The Week of Development Camp Could be so Much More

As the Sabres wind down their annual development camp at First Niagara Center I can’t help but think the organization missed a terrific opportunity to draw even more fans down to the foot of Washington Street.

Mid July is an inherently slow time of year in every sense of the word. The NHL calendar is in a bit of a lull after the initial free agent flurry of activity, the Bills are still a ways out from kicking off training camp, and we’re in the midst of the dog days of baseball season. That, coupled with the fact that the area’s children are a few weeks into summer vacation and parents are searching for things to keep their kids occupied, means that development camp is in a great position to fill the void in affordable entertainment.

The week’s on-ice happenings were the lone Sabres related attraction this week, and there were multiple other things that the organization could’ve done in conjunction with the camp to make it a great experience for the fans. The improvements to the week have nothing to do with the on ice activity, but more of the ancillary activities to draw people to the area and keep them there for a few hours. They range from improving things inside the arena during practice to having activities outside during down time. Here are just a few ways to make the week significantly better:

– Make the players available. I count nine players on the Sabres’ NHL roster that are new to the team since the trade deadline; the average fan couldn’t pick Ryan O’Reilly or Zach Bogosian out of a lineup. O’Reilly, Bogosian, Evander Kane, and Robin Lehner are players fans will (theoretically) be watching for the better part of the next decade; it would behoove the organization to let the fans get a glimpse of them and put faces to all the new names. This could be done by having autograph booths, having the players just go section to section, or any other number of ways. It’s not a difficult thing to execute.

– Improve the in arena amenities. I was down at the arena on Monday for the practice and grabbed the last soft pretzel at one of the two concession stands at 1:30 pm. That’s totally fine if the practice wasn’t ending at 3. Having a concession stand open with only half of its menu items available, and having the available items understocked, is pointless. Either open them and do it right or don’t open them at all. There was also nothing to do inside the arena other than watch practice. Having a few interactive activities for fans would help solve that issue, especially when kids get antsy from watching three hours of hockey practice. The Slapshot Accuracy machine, for instance, would be a nice addition that could be run by an intern for the day. Sabretooth was also not there on Monday from what I saw. There were tons of young kids who don’t get to FNC very often, and the team’s mascot was nowhere to be found. It’s not a huge deal, but it’s a small thing that goes a long way to improving the experience of younger fans.

– Take advantage of Haborcenter. The facility is open with pregame activities during the season, yet not this week. Having the open skates at Harborcenter (that they do before home games) either before or after the prospects are on the ice would’ve been a nice way for people to make a day out of being at the arena. You could even have a roster player skate around with the fans for a half hour if you wanted to get crazy. Having lunch/drink/happy hour specials should’ve also been a layup. Looking at when the on-ice portion of the camp ends each day, one would think a lunch special makes perfect sense. The organization could even promote some of the new retail shops opening up in the building. It’s yet another way to keep people in the area, plus it’s an opportunity to make some money for the restaurant.

– Street Hockey Fest. This event seems to be an annual thing, although nothing appears to have been released in terms of the event happening this year.

Street Hockey Fest would be a nice addition to Development Camp Week

Looking at the schedule, the Saturday of development camp (an off day for prospects) would’ve been a perfect for it. The team could make a few bucks on team registration fees, kids aren’t inside playing video games, and parents find something to occupy their kids for a day; it’s a win for everybody. Add a few players signing autographs (or guest refereeing?), and perhaps some arena tours, and you’ve got the makings of a great day for fans.

– Utilize Canalside. This is the perfect weekend for a “Sabres Carnival” type event. Hosting the event Saturday during the street hockey tournament and Sunday after the 3 on 3 tournament would be perfect. The team did this a few years ago and even brought in a band (10,000 Maniacs), so there’s precedent for this happening.

