Reflecting on the positives after a season of negatives

The 2014-15 Sabres season was strange, bizarre, and everything in between. As a season ticket holder I thought I knew what I was getting myself in to when the team broke camp at the end of September with a roster not exactly built for a long playoff run.

I was so wrong.

As Tim Murray shipped off whatever talent was left on the roster at the trade deadline the tank discussion was ratcheted up to a level previously thought unreachable. The various social media platforms became a veritable cesspool, as the tankers and anti-tankers became more and more entrenched in their beliefs. Columnists decried the goings on at the foot of Washington Street as immoral, while one particularly prescient radio personality knew all along that this was the right path to take; hell, he was so certain he declared himself worthy of being an NHL scout. Even when you thought it was over, the artist formerly known as “Harry Tee” got his 15 minutes of fame (and scorching hot takes).

When last place was finally cemented in Columbus a few weeks ago it put an end to the debates over Tim Murray’s morals and bemoaning Anders Lindback moonlighting as a capable NHL goaltender. In its place was (finally) the opportunity to take stock of the positives that have been overshadowed by being more concerned about Mike Smith’s sudden inability to get in the way of a hockey puck.

Believe it or not, there have been quite a few positives, both noticeable and not so noticeable, that will make the 2015-16 season (and the summer leading up to hit) much more enjoyable than the last six and a half months. Here are a few things that will ease the sting of that McDavid guy going to Edmonton: Continue reading

Sabres should improve but still won’t contend in 2014-15

Things are going to be better for the Sabres this year. Mainly because things can’t get much worse than they were last year.

Buffalo finished last in the NHL by a country mile. The Sabres were 14 points back of the 29th place Florida Panthers, the same Florida Panthers who also finished 29th in goals for in 2013-14 (39 goals better than the Sabres).

Tim Murray had quite a reclamation project to work on as he inherited a team that was 14 points and 39 goals south of the second-to-last team in the league last year. If the status-quo were to remain, the Sabres would have quite a hill to climb just to leap frog one team, let alone make a run at the playoffs.

Buffalo’s historically bad season was accomplished with only a month-and-a-half of Thomas Vanek, and interim stay from Matt Moulson and two-thirds of the year with Ryan Miller. Miller’s .923 save percentage was good for a monumental point share during his time here and I’ll be interested to see how Jhonas Enroth and Michal Neuvirth perform as a tandem.

Enroth is without doubt the number one goaltender on the roster. To say Neuvirth was shaky during the preseason would be an understatement and he may need a little more time to settle into a groove. Meanwhile, Enroth was tremendous in his preseason appearances and he’ll certainly see the lion’s share of the work early on this year. Will he be able to improve on his .911 save percentage? Will he avoid the lengthy losing streaks that have plagued his young career? The latter is perhaps the most important question here as Enroth’s up-and-down performances have been nothing short of a Jekyll and Hyde of goaltending.

It’s safe to say that there will be a slight decrease in performance in the Buffalo crease. It may not be a regression so steep that it costs the team multiple wins, but it’s safe to assume that the expectations in net will differ from recent years.

Of course, the Sabres roster is vastly improved. The team that will take the ice on Thursday is heads and shoulders better than the one that took the ice in 2013-14. In addition to the departures of Vanek and Miller, Steve Ott, Christian Ehrhoff, John Scott, Henrik Tallinder, Jamie McBain and Matt D’Agostini are all gone. There is some good and bad in that group, but the Sabres are more than improved from top to bottom.

A full season of Moulson and Chris Stewart alone should inject a fair bit of life into the Sabres offense as should the addition of Brian Gionta. With 23, 15 and 11 goals scored by the trio last season, it’s easy to say the Sabres have indeed made up their 40-goal shortfall from last season. Putting Moulson on the wing with Tyler Ennis and Drew Stafford could potentially give the Sabres a bona fide scoring line, although I’m not expecting anyone in blue and gold to surpass 30 goals this season. Continue reading

A look at how the Sabres roster might shake out

UPDATE: This was written as the news regarding Mikhail Grigorenko’s demotion broke.

