Friday, March 31, 2017

Reinhart's tardiness without malice. "[Stuff] happens."

Published by hockeybuzz.com, 3-30-2017


Who amongst us hasn't been late for work?

I know I have. Sometimes it's a brain fart, other times it's getting behind a school bus and still other times it may have been a situation where a series of events set me back just enough for me to punch the clock late. And I must admit, there were times in my long employment career where I was like, "Meh, to hell with it, I'll get there when I get there."

Such are the foibles of youth.

When it comes to the Sam Reinhart benching in Columbus Tuesday night, I highly doubt there's a soul in Sabreland who thinks that Reinhart's tardiness was a case of the 21 yr. old saying, "to hell with it."

When Reinhart was being scouted amongst the traits mentioned by those who followed him was his professionalism, how he carried himself and the respect for the game of hockey. When he was sent back down to junior he got his emotions out in that meeting with GM Tim Murray and went back to junior with the mindset that he'd do what was asked of him regardless of how little time his schedule afforded him. The dictate from Murray was to go back and get stronger and despite the rigors of a WHL schedule eating up most of his time, Reinhart hit the gym whenever he could and when he came into camp with a little more meat on his bones, Murray was satisfied that the 18 yr. old did what he could to the best of his ability.

So when Murray and head coach laid out a zero-tolerance rule concerning tardiness two days prior to the Columbus game, Reinhart was the last person anyone thought would break it. "To me it's unfortunate that anybody that broke the rule the first time after it gets changed at that point," Murray told Mike Harrington of the Buffalo News. "To have it be a second-year player like Sam, he might have been the last guy. If I had made public we tweaked the team rule and who is the last guy I think would break it, he might have been the guy I would have brought up. I would have said, 'It won't be Sam.' But it was."

The incident occurred prior to the Columbus game when the team, minus a morning skate was scheduled to stretch at 10:30 a.m. Reinhart had a brain fart. “When I woke up I was sitting in my bed and misread the text. It was a team stretch that was 10:30," he explained to the gathered media today. "I thought it was 11."

Reinhart intimated to the press that defenseman Jake McCabe texted him that they were starting. The second year forward said he ended up being "five or six minutes late."

It was Sam Reinhart and his friend, linemate and roommate Jack Eichel pretty much expressed how everyone in Sabreland feels about it today, “I don’t think anyone in this room’s really looking at Sam and upset with him about it," Eichel told the media today. "He’s a good kid. He comes to the rink early every day. He’s here. He was a couple minutes late for a meeting, and that happens. Just like anything, you handle it like a professional and move on from it, learn from it."

Said Reinhart today, “I just tried to let them know, ‘[Stuff] happens. I’m sorry to swear, but I didn’t sleep in. It wasn’t something … it’s just I misread a text. I woke up, and I thought the times were different. That’s going to happen, but it is what it is."





Thursday, March 30, 2017

Plenty of intrigue concerning the Sam Reinhart benching.

Publishes by hockeybuzz.com, 3-29-2017


The score read Columbus Blue Jackets-3, Buffalo Sabres-1 and that loss coupled with wins by both Boston and Toronto officially eliminated the Sabres from the playoffs for the sixth consecutive season.

Normally the game itself and the fact that the Sabres now have a little 'x' by their name in the standings would be the crux of a story, but last night some drama was in play for Buffalo at Nationwide Arena. When you look over the Event Summary you'll find No. 23, Sam Reinhart's name and you'll find a series of empty white boxes across his stat-line.

Nothing.

Reinhart is on the summary because he did in fact dress for the game but Sabres head coach Dan Bylsma had him sit on the bench the entire game for disciplinary reasons. According to Jon Vogl of the Buffalo News a source had told him that Reinhart was late for a team meeting at the hotel and Bylsma laid down the punishment.

“Earlier in the day, Sam Reinhart violated a team policy, and the discipline was not playing in tonight’s game,” said Bylsma post-game. “We’re going to move forward from here. Disappointing, but it happened and we dealt with it. We’re going to move on from here.”

There was a dark cloud hanging over the Sabres dressing room after the game last night as their should have been. They lost the game despite spending oodles of time in the Columbus zone and outshooting the Blue Jackets by a 42-29 margin and there's little doubt they knew the fate of their season after the loss, but they also were witness to a strong statement by Bylsma that the team comes first and that a violation of team rules has it's consequences, however harsh it may be perceived as.

Sabres captain Brian Gionta came out after showering and graciously answered questions about the incident. Gionta had just celebrated his 1000th NHL game the night before by scoring the eventual game-winner against Florida and now he was at the other end of the spectrum. “We’re building a culture here, so everybody needs to learn from it," he said of Bylsma benching Reinhart for the infraction. "It’s about the long term of this franchise and where we go and how we grow as a team and as an organization. While it’s a small hiccup tonight, it’s better in the long run for what we’re trying to get to.”

When I asked the 16-year veteran if he'd seen this type of benching before Gionta said, "Yeah, it's happened plenty of times over the course of my career. Like I said, it's where we're trying to get through as an organization and we need everybody into it.

"I think it will be good in the long run."

Fellow second overall pick, linemate and roommate of Reinhart, Jack Eichel, sat in the locker room post-game peeling away his sweat-drenched pads. He had the typical Eichel redness about him after exerting himself for 23:41 of ice-time while spending time on the ice with every forward who skated last night.

Eichel hates to lose, and no doubt he hates to be out of the playoffs for the second time in his only two pro seasons. Perhaps there was even more consternation about him as his linemate and roommate was so visibly punished. He didn't have much to say afterwards. When I asked about being double-shifted down two top-six forwards he simply stated, "yeah, being down a few guys I got a little more, it was nice."

That was about it.

Reinhart is having a solid sophomore season for Buffalo from a statistical perspective. He's already surpassed his total of 42 points from last season with 17 goals and 29 assists and although his goal-total is down from the 23 he has last season, Bylsma said earlier yesterday morning on WGR550 radio that Reinhart has had a net-front presence this year but that he's not been able to get the tips or the rebounds to go in. Bylsma counted nine tip-ins last season and another four net-front goals but this year the coach said that the playmaker in Reinhart has been coming to the fore

"Sam has always been a pass-first guy," Bylsma told host WGR host Jeremy White yesterday. "He has shown, I think, that he's a true play-making, pass-first guy."

That said, there has been a bit of a change form his rookie year that's been noted by beat reporters in that Reinhart was no longer a constant presence at Ryan O'Reilly's after-practice sessions. Last season Reinhart played mostly on a line with O'Reilly and was a constant at the informal practice sessions soaking up everything the vet had to offer. And it showed as his game slowly gained traction. In his first 23 games Reinhart scored seven points (4+3) or .30 points/game while in his last 56 games he had 35 points (19+16) for .58 ppg.

This year he's been largely absent for the post-practice sessions and is on a pace for .51 ppg while playing mostly on a line with Eichel.

Is there a correlation?

Maybe. Maybe not. But who'd have thought that Reinhart, who grew up in a hockey family and who is considered to be a mature, professional player, would get suspended?

It's been rough and rocky travelling for the Sabres this season and the end result is that they'll miss the playoffs. There has been constant speculation that Bylsma may be losing the room and that there's some friction between Eichel and Bylsma. With that in mind, keeping Reinhart benched for the entire game certainly doesn't help matters even if Reinhart was needed to hit the NHL mandate for dressing a minimum of 20 players with Kyle Okposo as a late scratch due to illness.

Emerging from the cloud that hovered over the locker room last night was GM Tim Murray. Whether it's a peculiar sight having the GM on the road with the team at this point in the season is up for discussion, but he was there. The first thing that popped into my head upon seeing him was what Murray told a disappointed and emotional Reinhart after he was sent back down to junior back in 2014, "you're my first 1st-round draft pick as a GM."

Again, whether or not the Reinhart situation had anything to do with Murray being there is unknown but in the very least, he has some impeccable timing.

The Sabres have four days between games. They're off today and then begin to get ready for a matinee with the NY Islanders on Sunday. More on the incident will come out and it will be put to rest. As the season finishes up and as we begin the post-season we'll know more about the direction of the team. But as for now, the Sabres lost last night, were eliminated from the playoffs and have five games remaining in their season.





Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Buffalo/Florida Round 3, plus some background on the Cats rebuild

Published by hockeybuzz.com, 3-27-2017


The Florida Panthers and Buffalo Sabres are both coming off of decisive wins on Saturday. Despite both teams being out of the playoffs and playing for pride, the Panthers laid a 7-0 shellacking on the Western Conference-leading Chicago Blackhawks while the Sabres beat down the Toronto Maple Leafs by a 5-2 score. Tonight the Panthers and the Sabres will meet for the third time this season with a little spring in their step.

Florida will step on to the KeyBank Center ice with 77 points and in sixth place in the Atlantic Division, three points ahead of Buffalo who are in seventh. The teams have split the season series thus far with the home team winning each time--Buffalo 3-0 and Florida 4-3 in the shootout. Last year when the Panthers were on their way to 103 points atop the division Florida took both games in Buffalo and going 3-1 vs. the Sabres while outscoring them by a combined 17-10 margin.

This year has been disappointing for both clubs as both will be out of the playoffs with the Panthers taking a major step backwards. Injuries to Jonathan Huberdeau and Nick Bjugstad early in the season left the team struggling and was said to be the impetus for the ouster of head coach Gerard Gallant who had a 11-10-1 record when he was fired. That said, philosophical differences were said to be the real reason.

After a somewhat disappointing first-round exit in last year's playoffs, the Panthers moved in earnest towards a more analytics-based philosophy. Old-school GM Dale Tallon who built much of the Chicago Blackhawks three time Stanley Cup winning teams and who was also responsible for the progress of Florida since his hire in 2010 was kicked up to the front office to make room for an analytics oriented GM in Tom Rowe.

The analytics focus had been in swing for months dating back to the prior season and continued came in a Draft-day trade with the Buffalo Sabres when they traded gritty defenseman Dmitry Kulikov for "analytics darling" Mark Pysyk. The two clubs got what they wanted but the team results have been disastrous with the Cats taking a major step back and the Sabres struggling to surpass their points-total from last season.

Then again, the injuries to key players early in the season--Huberdeau and Bjugstad for Florida, Jack Eichel, Kulikov and Evander Kane for Buffalo--really put a crimp in their respective seasons.

