Monday, May 22, 2017

O'Reilly leads Team Canada to win over Russia. Antipin ready to ink?

Published by hockeybuzz.com, 5-20-2017


Buffalo Sabres center Ryan O'Reilly scored the game-winning goal and added a primary assist on an empty-netter in helping Team Canada rally for a 4-2 victory over Team Russia at the IIHF World Championships in Cologne, Germany. Much like he did in Buffalo, O'Reilly was a workhorse for the Canadians as he skated 21:21 which was second only to defenseman Colton Parayko (STL.) He was recognized as the Player of the Game for Team Canada.

O'Reilly has eight points (5+3) in nine game for the tournament and will have the opportunity to add to that as Team Canada will face off against the winner of today's Sweden-Finland matchup for the right to play for the gold medal.

Meanwhile, Russian defenseman Viktor Antipin, whom the Sabres are said to be signing very soon, will play in tomorrow's bronze medal game against the loser of Sweden-Finland. The 5'9" 176 lb. Antipin left the Canada/Russia matchup with a plus-1 rating and one shot on goal. For the tournament Antipin has three assists in nine games and has a plus-4 rating.

Antipin's name has been associated with the Sabres for weeks now with hockeybuzz.com's Aivis Kalnins tweeting yesterday that "Antipin and Sabres talked recently and nothing has changed, expect him to sign with the Sabres." That the Antipin signing was still moving in that direction was confirmed when Russian hockey writer Igor Eronko talked with hosts Howard Simon and Jeremy White on WGR550 Radio yesterday.

"I heard this months ago that [Antipin's] definitely leaving [the KHL]," Eronko told the hosts. "I can confirm that he will sign exactly with Buffalo."

The hosts were curious as to why Antipin chose Buffalo and, as Sabres fans know, there was an obvious reason. "Because there's a place for him," he said. "The Sabres don't have the best defense in the NHL, obviously, and they have a spot for a guy like him." He continued on giving us a little insight into the player that is Viktor Antipin. "He's small in stature but very strong on the puck. [He's] a good puck-moving defensemen and that's exactly what may be needed for Buffalo in the top-four.

"He's wins a lot of battles, he plays penalty kill and powerplay and in all key situations he's on the ice. He's a defenseman that's quite reliable."

Anyone who's had the opportunity to watch Russia in this tournament can see that their transition game is top-notch and their defense is very active. Antipin is definitely of that ilk and oft-times one can find him in the slot in the offensive zone.

On the negative side, Eronko thinks Antipin will need to add speed and strength.

If all works out, perhaps sometime early next week we will have Antipin's signature on a Sabres contract which constitutes a step in the right direction for the team as they try to fix a broken defense-corps.


Saturday, May 20, 2017

Of Buffalo's FA's, coaching search, NSH d and Jack EiCHeL

Published by hockeybuzz.com, 5-19-2017


The Buffalo Sabres have 19 free agent contracts on the docket with 10 unrestricted and nine restricted.

Half of the UFA's are in Rochester with four of them--forwards Cole Schneider and Derek Grant plus defensemen Erik Burgdoerfer and Mat Bodie--as possible re-signs. Cal O'Reilly already moved on after being loaned to the Toronto Marlies late last season. The other five UFA's were from the big club--captain Brian Gionta, defensemen Cody Franson, Dmitry Kulikov and Taylor Fedun plus goalie Anders Nilsson--and of those only Gionta and Fedun look to be possible re-signs at this point in time.

Unlike UFA's, restricted free agents have little say in their immediate future with the team holding all the cards. Here's the list of restricted free agents new general manager Jason Botterill and his staff will be looking at:

F, Marcus Foligno
F, Johan Larsson
F, Zemgus Girgensons
F, Evan Rodrigues
LW, Jean Dupuy
C, Justin Kea
D, Brady Austin
G, Robin Lehner
G, Linus Ullmark

Botterill spent this week hunkered down with his scout to compare notes about the upcoming draft. Among the other things he needs to work on is finding a head coach as well as hiring those who will lead his scouting departments. Eventually he'll get to all of these free agents as the Expansion Draft is coming soon and the start of free agency begins shortly thereafter.

Not much has been coming out but our hockeybuzz colleague in Europe, Aivis Kalnins, tweeted that "Botterill also reached out to Girgensons via text but no contract has been discussed yet." Kalnins also tweeted that a Viktor Antipin/Sabres union is still a go, but nothing formal has been announced. "Antipin and Sabres talked recently and nothing has changed, expect him to sign with the Sabres," he tweeted.

Good news for the Sabres on both fronts.


*****

The Sabres and the Florida Panthers are the only NHL teams without head coaches at this juncture and it's almost assured that Nashville Predators assistant coach Phil Housley will occupy one of those positions.

Housley's been getting a lot of press lately for the job he's done with the mobile, offensive-minded Preds defense, and rightfully so. Nashville's d-corps is an aggressive group is constantly on the offensive, which is pretty much how Housley played his entire career. His coaching career got a huge boost when he lead Team USA to the 2013 World Junior Championship in Ufa, Russia and he also survived a coaching change in Nashville when Barry Trotz was replaced by Peter Laviolette.

And not too long ago there was word of a Botterill/Rick Tocchet link to the Sabres head coaching job even before Botterill was officially announced as the Sabres new GM. Which make sense. A new general manager leans towards bringing in people he's familiar with and Tocchet had been in Pittsburgh since June, 2014.

Tocchet's coacing resume' is a bit longer than Housley's in that he cut his teeth behind the bench in 2002 and he also had a 148-game stint as the head coach of the Tampa Bay Lightning from 2008-10. Not much came out of that except that he received props for getting Steven Stamkos' career on track.

Botterill had said that he would be doing a fairly extensive head coaching search but Sun Media's Steve Simmons tweeted out, "Most people on the inside I talk to are expecting either Rick Tocchet or Phil Housley to be the next coach of the Buffalo Sabres."

There are some other names mentioned to be in the mix like Todd Reirden, Kevin Dineen, Bob Boughner and Ralph Kreuger but Housley and Tocchet always seem to be at the fore. And for good reason. Both are said to have a great rapport with young players and both, because of their playing careers and their successes as assistant coaches on winning teams, should gain the type of locker room respect Botterill is looking for.


*****

Speaking of Nashville, Simmons Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Mike Babcock and his GM Lou Lamoriello were taking in the Anaheim Ducks/Preds game last night. "Been covering playoffs for more than 30 years. It's rare to ever see an eliminated NHL coach at another playoff game," tweeted Simmons. "Have to believe if Mike Babcock and Lou Lamoriello are in Nashville it ain't for hanging out on Broadway. There must be defenceman in play."

Both Anaheim and Nashville are loaded on the back end and with the expansion draft coming up, there's a possibility that a quality d-man may be available. It's well known that the Sabres are in need of some help in the top-four and although he wasn't physically at the game, one would bet that Botterill has his eye on that series.


*****

Team USA was shut out 2-0 by Team Finland yesterday at the IIHF World Championships in Cologne, Germany. Buffalo's Jack Eichel did not have the greatest of tournaments with zero goals and five assists in eight games plus he ended the tournament in the penalty box after he was called for a high-stick with 1:52 to play.

International play seems to be hit or miss with Eichel, which is fine as long as he brings it during the NHL season. Here's what Eichel has done on the international stage for Team USA:

2013 U17:  5gp, 3g, 2a
2013 WJC18:  7gp, 1+1
2014 WJC18:  7gp, 5+5
2014 WJC:  5gp, 1+4
2015 WJC:  5gp, 1+3
2015 WC:  10 gp, 2+5
2016 WCOH:  3gp, 1+1
2017 WC:  8gp, 0+5

In all 60 games played, 14 goals, 21 assists.

His NHL totals:  142 games played, 48 goals, 65 assists.

Bust!

Eichel joined Girgensons (Team Latvia) on the outside looking in while Buffalo still has World Championship interest as the aforementioned, but unsigned as of yet, Antipin is still in it for Team Russia and Team Canada with Ryan O'Reilly have advanced to the semi-finals.





Friday, May 19, 2017

Buffalo-centric tidbits featuring Leino, Bills, Sabres & 30 Thoughts

Published by hockeybuzz.com, 5-17-2017


Former Buffalo Sabres forward Ville Leino hoodwinked the Sabres into a six-year, $27 million contract back in 2011. Now he's hawking a "artist series" hoodie because, apparently, the $1.2 million annual tag for the compliance buyout by the Sabres through the 2019-20 season isn't enough of a financial cushion for his exile from the National Hockey League.

Leino performance was universally panned and contract is widely considered one of the worst free agent signings of all time. His career with the Sabres spanned 137 games in which he scored 10 goals and added 36 assists. Leino pocketed $16 million in those first three years with the Sabres which comes out to $1.6m/goal and another $7.33 million for Buffalo to say good riddance.

But the dude has some serious issues with his final year in Buffalo that needed to be expressed artistically, so he drew some kids scrawl artwork featuring a crude face, cross and the word "Jail," as if to imply that his last year in Buffalo was like being in jail.

Here's his quote about the "work":

"One of my most personal works. I was playing my third year in Buffalo Sabres with long and big contract. Things weren't working with me and the team. I was getting a lot of pressure and heat and there was no way out of it. I felt trapped and down. All I could do was get up every morning and go to work and try to make it work. This painting reflects those feelings that I was going through on that perioid of time." - Ville Leino.

He seems to have put more work into that than he did on the ice in Buffalo and my God, when you signed that contract there, Ville, you mean to tell me that you weren't prepared for the pressure and scrutiny of a lucrative long-term contract like that? And there was no way out? Really?

Get real.

It's an intriguing piece in a way, and I'd certainly be interested in buying it.

*Reaches into pocket*

I've got 17 cents, a ball of lint and some crumbs from the pizza I ate last night. How's that? I'd say it's about equal to what you gave the Buffalo Sabres organization while you were here.


*****

The Buffalo sports scene has been in a rut and, like Leino, has been universally panned lately, or in the case of the Buffalo Bills, the entirety of this century. However, and I say this cautiously, things look to be getting better.

