Positive Forward Momentum

The difficulty with being a Buffalo sports fan, is knowing when to be excited.  And then when you DO get excited, something happens at the worst time to dampen your enthusiasm (Eichel gets injured, or your favorite football player mows down a pedestrian, or the Bills get put in a position to have their destiny in their hands and then eff it up).  BUT, right now, it feels like a good time to flex those positive feelings about the Buffalo Sabres.

Since Eichel has returned from his injury, Buffalo has been building some momentum.  They are 5-3-2 in the last 10, goals are actually being scored, and they are edging slowly up the standings.  Perhaps the best part is the fact that they’ve won some games at home, which is a nice change from last season.  That the Sabres can be 4 points away from a playoff spot while scoring the least number of goals in the Eastern conference is a great sign for their chances to actually make the playoffs.  If they can stay top 10 in the league in goals allowed and keep improving in goal scoring (and a healthy Jack/ROR/Ennis will help with this), we should be in the race at the end of the year and not wondering whether or not we tanked hard enough.

Is there a chance things could still go wrong?  Sure, this is Buffalo.  There’s always another level of suck possible.  The Sabres, at least seem less likely to go there than in the past few years, and that’s worth celebrating.

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.

Shifts in Strategy

The Sabres have made some moves.  They usually do this time of year, especially since Pegula bought the team.  The theme so far has been to get tougher.  John Scott, a feared fighter (murdersaurus!) who will probably see limited action, was the first signing of FA for Buffalo.  More intriguing is the trade, sending Derek Roy out to Dallas, and getting Steve Ott and Adam Pardy in return.  Pardy is probably just a spare part that had to be tossed into the deal, and at $2 million, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him get the Shaone Morrisonn treatment in Rochester.  Buffalo has too many D to find a spot for him here.  I mean, I’d rather have Sulzer as the seventh guy at $725,000.

No, the interesting part of the swap is Roy/Ott.  I’ve defended Roy in the past, but it seems clear his welcome had worn thin with many people.  The team trades away offensive production for ‘grit’ and penalties.  Ott will not be a top 2 center, which leaves a hole to fill if you assume Hodgson is the number 2.  Ennis showed some skills as a C late last year, but it’d be risky to run him out there without a larger sample size to judge him on.  That leaves another trade as an option, and while I know Darcy can find guys that we think aren’t available and make it happen, I just can’t see who it is who is going to fill that role that Roy leaves empty.

The X factor in this is Bobby Ryan.  Not a C, but if you want to replace Roy’s scoring potential, there you go.  Perennially over the 30 goal mark, Ryan could add some punch on the right side, where Stafford has failed to find consistency.  Unfortunately, Derek Roy had been one of the guys mentioned going back as a return, so now you’d be left with figuring out who Anaheim wants in return.  Ennis?  McNabb?  I don’t think we’d be getting off easy here, and many of us fans wouldn’t like what we’d lose.  Alexander Semin?  Somehow I don’t think he would get along with Lindy Ruff, but I wouldn’t fault the team for trying it out, if the cap hit can be managed.

Buffalo is in an interesting spot here.  The old ‘core’ is getting slowly replaced by new guys, with Roy, Campbell, Goose and others out of town.  Can the young guns like Ennis, Gerbe, McNabb and the like step up?  Will there be a stud center on the team due to a trade out of left field?  The Sabres aren’t far out of the playoffs, but there hasn’t yet been a move that says “Yep, they just got closer”.  Big time right now for both Darcy and Lindy.

Thus Ended

The Sabres can no longer make the playoffs, and have one more meaningless game.  In the short term, I was ticked about it last night, but today, not so much.  It was a very difficult season in many ways, with injuries, underachievement, and media sniping.  The highs were really high, and the lows were rock-bottom.  We saw veterans and prospects leave (Gaustad, Gragnani, Kassian) and got a few new contributors (Hodgson, Sulzer).