So with both teams all but mathematically eliminated from the post season, they'll meet tonight with minimal history but similar rebuild stories.

The Panthers perennial rebuild gained traction with the hiring of Tallon in May, 2010. Kulikov was already in the fold as a 2009, 14th overall pick and at the 2010 draft Tallon took defenseman Eric Gudbranson (3rd) and Bjugstad (19th) in the first round. Huberdeau was selected third-overall the following season and after a brief taste of success coupled with a playoff birth in 2011-12, it was back to the high picks. Alexsander Barkov was selected second-overall in 2013 and in 2014 the Panthers won the lottery over the Sabres and selected defenseman Aaron Ekblad with first overall choice.

Adding Barkov and Ekblad, as well as some key free agent signings like Brian Campbell and Jaromir Jagr, to a strong core got the team from 66 points in 2013-14 to 91 points the following season to 103 points last year and their second playoff birth in five seasons.

Gudbranson was traded away as part of their analytics movement and Campbell was allowed to walk but they still have a ton of talent. However, like the Sabres, the Panthers were unable to put it all together this season.

For Sabres fans who were looking for a quick jump to a playoff birth after years of futility, as shown with the Panthers climb, it doesn't happen overnight.

Tonight's Round-3 between two clubs with different philosophies. Granted, hockey is hockey, but ownership and management dictate how they'll approach their team-building. Buffalo GM Tim Murray began his rebuild in 2014 seemingly with a LA Kings "heavy" philosophy then began altering his views more towards speed as the league got faster. The Panthers moved towards analytics after Tallon built a team with some bigger, grittier hockey players.

It will be a couple years or more before we find out where this all leads, but for tonight we have two teams coming off of impressive wins with similar skill-sets, at least up front, who don't have much to play for.

Hopefully it will be an entertaining game.


*****

Congratulations to Sabres captain Brian Gionta who will be playing in his 1000th NHL game tonight. The 38 yr. old has a 48-goal season under his belt, a Stanley Cup ring (NJD) and can lay claim to being the first American-born player to wear the lone 'C' for the storied Montreal Canadiens franchise.

At 5'7" 178 lbs. Gionta was a longshot to make it but he's managed 585 points (288+297) in his 999 games thus far and looks as if he's got plenty more gas in the tank.


*****

And congratulations to Kulikov who unknowingly played his 500th game on Saturday in Buffalo's 5-2 win over Toronto. The former Panthers pick had a goal and an assist in his first game back from a concussion.

Kulikov has had a brutal season for the Sabres so far this year. He missed most of camp while playing in the World Cup of Hockey then suffered a tough tail-bone/back injury after getting checked into an open bench door in the preseason. He never could get it together as the injury to his back lingered and he suffered under the weight of playing a lot of competitive hockey prior to the season. Perhaps the concussion was a blessing in disguise as he remained away from the ice for nine games which may have finally allowed his body to catch up.

His last game was easily his best game as a Sabre.


*****

Monday, March 27, 2017

Jack Eichel--In your face, Leafs fans.

Published by hockeybuzz.com, 3-26-2017


Sabres' players know what lies ahead when the Toronto Maple Leafs come to town. During the pre-game skate a trickle of blue and white jerseys will eventually turn KeyBank Center into what amounts to a neutral site game as fans from Toronto will make up a huge block cheering their beloved Leafs.

You can't blame Buffalo season ticket holders for reselling their seats at exorbitant prices to those descending from Mount Maple Leaf. It helps alleviate a rather hefty price-tag for said tickets and offers Leafs fans a respite from the gaudy ticket prices up in Toronto. It's only a 90 mile journey down the QEW for Leafs fans and the sojourn is well worth it. Taking in a game at Air Canada Center in Toronto will cost an arm and leg whereas Buffalo fans will gladly sell their tickets for either.

Prior to the drop of the puck it's a given that the crowd will consist of a large, boisterous contingent of Leafs fans whenever their team is in Buffalo. It makes for a fun, albeit uneasy, playoff-like atmosphere and the way to make every Buffalo fan happy, of course, is for the Sabres to win. A way to make it even sweeter is for them to send them back to Toronto with second thoughts about who really is the better team after a 5-2 thumping, like the Sabres did last night.

This season the Leafs have clearly been the better team as their 85 points and present playoff spot places them 11 points better and four spots higher than the Sabres. While the Leafs are battling for the post-season, the Sabres are looking at another season that will end after 82 games. As mentioned in the previous blog there are mitigating circumstances as to why these teams are so far apart in the standings the biggest factor being the injuries. Buffalo has had a number of them to key players all season while the Leafs have been nearly injury-free.

Last night Toronto had a taste of what it's like to lose a key player as goalie Fredrik Anderson left the game late in the first period with Buffalo leading 2-1. The 27 yr. old has been a stalwart in goal while adding stability and bestowing confidence on a young and very talented Leafs team with question marks on defense. Anderson went into last night's contest with a 30-15-14 record, a 2.56 goals-against average and a .919 Sv%. With him lost for the game, not even appearing on the bench after his injury, backup Curtis McElhinney was forced into service. McElhinney came into the game with some pretty strong backup numbers--6-5-2, 2.52 GAA, .923 Sv%.

We'll never know what would have happened had Anderson stayed in the game, after all he did give up two goals on 16 shots in the first, but according to Leafs head coach Mike Babcock, it may not have mattered. When asked the impact of Anderson going down and McElhinney coming in, he told the gathered media post-game, "No. This was all on us.

"[The Sabres] were better. They skated better. They were quicker. They responded after we scored. They looked prepared, we didn't."

Later in the interview Babcock said "pride is a wonderful thing" alluding to what was left for the Sabres to play for and nobody showed it more than Jack Eichel, who had a spectacular game for Buffalo.

Simply put, Eichel wasn't even an afterthought while being sidelined through the first 21 games of the season. Even after he returned, the mainstream media conversation always centered around Edmonton's Connor McDavid, Winnipeg's Patrick Laine and the trio of talented rookies from Toronto--Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander. And rightfully so. That group has been a joy to watch this season.

But Eichel was the forgotten one and he doesn't seem like the type of person who likes to go unnoticed. Once he got his legs back from injury he's been a force. Eichel has 53 points (23+30) in 54 games, has 10 goals and 14 assists in his last 19 games which included an 11-game point streak.

Eichel and Matthews went head-to-head often this game with one shot having the two battling from the faceoff dot in the Buffalo zone all the way up-ice into the Toronto zone. The American phenoms join McDavid as a trio of young-guns that will take the NHL into the next decade. With McDavid out west, Eichel and Matthews will only face him twice each while the two American prodigies face each other five times a season. And that's what's turning the heat up in this rivalry that dates back to 1970, Buffalo's inaugural season.

Kudos to Matthews for doing what he always does--finding open space and scoring. The 19 yr. old who was reared in Arizona made it difficult on Sabres defenders all night long and scored his 34 goal of the season which tied the rookie goal-scoring mark set by Leafs legend Wendell Clark. But that was all for him.

This was Eichel's night punctuated by an in-your-face goal celebration after putting the Sabres up 5-2. In contrast to his first goal where he sent a rocket past McElhinney on an off-wing one-timer, Eichel's second goal was more of a change-up as he sent a deceptive snap shot short side. Think MLB's Aroldis Chapman who throws 102-3 mph regularly then throws a 95 mile-an-hour change up.

It's best to keep in mind that Eichel hates to lose. He backs up his talent is a fierce competitive edge and he was well aware of everything this game encompassed. “When you see that many Toronto people down here watching their team, it was almost like they overtook our building a little bit,” he told the media post-game. “This is our building, so obviously want to play well here.

"There was a little bit extra emotion in our game, a little bit extra intensity. It’s good to see. We always like to play against them. It’s obviously a rival, and nice to beat them.”

After scoring his second goal, Eichel did his one-skate celebration had headed directly to the corner with a large group of Leafs fans decked out in blue and white. It was the same corner that Toronto's Nazem Kadri celebrated in front of after scoring a goal the last time the Leafs made the playoffs in the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season.

A photo of that Kadri celebration spread across Canada and according to Mike Harrington of the Buffalo News and he quoted Kadri as saying that it's one of his favorite pictures, one that he has on his wall. "It seems like you're at the ACC in that picture with the amount of Leaf fans in the backdrop," he said.

With the goal-horn sounding and "Let Me Clear My Throat" being queued up, Eichel skated over with laser beam eyes locked in on the Toronto fans, slammed the boards and proceeded to spit.

This season may be lost for Buffalo, but an in your face moment like that helps make things a bit easier.





*****

There will always be a large contingent of Toronto fans in Buffalo simply from an economic standpoint, but it really hasn't helped them all that much. After their win last night Buffalo is now 18-2-1 at home vs. Toronto.


*****

Defenseman Brady Austin played his third consecutive game for the Sabres and continues to impress in a bottom-pairing role. the 6'4" 230 lb. surprisingly mobile defenseman had more good moments than bad and has been clearing the front of the net on a consistent basis, something we haven't seen from this group. "Big 67" was a plus-2 in 16:16 of ice-time last night.




Sunday, March 26, 2017

Leafs/Sabres, Round 4.

Published by hockeybuzz.com, 3-25-2017


Much has been made of "the tale of two rebuilds" in cities 100 miles apart. The Buffalo Sabres began theirs a bit earlier than the Toronto Maple Leafs and also augmented it with young vets to help speed up the process while the Leafs are a team full of rookies. Much has also been made about their respective head coaches--Buffalo's Dan Bylsma and Toronto's Mike Babcock as well as the latter spurning a Sabres serenade and leaving them at the alter before heading to Toronto.

There's also the irony of the Sabres finishing last two consecutive seasons only to pick second in the NHL Draft due to losing the lottery while Florida (2014) and Edmonton (2015) lucked into the right to draft first. The real crusher was that Edmonton leapfrogged Buffalo and the Arizona Coyotes to select once in a generation player, Connor McDavid. That's not a slight against Jack Eichel, whom the Sabres did select that year and who is looking like he'll be right up there with the elite in this league, it's was simply a matter of Buffalo playing second fiddle once again.

