Monday, May 20, 2019

Impressions of, and questions concerning--D, Casey Nelson

Published by hockeybuzz.com, 5-19-2019


Defenseman--Casey Nelson DOB: July 18, 1992 (Age, 26)
Draft: Undrafted
How acquired: College Free Agent (Minnesota State,) 2016
Last contract signed: May 2, 2018 (2yr./$1.625 million)
Final year of contract: 2019-20



2018-19 Stats:  38 games | 1 goal | 5 assists | 6 points | +1 | 15:25 ATOI

Buffalo Career Stats:  93 games | 4 goals | 14 assists | 18 points | -15 | 16:22 ATOI


What we wrote preseason:  At 26 yrs. old Buffalo Sabres defenseman Casey Nelson is far from being a wide-eyed rookie in the NHL. Yet with only 55 games played he still has a lot to learn at the NHL-level. Nelson was an under-the-radar signing by Buffalo in 2016 out of Minnesota State University (Mankato) but caught the attention of Sabreland with four assists in his first three pro games. The smooth skating, offensive defenseman showed well on NHL ice to the point where a good camp would mean a knocking on the door of a spot on the opening night roster for 2016-17.

He would have a rough go of it in the NHL, was sent down and spent most of his first full pro season in Rochester. 

Nelson's journey to full-time NHL duty, should it play out that way, was marked by smack-downs and revivals from college onward. A numbers game kept Nelson in Rochester for most of last season and from a development standpoint it worked out rather well. He will face a similar situation this year. Buffalo GM Jason Botterill signed Nelson to a two-year contract extension in May and without waiver eligibility for the defenseman, one would expect he and coach Phil Housley expect Nelson to be in the lineup for the opener on October 4.


What we wrote mid-season:  One of those walking-wounded defensemen is Nelson, who was pretty solid in a reserve role before being placed on injured reserve on December 8. Nelson was another good free agent addition by the Sabres as the former Minnesota State Mavericks defenseman has been paying his dues while playing for both the Amerks (118 games) and Sabres (77 games) since signing with Buffalo in 2016. He plays a quiet game while simply getting the job done and can be called upon to hold the fort in a reserve role. The 26 yr. old is out of waiver options and is another reason why Pilut might end up back with the Amerks once Buffalo's defense gets healthy. Nelson has a goal and four assists in 22 games for the Sabres this season and leads all Buffalo defensemen with a plus-6 rating.


Impressions on his play this year:  Nelson is what he is a good, puck-moving defensive-defenseman who isn't going to wow you. He's a bottom-pairing/reserve d-man who plays a rather quiet, reserved game with that demeanor (negatively) on full display in a March incident concerning captain Jack Eichel.

Eichel was checked hard into the boards by Colorado Avalanche defenseman (and former Sabre) Nikita Zadorov with the latter ripping off the helmet of Eichel. Nearby was Nelson, who did nothing. Fellow d-man Marco Scandella flew in to defend his captain and was soon followed by Sam Reinhart as they engaged the perpetrator. Even Jeff Skinner got in on the act as he and Miko Rantenen scuffled enough to draw coincidental roughing penalties. 

After all was said and done and visions of the Milan Lucic/Ryan Miller incident danced around Sabreland, Nelson would find himself on the bench as a healthy scratch the next game. The benching, ironically, came at the hands of head coach Phil Housley, one of the softest players in Sabres history.


Questions moving forward:  What does new bench boss Ralph Krueger think of him in a reserve role? What does Krueger think of the Eichel/Zadorov incident? Can Nelson up his offense a little more? Can he stay on the plus side of the plus/minus rating? Did they find an ATOI sweet sport for him at 15-16 minutes? Is there hidden intensity within Nelson's rather stoic on-ice demeanor? 



Contract info via CapFriendly, stats via sabres.com and hockey reference.com.


Sunday, May 19, 2019

Krueger's optimism may be put to the test amidst a Sabres culture of losing




For as much "natural, organic" communication Ralph Krueger had with Sabres general manager Jason Botterill, and despite the comfort level he felt with owners Terry and Kim Pegula, Buffalo's new bench boss has a team to run. And it's something he hasn't done in a while. Krueger obviously impressed Sabres president Kim Pegula after already convincing Botterill that he should be Buffalo's next head coach but now comes the tough part--convincing his team that he, the coaching staff he surrounds himself with and the systems they want to employ are worthy of their trust. 

