Tempering the McDavid/Eichel hype in Buffalo or Talking like an idiot

ARX_3633It’s been an interesting season in Buffalo. Regardless of how bad or horrendously bad you think the team is, there’s little reason to claim they’re uninteresting. And some of that is the debate between the merits of “tanking” and trying real hard to win games with a terrible roster.

There’s been a lot of resistance from a segment of the fan base and some of the scribes at The Buffalo News towards the idea of embracing the tank, and making the most out of this rebuild. Noted scribe Bucky Gleason dropped a whopper of a “MY COLUMN:” today, dropping a heaping serving of truth to all the tank enthusiasts who have dreams of Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel dancing in their heads.

Instead of just saying how stupid it is, I’m going to point out how stupid it is.

Last year, sometimes in meetings with front-office staff and other times in casual conversations, Ted Black was telling people that everything would be fine after the 2015 draft. The master plan called for finishing last, allowing the Sabres to land either Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel.

Not even half a sentence in and Bucky’s dropping that insider knowledge to create the illusion of insight. Ted Black, Tim Murray, and just about everyone in the organization has been referencing building with high picks since before the 2014 Draft. The Sabres have been building through the draft for four years, going back the 2012 Draft when they snagged Mikhail Grigorenko and Zemgus Girgensons. At some point, you move on. Is it a huge deal to acknowledge you’ll be comfortable doing so at a certain point? Unacceptable.

Forget that the Sabres would have only a 20 percent chance of landing McDavid, considered the better of the two prospects this season. Sabres staffers and delusional fans, some of whom happen to be the same people, convinced themselves that Eichel also would answer their prayers.

Yes, the Sabres would have only a 20% chance of retaining the top pick if finishing dead last. This would be more than the 13.5% chance given to the team that finishes 29th, or the 11.5% chance given to the team that finishes 28th, as well as every other team in the lottery. It’s as if you’d have the best chance to get the best player should you finish last. What a revelation!

I know if I were a fan, the last thing I’d want is the team’s staff to be on board with whatever put the team in the best position to win. No need for that delusional fan mentality. There needs to be detachment from what the team might be able to do to improve their roster.

Bucky’s totally right. Getting Eichel would be a worthless consolation prize. It’s hard to convince yourself that Eichel could be a valuable choice when TSN’s Bob McKenzie says “both McDavid and Eichel project as bona fide franchise players, A++ prospects who will be No. 1 NHL centers” or Craig Button says “Eichel and McDavid are generational players” or any other prospect report says that it’s the case.

I’m gonna go with Bucky on this one. Then I’m going to go step in front of a bus.

Quick question: Did ownership or people in the front office, other than GM Tim Murray and his scouts, watch them play enough to make that assessment? Are they absolutely certain that either player would really save the franchise, the way Sidney Crosby supposedly saved the Penguins?

Quick question: does it matter what team staff is discussing when they ultimately cede the decision to GM Tim Murray and his scouts? Read the rest of this entry

Sabres send Larsson to Rochester, recall Schaller & Varone

schallerSunday was an off day for the Buffalo Sabres, but it didn’t come without some news.

Early Sunday evening, the team announced they have recalled forwards Tim Schaller and Phil Varone from the AHL’s Rochester Americans, while sending back center Johan Larsson.

Schaller has been having a phenomenal year, becoming a key player for the Amerks and earning multiple looks with the Sabres. On a team with more notable offensive prospects, he’s leading Rochester in goals (10) and notched his first NHL goal December 21st against Boston on his second of now three recalls.

Varone, on the other hand, gets his first recall of the season. Leading the Americans in scoring with 29 points in 35 games, the former Erie Otter collected a goal and an assist in a nine-game stint with the Sabres back in January and February 2014.

Both players are deserving of their respective recalls. Both players have shown capabilities beyond the AHL level. But the more interesting part of this roster shuffle is in regards to Johan Larsson, who’s drawn the ire of media, fans and, apparently, coaches due to his questionable play.

