Buffalo Sabres turn-around under new owner Terry Pegula

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The Buffalo Sabres and their fans got a healthy dose of reality this afternoon when it was announced that all-world goaltender Ryan Miller will miss tonight’s game against the New York Rangers. For the most part, it’s the first bit of bad news Sabre Nation has received since fan-turned-billionaire-turned owner Terry Pegula acquired the team in late February. No doubt this has the potential to be a buzz-kill, but the city of Buffalo has had a heck of a honeymoon period.

Ever since Pegula took over the team, it’s like there’s an aura of excitement infused into the organization. We heard all of the things right after the purchase and the initial press conference. He was a fan, he was rich, and he wanted to drop money into his favorite team and make them as good as they possibly could be. It’s always great to hear that an owner wants to drop money into his newly acquired team, but this is a little different. Forbes recently estimated Pegula’s worth at $3 billion. That’s billion with a “b.” When he says the team is going to operate with an “unlimited budget,” it means something different than when the guy behind the counter at the Anchor Bar says it.

John Vogl captured the excitement during Terry Pegula’s opening press conference:

“The Buffalo Sabres’ new owner made two things clear today during his introductory news conference. One is that he has loved the team since 1975. He used to have friends in Olean put their telephone to the television when he lived out of town just so he could hear the game broadcasts. When he looked to his right today in HSBC Arena and saw Hall of Famer Gilbert Perreault, he broke down in tears and told the legendary center he was his hero.

Pegula followed up by telling the fans who don’t own the team exactly what they wanted to hear.

“The Buffalo Sabres’ reason for existence is to win the Stanley Cup,” the 59-year-old said. “We will aspire to be the best in the league at finding, developing and keeping players in the Buffalo Sabres family.”

That was all over a month ago. So what has changed in the weeks since the biggest change the Sabres have seen since Tom Golisano bought the team in 2003? Short answer: everything. They snapped a 4-game losing streak in the very first game under the new owner. After kicking the losing streak to the curb, the Sabres have continued on to an 11-4-3 record in the short Pegula Era. If they can keep this up for the next 10 years under his watch, they’re going to have to figure out a way to etch his face into the side of Niagara Falls. Things couldn’t have started any better—and they couldn’t have started at a better time. They were in 9th place when the new owner took over—tonight they have a chance to pull themselves into a tie for 7th.

The fiscal restraints that tied the hands of the front office were lifted and GM Darcy Regier immediately took advantage by doing something completely out of character for the franchise over the last decade. At the deadline they were able to bring in Brad Boyes for a 2nd rounder in a very “un-Sabres like” trade. Usually they’re the team trying acquire draft picks (not salary), but this time the skate was on the other foot. Thank Pegula.

Since his acquisition a day before the trade deadline, Boyes has joined Tyler Ennis and Drew Stafford to give the Sabres some serious secondary scoring they haven’t had all season. Boyes has 5 goals and 5 assists in the 15 games since he joined the Sabres. His linemates have improved their production as well: Ennis has 12 points (6 g, 6a) since Boyes has shown up and Stafford has improved as well with 9 points (4 g, 5a). Those aren’t the kind of numbers that are going to carry a team—but they’ll certainly give a team more offensive depth as they try to pick up the slack for the missing Derek Roy. (Note: it looks like Roy might be able to make it back for the 2nd round if the Sabres were to make it that far.)

For most of the year, the team went as Thomas Vanek, Tim Connolly, and Jason Pominville went; and let’s be honest, the trio hasn’t played like a line that could carry a team most of the year. But put them with another line that can score and all the sudden the Sabres have a look of a team that will be able to score on a consistent basis. Not only the top line, but Tyler Myers has rediscovered the game (offensively and defensively) that made him last year’s Calder Trophy recipient. In fact, they’ve improved to 8th in the league in scoring (2.90 goals per game). It’s a fairly simple formula: put together a team that can score a few goals and put an all-world goaltender behind them.