When the Pegula's took over the Sabres and the Bills they soon found themselves in way over their heads. Terry Pegula headed a very successful energy company but he soon found out, unlike the man in the Oval Office, the world of pro sports is a completely different beast and it's best to surround oneself with those who know how it works.

To their credit, the Pegulas gave the incumbent general manager and coach the opportunity to continue on with the new owners. Unfortunately both tandems failed which lead to a dual GM search this spring and two new coaches this calendar year. However, there is still no "guru" at the top of either organization.

In lieu of that, the Pegulas are heading in the right direction with quality front office hires for their football operations. It actually started with the hiring of new head coach Sean McDermott and although he has an unusual amount of power for a head coach, at least he seems to be putting the Bills on the proper course.

McDermott was at the forefront of hiring Carolina Panthers AGM Brandon Beane to be general manager in Buffalo and as the Bills begin to build a scouting department that was let go along with the firing of former GM Doug Whaley, they've added two more quality people. Joe Schoen, the Miami Dolphins director of player personnel was hired as an assistant GM and Brian Gaine as new vice president of player personnel. Gaine was brought over from Houston where he served as director of player personnel with the Texans.

Both are roundly accepted as quality hires for Buffalo as they try to break out of a 17-year playoff drought.


*****

Elliotte Friedman's 30 Thoughts for Sportsnet.ca is a mainstay for hockey fans and he had plenty to say about the Buffalo Sabres in his latest edition.

The Sabres have a new GM in Jason Botterill and are looking for a new head coach. Botterill gave a general framework as to what he's looking for in a head coach and also said that experience is not a necessity. Yet he wants the new head coach to have respect when he walks into the locker room, something that was apparently missing last season with departed head coach Dan Bylsma.

There are only two teams in the NHL without a head coach right now--Buffalo and the Florida Panthers. Friedman points out that Cats GM Dale Tallon is in Europe taking in the IIHF World Championships as part of Team USA's leadership. Among the names mentioned in association with Florida are, Marc Crawford (OTT), Phil Housley (NSH) and Paul MacLean (ANA).

Crawford is an interesting name to crop up in the conversation as he won the Stanley Cup with Colorado in 1996. He's coached over 1100 games for four different franchises and is presently an associate coach with the Ottawa Senators.

Friedman then brings some other names to the fore.

"Botterill knows Todd Reirden (WSH) and Rick Tocchet (PIT) very well," he wrote. "He almost hired New Jersey assistant Geoff Ward for AHL Wilkes-Barre, eventually choosing Mike Sullivan. Housley and San Jose’s Bob Boughner could be interviewed here, too. And I do wonder if he’d ask Jim Rutherford about Montreal’s Kirk Muller. Rutherford hired Muller in Carolina."

Botterill is in no hurry as he has other things on the front burner, but those are some names to keep an eye on.


*****

In more front office work, Friedman also mentions Botterill's under the radar search to fill scouting vacancies.

"Botterill said there have been 'no restrictions' on who he can take from Pittsburgh to Buffalo, with one caveat: no lateral moves. So, if he’s taking anyone, it has to be a promotion. He wouldn’t comment on specific names, but two are making the rounds. One is former Ottawa and Florida GM Randy Sexton, who is the Penguins’ director of amateur scouting. The other is Derek Clancey, director of pro scouting."


*****

Finally, Friedman touched upon Russian defenseman Viktor Antipin who opted out of his KHL contract and is said to be headed to Buffalo.

The previous regime got the wheels turning on this one and there were questions as to whether or not Buffalo and Antipin is still in the works with a new GM. "The vultures circled, wondering if the changes in Buffalo meant Antipin would waver on his decision to join the Sabres," wrote Friedman. "But it sounds like he’s sticking with his original decision. Not for lack of trying."

Which is good news for a Sabres defense which seems to be priority-one from a roster perspective. And just for good measure, Friedman had to bring forward Evander Kane into the conversation as Botterill mentioned using every possible avenue to try and fix the defense. "[Botterill] wouldn’t discuss specifics, but the organization has to make a decision on Evander Kane. Do they let him play out his contract, re-sign him or try to move him for that defender?"

Good question. It's one that should be in the news for a while.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Eichel/USA take down Russia/Antipin at Worlds as PP finally breaks through

Published by hockeybuzz.com, 5-16-2017


It took a while for Team USA to finally figure out how to break through on the powerplay and thanks to Team Russia's penchant for aggressive stick penalties, the Americans had themselves plenty of chances. Russia committed eight minor penalties with seven being either slashing or high-sticking.

Team Russia came out wielding the stick 3:51 into the first period and by the end, Team USA was on their fifth powerplay, which included a double-minor for drawing blood on a high-stick. Unfortunately USA couldn't get one past Russia netminder Andrei Vasilevsky as his penalty killers clogged the middle with a tight box. However two unsuccessful powerplays did forshadow how the Americans could finally break through.

On one powerplay mid-way through the first, Team USA got a shot through and crashed the net on one of the few rebounds Vasilevsky left. Although it didn't work, early in the second period with a carryover powerplay Clayton Keller (ARI) got a shot through from the point that handcuffed Vasilevsky and he left a rebound in the crease. Brock Nelson (NYI) found the puck and found a wide open Jimmy Hayes (NYR) on the weak-side and Hayes buried it to knot the score at 1-1.

The second period was about as good a period of hockey you'll ever see as two long-time hockey adversaries traded hits, skating and scoring chances. When all was said and done Team USA overcame two more one-goal deficits and headed into the intermission with a 3-3 tie.

With just under eight minutes to play and the game knotted still knotted, the Americans took their first lead of the game by converting on the powerplay again. Buffalo's Jack Eichel, who'd been trying time and time again to get a cross-ice pass through the tight Russian defense finally did as he sent a bullet to Johnny Gaudreau (CGY) on the weak side. Gaudreau wasted no time sending it to Anders Lee (NYI) on the far side of the crease for the tap in.

USA would add an empty net goal for the 5-3 final score. It was Team USA's sixth win in a row after dropping their first preliminary round game to Germany. With the win USA wins Group A.

Potential Buffalo Sabres free agent signee Viktor Antipin was patrolling the Russian blueline and finished the game with 17:28 of ice-time while registering a shot and an even plus/minus rating. He was on the weak side when Eichel made his pass to Gaudreau but couldn't do much on the play. Antipin played both sides of the ice and looked very solid. For the seven preliminary round games he's played in Antipin registered one assist, had five shots on goal and was a plus-2.

Word on the street is that Antipin will be signing with the Sabres after the World Championships.



Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Buffalo Sabres Expansion Draft protected list, Version 1.0

Published by hockeybuzz.com, 5-15-2017


New Buffalo Sabres general manager Jason Botterill has said that he'll be focusing upon his amateur scouting department this week as he huddles with his scouts to compare notes for the upcoming NHL Entry Draft in June. In addition, Botterill will also be prepping for the upcoming NHL Scouting Combine later this month which will once again be hosted by Buffalo.

After the combine ends on June 3, the next big event facing Botterill will be preparing for the Expansion Draft which begins with teams submitting their list of protected players by 5 p.m. on June 17.

Botterill is familiar with the Sabres roster as he was in charge of keeping tabs on all NHL teams, their players and salary cap situation as an assistant/associate GM with Pittsburgh over the last eight years. Add in the proximity between Buffalo and Pittsburgh plus any games between their AHL affiliates and Botterill has a general idea as to what the Sabres have in the organization.

The Sabres right now are close to the salary cap with a number of contracts that are rather unsightly and one would think that a capologist like him might look at the expansion draft as a way of moving one of them. It might take some extra incentive if the form of a draft pick for the Las Vegas Golden Knights to sign-on to a proposition like that, but deals like that happen more often than we think.

The cool part about Botterill taking over right now for deposed GM Tim Murray is that he's totally unencumbered by the former GM's decisions. Players like Matt Moulson, Zach Bogosian, Josh Gorges and Robin Lehner, all players acquired by Murray, are now fair game and for players like that any idea of a comfort zone has evaporated with the new GM.

It's something to keep in mind.

The Expansion Draft has a ton of rules but the best way to wade through them and pick your protected list is to go to CapFriendly.com's Expansion Draft page. Players who must be protected are already checked and all you need to do is start clicking.

Here's what I came up with while protecting seven forwards, three defensemen and on goalie as I went down CapFriendly's list of Buffalo Sabres players:


Forwards

Kyle Okposo--this was an easy one as he was already checked because of his no-movement clause. Even if Okposo didn't have that clause, it's still an easy one as he's their top right-winger.

Ryan O'Reilly--another easy one. O'Reilly is the Sabres best two-way center and their premier all-situations forward. Despite lacking numbers that some would suggest don't justify his cap-hit, Botterill has already singled him out as one of two centers teams "crave."

Evander Kane--over the course of the last 11 months many thought he would be a perfect candidate for exposure as his $5.25 million cap-hit, average production and off-ice issues seemingly had him out the door in one way or another. However, a 28-goal season changes the conversation completely.

Marcus Foligno--he's a big body that can hit, fight, play defense and score. He was placed well above his talent-level last season while getting an inordinate amount of time in the top-six, but he did manage a career-high 13 goals and there's no reason to think that he can't continually produce double-digit goals in a bottom-six role.

Zemgus Girgensons--the former first-round pick was the first player in former coach Dan Bylsma's doghouse but with Bylsma gone things could be different. Girgensons doesn't seem to have the offensive acumen for a scoring role and at 23 yrs. old he could be settling into the player he is. But he works the forecheck hard, defends well and, unlike former Sabre Mike Grier who had very similar traits, can score on a breakaway. As of right now he's a very solid bottom-six player that every team could use.

Johan Larsson--he and Girgensons have basically come up through the ranks in Buffalo toghether. Larsson is known for his pesky play and defensive acumen, but he can score as well. Before his injury he was Buffalo's third-line center and didn't look out of place. It was a pretty gruesome injury, however, and we've not heard anything as to his recovery time or prognosis, but based upon his play, he's another strong bottom-six player.

