Thursday, August 31, 2017

Building the 2017-18 Buffalo Sabres roster--C, Jack Eichel

Published by, 8-30-2017

Jack Eichel
6'2" 196 lbs.
20 yrs. old
2015, 2nd-overall

Career Stats:  142 games |  48 goals  |  65 assists  |  113 points  |  -29

In the past three years, the Buffalo Sabres have gone through immense changes that had the franchise pulling in various directions. With a new GM and new head coach, perhaps it's finally time to point the team in one direction and hitch their fortunes to their franchise center--Jack Eichel--whom the team is presently negotiating a long-term contract extension with.

Eichel will be entering the final year of his entry-level deal this season and the two sides have been working on a contract extension reportedly at the NHL max of eight years. He's said he wants to be in Buffalo and the Sabres, obviously, want him in Buffalo long-term. Rumors have it that the deal is pretty much done and that an announcement will be forthcoming in September.

As we head into the 2017-18 season and start building the team, Eichel is on top. For the last two seasons we began with Ryan O'Reilly, which was warranted, but Eichel has shown that this is his time now and it's not so much about his play or production as it is about whether or not he's ready to take the reigns as the leader of the team.

When all's said and done, I like Kris Baker's idea that they should have a press conference announcing the extension while also naming Eichel the captain of the Buffalo Sabres. The Sabres are without one right now with the very professional Brian Gionta not re-signed and it really comes down to two choices in Buffalo--Eichel and O'Reilly. With all due respect to O'Reilly, this franchise, one that's been mired in mediocrity (or worse) for a decade, could use a big kick in the ass and I don't think that's within him.

I wrote of the captaincy at the end of the season and laid out a case for Eichel--"You can define ideals all you want, but the biggest factor which stretches through every Stanley Cup winner is hunger. How bad do you want it?

"One that through the last 10 seasons Buffalo has had captains that exude professionalism, but do not seem to have an ultra competitive desire, a pure hatred of losing...for a team that's been unable to rise above mediocrity, perhaps it's time to alter the definition of the franchise, and it may begin by sewing a 'C' on the type of player who may not exude the professionalism of previous captains in Buffalo, but who's passion for the game and hatred of losing far outweighs a post-game interview and/or a seeming look of detachment at an end of season presser."

Jack Eichel had some issues with what was transpiring in Buffalo this past season and they were visible. Mike Harrington of The Buffalo News was particularly turned off by Eichel's actions at the end of the season and wrote about it. "[He] has some growing up to do if he wants to be taken seriously as a leader. Leaders don't undercut the coach as many times as Eichel has this season. Or make veiled comments about teammates," as Harrington referenced Dan Bylsma, Josh Gorges and Sam Reinhart.

He concluded, "Leaders don't brood and pout in front of the media either like Eichel did to absurd levels Monday on locker cleanout day."

Although Harrington makes some good points, the Sabres need to get out of the doldrums. Having a three-time Cup-winning executive building the team is a big step in the right direction, and having an up-and-coming rookie head coach, who was also a Hall-of-Fame player, could be another one. But the Sabres spent two years in the tank to get the opportunity to draft a franchise center who has an immense passion for the game and they should give him the reigns.

We know Eichel's skill-set and we watched his production jump from .691 points/game his rookie season to .934 ppg in 2016-17 and we also saw him cover all three zones using his remarkable skating ability. He has areas to work on like faceoffs and...other things, but other than that he's got electrifying traits we haven't seen in Buffalo since Pat LaFontaine in the early 90's or possibly dating back to Gilbert Perreault in the '70's.

So as we begin to build the roster for this season, in Eichel's case, we're actually building the roster behind him for the next (hopefully) nine years. Which is what a franchise center is all about.

Building the 2017-18 Buffalo Sabres roster:

C, Jack Eichel

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Another Sabre with an indictment of former coach Dan Bylsma's "system"

Published by, 8-29-2017

The Buffalo Sabres defense was a mess last season, plain and simple, but the reasons for that mess still aren't fully known and probably never will be. Injuries played a role, as did lack of depth and talent. Coaching shouldn't be dismissed either.

Former bench boss Dan Bylsma never could get the team on the same page last season, to the point where the face of the franchise, Jack Eichel, showed his dismay in-season and was rumored to be avoiding contract-extension talks if Bylsma was retained. The disconnect between Bylsma and his players was so pronounced that it eventually lead to his firing and as Sabres' players slowly begin to gather in Buffalo for workouts, things are beginning to trickle out on just what transpired last season.

Two players who are in Buffalo already doing workouts are goalie Robin Lehner and defenseman Zach Bogosian.

Lehner was the first to talk with the media at the HarborCenter workouts. Last season he established himself as a bona fide starting goalie with some strong numbers in spite of a defense-corps in front of him that was described as as one of the worst in the league. However, Lehner didn't look at it that way.

“The problem was we really didn’t know how to play,” he told the gathered media after a workout session last week. “The defensemen, it’s a common misconception (it was a problem). It’s how we play as a team. I was sitting watching the whole Stanley Cup playoffs last year. If you watch the good teams, look at Pittsburgh, everyone defends, everyone comes back and everyone plays as a five-man unit, and it’s fast forward and fast back in the defensive zone.

“I think that’s what [new coach] Phil [Housley] wants. He doesn’t want us to play slow. He wants us to play fast, and everyone attacks and everyone defends. That’s what we need to do. We didn’t do that last year. We were playing as three forwards and two defensemen.”

For many of the players, this was their second season under Bylsma's system and to have Lehner say that "we really didn't know how to play, furthers the conclusion that there was a serious disconnect between Bylsma and his players. His system was a "end-all, be-all," so rigid in it's X's and O's that it never fully took into account an individuals strength's and weaknesses.

Case in point, Bogosian.

Although he never lived up to his third-overall pick status, Bogosian still has the same traits now as he did when he was drafted in 2008. He's always had an NHL frame, and a rather large one at 6'3", 215 lbs., but he's also always been an excellent skater which allowed him to skate the puck out of the zone. Although his passing is good (and decision-making, meh, at times,) getting him some open ice to move the puck out has always been ideal for him.

But that's not what happened last season, or the year before either. “I think the last two years for me has been frustrating and disappointing," Bogosian told WGR550's Paul Hamilton yesterday. "Skating is definitely my strong point. Last year and the year before I felt like I was handcuffed back there. I don't think I got a chance to play my game in the way I know I can play and I'm just looking forward to a new start and play my game which is jumping up into the play.”

Handcuffed by X's and O's, as were others on both offense and defense.

That's not to give individual players a free ride either. Bogosian has his limitations as does Josh Gorges and both may see diminished roles on the team this season under Housley. Plus new GM Jason Botterill revamped the defense with trades for Nathan Beaulieu and Marco Scandella while also signing free agent KHL d-man Victor Antipin.

Regardless of who comes in and who goes out, it comes down to coaching and the best coaches fit their system to the players given them, not the other way around.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Opportunity knocks for Will New Jersey

Published by, 8-28-2017

From everything I've read and heard, the Sabres presented an impressive package trying to lure free agent defenseman Will Butcher to Buffalo. But one thing they couldn't offer, which seems to be the overriding reason he signed with the New Jersey Devils, was an immediate opportunity to play on the big club. Sure, Butcher could have come into Sabres camp and battled for a spot on the roster. However, it would have been a pretty tough go of it, especially in a left/right scenario.

The left-handed Butcher would have been trying to win the job over fellow lefties Marco Scandella, Jake McCabe, Nathan Beaulieu, Josh Gorges, and Justin Falk. The 27 yr. old Scandella and Beaulieu (24) were recent trade acquisitions by new Sabres GM Jason Botterill while McCabe (23) has solidified himself in the Sabres top-six after spending four years in the organization. Gorges and Falk are the elder statesmen of the group with Gorges in the final year of his contract and Falk being a probable tweener for the Sabres.

If that wasn't enough, Buffalo also has a pair of lefties in the system that will be vying for a spot on the roster. Victor Antipin signed with the Sabres in May after spending six seasons playing against men in the KHL while Brendan Guhle (2016, 51st overall) is poised to make a run at a spot after finishing his Canadian Junior career.

That's a loaded left side, so the odds of Butcher making the big club were pretty slim.

According to's Mike Morreale, Butcher's agent, Brian Bartlett, laid out what the 2017 Hobey Baker winner was looking for, "opportunity, coaching, development, style & returning players. Will has always been an offensive defenseman & felt like if he continues to develop, there could be a chance to help NJ's PP in the future."

