Thursday, August 30, 2018

Building the 2018-19 Buffalo Sabres roster--LHD, Marco Scandella

Published by, 8-29-2013

Marco Scandella
28 yrs. old
6'3" 208 lbs.
2008, 2nd round (55th-overall, MIN)
Acquired in a trade with Minnesota June 30, 2017

Career Stats:  455 games |  32 goals |  79 assists |  111 points | -25

When defenseman Marco Scandella landed in Buffalo he was leaving a stable Minnesota Wild team that had been to the playoffs five consecutive seasons. Scandella had played in a top-four role for the Wild and despite seeing decreased ice time (and a decrease in production) in 2016-17 under a new head coach, when it came to the playoffs he carried a heavy load. His ice-time went from 20:42 during the regular season to just under 23 minutes in the playoffs, which was second only to Ryan Suter.

New Sabres GM Jason Botterill, anxious to upgrade a defense that was one of the worst in the league, brought in the 27 yr. old as a d-partner for Rasmus Ristolainen and Scandella entered the season with a new role and plenty of excitement. After his first practice with the club Scandella was all smiles calling the first day "great day" and saying that it's "exciting with a young, talented group, a new coach and we're ready to Rock 'n Roll right now."

Unfortunately that upbeat outlook soon got hammered into the ice leaving Scandella and the Sabres singing the blues.

To say it was a rude awakening for Buffalo and new head coach Phil Housley would be an understatement as the honeymoon lasted all of three games as the Sabres got bludgeoned twice after playing a solid season opener. Through it all, however, Scandella was able to hold his own but it was quiet evident early on that the depth chart was out of whack a bit with a number of players playing in roles that were above their pay grade.

The struggles of the team weighed on Scandella as well with the 6'3" 208 lb. Montreal, Quebec native also having difficulties keeping up with the top-end talent he faced on a nightly basis. Scandella has a lot of great attributes which includes being an excellent skater for a man his size. He has a good shot, sees the ice well and doesn't mind the rough stuff. After watching him for a full season in Buffalo, it looks as if he was in the proper top-four regular season role in Minnesota with an uptick in responsibility during a more rugged post season.

When the Sabres won the draft lottery and the rights to select franchise defenseman Rasmus Dahlin, Scandella's future was pretty much sealed. Although Dahlin can easily play either side on the blueline, it looks as if he'll start out on the left side and from what we've gathered this off season, the coaching staff may shelter the 18 yr. old by giving him second-pairing minutes to start the season. In that scenario Scandella will eventually move back to his top-four role while also continuing to anchor the Sabres penalty kill. And that's the thing with Dahlin eventually taking over that No. 1 role, the rest of the defense can fall into place.

Scandella is a true pro. He doesn't say much off the ice but says a lot with how he approaches the game and how he plays it on the ice. He's got size and skill, can skate, defend and score a bit as well. And when you see him and Ristolainen hitting the HarborCenter ice as some of the earliest players to skate in preparation for the upcoming season, you see a quiet leadership that positively influences the youngins, which includes a superstar in the making in Dahlin. Buffalo is lucky to have him at this point in his career.

Building the 2018-19 Buffalo Sabres roster:

LW, Conor Sheary / C, Jack Eichel / RW, Sam Reinhart

LHD, Marco Scandella /

Building the 2018-19 Buffalo Sabres roster--RHD, Rasmus Ristolainen

Published by, 8-30-2018

Rasmus Ristolainen
23 yrs. old
6'4" 218 lbs.
2013, 8th-overall

Career Stats:  346 games |  31 goals |  120 assists | 151 points | -102

It's hard to believe that Buffalo Sabres defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen is 23 yrs. old and entering his fifth full NHL season. Wasn't it just yesterday that the Sabres selected him, and fellow "Twin Tower" Nikita Zadorov in the first round of the 2013 NHL Draft? Yes it does feel that way but alas, Ristolainen (selected eighth overall) is entering the prime of his career and has played a lot of hard minutes along the way.

After his first full season in Buffalo where he logged just over 20 minutes of ice-time per game, Ristolainen cracked the NHL's top-10 in ATOI with 25:17 in 2015-16 under Dan Bylsma and has seen his ice-time ramp up even more since. Despite both Bylsma and his replacement, Phil Housley, saying that they'd like to lower his minutes and have him at around 22 minutes/game, Ristolainen logged 26:28 minutes (fifth in the league) in Bylsma's final season as head coach while setting a career high with 26:10 ATOI (fourth) last season under Housley. Over the past three seasons Ristolainen has averaged 26:04 ranking him fourth in the league behind Erik Karlsson (Ott,) Ryan Suter (MIN) and Drew Doughty (LAK.)

That much ice-time is too much ice-time for him and it affected his overall game but neither coach had much of a choice considering the defense they had to work with. Thoughts of Ristolainen early in his career had him in the top-pairing on most teams in the league. After nearly 350 NHL games Ristolainen looks to be in the 2/3 range moving forward which isn't a bad thing for the Sabres as he's signed to a reasonable $5.4 million cap-hit over the next four seasons.

In defense of the Turku, Finland native, not a lot can be said for the d-partners Ristolainen has had over the years, especially early on when he saw plenty of time with Josh Gorges. Last year, however, was supposed to be different with the addition of Marco Scandella. Adding Scandella to the top-pairing turned out to be a reach and although he was a definitive upgrade over any d-man Ristolainen played with, the duo, like the rest of the team, struggled mightily.

As Ristolainen struggled, so came a lot of questions, especially because last season, for the first time in his career, he had more offensive zone starts (53%) than d-zone. By Christmas Ristolainen had yet to register a goal, had only nine assists and was a minus-nine. He looked out of touch on many occasions, had puck control problems and defensive lapses and there were some in the media proposing that he wasn't playing the system. Ristolainen was on the ice for five shorthanded goals against and 17 empty net goals against which reeked havoc on a plus/minus rating that was suffering to begin with. His -102 rating since 2013-14 is the worst in the league by eight points over Carolina's Justin Falk and is at the opposite end of the spectrum to league leader Brad Marchand who clocks in at a +105.

Having said all that, the addition of Rasmus Dahlin on the back end changes a lot of things for the team and for Ristolainen. Dahlin is an elite-skater and puck-mover who will eventually take over the No. 1 role on the team and he's expected to be one of the best defensemen in the league. If Housley likes the two Rasmuses together up top, it could send Ristolainen's numbers surging towards the positive and even if Dahlin plays the right side on the top pairing Ristolainen will be still be slotted in nicely as a very strong No. 3 on the team.

The Chicago Blackhawks Stanley Cup teams were anchored by a d-tandem of two-time Norris Trophy winner Duncan Keith and his sidekick Brent Seabrook and it's not too far-fetched to think that with less of a role, Ristolainen could be Buffalo's version of Seabrook to Dahlin's Keith.

That's a good thing and we will probably be seeing "The Rasmi" as Buffalo's top pairing sometime early in the season. However, it probably won't happen right off the bat as it's easy to see last year's tandem of Scandella and Ristolainen begin the year as Buffalo's top defensive pairing.

Building the 2018-19 Buffalo Sabres roster:

LW, Conor Sheary / C, Jack Eichel / RW, Sam Reinhart

LHD, Marco Scandella / RHD, Rasmus Ristolainen

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Building the 2018-19 Buffalo Sabres roster--RW, Sam Reinhart*

Published by, 8-28-2018

Sam Reinhart
22 yrs. old
6'1" 192 lbs.
2014, 2nd-overall

Career Stats:  249 games |  65 goals |  75 assists |  140 points |  -44

The asterisks besides forward Sam Reinhart's name is there because the restricted free agent and the Buffalo Sabres have yet to come to terms on a contract extension. Reinhart played the final year of his entry-level deal in 2017-78 and did so in a bi-polar manner scoring only 11 points (5+6) through the 2017 portion of the schedule (38 games) before turning it on with 20 goals and 19 assist through the final 44 games.

A Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde type season is could very well be the main reason the two sides have yet to come together on a deal. Then again the unsigned restricted free agent list right now has some big names on it, most notably Toronto Maple Leafs forward William Nylander who might be the best comparable for Reinhart. The 22 yr. old Nylander played on a playoff team with the Leafs last season and posted a stat-line of 20 goals and 40 assists in 81 games while Reinhart's totals were 25 goals and 25 assists also in 81 games on a last place team. However, Nylander had a plus-20 compared to Reinhart's minus-24 and over the course of his young NHL career the Leafs winger has posted 48 goals and 135 points in 185 games.

There is a huge difference in the players themselves, their style of play and the teams they've played for over their young careers, but a Nylander contract might set the tone for what Reinhart ultimately signs for.

It's strange to say this, especially since the Sabres are coming off of their third last place finish in five seasons, but the salary cap is an issue this season. Center Jack Eichel's $8 million cap-hit kicks in this season and despite moving on from Ryan O'Reilly and his $7.5 million AAV, the Sabres added both Patrick Berglund and Vladimir Sobotka from the O'Reilly trade to the St. Louis Blues at the cost of a $7.35 million cap-hit. In addition the cost of upgrading left wing added Jeff Skinner's $5.725 million and Conor Sheary's $3 million to this year's cap. As of now the Sabres are $6.5 million under the NHL's cap ceiling, according to CapFriendly.

No bid deal, right? Just sign Reinhart to a $5-6 million dollar deal and call it a day.

However, as The Athletic's John Vogl points out, complicating the cap for next season are possible max-bonuses for two players on the first year of their respective entry-level deals. If both Casey Mittelstad ($850K) and Rasmus Dahlin ($2.85M) reach their max performance bonuses it will add roughly $3.7 million to this year's cap. Any cap-overage this year is deducted from next year's cap.