And to top it all off, the Maple Leafs finished last in 2015-16, won the lottery and in-turn won the right to select phenom Auston Matthews which they ended up doing, right on the Sabres home turf as the 2016 NHL Draft was held in Buffalo that year. Salt meet wound.

That said, both the Sabres and the Leafs had been gathering talent for a few years and came into this season on a similar trajectory--the playoffs were a possibility, not anywhere near given.

As it stands right now the Leafs sit third in the Atlantic Division, poised to make the playoffs with nine games left in the regular season. The Sabres are 13 points behind the Toronto in the standings and are out of the playoffs for all intents and purposes. While Toronto was busy icing as many as seven rookies on a consistent basis, the Sabres relied heavily on young vets intermingling with young players.

And while some will point to coaching as the big difference between the 30-32-12 Sabres and 35-23-15 Leafs, and there certainly is an argument to be made, when Bylsma was with Pittsburgh he went 5-2-1 against Babcock's Red Wings who were in the Western Conference at the time. Since the two manned their spots behind their respective benches two years ago, Bylsma's Sabres won three of four against Toronto last season while Babcock's Leafs have gone 2-1 against Buffalo so far this year. Lest we forget, Bylsma lead the Penguins to a 4-3 Stanley Cup series win over Babcock's Red Wings in the only time those two teams met in the playoffs.

There's a lot to be said for everything mentioned above but the biggest difference between these two clubs this season might not be a first-overall pick, talent or coaching, all of which may be contributing factors, but more so injuries, and/or lack thereof on the part of the Sabres and Leafs, respectively.

If you look at the top players on the Sabres many of them have missed double-digit games due to injury and they had some big ones at the beginning of the season. Eichel missed the first 21, Evander Kane missed 11 after getting injured in the opener while defenseman Dmitry Kulikov was in and out of the lineup nursing a sore tailbone/back after landing in an open bench door against, ironically, Toronto in the preseason.

Ryan O'Reilly had a bum back from the World Cup of Hockey and just when he was getting to feel healthier he went in for an emergency appendectomy on Christmas Day. Johan Larsson was lost for the season on New Year's Eve and just when the Sabres were positioning themselves for a run, leading scorer Kyle Okposo went down with a rib injury. And that's not even counting the Sabres having to tap into Canadian Junior for an emergency recall of Brendan Guhle because of multiple injuries to their starting defense-corps.

Injuries aren't an excuse but they do have a way of testing the depth of an organization and what we've found out is that the Sabres, despite having top-notch talent in the upper reaches of their roster, don't have the depth to overcome the injuries they incurred.

The Leafs, on the other hand, have been almost injury free when it comes to the top end of their roster. Scroll down their statistical leader board and you'll find that of their top-12 leading scorers, eight have played every game and another has missed only one game. Of the remaining three, defenseman Morgan Reilly (11th on the team in scoring) missed the most games at six.

Toronto has remained extremely healthy this season and no doubt it's contributed to the hugely successful season they're having so far. There's no dismissing the job Babcock has done as he's simply one of the best coaches in the league. Nor will we dismiss the talent they've amassed while rebuilding which includes players like Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander among others. But continuity has allowed this group of Leafs to play their style without interruption all season. It's how they went from constantly blowing third period leads early in the season to now winning those games. It has them peaking at the right time as they've won three in a row and seven of nine while catapulting into third in the division and on the precipice of a playoff berth for only the second time since the 2003-04 season.

Buffalo on the other hand is in spoiler-mode as their season effectively ended during a 2-7-2 post-bye week swoon. The Sabres began righting the ship with consecutive wins on the road at Anaheim and Detroit but then dropped a home game to Pittsburgh on Tuesday.

Top defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen will begin serving the first of this three-game suspension tonight after body-checking the Penguins Jake Guentzel into neverland. However, the Sabres will be welcoming back three players from longer-term injury--Will Carrier (24 games,) Okposo (10 games,) and Kulikov (nine)--and will also have Justin Falk (four games) back in the lineup. Rookie defenseman Brady Austin and his 6'4" 230 lb. frame will also be in the lineup as he was recalled from Rochester. It will be Austin's third game in a row in Buffalo.

With Ristolainen out, Buffalo's first powerplay unit was tweaked and Bylsma will be going with five forwards--Eichel, Kane, Okposo, O'Reilly and Sam Reinhart. Bylsma said the onus of being the "defensive" forward in this group will fall on the shoulders of (what a surprise) O'Reilly.

"You need to have a special guy on top to be able to do it, a guy who's comfortable there, responsible there," Bylsma told the gathered media at KeyBank Center. "You're flipping the switch a little bit when you're standing back on the point as a skill guy versus being a defenseman standing there. For some players it's a little bit of an island, it's a new experience and a little bit of an island, but Ryan's been there."

According to Jourdan LaBarber of sabres.com, here's the projected forward group for Buffalo:

Tyler Ennis, O'Reilly, Okposo
Marcus Foligno, Eichel, Reinhart
Kane, Evan Rodrigues, Brian Gionta
Carrier, Zemgus Girgensons, Matt Moulson

The six defenseman will be Kulikov, Falk, Austin, Jake McCabe, Josh Gorges, Zach Bogosian.

Robin Lehner gets the nod in net for Buffalo.

Game time is 7 p.m.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

The Sabres should have appealed Ristolainen's suspension.

Published by hockeybuzz.com, 3-24-2017


Pittsburgh forward Jake Guentzel was skating through the neutral zone in Buffalo with his head down ready to accept a pass from teammate, Sidney Crosby. Buffalo defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen saw the play unfolding and was lining up Guentzel for what looked to be a hip check. Crosby's pass was tipped by Sabres forward Zemgus Girgensons and a split second later Ristolainen was laying his back into Guentzel.

Guentzel was rocked and was bleeding after his visor and helmet slammed into Ristolainen's shoulder blade area and left the ice woozy. He reportedly has a concussion. Ristolainen was given a five minute interference penalty and a game misconduct.

The only thing keeping this play from becoming a highlight reel, hard-nosed body check was the absence of the puck. Had it gotten through to Guentzel it would have made news from Tampa to Edmonton. However, the biscuit never came and the NHL's Department of Player Safety ruled that Ristolainen had the time to alter his course were he skating forward instead of backwards.

I get it. But missing in all of this was malicious intent on the part of Ristolainen nor was he targeting the Guentzel's head as the size difference had more to do with it than anything else. Ristolainen is 6'4" 203 lbs. while Guentzel is 5'11" 180. Nor do I see a history of suspensions or even calls from the DoPS.

This is the second time this season that Guentzel didn't keep his head up while skating into dangerous areas. The first time involved Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Brandon Manning who delivered a vicious check to Guentzel as he was leaving the zone. The DoPS said that Manning made "significant and forceful contact with the head of Guentzel" long after Guentzel had the puck.

In layman's terms, or in this blogger's eyes, Manning was head-hunting, while Ristolainen was finishing a check he just couldnt' get out of.  It should also be noted that Manning didn't even receive a penalty on the play and when you consider that Ristolainen played only a few minutes, he'll be lost for what constitutes nearly four games for something that was even close to what Manning did.

You be the judge. Here are the two videos via Sportsnet Canada.

Manning on Guentzel:




Ristolainen on Guentzel:




The Department of Player Safety's three game suspension of Ristolainen is crap when you consider that a head-hunting Manning only got two games.

Buffalo should have appealed the suspension, even if it never flew, to show just how poorly the NHL handled this matter.

And Guentzel needs to learn how to keep his head up or he'll have a very short career....or worse.







Friday, March 24, 2017

This is no reason to keep head coach Dan Bylsma.

Published by hockeybuzz.com, 3-23-2017


When Sabres ownership and management look back on a season of stagnation (at best) in Buffalo, the most predominant themes running through will be injuries and an inadequate defense-corps that also dealt with a slew of injuries as well.

A quick recap on the injuries starts in the top-six with Jack Eichel missing the first 21 games, Evander Kane going down in the opener and missing 11 games plus Ryan O'Reilly suffering from, and trying to play through, back spasms early on while going under the knife for an emergency appendectomy at Christmas. Bottom-six checking center Johan Larsson was lost for the season on New Years Eve.

On the back end there's newcomer Dmitry Kulikov, who missed most of camp because of the World Cup of Hockey then proceeded to smack his tailbone into a open bench door during a preseason game. He was never the same and confessed to the press mid-season, “For old people, you get out of bed, you’re kind of stiff. It’s just a little stiffer for me, I would say." Zach Bogosian had his annual stint on the injured list with 26 games and Josh Gorges missed 16 which is around his average over the last six years.

Injuries like those will cripple almost any team, especially on that's in the second year of their build which coincides with how many years Bylsma's been at the helm in Buffalo.

Those are tangibles and then there are comparables as well.

On the rebuilding side there's the Toronto Maple Leafs who moved into third in the Atlantic Division with an impressive win over Columbus last night. The Leafs are in their first building season, are scoring over three goals per game (as opposed to Buffalo's 2.45) and have seemingly found instant success with an almost injury-free season.

On the injury front team-wise there's the Florida Panthers who were also beset by injuries to star players early on but also went through a coaching change. The Cats have gone from 103 points last season (third in the conference) to one point ahead of Buffalo, or 13th in the conference.

At season's end GM Tim Murray, who was just handed a contract extension this season, and ownership will take everything into consideration, including a dreadful Rochester Americans season,  and decide the future of Bylsma.

But one of the troublesome things that keeps cropping up in the conversation over Bylsma's future, is the three years remaining on his contract and the parallel between him and the recently fired coach of the NFL's Buffalo Bills, Rex Ryan. The Pegula family own both the Sabres and the Bills.

Both Ryan and Bylsma came to Buffalo with experience and reputations, most notably Bylsma who had won a Stanley Cup in Pittsburgh. Both were signed to five-year contracts with the thought that they'd lay a foundation the franchises could move forward with. Ryan failed and was fired with one game left in his second season. Bylsma is nearing the end of his second season in Buffalo and may end up with a worse record than last season which itself was in the lower portion of the league.

Would the Pegula's fire both of their head coaches with three years remaining on their respective contracts?

Chris Nichols of Fanrag, delved into quotes from TSN/NBCSN hockey insider Bob McKenzie who chimed in on the situation. “I don’t think the Pegula family is keen on paying both Ryan and Bylsma not to coach the Bills and the Sabres," Nichols quotes McKenzie as saying, "and they obviously made that decision with Ryan and the Bills."