The Sabres had all of the checklist there for Butcher except for opportunity. They're coached by an offensive-minded Phil Housley who was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame for his offensive prowess. Housley coached the most dangerous defense-corps in the Nashville Predators during the 2017 NHL playoffs. And after going through three years of turnover, Buffalo would have 2015 Hobey Baker winner Jack Eichel returning for his third season as well as a host of others from Ryan O'Reilly and Kyle Okposo to Rasmus Ristolainen as well.

But what the Sabres couldn't or wouldn't offer was an opportunity for a quick development curve and NHL minutes. That's where the Devils came in.

GM Ray Shero has been doing a fine job building his team since taking over the GM position vacated when Devils legend Lou Lamiorello left for the Toronto Maple Leafs. Shero traded for Kyle Palmeri (ANA) and Taylor Hall (EDM) to help overhaul the forward group and that effort was bolstered immensely when they won the 2017 NHL Draft Lottery and selected center Nico Hischier first overall.

However Shero's defense corps took a hit and were in desperate need of talent beginning with the loss of Adam Larsson, who went to the Oilers in the Hall deal. The Devils were anchored by two aged veterans in captain Andy Greene and Ben Lovejoy and outside of Steve Santini, who will be returning for his sophomore campaign, flux seems to be the operative word, which is something that seemed rather appealing to the Butcher camp.

Although Buffalo missed out on an offensive defenseman with definitive powerplay acumen in the vein of Andrey Makarov (according to Morreale via Denver Pioneers head coach Jim Montgomery,) they did give it the old college try. And before people get too depressed thinking that sought after college free agents like Jimmy Vesey and Cal Petersen don't want to play in Buffalo, it's best to remember that college players choose free agency to find what they believe to be the best fit and for whatever reason, the Sabres weren't quite that.

It's also good to remember that the Sabres have had some success in signing coveted college free agents like Evan Rodrigues, Casey Nelson, C.J. Smith and former Sabres' Chad Ruhwedel (PIT) and Tim Schaller (BOS.)

Finally, here's a very classy tweet from Butcher, "Honored & humbled to be apart of the NJ Devils, would like to thank all teams involved in the process. The NHL community is truly the best."

Closed book.

Monday, August 28, 2017

The Andreas Athanasiou situation is an interesting one to keep an eye on.

Published by, 8-25-2017

For once the Buffalo Sabres don't have drama surrounding the signing of one of their players. Sabres GM Jason Botterill got all of his restricted free agents signed, and that includes starting goaltender Robin Lehner who had filed for salary arbitration before the two sides amicably came together on a 1 yr./$4 million deal that was a $850,000 bump over his salary from last season. Lehner is in Buffalo as we speak practicing with some of his teammates yesterday, according to a tweet from WGR550 radio's Paul Hamilton.

Whether real or imagined, the Sabres had some problems either keeping their own or signing them at a reasonable rate to keep the small market team competitive. At least pre-Terry Pegula. In the six years since Pegula bought the team, things have gone in the other direction with Buffalo overpaying players, but perhaps we're finally at a spot where it's beginning to balance out.

As it stands right now, the Sabres are $6.9 million under the NHL's cap-ceiling with all of their players signed, and their 44 pro contracts are under the league's maximum of 50, according to CapFriendly. Also, as of right now, Buffalo is in the mix for free agent defenseman Will Butcher. The 2017 Hobey Baker winner has reportedly narrowed his choices to four team with only two of them being named--Buffalo and the Vegas Golden Knights.

Were he to sign with the club (which could very easily happen,) the team still has plenty of wiggle room to add at least another contract or two. Adding talent is the name of the game and one could assume that Botterill is closely watching what's happening with a number of Group-2 free agents who've yet to come to terms off of their entry-level deals.

Unsigned restricted free agent problems are the realm of other teams this August and the list incudes some impressive talent. Topping that list would be Columbus Blue Jackets center Alexander Wennberg. The 22 yr. old center is coming off of a strong campaign in his third NHL season with 59 points (13+46) in 80 games.

I reached out to colleague Paul Berthelot, who covers the Jackets, to see about the Wennberg situation.

Berthelot says Wennberg, "who is a true center that you will not see on the wing," was the used as the team's No. 1 center after Columbus traded Ryan Johansen in the Seth Jones deal. He also speculates that Wennberg might be looking for a Jonathan Drouin-type contract somewhere in the vicinity of 6 yrs./$5.5-6 million per season.

Sam Bennett out in Calgary is also have a bit of a problem coming to terms with the Flames. Bennett was taken fourth overall in the 2014 NHL Draft and just finished his second full season with the club.

The Flames have some impressive young talent with the likes of Sean Monahan, Johnny Gadreau and Matthew Tkachuk leading their charge of the youngins and Bennett hasn't lived up to his billing as of yet. According to Mark Parkinson of MatchsticksandGasoline, "Bennett hasn’t blown anyone away with his play, yet he really isn’t a bust either. It’s like he’s in some weird middle ground. Is he a true centre? Is he a forward? When will we see that potential the Flames saw when they selected him that high in the draft."

Out in Arizona Anthony Duclair had a tough go of it in his second season with the Coyotes. The 2013 third round pick (109th overall) went from 20 goals and 44 points in 2015-16 to five goals and fifteen points last season, a drop that ended up with him being demoted to the AHL's Tucson Roadrunners.

Hockeybuzz colleague James Tanner felt that Duclair's drop in production may not have been his fault completely saying, "Last year they acquired [Radim] Vrbata and Duclair lost his job before training camp even started. Then in the first preseason game he got like ten minutes, and the same with the season opener.

"He didn't so much have a bad season last year, as his season was self-sabotaged by the coach. [Dave] Tippett just didn't play him, and older guys no longer on the team got tons more minutes and PP time."

A dreadful season like that put 5'11" 185lb. left-winger in a weak bargaining position that has him looking at a bridge deal.

The most intriguing unsigned RFA, however, seems to be Detroit Red Wings forward Andreas Athanasiou.

Detroit is in a very vulnerable position at this time of the off season. There have been huge changes in Motown which includes the loss of owner Mike Illitch earlier this year and the move to a new arena. The Red Wings lost two key components of their Cup Champion team from 2008 in coach Mike Babcock and Pavel Datsyuk and for the first time in over 25 years missed the playoffs.

What's worse for them going into the season is that they're $3 million over the cap right now. Although GM Ken Holland will get some relief once the season starts, he may need to make a decision on Athanasiou sooner rather than later. The 23 yr. old forward is supposedly entertaining an offer from the KHL.

In his AskAnsar piece at M-Live this morning, Ansar Khan addressed the situation. "I have no idea what a 23-year-old player with 27 goals and 41 points in 101 games could earn in Russia," he wrote, "but I think it would have to be substantially more than what he can get from the Red Wings (my guess is between $1.5 million and $2 million per season for two years) for Athanasiou to go overseas. I doubt that it’s worth going for slightly more money, even though it’s tax-free there."

After a fan offered up a 3yr./$9 million deal for Athanasiou, Khan replied, "I’m sure Athanasiou would jump at that deal, but I doubt the Red Wings would offer that much."

The reasoning is very simple, according to Khan. He followed that up with an appearance on the Laidlaw and Allen Hockey Report saying, "In my opinion, even if [the Wings] had plenty of cap-space, I think they'd still be in the same predicament with Athanasiou because there is a gap between what they think this 23 yr. old coming off his entry-level contract should be paid and what Athanasiou's camp thinks he's worth.

"The Red Wings have always operated under this salary structure," continued Khan, "that this player with a certain amount of experience needs to be slotted in at this level, and they feel they'd disrupt that by giving him more than they feel he should get."

Khan points straying from their structure would have a "domino effect" because next year they'll need to re-sign two young, talented players in Dylan Larkin and Anthony Mantha.

Athanasiou has a pretty good skill package. He's "an elite skater" said Khan, "and what he's got at a fairly young age is finishing ability. He can make individual plays and when he gets in tight, he knows how to finish and he's proven it despite limited ice-time and limited powerplay time."

On the downside, Athanasiou, has been called out by coach Jeff Blashill on a couple of occasions for an inconsistent effort. "He takes too many shifts off," according to Khan, "doesn't pay attention to detail as much without the puck in the defensive end and sometimes his compete-level, as far as winning battles and consistently skating hard, has caused some rifts."