The eventual Nylander contract and cap implications aside, we're still not sure exactly what we have in Reinhart. We know he has a high hockey IQ, displays deft stickwork and despite having average at best NHL speed he's shown that he ability keep up with a speedster like Eichel using his smarts. We also know that despite being drafted as center, Reinhart plays much better on the wing and also that much of his goal production has come on the powerplay. His 29 powerplay goals over the last three years were second only to O'Reilly's 31 on the team and Reinhart has the highest ration of powerplay goals to goals during that span. Evander Kane scored only eight of his 68 total goals on the powerplay.

Reinhart has proven durable thus far missing only six games in his NHL career, but he also was benched for an entire game in 2016 when former GM Tim Murray and former head coach Dan Bylsma sat him after supposedly being late for a team meeting. And we're also left to wonder what caused the switch to be turned on last season while also left to contemplate whether or not it will last.

Last year was a really weird year in that Reinhart, as mentioned, was invisible through the first 38 games but came on strong over the next 44 games leading up to his RFA status. A season like that also brought back memories of another winger, Drew Stafford, who put up a career-high 31 goals and 52 points in a contract year that landed him a rather hefty four-year deal. Stafford had a good follow up season but faded hard and fast before being traded in the final year of the deal.

Most in Sabreland are pretty confident that the two sides will come together, most likely before the season starts, and when it happens Reinhart should be back on Eichel's wing. The two second-overall picks displayed a lot of chemistry prior to the start of last season when new head coach Phil Housley decided he wanted Reinhart at center.  That was a huge blunder and when Reinhart was moved back to the wing and it lead to that stellar finish to the 2017-18 season for him.

If this contract dispute drags into the season, the Sabres are in pretty good shape on the right side. Kyle Okposo, who played well with NY Islanders center John Tavares, could start the season up top and there are a few young wingers who one would assume are chomping at the bit for the opportunity to play with Eichel. Tage Thompson came over in the O'Reilly deal and GM Jason Botterill promised him an opportunity in the top-six. Nicholas Baptiste and Justin Bailey have been plying their trade in Rochester and have the wheels to keep up with Eichel. And we could even throw 35 yr. old Jason Pominville into the mix as he had a robust start to last season playing in a top-six role.

There's no reason to think that Reinhart won't be signed prior to the season and hopefully before camp. If that comes to fruition, top-line right wing seems to be a role that has his name on it.

Building the 2018-19 Buffalo Sabres roster:

LW, Conor Sheary / C, Jack Eichel / Sam Reinhart

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Building the 2018-19 Buffalo Sabres roster--LW, Conor Sheary

Published by, 8-26-2018

LW--Conor Sheary
5'8" 175 lbs.
26 yrs. old
Undrafted Free Agent (2014, PIT)

184 games | 48 goals | 45 assists | 93 points | +25 

The easiest route here would have been to put recently acquired left-winger Jeff Skinner in this spot. If you subscribe to the theory of definitive 1-2-3-4 lines, then Skinner would make a lot of sense here as he's a much more proven talent than Conor Sheary. But there's a lot to be said for Sheary skating on the top line in Pittsburgh and how he might help formulate the top-six whilst skating alongside Buffalo's top center, Jack Eichel.

Sheary came out of UMASS-Amherst in April, 2014, had a two-game stint and an impressive playoff run of 11 points (6+5) in 15 games with Pittsburgh's AHL affiliate, the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins. He was signed to a minor league deal with the club that summer. In his first full season with the 'Baby Pens' the 5'8" 175 lb. Sheary had an impressive rookie campaign of 20 goals and 25 assists in 58 games and added 12 (5+7) points in eight playoff games for WBS which lead to a two-year entry-level, NHL deal.

In 2015-16 Sheary split the season between the two clubs, stuck with Pittsburgh for 44 games (seven goals, three assists) and was a bit of a revelation in the playoffs. The undrafted 23 yr. old proved he could skate with the big boys and contribute on the big stage with 10 points (4+6) in 23 games as the Pittsburgh won the 2016 Stanley Cup. Sheary followed that season up with an impressive campaign scoring 23 goals and adding 30 assists in 61 games while riding shotgun with one of the league's elite centers, and quite possibly the best player of his generation, Sidney Crosby.

Sheary entered last season with a new 3yr./$9 million deal but faltered a bit with only 30 points in 79 regular season games and was ineffective in the playoffs with only two assists in 12 games. Production like that coupled with a $3 million cap-hit on a team that needed cap-space led the Pens to deem Sheary expendable. Buffalo Sabres GM Jason Botterill, who was the 'Baby Pens' general manager when Sheary signed his first pro contract, sent a conditional fourth round pick to Pittsburgh for the winger plus reserve defenseman Matt Hunwick.

What Sheary was able to accomplish as an undrafted player that worked his way up was not lost on Botterill. "When people were saying he couldn't do it," said the GM to the gathered media after the trade, "he found a way to become an American Hockey League All-Star. Then he found a way to get to the National Hockey League and found a way to help Pittsburgh win Stanley Cups."

Botterill saw what Sheary had to offer first hand. He had watched Sheary play with Crosby and what he showed Botterill was that "[he] can play with one of our offensive centermen, finish off chances from them, but also get in on the forecheck, get pucks to our centermen." He also pointed out that Sheary could help Buffalo's woeful five-on-five scoring. "We were looking to improve our even-strength scoring and we had to try to get a little bit in scoring from our wingers," said Botterill. "He creates a lot of chances out there."

And there's the added bonus of playoff experience and of being in high-pressure situations. "He knows how to play in pressure situations against other teams' top defenders, top players," said Botterill. "We've talked a lot about here, bringing in players who have playoff experience. It's why we were interested in bringing in [Marco] Scandella and [Jason] Pominville last year. Bringing in both Hunwick and Conor, who have played in playoff games, is very key for our group."

Although at the time of the trade, which was before the Sabres traded for Skinner, Botterill said it wasn't a given that Sheary would be skating with Eichel but he did point out that he believed Sheary could be able to skate with any of Buffalo's centermen.

What it comes down to is fit and chemistry. Buffalo's top-two centers are Eichel and more than likely Casey Mittelstadt and in keeping with that projection, which wingers would pair up better with which center will be something to watch at training camp and into preseason. The fact that Sheary had played with, subjected himself to and succeeded along side a player of Crosby's stature might give an indication that he should be able to do the same with Eichel.

Which is why we've got him here.

Building the 2018-19 Buffalo Sabres roster:

LW, Conor Sheary / C, Jack Eichel

Sunday, August 26, 2018

Building the 2018-19 Buffalo Sabres roster--C, Jack Eichel

Published by, 8-25-2018

C--Jack Eichel
6'2" 206 lbs.
21 yrs. old
2015, 2nd-overall

Career Stats:  209 games |  73 goals |  104 assists |  177 points | -54

Jack Eichel signed the richest contract in Buffalo Sabres history when he put pen to paper on an 8yr./$80 million contract last October just two days before the start of the 2017-18 campaign. The price tag for Eichel, who was in the final year of his rookie deal, was pretty much set once fellow 2015 draft pick Connor McDavid (first-overall) signed his 8 yr./$100 million extension with the Edmonton Oilers. After an injury plagued first NHL season, McDavid proceeded to lead the league in scoring with consecutive seasons of 100 and 108 points, respectively, the last two years.

For as much as we've seen Eichel dazzle, and there have been plenty of moments, he's yet to put it all together for a full season despite being at or near the top in all scoring categories on the team. In his rookie campaign he lead the Sabres in goals (24) and was second in points (56) and assists (32) while playing in 81 games. Though he struggled with injuries the last two seasons, missing 21 games in 2016-17 and 15 games last season, he still managed to lead the team in points both seasons (57 and 64, respectively) and was top-two in goals (leading in one of those seasons.)

That he was at or near the top of the team in production with numbers that are above average but well behind the league leaders says quite a bit about him but also says a lot about the team. When placed beside what McDavid posted, Eichel's stats are rather underwhelming so why did the Sabres pay that much? McDavid setting the market had a lot to do with it, but Eichel is a top-line center and really is that good.

The underlying theme since the Chelmsford, Massachusetts native hit the ice in Buffalo has been discord as the team former GM Tim Murray built was a mess. The players Murray brought in were talented and could play a certain style but as a team there was little continuity. And for their part, the Sabres coaching staff wasn't able to reign in the rather large egos Murray assembled at the top of the food chain. Add that to a team with goaltending issues and little depth thanks to the scorched earth rebuild and you get a Sabres team that rose to the outskirts of mediocrity for a season before diving back to the bottom.

Through it all Eichel's talents were above anything that the Sabres had. He lead the team in cumulative production over his three years, lead them in all three scoring categories per 60 minutes and was the only player on the team that could drive possession and offense. His stickwork is impeccable, his shot is ridiculous and his vision elite.

However, he seemed to have his own maturity/ego issues to deal with. There were times he looked disinterested on the ice, looked as if he was floating and he didn't seem to handle adversity (like losing) very well. It was also reported that there was a rift between Eichel and the now departed Ryan O'Reilly and he was accused of being a coach-killer as he and Dan Bylsma reportedly didn't see eye to eye. Many called him a defacto general manager/owner, after both Bylsma and Murray were shown the door.

This really wasn't what the face of the franchise was supposed to look like and it would seem as if he's figured that out.

When Eichel was drafted many considered the Sabres to be his team. It wasn't over the last few seasons but with all the aforementioned now gone, this is Jack Eichel's team and many feel that they will sew the 'C' on his sweater this season. The Eichel we heard from at locker cleanout sounded much more mature than the one we'd been hearing over the last couple of years and he reflected on his time in Buffalo telling the gathered media, "It feels like yesterday I started here and to be three years into my career and yet to make the impact that I'd like is frustrating for sure."

