Sunday, October 1, 2017

It's got to feel good to be able to skate and react again

Published by, 9-30-2017

I'm still trying to figure out how skating to a spot on the ice in a in any and all situations could be beneficial to any one player and/or the team.

Time and time again over the course of the last two seasons we witnessed the Buffalo Sabres doing exactly that, as dictated by the system, while time and time again either the opposition knew what was about to unfold and/or Buffalo players seemed so focused upon getting to a spot that they couldn't see what was happening around them. We watched the play to come to them in every zone as if some defined structure could defend against an offensive rush that easily found open space or said structure would scare the opposition in to defensive breakdowns. Somehow the Sabres generated the 15th-most shots on goal last season (30.4) but as the above would indicate, they allowed the most shots on goal against (34.2.)

What we saw this preseason is a Sabres team that has been much more aggressive in every zone. The defensemen are active all over the ice whether joining the rush in the offensive zone or standing a player up in the neutral zone while the forwards are cycling on offense and back checking equally as hard. Their aggressive play has allowed solid breakouts from the defensive end while darting to the puck carrier helped stifle the opposition transition game.

However, what hasn't gone well for the Sabres are the numbers at the final buzzer. Buffalo went 1-4-1 this preseason as they were outscored 20-12. Jack Eichel had a goal and three assists (two primary) but other than that, the "big guns" featuring Ryan O'Reilly, Kyle Okposo, Evander Kane and Sam Reinhart had a combined six points (2+4) while an array of bubble players were responsible for a good chunk of the remaining points.

Not much should be read into preseason numbers and as the regular season progresses the names normally found at the top of the scoring list will eventually find their spots. Exhibition games are more about finding chemistry, especially with a new coach and a new system, and providing opportunity.

A number of bubble players left a positive impression with new coach Phil Housley and his coaching staff. Forward Evan Rodrigues looked like he belonged in this system before being felled by a hand injury while defenseman Justin Falk's strong play from last season carried over into the preseason. The hulking 6'5" 223 lb. Falk was sound in the d-zone, showed that he had more than adequate NHL skating ability and also showed plenty of smarts while picking his spots to join the offense. Should Zach Bogosian's injury keep him out of the opener, Falk may find himself on the Sabres opening night roster next week.

Forward Seth Griffith saw plenty of ice-time in a bottom-six role throughout the preseason and jumped on the scoresheet early with a goal and an assist in the first two games. Last night against the NY Islanders he started out in his usual spot on the third line but was placed on the Eichel/Kane line in the third period. Griffith used his speed to find the tons of open ice afforded him by those two speedy talents and the trio really turned up the pressure.

Housley noticed while also saying that Griffith was one of their best forwards last night. The coach has liked Griffith's game all preseason, especially in that third-line role and told the gathered media that the "speed-element" Griffith brought "complimented that line with [Reinhart].

"That was very intriguing," said the coach.

For as much work as the players have to do in Housley's system, the coach also has his work cut out for him.

Housley is a rookie coach, and as the two games vs. the Mike Babcock-coached Toronto Maple Leafs would indicate, there's plenty of room for growth. Babcock's Leafs throttled the Sabres in the home-and-home while outscoring Buffalo 6-1. Three of Toronto's goals were empty-netters, but what's been haunting the Sabres all preseason was playing from behind. Housley pointed out last night that the Sabres scored first in only one game, a game they happened to win. Sluggish starts by the Sabres has been going on for years and it's something that will need to change if this team wants to take a big step towards playoff contention.

Housley will also need to do some coaching when it comes to chemistry. There are a number of players on the team that probably won't be with the club a year or two from now. Players like Josh Gorges and Matt Moulson don't seem to fit into the style of play that the coach wants to see, but they're also two players who probably won't be going anywhere prior to the 2018 NHL trade deadline. Both are good players and their veteran savvy has allowed them to hold their own in a limited role, but to expect them to play minutes commensurate with their salary ($8.9 million combined) in an up-tempo style is asking too much.

Even a player like Jason Pominville will need to find a proper home in the lineup. Pominville has always produced and probably always will. His solid production and a $5.6 million AAV for the next two seasons might dictate a spot in the top-six, but for as good of a skater he is, he seemed a half-step behind while playing on Eichel and Kane's line.

Bogosian's another player who Housley will need to coach around. The big defenseman with excellent skating ability may have finally found freedom under Housley but he hasn't played in more than 64 games since the 2010-11 season. How Housley handles Bogosian while on the ice and when he's injured involves some juggling.

It's not going to be easy for this edition of the Buffalo Sabres. Housley has players on different lines and in different positions this year and they're making that transition within a new system. Buffalo also added three new defensemen that look to be a part of the starting defense-corps. About the only thing that hasn't gone through major changes is the goaltending but even they'll see changes as Housley's attack-mode will render plenty of quality chances coming back.

That said, it's been fun watching this team skate in the preseason. Although the overall results haven't been there, for the most part it's not a snooze-fest watching them.

For the fans it's a real treat. I can't imagine how fun it must be for the players to be able to skate and react again.

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