Between the Pipes: Miller, Sabres outlast Isles for first victory

This probably doesn’t seem too familiar to some out there in Sabres nation. Winning has been something relatively absent from the psyche of Sabres fans for a while and was amplified by the team’s o’fer start to the year.

However an offensive – can I say explosion? – explosion from the Sabres pulled their contest with the Islanders to overtime where Ryan Miller eventually shut the door on two of the three New York shooters on the way to his first victory of the year. Thomas Vanek and Tyler Ennis scored for the Sabres in the skills competition.

The shootout victory came after yet another shooting gallery effort from the Sabres skaters as they were outshot by the Isles 44-34 on the night and giving Miller another 40-save effort. Miller, who has seen over 40 biscuits in three of his five games, ranks first in shots against and saves in the entire league. As unbelievable as that may be, he has indeed seen the most shots in this young season.

Luckily for the Sabres he has been up to the challenge. I opined earlier this year that if there’s ever a time to want Ryan Miller on a roster it is during an Olympic year. He was a man possessed after his snub in 2006 and saw his name etched on the Vezina after standing on his head in 2009-10. I’m not ready to guarantee an Olympic roster spot or a Vezina season, but I’m fully confident that he will be maintaining this top form for most of the season.

Where there is going to be a disconnect is in the win and loss column. Only 1-4-0, Miller’s record is far from sterling despite his sublime stat line and plenty of shortsighted fans will point to negative decisions as evidence to how overrated, average, overpaid, soft, etc. Miller is. Despite the exact opposite to be true. Continue reading

Sabres have trade chips on the wings

It’s a time of turnover in Hockey Purgatory Heaven with Lindy Ruff getting his walking papers while Jordan Leopold, Jason Pominville and Robyn Regehr each were shipped out of town before the deadline. It appears as if this summer will bring about more change via the trade market for the Sabres as they continue their rebuild.

One key for the Sabres will be finding partners as they search for options to swap out certain players. There have been specific mentions of the need to find more offense from media members in Vancouver, Los Angeles, St. Louis and Nashville. These came from either interviews or game broadcasts on the NHL Network station on XM Radio. Obviously these aren’t confirmed rumors, but the need for more established offensive weapons on certain teams isn’t a difficult conclusion to draw.

Vancouver’s second-straight first round exit have some asking if they need offensive help.

Vancouver’s sweep at the hands of the Sharks has many asking if Alain Vigneault will be back for the 2013-14 season after his team again struggled to score in a first round series defeat. The Canucks aren’t short on elite talent. The Sedins’ production has begun to tail off lately but I’d say their struggles to find talent beyond their top line has been a major issue for them. Identifying more scoring help would immediately improve the overall depth of their forward ranks.

A similar situation has been illustrated with the Kings despite the acquisition of Mike Richards and Jeff Carter last season. The Kings top six is very impressive, yet they were tied to a number of scoring forwards during the year. While the roster is deep, they continue to win close, low-scoring games on the strength of their goaltender and defense. While I don’t see where they would place a top-six forward, I can certainly understand the connection drawn to improve their offensive potency.

The Blues and the Predators immediately spring to mind for me when I think of offensively challenged Western Conference teams. However, the Blues roster would indicate anything but that. Oshie, Schwartz, Berglund, Tarasenko. This list goes on for a while and forms a youthful, talented core which has the potential to be lethal. The Blues just happen to play a measured, defensive style and don’t allow too many shots. Perhaps they need a certain $6m goaltender. But probably not.

The Preds are actually a curious case. They have two big money players (Rinne and Weber) and made moves at the 2012 deadline to find more offense. However the second Kostitsyn and Alex Radulov didn’t do the trick and now they have retooled a bit with the acquisition of Filip Forsberg. Finding another piece to add to their top six would be extremely helpful towards finding more offense for the Preds; especially after missing the playoffs.

There is a market out west for scoring forwards, there is no denying it. Perhaps the e4s and #CONFIRMEDD tweets and blog posts aren’t flying yet, but media members are looking at the teams they cover and are saying they’re in need of offense. Continue reading

Grading the Sabres: 2013 report card

A fired coach, traded captain, booing fans and missing the playoffs typically doesn’t not make for a very successful season. That was certainly the case for the 2013 Buffalo Sabres.

While there were a few bright spots amongst the doom and gloom, the lockout shortened season is certainly one to forget for the Sabres. Before shutting the door completely I wanted to grade out the team and players on how the year played out.

Team

Coaching: It had been rumored that Lindy Ruff’s message had grown stale some time ago. Finally, after a number of listless losses, Ruff was fired after nearly two decades coaching the Sabres. Frankly, it just looked like the team had tuned him out and needed a change. While Ron Rolston arrived and helped to energize the roster, his presence wasn’t enough to lift the Sabres back into playoff contention. Entering the offseason, many are wondering if Rolston will have the “interim” tag removed from his title and command the bench for a full season. Grade: C

Powerplay: It is almost as if the Sabres don’t consider the possibility of an odd-man rush against while on the power play. It also seems likely that trying the same thing over and over again (zone entry) is not the definition of insanity. The power play simply wasn’t good this season and endured a massive dry spell in the thick of Buffalo’s ugliest stretch of losing. They would get an F but they managed to score every now and then. Grade: D+

Penalty Kill: Buffalo decided to run a unique, if not peculiar penalty kill which basically turns into a 1-1-2 in the zone and rotates with the puck. After Ruff’s departure it appeared as if things began to change, but the base of the kill still worked off the 1-1-2 set up seen earlier in the year. I personally didn’t like it as the second forward was rarely in the right position to deny passes across the zone. Grade: C-

