Once again the 2ITB Awards are back to celebrate another season of Sabres hockey. As always, some of these categories are serious and others are inserted for fun.
It was an interesting season given Buffalo’s surge from the basement to almost out of the basement. While they didn’t climb too high in the standings, they improved by nearly 30 points in the standings and injected an incredible amount of excitement into the fanbase thanks to the exploits detailed below.
I’m expecting an exciting offseason and probably a new set of expectations for next year which will be a little too high. Until then, enjoy some of the highlights from 2015-16.
MVP – Ryan O’Reilly
O’Reilly’s saga with the Sabres went from 0-60 in about two seconds. He was the centerpiece of a draft-day blockbuster, signing the most lucrative deal in franchise history and then serving as the lynchpin of Buffalo’s forward group for much of the season.
In addition to his in-game exploits, O’Reilly’s post-practice sessions grew into a must-attend event for many of Buffalo’s young players. O’Reilly has already earned many calls for the captaincy and in just under 12 months with the team, he’s been one of the biggest leaders in virtually every aspect of the game.
LVP – Zemgus Girgensons
The social media darling of 2014-15, Girgensons regressed heavily this season, struggling to find his footing offensively and bouncing around a number of lines in Dan Bylsma’s system. He became something of a tweener between the top and bottom six and that uncertainty kept him from filling the shut-down role Johan Larsson filled so admirably and may have kept him from growing into a more dynamic offensive force at the same time.
Girgensons precise role with the Sabres remains undefined at this point. Among the players who outscored him this season were previous question marks like Larsson and Marcus Foligno who likely entered 2015-16 as less certain options than Girgensons. After an underwhelming year, Girgensons may be the odd man out in many fan-fueled trade proposals.
Top Prospect – Justin Bailey
No matter how you draw the line on prospects, this was going to be an easy decision. Given that Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart are only prospects in age only, Bailey became the obvious choice. He flourished in Rochester, especially in the second half, earning an audition with the big club and finishing his first professional season with a solid 20-25-45 line.
Bailey is going to be in tough with the likes of Hudson Fasching and Nicolas Baptiste in Buffalo’s right wing pipeline, but there are spots on the big club open for the taking and Bailey’s play – along with that of Fasching – may just give Tim Murray pause when he goes shopping this summer.
Unsung Hero – Chad Johnson
Considering the amount of games he saw, it’s hard to say that Johnson didn’t receive any attention this season. However, he was the league’s worst statistical goaltender when he was acquired from the Islanders last year. He entered the season as a complete afterthought and was a major question mark when Robin Lehner went down.
He responded by taking the reigns and running with them, posting the best statistical year of his professional career and opening doors to start next year as he enters free agency.
Best Forward – Ryan O’Reilly
An easy follow up to the MVP award. While Jack Eichel met and possible exceeded expectations this year, the impact O’Reilly had can’t be understated. He’s been a phenomenal addition and the price Murray paid to acquire him is looking like a bargain at the moment.
Best Defenseman – Rasmus Ristolainen
Buffalo’s blueline received a major shot in the arm this year compared to the last two seasons. While the team was still a minus-performer and struggled with shot suppression, Ristolainen was a solid performer. He’s found an impressive offensive touch and continues to exert his will in the defensive zone.
The assumption that Murray will be finding him a new partner could do wonders for his fancy stats and may just elevate him to the next echelon of defensemen league-wide.
Shootout Award – No one
Did you see the Sabres in a shootout this season?
Mulligan Award – Asking the Wild for a highlight of a goal via Twitter.
Sabres fans, as they wont to do, were mad online this preseason over the lack of streaming options for things such as the prospect scrimmage and preseason games. While the precedent on broadcasting preseason games is fairly well established, plenty of people were upset. Between Eichel’s arrival and the excitement surrounding the team, the optics weren’t great despite numerous years of the same policy.
But that’s what made the Sabres’ tweet to the Wild asking for a highlight that much better. The angry mob on social media combined with the optics of not adding additional broadcasts of preseason made the very public request look that much worse. Maybe next time email will be the preferred choice of communication.
Best In Arena Addition – Let Me Clear My Throat
Thanks to the fan vote the Sabres have far and away, the best goal song in the league. Admittedly, I wasn’t sure about the selection when the fan poll was first released and built to the final voting choices. However, hearing the pop in the arena after each goal erased any doubt that this was the right choice. Never change this, Sabres. Never.
Honorable Mention: Sabres Twitter adding period recaps. It took something like 60 games, but the Sabres Twitter account finally stopped simply telling us the shots and started telling us what happened at the end of each period. For as long as it took, it was a welcome change.
Worst In Arena Addition – Offside Review
This is a memo to the league office and not the Sabres. The institution of the coach’s challenge was something most hockey fans likely looked forward to. No one could have known the NHL would be creating their own “What is a catch?” narrative. The offside review has spiraled out of control as the cries of “Get it right.” Have been drowned out by common sense and the obvious observation that goals in which no competitive advantage has been gained (Not to mention plays which could not be deciphered with the naked eye and would never have been offside in the league’s previous 99 years) shouldn’t be pulled off the scoreboard.
Abolish the coach’s challenge, go back to the way it used to be. The league was better off without this foolish addition.
Sabres 101 Twitter Tweet of the Year:
Side note: Don’t forget that the Leafs rebuild is much better than that of the Sabres.
Best Media Member – This Space Intentionally Left Blank
Goal of the Year – Jack Eichel vs. Columbus
The entire play surrounding the goal is phenomenal. Eichel wins a race to keep the puck in the zone and then shoulders away Boone Jenner as if he’s some plug from the local beer league. He finishes it off with an upper 90 snipe.
Honorable Mention: Eichel vs. Tampa off a spin move and Eichel clowning Cam Ward with a scary good snipe. The Carolina OT goal was great in its own right, but I don’t rank it above the laser he puts over Ward’s shoulder or the incredibly impressive goal vs. the Bolts.
Save of the Year – Chad Johnson on Gustav Nyquist
Take your pick with Johnson. He had at least four or five of these diving, desperation stops this season. I liked this one a bit more than the others because you can see him track the puck to his glove side before he dives to make the save.
Hit of the Year – Nicolas Deslauriers vs. Jacob Josefson
Anytime someone gets dumped into the bench it’s worth watching. When it’s done with this much force it’s that much better.
Fight of the Year – Evander Kane vs. Alex Petrovic
For some reason Petrovic kept coming back for more. Enjoy all three chapters via Hockey Fights.com