It's frustrating for ownership and the fanbase as well. Time's a wastin'. There's been a three-year hiccup with this rebuild and with cost-controlled youth being a premium driver towards success in a salary-cap world, any lost time both he and the Sabres organization take to figure it out means a tighter window with which to make a run.

New general manager Jason Botterill has made a lot of changes in his 17 months on the job which includes finding wingers (Jeff Skinner, Conor Sheary) who can skate and score while benefitting from the 2018 draft lottery to land franchise (generational?) defenseman Rasmus Dahlin at the draft in June. He's added depth to the team and has more mobility on the blue line. Things are starting to shape up nicely for him and second-year head coach Phil Housley.

And at the top of it all is Eichel.

Through all the frustrations of the past three seasons, which included over displays of equipment-throwing antics, the fiery Eichel may have passed through threshold. At a workout this past week with other Sabres players he continued his more mature approach telling the gathered media, ''I've had a few years to learn about things and see some things that occur, and the right way to do things and the wrong way to do things. I do wear my heart on my sleeve, and I'm somebody who's very competitive. I like to win. This losing the last few years, I've never dealt with that in my life. And you kind of have to learn from it and figure out what you can do to change it.

''I think that's important, obviously, not reacting, body language, staying upbeat. I think that's part of it.

''Every day, if you come in here and work and put your head down, you do the right things, you're a good teammate, I think the results in the games will take care of themselves.''

That's what a leader does and what he'll need to do.

Eichel will have a ton of pressure on him this season which includes the weight of that $80 million contract kicking in. Fortunately for him there's more talent on the team now than at any point in the past three seasons. However, it still comes down to him as he's at the top of the food chain for the Sabres.

Building the 2018-19 Buffalo Sabres roster:

C-Jack Eichel

Saturday, August 25, 2018

Sabres find plenty of character, and a character, in Matej Pekar. Pt. 2

Published by, 8-23-2018

This is the second of a two-part profile on 2018 Sabres fourth round draft pick (94th-overall,) Matej Pekar.

Part 1 can be found by clicking here.

After listening to Muskegon Lumberjack coaches talk about forward Matej Pekar's unrelenting work ethic and style of play, one might get the impression that he's all work, no play and is a really dull young man. To the contrary, Pekar seems like he's enjoying life in America as a teenage hockey player both on and off the ice and it shines through during interviews.

At his post draft presser an extremely giddy and smiling Pekar told the gathered media "I probably sound a little bit stupid, but I'm so happy to be here I don't know what to say." After he got hammered with a hard check by first-overall pick Rasmus Dahlin at development camp, Pekar told the local press with a smile of almost disbelief, and maybe a touch of pride, that he never saw Dahlin hit someone so hard.

And during the three on three tournament Pekar played his dogged style against 2017 Sabres first rounder Casey Mittelstadt who didn't take kindly to it. With a gadfly grin he told the media, "that’s my shot to kind of piss him off, get in his head and try to win the game for the team. It’s way more fun when you see Casey getting pissed at you."

There's an honesty about Pekar in how he plays the game and, seemingly, how he goes about life. On the ice he knows who he is and get's at it. Off the ice he has a very engaging personality and a smile that says he knows what to take seriously and what not to. It's something that shone through at Sabres Development Camp and turned him into a fan favorite. Sure, on the ice he oozes character, loves to play the game hard, and getting under an opponent's skin brings a broad smile to his face. That engaging smile may have been a product of a job well done and/or is the product of passing through difficult thresholds at a young age where he tasted failure and worked hard to overcome them.

Then again, maybe his father Joseph Pekar has something to do with his son's sunny disposition.

Make no mistake, Pekar got his work ethic from his father. "That's how he raised me. He always pushed me to work hard," he said. But when I asked him if he got his sense of humor from his father he was quick to reply, "100%."

At the draft presser Pekar told the story of the Sabres meeting Joseph while he was wearing his "funny Detroit Red Wings pants." Those "funny pants" were actually pajama bottoms that he'd bought while visiting his son. "He was here for a visit a year ago," Pekar told me, "and we saw them in some shop and he said, 'I have to buy them. For five bucks. I'm gonna buy them.'

"He used to wear them everywhere including business meetings," said Pekar chuckling the entire time he told the story and added that after Buffalo drafted him, Joseph's bosses said that they'd get him some Sabres towels.

"He's like that all the time," said Pekar. "People that know him well expect things like that from him."

Joseph should take pride in knowing that the son he raised worked hard at his game and ended up being selected in the NHL Draft while never losing that magnetic personality. It also had to be a very proud moment to have a connection to former Sabre and Czech legend, Dominik Hasek, who's hometown is only about 85 miles from them. Pekar lit up when I asked if he'd ever watched old videos of Hasek at the 1998 Nagano Olympics where the future Hall of Famer lead the Czech Republic to gold.

"Not only do I watch it, I've seen it a lot of times," said Pekar and even noted the trade of Hasek from the Chicago Blackhawks to Buffalo. He's also very familiar with another Czech legend, Jaromir Jagr and has followed him closely as well even pointing out, with a laugh, that Jagr, "liked to stick his butt out just to protect the puck."

With Pekar it's not so much that what he says, but it's how he says it. There's joy and humor for him in those comedic moments and it comes through (even over the phone) whether he's talking about his dad's "funny pants" or how Jagr "stuck his butt out."

When I talked to him on a Sunday, it was his day to be away from hockey and I asked him what he was going to do. Pekar said he was going to play a pickup game of basketball with his friends "to just get rest," before stopping for a second and chuckling a bit at the term he just used. After that he said maybe he and his friends would go to the movies. Before I could ask what movie he might see or what kind of movies he liked, he said, "we don't go there for the movie, we just go there for the popcorn" and laughed.

The sheer joy of indulging in that slice of Americana really came through when he said "the last time we went there I ate a bucket [of popcorn] and fell asleep half-way through the movie" causing an eruption of laughter on both ends of the phone line.

Pekar's zest for life and positivity will be tested again this season as there's a lot of work ahead of him. The 18 yr old left winger will be venturing into new territory for Muskegon as the Lumberjacks will be looking at him as a scorer and to him for leadership. He knows that the coaching staff will put him in a position to score, but that "he has to score the goals" and he also said he's honored to be considered a leader, likes to be a leader and feels that he can lead both on and off the ice.

Pekar certainly has the on-ice character and work-ethic to succeed and the more he and the team succeed, the more his personality will blossom. The Sabres certainly could use players with on-ice attributes like that while the Buffalo media and fan base could use an influx of positivity and humor. It's a good combination and hopefully we'll see Pekar talking about him pissing off star NHL players and/or scoring goals in post-game interviews for the Sabres somewhere down the road.

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Sabres find plenty of character, and a character, in Matej Pekar. Pt. 1

Published by 8-21-2018

When Buffalo Sabres owner Terry Pegula talked about "adding discipline, structure, communication and character" to the organization after firing general manager Tim Murray in 2017, he emphasized "we have to have character." Jason Botterill, the man he hired to replace Murray, is also a firm believer in character as a foundational building block. Prior to his first draft as a GM, Botterill talked with the hosts of The Instigators on his approach to selecting players that particular word came up numerous times.

"Let's be honest," he told the hosts back in 2017, "there's an element of luck (to the draft) but there also needs to be a structure to it. That's why it's so key, finding certain elements in the character aspect. You're picking a player when they're 17 or 18 yrs. old, they're not a finished product. There's much for them to do. Their drive off the ice, their willingness to improve their game in the weight room or on the ice. These are key attributes.

"You're not going to be perfect," he continued, "maybe they're not always going to be the most high-end guys, but you've got to find those character guys who are going to be willing to put the work in."

It took Botterill a year to get his scouting staff in place and 2018 looks to be a banner draft, especially when you have a defenseman like Rasmus Dahlin, who combines high-end skill and high character, at the top. Fourth round pick Matej (pronounced, meh-tay) Pekar from the Muskegon Lumberjacks of the USHL may not have the high-end skills of a Dahlin, but the 94th-overall selection has that character Botterill was looking for. And what we've come to find out since his selection, he's also a bit of a character as well.

At his post-draft presser, Botterill said of Pekar, "What we like about him is his tenacity, his ability to skate, his ability to get on the forecheck.

"Our guys talked about his style of play, relentless on the forecheck, getting after it," continued Botterill to the gathered media. "He's underdeveloped from a physical standpoint but everything we've heard from behind the scenes is that he's working very hard at that and that will continue to develop over the next little bit."

New Lumberjacks head coach Mike Hamilton was "behind the scenes" last year as an assistant in Muskegon and when I talked to him last week her relayed the same thing to me about Pekar via a phone conversation.  He called the 18 yr. old left-winger a "meat and potatoes guy, with no ego to him who's going to show up to work every day."

Hamilton was just promoted to head coach after being a part-time assistant coach with the Lumberjacks for the last five years. A native of Grosse Pointe Farms, Michigan just north of Detroit, Hamilton spent years coaching youth hockey with the HoneyBaked youth hockey program on the east side of the state and also played for Minnesota State University. Hamilton's connections with the Lumberjacks run deep. His son Trevor, who just signed with the Grand Rapids Griffins of the American Hockey League, also played at Muskegon and Hamilton had played junior hockey under John LaFontaine, the coach he replaced. He was involved with Dan Israel's purchase of the team.

LaFontaine had done some nice work in Muskegon coaching them to a 70-43-7 mark over his two seasons there which included setting a franchise record for most points in a season in 2016-17. Andrei Svechnikov, the second-overall pick in the 2018 NHL Draft, lead that record setting team with 29 goals and 58 points in 48 games while on his way to being named USHL rookie of the year. LaFontaine's team added another ROY honor the following season when Pekar was named the league's top rookie. Unfortunately, Muskegon was ousted in the first round in both of those seasons and LaFontaine was replaced by Hamilton.