Larsson, 22, has one goal and one assist in 12 NHL games over two recalls this season. Apparently, that doesn’t seem to be enough output for a player whose game isn’t the type that exhibits buzzwords such as “grit” or “compete.”

In his most recent eight game stint with the Sabres, he added a goal and an assist with an even plus-minus rating as the team was outscored 36-14 and went 1-6-1. In a terrible stretch, Larsson was on the ice for as many goals for as goals against: two. Read the rest of this entry

Overreactions with 43 to go: Ineffective Sabres shut out by Luongo, Panthers

460980928_slideIt’s hard to explain the mastery over the Sabres by Florida Panthers goaltender Roberto Luongo. Yes, the Sabres aren’t good at hockey, but this is something.

Luongo continued his dominant run over Buffalo with yet another shutout, his second this season alone against the Sabres, as Florida won by a 2-0 score.

In his last five games against Buffalo, Luongo is 5-0-0, allowed two goals and has four shutouts while stopping 130 of 132 shots (.985 sv%). The last time he gave up a goal in Buffalo was 2006. He’s been alright.

Nick Bjugstad and Sabres legend Brad Boyes scored for Florida, who moved within one point of the New York Rangers for the final wild card spot in the Eastern Conference. Their goaltender turned away all 30 shots he faced.

Michal Neuvirth stopped 31 of 33 shots for Buffalo, who have now won just one of their last eight and are thankfully dropping like a rock to the league basement.

“I’m proud of my mental toughness tonight,” said Neuvirth.

We’re all proud, Michal. All of us.

  • This game wasn’t very entertaining.
  • This stretch against the Sabres for Luongo is kinda crazy. Not absurd, because this team is doo-doo butter and doesn’t score goals much to begin with, but Robbie knows how to lock it down. The Sabres next visit the Panthers on February 28th, right before the NHL trade deadline.
  • The fact Tyson Strachan isn’t undoubtedly the worst defenseman on this team says a lot about it. He was basically signed for Rochester, and he’s getting leaned on as a key veteran. Absurd.
  • Tyler Ennis was the best player on the ice for Buffalo. Ended up with three shots, but he seemed to be the one that created most of the offense. Don’t know if it was in the game plan, but he sure spent a lot of time trying to stretch the defense and catch outlet lobs from his own zone. Read the rest of this entry

Overreactions with 46 to go: Sabres storm back in 3rd to beat Isles

460861224_slideFor most of Saturday night’s game, the result looked inevitable. For the final 13:21 of regulation, it became nothing but a bunch of questions.

Three Sabres goals in a span of 5:12 during the third period brought Buffalo back from a 3-0 deficit before Tyler Ennis scored the shootout winner in a 4-3 shootout win over the New York Islanders.

Nick Deslauriers, Zemgus Girgensons and Chris Stewart all tallied goals in the explosive comeback, with Islanders call-up Kevin Poulin, in his second start in back-to-back nights, getting shredded to force overtime.

New York had opened up a 3-0 lead thanks to an early goal by Nick Leddy and two goals from nephew-of-Buffalo-legend John Tavares. They carried that lead into the third period where it all fell apart.

Deslauriers opened the scoring by ripping a rebound past Poulin at 6:39. After Drew Stafford took a dubious goaltender interference penalty, Deslauriers rifled a pass from inside his own blueline to a streaking Girgensons, who made it 3-2 with his second shorthanded goal.

“We always believed, but we got lucky,” Deslauriers said. “The puck just popped out at me. I took a shot and it went in. From there, we built momentum and Girgensons buried a nice goal.”

Less than two minutes later, the lead was officially gone, as Stafford fed Stewart, who cut in front of Poulin and tucked it home to tie the game.

Ennis scored the only goal of the shootout, and Jhonas Enroth stopped all three Islanders attempts after making 33 saves in 65 minutes of play.