The puck officially drops on the Buffalo Sabres season on Thursday night when Columbus rolls into town. Today marks the final day for roster trimming and the Sabres still have a few moves to make in order to work their way to 23 players.

Ted Nolan’s job isn’t going to be easy, especially when it comes to choosing his forwards.

Buffalo’s roster, for the most part, is fairly easy to project. A handful of defensemen – Tyler Myers, Josh Gorges, Andrej Meszaros, Mike Weber and Andre Benoit – are all but assured a spot as are a fair group of forwards. Namely Brian Gionta, Tyler Ennis, Matt Moulson, Chris Stewart, Marcus Foligno, Cody Hodgson, Drew Stafford and Zemgus Girgensons.

That leaves only a few spots for a number of players. Continue reading

Between the Pipes: Ugly game underscores uglier hit

Things got ugly on Wednesday night at First Niagara Center. On top of another ugly loss, the Sabres chief goon, John Scott did his best to draw more unwanted attention to the raging inferno at One Seymour H Knox III Plaza.

Scott’s hit was dirty, awful, embarrassing, the list goes on. Basically what any sane person had to say on the matter will suffice. Hopefully the NHL sits him down for a dozen or more and does the league and the Sabres a favor. He doesn’t help this team in any discernible way on the ice – yeah, I’m sure he’s a great locker room guy – and for a roster of young, developing players, that’s not the type of guy you need.

I’d give him 15, personally

As for the rest of the game, it was a pretty bad loss in a growing trend of lopsided decisions. While almost every game this year has been lopsided in one way or the other, the results this past week have been slowly getting worse. The Avalanche and Bruins both hit the four-goal plateau and it appears that surrendering a mountain of shots on goal won’t be the only trend the Sabres follow for the foreseeable future.

At some point I plan on focusing on specific goalie-related topics in addition to the game breakdown, but each loss manages to highlight some new deficiency that probably shouldn’t go unmentioned.

Wednesday was the flawed roster and it’s damning effects on this young season.

Most of the fans in Buffalo knew this was coming. It was to be a rebuild, the Sabres were shifting to a youth movement and building through their prospect cupboard and the draft. Yet it doesn’t feel right. It doesn’t feel remotely close to right. Continue reading

Sabres can fast track youngsters this season

Perhaps this season won’t be about winning the Cup for the Sabres, but that might not be all bad. If suffering is indeed what Sabres fans are in for, at least the crop of fresh faces on the roster will provide a compelling narrative to follow for the season.

In the weeks between the draft and training camp, the Sabres voiced their support of Rasmus Ristolainen as an NHL-ready prospect and confirmed that Mikhail Grigorenko would play the season in Buffalo. Additionally, players like Zemgus Girgensons, Johan Larsson and Mark Pysyk began showing that they’d also be vying for a spot on the roster that takes the ice in Detroit on October 2.

With only six days left until the regular season opens, the roster is beginning to take shape with only a few spots left to confirm. How many fresh faces will be on the opening night roster is one aspect that hasn’t been determined at this point.

Buffalo still has nine defensemen in camp with newly signed, junior-eligble Nikita Zadorov amongst the group. Zadorov has received rave reviews throughout the summer and the preseason and has probably earned himself his nine-game tryout before being sent back to London. However, the already crowded blueline corps has little wiggle room to find a spot for Zadorov, even if it is for nine games.

It would be great if the Sabres could find a way to get Zadorov into the line-up for those first nine games, they certainly don’t need to have Alexander Sulzer on the roster to open the season and could use his spot to insert Zadorov to start. It isn’t inconceivable to think that either Sulzer or Jamie McBain will be heading to Rochester regardless of what the Sabres plan on doing with Zadorov simply because I don’t see many minutes available for those two at this point. Continue reading

Rolston’s debut spoiled by familiar flaws

Hopefully you didn’t expect Ron Rolston to show up for 24 hours and sprinkle a magic cure-all on the Sabres roster. There certainly wasn’t much of a difference between the final game of the Lindy Ruff era and the first game of the Ron Rolston era.