Hamilton had nothing but high praise for LaFontaine, telling me that his predecessor "may have sacrificed some wins for [player] development, but he did his players great things by developing them and teaching them the right way to play the game." A total of five Lumberjacks were taken at the 2018 NHL Draft lead by Svechinkov, who played for Barrie of the OHL last season. Pekar was joined by team mates Jachym Kondelik (111th, NSH,)  Mikael Hakkarainen (139th, CHI) and Emilio Pettersen (167th, CGY.)

Both Hamilton and LaFontaine were effusive in their praise of Pekar's work ethic and willingness to do whatever it took for team success. LaFontaine called him "the ultimate team player" with "a passion and work ethic that's above the charts." Hamilton said, "when there was ice, he was always first on the ice, last off it on a daily basis" and that Pekar "works and pushes and wants more and wants to get better. Wanting more instruction, wanting more video, wanting more analysis" calling him a "phenomenal young man" and adding that, "when people would call, it was almost as if we were giving them a line of B.S. because there's not a lot of bad things to say about Matej."

The coaches pointed to Pekar's difficult journey from the Czech Republic to NHL Draft as a driving force to his overall disposition. Pekar came to North America at the age of 14, played travel hockey with Tier-2 level Jimmy Johns jumped up the U-16 Tier-1 Elite Hockey League with the Oakland Jr. Grizzlies before getting drafted by the Chicago Steele in the third round (46th) of the USHL Draft. After not making the team out of camp, Pekar was traded to the Lumberjacks for Cole Kodsi who was a 16th round pick of the Lumberjacks.

"I didn't even make the 30-man roster (in Chicago,)" Pekar told me. "Fortunately they traded me to Muskegon which was even better for me."

LaFontaine pointed to Pekar and his hockey journey as someone who's "appreciative of what he's got," one who "stays humble, stays working, maybe because he didn't have everything handed to him and seemed to appreciate every step of the way."

When Pekar joined LaFontaine and the Lumberjacks he didn't know what to expect. "I was super nervous because I didn't make the Chicago team," he said. "I just tried to work hard and play the way I could play and try to prove myself to the coaches."

Pekar did make the team and started out at left wing on the second and third lines during exhibition games and played the first game of the season on the third line. Prior to the second game he got the opportunity to skate with the top line because of some lobbying on the part of a couple team mates. "The guys told me that Jachym (Kondelik) asked the coach if he could try putting two Czechs together to see how it works," he said.

"I would say two team mates," recalled LaFontaine. "At the time on our first line was a fellow countryman (Kondelik,) he was in his second year for us and our leading scorer Anthony Del Gaizo. They played together a week or two and they asked if they could try Matej on the line.

"Once we moved [Pekar] there, he never left the top line."

Pekar willfully and gratefully did a lot of the dirty work on that line going into the corners and fishing out the puck despite being a lengthy, skinny, somewhat scrawny kid who got pushed off the puck a lot. At least early on. But he was never afraid nor discouraged. According to LaFontaine said Pekar worked at it and figured out how play in those tight areas. That maneuvering lead to 40 assists which was tops amongst rookies and third in the league while his linemate Del Gaizo lead the league with 40 goals.

"He was a surprise for our whole staff last year in regards to how many points he really did put up ," said Hamilton of Pekar. "We knew he was a good player, but on a team that was that deep in high-end talent, we were absolutely surprised with a rookie coming in and putting up as many points as he did."

Pekar finished the season with 54 points which tied him amongst rookies with projected 2019 top overall pick, Jack Hughes.

After playing set-up man for the first 29 games of the season with 20 assists and only five goals, Pekar began to gain more confidence shooting and scoring while also continuing to rack up assists. He upped his goal-total to nine in the last 27 games of the season and could have had more according to the coaches saying he was unselfish to the point where he'd pass up an opportunity of his own to set up a team mate. Maybe passing up a little too many.

"During the middle of the season he was passing up too many opportunities to score himself," said LaFontaine. "He was playing with older players and he just wanted to please them. They got on his case and as coaches we told him it's time to be a little more selfish and he started putting the puck in the net which was great to see."

When asked if it was difficult for Pekar to make that transition into more of a scorer, LaFontaine said that it took a while for him to build up confidence. According to the coach, Pekar knew he was passing up shots, he just didn't have any confidence at all in his shooting ability but he worked at it. "He didn't want to let his linemates down," said the LaFontaine, "so like he's accustomed to doing, he put extra time in the weaknesses of his game, which was finishing, and by the end of the year it began to turn into a strength."

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

A look back at the 2017-18 Buffalo Sabres season--April

Published by, 8-19-2018

The Buffalo Sabres finished off the month of March with an impressive 7-4 win over the Nashville Predators but perhaps they thought the season was over. As the calendar turned to April only four games remained in a season that had started bad and never got much better and they ended the season on a four-game losing streak.

By game 79 the Sabres were at the bottom of the league three points behind the Ottawa Senators and the only question remained was, who would finish last. After opening the month with a 5-2 loss at Toronto, Buffalo headed home to face the Senators in a battle for the basement. The Sabres proceeded to lose that one 4-2 and their fate was sealed. For the third time in five seasons the Buffalo Sabres would finish in last place although this one, unlike the other two, wasn't choreographed.

General Manager Jason Botterill wasn't all that happy with the results either. Throughout the season there were signs of frustration and at a Saturday matinee in February against the Los Angeles Kings he took those frustrations out on a taco bar at KeyBank Center. He was seething at the end of season presser as the mess he had on his hands was much worse than he'd anticipated.

The biggest thing for him was trying to change a losing culture. One of the leaders of his Sabres last year was center Ryan O'Reilly who confessed at locker cleanout day that he "lost his love for the game multiple times" during the season and that he felt the team was "stuck in this mindset of being OK with losing."

At his end of season presser Botterill just laid it out to the gathered media. "Right now we have a losing culture," he said. "We haven't won here and it's up to [head coach] Phil [Housley] and I to change that."

One of the biggest problems with perpetual losing is the development of younger player and Botterill used Casey Mittelstadt as an example. The 19 yr. old first round pick (2017, eighth-overall) had just signed with the Sabres out of the University of Minnesota and acquitted himself quite well in the six games he played for Buffalo. Mittelstadt scored his first NHL goal and added four assists but it was the culture around him that concerned Botterill.

"Everyone talks about NHL experience, how valuable NHL experience is," he said at the presser. "But it goes both ways. It was great that Casey Mittelstadt got his first National Hockey League goal. That's a positive experience. But, off the top of my head, I think he lost five out of six games since he was up here. There are things about NHL experience that he has to change and make sure that he doesn't fall into that trap."

That trap was an unforeseen season that somewhat rivaled the tank years. Some numbers:

NHL finish/points (League-leader/points)

--2017-18: 31st/62...(NSH/117)
--2014-15: 30th/54...(NYR/113)
--2013-14: 30th/52...(BOS/117)

Goals for

--2017-18: 2.41 (31st)...(TBL, 3.54)
--2014-15: 1.87 (30th)...(TBL, 3.16)
--2013-14: 1.83 (30th)...(ANA, 3.21)


--2017-18: 3.39 (29th)...(LAK, 2.46)
--2014-15: 3.28 (29th)...(MTL, 2.24)
--2013-14: 2.96 (25th)...(LAK, 2.05)

Goal Differential

--2017-18: -81 (31st)...(TBL, +60)
--2014-15 -113 (30th)...(NYR, +60)
--2013-14: -91 (30th)...(BOS, +84)

Yes, it was ugly, but as we saw with Mittelstadt and the series of events that lead him to signing in Buffalo, there was light at the end of the tunnel. That light got a lot brighter on April 28, 2018.

Although Botterill never came out and said who he was going to pick with the No. 1 selection of the 2018 NHL Draft, there was no doubt that Swedish defenseman Rasmus Dahlin would be the choice.

At the end of the day, an incredibly dreadful season produced the best odds to win the lottery and after missing out on the first overall selection two times prior the Sabres got to the top. Botterill left the season with a sour taste in his mouth but by the end of the month had a lot to look forward to as his young core was getting stronger with Mittelstadt and Dahlin joining second-overall picks Jack Eichel (2015) and Sam Reinhart (2014) plus defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen (2013, eighth) as the future of the team.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

A look back at the 2017-18 Buffalo Sabres season--March

Published by, 8-17-2018

With the season gone, the Buffalo Sabres ambled into the month of March without their top left-winger, Evander Kane, and their top center, Jack Eichel. They were coming off of their best month of the season (6-6-2) and had played some pretty good games in the process. Buffalo took down the top two teams in the division, Tampa and Boston, two times each in February and that trend continued in March as they played some of their best game against some of the best teams in the league. They beat the Atlantic division's third place team, the Toronto Maple Leafs, twice and also came away with an impressive 7-4 win against the Predators in coach Phil Housley's return to Nashville.

Those three wins represented 60% of their five-win total for the month and their downward spiral continued as they went 5-8-1 in March which included a dreadful 1-4-1 six-game homestand which would drop them to the bottom of the league. Buffalo had an overall 2-6-1 record at KeyBank Center and other than their mini Stanley Cups against teams like the Leafs and Preds, there really wasn't much for the fans to get excited about. Even Eichel's return was met with cynicism as fans wanted to see him protected by having him shut down for the rest of the season.

Eichel told the media (via Bill Hoppe of the Olean Times) that's not how he rolls:

"It’s a pretty simple answer, to be honest with you, I’m playing because I’m a hockey player. It’s kind of ridiculous for somebody to think we’re out of the playoffs and we don’t have an opportunity to really do anything with our season that I would just pack my year in. It’s not who I am as a person, it’s not who I’ve ever been, it’s not who I am as a hockey player.