Buffalo now heads to Ottawa for a game with the Senators on Monday night.

  • The Sabres lost defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen during the game, as he apparently caught the bug that has been sidelining guys for the last couple weeks. Nolan said after the game there would be a recall coming. (UPDATE: Sabres have recalled Mark Pysyk from Rochester)
  • I don’t see the benefit of having Johan Larsson playing 9:23 on the wing with Cody McCormick and Patrick Kaleta rather than 18-20 in all situations with the Americans. This team isn’t very good. Pick up a plug off waivers or call up Matt Ellis, let Larsson keep developing with more minutes. Read the rest of this entry

What to watch for at 2015 World Junior Championships

HKO World Juniors USA Canada 20130103It’s the most wonderful time of the year. While the NHL takes a short holiday break at Christmas, it serves as a short respite before two of the best weeks of hockey of the year.

The yearly IIHF World Junior Championships, an exciting tournament of good hockey that has become a referendum on whether or not Canada is a failure as a nation, begin today. By the time the gold medal is awarded January 5th, we’ll have a look at some of the best young hockey players in the world.

With the Sabres in a precarious rebuilding phase, this tournament takes on a greater importance. Not only is there a desire to see your players succeed, like Rasmus Ristolainen did last year, scoring the overtime game-winner in the final as he was named the best defenseman in the tournament, but it’s a glimpse at some of the best draft-eligible players. Unless you’re living under a rock with no access to the internet, you can guess that would mean Canada’s Connor McDavid and American Jack Eichel.

But with Buffalo’s draft position being nothing beyond speculation and hope at the moment, we can look at the top young players who already are in the Sabres’ system.

Unfortunately, despite the depth in the Buffalo prospect pool, the team will have a small number of players participating in this year’s tournament. Russia’s Nikita Zadorov is stuck with the Sabres, not getting released for the World Juniors because he’s pretty much the second best defenseman on the NHL roster. Czech forward Vaclav Karabacek was cut after he overslept and was late to a team meeting. Swedish goaltender Jonas Johansson had to drop out due to injury, and Canada’s Nick Baptiste didn’t survive the first round of cuts in their camp.

That leaves us with four guys to keep an eye on, so here’s what to look for:

Hudson Fasching, RW, #22, United States

F11C1994Who is this guy? Fasching wasn’t drafted by the Sabres, but thanks to Tim Murray’s dealings at last year’s trade deadline, he’s in the pipeline now. Acquired from Los Angeles with Nick Deslauriers in exchange for Brayden McNabb and two second round picks, hopes are high for Fasching. The Minnesota Golden Gopher is a big kid (6’2″, 207) who plays a big game and projects as a powerful forward. He’s got an incredible back story and could find himself in Rochester next season developing as a pro.

Fasching should get top minutes in all situations for the Americans, which will put him in a position to be a game-breaker. Hudson had two goals and two assists in five games in last year’s tournament, and should be counted on as a veteran on the team.

Best case scenario: Fasching dominates physically and emotionally while coming up with some clutch goals and assists. He finishes with 7-9 points in the tournament and has a strong performance in the final as the Americans claim the gold they deserve.

+ + + +

Victor Olofsson, LW, #12, Sweden

Victor+Olofsson+Sweden+v+USA+White+Sg3wy_OLaj9lWho is this guy? Buffalo’s seventh round pick (181st overall) in the 2014 draft, Olofsson could be a late round gem, but he’s still a ways off from being a top prospect. Currently playing in Sweden, he’s known for his shooting and scoring. Offensively, the tools are there, but word seems to be that he needs to develop the rest of his game as well.

Olofsson has been seeing time on the Swedish team’s third line, so he’ll get solid minutes and an opportunity to make a difference for a team that’s looking to avenge their defeat in last year’s final.

Best case scenario: Olofsson chips in 4-5 goals throughout the tournament, enough to get noticed and leaned on a bit as the games get bigger.