William Carrier--although he had a rather pedestrian rookie campaign in Buffalo that was also cut short by injury, Carrier's got the wheel's Botterill seems to like. At 6'2" 212 lbs. he's got heft as well but it doesn't detract from his skating one bit. Carrier climbed through the ranks in Rochester and upped his production in year-two for the Amerks. There's no reason to think that he can't continue to develop in Buffalo and may end up being at least a top-nine player for the Sabres.


Defensemen

Rasmus Ristolainen--another no-brainer. Enough said.

Jake McCabe--a new GM usually talks in generalities at his introductory presser, especially when it comes to the roster. Players like Jack Eichel, Ryan O'Reilly and Ristolainen are well-known commodities and referencing them by name is not unusual. But Botterill also mentioned McCabe by name as well while also mentioning that he thought McCabe had some untapped offensive, puck-moving potential. McCabe is already known for is solid defensive work and also laying out big hits so adding in some offense would really round out his two-way game.

Taylor Fedun--this was a tough one. Fedun basically got robbed of playing time in Buffalo last season because he was waiver-exempt and the Sabres had seven defensemen on the roster. However, he made an impact with the team when he did play as he showcased his puck-moving ability and offensive instincts during his stint in Buffalo. He also did some nice work against Pittsburgh back in November with a primary assist on Carrier's first NHL goal. Fedun seems to be the type of defenseman that Botterill would be interest in. Then again, he may have soured on Buffalo and, as an unrestricted free agent, may be taking headed elsewhere.


Goalie

Linus Ullmark--there are a lot of angles for this choice beginning with Botterill having no ties to Lehner who surely would have been protected over Ullmark under Murray. Lehner played well for Buffalo last season, as his numbers would indicate, but there's a sense that many are not convinced he's the answer going forward and a lot of it has to do with him looking very shaky in odd-man rush situations and breakaway situations, the shootout in particular. And with the market being somewhat set by Ben Bishop's $4.9 million cap-hit in Dallas, the Sabres may be looking at a $4-4.5 million Lehner contract extension that Botterill might not be thrilled with. The Sabres could be placing themselves in treacherous waters if Lehner were to be snatched up by Las Vegas, but I don't think the Knights would do it and even if they did, Ullmark, with a strong veteran presence as a back-up, looks like he'd be able to handle the heat. By protecting Ullmark, odds are that they could go into the season with a Lehner/Ullmark tandem if Lehner went unprotected.


Probably the toughest decision may have come with the forward ranks, specifically with Tyler Ennis.

Ennis has struggled lately due to injuries, most notably concussion issues, which caused him to miss 90 games over the past two seasons. Perhaps that's why he had a pretty dismal 2016-17 campaign with only 13 points (5+8) in 51 games. Then again it could be his East/West, jitterbug style of play that kept him from moving his production close to pre-injury levels.

Regardless of the reasoning behind his scoring woes last season, Ennis is carrying a $4.6 million cap-hit over the next two seasons. For Buffalo, it's a burdensome hit for his production when placed in a group that includes Moulson ($5 million,) Bogosian ($5.1m,) and Gorges ($3.9m.)

Ennis may provide the bridge that can help both Las Vegas and Buffalo. The Golden Knights can get themselves a former three-time 20-goal scorer who has the skill to be in their top-six while the Sabres can continue to move on from the tank years as well as jettison a rather large cap hit. And with Ennis now a part of two former regimes, it might not be that far-fetched of an idea.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Buffalo has two centers teams "are craving for." Botterill looking to fill wings

Published by hockeybuzz.com, 5-13-2017


Perhaps there is truth to the rumor that the Buffalo Sabres are looking to trade Evander Kane. Still, according to some.

The logic seems simple enough--on the ice he's a helluva player but off the ice he's had issues and after coming off of a resurgent season scoring 28 goals in 70 games, his value has never been higher since the Sabres traded for him.

Kane's most recent off-ice issues are no more as he spent a six-month probationary period issue-free and the judge in his case from last summer dropped the charges and sealed the case. How much damage was done inside the Pegula Sports and Entertainment offices is yet to be determined and where he stands without fired GM Tim Murray, the man who traded for him, will be revealed sometime this off season.

Buffalo just announced the hiring of Jason Botterill as Murray's replacement and he just finished his first couple of days in his new position. Botterill's been making the rounds in the media while presumably meeting and greeting everyone he can within the Sabres offices. He said one of his first major priorities is sitting down with the scouting department to compare notes for the upcoming NHL Entry Draft and he's also keeping an eye on the IIHF World Junior Championships which are going on in Europe. Buffalo has three participants in centers Jack Eichel (USA,) Ryan O'Reilly (Canada) and Zemgus Girgensons (Latvia,) a goalie prospect in Cal Petersen (USA) and a potential free agent signee in Viktor Antipin (Russia.)

At his introductory presser Botterill was thrilled with his top two centers saying, "people are craving for centermen like O'Reilly and Eichel." This, of course, was coming from a Pittsburgh Penguins organization that has two dominant centers in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. "This is a league that thrives on centermen," he would also say, "and the fortunate thing [in Buffalo] is that we have a couple of amazing high-end centermen."

It's something we've known somewhat as fans of the team the last two seasons. O'Reilly lead the team in scoring two years ago and was second last season. He's also an every-situation player who's one of the top faceoff centers in the league and is considered one of the better two-way centers in the game. Eichel looks to be a superstar in the making. He lead the team in points last season despite missing 21 games and were in not for some fits and starts to his career, especially with the injury last season, he'd be mentioned more often in the same breath as some of the exceptional young guns making an impact in the NHL before the age of 21.

Botterill stressed and "up-tempo, puck-possession, North/South" game for his new team which fits right into the strengths of his top two centermen. Filling the wings will be a priority for him and he gave some indication as to what he looks for in his top-six wingers in an appearance on WGR550 radio yesterday morning.

"We dealt with it with Malkin and Crosby," Botterill told the hosts. "If you look at the history of [their] wingers they're all very different, but the one thing I would say is there's a high compete, high battle level.

"Whether it's a Patric Hornqvist-type player who gets to the front of the net, " he continued, "or you look at, now, Jake Guentzel having success with Crosby. A big part of that is, yeah he has great hockey sense to make plays but he gets in on the forecheck. Chris Kunitz, Pascal Dupuis, not the most skilled players, but they had a lot of success with Crosby just because they got in on the forecheck and got him pucks.

"For top line players like Jack or O'Reilly, it's a scenario of guys who want to get in on the forecheck, get after pucks so that star players can have the puck."

Who on this Sabres team can do that?

Kyle Okposo is one. He was having a great season before a concussion knocked him out of the lineup and a reaction to medication had him in the Intensive Care Unit (thanks to Kris Baker for the early work on that scoop last month.) From all indications he'll be 100% for training camp.

The much-maligned Kane is another one. Rumors of him being on the trade-block may follow him for the rest of his career, as will his youthful indiscretions that may or may not be a thing of the past. Kane is exactly the type of player that Botterill mentioned to play an up-tempo, North/South game. Puck possession might be a weak point but he made great progress last year in working with his linemates as well as curbing his propensity for wild shots that ended up wide and going the other way. And one can almost guarantee that every defensemen in the league knows when he's barreling at them with a head of steam.

Zemgus Girgensons, who has spent more time at wing than at center, may not be a top-six player by trade, but he gets on the forecheck and is great with the puck in the corners. He doesn't seem to have high-end skill or elite hockey sense, but Botterill intimated there is room for players like that. "We've tried, whether it's in Pittsburgh or Wilkes-Barre (their AHL club) where we have less skill," he said at his presser, "you can still play a high-percentage, high-intensity game.

Botterill was in awe of the overall size on the Sabres roster. He's got a few young wingers in William Carrier, Justin Bailey and Nick Baptiste who not only have good NHL size (at least,) but are fast skaters. All of them have paid their dues in the AHL-level, have had success there and are ready for the opportunity to stick in Buffalo.

Evan Rodrigues doesn't have the size, but he had enough skill, skating and sense to hang on Eichel's wing at Boston University while Sam Reinhart, whom Botterill is projecting as a winger at this point, played with and succeeded on Eichel's wing.

The forward ranks are stocked with varying degrees of talent and, based upon the last two seasons, all Eichel and O'Reilly need are two more wingers to make their line whole. This group had a horrible go of it under former head coach Dan Bylsma in that the system was complicated and he constantly changed things up outside of his dedicated forward pairings. Botterill mentioned something else and his presser that should be of interest to all those in Sabreland.

"I think some of the success in Pittsburgh is from the standpoint of simplicity," he said

The Sabres have plenty of what he's looking for up-front. Always have. But perhaps that last aspect will remove the seeming impediment that kept them from reaching higher than their talent would dictate.


















Saturday, May 13, 2017

A Botterill bolstering of the Sabres blueline will admittedly be a challenge

Published by hockeybuzz.com, 5-12-2017


New Buffalo Sabres general manager Jason Botterill had himself a very successful introductory press conference yesterday and came off as being well prepared for his first crack at running a National Hockey League team. He seemed rather forthright with his vision of what kind of teams--which includes the Rochester Americans as well--he plans on building, which endeared him to the media and fanbase. But he certainly has his work cut out for him when he gets into the nuts and bolts of this franchise.

Botterill wisely stayed away from any expected timelines for success at his presser saying, "you can't predict, in my mind, in three years or five years we'll be going for the Stanley Cup" (unlike the owner had done and the former GM had intimated.) What he did guarantee was that the Sabres "will be better." Yet maintained a solid grasp of where his team was along with a "respect for this league" noting that some teams that didn't make the playoffs this year and will be better next year thus creating "a more competitive environment in that regard."

It's a realism, perhaps borne of his executive background that eschews bold proclamations for a more well thought out, structured approach, which is exactly what Sabres ownership wanted. Botterill said as much on WGR550's Schopp and the Bulldog yesterday evening when talking about what to look for from his GM style. "I think I have more of a patient, systematic approach to making decisions," he told the hosts.