“At the end of the day, I love to play hockey. Whether we’re in first place or last place in the league, it doesn’t matter to me. I like to put my equipment on, go out there and play hockey. That’s why I’m playing. I love to play and I have a lot of fun doing it. It’s what I look most forward to in my day. There’s not really quite a feeling like it, so I enjoy it every day.

“I’m a competitor, I want to be out there competing. I want to play, so that’s why I’m playing. There should be a lot more questions asked if I decided I did want to pack it in, end my season."

While fans were debating the Eichel injury and beginning to dream about landing a franchise defenseman in Rasmus Dahlin at the draft, a series of events with huge ramifications was beginning to unfold.

The Minnesota Golden Gophers were on the precipice of making the NCAA tournament and needed one of six teams to lose in order to get into the post season. All six won meaning that their season was done in the middle of March leaving freshman center, and 2017 Sabres first round pick (eighth-overall) Casey Mittelstadt with a decision to make on his future.

Mittelstadt had an excellent season with 11 goals and 30 points in 34 games and showed signs of being ready for the NHL. He also wowed at the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championships which were held in Buffalo. His 11 points (4+7,) which included primary assists on all three USA goals in their shootout win over Team Canada at New Era Field, helped lead Team USA to a bronze medal and earned him Tournament MVP honors.

With Minnesota missing the post season and question marks surrounding the coaching staff, Mittelstadt decided to turn pro and he suited up for his first game as a Buffalo Sabre at home against the Detroit Red Wings on March 29. Mittelstadt would earn his first NHL point as he won a draw in the Wings zone and Evan Rodrigues would snap a shot home from the slot.

Mittelstadt would get points in five of the six games he played in, including his first NHL goal, and looked good in the process. The 6'1" 201 lb. center displayed deft stick work, solid skating and the ability to keep up with the speed of the NHL game. He was ready for full time NHL duty and because of it, the Sabres were able to trade No. 2 center Ryan O'Reilly in the off season to make room for him. Although there were other factors involved in the decision to trade O'Reilly and they did get some protection when they landed veteran center Patrick Berglund in the trade, the Sabres liked what they saw in Mittelstadt's six-game debut to the point where they felt the could make the move to youth now instead of later.

It was a long, cold season, just like the winter, and by the end of March most couldn't wait for it to be over. The Sabres were at the bottom of the standings, were last in goals/game (2.38,) last in goals against (3.31) and their -73 goal differential wasn't that far removed from the tank years.

Individually both O'Reilly and Sam Reinhart picked up the slack in Eichel's absence with Reinhart continuing his production surge that began with the Winter Classic on New Year's Day. Reinhart, who was downright awful in the 2017 portion of the season, had 14 points (9+4) in 14 games during March (including a hat trick) and matched his career highs in goals and points with four games still remaining.

There was light at the end of the tunnel as Mittelstadt was just the beginning of some good fortune rolling Buffalo's way. Not only would April mean the end of the season, but it also meant the NHL Draft Lottery and a shot at landing the first pick to select Dahlin.

For Buffalo's March team stats click here, for their individual stats leaders for the month click here.

For my March archive, click here.

Friday, August 17, 2018

A look back at the 2017-18 Buffalo Sabres season--February

Published by, 8-15-2018

For the short time he was in Buffalo, left winger Evander Kane created a lot of controversy, and he was the center of the 2018 NHL Trade Deadline for the Sabres. Kane came over to Buffalo in a trade with the Winnipeg Jets on February11, 2015 and even the circumstances surrounding the timing of his trade to the Sabres was circumspect.

Kane was embroiled in controversy in Winnipeg before the trade. Incidents showing a deep locker room division put him on the block and it was an opportunity for then GM Tim Murray to get a player that fit what he wanted to do in Buffalo's rebuild. Bonus points came when Kane elected to have surgery and would be out for the remainder of the 2014-15 season and it would further Buffalo's drive to the bottom of the league to land one of Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel at the 2015 NHL Draft.

The Sabres did finish in last place that season and because of the lottery ended up selecting Eichel with the second-overall pick.

As for Kane his subsequent return to the ice in 2015-16 was greeted with optimism, but his off-ice antics made life extremely different for Buffalo's front office. An accusation of sexual misconduct in December, 2015 and oversleeping after hanging with NBA All-Stars in Toronto got him in hot water but it was nothing compared to the black eye he gave the organization as the city of Buffalo was hosting the 2016 draft. He faced charges after a late-night incident in a bar and although the charges were dismissed, he had to keep his nose clean for six months.

With that adjudication, Kane was forced to behave himself outside the rink, or at least remain free and clear of potential situations, and he began putting up impressive numbers more indicative of the talent he had. However, the damage had been done to the organization and he would be on his way out at the 2018 trade deadline.

Kane was in the final year of his contract in 2018 and despite playing his best hockey in Buffalo for more than a calendar year it was the worst kept secret that he was on the block. Even he knew it was only a matter of time as shown in his stats. Kane had a first-half stat-line of 15 goals and 34 points through 38 games through the 2017 portion of the schedule but when the calendar year turned to 2018, his numbers plummeted to only five goals and one assist before being traded to the San Jose Sharks on February 26 trade deadline.

He would finish the season with nine goals and 14 points in 17 games for the Sharks.

The return GM Jason Botterill got for Kane in the trade was suspect amongst the Buffalo faithful but it was all the market would bear for talented player with a troubled past. In hindsight, Botterill did well as the conditions were met for the Sharks to give up their 2019 first-round pick (lottery protected) with Buffalo also receiving a conditional 2020 fourth rounder and forward prospect Danny O'Regan. The Sharks were the only team to come in with a serious offer for Kane at the deadline.

No other Buffalo Sabres player was moved that day, which isn't surprising considering none of their lower-half players on expiring contracts were that desirable. Which wasn't that surprising. Buffalo was in last place with 51 points on a 20-33-11 record. As of March 1 they were last in the league in goals-for (2.39,) 26th in goals-against (3.22,) and were dead lasts in five-on-five goals scored. The other teams were not interested in what Buffalo had to offer at the trade deadline.

Surprisingly, however, the Sabres had their best month of the season in February and played some of their best hockey against some of the best teams in their division. Buffalo went 6-6-2 for the month with two wins against the conference-leading Tampa Bay Lightning and two wins against the Boston Bruins who were second in the conference as of March 1. The Sabres not only outscored them by a 15-7 margin in taking all four meetings, but the looked great in the process.

Yet the Sabres still had their dog games, most notably at home against the LA Kings in a matinee. "What we saw on display Saturday afternoon is unacceptable," I wrote the following day. "It was a piss-poor performance on any normal game day much less during a promotion called Kid's Day, where the future fans of the Blue and Gold come together to watch their hometown heroes. What those in attendance on Saturday witnessed was the Sabres going through the motions for 40 minutes against the Los Angeles Kings, what they heard was a reported "loud thud" coming from where GM Jason Botterill sits during games and they responded with a chorus of boos as the Sabres left the ice down 4-0 after the second period."

It was something they'd been doing all season. "It was the fourth such Kid's Day promotion and the third clunker this group delivered. Buffalo is 0-4-0 during those games and have been outscored by a combined 20-7. In four losses during Kid's Day (out of 42 total losses when you add in OT/SO,) that minus-13 makes up nearly 25% of their league-worst minus-54 goal differential."

This is not how you cultivate future fans and rest assured it's something that stuck in Botterill's craw the remainder of the season.

It also should be noted that Eichel went down with a high-ankle sprain on February 10, the second time he's missed a chunk of a season with an ankle injury. He would return to the ice March 17. Buffalo's record with him in the lineup was 6-7-2.

For Buffalo's February team stats click here, and for their individual stats leaders for the month click here.

For my February archive click here.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

A look back at the 2017-18 Buffalo Sabres season--January

Published by, 8-11-2018

January 1 is the start of a new year and universally represents the opportunity for a fresh start--new year, new outlook, new direction. If ever there was a case of a Buffalo player taking that to heart it was Sabres forward Sam Reinhart.

Reinhart, the second-overall pick in the 2014 NHL Draft, was downright abysmal in the 2017 portion of the season. He scored only 11 points (6g+5a) in 38 games and suffered two double-digit goal-less streaks, one of 10 games and the other 16 games which started in late November and lasted throughout the entire month of December. If anyone was in desperate need of a fresh start after laying a trail of zeros through much of the first half, it was him.

"I took a step back and obviously I wasn't happy with the way anything was going," said the 22 yr. old at locker cleanout as he began talking about his metamorphosis.

In the final 44 games of the season, Reinhart was on fire scoring 22 goals and adding 19 assists. Although he said confidence had something to do with it he elaborated on his transformation as he continued talking to the gathered media."I said to myself, 'I'm just going to play my game and not, you know...'" That's where he trailed off looking for the appropriate words leaving one to wonder if he was just about ready to maybe talk about the way he was being used and/or game-planning.

"You know I think it's more important for me to play my game," he continued. "It's more beneficial to me and the team for me to play my game and however that fits into the know I think I just..."

Once again he trailed of looking for the appropriate words. "I don't want to say I said, 'screw it' but umm...I think it was important for me to get back to what I did best in the past and I think I was able to find a way to [figure out] how it fits into a team game and hopefully can start with that next year."

There is a lot going on in those words, especially when you take into consideration that the Sabres had managed only a 10-20-8 record through the first half of the season and there seemed to be  dissension and/or apathy rolling through the locker room of first-year head coach Phil Housley. Was Reinhart sincere in that his Saul to Paul transformation was a matter of taking his game into his own hands while fitting it into the system? Or did he say 'Screw it' to the game plan in a last gasp of self-preservation? After all, he was in the final year of his entry-level deal and if he continued on that 2017 pace, he'd be behind the eight-ball in negotiations.