+ + + +

J.T. Compher, C, #7, United States

J+T+Compher+USA+Blue+v+USA+White+08omLVqERUllWho is this guy? Compher is one of the more exciting prospects in the Sabres’ stable. A fantastic two-way forward out of the University of Michigan, he was pegged to be a part of last year’s team before he injured his foot blocking a shot in practice. Drafted by the Sabres with a second round pick acquired from Carolina in the trade that sent Andrej Sekera to the Canes, he’s been having a solid sophomore year with the Wolverines.

Compher should play in all situations for the Americans, and his speed and all-around game should make him a valuable part of the squad.

Best case scenario: Compher chips in a point or so each game while being reliable against top players on opposing teams. He goes off in the final, racking up three points and helping the United States sneak out a 9-2 win in the gold medal game.

+ + + +

Sam Reinhart, C, #23, Canada

F11C1596Who is this guy? Buffalo’s second overall pick in this past draft, he’s got both NHL experience from the start of this season and World Junior experience from last year’s tournament, where he picked up two goals and three assists in seven games as the Canadians lost hilariously in the bronze medal game. Sam’s already been named an assistant captain for the Canadian squad, and he’ll get top-6 minutes and be leaned on in key situations.

Reinhart will be considered one of the top players in the tournament, and he’ll be expected to stand out and perform. He struggled offensively in his stint with the Sabres (like the rest of the team), but his 27 points in 15 games with Kootenay since being returned to junior shows he’s still a force at the junior level.

Best case scenario: Reinhart dominates, leading the tournament in scoring with 14-16 points while developing an intense on-ice and personal chemistry with Connor McDavid, to the point that McDavid expresses his desire to go full-Lindros on whatever team drafts him and demands a trade to Buffalo. They become best bros and a reality television series is developed and they win Cups on Cups for years. Meanwhile, despite the All-Tournament Team performance of Reinhart, Canada loses their battle for Canadian Gold (bronze) and in their medal-less devastation, the nation to the north realizes that winning this tournament is pretty much meaningless, so they relax and learn to enjoy good hockey.

Overreactions with 48 to go: Sabres can’t hold on to late lead, fall to Bruins in OT

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After the previous night’s debacle, heading into Boston against a rested Bruins team, one would’ve reasonably expected a decisive result against the favor of the Sabres. Buffalo didn’t go down easy. In fact, they almost had a heck of a win.

Despite tired legs, and losing both their captain Brian Gionta and dreamboat winger Marcus Foligno in the first period, the increasingly depleted Sabres surrendered a late lead before allowing the extra-time winner in a 4-3 overtime defeat in Boston.

Bruins defenseman Dougie Hamilton’s second of the game with 1:31 remaining forced the extra session, and it was Loui Eriksson who netted the winner at 2:14 of overtime to hand Buffalo the loss.

Hamilton opened the scoring in the first period, but second period markers by Sabres defensemen Andrej Meszaros and Rasmus Ristolainen would give Buffalo a brief lead. “Brief” would be exactly one minute, as Boston’s Chris Kelly answered Ristolainen’s goal exactly a minute later, tipping in a Zdeno Chara point shot.

460762632_slideThe Sabres would take the lead in the third on New Hampshire native Tim Schaller’s first National Hockey League goal. Schaller, recalled from Rochester last night, beat Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask on a wraparound early in the period. Hamilton would tie it later on in the period.

Jhonas Enroth stopped 33 shots in the overtime loss, as he filled in for an ill Michal Neuvirth, who was expected to start.