All of these suggestions are not incredibly complicated, and some have been done before. With where the organization has been the last few years this week could’ve really served as a catalyst to get fans back into the Sabres and back into hockey. Fans still filled up FNC the last two seasons (for the most part) despite the on ice product being pretty poor, by doing a few little things (like player autographs) the franchise can show its appreciation for those who showed up every night to watch a historically bad team, while also taking a few steps to repatriate some fans who may have been turned off by the happenings of the last couple years.

The curious case of Matt Hackett

Matt Hackett was very much seen as a serious candidate as the goalie of the future for the Sabres when he was acquired at the 2013 trade deadline. He’s since slid down the depth chart and sits in a precarious position as the 2014-15 season dwindles away.

Entering the year, Hackett needed to get in eight appearances of at least 30 minutes to remain a restricted free agent heading into the offseason. His status is a unique one that isn’t encountered too often, but put both himself and Tim Murray in an odd situation even before the season started.

Hackett’s up-and-down play, late-season knee injury, the emergence of Nathan Lieuwen and the presence of both Jhonas Enroth and Michal Neuvirth made things that much cloudier.

Of course, things have cleared up a bit as Enroth and Neuvirth were both traded and Chad Johnson was injured before appearing in a game, leaving just Hackett and Anders Lindback to man the crease for the remainder of the year. Lindback’s hot play has kept Hackett from seeing the lion’s share of the work and time is running out with only nine games to go in the season. Continue reading

Five Storylines to Watch as the Sabres Head to Camp

Sam Reinhart- This is the obvious one; expectations are sky high for the Sabres’ highest draft pick since Pierre Turgeon in 1987. By all accounts Reinhart played well in Traverse City despite not finding the back of the net. Reinhart will obviously face a step up in competition as he heads into his first NHL camp. The rookie will most certainly get his shot at the beginning of the year with his nine game pseudo tryout before a decision must be made on his future. All eyes will be on him as he attempts to force his way into the Sabres’ top six forwards, but looking at the Sabres’ roster make up, don’t be shocked to see Reinhart headed back to Kootenay for another year.

The Defense- Only seven, maybe eight blue liners will be on the roster when the puck drops against Columbus on October 7. The team currently has ten candidates for those spots, with the rest shipped down the thruway to Rochester or sent back to juniors for the beginning of the new campaign. Looking at the roster, four spots are locked up in Tyler Myers, Mike Weber, Andrej Meszaros, and Josh Gorges, plus the signing of Andre Benoit to a one way deal likely wraps up the fifth spot on the back end. That leaves Jake McCabe, Mark Pysyk, Rasmus Ristolainen, Chad Ruhwedel, and Nikita Zadorov to battle it out in camp for the two or three remaining spots. Zadorov took a seat for a period or two in Traverse City due to a perceived lack of effort and looks set to be on the way back to the OHL for another year of seasoning barring an exceptional camp. While play on the ice will obviously be the major factor in deciding who sticks with the big club, contract flexibility may also pay a factor; a player like Rasmus Ristolainen is still able to be shuttled between Buffalo and Rochester without going through waivers, which makes him a more likely candidate to start in the AHL.

Top Six Forwards- Tim Murray was able to add much more depth to the NHL ranks on July 1, and the majority of that depth comes in the form of top six forwards such as Brian Gionta and the returning Matt Moulson. Those additions, along with the likes of Tyler Ennis, Cody Hodgson, Drew Stafford, and Chris Stewart would lead folks to believe the Sabres’ top two forward lines are fairly set. There are still some questions positionally, mainly who will man the middle. Cody Hodgson’s defensive deficiencies have led some to believe he could end up on the wing, while Tyler Ennis saw time at both center and wing last season. With these players seemingly locked into scoring roles barring a trade or injury, it looks like a tough task for anyone, including Sam Reinhart, to break into the group on a permanent basis. Another name who gets lost in the shuffle is Mikhail Grigorenko. The odds are certainly not in his favor for an opening night spot, but he has added 15-20 pounds of muscle and heads into this season in what looks to be a much better frame of mind when compared to last year; I’m pulling for him to put forth a good showing in camp.

