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.

Vanek Downs Flyers

It wasn’t always pretty, but the Buffalo Sabres pulled away from the Philadelphia Flyers and won 5-2 today at First Niagara Center.  Thomas Vanek was in on every goal, scoring 2 of them, and Steve Ott scored in his first game.  Tyler Myers and Cody Hodgson had the other tallies.

It felt like Buffalo came to play in the first, always close to the puck and pushing play up the ice.  They fell away from that early in the second period, however, and that’s when the Flyers took over and got their 2 goals.  Vanek tied it later though, and the Flyers’ dead legs didn’t do them any favors in the third.

Who I liked:  Vanek, of course, and Cody Hodgson came on as the game went on, too.  Drew Stafford attempted to fight Scott Hartnell the second time the stupidest Flyer tried to ram a Sabre into the boards from behind.  Miller was very solid in the net, with both goals being deflected or screened.  He wasn’t grabbing as many pucks and freezing it as often as he usually does, but that may be the rust.  Ennis won 64% of his faceoffs, and Hodgson and Grigorenko were both positive as well.

What I didn’t like:  John Scott was on the ice for 3 shifts totaling 2:10.  Why?  I realize Gerbe and Leino are both out but if you don’t trust him to play, dress someone else.

Things I still don’t believe:  Vanek played 19 minutes, and took 9 shots.  NINE.  SHOTS.  I dream of games like that from him.

I’ll see you again tomorrow night, as Buffalo is heading to Toronto to face the Leafs.

Sabres at Ducks and Derek Roy

A west coast swing with late start times, just when we get a new toy to play with??  UGH.  I can’t wait to see how Cody Hodgson does tonight, even if I might fall asleep by the third period.  The first game with a new player is always fun, even if it sometimes goes downhill after that (*cough*Bernier*cough).  Hodgson will start out on a line with Ennis and Stafford, but we’ll see how that goes as the game wears on.

On the Miller comments.  Sounds like a guy tired of being asked about personnel decisions he has no say in.  Mountain out of a molehill, indeed.  Kind of wish Miller was Russian so he could only give quotes when a Russian reporter rolls through town.

Speaking of the Buffalo News…I read a comment there again.  STUPID.  It’s this:

I have been silent for awhile. I can’t believe I am reading the comments by Lindy. He stated Roy will now be his last minute center. Roy is the WORST defensive center in the league.

*facepalm*  I know there are those of you not happy that Roy is still here, but let’s see if this is actually true.  Of players that Behind the Net registers as centers, with more than 40 games played, Roy is 36th as far as Quality of Competition (Sami Pahlsson, another C coveted at the deadline, is right below him).  That’s out of 148, by the way.  He’s not getting nutty zone starts either, with offensive zone starts about 51% of the time.  That’s on par with Henrik Zetterberg and Brad Richards.  To contrast, Henrik Sedin starts in the offensive zone a staggering 77.5% of the time!  It’s obvious that Buffalo doesn’t ‘optimize’ zone starts the way some teams do.   Looking pretty good for Roy, whose stats are colored by his low offensive output this year (possibly still recovering from his injury early).

As I look at the stats, it’s clear that Roy has grown into being at least a solid defensive player, middle of the road to a bit better in most areas.  You may not like him as a person, or just think ‘he sucks’, but it’s really not true.

Woo, I guess

Seems like the Sabres won last night.  They even got some secondary scoring from Gerbe and Stafford.  Huh.  Wish I had seen it.  In the battle of two banged-up teams, the one that hadn’t travelled from Long Island to Chicago to Buffalo for 3 in 4 won.  Amazing.  It would be just like this team to start winning during a stretch where a good portion of people can’t easily see them.

Bright spots would be Stafford (1G 2A), Gerbe (1G 1A) as above, and I’d toss in Brayden McNabb who picked up two assists.  Buffalo is 4 points out of 7th in the East with that win.

By the way, the Edmonton media is a bunch of whiny annoying bitches.  Whether declaring that Kaleta is worse than Matt Cooke, or lamenting a quiet arena on a weekday for an underachieving team with a Western opponent, they all came off as super lame last night.  Cover the game, man.

