Published by hockeybuzz.com, 12-27-2017
Both the NHL and AHL return to action tonight after their Christmas break. For Western New York hockey fans that means the Buffalo Sabres and Rochester Americans will be back on the ice. The Sabres, because the 2018 World Junior Championships are being held in Buffalo right now, are in Brooklyn, NY gearing up for tonight's contest against the NY Islanders while the Amerks are at home and will take on the Laval Rocket (MTL) for the third time in a row.
Buffalo heads into their game against the Islanders tonight with dismal team stats and individual players that are, or have been, struggling most, if not all of, the season. Winger Evander Kane is the exception. He has been the most consistent Sabres player all season and has lead the team in scoring since the last time these two teams met in Buffalo's second game of the season. That particular game was a disaster that saw the Sabres on the losing end of a 6-3 score, but Kane showed some serious mettle by answering three second period Islander goals in 1:47, two of them shorthanded, with two shorthanded goals of his own.
Hot on Kane's trail for the team lead in scoring is Jack Eichel. The 21 yr. old has kicked in his game as of late. In three of the Sabres' last four games with five goals, including his first career NHL hat trick, and three assists while also playing an impressive 200' game. It would be great to say, "As Eichel goes, so do the Sabres," but in that one game where he notched the hat trick and was simply dominant, goaltending and team defense let the Sabres down as they lost in overtime 5-4.
Early struggles and injuries had really put a hurtin' on the Sabres defense corpse, but they're healthy and playing much better as of late while Robin Lehner has been very solid in goal. Where this all leads the rest of the way is still to be determined as this team continues to have trouble scoring. Lehner has been a victim much of the time in that situation and overall the Sabres are dead last in the league scoring a measly 2.17 goals/game.
Buffalo Sabres owner Terry Pegula acknowledged that his NHL hockey team needs some scoring. He was on WGR550 prior to the opening of the 2018 WJC, which the Pegula's and the city of Buffalo are hosting.
Three Buffalo forward prospects are in the tournament and Pegula said that he "wants to see how they perform," meaning Alexander Nylander (2016, 8th-overall,) Casey Mittelstadt (2017, 8th) and Marcus Davidson (2017, 37th.) Nylander went from the NHL Draft right to the American Hockey League with the Rochester Americans. He struggled as an 18 yr. old, was felled by an injury this past off-season and has struggled a bit since he returned from his injury. Mittelstadt is having a very solid season in D-I at the University of Minnesota while Davidsson has put up some very respectable numbers as a teenager in Sweden's top pro league.
"It's pretty obvious our team in the NHL needs some goal-scoring," Pegula said. "So it'd be nice to see these guys fill the net a little bit."
Nylander and Davidsson both play for Team Sweden who romped through their opening matchup with Belarus defeating them 6-1. Neither Buffalo prospect scored but Nylander collected primary assists on Sweden's second and fifth goals of the game.
Mittlestadt had whale of a game in the day's final matchup which pitted Team USA vs. Team Denmark. The 6'0" 203 lb. Minnesota native scored two goals in USA's 9-0 shoutout win, but more than that he dazzled with his skating and stickwork. It was a continuation of what he did in two exhibition games leading up to the tournament as he scored goals in both of those games as well.
Last night there was a lot of open ice for Mittelstadt and he took advantage of it. But he also showed great tenacity as he followed his own rebound for his first goal of the game (which can be seen in the video below at the :44 second-mark.) Mittelstadt showed off some wicked stick skills from in-tight as he lofted a shot top-shelf from the edge of the crease (1:18) for his second goal.
(video courtesy USA Hockey)
Mittelstadt has been battling at the D-I level were teams trap all over the ice and leave you very little room to breath. However, for a freshman playing against mostly older competition, he's managed to work for some ice and is doing very well with 17 points (5+12) in 19 games. With that said, there are times where he does have a little space to show off his skills, like this goal courtesy sabresprospects.com:
As the tournament goes on and the competition gets tougher, especially when they hit the medal rounds, the cream will rise to the top and perhaps one or more of those players will be in that group.
The NHL trade freeze will be lifted at midnight and the name that keeps popping up from Buffalo is, of course, Evander Kane. Reports have a number of teams interested in Kane with the most recent one being the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Lyle Richardson of Spector's Hockey delved into that this morning using the Buffalo/Pittsburgh ties between Sabres present GM Jason Botterill and the Pens whom he spent the prior 10 seasons with. If anyone knows what Pittsburgh has in the cupboards, it's Botterill as he was driving force in building a Penguins farm system that was instrumental in them winning back-to-back Stanley Cups.
If you're the Sabres and you potentially have the best rental forward available in this year's trade market, supply and demand means that a return for a powerforward like Kane and his 33 points 15+18) could be substantial. And if you want to remake the team for the way the NHL is played, it makes sense that you'd be looking for a younger, more dynamic player to go along with a probable first round pick.
So when the rumor-mill somehow starts linking Kane and 30 yr. old Pittsburgh defenseman Kris Letang in the same paragraph, you might wonder what people are thinking.
That's not to take anything away from Letang and what he did in his 11+ year career with the Penguins. He's a winner and has three Stanley Cup rings to prove it. But he also carries a $7.5 million cap-hit for four more seasons after this and injuries are starting to creep into the equation. Last year he played 41 games and in two of his last four seasons he played in 51 or less games.
Is that really something Botterill wants? I get the leadership and all but they already have a defenseman in Zach Bogosian who has had injury problems and is making over $5 million a season. The Sabres also have forward Ryan O'Reilly and his $7.5 million cap-hit and Kyle Okposo who's making $6 million/season. Next year Jack Eichel and his $10 million cap-hit kicks in.
I mean, really? How does that make any sense for the Sabres at this time?