2010-2011 NHL season preview: Buffalo Sabres

ryanmiller3.jpgLast season: (45-27-10, 100 points, 1st in Northeast Division, 3rd in Eastern Conference) The Sabres played above their heads and thanks to Team USA hero Ryan Miller, they were able to win the Northeast. The team’s lack of consistent scoring came back to bite them in the rear, losing to the Bruins in six games in the first round of the playoffs.

Head coach: Lindy Ruff begins his 13th season behind the bench. Luckily for him, he’s got job security. Unluckily, the fans in Buffalo are getting restless seeing the team do well in the regular season only to fold up shop in the playoffs. The problems may not start with Ruff, but he (along with GM Darcy Regier) take all the heat for the Sabres’ seemingly inconsistent ways.

Key departures: D Henrik Tallinder, D Toni Lydman, F Raffi Torres, F Adam Mair. Losing Tallinder and Lydman from the blue line stings a lot. Torres didn’t perform well after being acquired from Columbus. He won’t be missed.

Key arrivals: D Jordan Leopold, F Rob Niedermayer, D Shaone Morrisonn. Leopold and Morrisonn help fill the holes left by Tallinder and Lydman and gives them a more offensive-minded guy in Leopold and a defensive-minded guy in Morrisonn. Niedermayer helps the Sabres get a defined third-line center — allowing Paul Gaustad to anchor the fourth line — and his winning veteran presence will help in the locker room.

Under pressure: Take your pick amongst the forwards. Any one of Thomas Vanek, Tim Connolly, Jason Pominville and Drew Stafford could be seen as the guy under the most pressure. Of the bunch, the most is expected from Vanek and his struggles last year were well noted in Buffalo. Even though he lead the Sabres in goals with 28, it was still his lowest output since his rookie season when he netted 25. Vanek will need to be a 35-40 goal man again to get the heat off his back.

Much-maligned winger Stafford is under the gun as well. After showing promise of being a potential perennial 20-25 goal player in his first three seasons, he scored just 14 last year and ended the year with just 34 points. Pominville, a former 34-goal scorer, has seen his scoring output not reach those heights in three years. While scoring 20-25 goals is fine, Pominville is paid to be a 30+ goal guy making more than $5 million a season. It’s time to step up in a big way.

Protecting the house: The Sabres’ hopes and dreams all sit on Miller’s Vezina-winning shoulders. No pressure, right? Patrick Lalime is a capable backup and a guy that Miller looks up to to help him out with his game. We’re sure that Ottawa fans enjoy mocking this aspect when the Senators continue to beat Buffalo on a regular basis.

On defense, captain Craig Rivet holds things together while Calder Trophy winner Tyler Myers is one of the NHL’s rising stars. With the aforementioned Leopold and Morrisonn — along with Andrej Sekera, Steve Montador, Chris Butler and promising youngster Mike Weber — the Sabres should be strong along the blue line. Considering how much Miller had to stand on his head last season, perhaps the defense this time around can make life a little less stressful for him.

Top line we’d like to see: Thomas Vanek-Derek Roy-Jason Pominville. We know that this line has been done before in Buffalo with mixed results. It’s worth a shot to give it one more go to see if things can click well and ride Derek Roy’s good season to get two guys you need more scoring from going. At worst, it doesn’t pan out and you give something else a try. At best, they make magic happen and play-by-play man Rick Jeanneret gets to tell everyone where mama hides the cookies.

Oh captain, my captain: The well-traveled Rivet has done well to lead the mostly young Sabres through good and bad times alike the last two seasons.

stevemontador1.jpgStreet fighting man: Lacking a true enforcer, Steve Montador can be banked on to do the majority of the fighting for the Sabres. Someone needs to step up to fight on a team where noted agitator/non-fighter Patrick Kaleta is your teammate. While Kaleta ends up in the middle of many scraps, fighting isn’t his main deal. Rivet and Gaustad will also occasionally throw down. On the off chance he gets called up to Buffalo, defenseman Tim Conboy instantly becomes the designated fighter.