It's an interesting case to watch. Athanasiou is obviously talented, albeit with his flaws, but that doesn't seem to be the sticking point as much as a clash of contract philosophies. This isn't the same Red Wings organization that every player wanted to play for under their terms. It actually reminds me of the Sabres and some of their off seasons.

Vulnerability makes the Wings/Athanasiou situation very intriguing in that we could see the first offer sheet for an rfa since the ill-fated Flames offer sheet for Ryan O'Reilly in February, 2013. Perhaps the best part about all of this is that the poaching team could go as high as $3,755,233/season and only give up a second-rounder to the Wings. Or if a team feels that Athanasiou could be a key player for their team moving forward,  they could offer up a future first rounder, say in 2019, as an incentive not to try and poach him.

Do the Sabres have $3.5 million in cap-space over the next three years to use on a talent like Athanasiou? Would they feel a 2019 first-rounder for him would be worth it to avoid an offer sheet? They could do either.

It sure is nice to be on this side of the equation.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Hang in there Sabres fans, the season isn’t too far away. Plus, Bartlett on Butcher.

Published by, 8-22-2017

Labor Day is a bittersweet marker for hockey fans, and North American sports fans in general, as we sadly say goodbye to summer.. However, the beginning of September does bring about happiness for fans of the NFL as they're getting their regular season under way and NHL training camps begin.

Buffalo Sabres Senior VP of Administration, Mike Gilbert, was on WGR550 radio this morning reminding us all that hockey season is right around the corner. Gilbert said rookies will report to camp on September 7, which is just over two weeks away, and that the third annual Buffalo Sabres Prospects Challenge commences is the following day. The Sabres take on the New Jersey Devils and, hopefully, 2017 first-overall pick Nico Hischier at 7 p.m. The first game of The Challenge pits the Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Boston Bruins at 3:30 p.m.

The rest of the tournament schedule:

Saturday, September 9:
  • New Jersey vs. Pittsburgh - 3:30 p.m.
  • Buffalo vs. Boston - 7 p.m.
Sunday, September 10:
Monday, September 11:
  • Boston vs. New Jersey - 12 p.m.
  • Buffalo vs. Pittsburgh - 7 p.m.
Three days after the conclusion of The Challenge, Sabres players will report to camp with their first preseason game on Monday, September 18. Then on Tuesday, September 19 the Sabres will be travelling to owner Terry Pegula's alma mater, Penn State, to take on the Penguins at Pegula Ice Arena.

The rest of the preseason schedule:

FridaySept. 22at Toronto7:30 PMRicoh Coliseum (Toronto, Ont.)
SaturdaySept. 23TORONTO7:00 PMKeyBank Center
WednesdaySept. 27at Pittsburgh7:00 PMPPG Paints Arena
FridaySept. 29NY ISLANDERS7:00 PMKeyBank Center

The Sabres will be headed into camp with a new GM in Jason Botterill, a new head coach in Phil Housley and a new hope that they can gain traction as Buffalo aims to end their six-year playoff drought.


In the last blog I did a piece on college free agent Will Butcher after talking with his coach at the University of Denver, Jim Montgomery. Although Montgomery didn't have any information to divulge about where Butcher was leaning, he did give me plenty of information about the 2017 Hobey Baker-winning defenseman.

One of the many things that stood out while talking to Montgomery was his effort to recruit Butcher on to his Dubuque Fight Saints USHL club. Butcher had joined them for a two-game stint with Montgomery asking the 15 yr. old if he wanted to play out the season. The invitation was declined but Montgomery went on to say that Butcher played on the second powerplay unit for the Saints and "if he would have stayed on our team," said the coach, "he would have ended up on our first power play unit with Zemgus Girgensons and Johnny Gadreau."

That powerplay acumen was once again noted as Butcher's agent Steve Bartlett talked with Andrew Peters and Craig Rivet on The Instigators this afternoon. Bartlett said the "offensive-minded" Butcher had "great vision" and was recognized as the top NCAA player "based on being a powerplay quarterback and generating real good offense for the National Championship [Pioneers.]

"Teams look at him as a guy that potentially can be that powerplay quarterback or somebody that can really help them on the offensive side of the game."

Bartlett went on to hypothesize that there could be a team with eight defensemen on the roster but don't have one like Butcher, which would make for a good fit from their standpoint.

Montgomery was expected to talk with Butcher yesterday after the young man decompressed over the weekend and Bartlett said that the process may take a week or so. There's a lot going on for the 22 yr. old as he sets about laying out his future.

Will it be in Buffalo?

We'll see.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

After talking with Denver head coach Jim Montgomery, Will Butcher/Sabres seems like a good fit

Published by, 8-20-2017

The photo of free agent defenseman Will Butcher walking through Denver International Airport with the Sabres logo on a blue duffel bag sent waves of optimism rolling through Sabreland. The former captain of the NCAA Hockey Champion Denver Pioneers was returning to Denver after a tour of possible NHL destinations with Buffalo being amongst the first suitors he talked to.

Butcher became a free agent at 12:01 a.m. on Wednesday and began his tour of NHL clubs with stops in Buffalo, New Jersey and Las Vegas with the expansion Golden Knights. He reportedly also had interviews with Pittsburgh, Columbus and Detroit, among other teams. All teams are on equal financial footing as the 2017 Hobey Baker winner will end up signing at the same entry-level salary and term with maxed-out performance-related bonuses of up to $2.85 million, so Butcher is mulling through other factors before he decides upon his hockey home.

Pioneers head coach Jim Montgomery has been keeping in touch with Butcher through the process and he told me over the phone this afternoon that the young man is feeling a bit exhausted after touring NHL cities. "He's been pretty wiped out by what's been going on," said the coach. "He texted me after one of the visits and said let's talk on Monday."

"It's a lot of mental energy," continued Montgomery, who played parts of five seasons in the NHL covering 122 games. "He really has to be paying attention so that he's making the best choice for himself."

The 5'10" 190 lb. defenseman is a bit small by NHL standards but it hasn't been a deterrent for NHL clubs considering the way the game is played today. Butcher was able to work through that using his brains during a college career that featured many larger frames. Montgomery said that Butcher should never be confused with someone that "will go into the corner and physically outmuscle a [powerforward], as he knows he's gonna lose those battles. But he's going to use leverage, intelligence amd a good stick. And when he gets that puck, it takes him a half-second to make a great transition pass."

Montgomery knows Butcher quite well having first coached him in the USHL for the Dubuque Fighting Saints in 2010-11, when the kid from Sun Prarie, WI was a 15 yr. old. The Fighting Saints had suffered a rash of injuries on the blueline and Butcher was asked to join the team. In his first game with Dubuque, Butcher impressed to the point where Montgomery used him on the second powerplay unit. He had two assists in the game and "if he would have stayed on our team," said the coach, "he would have ended up on our first power play unit with Zemgus Girgensons and Johnny Gadreau."

What stood out for Montgomery in those two games, and what he mentioned right off the bat when talking about first impressions, was Butcher's "elite hockey sense, the ability to make elite passes in all three zones and his poise with the puck" and it's something that Montgomery would see in him throughout his career in Denver. "When he gets the puck, you can't teach what he does. It doesn't matter which zone, when the puck touches his stick it's going to be a positive for the team."

Offensive came easier for Butcher than defense, although he still had plenty to learn in that area. Early on and some of the things Montgomery said Butcher needed to work on from a defensive standpoint was his gap-control. "When I got him as a freshman here (in Denver,)" said the coach, "that's when I noticed [that] as well as his angles and being aggressive in his pursuit and taking away time and space with good angle."

But Butcher, who soaks in knowledge, was able to make year-over-year progress in those areas to the point where he was the key defenseman in Denver's championship run last season.

The biggest knock on Butcher when it comes to a transition to the NHL seems to be directed at his  skating, something that Montgomery doesn't see as much of a problem heading into the pros. "I don't see his skating as a weakness," said the coach, "he just needs to get adjusted to that speed coming at him at the NHL-level."
Montgomery explained that the system he employed at Denver predicates itself on defensemen attacking which plays into Butcher's strength of forward-skating. It's something that we are seeing more and more hockey and it happens to be something Sabres coach Phil Housley employed when he was coaching the defense for the Western Conference Champion Nashville Predators.

Housley is a legend in U.S. Hockey and a Hall-of-Fame player that the youngins are very aware of including those on the Pioneers. Montgomery, who played with Housley in St. Louis as a rookie in 1993-94, deploys his defense in a very similar fashion to the way Housley did with the Preds.

