's Frozen Four late last night after the Denver Pioneers steamrolled them 6-1. Buffalo Sabres prospect Cal Petersen (2013, 129th-overall) was in net for the Irish, as he has been for 90 consecutive Notre Dame games, and got shelled. Truth be known, Petersen didn't have much of a chance vs. the Denver as the Pioneers overwhelmed the Irish for much of the game.

With that loss and the completion of his junior season, the intrigue concerning Petersen and his future now begins. After three strong seasons in net for Notre Dame and definitive growth shown along the way, the 6'3" 190 lb. Waterloo, Iowa native has done everything in his college career except bring home a national championship for the Irish so there's a good possibility he's ready to turn pro.

Buffalo holds Petersen's rights, but according to Kris Baker of sabresprospects/sabres.com, after consulting with those familiar with the NHL/NHLPA Collective Bargaining Agreement, June 1 is D-Day for Petersen. Here's his explanation via his appearance on WGR550's Shopp and the Bulldog yesterday.

"The CBA says that this is the fourth June 1st when he was drafted in 2013. It's about the year you were drafted in so 2017 would be four June ones. By the CBA, Section 8.6, if the Sabres don't have him locked up by June 1st, he's free to shop his services."

Here's the legalese Baker mentioned in Section 8.6:

(iv) If a Player drafted at age 18 or 19, who had received a Bona Fide Offer in accordance with Section 8.6(a)(ii) above, becomes a bona fide college student prior to the second June 1 following his selection in the Entry Draft and does not remain a bona fide college student through the graduation of his college class, his drafting Club shall retain exclusive rights for the negotiation of his services until the fourth June 1 following his selection in the Entry Draft.
Let's hope we come out on the good side of this one.

Friday, April 7, 2017

All the right words

Published by hockeybuzz.com, 4-6-2017


The Buffalo Sabres won last night, which is good unless you'd like for them to lose which would mean a move them up the draft board, at least until the lottery. After beating a Montreal Canadiens team that was more interested in staying healthy than it was in winning the game, the Sabres now find themselves with a 33-35-12 record and with two more wins they'll eclipse last season's 81-point effort by one.

Whoopee!

"It's another failed season in my mind," said Jack Eichel to the post-game media last night.

Be it known that Eichel is having a strong season despite missing the first 21 games with a high-ankle sprain. The sophomore phenom has 24 goals and 33 assists in 59 games for Buffalo and his 57 points leads the team. Eichel's 0.97 points/game is far and above the 0.69 mark he sported as a rookie last season and is top-10 amongst players playing 55 games or more.

But Eichel, like most if not all of his Sabres' teammates, were plagued by inconsistencies this season. Top-six forwards like Evander Kane, Sam Reinhart and Ryan O'Reilly are all where they should be amongst the top producers on the team but their point-totals belie a truth that sabotaged their season--when the team needed a win, they whiffed and were left to lament about it as they begin to make their tee times.

Whether the failures of this season lie with GM Tim Murray for his team-construct, or coach Dan Bylsma for his system or, like O'Reilly said yesterday, it's with the players, the Sabres hit a road block this season. Even with all the injuries to key players they had early in the season, Buffalo was in the playoff mix up until late February when a post bye-week 2-7-2 swoon effectively ended their season. Since then they've been playing out the string with a mix of wins and losses to go along with all the right words after solid efforts and pathetic ones alike.

Last night was Fan Appreciation Night for Sabres fans, which was to be a celebration of fans and team. The players did their fans a solid by beating Montreal in the final game of the season at KeyBank Center, and they gave the jerseys off of their backs post-game to lucky season ticket holders, but in all the night seemed to lack authenticity.

For many Sabres fans, the prior game against a Toronto Maple Leafs team that was visiting whilst in the throes of a playoff race was a truly meaningful game and most if not all Sabres fans would have appreciated an effort that reached above pathetic, especially in the first five minutes. That 4-2 loss, complete with Nazem Kadri calling Rasmus Ristolainen, and by extension the whole Sabres team, "effin' wussies" while Leafs fans celebrated at KeyBank Center, defined just how appreciative this group of Sabres was in regards to the Buffalo fans and the game they're lucky enough to play for a living.

"It's a shame we didn't put the effort forward tonight," Reinhart said to the media afterwards. No, Sam, get it right. That effort was shameful.

I have no problem with Eichel, especially how he approaches the game and with how he genuinely hates to lose. On Tuesday he spoke with the media about how the fans are "pretty loyal to us" and how the fans filled KeyBank Center whether they're playing good or bad hockey. Eichel talked about a "mediocre two years" and how, he said, "it’s a bit disappointing, a bit embarrassing for us as players that we can’t be better for them."

Yeah, well, show it on the ice.

Prior to last night's game O'Reilly took questions from the gathered media and he bemoaned this edition of the Sabres. "We're not a very good hockey team. We've let a lot of things go that we normally shouldn't," he said pregame.

"It's so frustrating coming to the rink right now. Practicing. There's no purpose to it," he added. "I'm sick of losing. It's getting exhausting and it's not fun. It sucks the fun out of the game."