The offensive output is great, but any success in Buffalo is going to center around their goaltender. For the first 4 months of the season, they had a team that was inconsistent at best offensively and Ryan Miller was playing like a good goaltender. Good, not great. But over the last few weeks, he’s reminded people why he was a dark horse candidate for the Hart Trophy last season. Last week, he earned the #1 star of the week by the NHL by going 3-0 with 2 shutouts and a 0.67 goals against average and .976 save percentage. Even the worst offense in the league would be able to win a few games with goaltending like that.

Those are all factors that the Sabres are dealing with on the ice. But to talk about play on the ice would only be telling part of the story. More importantly, there has been a fundamental attitude adjustment within and around the team. He’s bringing in a cultural shift that is almost as important as the fiscal shift his bank account is bringing in. The team is embracing its great history and tradition by bringing in greats of the past and making it a place where there’s an identity to being a “Buffalo Sabre.” There’s an excitement throughout the entire organization that we haven’t seen since their playoff runs in 2006 and 2007.

The fans in Buffalo will tell you there’s a change around the team as well. From Die By The Blade:

“How do you feel about the Sabres these days? The word that comes to my mind is ‘magical,’ but not for the reasons you might think. It’s not so much that the team’s playing great (which admittedly helps quite a bit) but it’s that so much has changed with the organization so quickly: the fan experience at HSBC Arena, a better TV experience, a suggestion box that’s actually being used, ‘Hockey Heaven’ and a rug with a logo, and a deadline deal that not only worked for once, but never would have been made under the old regime. After a decade and more of complete organizational stagnation, so much has changed for the better in such a short period of time that the only explanation my brain can fathom is that someone cast a magic spell over the city…”

Pegula said in his “media tour” after buying the team that he’s going to make decisions based on what he thinks is “right,” not by money. Immediately upon taking over the team, he issued a huge stamp of approval for Darcy Regier. At the press conference, he could be seen tearing up when he saw Gilbert Perreault—which was one of the best moments in hockey this year. Sure, none of those by themselves is a huge deal. But put them together and there’s a team that feels like they’re onto something. The fans feel it. And judging by their play on the ice, the players look like they’re feeling it as well.

GM Darcy Regier had a great line when he said the new owner is “filling the hope tanks.” That goes both ways—not only is he selling and encouraging hope amongst the fanbase; but there’s a noticeable shift with the team as well. Only time will tell if this is a short-term boost or the start of something great in Buffalo. But one thing is for sure, just about every fan in North America wishes they had a guy like Terry Pegula buying their team.

Report: Golden Knights’ Subban ‘probably out weeks’ after injury versus Blues

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The Golden Knights won again on Saturday, but lost goalie Malcolm Subban to an injury in the third period.

Vegas head coach Gerard Gallant, as is often the case immediately following a game in which an injury occurs, didn’t have an update on Subban’s condition. He called it a lower-body injury, and said he would know more by Sunday.

However, John Shannon of Sportsnet, citing a team source, reported that Subban will undergo an MRI on Sunday and is “probably out weeks.”

That isn’t good news at all for a Vegas team already without Marc-Andre Fleury, who is still on injured reserve after suffering a concussion.

The 23-year-old Subban, who was picked off waivers by Vegas following his training camp with the Bruins, had a promising start to the season since joining the Golden Knights. Since the injury to Fleury, Subban has played in three games, winning two of those and allowing six goals on 94 shots against. He allowed only one goal on 38 shots last night before leaving the game.

Oscar Dansk came off the bench last night when Subban was hurt, and stopped 10 of 11 shots faced as the Golden Knights picked up the overtime victory, despite getting outshot 49-22.

But any lengthy injury to Subban would really test the depth of the Golden Knights goaltending. Fleury has already been out for just over week. The 23-year-old Dansk made his NHL debut last night, and Vegas doesn’t have Calvin Pickard anymore, after he was traded to Toronto a few weeks ago. Maxime Lagace is still down with the AHL Chicago Wolves.

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Cam Tucker is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @CamTucker_Sport.