Botterill has some core pieces in place as in two "amazing and high-end centermen" up-front but a big part of the "we will be better" process will be focused upon fixing the blueline which was generally considered a disaster last season. The jury's still out on whether a majority of the blame goes to the GM for lack of talent or to the head coach who's system didn't seem to jibe with the players (more likely a combination of both,) but regardless, the defense-corps needs some serious work.

Two players, it would seem, had already caught Botterill's eye haing seemingly made it through last season virtually unscathed--Rasmus Ristolainen and Jake McCabe.

Ristolainen logged the fifth-most average time on ice in the league last year and was referenced by Botterill. "I like the fact that we have some young defensemen that can handle some big minutes up there," he said at his presser, then later on GR he referenced "players who can eat up some big minutes." Botterill also brought up McCabe directly telling the GR hosts, "you [also] have players like McCabe who I think can help from a puck-movement standpoint."

To no one's surprise, those two are the "elements" whom he noticed and whom he seems to like in the defense corps right now.
Although Botterill has scouted the Sabres, he doesn't know what he has, nor can he say for sure whether or not any will fit into his future plans. What he did say on WGR550 is that this team not onl needs more on the back-end, but that they need to keep the pipeline full. "If you look at the success of most teams in the playoffs right now, it's continually adding to the blueline."

The Sabres right now have Ristolainen and McCabe along with three veteran defensemen in Josh Gorges, Zack Bogosian and Justin Falk under contract and one of those three could be on their way to Las Vegas in the expansion draft. Buffalo has a highly regarded prospect in Brendan Guhle who seems poised for a potential Sabres roster spot and rumor has it that an as of yet unsigned KHL player in Viktor Antipin may also be in the mix. Anyone in the AHL--like Casey Nelson, Brady Austin and Brycen Martin--will probably remain there to further their development, which is a big part of the Botterill program, leaving Buffalo to look outside the organization to find suitable top-six defensemen.

Going outside the organization for help is no surprise to Sabres fans as they've seen what the Sabres have and what's in (or not in) the pipeline. However bolstering the blueline will be easier said than done and Botterill is well aware of that. He told the GR hosts that he thinks "85 percent or 90 percent of the teams in the NHL are looking for more defensemen or looking to improve their defense.

"That may be a goal of ours," he continued, "but finding partners and trying to do it will certainly be a challenge."

In so many words, patience will once again be a virtue in Sabreland when it comes to the mini reclamation project Botterill's set to embark upon. Fixing that defense looks to be a top priority but it will take time. Although the team isn't completely devoid of d-prospects, solid prospects like Guhle and Devante Stephens need time to grow and mature.

And that's as much of a challenge as finding NHL-ready d-men to plug into the lineup right now.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Some of Jason Botterill's checklist as new Sabres GM

Published by hockeybuzz.com, 5-11-2017


The Buffalo Sabres officially announced Jason Botterill as their eighth general manager this morning. And in other news, the sun rose today and the Washington Capitals are out of the playoffs early once again.

Although it wasn't 100% definitive that Botterill had the job, only an act of God or the retirement of Pittsburgh Penguins GM Jim Rutherford seemingly could have kept Botterill out of Buffalo. Rutherford and associate manager Botterill played Batman and Robin in Pittsburgh bringing that team back to prominence after five-plus years of Caps-like playoff disappointment. Botterill was an integral part of the Penguins 2009 Stanley Cup victory under former GM Ray Shero (now with the NJ Devils) and was a big part in putting together this present Pittsburgh team that heads to the Eastern Conference Final as reigning Stanley Cup Champions.

As has been well documented, Botterill has the credentials after his steady climb upwards in the front office with a GM position about the only thing missing from his impressive resume. For a background piece on him click here.

The Buffalo Sabres have been without a GM since Tim Murray was fired on April 10, along with his head coach, Dan Bylsma. From all indications, Botterill inherits a team that has some very strong pieces up front, a weak blueline, solid goaltending and a farm system that's been depleted but is slowly being filled as numerous draft picks from the previous three drafts. He'll have decisions to make on a handful of draft picks, 20 free agents and extensions for some important players entering the last year of their contracts. He'll also be faced with some dead weight contracts that put a 26th-place team close to the cap.

And those are just the tangibles.

In addition, Botterill will need to bring together a fractured group where some were at odds with the former coach as well as with each other in the dressing room.

Welcome to the Buffalo Sabres, Jason Botterill.

There will be a press conference today at 4 pm where Botterill will be introduced and he'll be forced to use broad generalizations to specific questions, some of which may have nothing to do with him but are loaded in a way to chastise the previous regime and/or owner. And, no doubt the Sabres six-year playoff drought will be referenced as well as the Buffalo Bills 17-year playoff drought along with suffering Buffalo fans. Once presser is over he'll make his token rounds with the media where he'll do much the same and after an evening filled with interviews and eventually sleep, tomorrow will represent his first full day as the general manager of his own team.

Here are some of the things he will/should do in the near future beginning tomorrow:


Fire up the Pegula jet and head over to Europe for the IIHF World Championships

Botterill needs to visit Team USA where he'll try to convince franchise center Jack Eichel that Bylsma is now in the firmly in the past and that the new GM is accustomed to working with superstars, just ask Sidney Crosby. He'll hopefully say he's been in touch with Jack's agent and as soon as the World's are done they can start hammering out an extension.

Botterill will also have the opportunity to talk with Eichel's USA teammate, Notre Dame goalie Cal Petersen, a 2013 fifth-round pick of Buffalo's that has yet to declare his future intentions. Botterill might also want to mention that he's the new sheriff in town and will want to remind Petersen that he has no ties to present No. 1 Sabres goalie, Robin Lehner (while maybe whispering Chicago's on the decline, the Olympics are overrated and that the team he helped build is in the conference finals again.)

Then it's over to Team Canada to talk with Sabres center Ryan O'Reilly to tell him everything's cool with Jack and that he's very cool with O'Reilly but there will be no promises of who the new captain will be.

After that it's time for Team Latvia where restricted free agent Zemgus Girgensons is on a surprising Latvia team that presently sits atop Group-A. He'll also remind "The Latvian Locomotive" that Bylsma's no longer around and that if Girgensons wants to endear himself to the new GM, there will be no plastering of Eichel to the boards like he did with Sam Reinhart in the D-Camp scrimmage a few years ago.

Finally he might want to drop in on Team Russia and have a visit with defenseman Viktor Antipin, whom the Sabres are said to be ready to sign, and remind him that the defense-corps in Buffalo will get overhauled soon and that he could/should be a part of it.

On Saturday Botterill and whatever scouts he brought along can hook up with their European head scout, Anders Forsberg, and take in USA/Latvia in Germany followed by Russia/Slovakia and then off to France for Canada/Switzerland before heading back to the States.


Sunday's a chill day of time-zone adjustment, making calls and lining up coaching prospects

There will be no day of rest for Botterill on Sunday but he can chill a bit while battling jet-lag while on the phone. He needs to get on the horn to Las Vegas Knights GM George McPhee about the upcoming expansion draft. Former Sabres GM Murray supposedly had a deal in the works for the Knights to return a favor, but with him gone that deal is probably nixed.

Botterill will need to convince McPhee that he's an upstanding guy who could use a little help. The Sabres have some unruly contracts and if McPhee can take on one of them, it would be greatly appreciated with the favor being returned in the form of a draft pick and/or through future considerations.


Get the coaching search going

With the Pittsburgh still in the playoffs, the coaching search may be pushed back a little bit as one of the potential candidates rumored to be on the list is Penguins assistant coach, Rick Tocchet. Another assistant who'd be a prime candidate for Buffalo's opening is Nashville's Phil Housley. His Predators team is also still in the playoffs and there's a good possibility that they could meet the Penguins in the Stanley Cup Final.

One of the coaches he might want to start the process with is Jim Montgomery, the Denver Pioneers coach who lead that team to the 2017 NCAA Championship. Botterill may also want to pick Montgomery's brain concerning Girgensons whom he coached for one year while at Dubuque with the Fighting Saints.


All things Entry Draft need to get going next week

Botterill has an extensive scouting department to work with but one that's without two key cogs of the previous regime. The Sabres scouting department right now is headed by Assistant Director of Scouting Jerry Forton and they still have long-time Sabres scout and personnel guy, Kevin Devine to help smooth the transition.

The scouts have their reports for the upcoming draft and next week is usually when they sit down and compare notes. After that's done it's time to get ready for the NHL Combine which hits Buffalo on May 28. There will be 114 player invites to the combine and at it's conclusion there will only be a few weeks to prepare for the 2017 NHL Entry Draft in Chicago which begins June 23.


Still need to keep an eye on the expansion draft

For as important as the Entry Draft is, the Expansion Draft is just as important short-term.

Teams must submit their protected list by 5 pm June 17. Las Vegas is required to make their selections by 5 pm June 20 with the announcement of their selections the following day.


Once again, welcome aboard, Jason.

Have fun.


Here's the press release concerning Botterill's hiring from sabres.com:

"We are very happy to welcome Jason Botterill to the Buffalo Sabres family," Owner Terry Pegula said. "Jason's hockey knowledge, experience drafting and developing players, and his approach to management stood out to us during our interview process. Jason has built a solid reputation as a leader that connects strongly with players and staff around him. We are confident he will have a positive impact within our organization and will help us get to our ultimate goal."

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Sabres/Rangers in Winter Classic. Botterill to Buffalo tomorrow? Plus...

Published by hockeybuzz.com, 5-10-2017


The Buffalo Sabres and NY Rangers in the 10th Anniversary NHL Winter Classic is awesome. Although it would have been even better if the Classic came back to Buffalo as the whole idea for it emanated from former Sabres president Larry Quinn, having it in the Big Apple makes for a prime-time show even if it's at Citi Field and not at Yankee Stadium, who hosted a Stadium Series game back in 2014.