How do I feel about this season?  I’m disappointed that it won’t be going on to the playoffs, for sure.  There is talent here – and I think the deadline improved that overall – but injuries and some questionable play overrode that.  Next year’s roster won’t be that different, barring trades, as there are already 20 players under contract.  Hecht, Boyes, and the surprising Sulzer are UFAs, with TJ Brennan, Tyler Ennis and Patrick Kaleta as RFAs.  I can’t imagine either Hecht or Boyes being back.  Sulzer is interesting, though.  I’d love to keep him, as he showed some decent skills and kind of took that 6/7 D spot from Weber.  Ennis is a no-brainer, and I imagine Kaleta gets a deal.  That’s 13 forwards, including Marcus Foligno and Corey Tropp.  If Brennan and McNabb start with Rochester, that leaves Regehr, Ehrhoff, Myers, Leopold, Sekera, and Weber as the D pending something with Sulzer.  Of course, Miller/Enroth in the net.

Do I think that’s where we end up?  I do not.  The Pegula era Sabres have already shown they are willing to deal guys to get guys, and we have parts and pieces other teams would covet.  July 1 is going to be interesting.  Buffalo will be a player again, a destination for players who hopefully see the improvements and potential here.

I might post about the draft, and July 1, but expect this space to be fairly quiet in the offseason.  I’m planning on blog maintenance, such as trying different themes, stuff like that.  Might post up about the playoffs if the mood strikes, too.  I’ll still be on Twitter, and please check out my non-hockey gadget/movie/TV/book talk at Honk if you Love Justice.

Gameday 2011-2012 – Canadiens at Sabres

We all know what’s at stake for the Buffalo Sabres right now.  Every point is important, being 2 back of Washington (also playing tonight).  The improbable run Buffalo’s on (slightly more improbable than last year) is coming to a close, with only 8 more games left after tonight.  The Sabres have gotten a lot of help – the other contenders for the 8th spot have been doing a LOT of losing, so that even when Buffalo only picked up 1 point in a few games recently, it didn’t hurt.  They weathered Tyler Myers being out, and get him back tonight.

So why isn’t there more buzz about this team?  Well, for me, I’m just enjoying the ride.  Trying not to get too wound up in case they falter.  Even if they make the playoffs, there are some juggernauts they might end up facing (Penguins look deadly right now).  Much like Gerbe’s second-half last year, I’ve loved watching Tyler Ennis develop.  I want to see more of this rough and tumble Tyler Myers.  I’m very much enjoying the success of the young guns on their call-ups, with Foligno in particular showing why we were okay with trading away Zack Kassian.

I might just get to watch tonight, and while I’m not jumping-up-and-down excited like some people seem to be expecting, I’m happy.  Take it or leave it.

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.

Beatings Literal and Figurative

The Buffalo Sabres beat the Boston Bruins.  Badly.  They tried two goalies, both of who allowed 3 goals.  The Bruins took a bunch of stupid penalties.  When they couldn’t solve Ryan Miller, they tried to get dirty.  That didn’t work, either.  Buffalo stood in and took the physical pounding, and won the game.  My positives:

Ville Leino.  What a game he had last night.  He’s a puck possession beast, and we might finally be seeing what we hoped to see from him.  Great fun watching him right now.

Patrick Kaleta.  That was about as close to a perfect Kaleta game as we’ve seen in a long time.  Scored, fought (well, mostly held on for dear life), and was a prime agitator.  Bruins were after him all night, including Chara trying to elbow him in the head.  This is what we expect when he’s in the lineup.

Ryan Miller.  His stellar goaltending performance could almost get lost in the shuffle, with all of the other stuff going on.  But we won’t let it, because it was awesome.  It seemed like there were long stretches where he wasn’t challenged, but he made 36 saves anyway.

Tyler Ennis.  The only guy above 50% at the faceoff dot (other than Luke Adam’s single faceoff win), he had a goal and an assist to boot.


The officiating.  I think that the Boston goal probably should’ve counted, that was a reputation call based on the previous games in this series.  I’m glad it didn’t count, though.  The refs also didn’t seem to have a good feel for the rough stuff and how to control it.

