There are a few facts and a few delusions floating around the First Niagara Center right now. The fact is the Sabres were very impressive in their first two wins during the NHL Premiere series in Helsinki and Berlin last weekend. Some of the delusions are that this team will be virtually unstoppable as the season progresses.
The Sabres are not going 82-0, sorry. That doesn’t mean they aren’t a good bet to finish high in the East, or even to snag the Northeast Division crown. However, there are some overzealous fans out there with expectations that are far too lofty.
One factor that could seriously change the fortunes of the Sabres will be the return of Jochen Hecht. I am going to leave out the two extremes – he provides an even greater spark or sends the team down the abyss – but it is safe to say that his return to the lineup will disrupt the status quo.
Right now the Sabres’ lines have a great mesh of grit and skill, size and speed. There are three clear scoring lines, order them however you please. There is also a clear checking line that offers plenty of grit and defensive responsibility. The question is, which line does Jochen Hecht fit on?
If I was asked the question and given only seconds to respond, I would say nowhere. It isn’t because I doubt his skillset; it is because his game doesn’t lend itself to a single line in Lindy Ruff’s line up.
The more responsible evaluation of the impending shake up would be to place him on either the “third” or “fourth” line.
Placing him with Paul Gaustad, Pat Kaleta and Cody McCormick does a few things. One, it provides another defensively responsible winger who can take faceoffs, if necessary. Two, it doesn’t disrupt any scoring lines.
Of course, Hecht doesn’t really fit on a true grind line like the Sabres currently have. While it is easy to sit McCormick or Kaleta down, Hecht doesn’t bring their physicality to the game. He may be equally effective in his own zone, but he won’t run many people through the boards.
The only other option I see would be to bump Nathan Gerbe to the fourth line and have Hecht fill in with Derek Roy and Drew Stafford, or whoever they have playing right wing. I don’t love this scenario one bit. First, the odd-man out is going to end up being McCormick, no matter how you slice it. That doesn’t please me from a toughness standpoint. The other issue is the disruption of offensive chemistry.
While Gerbe has played well with Kaleta and Gaustad, I fear Hecht will handcuff Roy and Stafford. I could be totally wrong and he might go off for 20 goals and 55 points, but I doubt it.
Hecht is better served in a checking role with limited offensive expectations. That way, you don’t need to rely on him to score goals when he is shooting from the goal line.
When I weigh out the only two realistic options – because Luke Adam isn’t moving from his spot – rotating Hecht, McCormick and Kaleta makes the most sense. You are preserving your three potent scoring lines while providing your checking line with a very good defensive forward.
I trust Lindy Ruff to make the best decision for his hockey club. He has always been very motivated by chemistry, perhaps that will keep him from putting Hecht into a spot where he will disrupt far too much.