Sorry, Ville

Seriously, can this guy catch a break?  Er, bad choice of words.  The view from the press box probably isn’t helping him any, as his team struggles to find an identity (and their man in the defensive zone) managing only 1 point in the standings in four games.  Goaltending has been a bright spot, though they worked Miller so hard his groin kept him out of a game.  Jhonas Enroth ably filled in, but eventually, your team might have to chip in a goal or three.

I wish I could say things are going to get better soon, but really, a team filled with teenagers, head cases and only one real scoring threat is not one that shakes off a slump easily.  All the line-juggling and benchings in the world won’t help.  Time, practice and teaching will.  That can’t happen if a player is in a suit.  Neither can it happen if he’s toiling on the fourth line alongside John Scott or Cody McCormick.  Mistakes suck, and they are hard to watch.  I get that.  But they need to be made if they are to be learned from.  Or, pessimistically, we need to see if a player CAN learn from them.  So give me Grigorenko and Larsson, Girgensons and Ristolainen.  Foligno, Pysyk, Hodgson – let’s see what we have.  If we’re going to suffer, let’s suffer with a purpose.

Today’s lines at practice:

  • Vanek – Hodgson – Ott
  • Foligno – Ennis – Stafford
  • Girgensons – Larsson – Flynn
  • McCormick – Porter – Kaleta

On D:

  • Ehrhoff – Pysyk
  • Weber – Myers
  • McBain – Ristolainen

This is a problem.  Yeah, Grigorenko hasn’t been great.  But he’s not some 5 year veteran who needs to be shaken up by having to sit a few games.  He’s a KID whose best chance is to work on his game NOW.

Stafford and Leino – Time to Shine

The Buffalo Sabres roster is set, and judging from the lines at practice, there are two players in the top 6 that will have a ton of focus on them:  Drew Stafford and Ville Leino.  Stafford gets the first crack at being the other winger with Hodgson and Vanek, while Leino goes with Ott and Ennis.  There’s some possibility that changes when injured players come back (currently Armia, Zadorov, Foligno and Tropp are out) but Drew and Ville will both have a chance to make their case first.

Stafford has always been a frustrating case for most of us.  He’s a couple of seasons removed from scoring 31 goals in 62 games, and pulling down 20 in the season after.  However, last year went pretty bad for him, netting only 6 goals in the short season.  There’s reason for hope, though.  He’s got two legit threats with him, and last year saw his shooting percentage at less than half of his career level (5% versus 11.7%).  Stafford has always seemed like a ~25 goal type player, with a 30 goal plateau playing with the talent he’ll have – and on the first power play unit to boot.

Ville Leino should have a shot at improving as well.  He played only 8 games last season, scoring 2 goals and adding 4 assists.  His line has Steve Ott to bang bodies and be a nuisance, and Tyler Ennis to deal the puck.  Ennis is no Hodgson, but it’s still giving Ville a chance.  He was also seen on the second power play unit.  I thought Leino played well in his limited time last season, and there were flashes of that the year before.  He’s more of a long shot, but I’ve got a feeling a full, healthy season might be just what Leino needs to reach the potential he showed in Philly.

If anything works against these two, it’s the fact that there are so many young forwards eyeing their spots.  Girgensons and Grigorenko both sit on the third line as of now – but how much of one of Stafford’s slumps would it take for one of them to get a top-6 shot?  Armia and Larsson lurk as well.  Foligno’s return will give the team all the excuse they need to shake up lines if things don’t start well.  Me, I’m rooting for both guys.  I think Leino has been scapegoated pretty hard here, and Stafford has been a good soldier and could just need someone to believe in him.  Here’s hoping they seize the opportunity.  Go Sabres.

Sabres and Leafs – Weekend Warriors

I was at the Sabres/Leafs game on Saturday night with my son, saw a bunch of fights, goals, and an epic shootout.  And that was the LESS interesting game.  Sunday’s game in Toronto saw Tropp possibly concussed, John Scott and Phil Kessel sort of fight (I guess), Miller and Bernier fight, slashing, spearing, bench-leavin’ and pretty much everything else you can think of.