Bottom Six Forwards- The Sabres have a ton of bodies looking to fill the final eight roster spots (including healthy scratches). While Zemgus Girgensons is basically a lock to man the middle for the 3rd line and likes of Marcus Foligno, Brian Flynn, and the repatriated Cody McCormick also look to have spots, there are still plenty of questions. Torrey Mitchell barely got on the ice for the team last year before getting hurt, and is thus a bit of an unknown. Nic Deslauriers acquitted himself well in limited duty last year, and Matt Ellis is back in the fold for another year. Add in the now healthy (and sometimes forgotten) Pat Kaleta, new signing Zac Dalpe, Johan Larsson, and new addition Jordan Samuels-Thomas (who played very well in Traverse City) and the competition for the last few spots will be fierce.

Goaltending- For the first time since the early 90’s the Sabres go into the season without a definitive answer in the crease. Jhonas Enroth and Michal Neuvirth head into camp as the goaltending tandem for the Blue and Gold, and all indications point toward a scenario where the two are viewed as option 1a and 1b by Ted Nolan. While it is unknown how Nolan will split time in net during the preseason, the two 26 year old netminders will be looking to show that they deserve the nod on opening night. The year may start with the time split relatively even, Nolan will likely not hesitate to go with the hot hand. While the opening night starter is by no means a guarantee to play 55 or 60 games, whoever gets the start will have the first chance to prove himself to the coaches. New goaltending coach Arturs Irbe may also play a role in determining who eventually wins the job. Irbe was considered an undersized goaltender throughout his career and he is now tasked with mentoring the 5’ 10” Enroth and Neuvirth, who is listed at 6’ 1”. Whichever goaltender is able to take to Irbe’s methods quickest may benefit in the form of more playing time.

Toeing the line during the Sabres race to the lottery

It was long understood that the Sabres weren’t going to be a very good hockey team this season. However the nosedive they went on to start the season was surprising to even the most pessimistic amongst the Buffalo fan base.

Things have begun to turn around slowly under the new regime of Pat LaFontaine, Tim Murray and Ted Nolan. Buffalo has proven to be more competitive as of late and that has led to more wins along the way. In fact, they’ve scored three or more goals in four-straight games despite coming away with just two points over that span. Funny that the goaltending had been so stellar all year until the stretch where the team finally started finding the back of the net.

Buffalo’s recent run of games has highlighted a split in how fans are looking at the 2013-14 season. Amazingly there exists a legion of Sabres fans who, from the beginning of the year, expected the team to win every game and make trades to aid in winning right now. These people likely live in a world of blissful ignorance where Ryan Miller will one day be traded for Patrick Kane. It does seem that most of the fanbase has embraced the fact that the Sabres were not built to win so much as securing a high draft pick which would help to accelerate the building process.

What’s odd is that there seem to be a faction of fans who aren’t just aware and hopeful of the race for the first pick, but they’re openly rooting for the team to lose every game in order to secure said pick.  While a lottery pick is the light at the end of this tortuous tunnel, it really isn’t necessary to root against your team, is it? Especially when finishing 30th doesn’t even guarantee that pick. Continue reading

Let @FakeDarcy’s end serve as a death to parody accounts

Yesterday marked an end of an era in Buffalo. More specifically, the end of a social media era.

The departure of Darcy Regier from the Sabres front office also signified the end of the line for Fake Darcy as the latter posted one final farewell tweet as news broke of Regier’s termination from the Sabres.

Fake Darcy managed to operate at the forefront of the Sabres Twitterverse with a steady stream of obvious, snarky tweets that were always taking the lighter side of things into account. It was always just right, not trying too hard, but funny enough to elicit a chuckle.