NBC Sports Network.  I love Doc Emrick, so I don’t think it’s his fault, but it seemed as if the broadcast and studio show were ready with all sorts of stats and facts and video to show how awesome the Bruins are…and had no idea what to do when the Sabres dominated them.  Milbury was an idiot again (no surprise), and as mentioned on Twitter last night, I find it really funny that someone who once beat a fan with a shoe would think that someone fighting on the ice with a visor on is some terrible person.

What’s next:

Buffalo currently sits 9 points back of Ottawa for the eighth and final playoff spot in the East, but they have to leapfrog a few other teams to get there.  The Senators have lost seven straight, though, so a run by the Sabres now might just get them back into contention.  Still, I think the focus should be on getting past the Islanders (who they are tied with) and Winnipeg (4 points up).  Then we’ll talk about 8th place.

Sabres Win; Miller Gets Tootoo’d

What a wild affair in Nashville, as the Sabres beat the Predators 3-2.  Luke Adam, Zack Kassian and Tyler Ennis scored, but the real story will again be Miller getting flattened.  This time, the team came to his aid like he owed them money, though Ryan tried to fight his own battle by punching whoever came near.  Jordin Tootoo was the culprit, and though he was being gently touched by Ehrhoff at the time, he practically leaped into Miller’s chest like a linebacker making a tackle.  Gaustad dove in to take care of business and it basically seemed like exactly what we should see when that happens.

Kassian’s goal was sweet, there was some hard work, but the team was severely outshot.  Miller made some huge saves, before and after getting mauled.  We all now wait to hear what Tootoo will get for a suspension, if any.  He’s no boy scout though I don’t know how much of that would count for Shanny’s repeat offender status.  Lindy Ruff was outraged after the game, and this might be the first time I would wish we could play Nashville again in a season.

Gameday 2011-2012 – Sabres at Hurricanes

It’s hard to know what to write about this team right now – that was a rough loss last game, but if Myers is going to score and go beast mode on guys, well, that I’m glad to see.  Carolina sucks so hopefully Jhonas Enroth can rebound against them.  Weber is hurt, TJ Brennan is recalled, Hecht practiced, Ennis is still non-contact (think I got all that right).

Wins tonight and tomorrow (Enroth gets both?) would be great for putting some distance on Toronto who is struggling through injuries and questionable goaltending also.

Gameday 2011-2012 – Jets at Sabres

It’s going to be quite a night at the FNC tonight.  Dale Hawerchuk and Rick Jeanneret will be inducted into the Sabres Hall of Fame (hey, that means they get swords right?  COOL).  The newfangled Thrasher-Jets are in town for the first time, and we are all waiting impatiently to see which goalie gets the nod tonight for Buffalo.  Ryan Miller provided some choice quotes regarding the situation:

“I’m here to win,” Miller said Monday. “That’s the emotion you get from me. If I’m discouraged, if I’m pissed off, that’s just how it is. I want to win. I don’t want to be out there getting scored on. I don’t want to be pulled out of a game. I want to, you know, I want to fucking win the game.”

I put the bad words back in, those weren’t in the News story.  Could you imagine all the letters (hand-written!) they’d get from the old people that still get a physical copy of the paper?  Heh.  By the way, love this bit from Lindy Ruff at the end:

“There’s a lot of fire there,” Ruff said. “He’s emotional about his game, and that’s what you like. I like him the way he is.”

I keep hearing the chorus to “Just the Way You Are” now.  Aww.  Moving on, Ennis and Hecht are still recovering, and Kaleta is still suspended, so I imagine Corey Tropp will still be in tonight.  As an aside, wasn’t his name being pronounced like it was spelled ‘trope’ in the preseason?  Or maybe at Traverse City.  Whichever way it’s said, he hasn’t looked out of place out there to me.  It’s a 7pm game, but expect it to start a bit later with the pre-game festivities.  Adjust your DVRs accordingly if you need to record the game.