It's been four years in the muck for the Sabres under two head coaches, both of whom lasted only two years. Stanley Cup-winning head coach Dan Bylsma's aloof nature wore on the players and although they were able to play semi-respectably, locker room discord may have been the predominant reason why he was canned. Rookie head coach Phil Housley replaced him and as the team got worse, the locker room reached perilous depths eventually forcing the trade of No. 2 center Ryan O'Reilly to St. Louis after the Sabres last place finish in 2017-18. Although Housley's second season was better points-wise thanks to a 10-game winning streak and the abysmal prior season, things fell apart, the players seemed to lose interest half way through and he was shown the door as well.

Krueger's well aware of what transpired in Buffalo over the last two seasons. His conversations with Botterill certainly covered that and if he didn't' get a full picture the toll losing had taken on the hockey community, he probably got an earful from the unsuspecting fans he interacted with at different bars while watching the playoffs on TV in Buffalo. One could only imagine what he heard in those conversations, but it seems as if he gained a full appreciation of what the fans were going through and a better idea as to what had been going on throughout Sabreland. 

Saturday, May 18, 2019

The Ralph Krueger hire for Buffalo-checking boxes and (hopefully) putting Sabreland at ease

Published by hockeybuzz.com, 5-17-2019


It's safe to say that everyone in Sabreland, outside of the principles involved with the hiring of a head coach for the Buffalo Sabres, didn't really know what to make of Ralph Krueger. Candidates from Jacques Martin to Sheldon Keefe all had resumes that were tangible and immediate with names that were generally recognizable in the vast hockey community but Krueger's name was a bit more obscure. It seems as if he's highly regarded within inner hockey circles but is more of an unknown to layman with only a short stint as head coach for the Edmonton Oilers.

From old school media to social media, the general feeling is that Krueger individually checked off a box for them although some of those checks might have been in pencil. For Buffalo general manager Jason Botterill, who was said to be leaning towards a head coach with NHL experience, Krueger has that, albeit barely. Krueger was a consultant with the Carolina Hurricanes for five seasons before joining the Edmonton Oilers as an assistant in 2010. Two years later he was named head coach in Edmonton for the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season where he coached the Oilers for 48 games before being fired.

After that Krueger found himself involved in Premier League soccer as director, then chairman of Southampton. During his conference call on Wednesday he mentioned "sports science and analytics" which checked off a box for those in the analytics community. While answering a question about his thoughts on analytics, Krueger said there were things he learned in soccer that he felt he could bring to Buffalo. "In these last few years in Southampton I've been able to learn many, many, many things that I'd like to put into play in the National Hockey League," he said. "We have quite a bit of opportunity to develop that area."

However Kruger did qualify that by saying, "I believe it's an important part but above all it will come down to not overusing analytics.You need to create a space where the players have certain guidelines and a framework but within that space I like them to be able to be creative and also to let their instincts play and finding that balance is the challenge we have as a head coach."

Friday, May 17, 2019

Piecing together the curiosity that is Ralph Krueger



Word of a serious Buffalo Sabres coaching candidate came last weekend when Sportsnet's Elliotte Friedman tweeted that "Ralph Krueger has a legit shot at Buffalo coaching job." It was a tweet that immediately raised eyebrows in Western New York. The Sabres have been in the market for a head coach ever since GM Jason Botterill fired Phil Housley on April 7. As the big names came and went--from Joel Quenneville to Todd McLellan to Alain Vigneault--and coaches from potential neophytes (Rickard Grönborg) to dinosaurs (Jacques Martin) were checked off for various reasons, the pickin's was getting mighty slim for Buffalo and their timeline getting ever shorter. Botterill, after supposedly going through seven or eight interviews, hired Krueger as the team's 19th head coach.

The whole situation, culminating with the reported hire of Krueger has been something that was pieced together using various sources in the hockey world. Krueger's name had been an outlier from the beginning as it was said that Botterill had interviewed him the last time they were looking for a head coach in 2017, but his name never gathered any steam until the Friedman tweet on Saturday. After that we got word from Pierre LeBrun, who had interviewed him in early April, that Krueger wanted back in the NHL but in more of a front office role. Friedman made an appearance on The Instigators (MSG and WGR550 Radio) on Monday saying the he had people telling him he was "underselling" it and that the talks were "much farther along" than he was reporting." And finally, TSN's Bob McKenzie tweeted out late last night, "As Friedman first suggested/speculated, Krueger will indeed be the next head coach in Buffalo."