Whatever the reason, Reinhart found his game.

The new year for the Sabres began with the 'Bright Lights/Big City' matchup against the NY Rangers on New Years Day. It was the 10th anniversary of the first Winter Classic which was held in Buffalo. On a sunny but very cold day the Sabres entered the second period down 2-0 but Reinhart found himself at home as he pounced on a rebound in the crease during a Sabres powerplay to make it 2-1.

Defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen would tie the score early in the third but the Rangers would score mid-way through overtime on the powerplay for the 3-2 win.

Buffalo looked real solid in that game but it was back to their old ways as they dropped the next four in a row by a combined 21-10 score which included two pitiful performances at the Minnesota Wild (7-1) and at home vs. the Winnipeg Jets (7-4.)

After the Jets loss, frustrations began bubbling to the surface and spilling onto the ice. Housley, who'd been the nurturing mother goose to his gosling team called them out for what he called the "is our lack of respect and urgency playing defense," in his post-game presser as his players seemed to be more focused upon their individual numbers.

And at practice the next day, winger Evander Kane and defenseman Justin Falk got in a heated tête-à-tête. In an intense practice that saw Kane check defenseman Zach Bogosian into the boards hard, injuring him in the process, Falk was apparently working Kane over a little too hard in front of the net. Kane took issue with that and they had to be separated with Falk calling Kane "selfish" while using some flowery cuss words for accent.

Buffalo would go on to win the next game at home against Columbus, lose the next two, then sweep their western Canada road trip in grand fashion with back-to-back shutouts. The 5-0 win against the Edmonton Oilers and 4-0 win at Vancouver vs. the Canucks in the last two games of the swing were impressive, too bad most of Western New York hockey fans had lost interest and weren't awake when the final buzzers sounded after midnight.

Buffalo closed January with a 3-1 loss at home vs. New Jersey and finished the month 4-7-1 and a particularly lousy 1-3-1 record at home.

With the low-lights many and the highlights few the Sabres did, however, barrel towards to the trade deadline with some positives--the western Canada swing, Reinhart and Ristolainen's resurgence, Jack Eichel the All-Star, and some solid play from the future in defenseman Brendan Guhle and goalie Linus Ullmark. In addition, 2017 first round pick, Casey Mittelstadt shined at the World Junior Championship held in Buffalo. The eighth-overall pick was voted Most Valuable Player of the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship as he lead Team USA to a bronze medal and tied for the tournament high with 11 points (4+7) in seven games.

Also in that tournament was Team Sweden's Rasmus Dahlin who was named top defenseman of the tournament.

Out of the ashes...

For Buffalo's January team stats, click here and for their individual stats leaders, click here.

For my January archive, click here.

Sam Reinhart's full interview at locker cleanout, 2018, via

Saturday, August 11, 2018

A look back at the 2017-18 Buffalo Sabres season--November

Published by, 8-7-2018

It's been said that you can tell what type of team you have at the end of November and for the 2017-18 edition of the Buffalo Sabres, it wasn't a very good one.

The Sabres finished the month of November having won only once in 10 games (1-7-2) while being outscored 31-17 in the process and ended a 3-8-2 month by being shut out in back-to-back contests (at MTL, vs. TBL.)

Rookie head coach Phil Housley had a boatload of troubles on his hands, much of it because of the limited talent he had to work. However, some of his troubles, most notably an inept powerplay, were products of own his design. Housley had a quick honeymoon due to an 0-4-1 start to the season and his Sabres began to get their footing by finishing October with a respectable 3-3-1 record. They would start November with a 2-1-0 record before things fell apart.

Injuries played their part in their demise, especially on defense. Zach Bogosian hadn't dressed all season and some of their reserves ended up on the injured list in November as well. It's best to remember that the defense wasn't spectacular to begin with and the reserve d-men and callups used to fill holes left much to be desired.

To make matters worse, Rasmus Ristolainen, the league-leader in minutes played, went down as well. During Ristolainen's injury the Sabres went 1-5-2 and were outscored 26-17 margin. At one point the Sabres defense consisted of Marco Scandella/Justin Falk, Jake McCabe/Nathan Beaulieu, Josh Gorges/Victor Antipin, not exactly the defense Housley worked with in Nashville.

The Sabres desperately needed help in the form of an influx of talent but most of the talent remained in Rochester and GM Jason Botterill opted to stand pat with what he had outside of the trade for bottom-six forward Scott Wilson. It was a disaster and all the losing started to creep into the psyche of his players.

Depth forward Jordan Nolan had won two Stanley Cups as a role player for the Los Angeles Kings and just came to Buffalo as a waiver-claim in September. He'd gone from a winning organization to a losing one and when the his team lost it's fourth game in a row he stated post-game, "I think we've got to start holding guys accountable. Start being honest with ourselves and our teammates.

"When we're turning pucks over and not working hard, it kinda (gets) swept under the rug and we've got to, if someone does turn it over, if they don't chip it in at the red line or blue line, we've got to say something."

A losing mentality and poor effort is a bad sign and it showed in their record. No body on the team was stepping up. In fact Housley put Eichel on the third line at practice after a poor performance in 3-1 loss against Carolina that saw him extend a shift and lollygag on the ensuing backcheck leading to a Hurricanes goal.


This is the same Jack Eichel that was wearing an 'A' on his sweater and had just signed an 8yr/$80million contract extension in the off season.

For his part, Housley acted like a nurturing Mom when the team seemingly could have used a kick in the ass. After getting totally manhandled by the Dallas Stars 5-1 early in the month, Housley said of his team, "I think we played well. The score tells you differently and there's probably going to be a lot of people that disagree with me."

There was plenty of vociferous disagreement with that assessment. Housley was grasping for straws on this one and it sent the local media into a frenzy with one member calling out the Sabres for "having a fragile psyche" writing that "it sounded like the Sabres have lowered the bar, that a four-goal loss is an acceptable effort. The feel-good vibe won't play to a fan base that knows better and expects more."

Another media member was even more blunt. "That was one of the most egregious quotes I've heard from a Buffalo coach in a long time," he wrote. "An affront to a battered fanbase.

"There's a difference in being positive and being Pollyanna Phil."

Housley said on his weekly radio appearance, he didn't think it was "time to get really negative on the players" after the game and explained his remarks this way, "They've been through a lot here," continued the coach. "I try to keep it positive, but don't mistake [my positivity from not] holding players accountable. I think accountability and negativity are two different things."

That may be the case, but Housley's team fell apart the rest of the month and looked horrible in the process. At the end of November the answer to what kind of team the Buffalo Sabres were looked rather easy--a last place team.

For Buffalo's 2017-18 team stats for November click here and for their individual November stats click here.

For my November archive click here.

A look back at the 2017-18 Buffalo Sabres season--December

Published by, 8-9-2018

Buffalo GM Jason Botterill chose to stand pat through October and November with his Sabres imploding and the season all but done only two months in. Coming into the month of December the Sabres posted a 6-15-4 record, had won only once in their previous 10 games (1-7-2) and had been shut out in back-to-back contests to end the month of November. As they plummeted to the bottom of the league so, seemingly, did their interest in playing. WGR550 Sabres beat writer Paul Hamilton called the second shutout by Tampa Bay "[possibly] the easiest shutout [Lightning goaltender Andrei] Vasilevsky has ever had."

Although Buffalo had outshot the Lightning 34-26, they were mostly weak-tea perimeter shots that were easily stopped without a net-front presence.

And if Sabres fans thought that was bad, the 4-0 loss at home against the Pittsburgh Penguins to start December was even worse. With that debacle, the were shutout three games in a row for the first time in franchise history and looked awful in the process. In a case of throwing gasoline on the fire with that pitiful performance against the Pens, it should be remembered that owner Terry Pegula has ties to Pittsburgh as does Botterill and also during that loss the NHL was filming 'The Road to the Winter Classic' which would feature Buffalo vs. the NY Rangers at Citi Field in the Big Apple on January 1.

Buffalo did manage to score a goal in the second game of their home-and-home, a 5-1 loss at Pittsburgh. Their lone goal came mid-way through the third period ending a drought of 232:09 or nearly four full games without a goal.

This team was burning to the ground and that four-game stretch was like the roof caving in. There was very little anyone could do except let it take it's course. It was reported that Sabres president Russ Brandon, who is no longer with the team, was seen after the shutout loss to Pittsburgh talking with, almost trying to console, franchise center Jack Eichel in the locker room. As was pointed out, whether you like him or not, Brandon was the team president so he could go wherever he pleased. Why a businessman with an expertise in marketing would try to interject his thoughts into a hockey situation might leave some questions, but in that situation he was offering...umm...we're really not sure what kind of hockey advice he had to offer in that situation.

With the things spiraling out of control, it didn't take long for the rumor mill to start churning. After that shutout loss to Pittsburgh, Sportsnet's Elliot Freidman said during an intermission on Hockey Night in Canada that, "there's a sense from other teams that the Sabres are sending signals that they are open for business."

Freidman continued saying team could "ask about anybody whose name isn't Jack Eichel," but he also qualified that statement by saying that some are off limits unless the price is right. "I do think that if you're going to ask about a Rasmus Ristolainen or Marco Scandella or a Sam Reinhart," he said, "you'd better be coming with a serious offer because I don't think Buffalo is going to trade those guys unless the offer is great.

"But I think they are prepared to listen to [offers for] everyone except their franchise player (Eichel.)"

The player most were keeping an eye on when it came to the trade market was Evander Kane, who emerged from a choppy two years in the Blue and Gold to become the only player worth his salt during the first two months of the 2017-18 season. At the end of November Kane lead the Sabres with 12 goals and 23 points, but there were huge neon arrows pointing to his exit. With an imminent trade on the horizon, Kane began downshifting his aggressive north/south game to self preservation mode which was noticeable on the ice and on the stat-sheet after the Christmas break.