I get the gist of the Pegula's not wanting do dish out tens of millions of dollars for fired coaches, but that shouldn't come into consideration. Those involved in the signings of the coaches need to take responsibility. For Ryan and the Bills that would include the Pegulas themselves and President Russ Brandon, all of whom were said to be at the forefront of the hire. For Bylsma and the Sabres, departed team President Ted Black may have been involved in Bylsma's hire and we're pretty sure the Pegula's were involved as well, especially when you consider they lost out on Mike Babcock, the high-profile coach now leading an extremely young Leafs team to the brink of the playoffs.

Regardless of what happened with Ryan, if Bylsma was a bad hire, or more than likely a good coach who's just a bad fit for what Murray envisioned, then by all means pull the plug. But don't let the firing of Ryan into the equation. It something that might only prolong the inevitable and move the team further backward instead of forward.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Will...

Published by hockeybuzz.com, 3-22-2017


With the shade slowly being drawn on Buffalo's hockey season and fans in Sabreland looking forward to an off season of moves that can hopefully get them into the playoffs next season, there are still a handful of games to be followed. Individual and team development form a thematic for the remainder of the season so here are some questions for the Sabres after they finished a back-to-back with a win at Detroit and a loss vs. Pittsburgh.

Will...

--the Sabres be able to match or exceed their 81 point total from last season?
Lest we forget, Buffalo went from 54 points in 2014-15 to 81 points last season which is significant regardless of how bad the team was. Expectations were for a modest to playoff contending point increase but they head into the final eight games of the season on an 80-point pace. Buffalo has games remaining against Toronto Maple Leafs (2,) Florida Panthers (2,) Columbus Blue Jackets, NY Islanders, Montreal Canadiens, and Tampa Bay Lightning.

--the Buffalo be able to play the role of spoiler?
The Sabres play three teams in the hunt for the final Eastern Conference wild card slot--Toronto, NY Islanders and Tampa Bay--with the Leafs in the driver's seat. Of the three, no doubt the Sabres would like to do the most damage to Toronto as there's a strong rivalry brewing. Hail to the Leafs, however, as head coach Mike Babcock has his talented, young group playing some impressive hockey when it counts including wins against foes from the east in Detroit, Philadelphia, Carolina, Tampa Bay and Boston as well as taking the Chicago Blackhawks to overtime before losing.

--Rasmus Ristolainen face suspension for his hit last night?
"The Angry Finn" as Sabres coach Dan Bylsma calls Ristolainen, had Pittsburgh Penguins forward Jake Guentzel lined up and ready to demolish in the neutral zone as soon as the puck hit Guentzel's stick. However the pass was picked of by Buffalo's Zemgus Girgensons and Ristolainen hit a man without the puck. Guentzel got to his skates bloodied and woozy while Ristolainen was hit with a five minute for interference and a game misconduct. Personally I thought he backed off as he turned to his back-side just before the collision. A game at most.

--Evander Kane be able to get on track before the end of the season.
From December 3 to March 11 Kane was on fire scoring all of his 25 goals but he's been goal-less in his last five. Much of it has to do with the March 2 injury to Kyle Okposo and Kane's consequent move off of Jack Eichel's line. In the 10 games after Okposo hit the injured list, Kane has only two goals both of them coming on the powerplay. The Eichel-effect no doubt.

--the loss of Okposo get the attention it deserves?
As a poster pointed out in one of our threads, not enough attention is being paid to the loss of Okposo who was at or near the top in Sabres scoring all season. Since he's been sidelined the Buffalo is 3-6-1.

--rookie defenseman Brady Austin continue to impress?
He was called up two games ago after Taylor Fedun (who was pretty impressive) and Cody Franson hit the injured list. Austin is a big guy at 6'4" 230 and was having a largely forgettable season with Rochester before being called up. He played a solid game against a quick Detroit Red Wings team and played another solid game against a faster and more talented Pittsburgh club. Austin skates well for his size and is fairly nimble, able to turn his hips like a man much smaller than him. Although expectations are tempered, he's exceeded what I thought he could bring to the table.

--Jack Eichel learn from Sidney Crosby and the like?
I love "Jack Flash" and think his skill-level and skating are off the charts but his desire and will doesn't seem to be at the level of Crosby. At least not on a consistent basis. When Crosby scores that scowl is his celebration of defeating the many who are draped all over him the entire game. Eichel shows that desire but there's still room for growth in that area.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

No real reason to continue overplaying Ristolainen and O'Reilly

Published by hockeybuzz.com, 3-20-2017


The facts:

--22 yr. old Buffalo defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen is presently fourth in the NHL in average time on ice (ATOI) at 27:01. Last season he was 10th at 25:16.

--For the second season in a row Ryan O'Reilly leads all NHL forwards with 21:39 ATOI. Last season the 26 yr. old logged an average of 21:44 minutes/game.

--The 2016-17 Buffalo Sabres have a record of 29-31-12 and although they're not mathematically eliminated from the playoffs, their goose is cooked as they're nine points out of the second wild card spot with six teams to jump.

The Sabres have themselves a bit of a conundrum headed into tonight's matchup with the Detroit Red Wings as a thin blue line got even thinner. Taylor Fedun, who was called up because of an injury to Justin Falk, and Cody Franson will not be playing in Detroit tonight after suffering injuries in Anaheim on Friday. It got to the point where head coach Dan Bylsma was rotating three defensemen against the Ducks.

“You go from left D to right D to rest, and you came out and went to the left D, then right D and then rest,” Bylsma told the media. “It was a short time, but we had the rotation going there. The fresh guy goes to the farthest point on the ice, and you move toward the bench to get some rest.”

For Ristolainen, it was just another day at the office as he logged as smidge over 30 minutes of ice-time in Buffalo's 2-1 shootout win over Anaheim. It was the second time in the last four games he has logged 30 or more minutes of ice time, the eighth time he's done since breaking the mark 27 games into the season.

Being the hockey player that he is, Ristolainen is more than willing to carry a huge load for the team. He's been in tip-top physical shape since finishing his rookie season in 2014 and Bylsma, as we've seen, hasn't been shy about feeding him as many minutes as he can while the 6'4" 203 lb. Finn will never shy away from that load. “The workload is fine,” Ristolainen said via a Bill Hoppe piece in the Olean Times Herald. “I don’t feel it too much.”

However, playing that many minutes as a young player will catch up to you. Ristolainen, according to his coach, plays those minutes hard and that will eventually take it's toll.

“The problem with Rasmus playing 30 minutes is he just plays them so hard, so physical,” Bylsma said via the Hoppe piece. “He’s all in when he plays 30 minutes like that, and that’s tough for anybody to do. There are some guys who play that much in their careers and tend to manage it a bit better than Rasmus.

“Rasmus, he’s giving you everything he’s got. If he’s out there two minutes for a shift, he will give you everything he has at the end of that two minutes. That is on an empty tank sometimes.”

That is a sign of youthful invincibility, but it also should be taken as a warning sign.

At this point in the season, with the team effectively out of the playoff race and not much to play for except pride, paring back Ristolainen's minutes should be prioritized. A cautionary tale can be found in the story of Chicago Cubs manager Jim Riggleman and his use of phenom pitcher Kerry Wood.

We all know of the Cubs curse (which ended with their 2016 World Series win) and Wood came to Chicago bearing the weight of that. As a rookie in 1998 Wood fireballed his way to 233 strikeouts and Rookie of the Year honors. Wood, however, developed arm problems that would define his career and the opinion around the league is that Riggleman overused him.

Riggleman was in the fourth year of a marginal at best tenure with the Cubs and Wood allowed the Cubs to get into the playoffs for the first time since 1989 as a wild card. But the cost was high as Wood underwent Tommy John surgery and spent the entire 1999 season on the disabled list.

He was never quite the same after that.

You could also point to NFL phenom quarterback Robert Griffin III as a young player who looks to have been ridden into the ground. The Washington Redskins sent three first round draft picks and a second rounder to move up in the draft to select him as their franchise quarterback while the read option was the rage in the NFL. During his 2012 rookie year, RGIII was the master at that and it looked as if the Redskins move paid off..

However, defenses eventually caught up with it and by the end of Griffin's 2012 season, he was taking a beating. Head coach Mike Shanahan (who was also vice president of football operations for Washington) allowed Griffin to play through injuries in the latter part of the season and into the playoffs. The end result was RGIII on the turf against Seattle with his leg dangling at the knee. He's never been the same.

Unlike the Cubs and the Redskins as laid out above, the Sabres are not in the playoff picture so there's absolutely no reason to be playing Ristolainen that much. And what goes for overworking Ristolainen goes for O'Reilly as well.

O'Reilly has a few years on Risto and has a lot more NHL experience so he manages his game much better. But there's a different O'Reilly on the ice when he's fatigued. When on his game he's one of the best two-way centers in the game, one who's relentless in all three zones and can win a faceoff anytime, anywhere on the ice. When he's fatigued he doesn't have quite the same effect.

No doubt O'Reilly will take whatever Bylsma throws at him because he's a hockey player. However he's also one who started the season suffering from back spasms (which may or may not have subsided) and who also went under the knife for an emergency appendectomy on Christmas Day, of which he returned a week early because, he's a hockey player.

There might be one reason to continue overplaying Ristolainen and/or O'Reilly at this point, and that's for Buffalo to win as many games as possible to finish the season. Rumor has it that Bylsma's seat has gotten warm as the Sabres have had a disappointing season and finishing the season on a high note may alter that. But at what cost.

Maybe we should look at what it cost Kerry Wood and RGIII.


*****

With Fedun and Franson joining Falk and Dmitry Kulikov on the injured list, the Sabres recalled two defensemen from Rochester today. Casey Nelson (2016, FA) and Brady Austin (2012, 193rd overall) have joined the team in Detroit.



Monday, March 20, 2017

Buffalo wins a 10-round shootout...No...really

Published by hockeybuzz.com, 3-18-2017


As per usual lately, it was a shooting gallery for a Buffalo netminder as backup Anders Nilsson was peppered by the Anaheim Ducks with 40 shots last night. Nilsson was strong in net for the Sabres and was up to the task as he allowed only one goal-against in regulation/overtime then stopped eight of 10 shots in the shootout as he lead the Sabres to the 2-1 victory.

