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: Adam, Chewy and those departed

This is the final group of forwards I will evaluate. This set of grades will actually include reviews of the three players who were traded at the deadline, plus a pair of centers who are still with the team.

Luke Adam – B-

Adam sort of got a raw deal this season. After a scorching hot start, he ended up in the doghouse and eventually was sent down to Rochester after the All-Star break. His demotion was permanent as he is still playing on the farm. I loved his play with Thomas Vanek and Jason Pominville and I contend that line should probably have stayed together through the brief slump that eventually led to Adam being sent to Rochester.

Adam did struggle some along the way this year and may have needed more seasoning. However, I think he was handled poorly and I question if his confidence has been shaken by the way Lindy Ruff decided to ship him away.

All things considered, Szczechura proved he is a capable depth forward, perfect for the AHL and spot call-up duty.

Paul Szczechura – B

Just one game short of ten, I felt comfortable giving Szczechura a grade for his play. He was called up in the middle of Buffalo’s injury crunch and actually outperformed some regulars. He had a few very nice games at center and proved that he is more than worthy of an early call up in the future. Like Derek Whitmore, Szczechura doesn’t fill a fourth line role all that well but has that offensive touch that makes him intriguing to recall. Again, if the Sabres are in need of a bit more skill, Szczechura is likely to get a call. Continue reading

Deadline Preview: Evaluating Paul Gaustad’s trade value

Paul Gaustad is an assumed part of the Buffalo Sabres “core”. He is a homegrown player who has come up through the minors with a number of players on the current roster. Lately it seems as if he is a prime target to be traded away from Buffalo.

Gaustad was a late-round draft pick (7th round, 220 overall, 2000) who has blossomed into a leader and a strong defensive forward. He has become one of the league’s best faceoff men, is a mainstay on penalty kills and plays with grit (sometimes). He is also due to become an UFA at the end of the season.  All of these factors have made him a prime candidate to be moved by the trade deadline later this month.

The rumors have begun to swirl around a number of Sabres players who are expected to be on the chopping block. While some are expected to bring minimal returns (Brad Boyes), Gaustad has a number of traits that will make him an attractive piece for a Stanley Cup contender to chase.

His salary ($2.3m cap hit) is somewhat prohibitive, particularly for a player with his skillset. However, his free agent status makes his impact on the cap and real dollars far less significant.

The biggest rumor surrounding the center ties him to Detroit. Apparently Kirk Maltby has been sniffing around for a few games as of late. Detroit would be a team expected to chase Gaustad. He kills penalties and wins faceoffs, two traits playoff teams covet. Certainly there are other teams out there who will likely inquire about Gaustad as well. San Jose and Vancouver could probably be roped in as potential suitors as well. Continue reading

Double Minors: Sabres finally hit a streak

The last time the Sabres won at least two games in a row they were sniffing the top of the Eastern Conference standings and looking like a contender. Then Milan Lucic happened, the team hit the skids and spiraled to the bottom of the Eastern Conference.

Get over it, Montreal.

Alas, the Sabres won two-straight. Ryan Miller made 27 saves, Paul Gaustad had three(!) points and Ville Leino even scored a goal in the 3-1 victory over Montreal.

The Sabres did indeed score three goals, but the real story was hanging tough while trailing and eventually leading by just one. Despite giving up an early goal, Leino tied the game and Gaustad notched the game winning goal in the third.

The pair of victories have been sandwiched by the All-Star break. But what began as a truly ugly road trip, has closed with a little bit of hope. The Sabres now play three of their next thirteen at home, this stretch will truly determine where this season will be when the chips are down.