Botterill did affect change as he got things going with some roster moves as the team waived Matt Moulson, a move that fans had been hoping would happen for months. They also sent Kyle Criscuolo back to Rochester and called up Evan Rodrigues. In addition, Botterill traded for bottom-six forward Scott Wilson, a player he knew from his days in Pittsburgh. Wilson had contributed as a role player in the Pens' two recent Stanley Cup championship but found himself in Detroit after a trade. Botterill sent a fifth-round pick to the Red Wings for Wilson and he played a solid role in the Sabres 4-2 win at Colorado.

The positivity also came through against the Avalanche as the Sabres also had something happen during win that hadn't happened all season. Defenseman Jake McCabe snapped a shot from the point that sailed in for Buffalo's first goal by a defenseman all season, a span of 28 games. Interesting to note as you watch the video from that Wilson was in front of the net creating a screen.

Although the trade for Wilson wasn't the blockbuster that fans had hoped for those three roster moves, along with defenseman Zach Bogosian getting up to speed after missing the first two months of the season due to injury, got the team moving in a positive direction and they finished the month with a 4-3-4 record.

Buffalo would say good by to 2017 on a positive note as they avenged an early season bludgeoning at the hands of New Jersey to dispatch the Devils 4-3 on the road in overtime and end December. Defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen scored the winner for Buffalo bringing their OT/SO record to 2-8 on the season.


For Buffalo's December team stats click here and for their December stats leaders, click here.

For my December archive click here.

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

A look back at the 2017-18 Buffalo Sabres season--October

Published by, 8-6-2018

There was a strong sense of optimism pulsating through Sabreland as new general manager and new head coach took the reigns of the Buffalo Sabres. After three-plus years under GM Tim Murray and only two years under his head coach, Dan Bylsma, the Sabres were moving in the wrong direction and the new regime seemed to have the proper plan to right things.

Botterill had spent nearly 10 years in a Pittsburgh Penguins organization that went on to win three Stanley Cups during his time there. Housley came from the Nashville Predators organization which saw him coach the most dangerous defense in the 2017 Stanley Cup playoffs. Those two met in the Cup Finals that season with the Pens coming out on top.

You want optimism in Sabreland? You can't ask for much more than that as owners Terry and Kim Pegula plucked two of the brightest up-and-comers the National Hockey League had to offer.

In saying that, however, it's best to keep in mind that Botterill and Housley would be entering the 2017-18 season as a first-time GM and coach, respectively, and the trouble that the Sabres were going through deep and varied.

Was it too much for those two rookies to handle? A devastating start to the season and a last place finish might indicate the answer was, yes.


The season started out fairly well despite an opening night shootout loss to the Montreal Canadiens. Was it any surprise that the Sabres lost in the shootout? Not really, as starting goalie Robin Lehner extended his losing streak in the shootout to seven games since coming to Buffalo in a trade. The good news is that he took a step forward as Montreal's Paul Byron missed his shootout attempt. Prior to that the opposition had scored on eight consecutive shootout attempts covering all four of Lehner's shootout losses the prior season.

Regardless of the shootout doom and gloom, the Sabres played a nice game against the Canadiens pouring 45 shots on net and getting two goal from 34 yr. old Jason Pominville who returned to Buffalo after Botterill traded for him and defenseman Marcon Scandella on June 30, 2017.

Buffalo travelled to Brooklyn with plenty of optimism heading into a road tilt with the NY Islanders. But that game fell to pieces as the Isles extended a 1-0 lead with a three-goal barrage in a 1:47 span that sent Lehner to the showers. The first two came :50 seconds apart with Buffalo on the powerplay with the third Islanders goal coming seconds after their powerplay ended. It was the second game in a row the Sabres gave up a shorthanded goal.

Evander Kane single-handedly kept the game within reach as he scored two short-handed goals of his own later in the second period, but the damage was done.

If you thought that was a bad game, the Sabres returned home to take on the new and improved New Jersey Devils for a Kids Day matinee game at KeyBank Center. It was a debacle that should have had many of the parents shielding their children's eyes as it turned into a massacre. That 6-2 bludgeoning completely changed the way the Sabres would approach the rest of the season.

Housley did not have the personnel to play the style he wanted nor did his adjustments to the league's best powerplay help in any of those three games. The team was a train wreck skating around as if they forgot how to play the game while the powerplay went 2/11 and allowed four short-handed goals.

Probably the best thing for the Sabres would be for them to get away from it all and they did so with four-game western swing. To give you an idea as to how bad it was, defenseman Josh Gorges was inserted into the lineup to help stabilize things. Gorges' talent-level wasn't the reason he was inserted into the lineup for the first time, but his play as a veteran defensive-defenseman added one element of stability on a team that was scatterbrained.

The Sabres played much better in back-to-back losses to San Jose (3-2) and the LA Kings (4-2) and got Housley's first win as a professional head coach in Anaheim as rookie Justin Bailey, Sam Reinhart and Johan Larsson all scored their first goals of the year and backup goalie Chad Johnson lead the Sabres to a 3-1 win over the Ducks.

(Reinhart's game-winner vs. Anaheim via

Buffalo would follow their first win of the season with another strong performance in their first-ever visit to Las Vegas but lost 5-4 in overtime against the Golden Knights. They would finish the month of October with back-to-back wins at Boston (5-4, OT) and at home against Detroit (1-0) surrounded by three losses to give them a 3-7-2 record for the month. October proved to be a harbinger of just how difficult the season would be.

Kane and the rejuvenated Pominville would lead the Sabres in goals (6 each) while the duo and Jack Eichel lead the team with 12 points each. On the opposite end of the spectrum the Sabres individual woes were found in the bottom-three plus minus players:  Ryan O'Reilly (-9)  Sam Reinhart (-8) and Kyle Okposo (-7). The trio scored a combined for eight points at even strength (2+6) and were on the ice for a combined six shorthanded goals (minus-12 total) and three empty-net goals against (minus-6 total.)

As a team they were in the bottom half of the league, or near the bottom, of every statistical category save for the penalty kill which was 11th in the league at 82.5%. The powerplay juggernaut that lead the league last season sunk to 23rd with a 14.3% conversion rate.

After reveling in the excitement of a new season with a new GM and coach and a new direction, the Sabres put up a number of clunkers in October leaving fans to ask for the license plate of the car that just hit 'em. And it wouldn't get much better the following month.

For Buffalo's 2017-18 team stats for October click here and for their individual October stats click here.

Monday, August 6, 2018

Back on the road back to "Hockey Heaven" for the Buffalo Sabres?

Published by, 8-5-2018

Yeah, it was cheesy, and the timing of it probably wasn't the greatest but the concept behind the term "hockey heaven" from former team president Ted Black was solid.

This is what Black had to say at owner Terry Pegula's introductory press conference as the billionaire Sabres' fan-turned-owner promised no financial restraints on the franchise and a dedication to the lone goal of winning the Stanley Cup:

"A clarion call should go out to the league and to hockey players everywhere," Black said at that February 22, 2011 press conference, "that Buffalo is hockey heaven. If you want to come somewhere and work for the best owner in the league, which that's what you have in Buffalo here right now, then you should make some plans to come to Buffalo because this is where it's going to happen. It might not happen this year, it might not happen the next, but it's gonna happen."

Black was right in one aspect. It hasn't been "happening" on the ice in Buffalo in the seven years since Pegula took over the team. In fact it's been a disaster culminating with a another last place finish, their third in five years.

For his part, Pegula put his money where his mouth was but unfortunately for the first-time professional sports owner, money isn't the be-all, end-all. Having access to financial resources helps immensely but as we found out, hiring the right people to spend that money (and/or assets) properly is equally, if not more, important than throwing money around.

When Pegula took over the Sabres they were a mediocre team in a downtown area that represented a microcosm of an entire rustbelt region in decline. While he was pouring financial resources into the team which included everything from locker room renovations to the scouting department to lavish, ill-advised free agent contracts, he and his wife Kim began what would become a downtown revitalization centered around hockey.

The vacant lot adjacent to the arena where the Sabres played their home games was turned into a large hockey complex called Harborcenter. The building had two regulation-sized rinks, one that seats 1,800 people, an off-ice training facility, hotel, restaurant and parking garage.

The Pegula's threw their considerable financial weight behind Harborcenter and the sport with a strong commitment to USA hockey. That commitment actually began when Terry gave his alma mater, Penn State, a generous grant to start up a NCAA Division I hockey program. Harborcenter with his focus on USA related hockey is home to the Canisius Golden Griffins (D-I) and Buffalo Jr. Sabres as well as the Buffalo Beauts of the National Women's Hockey League.

The big coup for Pegula and Harborcenter, and what really put them on the map, was landing the National Hockey League Scouting Combine. Toronto hosted the event for over two decades but Harborcenter offered a facility built for hockey and the league moved the annual pre-draft event to Buffalo, on a temporary basis in 2016. It coincided with the city hosted the NHL Draft that year.

Yet despite all the wonderful hockey-related activity around what is now KeyBank Center, home of the Buffalo Sabres, that success did not equate to a winning product on the ice whether it was self-inflicted or a matter of a poor product.

Pegula and Black set the franchise on a course to bottom out and rebuild with top picks but it ended up being disastrous and the road to hockey heaven eventually lead to a ditch.

It began with the teardown where GM Darcy Regier did a great job of acquiring high draft picks for veteran players before getting fired. But many were tossed around as his successor, Tim Murray, tried to speed up the rebuilding process. The Sabres did get two high draft picks in Sam Reinhart (2014, second-overall) and Jack Eichel (2015, second) out of the morass that was the tank years and they look to be core pieces for years to come, but the young vets Murray paid dearly for to surround his young talent with never meshed and none of them remain.