Best-case scenario: Miller has a repeat of the success he had last season. Vanek returns to 40-goal form and Pominville and Drew Stafford have resurgent seasons. Roy builds off his big season and loses his habit of taking the occasional dive. If the Sabres can stay completely healthy for the first time in ages, they could use that to build for a run to the Stanley Cup finals.

Worst-case scenario: Pominville, Vanek and Stafford all continue to struggle to score causing their bad luck to rub off on their linemates in Roy, Connolly and youngster Tyler Ennis. Myers runs into the sophomore slump while injuries continue their annual plague on Buffalo. If Miller returns to earth a little bit, the Sabres could be fighting just to make the postseason.

Keeping it real: The Sabres should be looking at another solid season and certainly a playoff spot. They lost no one heartbreaking in free agency and filled those holes admirably. If, and granted it’s a bit of a big ‘if’, their stars return to form and produce the way they’re supposed to, Buffalo can be a very dangerous team. The talent is there to win and they have guys filling out all the roles on a team that you’d want to build a potential Cup-winner around. The key is putting it all together and making it work.

Maybe I can understand where the angst for Ruff comes from now. The Sabres will challenge for the division and could make for a very capable top three seed in the playoffs… unlike last season.

Stanley Cup chances: On a scale from 1-5 with one being the worst and five being the best, the Sabres are a respectable 4. Banking on a lot of things returning to normal is a bet I’m willing to make.

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    NHL on NBCSN: Blues continue push for playoff spot against banged up Bruins


    NBCSN’s coverage of the 2017-18 NHL season continues on Wednesday, as the St. Louis Blues host the Boston Bruins at 8:00 p.m. ET. You can watch the game online by clicking here.

    The Boston Bruins are coming off an overtime loss to the red-hot Columbus Blue Jackets on Monday night. Sure, the Bruins would liked to have collected two points, but the fact that they managed to force overtime without Patrice Bergeron, Zdeno Chara, Charlie McAvoy, Jake DeBrusk and Rick Nash in their lineup is still pretty impressive.

    One of the players that stepped into the lineup on Monday was rookie Ryan Donato, who the team signed on Sunday night. The former second-rounder made an instant impact offensively, as he recorded a goal and two assists in the defeat.

    Funny enough, Donato skipped Bruins practice on Tuesday to attend a class at Harvard.

    “I plan on finishing this semester academically,” Donato said on Monday, per WEEI. “Obviously it’s gonna be difficult, but for me it was a dream to graduate from Harvard. Obviously I’m putting that off a little bit, but for me I need to finish this semester to have that opportunity and not put it off an extra couple years.”

    Donato will play in tonight’s game.

    Although their playoff spot is all but secure, the Bruins still have plenty to play for. With Tampa Bay beating Toronto on Tuesday, Boston is now five points out of top spot in the Atlantic Division with two games in hand.

    When the Blues traded Paul Stastny away at the deadline, many (including Brayden Schenn) believed that their playoff hopes took a hit. Instead, they’ve managed to stay in the race.

    Heading into this clash against the Bruins, St. Louis finds themselves just three points out of a Wild Card spot with a game in hand.

    Unfortunately for them, they’ll likely have to take care of business without Vladimir Tarasenko, who is expected to miss tonight’s contest with an upper-body injury. Alexander Steen will take Tarasenko’s spot on the top line with Jaden Schwartz and Brayden Schenn.

    “Obviously we’d love to have him in the lineup,” head coach Mike Yeo said of Tarasenko, per the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “We know what he is and what he means for our team so it’s no question, it’s a significant loss, but we don’t have the opportunity or even the possibility for our team to sit around and think about what could be right now. We have to look at the group we have and we believe we still have a capable group.”


    Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

    PHT Morning Skate: Senators support Karlssons; Donato misses practice for class

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    Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

    Erik Karlsson and his wife Melinda are going through a really difficult time right now after losing their son, but they’ll have plenty of support from the Ottawa Senators. (Ottawa Citizen)

    • Not only has Marc-Andre Fleury been an important figure on the ice for the Vegas Golden Knights, he’s also emerged as a key leader on an expansion team that has exceeded expectations. (Associated Press)

    • After scoring a goal and two assists in his NHL debut, Boston Bruins froward Ryan Donato skipped practice to attend class at Harvard. (WEEI)

    • Ellen Show executive producer Andy Lassner is a huge Los Angeles Kings fan. He’s also been able to forge a relationship with a few of the team’s players. (NHL.com/Kings)

    • The University of Minnesota men’s hockey team will be looking for a new head coach for the first time in a long time, as Don Lucia called it quits after 19 years on the job. (Pioneer Press)

    • New Jersey Devils GM Ray Shero went out and got Patrick Maroon from Edmonton on deadline day. The trade has worked out relatively well for him team. Even though he isn’t as fast as some of the other players on the roster, Maroon has been a useful asset. (All About the Jersey)

    • The Carolina Hurricanes won’t be making the playoffs this season, but that doesn’t mean they haven’t had players step up in 2017-18. Here are their top five MVPs from this season. (Cardiac Cane)

    • St. Louis Blues defenseman Alex Pietrangelo isn’t the most vocal guy. He does most of his talking and leading on the ice, and the team likes it that way. (St. Louis Post-Dispatch)

    Rickard Rakell has filled the net quite a bit over the last two years for the Anaheim Ducks, but he wants to make sure that people also see him as a complete hockey player. (OC Register)

    • If the Panthers sneak into the playoffs, Roberto Luongo will have a lot to do with it. He’s been outstanding since returning to Florida’s lineup in February. (Rat Trick)

    Alexandar Georgiev has been a pleasant surprise between the pipes for the New York Rangers. Has he earned himself a spot on the team next season? (Blue Seat Blogs)

    • Former Minnesota Wild prospect Brett Bulmer is finding his game in the ECHL with the Florida Everblades. (The Sin Bin)

    • Up top, check out the highlights from last night’s game between the Flyers and Red Wings. Petr Mrazek‘s return to Detroit didn’t exactly go as planned.

    Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

    The Buzzer: Fleury worries; Blackhawks eliminated

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    Injury scares

    Let’s hope that Tuesday presents dodged bullets instead of long-lasting injuries.

    • You can read more about Patrik Laine not returning to the Jets’ eventual overtime win against the Kings here. The early word is that it “isn’t sinister,” whatever that means.

    Here is video of the unfortunate moment:

    • The Vegas Golden Knights must hold their breath again with goalie Marc-Andre Fleury. “MAF” took a shot off of his mask and did not return to Vegas’ eventual win against Vancouver. Considering his struggles with concussion issues, this is a big concern.

    For what it’s worth, the team provided no official update, yet similarly to the Jets with Laine, the Golden Knights appear optimistic about Fleury avoided something serious. Either way, it puts a damper on this milestone.

    Elimination updates

    For the first time since the 2007-08 season, the Chicago Blackhawks won’t participate in the playoffs.

    Chicago joins the Arizona Coyotes, Vancouver Canucks, and Buffalo Sabres as teams with the dreaded “e-” next to their names. The Red Wings postponed that fate by beating Philly. Edmonton delayed their own, too; they match the Blackhawks’ 69 standings points but hold a game in hand.

    So, expect more names to get officially crossed off the list very soon. The Canadiens and Senators also see their days numbered.

    Players of the Night

    • Artemi Panarin is a key figure in the Blue Jackets’ nine-game winning streak (read about how they’ve congested the Metro races in this post). Tuesday served as one of his best nights yet with Columbus, as “The Bread Man” collected a hat trick and also generated an assist. With 68 points on the season, it looks like he’ll hit 70+ points for his third season in a row, meaning he’s done so every year in the NHL. Perhaps he doesn’t need Patrick Kane to produce points, after all?

    • Leon Draisaitl collected a goal and three assists in the Oilers’ surprisingly bombastic 7-3 win against the Hurricanes, which didn’t really require Connor McDavid to dominate (he finished with one assist). Draisaitl’s quietly been showing that, while his contract is expensive, he’s probably the last of the Oilers’ worries.

    [The 2018 NHL Stanley Cup playoffs begin April 11 on the networks of NBC]


    Matt Benning was basically enjoying batting practice during that Oilers win:

    Tremendous pass from Thomas Vanek, who now has eight points in 11 games with Columbus.