  • Luke Adam watched from the press box this evening. It was a questionable choice considering the youngster had just returned from a weekend surrounded by the best players in the game. However, given his recent play, he certainly warranted some time watching in street clothes. If a healthy scratch in Montreal does for Adam what it did for Tyler Myers, then sit the kid down.
  • The big story comes via Paul Gaustad. Gaustad chirped Max Pacioretty late in the game, asking “Where’s Chara?” Montreal is pretty angry about the whole situation, but it is probably getting overblown a tad. First of all, a chirp is a chirp. They are jabs meant to irritate or infuriate and you leave them on the ice. Montreal basically asked the same thing of Gaustad regarding the Lucic/Miller incident; so Gaustad responded in kind. On a side note, I’m fairly certain P.K. Subban has tossed out some real off-color nonsense himself. So Habs fans may need to temper their fury on that one. Lastly, for a city/fanbase up in arms over their coach being unilingual, they get awfully upset over a cheap chirp. The fact that the best man for the job may be chased out of town for not speaking French is embarassing for that franchise, city and fanbase. But it’s cool, get mad at a guy for tossing out a chirp during the game.
  • Ryan Miller turned in another terrific performance. His last three outings have been pretty sharp, in my opinion. His team quit on him in Winnipeg, but he played a strong game. You have to like Miller’s attitude and work ethic recently. He will be the key to any sort of run the Sabres put together.
  • Tyler Myers showed a strong physical side tonight. He also got caught up ice on the Montreal goal. I’m okay with him playing an active game, so long as his partner can support him. Pairing him with Christian Ehrhoff may not be the best choice because Ehrhoff is also an active threat offensively.
  • Hey! Ville Leino scored a beauty tonight. His puck possession may be the best on the roster, quite a shocker to see him play a productive game skating with the team’s better players, no?
  • Lastly, It’s cool if the Canadiens players are quick to jump on Gaustad for being a marginal talent. But when Carey Price says he is irrelevant during the game, he should check the gamesheet. Goal and two apples for Goose tonight, also 60% at the dot with two blocked shots.

Game Summary/Event Summary

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

Who wears the ‘C’?

For the first time since the summer of 2008, the Buffalo Sabres are without a full-time captain. The last captain, Craig Rivet, was waived in February and the Sabres have gone without an official captain since.

Tyler Myers wore a letter for the first time as a Sabres against the Hurricanes on Monday.

As the first puckdrop of the 2011-12 season fast approaches, the organization will need to peg the next man to adorn the ‘C’ soon. To offer a barometer for when an announcement may occur, Rivet was named captain on October 8, 2008. Rivet became the 27th captain in franchise history and it is rather unfortunate to think there have been 27 captains in this team’s history. Twelve earned the honor during the “rotating captaincy” years of 2003-04 and 07-08. Now that idea may be the most preposterous thing I have ever heard of. At the most you should have co-captiains – as they had in 2007-08 with Drury and Briere – but it is a shame to think a professional hockey team would need to rotate the captaincy, there had to be one or two candidates who could have easily filled that role.

Personally, I see four front-runners for this honor. Paul Gaustad, Tyler Myers, Derek Roy and Thomas Vanek. Each have their own pros and cons but are also likely the best candidates to become the 28th captain in Sabres history. With only four players deserving of a look, I am confident that a crime such as a rotation will not occur. Continue reading

Sabres season preview: The Centers

This is the final part in a series previewing the Buffalo Sabres season. Part five focuses on the centers, read the previous entries here: 1,2,3,4,5.

The Buffalo Sabres organization is painfully thin at center. This was a point of emphasis when the offseason began and remains a sticking point today. There was hope that a center would be found either before the draft or when free agency opened. Neither market yielded the result the Sabres desired.

Instead, Buffalo added Ville Leino in hopes of playing him as a pivot with their top six. Leino was a consolation prize, of sorts, after the Sabres missed out on the Brad Richards sweeps. Leino is a dynamic talent who couples silky smooth agility with scary hands. It has been said Leino will translate well to center because he played low in the Flyers system and was a center during his time in Finland.

So far I am sold on Leino stepping in at center. I only saw him in one preseason game, but he finds open ice and clears lanes for his line mates. Although he won’t see time on the penalty kill, I could Leino as an absolute upgrade over Tim Connolly as the “second-line center”. Continue reading

Goose and Grags at the Worlds, Aces back to Portland

Since the Buffalo Sabres’ departure from the 2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs their players have dispersed to various locations. The “Black Aces” like Jhonas Enroth and Mark Mancari have been sent back to Portland to help with their playoff run. Meanwhile, Marc-Andre Gragnani and Paul Gaustad accepted invitations to represent their countries in the IIHF World Championships.

Gaustad recently joined Team USA for yesterday’s 4-2 win over Norway. Gaustad logged two penalty minutes and was given an ‘A’. It should be interesting to see if Gaustad’s time with the US will help him gain some additional experience against the best in the world and in clutch situations. Having another player with big-game experience will be huge moving forward. Continue reading

Sabres vs. Flyers breakdown

The Sabres and Flyers get their series started tonight and many members of the media see this as one of the most even series of the entire first round. I’m not so confident in the Sabres ability to get past Philly. I certainly believe that they have the tools capable of pulling the upset. Of course, there is a reason the Philly was the second best team in the NHL for most of the season.

Why buffalo will win:

Ryan Miller. He has vastly improved his play from the beginning of the year. I feel that a great deal of that has to do with his workload and his health. He has played his best hockey since Jhonas Enroth has come up from Portland. If his extra rest has given him an edge then the Sabres will be in good shape. Continue reading