  • Sabres coach Ted Nolan said after the game that Marcus Foligno would be out for a while. It’s assumed he hurt himself in the fight with Boston’s Matt Bartkowski. Sort of a shame he’ll be out, as he’d been on a pretty solid run of good play of late.
  • The Bartkowski hit on Gionta is one of those predatory hits that show a lack of respect between players. You don’t line a guy up like that to get control of the puck. You line him up to take advantage of his prone position. There may not be any supplemental discipline, as he already was assessed a major and game misconduct. Just a scummy hit.
  • Good for Tim Schaller, scoring his first NHL goal in front of his family and close to home. He said on the postgame that he went to Bruins games all the time growing up. Dream come true for the kid, who has earned his looks for the Sabres this season.
  • At what point should an adult ask people to stop calling him “Dougie?” Read the rest of this entry

Overreactions with 49 to go: Avalanche bury crumbling Sabres

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With pregame rumors of a Johan Larsson call-up circulating, there was speculation as to what could possibly necessitate the move. Turns out Matt Moulson’s late scratch due to being sick would be what is referred to as a “harbinger.”

Missing their top left winger, and losing Patrick Kaleta due to illness and Tyler Myers to injury, the Sabres were on their heels all night and dropped a 5-1 decision to the visiting Colorado Avalanche.

In a fitting tribute to the discourse around the team this season, 2006 first overall pick Erik Johnson took a pass from 2013 first overall pick Nathan MacKinnon and beat Jhonas Enroth just 2:23 into the game.

It was all downhill from there. Colorado’s Cody McLoed would score shorthanded five minutes later. That 2-0 lead would hold through the third period, when Alex Tanguay and John Mitchell would score to put the game away.

Larsson made his whirlwind night memorable, burying his first career NHL goal with 6:33 left to make it 4-1. Tanguay would add an empty netter and the Sabres fell 5-1 for the second straight game.

Enroth made 22 saves in his first loss since December 4th. Calvin Pickard stopped 28 of 29 for the Avs.

  • Good for Johan Larsson to finally pick up his first NHL goal. Tonight was his 34th National Hockey League game. He’s not supposed to be some elite goalscorer, but at some point the points had to come. Nice way to cap off the day for him.
  • Ted Nolan brushed off the idea that it could be mumps that ailed Moulson and Kaleta. Could just be a flu bug, but hey, who knows. He’s not a doctor.
  • Missing Tyler Myers for an extended period of time will really aid the tank. Not so much in the way the team will be worse per se, but that guys like Andre Benoit and Andrej Meszaros might have to get more ice time.
  • The Sabres did a great job with the Make-A-Wish kid who dropped the puck for the ceremonial face-off. The kid was in the locker room helping interview players after the game. Really cool experience for him.  Read the rest of this entry

Overreactions with 52 to go: Zadorov’s OT winner extends Sabres’ streak

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For once, as this has been a rare occasion this 2014-2015 season, you can look at a game that the Sabres won and say to yourself, “They deserved the win.” Tonight was just one of those nights.

Nikita Zadorov‘s goal 29 seconds into overtime was the gamebreaker, as the Sabres defeated Florida, 4-3.

“I probably never had that big a goal in my life,” said Zadorov. “It’s a great feeling and I’m going to try to do it again.”

The young defenseman, fresh off a debate about whether or not he’ll be allowed to go play for Russia in the upcoming IIHF World Junior Championships in Toronto and Montreal, received a cross-ice pass from Tyler Ennis and ripped the winner past Panthers goaltender Al Montoya.

Cody Hodgson, Marcus Foligno and Brian Gionta also scored for Buffalo, which has now unreasonably won nine of their last 12.

Hodgson, who was stuck in the press box last game due to his lack of production, broke things open just 2:06 into the game, taking a pass from Patrick Kaleta and ripping it past Montoya.

“He got exactly where goal-scorers have got to get to,” said Sabres coach Ted Nolan.

Sean Bergenheim, Jimmy Hayes and Jussi Jokinen scored for Florida, who turned a 2-0 deficit into a 3-2 lead before Gionta’s equalizer. Sabres goaltender Jhonas Enroth stopped 25 of 28 shots for the win.

Buffalo closes their four game homestand Monday against Ottawa.