Scheduling the Sabres to play in the 10th Anniversary of the NHL's preeminent outdoor event at this point in time seems to be more of an obligatory nod to Buffalo's hand in the creation of the event then a pick based upon showcasing the sport using two premier teams. The Sabres didn't exactly have the greatest of seasons in 2016-17, finishing 26th in the league, and are presently without a general manager and head coach. Buffalo has marketable players in Jack Eichel and Ryan O'Reilly, but their supporting consists of hits and misses so far.

Meanwhile the Rangers are coming off of yet another post season of disappointment as they were just ousted by the Ottawa Senators last night on home ice. Despite the loss and the fact that they're aging from the blueline back, the Rangers are always in it and there's no reason to believe they won't be back in the mix next season.

However, it's on come January 1, 2018. For Sabres fans willing to take the jaunt, those with season tickets will have the option to buy tickets for the game as it's considered a home game by the NHL schedule-makers. Why it's a home game is certainly questionable as the "home" team will be travelling close to 400 miles while the "away" team could walk to City Field, but who are we to question the wisdom of the NHL. Right?


*****

Two other second round playoff matches will end this evening as the NHL has a Game-7 doubleheader on tap. The first one, has the Pittsburgh Penguins in Washington DC to take on the Capitals while the Edmonton Oilers will be in Anaheim to take on the Ducks in the night-cap.

And for the Sabres, this could/should mean the official end to their GM search.

Penguins associate GM Jason Botterill has long been rumored as the choice but the announcement has been delayed due to Pittsburgh being in the midst of a second-round playoff match. Botterill has been credited with helping put together two Stanley Cup winners in Pittsburgh while pulling off a high-wire act on the NHL's salary cap.

With the amount of work to be done, it would behoove the Sabres to get their new GM in as quick as possible. Botterill, if hired, has the upcoming expansion draft to prepare for, followed by the NHL Entry Draft and in less that eight weeks the start of free agency. He'll have 20 free agent contracts to decide upon as well as decisions on entry-level contract for previous draft picks. In addition, three principal players will be heading into the final years of their contract. Eichel and fellow second-overall pick Sam Reinhart will be finishing up their entry-level deals while Evander Kane will be in the final year of a six-year deal he signed back in 2012 with the Winnipeg Jets. All three were top-five producers in one category or another for Buffalo last season. Plus No. 1 goalie Robin Lehner is a restricted free agent as well.

And there's this little thing about bringing in a head coach as well.

Welcome to the world of running your own team.

Botterill may end up bringing in Rick Tocchet as the Buffalo's coach, which would lighten the load a little bit. He'll still need to do interviews with other head coaching candidates and there are some young hot commodities on the market but Botterill knows Tocchet from having worked with him in Pittsburgh for nearly three years.

Whether the Sabres go in the direction of the Buffalo Bills, who now have two former Carolina Panthers as GM and head coach, remains to be seen, but Botterill, or whomever ends up being GM for the Sabres will have a pretty hectic schedule this off-season.


*****

We know Rick Tocchet was a helluva player who could both score and wreak havoc. We also know that he's respected as an assistant coach. We also know that having a checkered past, has never stopped any pro team from bringing in the person they want. Tocchet seems like a no-nonsense guy with plenty of knowledge and experience who should get the respect of his players, at least at the start.

But can he coach?

On the other side of the spectrum we have two potential first time head coaches in Phil Housley and Jim Montgomery who certainly know how to coach, at least at the lower levels, as they've won championships. Housley lead the Team USA to the gold in the 2013 World Junior Championships while Montgomery's Denver Pioneer's won the 2017 NCAA National Championship. Both have proven to have extensive knowledge and solid experience on the coaching side of the equation.

But will either get enough respect from players to allow their coaching acumen to shine through?

That's the conundrum the Sabres are in right now. With the tumult the team just went through in 2016-17 the incoming coach will not only be putting his stamp on the X's and O's aspect of the team, he'll also be juggling a diverse set of ego's that clashed in Buffalo last season. Knowing how to handle everything from alpha-male Eichel, to a reserved Reinhart and all points in between is nothing to be taken lightly. Players aren't stupid. They can smell a phony or incompetent from a mile away.

I like the idea of Tocchet in that I believe he'll get the full respect of the locker room, which may be the most important aspect of the job right now, but his stint in Tampa as their head coach was meh, at best.

Montgomery had his Denver Pioneers playing fast, aggressive hockey that overwhelmed their opponents. His style would fit perfectly in today's NHL.

I also really like what Housley has done as an assistant in Nashville with his mobile Predators. With his Hall of Fame career as a player and how he's worked his way up the ranks, I am of the opinion that he should be the front-runner for the Buffalo head coaching job.

But first things first, an announcement tomorrow as to who the new Sabres general manager will be.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Why do I get the feeling Pens/Caps is going 7 games?

From this Buffalo fan’s perspective, it would be just another layer of crap for the Sabres to muck through as they're being forced to play a waiting game to announce the hire of their new general manager.

Based upon everything we've been hearing from the media and various insiders, it's a foregone conclusion that  Pittsburgh Penguins associate general manager Jason Botterill has the job. Although no official announcement has (or can?) been made a this time, all indications—from insider tweets to the fact that Botterill was the only GM candidate to have a second interview with the Sabres—we’re pretty sure he’s the man owners Terry and Kim Pegula want.

So why the hold up?

You got me.

Word on the street is that Penguins owner Mario Lemieux and the NHL want to wait for Pittsburgh’s second round match-up with the Washington Capitals to finish. If true, the reasoning behind the delay couldn’t possibly make sense as, for an AGM, there’s no difference between making an announcement at any time during a playoff series or waiting until the end. Botterill is an associate general manager and like his front-office brethren in Pittsburgh, the playoffs are in the hands of the players and coaching staff. And even if their job wasn’t completely finished, GM Jim Rutherford is…the general manager. He’s in charge.

Perhaps it's the NHL not wanting, as Sabres beat writer Paul Hamilton said this morning on WGR550, to detract from a marquis matchup like Pittsburgh/Washington. Or maybe, from a fatalistic Buffalo sports' fan standpoint, the NHL just likes sticking it to Buffalo whenever they get the chance, especially in this rebuild/tank, Sabres-era. Although rather unlikely, there's been plenty of talk that the league was none too thrilled with how the team conducted itself during the Sabres consecutive last place finishes (especially with their former GM) and I wouldn't put it past them to make life difficult in less overt ways, like scheduling, or even making them wait on a potential GM who will have a ton on his plate once he's announced.

Whatever the reason, if Botterill is in fact the future GM in Buffalo, the Sabres will need to wait until the end of the Pittsburgh/Washington series and I get the feeling that this one might br headed for a seventh game.

The Penguins are at home for Game-6 with a 3-2 series lead and look to have Washington's number, but you never know. Someone or something might light a stick under Alexander Ovechkin's butt to get him playing a full 60 minutes and maybe, just maybe, the poor performances Caps goalie Brayden Holtby has had may have gotten turned around in Saturday's come-from-behind win for Washington. Add in the fact that it would drive the Pegulas and those of us in Sabreland a little batty while having to wait two more days for the official word on Botterill and the long odds of Washington winning in Pittsburgh tonight may have be a little less.

Which leads me to this, if this series goes to seven games and if Lemieux and the NHL are screwing around with Buffalo, I'm looking for a little poetic justice with the Pens in losing a series they should have won and losing a very talented front office person like Botterill in the process. It won't make up for lousy season the Sabres just had nor the string of bad breaks and/or bad luck the franchise has had ever since winning the rights to draft Gilbert Perreault, but at least maybe we can say goodbye to the last three years and begin again with a new GM and eyes firmly focused upon the future.

Monday, May 8, 2017

On Rick Tocchet

Published by hockeybuzz.com, 5-7-2017


"Discipline, structure and communication" were key words uttered more than once at Terry Pegula's press conference on the firing of his GM and coach a couple of weeks back. Pegula also added in "character" as another of his Sabres pillars of the Sabres moving forward. Such was the mandate from the owner of an NHL team that ended the 2016-17 season in disarray.

As the GM search drama continues with Pegula's Sabres, word on the street is that the Buffalo may be hiring two people from the Pittsburgh Penguins organization--AGM Jason Botterill and present assistant coach, Rick Tocchet.

Much has been said about Botterill as Buffalo's potential new GM but Tocchet is a new entry into the coaching search.

Tocchet certainly has the resume as an NHL player. He scored 952 points in 1144 NHL games, had 109 points (48+61) in 1992-93, played with and against some of the greats of that era and was on the Penguins 1992 Stanley Cup winning team. He also had 2972 penalty minutes ranking him 10th all-time, and it should be noted that his .832 points/game ranked him tops of any player in the top-20 on that list.

A former sixth-round pick of the Philadelphia Flyers (1983) Tocchet was a tough customer on the ice who could score as well and he carried on in the tradition of Flyers greats by winning the Bobby Clarke Trophy (1990.) According to HockeyFights.com, Tocchet was in 171 career fights including 15 in the post season and according to his Wiki page Tocchet is the NHL's leader in Gordie Howe hat tricks which is a goal, an assist and a fight in one game. Tocchet had 18, one ahead of Brendan Shanahan, who is now the President of the Toronto Maple Leafs and Brian Sutter.

Tocchet was a helluva player who had a rough time coaching his first go-round. He took over for Barry Melrose as head coach of the Tampa Bay Lightning in November, 2008 and was on the bench the following season before getting canned by new Lightning owner Jeffery Vinik in 2010. He had a record of 53-69-26, which may have been the result of him being a newbie coach trying to get his footing. Whether his firing was because of his record and/or because the new owner the wanted to bring in his own guy, he did leave a good impression upon his players after his short stint in Tampa.

From an April 12, 2010 Tampa Bay Times piece on his firing, author Damian Cristodero said "Tocchet, with a hands-on approach, gets credit for helping center Steven Stamkos to grow to his potential and for setting volatile right wing Steve Downie on the right course." In the case of Stamkos, Melrose, who's tenure in Tampa lasted all of 16 games, got into a feud with ownership saying that the 2008 first-overall pick wasn't ready for the NHL while owner Len Barrie was said to have been meddling while trying to get his franchise player into favorable positions on the ice. Stamkos went from 46 points in that tumultuous rookie season to 95 points the next season under Tocchet including 51 goals which tied Sidney Crosby for the league lead that year.