That’s not always the case when it comes to Sabres-related Twitter accounts. This is probably true of most Twitter feeds that surround professional teams, but given the cottage industry that is Sabres parody accounts, yesterday’s actions should serve as the end of the line for such accounts.

Go ahead and search Twitter for Ron Rolston or Ted Nolan. Be prepared to scroll for a while as there is an account for everything imaginable for the former and current coach of the Sabres. But none of them carry the personality that was found with the feed that was Fake Darcy. To their credit, the Lindy Ruff’s Tie guys have also done a fine job in maintaining a Twitter feed that is entertaining enough to justify. But they’re less a parody and more just a Sabres-related feed in many way.

A quick visual survey shows one account with a single tweet to its credit, two that stopped late last spring and a few others that managed to stay active but truly offered little in the sense of following.

I suppose all parody accounts come with an acquired taste, sort of like comedians. If a particular brand of comedy doesn’t do the trick, you’re not going to find much use for them. But when one account in a veritable sea of them offers even the slightest comedic value, it would seem that the trend for such accounts is crap. I’d like to think that the fanbase is better than this, but I’d be lying.

So consider this a clarion call of sorts. The Sabres Twitterverse was blessed with a mildly entertaining – much like the mildly successful real GM – parody account that was run very well. Whoever was the voice behind the account knew well enough to step down when Regier was fired. Let Fake Darcy’s retirement serve as the end of the line for any further accounts of the ilk.

Goodbye to Fake Darcy, your run was entertaining and well received. Let’s hope that Sabres fans have enough sense to know that they won’t replicate what you perfected.

Sabres should go back to red and black for Hasek

Earlier this week the Anaheim Ducks went back to the start of their franchise and busted out Mighty Ducks retro jerseys for their game against Ottawa on Sunday.

The jerseys were worn as part of Anaheim’s 20-year anniversary celebration and the practice was widely embraced as a great idea by fans, players and media members alike. The Ducks went all out with the event, as well. In addition to the uniforms, they also went retro with the scoreboard, intros and TV graphics for the night.

Seeing all this got me thinking, why can’t the Sabres do something similar? I’m not saying a direct ripoff of the Ducks idea, but something out of the same playbook.

Considering the Sabres current home and road uniforms are practically identical to their original jerseys, going back to the original design for a night wouldn’t yield a drastically different look for the team on the ice. Because of that, the only true option for a throwback-type night would be to rewind to the red and black era. And what better night to turn the clock back to red and black than when the Sabres finally retire Dominik Hasek’s number?

Ted Black has already come out and said the Sabres will be retiring Hasek’s number in the very near future. I also believe there was some insinuation that Hasek may also end up with a statue out in the plaza. Obviously the Sabres have pretty big plans for the greatest goaltender in franchise history.

For my money, there’d be no other way to go than a statue and jersey retirement on the same night. His performance and legacy is right there with the French Connection and combining the two events would make for a very cool special night for Hasek and the fans. Taking it one step further by decking the team out in the red and black uniforms that were worn during Hasek’s prime would make it that much cooler. Continue reading

Tough to find patience with Sabres youth movement

The Sabres are a bad hockey team, we get it. What is surprising is that many fans entered the year under some sort of delusion that some form of tire fire wouldn’t unfold on the First Niagara Center ice this season.

With a 0-4-1 record and a looming matchup with the Blackhawks on Saturday, it’s safe to assume that 0-5-1 might not be too far away. However, the Sabres probably aren’t as bad as their record and their current play has indicated. They’ve already received three sterling performances in goal that resulted in exactly zero points for their efforts and a fourth solid outing that at least got the team to overtime.

Additional goal support should materialize eventually – although if their shooting and possession numbers don’t improve that may be wishful thinking. There are talented players on the roster who will eventually find a way to score more than once in a game. Perhaps it will take a little time for things to gel and when they do the Sabres will likely go from abhorrent to below average.

It’s a rebuild. This is what was expected to happen. Perhaps fans just weren’t ready for the worst of it. Continue reading