Saturday, November 11, 2017

Game night: Florida Panthers plus, Evander Kane

Published by, 11-10-2017

Just the facts, ma'am.

Buffalo record:  5-8-2 (12 points);  Last 10, 5-4-1
Florida record:  4-8-2 (10 points);  Last 10, 2-6-2

The Sabres are 3-6-1 in their last 10 games vs. the Florida Panthers and have the exact same 3-6-1 at home in their last 10 vs. the Cats.

In 2015-15 Florida finished with 103 points to lead the Atlantic Division while the Sabres were in their first year with Jack Eichel. Buffalo went 1-3-0 vs. Florida and were outscored by a 17-10 margin. Last season the Sabres were 2-1-1 against the Cats while outscoring them 10-8, which included a 3-0 shutout pitched by backup goalie Anders Nilsson last October.

The Sabres started out the season with an 0-4-1 record scoring only 11 goals for (2.2/gm) while allowing 21 (4.2/gm) with a goal differential of minus-10. Since then they've gone 5-4-1 in their last 10 games scoring 27 goals (2.7/gm) allowing 32 goals against (3.2/gm.)

The Panthers have had a rough go of it lately with a 2-6-2 record in their last 10 games scoring 35 goals for (3.5/gm) while allowing 43 goals against (4.3/gm.)


The Panthers have had a rough go of it since their surprising 103-point finish two years ago. Changes were made on defense which included acquiring more analytics friendly players with more mobility on the back end. Out went Eric Gudbranson and Dmitry Kulikov and in came Mark Pysyk and Keith Yandel. Although it's not the lone reason for the team's 39-44-13 record since the 2015-16 season, disrupting team chemistry with a philosophical change while coming off of the most successful regular season in team history doesn't look like the greatest of moves.

That defense is the worst in the NHL right now as they're giving up a league-leading 4.14 goals-against on a league-leading 38.1 shots-against/game. As pointed out by Matthew DeFranks of the Sun Sentinal in Broward County, FL, the Panthers right now are on a pace for 59 points which would be their lowest full season point total since the 1994-95 season.

Cats GM Dale Tallon built much of the team before being pushed into the front office during the 2016 off season. Ownership seemed to favor a more analytical Tom Rowe over Tallon and Rowe took over, eventually firing head coach Gerard Gallant, a Tallon hire. After Florida's struggles became too much, Tallon was back at GM this past off season, but without his coach. He hired former Sabre player Bob Boughner as his new coach.

Tallon has been stressing "the process" while watching his team flounder and they're coming into Buffalo on a five-game losing streak (0-3-2) while being outscored 25-15. I just want our players to believe in the process," he told DeFranks. "They got to start believing in themselves a little more, show a little more confidence in themselves,” he said. “It’s a project. We understand where we’re going, and I’m very patient. I like how things are going as far as the coaches, the players buying into the new systems. Just trusting it now.”

Although the Sabres may not have turned the corner yet, the team has been playing much better as shown by their record and their goal-differential. Buffalo is still struggling in some areas, most notably secondary scoring and the powerplay, but structurally they've made significant progress with coach Phil Housley's system despite a boatload of injuries on defense and questionable goaltending at times.

Tonight the Sabres will once again be without the services of the one-time league-leader in ice-time, defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen as he'll be sitting out his third game because of an upper-body injury. At the time of his injury Ristolainen was leading the NHL in average time on ice and now he's second by 02: seconds behind Drew Doughty (LAK.)

However there is some good news on defense as Nathan Beaulieu was taken off of injured reserve and will be in the lineup tonight. According to reports from this morning's practice, Justin Falk will once again take Ristolainen's place on the top-pairing and Beaulieu looks to be skating third-pairing minutes with time on the second powerplay unit. Here are the pairings from practice:


Buffalo coach Phil Housley may have found his top two lines, although as we've seen in the past, that could change. Scoring aside from the top line has begun to pick up with Ryan O'Reilly and Benoit Pouliot hitting the scoresheet with more regularity. Here are the forward lines:



It looks like Robin Lehner will be in net tonight.

After the game the Sabres will travel to Montreal to take on the Canadiens, the first of three straight on the road. After Montreal they travel to Pittsburgh and then on to Detroit.

Game time tonight is 7 PM.


Last season, NHL teams wouldn't touch Buffalo winger Evander Kane with a 10-foot pole and he proceeded to have a 28-goal season in only 70 games for the Sabres in 2016-17. This year he's off to a hot start with nine goals and 15 points in 15 games which puts him on a pace to shatter his previous career highs.

Kane has always had the talent, and from what's been said and printed about him in all of his NHL stops, his on-ice work-ethic is impeccable. Yet his off-ice troubles seem to have been getting in the way of his true potential. Last fall Kane was placed on six-months of probation for an incident that took place in Buffalo at the NHL Draft and there have been no reports of off-ice incidents since.

To say he's having a good run is an understatement and he's setting himself up for a big payday sometime between now and July 1, the start of free agency. Kane is in the final year of a six-year, $31.5 million contract he signed with the Winnipeg Jets which coincided with having just finished a 30-goal/57-point campaign with the Jets in their first season back in Winnipeg.

The Hockey News' Matt Larkin has Kane in the top-10 of his unrestricted free agents to be in 2018. Wrote Larkin of Kane, "Talent has never been the issue for Kane. He’s big, strong, mean and gifted, like a young Todd Bertuzzi. Kane is also quietly just 26 and on pace for a career year. As long as his head’s on straight, which is never a guarantee, he’s a high-impact UFA."

Kane comes in behind some pretty talented forwards in the likes of center Johan Tavares (#1 on Larkin's list,) left wing James Van Riemsdyk (#3,) right wing James Neal (#4,) C, Mikael Badklund #6) and RW Cam Atkinson (#7.) Of the top-10, Kane is the youngest at 26 yrs. old and Tavares is second at 27. All the rest are 28 and older with four of them at 30 or older.

This has been very successful season for Kane thus far which presents a very interesting dilemma for Sabres GM Jason Botterill. Kane is a unique player who seems to have put his off-ice life into place thus allowing his on-ice game to grow. God knows it doesn't hurt to be playing next to Jack Eichel on a nightly basis, but Kane has begun to grow into a more complete player because of it.

And, of course, because of his past troubles, his recent successes, the great season he's having thus far and the fact that he'll be an unrestricted fee agent come season's end, Kane was No. 1 on TSN's trade list.

It's a situation to keep an eye on. The Sabres are far from the playoff picture right now and if they continue on this pace, they'll be able to trade him and get a nice return and maybe even sign him as a free agent after the season. However if they're in a playoff race, how do you trade away the probable team leader in goals with a six-year playoff drought hanging over your franchise?

We shall see.

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