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

Third loss sets Sabres back below .500

A few familiar flaws cropped up in the last three losses for the Sabres as they dropped to 2-3-0 on the season after opening the year with a pair of victories.

Today’s loss to the Capitals came despite opening the scoring and controlling much of the play in the first period. Yet, the Capitals battled back and the Sabres were unable to discover the necessary depth scoring to get over the hump.

It is likely that many fans are panicking over the fact that many of the same issues have yet again hampered the Sabres in a string of losses. Naturally these losses are that much more prevalent with the fact that the shortened season has many focused on getting a quick start and finding security for the playoffs. Depending on how you break things down, this is just five games out of 48. Or you may see this as 10% of the season already behind a team that is looking to return to the playoffs.

Coupling today’s loss with the back-to-back losses at the hands of the Hurricanes paints a picture of a team who not only has struggled to find goal scorers beyond their first line and some up-and-down play from the blue line. Continue reading

Ranking the 2012 UFA class: Centers

Unrestricted free agency opens on Sunday afternoon with a class of free agents widely considered to be shallow in terms of overall talent. However, there is a small group of elite players at the top of this year’s class that will surely break the bank before any fireworks are lit on July 4.

This is the first of a three-part list ranking the available top 10-15 free agents, by position, based on how popular they will be amongst teams on July 1. Each player will have a short summary beside their names and those I see being a possible target for the Sabres will get a little more attention. Part one will cover the centers.

Olli Jokinen – Age: 33 – 11-12 team: Calgary – 11-12 Cap Hit: $3,000,000

Aside from goaltenders, center is the thinnest position in this year’s class. Jokinen is probably the most offensively gifted center in the class, but is probably looking at limited options. Depending on what teams are looking for, he could be due a little competition. He won’t be back in Calgary, which means the market just got one more skilled addition.

Jason Arnott – Age: 37 – 11-12 team: St. Louis – 11-12 Cap Hit: $2,875,000

Arnott had a respectable season with St. Louis last year, filling an offensive role without being a go-to guy at center. At 37 his intangibles and experience probably offer more than he will over 82 games, but you could still count on 15-20 goals in the right situation. Arnott could be a potential target for Buffalo to bring a bit more experience to a young locker room while filling a role on the third line behind Cody Hodgson and Tyler Ennis. I could see him being counted on for a solid two-way game if he signs in Buffalo.

Paul Gaustad – Age: 30 – 11-12 team: Buffalo/Nashville – 11-12 Cap Hit: $2,300,000

Told you this was a weak position. Gaustad became a hot commodity in Buffalo because girls think he is cute. Then he started blocking shots and winning faceoffs and other teams took notice. Those hoping he comes back to Buffalo may not want to hold their breath. While he would be a good fit back on the third line, I doubt he takes a hometown discount to return to the Sabres. Gaustad is probably looking at some offers in the 2.85-3 range in terms of a cap hit, that is a little too rich for what he brings to the table. Continue reading

Grading the Sabres: “Scoring” forwards

The second round of player grades will focus on Thomas Vanek, Jason Pominville, Derek Roy, Drew Stafford, Jochen Hecht and Brad Boyes. These six players are major parts of the core, plus Boyes, and make up a major portion of the Sabres’ top six.

Jason Pominville – A

Pominville was named the team MVP and was the leading scorer with 30 goals and 73 points. Outside of his dominant years playing the wing with Danny Briere, this was the best hockey I have seen Pominville play. He was active in all three zones, played consistently all year and was heads and shoulders better than any other forward on the Buffalo roster.

While Pominville’s second half was somewhat quieter than his first half, he still remained a steady force offensively. I would credit his slight regression on being separated from Thomas Vanek. Regardless, Pominville embraced the captaincy and built a nice standard to try and surpass for next season.

Thomas Vanek – B+

Comparing Vanek’s first half play to his second half play is like comparing Kate Upton to taking a stick in the eye. Vanek was brilliant over the first 41 games of the season. He was flirting with the league leaders in goals and points for some time before tailing off as the season progressed. A lot of that had to do with some lingering injuries that he refused to elaborate upon. I think his struggles can also be tied to moving him away from Jason Pominville.

Vanek has always been somewhat enigmatic. At times he can be an unstoppable force and then completely invisible for stretches after. He basically enjoyed a tremendous first half, followed by a disappointing second half plagued by injury. I give him credit for refusing his injuries to be an excuse for his play. Getting Vanek a steady center to feed him the puck should be a top Darcy Regier’s to-do list.

Derek Roy – B

Derek Roy and Drew Stafford each reversed their ugly first half play with some strong hockey during the stretch run. Roy’s hamstring injury may have lingered during the early portion of the year before fully healing. However, some of his uninspired efforts didn’t seem to be caused by the lack of physical ability.

Roy’s late season success could increase his trade value with some teams. Whether or not he is expected to be traded is anyone’s guess. However, his comments about Lindy Ruff likely sealed his ticket out of town. Continue reading

Weber out, Brennan recalled, other injured Sabres close to a return

After watching from the press box for 15 games, Mike Weber looked as if he had finally worked his way back to a regular spot in the lineup.

Weber played key minutes against Montreal and was one of Buffalo’s most effective defensemen in that game. However, Weber experienced somewhat of a backslide yesterday against New Jersey; it appears as if an injury may be responsible for that. According to The Buffalo News, Weber is going to miss some time with an injury. Lindy Ruff said the injury “will take some time”. Weber joins Ryan Miller and Cody McCormick on the shelf with extended injuries.

It seems as if the Sabres will call up T.J. Brennan to fill the void left by Weber. Now, this could be a simple insurance policy to provide a seventh defenseman while Marc-Andre Gragnani is reinserted into the line up. However, it would seem silly not to give Brennan at least one game on the weekend to see how he responds in his first NHL call-up.

Brennan is, at best a two-way defenseman. However, he seems like much more of a puck mover than anything else. Just what Buffalo needed, to put another puck mover on the ice.

Still, Brennan was a high selection (picked with the 2nd round selection received from Philly in the Biron trade) and has shown that he is on the cusp of breaking into the show. Corey Tropp got his first NHL action this season and has responded well. There is no reason to think that Brennan won’t play to his absolute best in his NHL debut. Continue reading

The odd men out

Mike Weber was particularly good for the Buffalo Sabres last season. So good, in fact, he earned a two-year contract extension in the offseason.

Yet, he is stuck in the press box as the season begins for the second year in a row. Lindy Ruff has opted to dress Marc-Andre Gragnani and Andrej Sekera as his fifth and sixth defensemen over the stay-at-home defenseman. In previous seasons all three players would be seeing regular shifts. In fact, Drew Schiestel would probably be seeing some time as well. That was all in the past, life with Terry is much better.

Now the deep-pocketed Sabres are stuffing salary in the minors and stockpiling blue-chip prospects as they strive for a Cup with veteran additions. Mike Weber just happens to be a casualty in this particular scenario. Continue reading

Where does Hecht go in the lineup?

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.

Continue reading