Winning Weekend Fans The Goalie ‘Controversy’ Flames

Buffalo played Jhonas Enroth in both back to back games this weekend, and won both by one goal.  It certainly won’t mute the vocal minority who are now thinking that maybe Enroth should be the one to get 50-60 games this year.  I don’t think that’s what is happening here, Ruff is giving Ryan Miller some time to clear that horrible Flyers game out of his head, get the work in at practice, and come back with a vengeance.

As for the games, the one on Friday against the Flames was about as perfect a game as Buffalo could play.  They peppered Calgary’s backup goalie with shots, with Stafford and Gerbe scoring in the 2-1 win.  It was night and day from the difficult to watch team that couldn’t seem to buy a good scoring chance, when they weren’t too busy giving the puck away.  Last night’s game against the Senators was more even and not quite as dominant, but still showed a lot of positive signs.  Robyn Regehr was wrecking dudes, Boyes and Leino both played very solidly, and Nathan Gerbe was a stud on the Leopold goal.  Derek Roy scored the other Buffalo goal, and also had the decider in the shootout.  Vanek and Boyes both contributed in the shootout as well to keep Buffalo alive.  These two games really seem like what we were expecting from the start of the season, the right guys contributing…save for the goalie.  REALLY interested to see how Enroth gets used in the up coming week, with a Tuesday home game against Winnipeg, another Friday/Saturday combo with a rematch against Ottawa and a trip to Boston, then a Monday game in Montreal.  Is he back to one game on the weekend?  Two?  I think if Miller plays well against Winnipeg, assuming he goes in for that one, we are back to the ‘schedule’ for Jhonas.  But if he plays against the Jets…

Calder Watch – Luke Adam to the Second Line

It happened even faster than I figured, but Leino has taken over the top C spot with Pominville and Vanek, while Luke Adam gets put on the wing with Derek Roy and Drew Stafford.  Still, it’s not a bad place to be, as Derek Roy is a point per game guy when healthy, and Stafford can be a solid goal scorer.  But it’s still not the same as being between two guys in the top 10 for scoring in the entire league.  This could be a short-lived experiment if Vanek and Pominville look lost with Leino out there, but Lindy’s thinking is to get both lines going.  I can’t fault him for that.  Roy is an important player who hasn’t gotten going yet (1G 3A) and it’ll be interesting to see if Adam can help with that.  It’s a good test to see if he’s really a benefit to his linemates, or he was simply the beneficiary of sitting between two of the best point producers on the Sabres.

Miller Thievery

There used to be a vocal minority of Miller detractors, and one of their favorite songs to sing was “Miller never steals games!”.  And while the rest of us know that this isn’t the first game he’s stolen, it’s one of the most obvious.  The Sabres slept-walked through the first and most of the second, lucky that Ryan only allowed the one goal.  Jordan Leopold evened the score for them, cleaning up a Stafford rebound.  Montreal shot themselves in the foot, however, icing the puck with 6 seconds left in the second period.  Goose won the draw, a couple of quick passes and Vanek blasts it home for the eventual game winner.  Christian Ehrhoff added an empty netter.

You can be sure Lindy will be pressing the boys on the importance of a 60 minute effort, but it sure is nice to have the real Ryan Miller back there as a safety net against those 20 minute ones.

May You Live In Interesting Times

Well, this had to be one of the most interesting Sabres seasons in recent memory.  Buffalo started the season with a whimper, losing at a pace that had more of us thinking draft lottery than playoffs.  The first hints of Terry Pegula gave a vague hope for the future, but we didn’t know anything about him yet, so it was only a small distraction.  November was better than October, but not by much.

December finally had a good game or two for Ryan Miller, and the Terry Pegula rumors picked up steam.  The Sabres’ best offensive player at the time, Derek Roy, went down with an injury and only just now was able to return.  After that, many of us (myself included) counted Buffalo out.  They’d only gotten 30 points in the first 33 games, Miller was not the Vezina Miller, and Myers was looking more like a rookie this year than last.

January, things got VERY interesting there.  You’ll remember that’s when Stafford-mania began, as Buffalo came home for a game in the middle of the WJC road trip and beat the Bruins 7-6, on the back of a Staffy hat trick.  The beginnings of the upward swing were showing, with the Sabres going 4-0-1 after a sort of bottoming out loss to CalgaryNathan Gerbe suddenly found his way, earning his spot in the lineup and coming up huge (er, sort of) as the team inched their way back up the standings.  The month ended with the long all-star break, but the real story was still Terry Pegula, who kept appearing in all the right places as the team sale picked up steam.