  • This was just the third time this season that the Sabres outshot their opponent. Buffalo finished with 32 shots on goal, just ahead of Florida’s 28. They are 3-0-0 when outshooting their opponent.
  • Seriously, just three times in 30 games. That’s ridiculously terrible.
  • Nikita Zadorov is a star and he’s rapidly moving up the list of “Easiest guys to root for.” Kid is very charismatic and more importantly he’s very good at playing hockey. Part of the Sabres’ surge is due to the fact he’s been getting minutes.
  • That Tyler Myers breakout pass to Brian Gionta’s tying goal was fantastic and the finish was beautiful. That’s a hell of hockey play. Read the rest of this entry

Overreactions with 53 to go: Sabres keep inexplicable run going, beat Flames 4-3

460334184_slideThe season is still young enough where the expected results don’t yet match the sample size. The Sabres, by far the worst team in the league in just about every category, somehow can’t find a way to get run over on a nightly basis where it matters most.

The regression is coming, but we’re not there yet.

Getting outshot 45-19 and out-attempted 76-36, the Buffalo Sabres, on the strength of a huge night from their top line, defeated Calgary 4-3.

Matt Moulson scored his second of the night with 7:29 remaining to give the Sabres a tenuous lead they wouldn’t surrender. Tyler Ennis would finish with three assists and Latvian god Zemgus Girgensons added a third period goal and an assist to pace the Sabres. Marcus Foligno scored Buffalo’s other goal.

“It wasn’t one of our better games,” said Sabres coach Ted Nolan. “But, it does show that the belief factor is starting to creep in.”

Jhonas Enroth was the workhorse again, stopping 42 of the 45 shots he faced. He’s come away with a win in 7 of his last 9 starts.

Buffalo has now won 8 of their last 11, and continue their homestand Saturday night against noted division rival Florida.

  • Tyler Myers and Josh Gorges… they did not have a good game. On the ice for every Calgary goal, Gorges himself was responsible for two of them, losing battles that quickly ended up behind Enroth. Myers was on the ice for 36 shot attempts against by the Flames.
  • Good that Marcus Foligno tallied a goal, but besides being smart enough to stand by himself on the back end of the goal crease, that goal was all Drew Stafford. Stafford made a great play to defend the puck behind the net and slide it cross-crease to an awaiting Foligno.
  • Really, really phenomenal game from Tyler Ennis. The top line has been playing very well and the result tonight is mainly on them. Read the rest of this entry

Chris Stewart: the paradox of the expendable, ideal Sabre

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Sabres fans always seem to be sort of conflicted about who they’re supposed to like. Who fan favorites are supposed to be. Who should be part of the core and who’s ripe to be run out of town. It seems like it’s a case-by-case basis.

There’s one guy on this current Sabres team that fits the bill for what Buffalo sports fans seem to love.

459847500_slideWorks hard? Check.

Fights guys? Check.

Scores goals? Check.

Hits people? Check.

Seems like he’s the full package. Except that no one’s really embracing him, regardless of the fact that he’s likely out the door at some point in the near future.

Since the Sabres acquired him in the deal that sent captain Steve Ott and franchise cornerstone Ryan Miller to St. Louis before last year’s trade deadline, Chris Stewart‘s shown he has the tools. The production has been underwhelming (as it is with just about everyone else on the roster), as he’s notably been cold with just three goals in 25 games, good for a tie for fifth most goals on the team. But he’s not someone who doesn’t have a track record.

Stewart broke into the NHL in 2008, scoring 11 goals in 53 games with Colorado in 2008-09. He followed that up with consecutive 28 goal seasons, one with the Avs and the other split with Colorado and St. Louis. He’s posted double-digit goal totals every season in the NHL, never less than 15 in a season since his rookie year, and he’s still on pace to break 10 despite his well-below-average shooting percentage this season (5.5%). Read the rest of this entry

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