After a listless effort for much of the previous game in which they were shut out by the LA Kings 2-0, Buffalo was much more engaged from the get-go in this one. Instead of getting outshot by a huge, almost unthinkable margin (15-2) in the first period like they did up I-5 against the Kings, the Ducks were held to nine shots but managed to slip one by Nilsson.

The Sabres, however, would tie the game on a lucky bounce as a Jake McCabe shot would be deflected by Anaheim goalie Jonathan Bernier to the side of the net where Ryan O'Reilly was in a battle with a Ducks defender. From Bernier's glove to O'Reilly's skate and a carom from a sharp angle that trickled over the goal line, Buffalo tied the score. There was no scoring in the third period, none in overtime and Sabres fans (whomever was left watching at 1:30 EST in the morning) were left with the prospect of a shootout where the Sabres have been abysmal this season.

Prior to last night the Sabres were near or at the bottom of the league with a 1-6 shootout record, a 17.6 shooting percentage (3/17) and a .250 save percentage as their goalies managed to stop only four of 16 shots against.

Perhaps it was a case of the bling pig finding a nut last night as Nilsson was rock solid in the shootout while O'Reilly, Rasmus Ristolainen and Zemgus Girgensons all scored in the skills competition  looking like pure goal-scorers in the process. O'Reilly snapped one top-shelf, glove side, Ristolainen pulled off a "piece of magic," as called by Sabres play-by-play man Dan Dunleavy, using his reach for a long backhand reach-around and Girgensons, whom Bernier tried to fake out, looked cool as a cucumber as he went forehand over an outstretched right pad for the game-winner. Nothin' fancy for "Gus," just a simple forehand-backhand-forehand past an overconfident goalie.

For as much as we've seen a complacent Buffalo Sabres team, and for as much as it looked as if they'd packed it in on their coach and the season, deep down there's a competitive spirit that hates to lose and takes joy in winning. After Girgensons won it the Sabres bench erupted as if they'd just secured a spot in the playoffs. And for only the second time in the last seven games the post-game interviews would focus upon what went right in a win as opposed to what went wrong in a loss.

Girgensons was on the MSG post-game with Brian Duff and Brad May, a rare spot for him as it's not very often a bottom-six defensive forward gets to play the part of hero. He had an ear-to-ear grin with Duffer and May and continued with that smile in the locker room when he said of watching while the shootout went deeper, "every time I was just hoping we'd score and get to go home."

It was a pretty brutal two games prior to the shootout win for Buffalo. Between Jack Eichel's first goal 1:50 into the first period against San Jose' to O'Reilly's goal 15:35 into the second period last night, the Sabres went 153:45 seconds without a goal. It was also a rugged trio of games against three Western Conference heavies where bodies were flying everywhere, yet the Sabres held their own.

Head coach Dan Bylsma did nearly a full shuffle of his lines last night keeping only one intact--Marcus Foligno-Evan Rodrigues-Hudson Fasching. O'Reilly was on Eichel's wing along with Tyler Ennis. Girgensons centered a line featuring two fast power forwards in Evander Kane and Justin Bailey while Sam Reinhart, who is normally on Eichel's wing was centering a line of Brian Gionta and Matt Moulson.

Defensive call-up Taylor Fedun continued his strong play but was dinged up in the first period and didn't come out for the second forcing the Sabres to play with five defensemen. That's yet another defenseman down as Fedun was called up to replace Justin Falk.

The Sabres took a red-eye back to Buffalo last night and have a scheduled practice today. They take on the Detroit Red Wings tomorrow night for their last visit to storied Joe Louis Arena as the Wings will have a new home next year. Buffalo is 2-0-1 vs. Detroit this year.



Saturday, March 18, 2017

On the downward spiral, and the chasm between the players and Bylsma

Published by hockeybuzz.com, 3-17-2017


It’s more than just the fourth consecutive 2-0 loss for Buffalo in Los Angeles, which is strange in and of itself, especially when you consider the last Sabres player to score a goal at Staples Center was, of all people, Craig Rivet (nothing personal) back on January 21, 2010. It’s also more than the 2-8-2 swoon the Sabres have found themselves in since a three-game winning streak had those in Sabreland thinking about a possible playoff run.

After a rough start to the season and some inconsistencies along the way, the Sabres were seemingly righting the ship with a 13-8-2 record to start the 2017 portion of the season. But a decidedly tired Sabres team incurred a rough 5-1 loss at home against the Chicago Blackhawks just prior to their bye week and since then they've been spiraling out of control. Or should we say a surprisingly fragile team soon found themselves losing games they had no business losing and eventually succumbed to apathy. The result is that of a team that now looks content to ride out the season.

The Sabres are in a downward spiral and they neither have the will or the courage to play out the rest of the string as professionals playing for a sense of pride. As a group, they have no pride in themselves or the crest and the proof, as they say, is in the pudding.

Last night in Los Angeles most of the skaters looked as if they were taking a casual walk down the Hollywood Walk of Fame for the first half of the game, prancing and stargazing while Los Angeles was busy peppering goalie Robin Lehner with 15 first period shots. Were it not for a rather stodgy style the Kings play and the stellar goaltending of Lehner, the Sabres would have been in the same situation they were in when the Columbus Blue Jackets visited last week--down 3-0.

Despite being outshot 15-2 in the first period, the Sabres and Kings were tied 0-0 heading into the intermission. The Sabres allowed 36 Los Angeles shots on goal last night in what's been a very disturbing trend. In last eight games against teams not named Arizona and Colorado, the Sabres have hung their goalies out to dry giving up an average of 37.5 shots-against/game. That ain't right. In fact it's downright shameful and their 1-5-2 record in those games shows just how pitiful this team has been.

Look, I get it. Coach Dan Bylsma and his systems have been clashing with the on-ice personnel all season long, probably dating back to last season. That much has been coming out of the media and ever so subtly (or not so subtly at times) through the players all season and the numbers indicate that this is a group of players that has tuned out their coach. If Bylsma somehow makes it to next season, it will be a miracle, especially when you consider that the team is looking to start contract-extension talk with franchise center Jack Eichel, a player who's been at odds with Bylsma. We know how this ends. Coaches don't sell tickets, star players do.

I also get the fact that this team is pretty weak on defense. D-man Taylor Fedun was called up from Rochester yesterday and caught a flight to Los Angeles. Although he didn't make it in time for the team's optional skate, he was on the ice and played a real solid game. That he was probably the Buffalo's best defenseman last night tells us a lot about where the rest of the d-corps heads were at.

We should also give a shout out to the line of Evan Rodrigues, Marcus Foligno and rookie Hudson Fasching who took the play to the Kings nearly every time they were on the ice. But they, along with Fedun, got no help from the star players on this team.

Sure Eichel and the like eventually woke up. They had spurts where they played extremely well and were all over Los Angeles, but it wasn't nearly enough. Buffalo got lucky once in the last handful of games as they eventually came back from that 3-0 first period deficit against Columbus to win, but for the most part they've looked like a team that packed it in.

The Sabres have 11 games to go. They're out of the playoffs and only a few of players are playing for a Buffalo contract next season. Captain Brian Gionta's one of them. He's been saying that he wants to return and at a reasonable price he very well could be back. Fedun is unrestricted as well and should be offered an extension. He played well on his first recall before a numbers-crunch sent him back to Rochester. Does he want to return is the big question. The other two UFA's are defensemen Dmitry Kulikov and Cody Franson.

Kulikov came over in a trade with the Florida Panthers and WGR550's Paul Hamilton said that he seemed devastated when he learned he was leaving Florida. Add a shortened training camp from Kulikov's participation in the World Cup of Hockey and the preseason tailbone injury that plagued him this season and one can see why Hamilton thinks this guy wants to be on the next train out of Buffalo once the season ends.

At one point in time Franson was considered a slow-moving defenseman with some offensive acumen who could man the point  on the powerplay. Take out the latter two positives and you have a defenseman that slowed considerably. It's been rough for Franson and despite his proclamations that he wants to return, we're not sure the feeling's mutual.

There will be changes that, more than likely, will include a coaching change thanks to their obvious display of disdain for Bylsma and his methods. However, it probably won't happen until after the season and there's still 11 games to play.

This group of players is not the first to pack it in because of their coach and they won't be the last, but there are 11 games to play and they should man up. I don't expect the Sabres stars to go all out to block a Shea Weber slapshot or to take on a heavyweight, but they should show a little professional pride and skate like it's an honor to play a game for a living.

Murray isn't a dummy. One would think that after watching this parade of stinkers over the past few weeks that he gets the hint--this team, or at least the key components of this team, are neither having fun nor are they winning and that's falls on the coach. Yet those same players should be forced to look at themselves in the mirror. They have enough talent to play to a higher level should they choose to but choosing not to, especially when they've made their message clear, is unacceptable.

The defense can be fixed, the schemes can be altered and the people in charge can make things better, but if you don't have enough character and/or maturity to know when to stop, that's on the individual. And it starts with the star players.

Tonight the Sabres finish their three-game West Coast swing with a trip down I-5 to Anaheim to take on the Ducks, a team that smoked them 5-2 on February 7 in Buffalo.







Friday, March 17, 2017

Sabres in Los Angeles, plus former d-men Brayden McNabb and Mark Pysyk

Published by hockeybuzz.com, 3-16-2017


The Buffalo Sabres are in Los Angeles tonight for Game-2 of their three-game West Coast swing. The Sabres defeated the Kings in Buffalo back in December as they overcame a 2-0 deficit with four unanswered goals in a span of 6:15 to eventually win 6-3. Ryan O'Reilly, Jack Eichel (2,) and Brian Gionta scored in the Sabres blitzkrieg while Evander Kane and Sam Reinhart finished it off with goals late in the third period.

With that win, the Sabres are assured of at least a season split for the fourth season in a row. Somehow, even through the down years of 2013-15, Buffalo has managed a win at home. However, haven't won in Los Angeles since 2003.

The Kings are battling for a wild card spot while the Sabres, for all intents and purposes, have only 12 games left before their season ends.