A quick, uptempo start was erased by a poor second period littered with turnovers, penalties and a squandered lead. Ultimately the Sabres dropped another game (their second to the Leafs this season) and fell further into a hole that is looking near impossible to climb out of.

Firing Lindy Ruff was probably one of the toughest decisions Darcy Regier ever had to make. However, it was a necessary move that probably needed to be made sooner. Naming an interim head coach did a few things for the Sabres, namely keeping all options open once the season comes to a close.

You also might be able to speculate that having Ron Rolston take over on an interim basis keeps Darcy Regier untethered to any hire and may play a role in the expiring shelf life for the general manager. If Rolston has little impact on the roster, the writing would be on the wall for the Sabres to part ways with Regier at the end of the year.

As for Rolston, his impact wasn’t going to be felt in game number one. He officially took over just 24 hours previously and only had a morning skate as an introduction to his new team. Even tomorrow’s game against the Islanders will likely be a challenge as he will still have very limited ice and video time to impact his roster with.

Perhaps a more realistic expectation would be to wait until Tuesday night’s contest against Tampa Bay. By then Rolston will have had two full days of practice in addition to today to install some of the systematic tweaks he will want to run. Hopefully by Wednesday he has a firm grasp on running the team. Continue reading

Options for O’Reilly could be realistic

In what is becoming an annual rite of passage (of sorts), Ryan O’Reilly has joined the esteemed list of trade prospects for Sabres fans to drool over.

With the team on the ice languishing, those hoping a deal for O’Reilly can be swung are growing more rabid by the day just as they did for Bobby Ryan last year and plenty of other before him. The lack of results on the ice has obviously driven more fans to push for change in the locker room, behind the bench and even in the front office. Acquiring such a talent might just appease a faction of the team’s angered followers.

Ryan O’Reilly’s contract status has made him a hot trade topic. He would certainly help the Sabres if acquired.

Ryan O’Reilly is drawing comparisons to another former member of the Avalanche who came to Buffalo via trade. While O’Reilly lacks the Little League World Series pedigree of Chris Drury, his two-way play makes him an effective asset up the middle. He put up 55 points (18+37) with a poor Colorado squad last season, his third after stepping directly out of the OHL into the show.

I draw comparisons to Patrice Bergeron when I think of O’Reilly. Both are capable two-way centers who can fill an effective role shutting down the opposition’s top forwards while still contributing offensively. Technically, Bergeron fills the role of a third line center with the Bruins and that happens to be a similar role filled by Chris Drury during his time here.

That’s the exact place I’d put O’Reilly should a deal be swung to bring him in. Allow Cody Hodgson and Mikhail Grigorenko to fill space on the top two lines while O’Reilly serves as your “third” center in the two way role that is MIA with the current roster. The need for an effective two-way center who can win some key faceoffs while adding responsible defensive play has been haunting the Sabres. That is the role that O’Reilly can fill and he can also be expected to chip in on the offensive side too.

The money he’s looking for shouldn’t be an issue. He’s going to command somewhere north of $4.5M on his new deal and a $5M cap hit isn’t out of the question. That is a whole lot to pay a player who will ultimately center your third line, but using Bergeron ($5M cap hit) as a comparable puts O’Reilly’s demands right in line with market value.

Acquiring O’Reilly is another issue entirely. Throwing out an offer sheet for $5M per year seems pointless to me. While the Avalanche aren’t willing to pay him that much, they can still match the offer, get him on the ice and trade him later on. Signing him to a poisonous deal (like Kevin Lowe tried with Vanek) does nothing other than handicap your team’s cap situation while sacrificing a number of draft picks. The only viable option is to attempt to reach the level of return the Avs are requesting via trade. Continue reading