"A lot of the stuff they did in Nashville with their defensemen, especially in the offensive zone," said the coach, "was very similar to what we do and I think it plays into Will's greatest strengths. [His] greatest ability is his hockey sense. When he goes in to support the offense, the risk/reward, whether in the offensive zone or on the rush, he's analyzed full possession, he knows where the hole is and he's not giving up odd-man rushes the other way. If he sees any opportunity for offense, he goes. But if he sees the chance for turnover, he's not putting himself in that situation.

"The reward with his decision-making is very high."

Sounds like a good match for both Butcher and the Sabres, but we won't know until probably the middle to latter part of this coming week where he will end up. Buffalo is in some stiff competition with some pretty good organizations, but there are some positives for the team moving forward.

There are some Buffalo connections at work here as well. In 2012-13 Butcher played on a team with fellow 2013 Sabres draft pick Sean Malone and Hudson Fasching another 2013 draft pick whom the Sabres traded for. Also on that team was a 16 yr. old by the name of Jack Eichel, who was playing above his age group. All of them also played on the silver medal winning U.S. U-18 team in 2013. And Butcher's home of Sun Prarie is about 2 1/2 hours away from Eau Claire, WI, hometown to Buffalo's Jake McCabe.

The big thing for Butcher seems to be the right fit, and after spending time talking with Montgomery about Butcher the player, the Sabres with Housley at the helm looks to be as good an organizational fit as any other team.

But will he see it that way?

Sunday, August 20, 2017

A Sam Reinhart/Noah Hanifin trade makes a lot of sense

Published by 8-19-2017

At the conclusion of the 2013-14 season the last place Buffalo Sabres had no top-two centers on the roster. In fact a case could be made that they didn't even have a playoff caliber third-line center either. The position had been a problem for Buffalo since the infamous 2007 off-season and when the Sabres headed into the 2014 NHL Draft with the second overall pick they selected a play-making center in Sam Reinhart who projected out as a top-six center.

The following season Buffalo finished in last place and, once again, had the second-overall pick which they used on franchise center Jack Eichel. It was also announced on the draft floor that the Sabres had swung a trade with the Colorado Avalanche for top-two center, Ryan O'Reilly, which put them in a very interesting situation headed into the 2015-16 season.

In a matter of two seasons the center depth on Buffalo went from nothing to fully stocked. O'Reilly and Eichel held the top two centers on the team which pushed Reinhart to the wing in a top-six role. Johan Larsson played very well for them centering the third line, Zemgus Girgensons is a center  who's been playing wing but he's capable of manning the middle in the bottom-six as well, and they just signed center Jacob Josefson for depth. And looking ahead a bit, Rasmus Asplund (2016, 33rd-overall) isn't far away from an NHL roster spot and Buffalo's first round pick in 2017, Casey Mittelstadt, looks as if his NHL future may come sooner rather than later.

Word on the street is that the Carolina Hurricanes are in the market for a center and that they're willing to offer up one of their defensemen to land one. The 'Canes want "a playmaking center for one of the top two lines," according to Tom Gulitti of, and Lyle Richardson of Spector's Hockey, echoed those sentiments.

Richardson uses an article by Chip Alexander of the Charlotte Observer who notes that Carolina owner Peter Karmanos felt that "the Canes may not have a top-line center but did have 'four No. 2 centers.'” Carolina GM Ron Francis explained in the piece, "If you look around the league and you say ‘This guy is a legitimate No. 1, top-line center,’ there’s probably 16 of those guys in the entire league. They are not easy to find." Francis would go on to talk about his center depth which has Jordan Staal and Victor Rask as their top-two and concluded, “we think we’re fine up the middle. We may not have what everyone calls that ‘elite No. 1 guy’ but there’s not a lot of those guys in the league.”

As Sabre fans know, finding that No. 1 center on the open market or via trade is pretty much impossible so you make due with what you have.

The soon to be 30 yr. old Staal and 24 yr. old Rask had identical stat-lines of 16 goals, 29 assists, 45 points last season. Francis called Staal "a horse for us" and said of Rask "[he] had a little bit of an up-and-down year, but I think he’s hungry and ready to come back and show what he can do over an 82-game schedule." Both Staal and Rask certainly have their places in the grand scheme of things but those weren't exactly ringing endorsements of his top-two centers.

In looking at the two teams, the Sabres and the Hurricanes seem like a pretty good fit for a hockey trade.

Both Buffalo and Carolina know that Eichel isn't going anywhere and odds are that O'Reilly stays with the Sabres as well. But Reinhart on the other hand?

The 21 yr. old Reinhart was drafted out of Kootenay as more of a playmaker on offense but ended up as more of a scorer his first full season in Buffalo (23 goals, 19 assists.) Last season his goals went down (17) but his point total went up (47) while the roots of his overall game, his high hockey IQ and his solid two-way play, remained along with his upside.

In an pre-draft profile, Tony MacDonald, the Hurricanes' director of amateur scouting, saw what everyone else was seeing in Reinhart, "He’s a very interesting player in the sense that he’s quietly efficient. He kills you quietly,” was what he told Michael Smith of

MacDonald went on to say, "[Reinhart] is so efficient and so smart...a tremendous distributor of the puck, and he’s very good at finding his wingers. He’s very good in the faceoff circle. He’s an excellent penalty killer and a very good player without the puck.”

The Hurricanes ended up selecting defenseman Noah Hanifin with the fifth-overall pick in the 2014 draft as he fell to the Canes. In Smiths pre-draft profile on Hanifin, he wrote that the 6'3" 203 lb. U.S.-born blueliner, "is considered to be the best defensive prospect available in this year’s draft. NHL’s Central Scouting ranks him third overall among North American skaters."

Said MacDonald in that Smith piece. “He’s a big man. Plays a very efficient and effective game. He’s a solid defender, can move the puck and skate the puck out and seems to be a solid character guy.

"He’s got some offensive dimension to his game, although that wouldn’t necessarily be his greatest strength at this point in time. There’s not much not to like about Noah Hanifin. He should play in the NHL for a long, long time.”

The 20 yr. old Hanifin just completed his second season in Carolina with more points than his rookie season but with a worse plus-minus rating.

It's interesting to note that both Buffalo and Carolina have held off contract extension talks for both Reinhart and Hanifin, respectively, as both will be entering the final years on their entry-level deals.

Would the Sabres and the Hurricanes be willing to re-write the 2014 draft by a trade of those two players?

We know the Canes are in the market for a top-two center and one could also assume that Sabres GM Jason Botterill would like to add to the blueline. Sure, Botterill did revamp his d-corps with the trades for Nathan Lieuwen and Marco Scandella, but Hanifin would also represent an upgrade to a d-group that was in need of serious attention.

It all Depends on how each side views those two players after two full NHL seasons and whether or not they feel that it would represent a significant long-term upgrade at present positions of need.

That said, it kinda makes sense for both clubs.

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Saturday, August 19, 2017

Zemgus Girgensons re-signs as Pittsburgh's reportedly looking for No. 3 center.

Published by, 8-18-2017

There might not be a correlation between the news that Buffalo forward Zemgus Girgensons re-upped with the Sabres on a 2yr./$3.2 million contract and the Pittsburgh Penguins reportedly looking to trade for a No. 3 center, but the timing is certainly interesting.

Girgensons went into this off season as a restricted free agent with arbitration rights but opted to forgo the process. One by one Sabres GM Jason Botterill slowly signed his free agents, which included avoiding arbitration with three players, leaving Girgensons as the only player left to be signed. Yesterday Buffalo announced that the two sides came to an agreement.

It's been rough and rocky travelling for Girgensons over the course of the last two seasons. The former first round pick (2012, 14th-overall) went from being a top-line center under Ted Nolan during the Sabres bottom-dwelling 2014-15 season to an afterthought under Dan Bylsma the last two seasons and in the process went from 30 points (15g + 15a) in 61 games to 34 points (14+20) in 146 games.

Coaching seemed to play a big part in those numbers taking a huge dive as Nolan was a "work hard and good things will happen" kind of coach while Bylsma was more of an X's and O's coach. Girgensons plays a north/south power game that has him driving the net and working the puck in the corners which was perfect for Nolan's "just work hard" philosophy. Things changed, however, when Bylsma came aboard.

Many who follow the Sabres closely were left with the impression that Girgensons couldn't execute in Bylsma's structured system and therefore was relegated to a lesser, bottom-six role. As he floundered in the new system his ice-time decreased and so did his overall production.