    Learn why Alex Ovechkin‘s 602nd goal is his latest milestone here.

    Nathan MacKinnon continues to tear up the NHL, as he’s second in league scoring with 91 points in just 65 games after collecting two assists on Tuesday. It really feels like he’s adding to his Hart Trophy argument every single game.


    Islanders 4, Penguins 1
    Blue Jackets 5, Rangers 3
    Capitals 4, Stars 3
    Oilers 7, Hurricanes 3
    Panthers 7, Senators 2
    Red Wings 5, Flyers 4 (SO)
    Lightning 4, Maple Leafs 3
    Jets 2, Kings 1 (OT)
    Avalanche 5, Blackhawks 1
    Golden Knights 4, Canucks 1
    Sharks 6, Devils 2

    James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

    Races heat up between Penguins, Flyers, Blue Jackets


    The Philadelphia Flyers could have sulked after a poor performance from Petr Mrazek – again – halfway through Tuesday’s game against the Detroit Red Wings.

    Instead, they just wouldn’t roll over, putting forth the sort of gutsy effort you’d expect from a team playing in front of Alex Lyon. (Yes, there were bad puns.)

    The Flyers rallied from deficits of 3-1 and 4-3 to grab a standings point in this one, with a memorable 4-4 tally coming when Travis Konecny notched his 20th of 2017-18 in an odd way. The Flyers ended up falling in the shootout as the Red Wings’ 5-4 SO win ended a lengthy skid, but that single point ended up being huge on a busy night in the Metropolitan Division.

    Consider some of the other developments around a division that’s felt up for grabs for a while:

    • In slipping by the Dallas Stars 4-3 in regulation, the Capitals might make the division title a little bit less than “up for grabs.” They now lead the Metro by four points with 91 in 73 games played. Alex Ovechkin scored his 44th goal of the season in this one, moving all alone to 19th all-time in goals, as that was the 602nd of his career.
    • The Pittsburgh Penguins squandered an opportunity to stay within striking distance of the Capitals for first place, and also a chance to create separation between themselves and the hard-charging Blue Jackets and tenacious Flyers. The Islanders handed the Penguins a 4-1 loss.
    • Meanwhile, the Columbus Blue Jackets must be considered a serious threat to the Penguins’ second seed, and at least a dark horse candidate to win the Metro.

    In defeating the Rangers 5-3, the Blue Jackets are now on a ridiculous nine-game winning streak. Artemi Panarin‘s quietly impressive 2017-18 season was a little tougher to ignore tonight, as he combined a hat trick with an assist.

    This win and the Penguins’ loss locks the two teams at 87 points. Pittsburgh has a game in hand (73 GP) on Columbus (74) and some other edges, but that race is now very close.

    [The 2018 NHL Stanley Cup playoffs begin April 11 on the networks of NBC]

    • Columbus pushed Philadelphia down into the first wild-card spot thanks to Tuesday’s proceedings, but again, getting a point was still huge for Philly. They now have 86 points in 74 games played. That could be crucial in holding off the Devils and Panthers to at least secure a playoff spot. They’re also conceivably a hot streak away from pushing back into the Metro top three, and possibly grabbing a round of home-ice advantage if things go really well.

    Need a visual look at the races? Here’s a rundown:

    METRO 1: Capitals, 91 points, 73 GP, 39 ROW
    METRO 2: Penguins, 87 points, 73 GP, 39 ROW
    METRO 3: CBJ, 87 points, 74 GP, 35 ROW

    WILD1: Flyers, 86 points, 74 GP, 35 ROW
    WILD2: Devils, 82 points, 72 GP, 32 ROW

    Ninth place: Panthers, 7-2 win against the Senators tonight, 81 points, 71 GP, 34 ROW


    As you can see, the races for the second and third Metro spots, along with jostling for the two wild-card seeds, makes for a congested group. The Panthers hold three games in hand on the Flyers and the Devils have two on Philly, so the current buffer could plummet.

    Sure, winning the game would have been better for the Flyers, especially if they could have done it in regulation or during overtime. Considering how glum things looked heading into the second intermission, grabbing a point against Detroit was still important.

    James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.