So the coaching search is over, but what exactly did the Sabres get in deal?

First off, it was reported that Botterill was looking for someone with NHL head coaching experience, perhaps that's the reason a fan-favorite like Grönborg ended up signing a deal to coach Switzerland's ZSC Lions. The only head coach of interest with NHL experience right now is Dave Tippett, whom some have suggested might be a fit in Edmonton with the Oilers. The 59 yr. old Krueger does have that NHL experience, albeit rather minimal. He coached the Oilers during the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season and compiled a 19-22-7 record before being fired by new GM Craig MacTavish and  many now believe he got a raw deal and the classlessness was exacerbated by a "blindsided" firing over Skype.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Impressions of, and questions concerning--D, Brandon Montour



Defenseman--Brandon Montour
DOB:  April 11, 1994 (age, 25)
Draft:  2014, second round (55th-overall,) ANA
How acquired:  Trade with the Anaheim Ducks February 24, 2019
Last contract signed:  July 24, 2018, 2yr./$6.775 million
Final year of contract: 2019-20


2018-19 Buffalo Stats:  20 games | 3 goals | 7 assists | 10 points | -4 | 21:46 ATOI  

Career Stats:  189 games | 19 goals | 54 assists | 73 points | +7 | 20:53 ATOI


What we wrote preseason:  N/A

What we wrote mid-season:  N/A 

Impressions on his play this year:  If Montour had been acquired earlier, perhaps in December or even early January when the Sabres were still in a serious playoff hunt, perhaps he may have had more of an impact. Then again, with the way this team devolved since the end of their 10-game winning streak in November, one would be hard pressed to make a case that Montour would have made that much of a difference.

Buffalo GM Jason Botterill tapped into the rich pool of defensemen Anaheim has stocked up over the years and got the Ducks to move one of them. But Montour didn't come cheap. Botterill sent d-prospect Brendan Guhle, who had been on a proper developmental curve ever since he was drafted 52st overall in 2015, along with what will end up being a low, 2019 first rounder to the Ducks in the deal. It may end up being a good hockey trade for both clubs as Guhle can stretch out their prospect pool a bit while the 25 yr. old Montour offers immediate help to Buffalo.

This was good use of the Sabres extra first rounder this year by Botterill. In acquiring Montour Buffalo received an extremely mobile, point-producing defenseman who can quarterback the powerplay. Montour's 10 points since joining the team was second only to Jack Eichel's 14 while his minus-4 rating was second best amongst Buffalo d-men who played in half or more of those games and he led the team with 19:36 of even-strength ice-time.

Montour was a good get for the Sabres in that all the numbers and metrics meshed with the eye-test and point to a solid top-four, point-producing d-man for Buffalo. On the flip side we also saw deficiencies on defense some of which may be inherent, some which may have been a product of the system he was playing in. One thing are pretty sure of, with Rasmus Dahlin soon entering the realm of full-fledged No. 1 defenseman, Montour will either be playing beside him, as they did many times this past season, or he'll be bringing the offense in a second-pairing role, which would be ideal for Buffalo if they can find the right d-partners for both. 

It's been an extremely slow makeover on defense for Buffalo but it's moving in the right direction. The Sabres needed more mobility on, and offense from, the back end and they got it in when they drafted Dahlin and traded for Montour. How far they go in that direction is to be determined but this is shaping up to be a much better d-corps than anything we've seen in quite some time, perhaps dating back to Tyler Myers Calder Trophy season of 2009-10.

Of note, Montour suffered an injury at the IIHF World Hockey Championships in Slovakia yesterday. The extent of the injury is unknown at this time but we do know that the 2019-20 probable Sabres defense-corps has taken a huge hit this off season. Veteran Zach Bogosian had hip surgery an may or may not be ready for the season opener. Rookie Lawrence Pilut, who appeared in 33 games for the Sabres last season suffered a shoulder injury in Rochester Americans final game of the AHL playoffs. He had surgery and is expected to be out five to six months.


Questions moving forward:  What was the injury? How long will the recovery take? Will the new head coach pair him with Dahlin next season?  Would Montour be better off paired with more of a defensive defenseman? Will the Sabres use two d-men on the powerplay? If they use two, did Montour displace Rasmus Ristolainen in that role? How will he adapt in going from a very successful Ducks organization to a Buffalo team that hasn't made the playoffs in eight seasons? 