Bylsma is gone now and was replaced by Phil Housley. A two-year deal for Girgensons may or may not be significant although it's a year longer than what he signed for when Bylsma was the coach meaning perhaps this regime wants to give him more of a look than a one-year, "show me" contract.

Or it could be an inviting contract for a team like the Pittsburgh Penguins who are said to be looking for a No. 3 center.

The two-time defending Stanley Cup Champion Penguins lost a key player in third line center Nick Bonino, as well as veteran center Matt Cullen, and they're looking to trade for a replacement for one of them. According to the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, GM Jim Rutherford wants to trade for a No. 3 center but will remain patient. "There's a couple of guys I could acquire right now," he said. "I feel like there's another group of guys that could possibly be available here soon. Kind of just waiting to see if that happens. Something could happen in the very near future or this could drag on for a little while."

Buffalo's Botterill came from the Penguins organization and was Rutherford's right hand man. The two worked together to build the back-to-back Cup champions and one could assume that they keep in touch. Botterill should have a pretty good idea as to what Rutherford is looking for, and what he could get in return, as he was instrumental in building the Penguins. And it's possible that "the two guys" Rutherford "could acquire now" are in the Sabres organization.

Girgensons could be that guy although his projected ceiling may have dropped down to a top-nine slot at best. At 23 yr.s old he's still young, just entering his prime, but he's also been subjected to mass turnover in Buffalo to the tune of three GM's and four head coaches. He has the versatility to play wing or center and although his offensive instincts seem to be limited, if he finds himself with open ice around the net, he can finish. He skates very well, is defensively responsible and can man the penalty kill.

Another possibility is Johan Larsson.

Larsson is a different player than Girgensons. He's slower on his skates but always seems to be around the puck and if he's not around the puck, he's around the action playing punk against the opposition. The 25 yr. old Larsson also played third-line center for the Sabres during Bylsma's two-year tenure and was making strong progress until he was lost for the season on Dec. 31 of last year.

According to CapFriendly, the Penguins have $3.2 million in cap-space right now meaning either Girgensons' $1.6 million or Larsson's $1.475 million hits would fit right in.

Botterill now has all of his players signed and has used 44 of his 50 pro contracts. The Sabres are $6.92 million under the NHL's $73 million cap ceiling, according to CapFriendly, which gives him plenty of maneuverability.

Whether that maneuverability includes a deal with his former team remains to be seen, but it was rather interesting that the Girgensons announcement and the article on the Penguins desires came out within a day of each other.

Friday, August 18, 2017

A look back at the 2016-17 Buffalo Sabres season--April

Published by, 8-17-2017

The Toronto Maple Leafs had made the playoffs once since the 2004-05 NHL lockout, and that was in a shortened season due to, you guessed it, another lockout in 2012-13. When they came back to KeyBank Center on April 3, the Leafs were in a three-way battle for second in the division with the Boston Bruins and Ottawa Senators while the Tampa Bay Lightning were climbing fast up the standings, joining the NY Islanders in the race for the second wild card spot.

The Buffalo Sabres were eliminated from playoff contention on March 28 so there wasn't much to play for except pride and the opportunity to play spoiler. The matchup between Toronto and Buffalo also had some interesting plot twists as Leafs franchise center Auston Matthews and Sabres franchise center Jack Eichel would be meeting again and the brothers Nylander--William for Toronto and Alexander for Buffalo--would be squaring off on NHL ice for the first time. As I wrote prior to the game, "if you cant' get up for this one, you probably don't have a pulse."

Buffalo had lost to the NY Islanders the night before on fan appreciation night at KeyBank. The generally uninspired play lead to the 4-2 defeat as the Islanders, who were without John Tavares, needed only two assists on their four goals. The highlight of the evening for the Sabres was UMASS-Lowell product C.J .Smith getting his first NHL point in his first NHL game. Smith went in 2-on-1 with Evander Kane and calmly slid a backhand to Kane who promptly buried his team-leading 27th goal of the season.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

A look back at the 2016-17 Buffalo Sabres season--March

Published by, 8-16-2017

Late in 2010, Bucky Gleason of The Buffalo News did a piece on Terrance M. Pegula, who at the time was attempting to purchase the Buffalo Sabres. Amongst many things in his profile Gleason noted that Pegula had season tickets to the Sabres when they played at Memorial Auditorium and could "tell you the section, row and seat number."

Pegula had his opinions while following his favorite team as a fan. Gleason pointed out in his article that the owner in waiting "was upset when Chris Drury and Daniel Briere left the organization [in 2007] and couldn't comprehend how the team let Henrik Tallinder get away [in 2010]."

At the March 1, 2017 NHL Trade Deadline, the opposite might have been true in the view from the owner's box. It was said that Pegula (as well as nearly everyone in Sabreland) couldn't figure out why defenseman Dmitry Kulikov wasn't traded.

Kulikov was acquired by GM Tim Murray at the 2016 NHL Draft in Buffalo as the Sabres and Florida Panthers swapped defensemen and picks. Gone from the Sabres was defenseman Mark Pysyk, referred to as "an analytics darling," by Murray and in came a defenseman whom he thought would be a top-four, at least. Unfortunately Kulikov suffered and injury in the preseason and was never quite right from October through February.

However, Kulikov was healthy to the point where he could be of use in a depth-role for a playoff-bound team. Rumors had it that there was at least one offer of a lower-round pick for him, but for some reason Murray balked and decided to keep him. Why? We're not sure, especially when it was revealed that Kulikov did not like playing in Buffalo.

And I'm sure that question was posed to Murray by Pegula at their end of season meeting. Murray, however, had no answers. After the two met, Gleason tweeted this, "I'm told Pegulas were looking for answers on how to proceed, and Murray didnt have many, or any."

The Sabres entered the month of March with the same team and playoff prospects all but ended. The began the month none points out of third place in the division and six points out of the second wild card spot in the East. Sure, they could still make the playoffs, but being six points behind and having five teams to jump in the wild card race is a pretty tall hurdle with 19 games to play.

Buffalo started out well with a win over Arizona, but the weight of the season took it's toll. It's best to remember that in addition to injuries, there were disconnects on and off the ice. Coach Dan Bylsma's system didn't sit well with some players, including franchise center Jack Eichel, and that would eventually engulf the team. Goalie Robin Lehner called out teammates for not playing the system, center Ryan O'Reilly and captain Brian Gionta blamed the players for the team's woes and in the locker room there was talk of a disconnect between vets and youngins.

The two games they blew post bye week didn't help either and after that win against the Coyotes to begin March, and a shootout loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning, the bottom fell out. Buffalo dropped out. They dropped three in a row and five of their next six. Despite the fact that they would counter by ending the month by winning four of six games, the Sabres were eliminated from the playoffs on the last day of the month after a 3-1 loss in Columbus. It was the sixth consecutive season the Sabres failed to make the playoffs.

Of note in that Columbus game, forward Sam Reinhart was benched in that game by Bylsma for "violating team policy," according to Bylsma, who would go on to say, "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.”

Reinhart apparently missed the team stretch when he thought the time was a half-hour later than it was. Murray and Bylsma had instituted a zero-tolerance policy for things like that and Reinhart was suspended, although he did dress for the game because Kyle Okposo was ill and the Sabres needed Reinhart to fulfill the required 20 skaters. He sat on the bench the entire game.

Murray said of the incident (via The Buffalo News,) "To me it's unfortunate that anybody broke the rule the first time after it gets changed at that point. 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."

Such was the downward spiral of the team at that point in the season.

About the only real bright spot in that month was the Sabres dinging the hated Toronto Maple Leafs playoff hopes a bit with a 5-2 victory at home. As everyone on the QEW knows, when the Leafs hit town, they occupy the Sabres' arena and it was no different for that game. With huge clumps of Blue and White throughout KeyBank Center, boisterous Toronto fans give the feel as if it was their home game.

For a fiery competitor like Eichel, who had all kinds of trouble this season from injury to rumored coaching problems, having the Leafs in house dominating the crowd didn't sit well. After scoring his second goal of the game to put Buffalo up 5-2 he went over to a clump of Leafs fans along the boards with an in your face moment:

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

The Will Butcher watch begins at 12:01 a.m. tomorrow.

Published by, 8-15-2017

We interupt this series on the past season to make a note on the present. Denver Pioneers defenseman Will Butcher, who was drafted by the Coloroado Avalanche in 2013 (123rd-overall,) is set to become a free agent at 12:01 a.m. if the Avalanche can't sign him, which has about a 99.9% chance of happening right now.