Management: A lot was made over the end of the season press conference and other silliness. My focus is on what Darcy Regier did for the hockey team and if he made them better or worse. He traded away two veteran defensemen and his captain and came away with a first round pick, five second round picks, Johan Larsson and Matt Hackett. Overall it was a solid haul for what was given up (Leopold and Regehr) but the pieces acquired really won’t have much impact for at least two more seasons. Add in the firing of Ruff and it was a pretty tough four months for Regier. While he handled himself well I find it hard to see how he still has the reigns for this rebuild. Grade: C Continue reading

Waiting on a surprise from Regier at the deadline

If history is to serve as a guide you can assume that Darcy Regier will make at least one fairly significant move at this year’s deadline. Perhaps a move will come in the days leading to the deadline, but Regier has made at least one move around the deadline in each of his years with the Sabres.

This year is different than most in recent memory due to the struggles on the ice and the calls for change from the fans and media. A great many are rightfully worried that Regier is not the man who should be guiding any sort of rebuilding process as he is the very architect who assembled the flawed roster that has hovered near the bottom of the league this season.

Buffalo will play a trio of games prior to the deadline and a string of losses would all but cement Regier as a seller. Granted many reports have indicated that the Sabres are willing to hear offers on the entire roster, three more losses would leave little doubt that the team will miss the playoffs yet again.

Whether or not you think Regier is the right choice to even begin retooling the Sabres roster is immaterial at this point. Fans have been calling for his head even before Lindy Ruff was fired but it is obvious that management isn’t willing to cut the cord on Regier at this point and the axe certainly won’t fall prior to Wednesday’s deadline.

Regier will indeed be the guy making and taking the calls for the Sabres on deadline day. However, he’s typically been an adept trade negotiator and has shown that his measured patience often yields the best results (see Gaustad, Paul).

I previously opined that the Sabres don’t need to enter this deadline as just sellers and I stand by that argument. This isn’t a team in the middle of a rebuild in which additional picks and prospects are the ideal return. The Sabres are a team with a flawed construction that could use a facelift. That means that hockey trades and some recycling would likely be in the best interest for the roster.

Moves like last year’s Cody Hodgson trade will allow for the Sabres to introduce pieces that can not only help in the future, but impact the roster today. Continue reading

Sabres have pieces to offer at the deadline

It has been a long time since the Sabres were in a position to sell off a number of assets in the name of rebuilding the roster. As the saying goes “if Gretzky can be traded, anyone can be traded”, and that rings particularly true for the Sabres.

There is truthfully no safe player at any level of the Sabres organization as the team appears to have a serious identity issue. While the Sabres certainly can come at the deadline with more than just a seller’s mentality, there is likely going to be more heading out the door than coming back in.

When I look at the Sabres I see a team with some impressive top-end talent, and abundance of “middle-six” players and impressive depth along the blueline. Buffalo’s greatest strength is in the goal crease and with talented, young forwards. What they lack is a proper identity amongst their four NHL lines as a relative hodgepodge of players has made up the 23-man roster with no discernible identity on any of the lines.

Robyn Regehr is one of the potential trade targets who could be shipped at the deadline.

There are basically three categories that Darcy Regier is going to group his players into by April 3; For Sale; Available; Untouchable. Players that are “For Sale” typically include your rental players and anyone who may have requested a trade. “Available” players are just that, players who aren’t being shopped but are still available for the right price. Lastly, you have the “Untouchable” category which was previously a well-populated list which has likely dwindled to almost nothing. Sure the Sabres have some assets that they’re not likely to part with, but there probably isn’t any more than one or two names who are considered untouchable.The key to remember here is that the Sabres aren’t in need of a proper rebuild in which they attempt to acquire mounds of draft picks. They’re in need of a retooling that will help forge a new identity and reshape specific portions of the roster. This isn’t a long term effort so much as a project that will probably truly begin bearing fruit in two or three seasons. So anyone worth keeping around will need to be capable of being a consistent contributor over the next 3-5 seasons.But who fits where? 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

Sabres lock up Ennis, assign players to Amerks as lockout nears

As official word on a lockout gets ever closer, the Buffalo Sabres made a few final roster decisions before the inevitable becomes official.

The biggest news is Tyler Ennis’ new two-year contract. Ennis will make just over $2 million this season and just over $3 million next year on the deal. This will lead to another summer of negotiations for the Sabres and Ennis in 2014, but it comes off a moderate contract that should work well for both sides.

The only true loss here is that the deal isn’t any longer. However, with some of the jury on Ennis still out, it doesn’t shackle the Sabres to the player for a ridiculous term. Otherwise there isn’t much else to say about the Ennis contract. It was an agreeable deal between both sides that will let each party reconvene under the new CBA and what will hopefully be two productive seasons from the center.

In the end, Ennis probably comes out as the winner. He receives a raise and will be back at the bargaining table in two summers for what should be a sizeable new contract. On the bright side, the Sabres didn’t need to sacrifice dollars to buy up UFA years with this deal. So it is a win-win.

The Sabres took Friday to assign 20 players to Rochester along with returning three additional players to their junior clubs. Well, Joel Armia is playing professional hockey with Assat. In addition, the Sabres made a somewhat surprise signing by inking Andrey Makarov to an entry-level contract.

The decision to loan players to Rochester was an expected move for teams across the NHL. A number of the players were going to be playing in Rochester next season, but there are a few names which should draw the interest of Sabres fans for the 2012-13 AHL season. Continue reading