Contract info via CapFriendly, stats via sabres.com and hockey reference.com.


Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Impressions of, and questions concerning--G, Carter Hutton



Goaltender--Carter Hutton
DOB:  December 19, 1985 (age, 34)
Draft:  Undrafted free agent (SJS, April 26, 2010)
How acquired:  Signed by Buffalo (UFA, 2018)
Last contract signed:  July 1, 2018 3yr./$8.25 million
Final year of contract: 2020-21


2018-19 Stats:  50 games played |18-25-5 record | 3.00 GAA | .908 SV% | 0 shutouts 

Career Stats:  188 games played | 81-64-22 record | 2.58 GAA | .913 SV% | 11 shutouts


What we wrote preseason:  If the Buffalo Sabres want to make the playoffs this season a lot will be riding on the shoulders of their goalkeepers. Although their roles will be figured out through camp and into the season, it's hard to think that Hutton will be that 60-game workhorse starter in Buffalo when his 34 starts in 2013-14 represents his career-high. In fact the Thunder Bay, Ontario native has a grand total of only 80 starts in the four seasons since, but with Botterill in a bit of a bind this off season a Hutton/[Linus] Ullmark 1A/1B goaltending tandem is what Buffalo enters training camp with


When you look at Hutton's excellent numbers in St. Louis it's best to remember that the Blues were a veteran club with a very strong d-corps that was also supported by their forward group. They had the sixth-best goals-against last average season, have the third-best cumulative GAA (2.49) over the past five seasons and their system has helped have changed the narrative from back-up to potential starter when talking about goalies like Hutton and Brian Elliot. As a premier two-way team, St. Louis was also 14th in the league in cumulative goals-for over the last five seasons averaging 2.81 goals/game.


With all the question marks concerning Hutton as a starter (or 1A) for a franchise that has the worst record in the NHL over the last seven seasons, character doesn't seem be one of them. He'll have the chance to be the No. 1 goalie in Buffalo but he also is being tasked with mentoring Ullmark, who's saying goodbye to the AHL after being the No. 1 goalie in Rochester the last two seasons. “What we’ve learned about Carter," said [GM Jason] Botterill, "is he has the confidence in the No. 1 role and also has a history of working with young goalies. We think it’s a great fit."



What we wrote mid-season:  Sabres GM Jason Botterill made a number of off season moves that have paid dividends for this club and stabilizing the goalie situation with the signing of free agent Hutton was one of them. Although his 2.58 goals-against average and .917 save percentage aren't gaudy by any stretch of the imagination, Hutton has been very solid and has given his team a chance to win nearly every time he's in net. This is the 33 yr. old's first gig as a starting goalie and there are a lot of positives which include his stickhandling ability and the way he's mentoring his backup, although he's had some clunkers and an egregious error or two along the way. Word on the street is that this year Hutton will be carrying a huge weight in net while next season could be more of a 50/50 split. The following season, his last under contract with Buffalo, could end up being more of a backup role. 


Impressions on his play this year:  After a tepid start to the season Hutton, like the team, was really locked in through November and it looked as if Botterill found a steal of a No. 1 goalie at $2.75 million per season. The crash back down to earth was particularly rough for the team but Hutton's crash left a crater that he still needs to climb out of. But having said that, it isn't fair to place Buffalo's bottom-feeding performance post-November squarely on goaltending.

“Checking has got to be tighter, but the play with the puck has got to be the thing that we really work on here,” captain Jack Eichel said back in February with the Sabres downward spiral picking up steam. “It was a staple of our game when we were winning, and it’s been costing us lately." True enough, their play was so loosey-goosey that goals against were coming off of odd-man rushes and players left all alone by the bushels. That said, Buffalo's goaltending tandem didn't help the situation all that much as they were unable to come up with the big save early in the game. In fact, they were hard-pressed to come up with any save and the Sabres found themselves in holes during games they never could get out of.

It was a disappointing season for Hutton as he couldn't seem to do much right after November and there were times that he admittedly tried to do to much. In St. Louis (as well as Nashville) Hutton played a simple game as the skaters in front of him displayed a strong two-way game. What we saw in Buffalo is that he's no Dominik Hasek and isn't even Ryan Miller, but if the team can get their act together, he can do some very fine work in net. And he remains a strong locker room presence and excellent mentor to Ullmark. 