The 5'10 190 lb. right-handed shot from Sun Prarie, WI just finished his senior season on the NCAA National Men's Champion Denver Pioneers, and according to his Denver bio finished his senior season second in the nation in scoring by a defenseman (43 games-7g, 30a) and tied for third in plus/minus (+27.) In four seasons at Denver Butcher played 158 games had 103 points (28+75) and finished +49.

Butcher is set to hit free agency and the Buffalo Sabres are amongst many teams interested in signing him.
Ted Kulfan of The Detroit News, wrote today that the Detroit Red Wings are interested in the 2017 Hobey Baker winner as are "two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh, Chicago and Minnesota (both close to home for the Wisconsin native) [while] Buffalo, Toronto and New Jersey have been linked to Butcher, and in most cases, can offer immediate playing time."
That's a pretty tough list of teams for the Sabres to go up against for Butcher's services, and as for the "immediate playing time" portion of that quote, unless Buffalo moves a d-man like Zach Bogosian or Josh Gorges, Butcher will be in Rochester getting acclimated to the pro game. At least to start the season. In addition to those two d-men, as of now the Sabres have d-anchor Rasmus Ristolainen, two acquisitions in Nathan Beaulieu and Marco Scandella as well as free agent Russian signee Victor Antipin plus Jake McCabe. Justin Falk was a Grade-A call-up from Rochester last season and Taylor Fedun, who recently signed a two-year extension with the club, did yeoman's work in his 27 games as a call-up last season.
New Sabres GM Jason Botterill and new head coach Phil Housley have their work cut out for recruiting Butcher. They're up against two powerhouses in Pittsburgh and Chicago, a steady Minnesota Wild club and a fast-riser in the Toronto Maple Leafs coached by one of the best in the business. New Jersey shouldn't be dismissed either as they're being built by Penguins' Stanley Cup architect, Ray Shero, and just drafted a No. 1 center in Nico Hishier.
The Sabres shouldn't be taken lightly either. They have a core group that includes a franchise center in Jack Eichel, a top two-way center in Ryan O'Reilly and they just hired a coach in Housley that coached the most feared defense in last year's Stanley Cup playoffs. Botterill himself is no slouch as he was a part of helping to build Pittsburgh's  2009, 2016 and 2017 Stanley Cup champion teams.
Butcher was a fifth round pick in 2013 due to his smaller size for a defenseman, although he proved throughout his college career that he can handle bigger bodies in the defensive zone. He's never been afraid to lay the body on anyone and because of his strength, balance and the way he leverages his body, Butcher is extremely effective.
In addition to his strong two-way game he also has those intangibles like leadership which aren't so much a primary selling point as they are an augment to his hockey abilities.
Word is that he and his agent have said that they're looking for "the best organizational fit," according to Ryan Lambert of The Hockey News, which would include seasoning in the AHL, if necessary. Lambert calls Butcher "an NHL'er" and "the only reason teams shouldn’t be interested in a 22-year-old with a great pedigree is if they’re pushing up against the 50-contract limit."
The Sabres are presently at 43 contracts according to CapFriendly.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

A look back at the 2016-17 Buffalo Sabres season--February

Published by 8-14-2017

Former Sabres GM Tim Murray was a great listen during interviews because he was colorful, yet clean, and was pretty much a straight-shooter. His attitude basically said, "here you go, this is how I see it." He also guided the Sabres through two tank seasons in a scorched-earth rebuild with the 2015 Arizona/Buffalo race to the bottom in the "McEichel Sweepstakes" reaching embarrassing lows for both the organization and the NHL.

It's something that the league probably didn't look too kindly upon as their image was taking a hit, but it was his job and he was going to do it. After all, who said it was going to be all "rainbows, unicorns and jujus."

Was there retribution for the Murray and the Sabres because of all that transpired in 2015? Maybe, but if there was, it wasn't anything that could be traceable. Buffalo did miss out on the first-overall pick two years running after finishing in last place in the league but that was more than likely a severe case of Buffaluck as opposed to rigged Ping-Pong balls.

However, one thing the league could do is make the Sabres' lives a little more difficult by placing them last on the list when it came to scheduling priorities. In 2015-16 amongst the things they piled on Buffalo was the new Sabres with a new coach having to play the defending Eastern Conference Champion Tampa Bay Lightning four times in a 30-day span at the beginning of the season. Last year the Sabres had a league leading 19 sets of back-to-back games (tied with Columbus) but they included three in January (all within a 10-day span,) four in the short month of February and five in March.

An overall condensed NHL schedule in 2016-17 was a necessary evil for all teams because the regular season started a week late due to the inaugural World Cup of Hockey. If that wasn't enough, the league's schedule maker really laid the hammer down on the Sabres as they also put Buffalo's mandated five-day bye week in February meaning that an already condensed schedule would be compacted even further for them.

Prior to Buffalo's mandated five-day break (February 20-24) the Sabres packed in 11 games in 19 days including two back-to-back sets as part of five games in seven nights stint. Their final game before the break was at home against the Chicago Blackhawks which, of course, was the second game of a back-to-back. They had just finished playing 10 games in 18 days including three of their back-to-back sets and looked every bit the part of a team playing a ton of hockey in a short amount of time. They got steamrolled 5-1 by Chicago. Despite those scheduling difficulties, the Sabres got themselves on a little roll by going 6-3-1 before their bye week and it looked as if the playoffs were still a possibility.

Coming out of their bye week the Sabres were looking at a golden opportunity to grab four important points as they would play two bottom-dwelling teams--the Colorado Avalanche and the Arizona Coyotes--albeit with both games on the road.

Any thoughts of a possible playoff push vanished when the Sabres dropped both games. In Colorado, a defense slowly returning to health ultimately showed glaring weaknesses as Buffalo lost 5-3. Even with the loss the Sabers headed to Arizona still within seven points of the third place Toronto Maple Leafs in the division and five points behind the Boston Bruins who were in the second wild card spot.

In Arizona (to no Sabres' fan's surprise) Buffalo had a 2-0 lead in the third period before allowing three unanswered goals  and ended up on the wrong side of a 3-2 score. With back-to-back losses to the two worst teams in the league, the season was done for all intents and purposes and with the trade deadline but a few days away the "For Sale" sign went up .

The trend for head coach Dan Bylsma and his Sabres team was folding when it mattered most. It became predominant in December and really came to light as they dropped both games of a home-and-home with the Boston Bruins when they could've really closed the gap against the Atlantic Division's third place team. But even before that they lost ground to Carolina, Tampa Bay, Florida and Toronto either in the division or conference as they went a combined 1-4-2 versus those teams from mid-December through February and their record against those four teams plus Boston in that span was 2-8-2.

The Sabres finished a very busy month of February with an overtime loss at home against the Nashville Predators. They compiled a 6-6-2 record for the month which wasn't close to what they needed to be in the playoff chase. They were 0-3-1 headed into the NHL's Trade Deadline and the playoffs were a miracle away with the only question now being, "Who's on their way out?"

For their January team stats, click here, individual stats click here.

Monday, August 14, 2017

A look back at the 2016-17 Buffalo Sabres season--January

Published by, 8-13-2017

Despite a dismal end to a once promising month of December for the Buffalo Sabres, there was still half a season of hockey to be played and although they were far behind a playoff spot in the division, the fat lady wouldn't be singing for quite some time. Especially in a division with as much parity as the Atlantic.

The Sabres began January, 2017 against the NY Rangers and once again came out on top which was the beginning of a four-game point streak (3-0-1.) They proceeded to drop three of the next four before going on three-game winning streak in dramatic fashion. In three consecutive games they came from behind to beat Detroit, Montreal and Nashville in overtime which included a heavyweight goaltending duel between Buffalo's Robin Lehner and Montreal's Carey Price with Lehner making a phenomenal save in OT and much maligned defenseman Zach Bogosian clanking in a blistering slapshot off the post past Price on the next sequence.

(thx, Sportsnet)

The Sabres seemed to be on a serious role and it looked as if they were on their way to a fourth consecutive overtime game in Dallas until some weird things began to happen.

What wasn't weird at the time for the Sabres was going into prevent defense with at two-goal lead even if it was early as the first period like in Dallas against the Stars. Or maybe for those of us in Sabreland it was a strange way of approaching the game while being two goals up, especially knowing the firepower Buffalo had when healthy. But for coach Dan Bylsma locking it down seemed to be his preferred method of coaching in those situations. It's what the Sabres did at home against Boston at the end of December and against Toronto earlier in the month of January.

