Published by hockeybuzz.com, 3-18-2018
Perhaps it might be best to qualify that statement by saying that the near-term future of the Buffalo Sabres might be tied to how well their top two centers mesh beginning now and into next season.
Jack Eichel was back on the ice for the Sabres after missing over a month. The third-year pro was having another good season--22 goals and 31 assists in 55 games--until he was felled by a high-ankle sprain. In Eichel's absence center Ryan O'Reilly upped his game to 15 points (4+11) and was a plus-4 in those 16 games.
Eichel and O'Reilly are two very different hockey players. One is a highly fast, skilled, offensive-minded superstar in the making who was picked second-overall and came from the NCAA D-1 Men's hockey ranks. The other has definitive offensive skills is strong on the puck, great on the faceoff dot and is known for a consistent, two-way game. A simplistic view would have the former in Eichel in a top-line scoring role with the latter, O'Reilly, doing what he does anchoring the second line in a two-way role.
After Eichel's rookie season, things seemed headed in that direction. However, internal discord cast a pall over their particular roles on the team, which included who was the better fit for the vacant captaincy. The season went down hill, there were rumors of sides being taken, and it eventually lead to the firing of head coach Dan Bylsma.
This season has been a disaster under rookie coach Phil Housley, although there are some signs of light at the end of the tunnel. Yet, with the captaincy still open, definitive roles still haven't been fully defined. There's no doubt that when Eichel was drafted the Sabres were considered his team, but as of yet he hasn't shown the maturity of his counterpart in O'Reilly. And for his part, although he may fully believe, and justifiably so, that he does have leadership qualities that Eichel lacks, O'Reilly's overall maturity level should be tied to how he handles playing second fiddle.
The team needs to iron this out this off season and one would hope that both players can move on in their respective roles. The center position is extremely important and Buffalo has a legit one-two punch down the middle, which is something we haven't seen here since Chris Drury and Daniel Briere were co-captains for the Sabres. Having a legit top-two center combo was the reason for Buffalo's tank in 2014-15 and then GM Tim Murray's trade for O'Reilly at the 2015 NHL Draft.
Yesterday afternoon Eichel was on the ice and everything was back to normal as the team faced off against the Chicago Blackhawks. He dazzled with his speed and stickwork, which is something that O'Reilly mentioned after the game. O'Reilly scored a gritty goal on the powerplay by muscling in an Eichel rebound that was sitting in the blue paint and he was also forced a turnover with Buffalo ahead 4-3 and fed Sam Reinhart for the easy empty-netter.
There's an old saying, "check your egos in at the door," which is a simple way of saying that the team comes first. If the team wants one player or the other as their captain, or even if they want to go the co-captain route, something that this blogger doesn't mind at all, then let it be. But it needs to be done this off season.
Forward Evan Rodrigues has been back in the lineup for two games and Housley has used him as a third-line center. Rodrigues is best known for riding shotgun on Eichel's wing at Boston University but the organization had been using him a lot at center throughout most of his time in Rochester and Buffalo. Housley had used him on the wing with thoughts of keeping him there, but it sure looks like Rodrigues could be a No. 3 center behind Eichel and O'Reilly.
In his last four games at center, two games each on either side if his injury, Rodrigues has five points (2+3) playing with the likes of Kyle Okposo, Scott Wilson, Jason Pominville, Benoit Pouliot, Zemgus Girgensons and Nicolas Baptiste.
Speaking of Baptiste, the 22 yr.old rookie showed some nice stickwork yesterday when he connected on two tip-ins for his third an fourth goals of the season.
Baptiste was selected with the 69th pick in the 2013 NHL Draft and one of the first things that Murray did after taking over as Buffalo's GM in January 2014 was to sign him to his three-year entry-level deal. That deal will finish at season's end and with him being out of waiver exemptions next season, he'll either be with the Sabres or somewhere else.
At 6'1" 205 lbs., Baptiste has NHL size and he also has plenty of speed to play at today's fast pace. What has gone mostly unnoticed while he's been paying his dues at the AHL level for the last three seasons, is his hands. Baptiste has an array of shots he uses to score from anywhere on the ice and yesterday he showed deft hand-eye coordination on those two tips.
What he hasn't been able to figure out at the NHL level, at least on a consistent basis, is the how and where he'll be able to score with those skills.
Although he shouldn't be christened as the next top-six winger on Buffalo, Baptiste seems to be progressing well while getting consistent minutes. With the Amerks virtually a lock for the playoffs and the Sabres being able to take a good long look at some of their prospects with an eye towards next season, Baptiste is one of those players who can almost secure a spot in the top-nine if he continues with good habits and develops some consistency.
The Minnesota Golden Gophers only needed one of six NCAA D-1 teams to win their title game to make the tournament. Unfortunately for the college, "victories by Boston University (Hockey East), Princeton (ECAC), Air Force (Atlantic Hockey), Michigan Tech (WCHA), Denver (NCHC) and Notre Dame (Big Ten) for automatic spots dropped the Gophers to No. 13," according to Randy Johnson of the Star Tribune.
What's bad for the college may be good for the Buffalo Sabres and/or Rochester Americans.
The Sabres selected center Casey Mittelstadt with the eighth-overall pick in last year's draft and the Minnesota freshman had a very solid campaign for the Gophers with 30 points (11+19) in 34 games. In addition to that success, Mittelstadt was also named MVP of this year's World Junior Championship which was held in Buffalo.
The World Juniors was particularly intriguing as the 19 yr. old scored four goals and added seven assists for the bronze medal winning USA team while on his way to MVP honors, but what might really have stood out was his work in adverse conditions during the outdoor game against rival Team Canada.
With the US down 3-1 in the third period and Mittelstadt already with a primary assist, the Minnesota native used deft work in snow to set up two more goals as Team USA tied the game before winning it in the shootout. Here are the highlights via USA HOCKEY:
There's a lot of discontent in Minnesota as the Gophers were left out of the tournament. According to Johnson's article, "the future of coach Don Lucia will be a hot topic. The Gophers have missed the NCAA tournament in two of the past three years and haven't won an NCAA game since the 2014 national semifinals. Lucia has one year left on his contract, and athletic director Mark Coyle last week wouldn't say whether Lucia would be back."
A turnover in the coaching staff could have an adverse affect on Mittlestadt's future at Minnesota and could be what puts him in the NHL as soon as this season.
It's something to keep an eye on and for Sabres fans, something definitely to look forward to.