Downie was more noted for his abrasive style of play than anything else up until Tocchet became head coach. According to Cristodero, Downie had a "breakout year" under Tocchet's stewardship with 22 goals and was a team-best plus-14.

Lingering in the background, however, were criminal charges against Tocchet in 2006 for being a part of a "huge gambling ring" in New Jersey, according to a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article. That story "became even bigger when authorities said that Janet Jones, the wife of hockey great Wayne Gretzky, and several current NHL players placed bets with the ring."

According to his Wiki page, Tocchet "pleaded guilty to conspiracy and promoting gambling" on May 25, 2007 and on August 7 he was sentenced to two years probation "in exchange for his plea." An investigation by the NHL found that the betting did not involve the league and on February 6, 2008 the NHL announced that Tocchet was "reinstated, and would serve as assistant coach the next day, exactly two years after taking a leave of absence."

It's been nearly a decade since that incident and with "character" being one of Pegula's apparent four pillars to build his team with, we're not sure if that would disqualify Tocchet, but would make for an interesting angle were Tocchet to be hired. At least when it comes to the "character" mandate handed down by Pegula.

However, from a hockey perspective, with Tocchet's style of play during a long, successful career, and with his apparent ability to reach players as diverse as Stamkos and Downie while head coach, he may be a good candidate to guide Buffalo through this difficult phase. Tocchet should be well respected in the Sabres dressing room and that might be the most important aspect of his hire at this juncture, should be he the guy. As an example, Jack Eichel and Evander Kane are two talents that seemingly need a coach like that to unflinchingly look them in the eye, and with a wealth of experience in hockey and in life backing his words, tell them straight up how he sees it.

Whether Tocchet can actually coach or not is the big question but getting the players respect is a huge hurdle that could go a long way towards winning more. It would seem as if he could have the discipline and structure aspects of Pegula's edict covered and perhaps through his checkered past Tocchet will be able to reach those who those who's character might be in question. Which is a good thing for a disjointed team like the Sabres who have a lot of talent that's just waiting to break out.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Broadcaster Don Stevens talks of Amerks, Sabres management, and prospects

Published by hockeybuzz.com, 5-5-2017



The Rochester Americans still felt the effects of the 2013-15 Buffalo Sabres talent purge as much of the talent and depth they expected to have last October was soon whisked away to Buffalo when Sabres' players succumbed to injury.

Such is the existence of an AHL team, when something happens to the big club, they reach down to the affiliate to fill their needs.

It was a rough year for the Sabres and one of the nails in the coffin of their 2016-17 season was lack of depth and/or a failure by management to bolster the roster with an outside transaction while stricken with a rash of injuries. Buffalo was rocked by injuries to key players up-front while at the same time injuries to the defense-corps were either depleting the lineup or inhibiting defensemen from doing their job properly. There was a point in time back in November when the Sabres started six players either scheduled to start the season in Rochester or had been recent call-ups from the Amerks, for three consecutive games bookended by another handful of games where five of those players started for the Sabres.

"Rochester West," was how long-time Amerks broadcaster Don Stevens described it. The Voice of the Rochester Americans chatted with me a couple weeks ago acknowledging that the job of the AHL club was as an NHL feeder and developer of talent but lamented the lack of depth in Rochester.

Stevens and I were in the midst of an interview on April 20 the day it was announced that the Sabres had just fired their GM and head coach. Looking from an Amerks perspective, Stevens saw it a s positive move in the right direction for the franchise. "They weren't building properly from this stage (the AHL) up," he told me, "or even below this stage (in the ECHL with the Elmira Jackals.) We need to have depth in the organization below this stage.

"You could see what happened when we'd lose a player or two players all of a sudden we'd go in the tank."

Such was the handiwork of former GM Tim Murray and what both I and Stevens couldn't understand is why the Sabres didn't bring in any outside help when they really needed it. The Sabres were running with around 45 of the allowable 50 pro contracts all season long and it was a head scratcher as to why those slots weren't used bolster depth. Stevens said at one point "nearly half the roster was first-year players or players on amateur tryout contracts." He said "one game they counted eight players on ATO's" and it's something that stuck in his craw.

Without delving into specifics Stevens said "there are certain reasons why [the firings] was a good move for the organization" and that the contract thing, along with the lack of depth, were parts of it.

All's not gloom and doom in the Saberland, however. There was continuity from Buffalo to Rochester on the ice as the players called up from Rochester fit seamlessly into the Sabres style of play. Many looked as if they belonged even if they couldn't maintain that higher level of play and contribute, beyond a handful of games. However, they did show why they were drafted and that they could at least hold their own at the NHL-level.

Here's some of those players who look to be the future of the Sabres and what Stevens had to say about them:


G, Linus Ullmark--The second-year pro was thrown into the fire early in the 2015-16 season when Sabres' starting goalie Robin Lehner went down in the first game of the season. This past season he was the undisputed No. 1 goalie for Rochester. His stat-line isn't great, but neither was the team in front of him as he faced a league-high 1,678 shots against. "He was just fantastic," said Stevens of Ullmark. "He kept us in 75-80% of the games while being drastically outshout all season long. He was just outstanding. He was hung out to dry many nights and he'd just keep us in the games."

Ullmark, said Stevens, "had a tremendous attitude this year. Win or lose he was cheerful, very supportive, friendly and worked well with the guys. They loved him and voted him the team MVP."

RW, Alex Nylander--At 18 yrs. old, Nylander was the youngest player in the AHL who Stevens said needs to grow physically. "He's not terribly short and he's not small," said Stevens, "but physically he's got to get stronger and bigger. I think he lacks confidence and part of it is because he's still somewhat of a boy playing against men."

When Nylander came up for a short end-of-season stint with Buffalo I told Stevens he looked like a waif compared to those he was playing against but that eventually he started to figure out how to maneuver himself around the NHL'ers without getting killed. "That's what I'm talking about," replied Stevens, "confidence. He's so worried about not getting killed, sometimes he's not doing the things he needs to do and stays away from the physical contact." Stevens said Nylander has the skills saying "he looks like he'll be a good one," but that bulking up is the first step on the way to more confidence which will bring out his skills.

D, Brady Austin--It was the second time Stevens used the word confidence when talking specifically about a player. When Austin came up to the Sabres late in the season it looked like a token call-up based upon the numbers he put up in Rochester. But he turned some heads while in Buffalo.

Austin skates extremely well for a stay-at-home d-man clocking in a 6'3" and 227 lbs. "He's not so flashy in that he makes himself standout," said Stevens, "he just plays the game solid, is there game-in, game-out. The thing is he has the ability to do the flash. You'll see him on occasion take a rush and you're sitting there with your mouth open and you can't believe he just did that. He has that ability but I don't think he has the confidence yet."

RW, Nick Baptiste and Justin Bailey--Baptiste, a second-year pro has the size (6'1", 206 lbs) and the speed to have an impact at the NHL-level and has developed well through 121 games at the AHL-level. Last season he made great strides scoring 25 goals in 59 games for the Amerks, which Stevens acknowledged but he also pointed out that both he and fellow RW Justin Bailey, who's also fast and skilled and has an NHL frame, are having certain problems in one area.

Both are very fast skaters but on occasion their skill can't keep up with their skating. "They overskate their game," said Stevens, "and they have a little bit of trouble with puck control and puck movement. They both were getting better at it, but they still need to work on that."

D, Casey Nelson--Sometimes you just can't mince words. Nelson was terrible for Buffalo in his first eight games with the club this season and it took him a while to regain his footing in Rochester. But he finished strong to the point where Stevens thought Nelson should have been acknowledged as the most improved player on the Amerks. "The last four or five weeks of the season he came on strong," said Stevens. "I think he needs another year here. He's not all that big and he's got to gain some strength, but he looks like he could be a good prospect."

LW, Evan Rodrigues--Rodrigues, like Nelson, is an undrafted college free agent signed by Buffalo. He struggled in his first pro season, made an impression in two games played for the Sabres and was back at it this past season in Rochester. Although the numbers weren't there early in the season, Rodrigues, according to Stevens, "played very well. He finished strong his first season and picked up right where he left off this year. He got the call to Buffalo and played even better.

"Overall," continued Stevens, "I think he had an outstanding year and certainly has made a case for him to win a full-time job [in Buffalo.]"

One thing about Stevens is that he's a firm believer in having players play in the AHL for their proper development. There are exceptions like the Jack Eichel's of the hockey world, but most of the others stand to benefit from playing at the lower levels where there's more room to make mistakes and the spotlight is much dimmer. Stevens said that about all the prospects including defenseman Brendan Guhle, who looks to be in a strong position to be a part of the defense-corps for the Sabres.

Stevens will have another group of Amerks players to watch next season as change is sure to come, at least from a player standpoint, but he is hoping that Amerks players like Cole Schneider, who's already voiced his readiness to come back, Tim Kennedy and Justin Vaive will return as cornerstones for next year's team. He also mentioned that he'd like to see head coach Dan Lambert return saying, "I'd love to see him back. I thought he and his coaches did an excellent job with what they put up with." But it's the AHL, and you're at the mercy of the parent club and things rarely work out the way you planned them.


Friday, May 5, 2017

On Sabres GM front-runner, Jason Botterill

Published by hockeybuzz, 5-4-2017


Perhaps the Buffalo Sabres and the Pegulas were due for a little luck and perhaps that luck, timed well with their present general managers opening, lead them to the path they're seemingly on now.

At the end of the Sabres 2016-17 season the laundry list of negatives emanating from KeyBank Center included GM Tim Murray, who'd done some good things and done some bad, but from media reports didn't have enough answers for owners Terry and Kim Pegula to move forward with. So on April 20th the Pegulas fired him along with his coach which created a GM opening for the Sabres.