I’m not going to place blame or throw stones at any particular team, coach or player – there really isn’t anybody who comes out looking good in that mess.  It may have been entertaining to watch when it happened, but it doesn’t leave a good taste in your mouth once there’s some distance on it.  Let’s just shake our heads and move on.

On the actual hockey side of things, I really liked what I saw from Zemgus Girgensons Saturday.  I thought he played hard and wasn’t afraid to hit.  He could be a fan-favorite here if he sticks.  Cody Hodgson was solid, too.  Jhonas Enroth was great, that shootout was crazy.  By round 15 I probably would’ve been ready just to skate off.  I’m ready to see what these young guys can do.

Aside from the game, I have a few comments on the upgrades to the First Niagara Center.

  • The new food options are nice.  Even the existing stuff, like the hot dogs and hamburgers were much improved.
  • However, if you get popcorn, and they ask if you want butter, SAY NO.  I was expecting the machine at the movie theater that drizzles a little bit on.  NOPE, IT’S A LADLE.  The solid lump in my stomach was not fun.
  • The game presentation was better.  There was genuine laughter at the Celebrity look-alikes thing with Foligno/Fabio.
  • I wonder if that changes when all the sponsored stuff is back in.  Recycle bins!

Looking forward to real hockey.  Getting excited!

Training Camp – Questions Without Answers

The Buffalo Sabres are opening training camp today, with veteran players reporting for their physicals and testing.  I always imagine ‘testing’ as Patrick Kaleta slouched in a desk, face all screwed up trying to answer a multiple choice question.  Anyway, as camp opens, there seem to be more questions than answers for fans that have been tracking the team through the summer.  At least they did announce another assistant coach hiring today, Jerry Forton out of Harvard (though he had a long stint at Niagara before that as well).

But many more uncertainties remain.  Ryan Miller and Thomas Vanek are both still here, without new contracts.  They are saying the right things – these two usually do – but it’s still unsettled.  Cody Hodgson remains unsigned, and Matthew Coller crunches some numbers on the young center.  They are somewhat bleak, though in my mind, I’d like for a few other players to make the leap up the middle so Hodgson can take the role Thomas Vanek had in 06-07, leading a line that basically just gets told to score and isn’t pitted against superior competition.  Kadri may set the number for Cody’s contract, but will Hodgson take the ‘bridge contract’?

Looking at the roster (you can see the training camp roster up at that first link) it’s hard to get a feel for what this team will be.  There’s room for rookies to stick.  Other questions remain…Will Myers be good with Tallinder back?  Will Hodgson be here?  Is Ott the captain?  Will Miller and Vanek still be here?  The rookies are interesting, especially to compare and contrast between Girgensons and Grigorenko.  And Zadorov!  It’s a team with a ton of questions, which could make for a very long season.  I just hope it’s a fun one.

Jerseys aren’t this hard, guys

Like most of you, I had tired of the third jersey teases weeks ago.  Just show it to us, we cried, not knowing what horrors lay ahead.  Well, thanks to Steve Ott (and the Sabres’ PR wonks) we now know what the new yellow-ish third jersey looks like:

090413_sabresjersey

Oh…oh dear.  I sprang that on you without a warning, didn’t I?  Sorry about that.  Where to begin?  I hate that the nameplate overlaps a seam though I may be the only one that bothers.  And what the hell font is that?  I’d think keeping a similar look amongst the jerseys would be a positive.  The gray number is hideous.  The Buffalo wordmark on the front…why?  It looks terrible, like it’s placeholder text for something cool that never got replaced.  Just unneccessary, man.  I hate the arm stripes that stop at the shoulder, it would probably look better going all the way across (conveniently removing the Buffalo wordmark).  One positive:  no gray sweatstain armpits.  Oh, and I believe the yellow is one uniform color, the arms look different due the lighting.  Because even Buffalo isn’t THAT stupid, right?  *looks at the third jersey again*  Sigh.