It's been a rough season for the Sabres with everyone feeling the heat from the players to head coach Dan Bylsma to GM Tim Murray. Injuries and inconsistencies have plagued the club since Eichel was lost for the first 21 games with a high-ankle sprain. Although they had many opportunities to get on a roll, Buffalo's longest winning streak reached three games while their longest points-streak reached four. Every team above them in the standings has had a winning streak of at least five games or more save for the NY Islanders who've had two six game points-streaks with five wins each time.

The Sabres will face off against former defenseman Brayden McNabb who was traded by Murray to the Kings on March 5, 2014. In the deal Murray also sent two second round picks (both acquired from LA in the Robyn Regehr trade) and in return the Sabres received two "heavies," as Murray called them--forward Hudson Fasching and defenseman turned winger, Nicolas Deslauriers.
It was Murray's first trade of his own volition as the trade of Ryan Miller and Co. to the  St. Louis Blues on February 28, 2014 was in the works via the previous regime.

Murray is getting his fair share of the blame for a disappointing 2016-17 Sabres season as the defense he went into the season with has been sub-par at best, brutalized at worst. Although McNabb isn't anything close to a Bill Hajt-type shutdown defenseman, the 26 yr. old former third-round pick (2009) has managed to play a third-pairing role while also showing some capabilities when placed in the top four.

I'm not sure the left-handed McNabb would have brought much more to the table than any of the other bottom-four defenseman for Buffalo, but when you look at a poor season by Deslauriers, the injuries that have plagued Fasching this season as well, and when you add in that the Sabres defense looked to be in disarray for the better part of 2016-17, an argument could be made that he may have been able to help.

Fasching, who suffered a severe groin injury in a game October 30 may be back in the lineup tonight as rookie winger Justin Bailey has been dinged. The 6'2" 207 lb Fasching got the call from Rochester for the West Coast swing and is looking for his first NHL point this season. After returning from injury Fasching played in 23 games for the Amerks registering five goals and two assists in that span. He's had one point in his last six Amerks games.

It's another late start as the puck drops at 10:30 EST.


*****

There's a tendency in Sabreland, or most any fanbase for that matter, to consecrate a lost player as the second coming. Even though said player may have been a good player, when he leaves Buffalo he's placed a notch or two above where he really was.

We went through that with McNabb after he played next to Drew Doughty and acquitted himself well. All of a sudden, a projected third-pairing defenseman became was looked at as a top-two and the Sabres screwing up.

It's happening again with departed defenseman Mark Pysyk.

Pysyk was traded to the Florida Panthers along with two picks for defenseman Dmitry Kulikov and the 33rd-overall pick at the June draft. While Kulkove was struggling with injury and downright awful play at times, Pysyk was holding his own and playing well in a third-pairing role for the Panthers.

Good for him. When playing for Buffalo Pysyk was a steady defenseman who could move the puck and occasionally jump up into the play. He was the type of player that the Sabres could've used this season although how much of an impact he could've made is debatable as he probably would've been in the same bottom-pairing role he'd been in the previous season in Buffalo.

The Panthers had him playing big minutes the last three games and Pysyk has responded with two goals and an assist while the team has gone 1-2-0 in those three games. The last game was a 7-3 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs which prompted Cats color commentator (and NHL Hall of Fame defenseman) Denis Potvin to get fired up about Pysyk's potential.

That in turn was overheard by former Sabres defenseman Mike Robitaille who was on with the morning crew on WGR.

The talk moved toward "who's to blame" for the disappointing Sabres season and the focus was now on Murray and some of his trades. McNabb was the first name up then the host brought up Pysyk. Robitaille used Potvin's commentary as a springboard noting that Pysyk was said to be "taking over the Florida defense" with top d-man Aaron Ekblad out. Then he went on to say that Pysyk's "solid, money in the bank," and "a 15-year defenseman, top-four.

"He's the real deal," said Roby.

Pysyk may very well be "the real deal" but just how much of a "real deal" are we talking about. Normally when you use a phrase like that you're talking superstar or star playing in a top role. When Pysyk was in Buffalo, most thought he was a No. 4-6 defenseman which is probably where he'll end up his career. He's a smart player who knows how to play the game and will do so in a manner that may in fact last 15 years.

Once again, good for him. I always liked his game and if he's a good fit in Florida more power to him and the Panthers. If the trade ends up being a flop for Murray, and Kulikov's problems certainly make it that way for this season, and/or if Pysyk does become a Niklas Hjalmarsson-type or better, than so be it.

However, spare me the canonization of Pysyk at this juncture of his career.


*****

Defenseman Taylor Fedun has been recalled from Rochester and is headed to Los Angeles. Fedun was recalled to replace Justin Falk who's dinged up.

The 28 yr. old Fedun last played for the Sabres on February 12 against Vancouver. In 25 games for the Sabres the soon to be unrestricted free agent had seven assists and was a plus-3 while averaging 13:38 of ice-time.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

From Russia, with love? Sabres said to be signing KHL's Viktor Antipin

Published by hockeybuzz.com, 3-14-2017


First there was the swap with Florida where the Sabres traded defenseman Mark Pysyk and two pick for defenseman Dmitry Kulikov and the 33rd overall. Then Buffalo GM Tim Murray selected Vasily Goltov, a Russian center whom Sabres selected later that day in the seventh round.

Now word has it that the Sabres are about to sign a free agent defenseman from the Kontinental Hockey League once his season is over. Sportsnet's Elliot Freidman wrote in his "30 Thoughts" today that "24-year-old Viktor Antipin is expected to join Buffalo."

Antipin is a 5'11" 179 lb. defenseman who has played for Metallurg Magnitogorsk of the KHL for the past six seasons compiling 98 points (36+62) in 266 games with a plus-66 rating. In 69 playoff games for Metallurg he upped his .37 regular season points/game to .45 ppg with 31 points on 13 goals and 18 assists.

The Sabres are left to span the globe to find defensemen because of a very thin pool. It's a situation that's caused problems with the big club but has really wreaked havoc with their AHL affiliate, the Rochester Americans. Going into the season the Amerks had three veteran d-men they were going to anchor their defense with--Justin Falk, Taylor Fedun and Eric Burgdoerfer. However, because of injuries most notably to Kulikov (who's injured again) and Zach Bogosian (missed 26 games) the Sabres pulled Falk to the big club for 45 games (and counting,) Fedun for 25 and Burgdoerfer for another two. Casey Nelson, a 2016 college free agent signee (Minnesota State) was also in Buffalo for the first nine games of the season because of the Kulikov injury.

What remained in Rochester was a skeleton crew of defensemen that have been overwhelmed all season.

Help is on the horizon in that highly touted prospect Brendan Guhle will be turning pro next season, although it looks as if he'll be headed straight to the Sabres. St. Cloud State defenseman Will Borgen (2015, 92nd overall) will be in Rochester next season and Devante Stephens (2015, 122nd) will also be eligible to play in the AHL next season. The only Rochester defenseman under contract for next season is Nelson. Brady Austin (2012, 193rd) will be a restricted free agent at the end of the season and whether or not they re-sign him is up in the air.

The Sabres were once again looking at the college free agent market and were said to be in on Minnesota State sophomore defenseman Daniel Brickley but he intends to return for his junior season. With him out of the equation Buffalo is said to be going after St. Lawrence d-man Gavin Bayreuther. According to Elliot in the same piece,  "It’s believed Dallas was the most aggressive pursuer, with Buffalo and Colorado lurking."

With the college FA market really thin this season and the team not expected to sign 2013 fifth round draft pick Anthony Florentino (Providence Friars,) I was told by Kris Baker of sabresprospects.com that the Sabres "were going hard for Euro FA's" right now and sure enough, with the news of the impending signing of Antipin, "There's the Euro."

Murray put himself in a tough spot when he focused almost exclusively on the forward group while using defensemen as currency in trades. There's been a huge shift in talent away from d-prospects and young players when he did his wheeling and dealing for young, veteran forwards. It's a self-inflicted bind he's got himself in and it will be interesting to see how they come out of this.

Right now Baker called Buffalo "desperate" and it's to the point where a real good (according to Baker) but not "amazing" prospect like Bayreuther will probably be able to burn the first year of his two-year contract this season, something they did with Nelson.

Prior to last year's draft Murray had not used a draft pick on a Russian as GM in Buffalo. There's always been this thought that he's had an aversion to players from the Motherland. Perhaps it's gotten to the point where every area in the world's been scouted so much, from North American colleges to Denmark, Finland and Sweden that there's really not much uncharted territory out there, except for maybe Russia because of the so-called "Russian Factor."

Times may be changing, see Artemi Panarin and Nikita Zaitsev, to name a couple, and teams may have no choice but to scour Russia for players.

And that includes Murray and the Buffalo Sabres.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Will Buffalo have room for Evander Kane and a d-man like Shattenkirk?

Published by hockeybuzz.com, 3-13-2017


Buffalo Sabres left wing Evander Kane has played his way into a contract extension with the team. Scoring 25 goals and looking every bit the powerforward he's always been touted as has brought the conversation in Sabreland from "trade him for a bag of pucks!" to "will he want to re-sign in Buffalo? And for how much?" Because of Kane's exceptional season, it won't come cheap for Buffalo GM Tim Murray, but then again, nothing ever worth having does.

Kane still has one year remaining on his old contract which comes in at a $5.25 million dollar cap-hit.
Dollars and term are the big hurdles for the team and player, but I'm going to get this out of the way right now and say based upon his past history which includes off-ice incidents and solid but not premier production between 2011-12 when he scored 30 goals and this year where he' on a pace to equal that (which amounts to 21 goals/season,) dancing around that $7 million/year average seems a big high. A cap-hit of $6 million would be about right using that past history, however $6.5 million might very well be where this all ends up.

In looking ahead to the 2018-19 season, Murray has a few huge factors working in his favor when it comes to cap-management--some dead weight will be off the books by then, he will have a trove of forwards filling in at low cap-hits around his core group and two of his longer-term, top-four d-men, which includes Rasmus Ristolainen on the top pair, will account for a combined $7 million cap-hit.

Before we get to Kevin Shattenkirk who may end up signing a long-term deal somewhere (maybe Buffalo) for $6.5-7 million, let's take a look at the potential forward group heading into the 2018-19 season. There will be two players for sure on the team moving forward:  Ryan O'Reilly and Kyle Okposo. Matt Moulson and Tyler Ennis will be in the final year of their contracts and I can't see either being on the team at that point. Moulson looks to be a sure buyout candidate after this season and if Tyler Ennis can stay healthy enough his $3.65m salary but $4.6m cap-hit could be enough incentive for a team looking to get to the cap floor to take him off of Buffalo's hands.