Questions moving forward:  How much defensive structure will the new head coach instill in this club? Will the players embrace it? What will Ullmark look like at camp and early into the season? Will there be more of a 50/50 split? Or will Hutton be a 50-plus game, 1A type of goalie? Can he and his skaters find the mutual trust they had when they went on that 10-game winning streak?



Contract info via CapFriendly, stats via sabres.com and hockey reference.com.



Monday, May 13, 2019

Impressions of, and questions concerning--F, Tage Thompson



Forward, Tage Thompson
DOB:  October 30, 1997 (age, 21)
Draft:  2016 1st round (26th-overall,) STL
How acquired:  July 1, 2018 trade with STL
Last contract signed:  March 7, 2017 ELC, 3yr./$3.4125M ($832,500 base salary)
Final year of contract: 2019-20


2018-19 Stats:  65 games | 7 goals | 5 assists | 12 points | -22 | 12:08 ATOI

Career Stats:  106 games | 10 goals | 11 assists | 21 points | -34 | 12:03 ATOI


What we wrote preseason:  When you see a young guy like Thompson pull off a play like he did against Leafs a week ago, the wow-factor of a 6'5" 205 lb. forward who can create separation like that and finish with a wicked shot whets your appetite to see him skating in a Sabres uniform this year. As it stands right now, Thompson is behind at least two right wingers on the club--Sam Reinhart and Kyle Okposo--and because of Jason Pominville's status both contractually and as a vet on the team, Thompson might only see fourth-line duty with the Sabres at this juncture.

Although it doesn't mean he's worse than a player like Pominville, it would seem as if Housley will have too many question marks with Thompson heading into the season as he wants to get off to a fast start. Thompson still has waiver-exempt status and could use more seasoning in the AHL to develop consistency to his game. He's got top-six talent but right now for Buffalo there's really no need to rush him.


What we wrote mid-season:  He's tall (6'6"), has an impressive wing-span, can handle the puck extremely well and when he has open space and enough time, he has a rocket of a shot. We've seen short spurts of incredibly skilled play from Thompson this season but have also seen him disappear for very long stretches which has him moving up and down the lineup. One would like to see him use his large frame more and though he skates very well, especially when he gets active, he's still seems to be behind the play a bit. The 21 yr. old Thompson has all the tools to be a scorer but he's been dropped to the fourth line lately, and ironically it may be the best thing for him. The two players anchoring that line are full-go compete and prior to the break Thompson looked as if he was feeding off/playing like that and if he can ever internalize the compete those two have, the Sabres could have themselves a heck of a scoring forward.


Impressions on his play this year:  The mid-season mention of Thompson feeding off of Zemgus Girgensons and Johan Larsson on the fourth line was meant to be taken seriously as a big aspect missing in his game was compete. Thompson picked up on that when he played fourth-line duties but he was out of place in that role. In fact, the case could easily be made that he was a tad out of place in the NHL. 

The Sabres decided to keep him in Buffalo to work on his game at the NHL-level and from what was said, he really embraced the development program they earmarked for him. That was just before he scored five goals in seven games and it made management look brilliant. However, as is often the case with young players, the consistency wasn't there and Thompson disappeared. Instead of sending him to Rochester when things went cool for him and sour for the team, Buffalo kept him up and his development stagnated at best. When he was finally sent to the Amerks, he was a force popping six goals in eight games. Things dried up in the AHL playoffs but against his peers, the 21 yr. old Thompson looked dominant. 

Thompson's shot is remarkable but he struggled to find time and space at the NHL level to uncork it. Although he has a condor's wing-span and some very impressive stickwork for any player, much less a big man, on too man occasions Thompson tried to do too much himself instead of using his teammates and oft times the puck ended up headed the other way. Those things are something often seen in rookies and are things that can be worked on.

The Sabres are looking at him to fill out his frame to the tune of 15-20 lbs. and if he can do that while maintaining his excellent skating abilities, his size and talent would make up the foundation of a budding powerforward. But there's a lot of work to be done as his talent is raw and his decision-making is still that of a rookie.


Questions moving forward:  How much bulk can he add this summer? What's his ideal playing weight? Where will he start next season, Buffalo or Rochester? Can he find chemistry with a Sabres center next season? Where will his compete-level be? Will bulking up help that? How much will Bufalo's new head coach affect his game? Can he double his goal production? Can he lower a Sabres second-worst minus-22 rating?



Contract info via CapFriendly, stats via sabres.com and hockey reference.com.