Free Agent Frenzy Not Likely In Buffalo

GoodbyeGerbeThe Buffalo Sabres are rebuilding.  Danny Briere isn’t walking in that door (he finally went to Montreal, where he’s been rumored to go for years).  Nathan Gerbe is going out the door.  I’m sad to see Gerbe go, but he wasn’t scoring enough to justify being top 6, and as tough as he is, just wasn’t suited long-term for a checking line role.  I hope he ends up in a great spot for him.  Whatever city he ends up in is getting a great person.

When you’re rebuilding, your free agent pick ups are usually pretty limited.  You’re not getting the older big name guys (Iginla, as an example) as they want to win this year.  You don’t want the lower-tier guys for the most part, as the idea should be to see how your young players do with an increased role.  Certainly, if Grigorenko is here all year as was stated, I don’t want him in the press box or toiling away 9 minutes a night.

Andy Boron at Die by the Blade covers some potential targets, but the Mikhail Grabovski situation intrigues me.  He’s a player young enough that you may be able to sell him on a rebuild, and if he wants to stick it to the Leafs, that works too.  He won’t come cheap, but the Sabres have cap space to spare with only Cody Hodgson left as a significant RFA left to sign (Sorry, Flynn).  More so, if Miller gets traded.  I’d want them to keep Vanek if they bring in Grabbo, but if a deal came along…well, make it work.

The idea of a Miller/Vanek trade intrigues me.  Is the deal for a player?  Who still needs a goalie?  Beyond watching for that, my only other prediction is Darcy makes a good, solid move that no one was expecting, because he’s a black hole of information and we never know what’s cooking here.  Go Sabres.

Draft History

It’s useless to look at today’s (yesterday’s now, at least in my time zone) now and declare it good or bad.  No, Buffalo did not trade up for Seth Jones or whoever your top pick would be.  They kept drafting D when forwards were supposed to be the way to go.  You know what?  If these guys pan out, no one will complain about that 5 years from now.  What I’d like to illustrate is just what a draft pick should be expected to do, and why complaining or praising the picks now is fairly useless.

From 2000-2004, Buffalo made 44 picks.  Of those, only 20 have ever played even a minute in the NHL (and some of those could rightly be counted in the minutes).  Of those, 9 were first or second round picks.  By the way, do you know how many of this first and second rounders are still with the Sabres?  Two, Vanek and Stafford.  Artem Kryukov, Gerard Dicaire, Branislav Fabry, Mike Funk, remember those guys?  How about Jiri Novotny or Chris Thorburn?  Those two, maybe you have a dim recollection.  Move forward a few years, and it’s no better (Marek Zagrapan?  Dennis Persson?  There’s a reason the reduced scouting of the time swore off Euro players and it wasn’t just because international flights were expensive).

The best thing for you to do right now is read the good stuff about the players, starting with the Sabres.com article on the draft…

One little-known fact about Compher is that he modeled as a toddler.

Hmm, maybe just look for some content from SabresProspects and Die By The Blade.  Although maybe the NHL is missing out on Toddlers and Tiaras crossover publicity.

Weber Re-Signs for 3 years $5 Million

Defenseman Mike Weber, who was set to be a restricted free agent, is back with the Buffalo Sabres for 3 more years.  I like Weber, and the money works for a guy who isn’t going to be on your top pairing.  I think he plays tough, and that’s something I wouldn’t mind rubbing off on a few other guys.  It did make me curious to see what his advanced stats look like, so I checked.

Weber played a decent amount – 42 games, just over 15 minutes at even strength per.  Though he doesn’t play on the power play, he lead the team in ToI on the PK, with an average of 2:59 per game.  As you might expect from a defensive d-man, his Offensive Zone Starts are in the bottom third on Buffalo, though the Sabres don’t employ zone-matching nearly as much as some teams.  I’m curious to see if that changes with a full season under a new coach.  Looking at Corsi Relative to Quality of Competition, you can see that after Sekera, who was facing by far the thoughest comp at evens, Myers, Weber and Ehrhoff were very similar in facing decent players, with Pardy a half-step below them.  Ruhwedel and Pysyk were being protected but that’s to be expected from rookie injury fill-ins – especially one you basically grabbed off the street.