In adding to the forward group we'll go high on Eichel and put him at an $8m cap-hit while Reinhart may be in the $4m range, which is a pretty hefty hike. The rest of the roster can be filled in using the present lineup which includes a lot of youthful speed and talent.

Here's how the forward group would stack up with Eichel at the top of the food chain and the rest falling in place behind him:

Eichel--$8m
O'Reilly--7.5
Kane--6.5
Okposo--6
Reinhart--4
Foligno--3
Girgensons--2
Larsson--2
Rodrigues--1
Carrier--1
Bailey--1
Baptiste--1
Nylander--.975
Reserve--.650

Approximate cap-hit forwards:  $44.6 million


On defense the Sabres will need a significant upgrade and Shattenkirk may be their ticket. With him and Ristolainen anchoring the right side, Jake McCabe and Brendan Guhle will probably be rounding out the top-four on the left side. Zach Bogosian who is under contract through the end of 2019-20 is a big question mark as his $5.14 million cap-hit makes things extremely tight, but here goes with him in the lineup:

Shattenkirk--$7m
Ristolainen--5.4
Bogosian-5.14
McCabe--1.6
Guhle--.700
#6 FA--1
#7 FA--.75

Approx. total cap hit d-men:  $21.5m

I'm of the opinion that Murray will be able to re-sign goalie Robin Lehner to a contract that won't exceed a $3m cap-hit and that for the 2018-19 season either Linus Ullmark or Cal Petersen will be his back-up. My bet is on Ullmark (if he's not taken in the upcoming expansion draft) which leaves us with a goalie tandem of:

Lehner--$3m
Ullmark--.9

Total for goalies:  $3.9m

Grand total for the entire roster:  $70 million

Add in Moulson's approximate buyout number of $2.83 (according to cap friendly.com) and the grand total for this roster as constructed in 2018-19 is about $73 million which is this year's NHL salary cap.

Add in that the cap will probably go up anywhere from $3-5 million in the next two years and the Sabres will be in good shape using the players and numbers laid out above.


Monday, March 13, 2017

Sabres do hometown fans a solid

Published by hockeybuzz.com, 3-12-2017


Individually there's a lot of pride in Buffalo Sabres players. Some are simply hockey players motivated 100% of the time, others fall into the trappings of riding emotional waves while still others need someone or something to shake themselves out of the cocoon that they've built around them. During the course of a game it all can contribute to a full performance when they're aligned positively or they it can amount to an absolutely dismal performance 180 degrees to the negative.

Inconsistency represents all the points in between.

For the Sabres inconsistency was the key word in defining this team up until the Chicago game just before their bye week. Beginning with the 5-2 loss to the Blackhawks late last month and coming off of Friday night's 4-3 loss in Columbus, the needle ended up fluctuating on the negative side from meh to disastrous, hence Buffalo's 1-6-2 record prior to their game last night vs. the Blue Jackets.

And as we've seen all season, said inconsistencies are not only game-to-game, but quite often are found period to period and even shift to shift with this edition of the Buffalo Sabres. Countless times throughout the season, players and coaches lamented after a loss that the team needs to play a 60-minute game.

Last night it looked as if that needle was going as far to the negative side as possible for the second time in three games. On Tuesday, with their playoff hopes vanquished for all intents and purposes, the Sabres laid their biggest egg of the season in front of their fans as they dropped a 6-3 game vs. the Philadelphia Flyers. There have been bad performances by this club all season but to allow six even-strength goals to a team that's worse than them at scoring 5v5 was a bottom they'd yet to hit all year.

When Columbus upped their lead to 3-0 late in the first period last night, it looked as if the Sabres were going to reach a new low. Yet they somehow managed a comeback the likes of which we haven't seen since December, 2009 when Buffalo overcame a three-goal deficit to win in regulation vs. the Pittsburgh Penguins who, ironically enough, were coached by present Sabres bench boss Dan Bylsma at the time.

Drew Stafford (2 goals, the first on a penalty shot) Paul Gaustad and Jason Pominville (on the powerplay) scored for Buffalo that night and Patrick Lalime (wearing #40) relieved Ryan Miller 1:28 into the second period and stopped all 27 shots he faced on the way to a 4-3 Buffalo victory in front of the home crowd who left the arena ecstatic.

Last night it was another #40 coming into the game in relief as starter Robin Lehner took over for Anders Nilsson to begin the second period. Lehner stopped all 24 shots he faced, including some fine stops to keep it 3-2 and one incredible stop on Cam Atkinson with just over 30 seconds left in the third and Buffalo up 4-3.

For the second night in a row special teams was the difference. On Friday in Columbus the Jackets went 2/3 on the power play in their win. Last night they went 0/3. For their part the Sabres went 0/1 at Columbus in the loss then went 2/5 in last night's win.

The positives kept coming in the second period as much maligned (deservedly so) Nicolas Deslauriers provided the spark that the Sabres needed as he set up defenseman Jake McCabe for the Sabres first goal just 18 seconds into the second period. "D-lo," who's the lowest forward on the totem pole, snagged a point for the second straight night which happen to be his first two points of the season. He went was placed by Bylsma on the top line to give the team a spark but when no willing pugilist was to be found on the ice, he got on the forecheck and fed a pass right into a pinching McCabe's wheelhouse.

McCabe's goal was his third of the season and the third by a Buffalo defenseman in the last two games and he almost had another as he rifled one off the post less than three minutes later. Also on the positive side, there was a Matt Moulson sighting. He lit the lamp for the first time in 11 games as he scored his team-leading 10th powerplay goal. Sam "The Quiet One" Reinhart bookended McCabe's early second period goal with one of his own and only :03 seconds left on the clock in the second period.

From there it was some solid goaltending at both ends of the ice until Jack Eichel, with Buffalo on the powerplay, took advantage of a broken Columbus stick and sent a cross-ice rocket to Evander Kane who promptly buried the feed into a gaping net for the lead. Eichel would add the empty-netter with a few seconds left, after a nifty pass to himself in his own zone, for the 5-3 final score.

This edition of the Sabres has seen it's fair share of difficulties this season and they could've easily packed it in last night and methinks the Blue Jackets, who had such an easy time through the first 20 minutes, were expecting that as well. But in a league where parity is the norm and almost any team can come back against a complacent opposition, the best teams step on the throat of a downed opposition and Columbus just couldn't do that last night.

For today, we'll refrain from the obvious short-comings of the Sabres and allow for a little sunshine as the Sabres are set to embark on a three-game West Coast swing beginning Tuesday against the San Jose' Sharks. They'll travel to Los Angeles to take on the Kings Thursday before heading down I-5 to meet the Anaheim Ducks for yet another back-to-back on Friday.



Sunday, March 12, 2017

Pegulaville '17: Jackals folding, Rochester mess, Sabres sliding

Published by hockeybuzz.com, 3-11-2017


When billionaire Terry Pegula took over the Buffalo Sabres in February, 2011 he laid out a picture where no expense would be spared to turn the Sabres into a top-notch organization. In his first presser he talked about taking the financial chains off management while also boldly stating that money would be pouring into drafting and developing (as well as keeping) theirplayers.

"There is no salary cap for the National Hockey League on scouting budgets and player development budgets," Pegula declared. "I plan on...increasing our scouting budgets, both with bodies on the ground, and in areas we may not be hitting capably, and also enhancing our video department. Starting today, we will bring in more player development coaches, to help these guys become better hockey players, work on their weaknesses, or whatever the coaches think. We will aspire to be the best in the league at finding, developing, and keeping our players in their new Buffalo Sabre family."
True to his word, Pegula allowed upper management to bolster the scouting department. When he took over from GM to amateur scout there were 16 people who represented the hockey department which included two scouting directors, two pro scouts and eight amateur scouts. Today the Hockey Department has a group of six scouting directors overseeing a scouting department of 16 pro and amateur scouts as well as one person devoted to Analytics.

However, it's an evolution that does not bring instant gratification and it's best to keep in mind that GM Tim Murray began to put this team in place nearly three years ago with 2014 being his first draft for Buffalo.

Pegula furthered his player development plan by purchasing the Rochester Americans and buying out the Sabres affiliation with the Portland Pirates. Under previous Sabres owner Tom Golisano, the long-time affiliation with the Rochester Americans went from a lone, 29-year affiliation to a shared one with the Florida Panthers (2005-08) to Buffalo breaking away and aligning themselves with the Portland Pirates beginning in 2008. With Pegula's 2011 purchase of the Amerks, Rochester was back in the fold and Western New York hockey was whole again.

To expand their player development plans even further, the Sabres announced an East Coast Hockey League affiliation with the Elmira Jackals beginning with the 2014-15 season.

Unfortunately for Pegula and his Sabres, things haven't gone quite as planned yet as every organization is going through a rough patch.

Yesterday it was announced that the Jackals will cease operations at the end of this season. The Sabres have three prospects on the team--F, Justin Kea;  D, Brycen Martin;  G, Jason Kasdorf--who've all been placed in difficult situation on a losing team.

According to the Jackals Wiki page, the franchise had been in trouble for years beginning with ownership issues in 2012 when, according to the page, "the Arena owner failed to pay $136,234 in taxes for three years" and foreclosure was on the horizon. Chemung County held off and in 2013 First Arena and the Jackals had new owners.

At the start of the 2013-14 season the Jackals announced that they were "community owned" and that any profits would go back into the community. They lost money and in 2016 the Chemung County Industrial Development Agency (IDA) took over ownership of the Arena and the Jackals. With the team at the bottom of the league yesterday "the IDA announced that it had sold First Arena to local businessman Brian Barrett [and] as part of an agreement, it was announced that the Elmira Jackals would cease operations at the end of the season."

As of now there's been no official word from Pegula Sports and Entertainment (PSE) concerning the Jackals.

Yesterday wasn't a good day for the Rochester Americans either as they lost. The Amerks are 24-33-0-2 and it looks as if they'll be out of the playoffs for the third consecutive season. Rochester had made the playoffs three consecutive seasons after Pegula bought the franchise but were bounced in the first round every time.

