How to improve the NHL Combine

Slowly but surely, a number of off-ice events in the NHL have become increasingly popular with fans and the media. New events like the All-Star Fantasy Draft have brought relevance to the All-Star weekend and the Draft Lottery has suddenly become a half-hour TV event.

One thing the NHL has done a terrific job with is making their product TV-ready. Whether it be revamping the awards, instituting an All-Star Fantasy Draft; the NHL has realized their product is marketable and they have taken full advantage.

One event that could use a little updating is the NHL Combine. The Draft’s scope and popularity is continuing to grow and the Combine is following suit. However, the Combine is not growing in terms of entertainment value in the way that the Draft has.

With top-10 prospects growing more NHL-ready on a yearly basis, the draft is becoming more of an important event. No longer is it like playing darts with a drunk girl – hit the board and hope that your team scores points. Now players are more talented and capable of jumping to the professional ranks immediately. This obviously gives a greater vested interest in the Draft itself. However, the NHL combine continues to be more of a fitness test versus a skills test.

Considering the NFL Combine is a week-long television festival, why not have the NHL follow suit? I’m not proposing that these guys get suited up and scrimmage, that is what the Top Prospects Game is for. What I’m saying is create a few hockey specific events that will televise well. It could be fun.

Here is a list of some serious and not so serious (emphasis on the latter) ideas I came up with: Continue reading

The Morning Skate: Judgement day has arrived

The day of reckoning is upon us. That is to say, the Bruins are in town and most Sabres fans and media personalities expect a brawl during warmups.

Personally, I have the over/under for fights at two. 2ITB reader Chris Wasik is taking the under, as am I. If there is one fight, I won’t be surprised. But if there is less time spent throwing fists and more time throwing body checks the fans can’t be too upset with the Sabres’ response.

Bottom line, the Sabres didn’t respond how they needed to when the Miller incident first occurred and the time to answer the bell has passed. Lindy Ruff said it best in his morning presser (thanks to TBN),

We have to play a real hard game. That’s the message in all areas. Hard on the puck, hard getting it back, hard physically.

Buffalo will have a tough enough task cooling down the NHL’s hottest team. The Bruins have won nine-straight and have climbed to the top of the Northeast Division. Well, until Toronto won last night. To put it bluntly, Buffalo, Boston and Toronto will be playing musical chairs atop the Northeast for some time.

Tonight marks the first in a run of 10 games in the next 12 to be played at First Niagara Center. Judging by the Sabres hot and cold reactions at home, they will need a good run to keep pace with the Eastern Conference playoff contenders.

Despite the main focus of tonight’s game being on trying to take Milan Lucic’s head off, the focus should be on beating the Bruins and starting a run that will separate the Sabres from the rest of the Eastern Conference.

Highlighted Matchup

T.J. Brennan. The rookie will be making his NHL debut in a pretty big game. He has shown flashes of brilliance in his two seasons in the minors. While Brennan may not see a ton of ice time, he will need to play a sound game in order to prove he is capable of remaining the first man up from the farm as the season progresses. Not to mention, this is a defensive corps without two of their best defensive zone players, Brennan will need to be responsible in his own end all night.

Projected Goaltenders

BUF: Jhonas Enroth 11GP, 7-2-0, 2.06 GAA, .931 SV%

BOS: Tim Thomas 14GP. 9-4-0, 1.77 GAA, .938 SV%

Last Game

11/12/2011, TD Garden, Sabres 2 – Bruins 6

The Sabres expected response against the Bruins

The time for retribution has passed. As sad as it is to say, the Sabres opportunity to truly get payback for the hit Milan Lucic put on Ryan Miller was two Saturdays ago. Unfortunately the Sabres cowered at the thought of putting up a fight. They turtled and are now a laughing-stock for their soft play.

I can circle for $50 if you want.

Many Sabres fans are expecting a bloodbath tomorrow night. Fans have been calling to Joe Finley to be called up from Rochester in order to fight the big bad Bruins. I wouldn’t be surprised if some were expecting Dr. Hook McCracken, Screaming Buffalo Swamptown and Ogie Olglethorpe to take the morning skate. However, I doubt there will be anything close to a bloodbath tomorrow night.

