Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Awaiting Antipin and...on Ryan O'Reilly

Published by, 5-22-2017

Although he's only 5'9" 176 lbs. Russian defenseman Viktor Antipin will be welcome with open arms on the Buffalo blueline as the Sabres defense-corps is ripe for change.

KHL insider and European hockeybuzz colleague Aivis Kalnins has been on the story and tweeted yesterday that he's "hearing Viktor Antipin is set to sign with the Buffalo Sabres. Player also told ''Sport Express'' that he is arriving in Buffalo next week."

Also of interest, Kalnins reports that the Pittsburgh Penguins were in the mix for Antipin's services. "[Present Sabres GM Jason Botterill comes from an organization that also wanted to get Antipin, that should tell the story," he tweeted yesterday. We'd heard that a number of teams were in on him but this is the first team to be named.

The story is that Antipin, despite his size has managed to do some real good things during his six seasons with the KHL's Magnitogorsk Metallurg. The 24 yr. old broke into the league with a two-game taste in 2010-11 then followed with a robust rookie campaign of 10 goals and 11 assists in 50 games for Metallurg. Last season he finished with 24 points (6+18) in 59 games and during his five full seasons with the team he was never minus player. Antipin was on two Gagarin Cup-winning teams, was a 2013 All-Star and now has two silver and two bronze medals on his international resume thanks to Russia's bronze medal performance at the 2017 IIHF World Hockey Championships.

For those of us who were able to catch some of the Worlds this year, Antipin saw plenty of ice-time in all situations with the left-hander playing both sides of the ice. He has excellent recovery time on defense and can find open ice in the offensive zone, especially deep in the slot. Antipin, like seemingly every Russian defenseman knows how to get up ice and into the play.

The Sabres presently have two players who are almost assured to be on the blueline next season--Rasmus Ristolainen and Jake McCabe. After that it's somewhat of a crap shoot. No. 3 on the depth chart is Zack Bogosian who has a hefty contract that's difficult to live up to, especially when injuries are starting to take their toll on the soon to be 27 yr. old. After that there's 32 yr. old Josh Gorges, who's role was drastically reduced last season, and Justin Falk who was re-signed by former Sabres GM Tim Murray as a depth defenseman.

It's a situation that leaves the door wide open for Antipin and one of the main reasons he'll reportedly be joining the Sabres instead of some other NHL club. God knows that Buffalo defense-corps can use a jolt.


Sabres center Ryan O'Reilly and Team Canada took home the silver medal at the World's after Henrik Lundqvist backstopped Team Sweden to a shootout win in the Gold Medal Game. O'Reilly scored the only goal for Canada yesterday and nicked the crossbar on his shootout attempt. He finished the tournament with six goals and three assists in 10 games including an overtime winner against Team Russia in the semi-finals.

O'Reilly was a workhorse for Canada coach Jon Cooper much like he's been for Buffalo since coming over in a trade from Colorado in June, 2015. He logged huge minutes for the Canadians throughout the tourney and was on the ice in all situations taking huge faceoffs at critical times. But for him, the 2016-17 hockey season is over and after some down time O'Reilly will begin to focus on next season in Buffalo.

O'Reilly's two-way acumen would be welcome on any team and in he'll be sharing top-two center duties on the Sabres with 20 yr. old Jack Eichel. There's a lot up in the air in Buffalo including the coach and the captaincy and you can bet that O'Reilly and Eichel will be the focus for the new coach on the captaincy.

Murray was generally lauded for bringing O'Reilly to the club via trade although he gave up some pretty good young players in the process, notably left-handed defenseman Nikita Zadorov and center prospect JT Compher who could end up being a player like O'Reilly. It was the contract extension Murray re-signed O'Reilly to that seems to be on the minds of most Sabres fans.

O'Reilly signed a seven year extension in 2015 that will keep him as a Sabres until the end of the 2022-23 season and his cap-hit of $7.5 million is beginning to draw the ire of stat-watchers. Although he lead the team in scoring two years ago and was second last season, his 41 goals and 74 assists doesn't seem befitting of a contract like that. Other stats like his team-leading time on ice and face off percentage as well as a year-over-year 15 point gain in plus/minus won't move the needle for stat-watchers either.

That said, there have been a lot of problems in Buffalo, most notably last season, which may have hampered players from reaching their potential. Where those problems stemmed from will soon be revealed as there will be a new coach this season and hopefully a revamped defense and I'm starting to think that the last two seasons should be viewed rather skeptically. And that goes for a lot of the roster last season.

The new Sabres coach will have the task of getting O'Reilly and Eichel into their proper roles and it will be paramount to driving the offense up-front. There are two big egos at play in those two and if they can align properly, the Sabres won't need to worry too much about the forwards because they'll have their top-two centers--a goal-scorer and two-way player--in place.

It's been 10 years since the organization could make that latter claim and other than a true No. 1 defensemen getting a top center is very difficult to do in today's NHL.

Regardless of how it all plays out, one thing we can count on is O'Reilly carrying a huge load in all situations for the club, just like he did the past two season in Buffalo and for Team Canada at the Worlds.

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