Well, guess what, there Ryan, at least your not shelling out your money to see the embarrassment Sabres fans have witnessed at times this season, most notably the last Toronto game. By many accounts O'Reilly may have had his worst game as a Sabre in that one.

Of course from now until training camp when the Buffalo's flag of hope will once again be hoisted up the flag pole of a new season, we'll hear players lamenting the what-could-have-beens and about how they need to be better. O'Reilly, as always, directed his dismay with a lost season inward. "I really didn't step up and hold guys accountable and be a voice, and it's tough," he said of being one of the leaders on the team. "I think at times I didn't say enough, and at times I maybe said too much."

Eichel would chime in on the leadership question as well. "As much as I'm a young guy, I've got to take on more responsibility, be more of a leader on this team," he said. "I've got to expect more out of myself."

Reinhart waxed philosophical after the Toronto debacle saying "It's frustrating from our standpoint because it's not just going to change overnight and it's not just going to change over a summer. We have to find a way to get better on a nightly basis, all of us."

"We have to find a way to be better."

Sounds like all the right words to me.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

The home schedule ends versus the team we started with: Montreal

Published by hockeybuzz.com, 4-5-2017


It seems like a long time ago, yet the season went by so fast. Back on October 13 with the NHL starting it's season a bit late to accommodate the World Cup of Hockey, the Buffalo Sabres opened up their season at home against the Montreal Canadiens, the team they'll be playing tonight as they close out the home portion of their 2016-17 schedule.

Right from the get-go there was a cloud hanging over the team. Buffalo's Jack Eichel suffered a high-ankle sprain at practice the day before and would not end up making his season debut until November 29. Prior to that newly acquired defenseman Dmitry Kulikov missed most of his first Sabres camp while competing in the WCoH and ended up getting checked into an open bench door in his first preseason game. Kulikov missed the opener vs. Montreal and would struggle mightily most of the season as he tried in vain to play through it.

Free agent signee Kyle Okposo also missed the opener after taking a puck to the knee in practice and you can add Ryan O'Reilly into the mix of injured. O'Reilly was suffering from back spasms after playing for Canada's WCoH team and it was a lingering problem that dogged him through the first half of he season until an emergency appendectomy on Christmas Day forced him to the sidelines for a full week of recovery time.

That's how things started out for Buffalo this season and even with Vezina Trophy winner Carey Price out for the opener, Montreal stifled the Sabres and walked out of KeyBank Center with a 4-1 win. To add insult to the already debilitating rash of injuries, LW Evander Kane crashed hard into the boards late in the second period and was lost for the next 11 games. It would take him an additional 10 more games to fully recover from the four broke ribs he suffered against Les Habitants.

So it went and so it goes.

It's been a season of ups and downs, mostly downs, but at least the Sabres have been able to give their hometown fans a little more bang for their buck as opposed to previous seasons. At one point a few years back they were abysmal at home going 27-43-12 during the two tank years spanning 2013-15 but they began to turn it around last season with a 16-19-6 record at home. This year they'll head into tonight's KeyBank finale with a 19-15-6 record which marks another year of progression. Of note, the Sabres haven't had a winning record at home since they finished 21-12-8 in 2011-12, the first full season under the ownership of Terry Pegula.

There was a lot of talk yesterday concerning the fans and how the players are embarrassed at some of the performances they've had in front of the home crowd. This of course was on the heels of their most abysmal performance since the tank years, a 4-2 loss vs. the rival Toronto Maple Leafs.

Eichel talked to the gathered media yesterday about the fans and how they were "pretty loyal to us, obviously. If we don’t play well, they’re here. Play good, they’re here. Play bad, they’re here.

“It’s been a mediocre two years,” he continued. “More than anything, it’s a bit disappointing, a bit embarrassing for us as players that we can’t be better for them. You want to please the fans because of all they’ve been through and all they continue to put up with. You just want to be better.”

Don't we know it.

But with all due respect, and most like I have the utmost respect for Eichel, it's all just talk.

The crap-show they put on display vs. Toronto Monday night is inexcusable and couldn't have been more embarrassing to the players, coaches, management, owner, fans and Western New York itself as they laid an egg of monstrous proportions. The players didn't show up, as has happened many this season, and some trash-talking by an emerging thorn in the Sabres side, Nazem Kadri, pretty much summed up just what kind of team showed up for Buffalo that night.

After scoring Toronto's fourth goal to effectively put the game away Kadri took his mouthpiece out and called out Ristolainen for being an effin' wussy, albeit in a more colorful fashion. It was a slap in the face to not only Ristolainen but to the entire team as a rollicking KeyBank Center with the throngs of Leafs fans roared their approval. Kadri was right in one respect, nearly every time the Sabres played a game with significant meaning this season, they failed, and on more than one occasion failed miserably.

In the eyes of many a Sabres fan, that game against Toronto was one that had a helluva lot more meaning that tonight's game. Sure remorse is one thing, but I can't help but think of a Sabres fan watching this live and in person while being subjected to a hearty Leafs celebration breaking out all around them.

That was the one to win, not this one.

However, it is Fan Appreciation Day and players will give the uniforms off their backs to lucky season ticket holders after the game and we begin the cycle again.

I hope the schedule-maker has Toronto, instead of Montreal, as the bookends to next season.