They did the same thing against the Stars as well and just like the other two games, they proceeded to allow four unanswered goals. The Sabres ended up losing to the Bruins and Leafs and eventually lost to the Stars 4-3, but not before controversy kept them from tying the score. With the Stars up 4-3 Buffalo amped things up in the third period eventually outshooting Dallas by a 16-2 margin. Unfortunately they were unable to get the game-tying goal. Or did they?

Twice in the third period the Sabres thought they tied the game. On this one, with 8:53 left in the third period, Sam Reinhart wheeled in the slot and sent a backhand to the net that Kari Lehtonen stopped, although it looked as if he did so from behind the goal line. Jack Eichel was behind the net pointing to the puck over the goal line but an out of position, and slow to the scene, referee in Justin St. Pierre did not see it, and it was called a no-goal.

Here's the video thanks to Sportsnet:

“The puck was in the net,” Eichel said to the gathered media post game. “I mean, usually the puck goes in the net it’s a goal. It’s kind of weird how that didn’t happen.

“The ref sees it in the net. I saw it go in the net as well. Then on the last one, that one might even be more conclusive. The puck clearly crosses the red. That’s two goals along with a lot of other things that happened during the game. It’s tough to put the outcome of something into the referees’ hands, but once again I think we get the short end of the stick there."

When all was said and done, despite Lehtonen kicking a puck that was six inches over the goal line from out of the net, the evidence was inconclusive and the score remained 4-3 which is how the game ended and how they went into the All-Star break.

After a four day All-Star hiatus, where Kyle Okposo skated in the All-Star Game, the Sabres got back on the ice presumably refreshed and on a high from the four games prior to the break, despite the no-goal calls in Dallas. They proceeded to get mauled by the Montreal Canadiens 5-2.

It was an ugly finish to the month for Buffalo as the Canadiens made them look silly, yet the team still managed to finish with it's best month of the season as they went 7-5-1. Evander Kane was the star of the month as he lead the team with six goals and 11 points while upping is even-strength goal total to 13 on the year. Kane played on a line with center Zemgus Girgensons and right wing Brian Gionta and the trio contributed 14 goals and 13 assists with a cumulative plus-9 rating.

At the end of January the Sabres were nine points out of third place in the division and seven points out of the second wild card spot in the east.

For their January team stats, click here, and for individual stats click here.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

A look back at the 2016-17 Buffalo Sabres season--December

Published by, 8-12-2017

December was a tale of two halves although one thing continued to dog the Sabres--injuries. Unlike the prior two months where injuries were taking a toll on the forwards, they were dropping like flies on defense. Josh Gorges took a shot that broke his foot and kept him out weeks while Taylor Fedun, who joined Justin Falk as call-ups to replace the injured Dmitry Kulikov and Zach Bogosian, went down with a shoulder injury.

Buffalo tapped junior defenseman Brendan Guhle, playing in his first NHL game, to replace Gorges while Fedun was replaced by another Rochester call-up in Eric Burgdoerfer, who also played in his first ever NHL game. It was strangely reminiscent of the 2006 Eastern Conference Finals where a rash of injuries devastated the defense corps. Burgdoerfer's first game was against the Washington Capitals and this was the defense:

Rasmus Ristolainen-Jake McCabe
Cody Franson-Brendan Guhle
Justin Falk-Eric Burgdoerfer

They lost 3-2 in overtime at Washington.

That same group would be together again as the Sabres hosted Connor McDavid and the Edmonton Oilers. Buffalo would defeat the Oilers for the second time with Evander Kane's two goals powering the Sabres and Ristolainen scoring "the loudest goal in Buffalo this year," according to legendary announcer Rick Jeanneret, in overtime.

Despite the injury problems to start the month, the Sabres still got off to a good start as they played six of seven inside the friendly confines of the KeyBank Center and went 4-2-1 during that stretch. They started out December by beating a high-powered NY Rangers team (with their league-leading 3.67 g/gm.) by a score of 4-3. Despite a loss in the next game against Boston for the second time this season, the Sabres would get points in seven of the first nine games of December (4-2-3.) It was a stretch that pulled them to within five points of the third place in the division.

Amongst the wins for the Sabres was a high-flying game at home against the Los Angeles Kings. Buffalo was looking to get back into the win column after another loss vs. Washington and they found themselves down 2-0 at the 7:34 mark of the second period. However, the Sabres would find their legs in a big way as they rocked the Kings for four unanswered goals in 6:15 span of the second period and finished with a 6-3 win. It was another exciting game for the fans to watch and yet another game where Eichel (2g, 1a) and O'Reilly (1g) ignited the team.

Yet, despite the success vs. Ottawa the previous month and vs. LA, the team couldn't find it's soul and the bottom began to fall out. After the Kings game they dropped two in the shootout, two in regulation then beat Detroit to stop the bleeding. Yet however dismal this last stretch was, redemption was there as they'd be playing the Bruins in a home-and-home to finish out the 2016 portion of the schedule and were still only six points behind them of the third spot in the division. “They’re within earshot,” Bylsma said at the time. “You have a chance of sweeping these two games and gaining four points on them, putting yourself right near them.”

But, it was the Bruins that did all the sweeping.

The Sabres tried to sit on an early 2-0 lead in the first game and got beat 4-2 at home then didn't show up in Boston as the Bruins beat them 3-1. From a possible two points behind Boston to 10 points back. Eichel had his disgust on display after the second game. "After a 3-1 loss to the Boston Bruins in TD Garden that wasn't nearly as close as the score might say, a red-faced Eichel went berserk," wrote Mike Harrington of the Buffalo News from Boston. "He fired some pieces of equipment into his duffel bag, pounded others on his locker seat and drove the bag hard into the rubberized floor at one point.

"There were also some choice four-letter words spliced into the outburst of Eichel, who stormed out of the room without speaking to reporters."

Perhaps subconsciously he knew the inevitable, that after blowing this golden opportunity they'd probably miss the playoffs again.

To keep with the injury theme that haunted the Sabres for the first three months of the season, O'Reilly underwent an emergency appendectomy on Christmas Eve and was out until January and third-line center Johan Larsson was lost for the year after crashing into the boards in Boston.

In all the Sabres finished the month with the same 5-6-3 record they had in November.

For their December team stats, click here, individual stats click here.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

A look back at the 2016-17 Buffalo Sabres season--November

Published by, 8-11-2017

Buffalo started November well enough with a 2-1 win over the Minnesota Wild for their third win in a row but the injuries continued to mount as Sabres defenseman Zach Bogosian went down with a knee injury in a 2-1 home loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs. A 2-1 victory over the Ottawa Senators would give the Sabres wins in four of their last five games  pushing their overall record to 5-4-2 and into a spot just two points out of third place in the division.

Then it hit.

The Sabres would go on to lose to the Boston Bruins which began a six-game winless streak (0-4-2.) By mid-November they dropped to the bottom of the conference and had an injured list that now included Dmitry Kulikov, who was placed on IR to help his back heal, and Ryan O'Reilly. Entering a November 19 game against Pittsburgh the Sabres were without their top two centers in Jack Eichel and O'Reilly, two of their top four defensemen (Bogosian and Kulikov) and were also missing top-nine forward Tyler Ennis.

The lineup for that game looked like this:

Evander Kane-Johan Larsson-Kyle Okposo
Marcus Foligno-Sam Reinhart-Brian Gionta
Zemgus Girgensons-Cal O'Reilly-Matt Moulson
William Carrier-Derek Grant-Cole Schneider

Josh Gorges-Rasmus Ristolainen
Jake McCabe-Cody Franson
Justin Falk-Taylor Fedun

Anders Nilsson got the start against the Pens and backstopped the Sabres, who were featuring five AHL recalls, to an odds-defying 2-1 shootout victory that included 46 saves in regulation/overtime while stopping Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang in the shootout. They went on to go 1-1-1 in their next three games and had a 4-6-3 record before the return of Eichel on November 29.

The Sabres won with defense as it was a brutal month for the Sabres in the goal-scoring department. Prior to Eichel's return they scored two or less goals in 13 of the 14 games played while averaging 1.63 goals/game. It was dismal hockey to watch and how they managed to win five games during that stretch was a minor miracle.