Mike Weber is never going to be an offensive juggernaut, but I think he was getting some tough jobs and doing about as well as you’d expect.  He played tough, thankless minutes on a bad team, and from his locker clean-out comments, he has the passion that the core of the team sometimes appears to lack.  I’m happy to see him here for a few more years.

Sabres Offseason – Important Dates

Hey everybody, I am back from a bit of a hockey hiatus!  I was annoyed with some of the grumpy chest-thumpers in the blogger/MSM/team dynamic for a while there, but now I’m back and ready for a successful offseason!  First things first, congratulations to the Blackhawks.  If there’s one thing Buffalo is good at, it’s making tenuous links topeople to try and share in their glory.  So, thanks Patrick Kane!  I promise you won’t get stuck in a fire truck bucket this time.  Well, as long as they use the truck from Amherst.

As a public service, I thought I’d provide a list of dates for the important events of the offseason.  Things are a little different thanks to the lockout before the season, and this should help straighten that out for you.

  • June 30th – The NHL Draft is held in New Jersey.  Buffalo is hosting a draft party.
  • July 1st – Bucky writes a hatchet job piece on Ryan Miller.
  • July 5th – 1st day of Free Agency.
  • July 6th – The date by which all hockey fans realize there are no good players available as free agents.
  • July 7th-12th – Sabres Development Camp at FNC.  On the 12th, there is a scrimmage, autograph session for kids 12 and under with the rookies, with the evening taken up by a live music at Canalside.  10,000 Maniacs will be performing at 8pm.  First 500 to arrive will be getting a complimentary 56k modem, an AOL floppy disc, and a Laserdisc of the 10,000 Maniacs appearance on MTV’s Unplugged.
  • July 28th – The Buffalo News will run a positive piece about Darcy’s moves.  Nah, I’m just fucking with you.  Bucky will do another lame ‘GM for a Day’ piece with moves no actual GM could pull off.

That’s good for now.  You’ll hear more about training camp and the team’s schedule further into the summer.

War Without End

The Buffalo Sabres didn’t make the playoffs.  They traded their captain away.  Ryan Miller is selling his townhouse.  We’re booing too much.  It’s a tough life, being a Buffalo sports fan, and I’m not even going into the hand-wringing over what the Bills are doing in the draft.  It seems like forever since we were truly comfortable with the people in charge of our teams, the choices they make.  At best we can offer a lame “Well, at least they made some changes!” when looking at the new coaches, but for many, it’s not enough.  The back office people are all the same, and while many of us are hoping there will be some significant changes in players on the field/ice, well, we’ll see what happens.  Fitzpatrick and Pominville are both gone, both guys who were liked here as much for their nice-guy personalities than for contributions to the cause.  A few shining moments here and there, a ton of mediocrity, and a hearty shrug as they pass through the door.

What does it take to change this attitude here?  There’s an adversarial feel to the team/fan/media dynamic much of the time, does winning alone fix that?  Do you have to win the Stanley Cup or a Super Bowl?  Just make the playoffs?  It can’t be that last one, at least for the Sabres, as just squeaking in and getting eliminated didn’t help much.  Bills fans might kill for that now, but knowing this city, that buys ‘em six months, tops.

It’s like people have forgotten that sports are fun.  I watched the Sabres game the other night, and had a blast.  Despite the fact they were eliminated from the playoffs.  Stop crossing our arms and sitting on our hands because we don’t like their breakout play.  If watching hockey or football makes you miserable, and you can’t help but take it out on your fellow fans, why do you still do it?  Did you forget there are other forms of entertainment?  Or are you afraid of being called a bandwagon fan when you hear about a win streak and start watching again?  I won’t call you that.

I didn’t want this to come out like a “quit booing, dummy” post, but it does seem like our go-to move.  It reflects poorly on a city that loves their sports teams as much as anywhere.  Let’s make next season, a season to be positive.  Let’s cheer again.  Let’s support a player who makes a mistake.  We can’t control the team on the ice or field, or what the media writes, but we are in charge of ourselves.  Be happy.  Have fun.

See you at the draft.

the sabres, man