The Pegulas, with Terry unabashedly stating he'd be involved the GM search unlike before, reportedly have interviewed at least seven candidates for the vacant GM position, none of them with experience as an NHL general manager. It was a curious move considering Terry Pegula had just fired a first-time NHL GM and at that presser mentioned that "experience" would be a part of the equation.

According to a source, of the candidates interviewed, the Pegulas were enamored with three--Jason Botterill and Bill Guerin, both with the Pittsburgh Penguins and Craig Conroy from the Calgary Flames. But only one so far has reportedly come back for a second interview--Botterill--and with the Pegulas beginning to head another search, this time for their open GM position with the Buffalo Bills, all roads seem to lead to Botterill as the front-runner to becoming the Sabres eighth general manager.

Amongst first-time GM's, Botterill definitely has the resume. He's a former first round pick (1994) who played until concussion issues lead to his retirement in 2005 at the age of 28. He started his post-playing career with the team that drafted him, the Dallas Stars, received his MBA in economics from the University of Michigan in 2007 and was hired as director of hockey administration by the Penguins after graduating that year. The Pens promoted him to assistant general manager less than two years later and on June 6, 2014 he was named associate GM with the club, a position he's held since.

While rising through the ranks Botterill was credited with having a strong hand in helping build GM Ray Shero's 2009 Stanley Cup-winning team and was also right-hand man for GM Jim Rutherford when the Pens won again in 2016. In addition to personnel successes, which includes bringing present Pens bench-boss Mike Sullivan into the organization, Botterill knows the in's and out's of the CBA and is considered a salary-cap guru who's mastery of the cap has allowed Pittsburgh to remain perennial Cup-contenders while annually dancing on the edges it.

It's no wonder that after the Penguins won the Cup in 2016 that Botterill was amongst the candidates being considered for the GM position of the expansion Las Vegas Golden Knights. The Knights, however, went with experience and hired George McPhee a long-time hockey man whose roots in the NHL date back to 1983 as a player with the NY Rangers.

One team's loss could end up being another's gain as Buffalo may have gotten lucky when the Knights passed on a first-timer like Botterill and went with the experience of McPhee.

Simple fact is, no one knows how things will pan out for a first-time GM. We just witnessed that with Murray. But if that's the determined route a franchise is taking, hiring one that's been with two Cup-winning teams in Pittsburgh who've also remained Cup-contenders while he made key decisions, makes for a pretty strong resume.

When the Edmonton Oilers were searching for a GM back in 2012, Botterill's name was already being mentioned and Jonathan Willis of the Edmonton Journal gave us a nice outline of the Edmonton native's GM plusses and minuses. Within his short synopsis Willis noted that in addition to Botterill's known qualities as an assistant GM in Pittsburgh, "he’s also in charge of knowing the entire league – where teams are coming from, their respective salary cap situations, their internal pressures and weaknesses," as cited by a piece from Mike Colligan of The Hockey Writers.

Colligan called it "The Botterill Factor" in a 2011 multi-part series called, Penguins Blueprint, and after a quick introduction he began with the quandary facing Pittsburgh as they headed towards the 2011 trade deadline. "Botterill and Shero face a near-impossible task," wrote Colligan at the time. "In just ten days they’ll attempt to overhaul an offensive group they spent most of the season simply preparing to tweak. Almost a dozen players are missing from the Penguins lineup due to injuries and suspensions, most notably irreplaceable stars Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby."

The Penguins ended up trading for Dallas Stars forward James Neal with Shero leaning on Botterill's leg-work before pulling the trigger. “A big part of my job," Botterill told Colligan, "is giving Ray an understanding about what’s going on in the league. If he’s talking to Team X, he needs to know where they are with the [salary] cap. He needs to know if they have a player coming back from long-term injury so they’ll be looking to move a defenseman. Just making sure when he goes into these conversations with other GM’s he has a clear understanding of what their thought processes are and what their salary cap situation is.”

Cap-management and preparedness are big ones for the Sabres and so is creating a winning environment, which Botterill knows about from Pittsburgh. But the Sabres also need a GM to attract and develop talent. A new GM in Buffalo will need guide the development of the prospect pool which will (hopefully) have waves of prospects coming through the system via the 2013-16 drafts.

Time and again we've seen the Penguins bring up young players that leave us in Sabreland asking, "Where's our Connor Sheary (undrafted FA, 2014) or Jake Guentzel (2013, third round) or Bryan Rust (2010, third round)?" All of those fit right in and are having big-time success at the NHL level but were developed in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, home of the Penguins' AHL team which Botterill oversaw.

Although scouting is not his forte, Botterill directed the scouts to find players to fit the system the Penguins played. “There’s certain traits that we’ve talked a lot about and tried to emphasize with our scouts,” Botterill told Colligan in another part of his the Blueprint Series. “We look for good hockey sense. The ability to skate well. We play a system that’s fairly up-tempo, so the players need the ability to keep up with that pace of play."

But it's not limited to that. “Then we’re also looking for intangibles," he continued. "We want to see a certain compete level, on and off the ice. Are they going to get bigger and stronger? Also, our mandate here is we have to win Stanley Cups so we ask ‘Do these players have a track record at all? Have they played and been successful in big games?”

At 40 years old, Botterill knows the game well but isn't a dinosaur clinging to by-gone ways of the NHL past which is good news for those on both sides of the battle between analytics and the eye-test. He learned to use both criteria when evaluating players. "What Ray [Shero] has developed here is he wants his scouts involved with stats, but we also want input from the scouts on ‘what are your eyes seeing, what is your projection on this player?’" said Botterill, "and that’s how we go about trying to evaluate a player.

"I’m going to look deeply into the stats and try to figure out any trends that he has or how his stats compare to other players out on the market, but I’m also going to rely heavily on my coaching staff and how they see his development as a player, and also the scouts on what they see from his development standpoint and who else is out there.”

It's not hard to see why Botterill is the leading candidate for Buffalo's open GM position. He knows the game from having played it, he had the foresight to plan for life after hockey and earned an MBA which lead him to the front office and he was a big part of helping build the Penguins' Cup teams. He's well-versed in the CBA, has a grasp of players and what makes them tick and has been a part of an organization in Pittsburgh that's always close to the cap-ceiling so he knows the numbers game. He uses new tools like analytics but also relies heavily on the eye-test.

Botterill also has a championship tradition. In addition to the Pittsburgh's two Stanley Cups with him in the front office, as a player he was on three consecutive Team Canada World Junior Championship gold medal teams (1994-96) and was also a part of the Michigan Wolverine 1996 NCAA National Championship team.

He seems to be about as well-rounded a candidate as one could find.

As with Murray and a long list of other first-time GM's, no one knows for sure how it might work out in Buffalo with him in charge. It's a whole different world when you're the man. Not only is there a learning curve involved but in Buffalo's case, there's a ton of work to be done in a very short period of time. Botterill, or any other GM signing on with the Sabres, will need to use every bit of experience and every resource in his tool box just to get this team on solid footing for the upcoming season.

It's part of the reason many thought that the Sabres would look towards a GM with vast experience. Such doesn't seem to be the case and if the Pegula's wish to go the first-time GM route, Botterill seems to fit what they and the team might be looking for.





Much thanks to Mike Colligan for some outstanding work which helped immensely in putting this together. And thanks to Jonathan Willis who's short piece lead to the discovery of Colligan.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Keeping up with the Pegulas. Plus other Sabres stuff

Published by hockeybuzz.com, 5-3-2017


Although they'll never keep up with the Kardashians as a (silly) reality show and social media dynasty, the Pegula's, Terry and Kim have their own dynasty centered around land development, sports, and music that's growing bigger by the day. Recently Pegula Sports and Entertainment just announced ventures with Labatt USA and Uber, however the areas of interest for us Buffalo sports fans is the ongoing saga with their two major sports frachises--the NHL's Buffalo Sabres and the NFL's Buffalo Bills--both of which are ships without a captain at this time.

After two very disappointing seasons from both the Sabres and the Bills, the Pegulas ended up firing both of their GM's within a matter of a week-and-a-half. One, hockey GM Tim Murray, was a surprise firing not long after the Sabres season ended while Bills GM Doug Whaley was fired 10 days later after the completion of he three-day NFL Draft. Oh to have a camera rolling as Terry and Kim, along with other insiders like PSE President Russ Brandon, discussed the futures of those two and the franchises in general.

Regardless of the lack of reality show appeal, the reality for the Pegulas centers around getting their franchises out of the dregs. And there's a ton of work to do.

What's been going on with the Pegula's and their sports teams?

--The Sabres are getting closer to finding their general manager and although there's not been an official count of who they've interviewed so far, piecing things together via twitter and media reports has the total at six or more. But the big development is the Sabres reportedly bringing in Pittsburgh Penguins AGM Jason Botterill for a second interview. From what I've been told, the Pegulas were very impressed with him, fellow Penguins front office-man Bill Guerin and Calgary Flames AGM Craig Conroy during their respective interviews.

--As for the Bills GM search, things are just getting started. The Pegulas, in conjunction with head coach Sean McDermott, are said to be very interested in Carolina Panthers AGM Brandon Beane, whom McDermott worked with while in Carolina, and it's also been reported that Houston Texans director of player personnel, Brian Gaine is slated for an interview tomorrow.

--Be it known that contrary to popular belief, Sabres franchise center Jack Eichel is not involved in the search for either GM. He's busy in Germany and France playing for Team USA in the IIHF Ice Hockey World Championships. Eichel was on the top line with wingers Anders Lee (NYI) and Johnny Gadreau (CGY) for USA as they had a tune-up game. Eichel scored with his a wicked-wrister 1:24 into the game. The real bullets fly beginning on Friday.

--Fellow Sabres Ryan O'Reilly is on Team Canada in the tournament. O'Reilly was playing right wing on the top line which is becoming the norm for him in international play.

--We all know the story of Evander Kane getting into some trouble last June while Buffalo was hosting the NHL Entry Draft. Kane and his attorney made a plea agreement with Buffalo City Court Judge Barbara Johnson-Lee who last fall, according to the Buffalo News, ordered an adjournment in contemplation of dismissal of the charges. Kane kept his nose clean and charges were dismissed. Now the big question. With one year left on his contract and a reported strong disliking of him by Kim Pegula (and presumably, Terry as well) where does the talented winger end up? Many (like myself) would like to see him extended at a reasonable rate and term while others can't wait for him to be moved.