Jason Botterill came in as general manager in 2017 and set about fixing what his predecessor had done but the team ended up in last place once again. However, the Sabres were able to land the first-overall pick in the NHL Draft and selected what many consider a franchise defenseman bordering on generational talent, Rasmus Dahlin. That pick, along with some other core pieces such as Eichel and Botterill's first ever draft pick as GM, Casey Mittelstadt, are combining to produce a positive effect that's starting to generate interest outside of Buffalo.

Case-in-point, the decision by winger Jeff Skinner to waive his no-trade clause for Buffalo.

Botterill pulled off a remarkable trade for Skinner last week when he sent prospect Cliff Pu and three draft picks (a second, third and sixth) to the Carolina Hurricanes for the three-time 30-goal scorer. Granted Skinner's no-trade clause limited his destinations and his pending 2019 UFA status limited interest in him, but for Buffalo this is a huge get, at least for this season, as Botterill filled a position of dire need with a bona fide top-six player.

When asked by the media why he chose to waive his no-trade clause to come to Buffalo, Skinner said there were a number of variables that went into breaking down an NHL team, but right off the bat the 26 yr. old pointed to the young core the Sabres had. "I think first and foremost, the players they have, the young core, is exciting," he said. "There's a lot of good players and I'm excited to join those guys and be a piece of the puzzle."

Skinner didn't limit his praise to that young core either when he talked about doing his homework which included talking to other players about the organization. "I've heard a lot of positive things about the city," said the Markham, Ontario native, "a lot positive things about the ownership group, the management group and the fans."

This isn't the first time a quality player has waived his no-trade clause to come to Buffalo but it doesn't happen that often. And before we get all giddy about hockey heaven being right around the corner, it's best to be reminded that the Sabres landed in a ditch last season and before we can get to nirvana, they've got to get back on the road.

Having said that, the things PSE have been doing off the ice have been nothing short of impressive, but as will all NHL teams, much of it is about the product on the ice. The hires of Botterill and Sexton seem like very good ones at this point as they've been able to point this thing in the right direction, which is something that Skinner took notice of when he decided to allow a trade to Buffalo. However, much more is needed for them to get to the ultimate goal of winning the Stanley Cup and without a Cup, there is no hockey heaven.

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Does the trade for Skinner help turn Buffalo into a playoff team?

Published by, 8-4-2018

There's a lot of excitement in Buffalo these days and there should be as Sabres GM Jason Botterill seems to be on a roll in building a team to his liking.

The 42 yr. old Botterill spent just about 10 yrs. in a very successful Pittsburgh Penguins organization that saw him climb from their director of hockey administration upon his hire July 17, 2007 to GM Jim Rutherford's right-hand man in 2014. Botterill was labeled by the Penguins 2016-17 media guide as the "key architect of the Penguins 2009 and 2016 Stanley Cup championship titles" and he left the Penguins for Buffalo in April, 2017 just before they celebrated another Stanley Cup. Rutherford and the team invited Botterill on the ice to celebrate with the team after their Cup-clinching victory.

No one outside of Botterill and his confidants know what kind of team he thought he had heading into the 2017-18 season in Buffalo but by his reactions throughout the season, especially during abysmal home games by his team, it might be safe to say that he thought his Sabres had a lot more to offer than a last place finish. Although it's not outside the realm of possibility that higher powers in the organization were intent upon another tank season, if that was their design it was a well kept secret.

Regardless of whether or not there was a design involved, the Buffalo Sabres finished last for the third time in five seasons. However, Lady Luck smiled upon them as the NHL Draft Lottery gave them the winning combination and the first overall pick in the NHL Draft. With that pick they selected a potential franchise defenseman in Rasmus Dahlin.

That was a biggie for the organization as Dahlin will eventually be looked at as a true No. 1 defenseman in Buffalo. Having a player like that anchor the entire defense allows the rest, beginning with Rasmus Ristolainen, to fall into a better spot more attuned to where there talent-level and/or potential is.

Which is great, but it's probably not enough to move them much farther than the mid-upper reaches of the bottom-third in the league.

Botterill pressed on this summer with his desire to add more team speed, bolster an extremely deficient left wing position and add more 5v5 scoring. He started that journey by trading a conditional fourth round pick to his former team for left wing Connor Sheary. "We were looking to improve our even-strength scoring and we had to try to get a little bit in scoring from our wingers," said Botterill of the trade for Sheary, "He creates a lot of chances out there."

Sheary was an undrafted free agent who had a banner year in 2016-17 scoring 23 goals and 53 points in only  61 games but his production dropped significantly last season (79 games, 18 goals, 30 points) and he was deemed expendable by the Penguins. In Buffalo he'll be looked at as a top-nine winger and will get an opportunity to skate beside either Jack Eichel or rookie Casey Mittelstadt.

There are a lot of questions with Sheary and the trade for him didn't significantly move the needle on Buffalo's playoff hopes.

Nor did the trade of Ryan O'Reilly to the St. Louis Blues for Patrick Berglund, Vladimir Sobotka and rookie Tage Thompson. Berglund and Sobotka are 30 and 31 yrs. old, respectively, and will help solidify the forward group. From an offensive standpoint, Berglund has cracked the 20-goal mark only once in the past six seasons while Sobotka never has. However, they're both versatile and are well respected in the locker room.

Thompson is a rookie who may, because of his waiver-exempt status, end up starting the season in Rochester should not enough room be created for him this off season. The 20 yr. old right winger has all the tools of a future top-six player, and was promised a shot at that in Buffalo this year, but may end up being a numbers casualty as the Sabres may have their top-two spots locked up once Sam Reinhart is re-signed. The question then will be which is a better place for Thompson's development? In the bottom six in Buffalo or in the top-six in Rochester?

That trade with St. Louis seemed to be more about trading O'Reilly and his hefty contract while changing the locker room dynamics. Botterill probably maximized a return that focused more upon futures (Thompson, 2019 first round pick and a 2021 second rounder) than it was about moving the needle this season. But when you add the veteran presence, plus versatility, of Berglund and Sobotka along with Dahlin and Sheary to a young core featuring Eichel, Mittelstadt, Sam Reinhart and Ristolainen, it gives the look of a team that could make a strong push to rise up the lower third of the league.

The trade for Jeff Skinner, however, does have a significant impact for this upcoming season.

Skinner is that quick, top-six, even-strength scoring winger Botterill and the Sabres were looking for. The two-time 30-goal scorer and perennial 20-goal winger scored 89 goals the last three season tying him for 12th in the league over that span. And from Jonathan Willis, Skinner "tied with Connor McDavid for seventh in even-strength goals over that span, one back of Nikita Kucherov and two back of Sidney Crosby."

It would seem as if Skinner was in the doghouse in Carolina under two different coaches as they tried to get him more defensively focused. His coach the last four seasons was Bill Peters and during that time Skinner spent the majority of his time with centers Victor Rask and Derek Ryan. Most think that a spot on the wing with either Eichel or Mittelstadt will get him to that 30-goal level again. It's a situation that might place them firmly in the No. 20 or so range with playoff hopes if...

And there's the rub.

The Sabres are in "If-land" right now when it comes to the playoffs for a team that finished with 62 points. The 20th place team in the league last year was the Calgary Flames with 84 points. They finished 11 points out of a playoff spot in the western conference with two teams between them and the Colorado Avalanche who secured the second wild card spot.

Carolina, ironically, finished 21st in the eastern conference with 83 points. They finished sixth in the Atlantic division, 15 points behind the third place Philadelphia Flyers and 14 points behind the owners of the second wild card spot in the east, the New Jersey Devils.

For perspective, the Sabres probably would need to up their total from last season to 96 this year to make it into the playoffs as a wild card. That 34 points represents 17 more wins for the club.

Is it possible?

Recent history dictates that it can be done. The aforementioned Avalanche finished the 2016-17 season in last place with 48 points. This year they completed a remarkable turnaround with a 95 point season.

For the Sabres to do it we'll immerse ourselves in the land of if's--

--If 32 yr. old late-bloomer Carter Hutton and rookie Linus Ullmark can at the very least put up a mid-league goals-against average and move them from the league's third-worst goals-against team, that will help.

--If Dahlin can anchor that defense and the others can feel more comfortable in lesser but important roles and...

--if Zach Bogosian can stay healthy the majority of the time and...

--if Ristolainen can settle into a No. 2/3 role and...

--if Marco Scandella can continue, or up, his game from last season and...

--if Jake McCabe can stay healthy and Casey Nelson can fill that bottom-half role,

the defense will have improved immensely.

--If head coach Phil Housley can activate his defense with Dahlin, Ristolainen, Bogosian and, possibly, rookie Brendan Guhle contributing more on offense, the league's worst goal-scoring team will get a significant boost which will help the forward ranks.

--If Skinner can hit that 30 goal mark and Sheary can hit 20 and...

--if Kyle Okposo can shake off that injury-enveloped 2017-18 season and reach that 20+ goal mark and...

--if Eichel can stay healthy and play in more than 67 games while also taking on a leadership role while using all of his faculties to cover the entire ice surface while also scoring at that hear point/game pace he was on during the past two injury-shortened seasons and...

--if Reinhart can continue to progress in his game and production and...

--if Berglund and Sobotka and maximize their roles as versatile two-way players and...

--if they can cobble out a strong checking line that can contribute somewhat on offense..

that will help their scoring.

--If they can improve on a powerplay that dropped from first to 20th last season and if they can solidify a penalty kill that was 22nd in the league last season, that will help too.

Perhaps most important is Housley who will be entering his second season as head coach. If he can get all the parts moving in the proper direction...

the Sabres will be in playoff contention.

But that's a lot of if's.