Yes, the Sabres truly dropped the ball when Miller was run over. There needed to be some sort of toll for Lucic to pay after taking a run at Miller. Sadly, nothing was done. While it will be too late to truly may Lucic answer for his actions, a fight probably won’t be out of the question tomorrow. However, it is doubtful that multiple scraps will be in the cards. That doesn’t mean the Sabres are still a bunch of pansies. If they come out and play a physical game, they will prove there is more to this bunch than the soft shoves Lucic was handed last time around.

The one thing I have taken away from this situation is the overall resolve of this group of players. Sure, they can’t seem to figure out how to win at home and they often have slow starts which doom the outcome of some games. Still, Miller has let his voice be heard. As have Paul Gaustad and Robyn Regehr.

It seems as if the resounding message is, “we want to win and we want to win often.” Continue reading

Miller injury a wake up call for Sabres

The story on Ryan Miller and Milan Lucic has had a few days to simmer, both in the national media and here in Buffalo.

The big news came down yesterday when it was confirmed that Miller had indeed been concussed on the collision with Lucic. After having a hearing with the Shanahmmer, Lucic was cleared of any supplemental discipline, the right call in my book. Perhaps the hit was worthy of one or two games off, but really it was no more than a dirty play – it wasn’t even close to the things Matt Cooke has done.

The dirty hit wasn’t even the most despicable part of the play. The worst part is that he did not have to answer for his actions; the Sabres failure to respond was downright embarrassing.

Yes, Lucic runs around the ice and plays a game that toes the line between clean and dirty. Zdeno Chara and Brad Marchand do the same thing; their style is to intimidate and grind out their opponents. More often than not, Lucic and Marchand are well into dirty territory regarding their play. Sometimes they get a call, sometimes not. It is just how they play the game, you need to accept it in some regard but it certainly makes hating them an easy task.

In regards to Saturday, Lucic took a cheap shot at Miller and was trying to do nothing other than put the Sabres goalie onto the main concourse of TD Garden. In no way was he thinking of avoiding the goalie and slowing down, he saw Miller in his path and made sure to clear him from the tracks.  For some reason, the Sabres chose not to respond in kind. Suspension or not, something needed to be done.

Thomas Vanek shouldn’t be required to step up in that situation, at least he attempted to return the favor, although his hit barely affected Lucic. Then the purse tossing started from the boys in blue and gold. Andrej Sekera slid in and softly pushed Lucic against the boards, meanwhile Tyler Myers came in with a similarly weak effort. Paul Gaustad was late to the party, but really didn’t do much to stand up for Miller either. After that? Nothing from the Sabres. Cody McCormick was quiet, as was Pat Kaleta. There were no big hits or fights, they didn’t run at Tim Thomas (the wrong response) nor did they attempt to reassert themselves from a general physical standpoint.

Maybe trying to fight Lucic in that moment would have been foolish. The only two players on the roster truly capable of handling Lucic in a fight – Robyn Regehr and McCormick – weren’t on the ice. Of course they didn’t challenge him later in the game. So, maybe you don’t have someone who can immediately drop the gloves and make Lucic pay. However, you have the option of taking an eye for an eye.

This is going to come across as extremely dirty, but if I wasn’t capable of holding my own in a fight with Lucic I would have taken the next step. Whether it was trying to put the butt end of my stick through his nose or giving him a lumberjack hack elsewhere, I would have made him remember the time he ran Ryan Miller. Is that overkill? Certainly. Would it be a better response that what the Sabres put forth? Yes, by default. Still, it would have been a response.

Now, those are the most extreme measures of retribution for the actions Lucic took. Maybe the best course will be to have Kaleta or someone else catch him with a big body check. McCormick or Regehr could even engage him in a fight. It doesn’t matter, so long as he pays for his actions and pays hard.

That brings this argument back to square one. Where was the rest of the team for that very play or for the remaining 40 minutes of hockey? How is it possible for a professional hockey team with their eyes set on the Stanley Cup unable to respond when their starting goaltender and top star gets scummed by the other team?