Despite all that transpired in November, Buffalo would finish the month on a strong note as Eichel returned and helped lead the team to an exciting, fun-filled 5-4 win at Ottawa. He had a goal and added an assist in his first game of the season and O'Reilly contributed two goals and an assist in his third game back from a stint on IR. Yet, however fun this was for the players and fans, it was a game that might represent the basis for a disconnect between coach and players, one that seemed to plague them for the rest of the season.

Sabres coach Dan Bylsma acknowledged the obvious saying that the return of Eichel brought "a different level of execution" and "a different level of speed" to his team. Bylsma watched as they flew up and down the ice drawing five minor penalties and scoring three powerplay goals on the night. Yet, despite the positives which included abundant fan excitement and his team scoring five goals (while admittedly giving up four,) Bylsma wasn't really thrilled with the overall play of his team. "It was a little bit of a haphazard game and those aren't easy on the heart," he said postgame. "It's not the way we want to play the game."

Buffalo finished 5-6-3 in the month of November with their scoring for the season at a paltry 1.95 g/gm, which was just barely above their 1.87 g/gm during the 2015-16 tank season.  Yet, as they looked ahead towards December with Eichel back in the lineup and the team seemingly on the mend, at least up front, Sabres fans had a lot to look forward to

For their November team stats, click here, and for individual stats click here.

Friday, August 11, 2017

A look back at the 2016-17 Buffalo Sabres season--October

Published by, 8-10-2017

The Sabres had a very difficult 2016-17 season which ultimately lead to the firing of their general manager and head coach. The reasons for Buffalo's difficulties last season are multiple with various factions staking their claim as to why the Sabres finished with less points than the prior season. Was it the personnel? Injuries? Defense?

Here's a look back at the season that was 2016-17 for the Buffalo Sabres.


The Sabres had some injury problems heading into the 2016-17 season. It began with lesser known one as forward Ryan O'Reilly developed back spasms. O'Reilly played for gold medal winning Team Canada in the tournament and during his first preseason game for Buffalo was pulled for "precautionary reasons." Then defenseman Dmitry Kulikov, who was acquired earlier in the summer, was checked into an open bench door and smashed his tailbone. It was an injury that would bother him throughout the season.

The injuries continued with big one hitting Jack Eichel on the eve of Buffalo's season opener. On the final day of practice before the Sabres were to face Montreal, Eichel got tangled up with Zemgus Girgensons at practice and suffered a high ankle sprain. Eichel's agony reverberated throughout Sabreland as he would be lost for the first 21 games of the season and any hopes of jumping out of the gate quickly towards possible playoff contention vanished in the screaming echoes of KeyBank Center.

If that wasn't enough, the hits just kept coming on the injury parade as winger Evander Kane went down in the opener vs. the Canadiens. Kane was charging hard into the Montreal zone with only 13 seconds left in the second period when he was checked and lost his balance before crashing hard into the boards and cracking four ribs in the process.

(Thx, All Things Buffalo Sabres)

And for good measure, starting goalie Robin Lehner was sidelined because of an illness. The Sabres had just completed their Western Canada swing and Lehner would miss the next three games.

All-in-all Buffalo didn't fare too badly as they went 3-3-2 for the month and had they not blown a three-goal third period lead at Philadelphia it would have been a notch better. They lost the opener to Montreal and started out by going 1-3-2 through the first six games. However they would turn it around with two very convincing wins at home vs. Florida and at Winnipeg by a combined 6-1 score.

Kyle Okposo and Matt Moulson lead the team with four goals apiece with Moulson's all coming on the powerplay and despite the injuries the team got off to a better start then they did the previous season when Buffalo was 2-6 in their first eight games.

For their October team stats, click here and for individual stats click here.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

If Reinhart was moved to center--a look at the potential top-nine for Buffalo

Published by, 8-6-2017

The idea has been bantered about here for a little while--moving Sam Reinhart back to his natural center position. That move would inevitably have the former second-overall pick using his hockey IQ and set-up skills in a third line role. Although Kris Baker of and thinks it's a better idea not to label lines anymore. In a tweet touting the Reinhart move to center, Baker hearkens back to the 2005-07 Buffalo Sabres when he mentions the line of Daniel Briere centering Jochen Hecht and Ales Kotalik.
"Aiming for balance," wrote Baker in his tweet. "Matchups. Opponent picks their poison. I look at HBK as a "third" unit. No more #ing lines. Top line is who's going best."
It's certainly a "modern" way to look at the four-lines concept, but back in that day the Sabres did have themselves a helluva third line in that center Derek Roy was third on the depth chart behind Briere and Chris Drury. On one wing was Thomas Vanek and on the other was Maxim Afinogenov.
Regardless of how you want to categorize the lineup, one thing the Sabres do have today is strength down the middle much like they did when they went to consecutive Eastern Conference Finals those two seasons. With Jack Eichel and Ryan O'Reilly occupying the top two center roles, perhaps Reinhart could be a Roy-like player to play the third center position.
What Phil Housley does on the wings with Reinhart moving out of the top-six is another matter.
Last year the duo of O'Reilly and right wing Kyle Okposo was formidable regardless of who their left-winger was and that included the likes of Matt Moulson for a good stretch early in the season. Players from William Carrier and Cole Schneider to Tyler Ennis and Marcus Foligno, as well as Evander Kane, also made appearances on that line and despite the lineup turmoil and the injuries O'Reilly finished with 55 points (20+35) in 71 games while Okposo had 45 (19+26) in 65 games.
When Drury and JP Dumont were kickin' it in a two-way role for Buffalo the other winger for much of the time was Mike Grier who wasn't exactly a point producer (383 points in 1060 career NHL games,) but they clicked, which was huge for the forward group. Which may lead one to believe that free agent signee Benoit Pouliot may end up on the left side of O'Reilly/Okposo. At 30 and with steadily declining numbers over the past few seasons, Pouliot isn't exactly a top-line or even a full time top-six player, but in a world of numberless lines, that trio may have an impact if the chemistry is there.
Former Sabres head coach Dan Bylsma was big on forward pairings which is a good concept when you're constantly juggling players and lines. It worked well with the O'Reilly/Okposo pairing and it also worked very well with Reinhart on Eichel's wing. But moving Reinhart back to center breaks up that forward pairing. In doing so a Kane/Eichel pairing would move to the fore and insomuch wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing. Sure both like the puck on their sticks, but Kane's play has been moving in the direction where his Alpha-male overtones have receded. Perhaps we may be jumping the gun a bit on Kane maturing that far but those two, with their speed and talent and ability to create space, are a nightmare for defenses and they've proven it most of the time when they were on the same line the past two seasons.
Filling the right side of the Eichel/Kane duo is somewhat problematic with Reinhart moving away from that spot. Thirty-four year old Jason Pominville was brought back but a full time top-six spot, especially on the wing with those two might make him age even faster.
This might be a golden opportunity for a young player like Nick Baptiste to take the reigns of his NHL career. He has speed and size the ability to hound the puck and can either snipe or set up. He played 41 games for a loaded Erie Otters team featuring Connor McDavid scoring 26 goals and adding 27 assists in 41 games. His pro career has shown steady improvement as he's gained more experience and confidence.
Filling that RW slot with Baptiste, or even young Justin Bailey, would allow for a very intriguing pairing as a young and developing Reinhart could have Pominville as his mentor as the two have more similarities than differences in their styles of play. Filling that left wing role on that line may be somewhat of a problem.
Moulson might get the first crack at a situation like this as the team could really use more output from a player making $5 million. Or Zemgus Girgensons (if/when he re-signs) may find himself a home with a well-defined position that seemed to be lacking under Bylsma. Or there might be an opportunity for a younger player to take on that role. Maybe Bailey or a player like Evan Rodrigues.
Rodrigues finally began to find his stride last year with the Rochester Americans and although the numbers aren't eye-popping, his progress has been steady and getting stronger. He's got a very high hockey IQ, finds open space and can score. Lest we forget, he did play on Eichel's wing in college and although his development has been somewhat elongated at the pro-level, he has all the tools to hang with quality NHL players.
It's early August with hockey two months away it's way to early to tell what the Sabres roster will look like. With the lineup as laid out above with two youngins on board, the final five forward spots right now would consist of Moulson, Girgensons, Johan Larsson, Jacob Josefson and Nicolas Deslauriers.
However, this could be the Sabres top-nine should they decide to move Reinhart to center:
Is it a "pick your poison" lineup?
Not yet. But we've seen a helluva lot worse over the past few years or so.