--Speaking of things being moved, TBN's Mike Harrington wants the Sabres to move the eighth-overall pick in the NHL Draft. The reasoning, "Winning next year has to be an immediate priority and improving the blueline is paramount." Harrington wants the new GM to package the first-rounder to a "defense-rich" team to land an "NHL-level" defenseman. By NHL-level, I'm assuming he means at least a top-four.

--Harrington has a solid foundation for his beliefs, but perhaps it's a tad early to go for the immediacy of NHL-level help on the blueline. The Sabres have the eighth pick which should land them one of the top three defensemen in the draft. Although there aren't any marquis names in this draft, ala McDavid/Eichel, Matthews/Laine, it's a draft where an incubation period is to be expected for most prospects. Word from the draft pundits is that there are some talented  d-men in the draft that are pretty much equal but have different traits. I get the idea that patience sux for those of us in Sabreland, but perhaps we should let the new GM get a draft under his belt and get a feel for what he has before moving a first-rounder.

--UMASS commit Cale Makar, Tri-City (WHL) defenseman Juuso Valimaki and Swedish Super Elit d-man Timothy Liljegren are generally seen atop the group of d-prospects and dependent upon what those in front of the Sabres do, any or all could be there when the Sabres pick at No. 8.

--On Sunday Terry Pegula announced that not only did he fire his football GM, but also the entire Bills scouting department. With that in mind and the NHL Draft fast approaching, Sabres fans are worried about the team heading into this draft without a GM and a scouting department that might be on edge. The Buffalo News put fears to rest with an article saying that a massive overhaul of the scouting department isn't in the cards in Buffalo. As for the GM not being on board yet with the draft less than two months away, the scouting department has their lists and should be gathering soon to compare notes. And we should also not forget that Kevin Devine is still on board. Devine, a former Sabres AGM and Head Amateur Scout, has run drafts before so there shouldn't be that much to worry about in that department.

--Finally, amidst the positives coming out of PSE in the form of the Labatt and UBER joint ventures, the NHL announced that their Draft Combine will remain in Buffalo for 2019. The combine moved from Toronto to Buffalo in 2015 with the Sabres putting on quite the show downtown. HARBORCENTER with it's spaciousness and proximity to KeyBank Center plus two Marriotts right on the doorstep, makes an ideal setting for the combine, NHL reps, the media and attendees.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Of self preservation and lunch money

Published by hockeybuzz.com 5-2-2017


When I was a kid, I was the youngest in our group of neighborhood kids who were constantly outside playing sports (or doing other things) until the street lights came on and we had to come home. Being the youngest was never advantageous as it meant that I was smaller than the others I played with and against and it also meant that I was a couple of years behind on the learning curve of whatever sport we were playing.

Learning on the fly was not really fun for me. At times mistakes were made and were usually met with harsh words or something thrown at you. But you learned, and you learned how to play hard. This was the era of Pete Rose and say what you will about him, he played every game as if it was for the championship of the world (see Rose/Ray Fosse in 1970 All-Star Game.) That's how he and all of our sports hero played and that's how we were taught to play by the older kids in our group.

The only thing worse than making mistakes was slacking. Sure, not being able to cover a man or getting faked was one thing, but to not hustle? The punishment was swift and harsh--a hard smack to the head or literal kick in the ass were some of the lighter punishments doled out by the older ones. It was a time, at least in our neighborhood, were you learned not only how to play the game, but how to play it properly and when I got into organized sports, I may have had trouble with a more talented player, but I wasn't going to be outworked.

It's a different world these days in many neighborhoods. There are pockets all over the country where kids still grow up playing that way, but the participation trophy seems to be the norm. There was no such thing back then and even if it were the around, it would be nothing more than an indication that the kids proudly taking home that type of trophy were those whose lunch money was ready to be taken.

Buffalo has two major professional sports teams that are owned by one family and they just so happen to be the two toughest sports to play. Football and hockey are all about contact and separating your opponent from the ball or puck and it takes a good amount of intestinal fortitude, in addition to skill, to win. As a player it's a tough way to make a living although with the way salaries have been going up, it's a helluva good living if you can get there and have a career.

There are a lot of teams and a lot of rosters spots and a whole lot of money to be made by athletes. The first hurdle is getting on the roster and making it through the first contract healthy and on the upswing so that the next contract is even bigger. If things work out and progress continues, there's a big, lengthy contract with plenty of guaranteed money on the other end.

With that much money waiting for a player, and with so many jobs available to those whose teams have no hope of winning a championship or in some instances even making the playoffs, for some players (maybe many of them,) self-preservation is more important than winning.

Buffalo hockey fans are familiar with what it's like to watch a group of players waltz through a season (or six.) Former GM Darcy Regier's "Core," a group of very talented and very well paid players, looked marvelous when it was easy but who wilted at the least sign of pressure. That's what defined the Sabres as a team from 2007-12.

Prior to that, Buffalo had made it to the Eastern Conference Finals two consecutive seasons with "The Core" in it's infancy and with Chris Drury and Daniel Briere as co-captains. Both were the driving forces of that team and left at the start of free agency July 1, 2007.

Drury, who is now an assistant general manager for the NY Rangers saw the players on the team he'd soon be leaving for what the were and mentioned it in his last post-game interview as a Sabre. After losing to the Ottawa Senators in the 2007 playoffs he took questions with bruises from a puck hitting his face while in the crease trying to prevent a goal against. The former Calder Trophy winner and a member of the 2001 Colorado Avalanche Stanley Cup winning team discouragingly stated that this Sabres team didn't know what it took to win.

Since that Eastern Conference Finals loss, the Sabres have made the playoffs twice in the last 10 years never making it past the first round with six of those seasons coming under the stewardship of owner Terry Pegula.

Throughout those "Core" years the local media reported a "country-club atmosphere" with the Sabres as they did just enough to make it interesting but never had the intestinal fortitude to get the job done it when it mattered most. Unfortunately for the Sabres, throughout this past season beat writers and media members were reporting a similar feel. In the end Pegula's hockey team finished with a very disappointing 78 points and he ended up firing his GM and his head coach.

Same went for Pegula's other professional team, the Buffalo Bills, as it got to a certain point in a game or season where it looked as if players were hitting cruise control. Whatever the case--whether it was laziness, lack of motivation or preserving oneself--Buffalo finished with a 7-9 record and the head coach was fired with one game remaining in the season.

Personally, I don't get it when a player can't go all-in all the time. It doesn't compute. Things might be different had I been born into a different neighborhood and/or a different era and had an eight-figure salary staring me in the face, but I was always taught to play hard and good things would follow. There are plenty of players in all sports who play the game the right way, however there aren't nearly enough to put each team into competitive overdrive and it puts a premium on finding as many internally motivated players as possible.

There-in lies the problem for Terry and Kim Pegula and their GM-less franchises.

I believe they want to win. However, the Pegulas are stubborn and have insisted upon doing things their way which, much to the consternation of the Buffalo sports community, includes trying to build a winning culture without the proper hierarchy in the operations department. In a matter of just over four months they fired both of their coaches and general managers and the first thing they did was put their football operations in the hands of a first-time NFL head coach. The Pegulas followed that up by hiring a public relations firm to help them deal with the fallout and as of right now their hockey department has an assistant GM at the top of the food chain.

Perhaps even more disconcerting is that the search for a hockey GM is focused upon first-time general managers without any mention of a hockey czar to oversee the hockey department. This is after they just canned another first-time GM whose free-wheeling without a operations president helped lead to his firing. It could also be assumed that their football coach, who has broad and unusual powers for a first-time head coach, will be helping to select the GM.

No doubt some of the candidates they've been interviewing for the Sabres GM position have earned the opportunity through success and quality work as well as a lengthy tenure in their present AGM positions and they may prove to be the answer. But both the Sabres and the Bills are held in very low regard right now amongst the professional communities to which they belong and doing things like the aforementioned make them look like amateurs.

I've said before that the Pegulas are on a lengthy learning curve and right now I believe they're still in way over their heads. That's why it's implausible to me that they still haven't hired qualified people to head their sports operations departments. In their six years of hockey ownership and two years at the helm of the Bills they've been flimflammed and taken by an array of snake-oil salesmen and con-artists, all of whom had self-preservation on their minds and it's kept both franchises spinning their wheels.

Maybe Bills head coach Sean McDermott is the answer and/or maybe the as yet to be named first-time GM of the Sabres will be the answer. Then again, we won't know if they're in the self-preservation business either until a couple of years down the road. If they can find the right personnel, than they could very well make it. If not, than they got themselves a pretty good ride courtesy of the Pegulas, which is something that's been happening for quite a few years under their ownership.

The GM's for both teams have a lot of work to do and that includes identifying and keeping players whose ultimate motivation lies outside of self-preservation. They need to find football players and hockey players and they also need to find coaches who can coach.  Lest we forget, not only are players looking to extend their careers and reap the financial benefits, there are many coaches and front office personnel who are looking out for No.1 too. Regier was a master at keeping his job as GM despite only two years of success since 1999 when he was GM of a team built almost exclusively by his predecessor.

One thing I'll say about former Bills GM Doug Whaley and former Sabres GM Tim Murray, both were trying to build their teams with football and hockey players, respectively. However, with both being first-time GM's they got trapped in one the pitfalls of team-building, mainly giving too much in return for the players they wanted. They were honest GM's who just didn't have the wherewithal to jump that first hurdle and they didn't have anyone above them to help them along.

Terry Pegula got his stated wish, to be more involved in the hiring of his GM's and coaches. But I'm not sure he has what it takes to wade through all the professional B.S. that's thrown around his professional sports teams.

But if that's the way he wants it, he's the owner and he can do whatever he wants. I'm just a kid from a blue collar neighborhood who never played organized sports past high school. But I will say one thing, I never got my lunch money taken.