Not only did the Sabres fail to step up and answer the bell on Saturday, they put up a billboard for the rest of the NHL saying, “you can push us but we won’t push back.”

Double Minors: Sabres 2 – Bruins 6

Going over the Sabres 6-2 thrashing at the hands of the Boston Bruins would be overkill at this point. It is clear that Buffalo didn’t come ready to push back against a stronger, more physical team last night.

Last night must have left Ryan Miller wonering what he needs to do to get some support.

The Milan Lucic hit on Ryan Miller is a whole different monster that revolves around a scummy player and one team’s inability to sack up and answer the bell. My short opinion on that matter is Lucic went out of his way to injure Miller. He knew exactly what he was doing because that is the type of player he is. The Sabres failed to stand up for their goaltender, because that is the type of team they are.

As for the game, the Sabres again showed a complete lack of hockey sense when it came to playing defense. Miller turned in a fine performance through the two periods he played. Unfortunately Tyler Myers and Andrej Sekera continue to make countless errors in zone and with the puck, the pair was on the ice for the first two Bruins goals. After that Marc-Andre Gragnani took a limp wristed attempt at stopping a two-on-one and the Bruins had deposited another goal.

There is no good reason for the Sabres to continue operating in this fashion. Their “top” defenseman (Myers) is seriously under-performing as he is sluggish all over the ice, is forcing passes and is not even close to the Calder winner or the defenseman many saw at the tail end of last season. There is obviously a major flaw in his offseason training program because he has opened the season with horrible stretches for two years in a row.

The rest of the defense isn’t immune to this either. Sekera had enjoyed a great stretch of hockey before tanking over the last week and a half. His play far eclipses Myers at times in terms of ineptitude. Sadly the two are paired together and the level of fail is almost nauseating.

Robyn Regehr is pretty much sitting on an island of misfit offensive defensemen at this point. He is the only true stay-at-home force the Sabres have – plus Mike Weber who can’t crack the lineup – and is obviously over his head in terms of staying responsible in zone. Jordan Leopold is exactly who you think he is, you can’t ask for too much more than he is giving at this point. In fact, that pairing is the only stable one that Sabres put out on a nightly basis.

As for Christian Ehrhoff and Gragnani, they may as well be playing wing. Ehrhoff is far too much of a risk to play with an offensive defenseman who lacks the toughness to lay a simple body check. Ehrhoff’s gaffe on the third Boston goal was bad last night, the feeble attempt Gragnani took at defending it was far worse.

It is time for a serious overhaul on the Sabres blueline.

  • As I stated above, Ryan Miller was having a strong outing for the Sabres. I suspect his upper-body injury was affecting his play and the team’s general lack of energy motivated the goalie change. Not much more can be asked of Miller last night when his defensemen are basically giving him a two-on-none to defend. From his perspective that game had to be a complete embarrassment to be a part of.
  • Jhonas Enroth didn’t get much more help from his teammates once he was in net. He also was not the superman has has been in the past few outings. Still, you can’t ask too much from a goalie in the situation he was inserted into.
  • Sekera and Gragnani get two major goat awards for their lack of effort on those two-on-ones. Sekera literally did nothing and Gragnani was so far back that Miller was still responsible for both the shot and pass.
  • Thomas Vanek scored, which is nice. Keeping the TV Party rolling is key.
  • Gragnani’s goal came on the power play, that is also a bonus. If that unit can stay effective it will certainly go a long way for Buffalo’s prolonged success. Hopefully that goal isn’t justification for keeping Gragnani in the lineup.
  • Gragnani is probably the first defenseman that should come out of the lineup. Sure, Ehrhoff, Myers and Sekera are all worthy of being benched too, but Gragnani is heads and shoulders worse that those other three. Is a trade in order? Perhaps. Is that a realistic solution? Probably not.
  • Better hope Miller’s injury is minor, anything that will keep him out longer could be devastating. Especailly considering the stretch of games the Sabres have this week.

Three Stars

1. Tyler Seguin

2. Rich Peverly

3. Brad Marchand

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