February, yeah, February was kind of fun.  Terry Pegula really did buy the team, Thomas Vanek was in Atlas mode, Twitter met the Pegula daughters, and Tyler Myers was an OT hero.  Pegula day was AWESOME, and the team was rolling.  March was much of the same, with Buffalo in the playoffs and controlling their own destiny.  Even their deadline day acquisition contributed for more than one game.  We fell in love with these guys, and never wanted the ride to end.  The Sabres won a bunch of games to end the regular season, looking primed to upset some dudes in the playoffs.

Well, we all know what happened there.  They took the Flyers to 7, but couldn’t get it done.  Injuries to key guys didn’t help, but in the end, it was a 2 seed over a 7 seed.  So what now?  It’s hard to say.  This is Terry Pegula’s first off-season, and the team has ‘no financial mandates’.  Buffalo will have a lot of cap room (as high as $21 million thanks to the new TV deal) but also a lot of spots up for grabs.  Defense in particular could look very different, with only 3 guys under contract (one of them Shaone Morrisonn).  Will they make a big trade?  Go hard after the biggest names?  Fill spots with guys from Portland that should get a shot?  Do Kassian and Foligno figure in?  What do they do with Enroth (RFA)?  The ride will continue, and I can’t help but think the outlook continues to be bright.

What will happen here?  Locker cleanout usually has some interesting bits, where we find out who was injured, especially.  I may comment on the other games and series, and then it’s off-season mode.  Future posts will look at the roster, the spots and free agents.  Thank you Sabres.

Split Down The Middle

The Sabres returned home from Philly with a split in the series, 1-1.  Two one goal games, a cubic ass-load of penalties and one goalie switch already happening with Boucher getting the game 3 start after ‘Bob’ was chased.  I like what Lindy said about the physical play, that he’d rather see the team go too far with it than not far enough.  Cut down on the interference-type penalties, keep up with the physical play, and bring home game 3.  Some notes:

  • Looks like Pronger is still out.  Yes.
  • Mancari and Persson are sent back.
  • Nathan Gerbe is small.
  • Patrick Kaleta is from Angola.
  • Tyler Myers played Junior Hockey in Kelowna.
  • Sorry about those last three, thought I was Pierre McGuire for a second.
  • Drew Stafford needs to score, if only for everyone to see that he’s growing a mustache w/mutton chops from the looks of it.

Taking the boy to his first official Taekwondo class tonight, but will be DVRing the game and watching as soon as I can.  Let’s go Buffalo!

Sabres vs. Flyers – Grudge Match

There’s a history in this matchup, no question, whether it’s the 75 Stanley Cup finals, the 06 playoffs (can still hear RJ’s call of the Umberger hit to this day), and Philly and Buffalo look to add another chapter this week when they meet in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.  Aside from fanhood reasons, who you think wins this series is probably based on whether or not there is a ‘switch’ that a team can flip to start playing well.  In the Flyer’s case, the switch is probably present in the form of lurking horror Chris Pronger, who never met an elbow to the head or stomp to the leg he didn’t like.  Having seen Philly a few times recently, you can see that without Pronger they get a little squirrelly in front of Bobrovsky at times.  If Pronger can steady things there, I can see the series going differently.

Wild Card for the Sabres:  Nathan Gerbe.  We know what Thomas Vanek can do, but as Gerbe demonstrated against the Flyers he can be a difference-maker.  He, along with Drew Stafford, has been a big part of the Sabres’ surge in the second half of the year, scoring 9 of his 15 goals in the months of March and April after scoring only 1 from October to December.  He’s had good chemistry with Paul Gaustad, who provides the bulk in front of the net to screen the goalies.

So, am I going full homer and picking the Sabres to win this series?  Yes.  I think Ryan Miller, even the slightly more vulnerable one of this year, is still a + over Bobrovsky (or any of the other goalies if he gets the hook).  Both Buffalo and Philly are top scoring teams in the East, with Philly having a slight edge, though Buffalo is better in that regard more recently.  I’ll tell you what, it’s going to be a very tight series, and I can’t wait for it to happen.