In addition to on-ice woes there are squabbles over the Amerks home, Blue Cross Arena. Basically the 61 yr. old arena which was renovated in 1998 and is due for a makeover and the city and PSE are not fully on the same page when it comes to the undertaking.

Rochester just secured $10 million in state funding for the downtown arena and while the city and it's mayor, Lovely Warren, have their plans PSE and the Sabres, who are the primary tenants via the Amerks, would like a broader say. "Being the largest tenant, we would like to have more control and active discussion in how the dollars that come in are appropriated,” PSE Managing Partner and President Russ Brandon said. “We’re going to need some changes down the road to ensure viability."

The Amerks one-year lease is up at the end of the season and now there have been reports that "the team is exploring other venues in which to play," according to a recent article by Brian Sharp and Leo Roth of the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle.

"A report on ESPN 95.7-FM," wrote Sharp and Roth, "that team owners, eyeing the expiring lease, had contacted at least one other arena outside the city about hosting the team, led to speculation on other programs and on social media that the Amerks might leave."

Brandon flatly denied it saying the report is “100 percent wrong. We're not planning on going anywhere."

To further what Brandon said, the article points out that "the team already has sent in its game dates to the American Hockey League, officials said, is working with arena manager SMG on promotions for next year, and the team website is accepting season ticket renewals for next season."

As for the Sabres, the 2016-17 season is turning into a disaster as they lost again last night. In the last nine games Buffalo has won only one time and mathematics is the only thing keeping from a sixth consecutive season outside the playoffs.

Buffalo travelled to Columbus last night and even though the Blue Jackets didn't play anything close to their best game, the still beat the reeling Sabres.

This might be more than just a late-season slide, as Buffalo's spiral into the abyss could cost coach Dan Bylsma his job.

Bylsma and his systems have been in place for nearly two seasons and in both Buffalo and Rochester the results have been underwhelming. Last year Buffalo may have exceeded expectations after gaining their footing and finishing the season on a high note, but this year the team seems to be regressing. Although individual players like Evander Kane and Jack Eichel are having stellar seasons while Kyle Okposo, Ryan O'Reilly, Rasmus Ristolainen and Sam Reinhart are around previous expectations, the team as a whole is a mess.

Same goes for Rochester.

Dan Lambert went from Bylsma's side in Buffalo as an assistant coach last season to Amerks head coach this year and with Lambert came Bylsma's systems. The Amerks, like their parent club, is languishing near the bottom of the conference and amongst the troubles with both are goaltenders who are facing tons of leather.

Linus Ullmark, in his first full season as a starter for Rochester, has faced a league-leading 1416 shots-against while the next nearest is 1251. In Buffalo the duo of Robin Lehner and Anders Nilsson have faced a league-high 34.1 shots per game or a grand total of 2319 shots.

Another area is the Penalty Kill. Buffalo's penalty kill sits 29th in the league (76%) while the Amerks are 25th (80%.)

There are discrepancies as pure talent has the Sabres powerplay second in the league at 23.3% while the Amerks sit at 27th with only a 14.8 conversion rate, but for the most part the overwhelming sentiment with both clubs is utter disappointment.

If you're about to slit your wrists having read the above, take heart in knowing that help is on the way for both clubs, at least with the forward group.

It's best to keep in mind that Murray completely gutted both teams and his primary focus of the rebuild was Buffalo. He had Eichel and Reinhart rightfully bypassing Rochester and this past season saw an Amerks roster that had only a handful of draft picks on the team. William Carrier, Justin Bailey and Nick Baptiste, all spent most of last season with Rochester but were summoned to the big club this year and spent some good chunks of time in Buffalo. Carrier, who progressed nicely in Rochester played in eight games for the Amerks and 35 with the Sabres until he was felled by injury. Bailey had a two-game call-up early in the season and after impressing during his second call-up has stuck with the team for the last 25 games.

Evan Rodrigues struggled in Rochester last year and in the early part of this season but has been outstanding during his latest call up to Buffalo. He scored his third goal of the season last night and in doing so broke Jackets goalie Sergei Bobrovsky's shutout streak at 182:50. It's highly doubtful he'll be seeing Rochester again as Bylsma tried to give him as much ice-time as possible last night.

Those four--Carrier, Bailey, Baptiste and Rodrigues--managed to seemingly break trough the NHL threshold which is a good developmental sign. Take them out of the equation in Rochester and there's a huge gap that won't be filled until next year.

Defense is still a shaky matter as the Amerks best defenseman, Justin Falk, was summoned to the big club in mid-November and for the most part hasn't left. Veterans Taylor Fedun and Eric Burgdoerfer got a taste of Buffalo but have mostly stayed in Rochester and both have held their own in a mostly dismal Amerks season. Homegrown defensive talent is severely lacking and it won't get much better next season as prime prospect Brendan Guhle will probably bypass the AHL and head right to Buffalo.

Other than that 20 yr. olds Will Borgen (St. Cloud State) and Devante Stephens (Kelowna, WHL) should be on their way to Rochester with an outside possibility that Providence Friar Anthony Florentino could be there, maybe on an AHL or ATO contract, according to Kris Baker of sabresprospects.com.

And if the Sabres can get goalie Cal Petersen signed should he decide to leave Notre Dame early, this next wave of prospects should add a jolt of talent to the system.

Was told last night "trust the process," which is tough to do when the product is in such rough shape. That said, in looking at what the Sabres have done scouting wise--Guhle, Petersen, Borgen, Rodrigues, Stephens and Giorgio Estephan who may also be in Rochester next season, along with Rasmus Asplund and goalie Jonas Johansson overseas--there's plenty of room for optimism even if Pegulaville looks to be burning.

Woof.






Saturday, March 11, 2017

Just who are these Sabres?

Published by hockeybuzz.com, 3-10-2017


For all intents and purposes, the road for the Columbus Blue Jackets have travelled since their inception in 2000-01 has been a rough one and should not be dismissed. The franchise has made the playoffs only twice in that time--in 2008-09 with Rick Nash and in 2013-14, post-Nash--while the rest of their time has been spent struggling to get things right.

Although Nash wasn't the Jackets' first-ever pick, that one went to Rostislav Klesla, a Czech defenseman taken fourth-overall in 2000, he was the first overall pick in 2002 and the player that the team built around until he was traded on July 23, 2012. Nash was a big, 6'3" 188 lb. powerforward who was ranked the second-best North American prospect and one whom the Jackets were enamored with to the point where they traded up from No. 3-overall pick to the top spot to select him.

Columbus made the playoffs once with Nash and were promptly swept in the first round by the defending Stanley Cup Champion Detroit Red Wings. In the years after that appearance, the Jackets continued to tread water with Nash until he was dealt to the NY Rangers in a five-player deal that netted the Jackets Artem Anisimov, Brandon Dubinsky, Tim Erixon and a 2013 first round pick (LW Kirby Rychel.)

The Jackets missed the playoffs the following lockout-shortened season but came storming back in 2013-14 and gave the Pittsburgh Penguins fits in a first round series loss (4-2.) With expectations high, but injuries plaguing the team, Columbus stumbled the next two seasons which cost coach Todd Richards his job. But what they established in that playoff series is the identity of the team the Buffalo Sabres will face tonight.

"They're really one of the most aggressive teams, physical teams, heavy forecheck teams from just about anybody we've seen," said Sabres benchboss Dan Bylsma to the gathered media yesterday, "and they've turned [themselves] into a pretty dangerous offensive team with how they play."

Columbus right now is the poster child for playing and winning without a bona fide superstar in their lineup. Their leading scorer and lone NHL All-Star this seaosn is Cam Atkinson and throughout the lineup there are familiar names like veterans Dubinsky, Nick Foligno and Scott Hartnell and youngins Seth Jones, Brandon Saad and rookie Zach Werenski, but no stand-alone superstar. At least not yet.

The Jackets are playing the exact same style of play today as they did when they battled superstars Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and the Penguins back in the 2014 playoffs. It's an identity they formulated and stuck to despite a major roster change (moving 2010 fourth-overall pick Ryan Johanson for Jones) and a coaching change as they went from Richards to noted hard-ass head coach John Tortorella.

Which leads to the question, if the Buffalo Sabres are one full season and 67 games into their post-bottoming out period, why are they still trying to find their identity?

Some of the catch phrases we've heard coming from the foot of Washington Street over the course of the tear-down and rebuild of the Buffalo Sabres is "bigger, stronger, faster" and "hard to play against." Forward Marcus Foligno told the press that he thinks the Sabres are "physical, quick, tenacious, mostly in the offensive zone a lot." He calls it "physical hockey and [the Sabres] a team that doesn’t give up."

For those watching, all those words are simply the ideal they're striving for, not something we've seen this team do, at least not on a regular basis. We're still confused about this team and how they can go from beating real good clubs like the Rangers and Ottawa Senators but then get swept by the Boston Bruins or losing back-to-back games against the two worst teams in the league when it mattered most.

Bylsma said yesterday that “you should have no misunderstanding and you should have no questions about who the Buffalo Sabres are and how they play." Yet, he continued, "that’s something we haven’t gotten. It’s something with the 15 games that we are playing that we need to take as a challenge to establish our group.

"We have a lot to prove in the last 15 games with who we are and how we're going to play."

The team has played 149 games under him and their recent 1-5-2 slide with the playoffs reasonably within reach points to a team that's regressed. Forget their projected pace, after watching Buffalo lay a huge egg at home in a 6-3 loss to Philadelphia this is a team that doesn't seem like they have enough in them to even match last season and they're only 15 points away.

Their identity now is that they have none or that they're a Jekyll and Hyde team.

Would it surprise me if they went into Nationwide Arena tonight and came away with a victory? No.

Nor would it surprise me if the Jackets threw 50 shots at the Sabres net and came away with a six-goal win.

Those are the extremes we've witnessed this year and it doesn't really sit well with the fanbase now that the team is effectively out of the playoffs for the sixth consecutive season. Sure, injuries and growing pains were definitive factors in the results and even the February scheduling played a part in things, but since the bye week this team folded and it's not something the fanbase can get behind.

Methinks it doesn't sit well with ownership and management either as they're probably wondering why the team is still looking for an identity nearly two years into this portion of their plans.