 

Connor McDavid is great, but he can’t do it all for the Oilers

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At the start of the 2017-18 season the Edmonton Oilers had the second best odds to win the Stanley Cup. Even with the NHL’s reigning MVP and scoring champion and even after a wildly successful season that saw them come within a single game of the Western Conference Finals it still seemed to be a little too much, a little too fast.

First, for as good as the Oilers were last season a lot of it was dependent on Connor McDavid putting the team on his back and carrying them as far as he could. They also played Cam Talbot a ridiculous number of games and still don’t have anybody behind him that can be counted on to give him any kind of a consistent break. Add those two factors to a team that still doesn’t have a lot of depth and there are some reasons to maybe want to pump the brakes on the Stanley Cup talk.

It is still early in the season, but so far we are starting to see that play out on the ice.

After their loss to the Philadelphia Flyers on Saturday the Oilers are now just 2-5-0 on the season and have the second-worst record in the Western Conference.

McDavid is doing what McDavid always does.

He is in year three of his career and is still a human highlight reel every single time he touches the ice. His speed is unmatched. His creativity is off the charts. He is, at times, an unstoppable force and is once again the single biggest factor driving the Oilers offense.

Right now he is the only factor driving the Oilers’ offense.

With eight points so far this season that means he has either scored or assisted on more than 57 percent of the team’s goals.

He has been on the ice for nine of them, which is more than 65 percent.

Through the first seven games of the season the Oilers have scored only five goals this season when McDavid has not been on the ice. That is not a trend that can continue if the Oilers are going to have any hopes of getting out of this early season slump, let alone competing for a Stanley Cup. There is no one single player in the NHL that can make that much of a consistent impact without some secondary help.

The Pittsburgh Penguins and Chicago Blackhawks Stanley Cup runs were not just about superstars like Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jonathan Toews or Patrick Kane. They were also about the complementary players and secondary scoring options that could step up and fill the back of the net when the top tier guys had their inevitable stretches where they would get shut down (and there always comes a time when the top players get shut down for a stretch. Sometimes in the playoffs, too).

Right now the Oilers do not have those secondary options, and if the offense is not coming from Connor McDavid, it is not coming from anybody.

To be fair, they have only had Leon Draisaitl, their second-most important offensive player, for only three games this season. But even a return from him is not a guarantee to be enough based on the makeup of the rest of the roster.

Over the summer the Oilers traded their third-leading scorer (Jordan Eberle) straight up for Ryan Strome, a player that has never had the single-season output that Eberle had a year ago in what was widely considered a down year for him. Strome has two points in seven games.

A year ago the Oilers had big — and mostly unexpected — seasons from players like Patrick Maroon and Mark Letestu as they combined to score 43 goals, each of them setting new career highs. Together, they had a combined shooting percentage of 14.5 percent, a nearly five percent increase over their career averages. That increase in shooting percentage was probably worth an additional 10-12 goals between the two.

There is no guarantee they can duplicate that success.

The Oilers are probably not as bad as their early season record indicates, especially when Draisaitl is back. Even so, McDavid is still going to need more help than he is getting from his teammates if the Oilers are going to do anything close to what was expected from them at the start of the season. Whether or not they have the roster around him to do that remains to be seen.

The Buzzer: Kopitar keeps Kings rolling; O’Reilly gives Sabres OT win

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Player of the night: Anze Kopitar, Los Angeles Kings. The Los Angeles Kings continued their impressive start on Saturday night with a 6-4 win over the Columbus Blue Jackets, improving their record to a league-best 6-0-1 through their first seven games.

Anze Kopitar was the star of the night as he finished with two goals, an assist, three shots on goal, a plus-five rating while also winning 68 percent of his faceoffs.

His second goal of the game, which came with less than three minutes to play in regulation, proved to be the game-winner for the Kings.

Dustin Brown added an empty net goal (he finished with four points in the win) a minute later.

Kopitar is coming off of a down year offensively in 2016-17 but already has 11 points (six goals, five assists) so far this season for a Kings team that looks to be vastly improved under new coach John Stevens.

Highlight of the night. 

For most of Saturday night it looked like the Buffalo Sabres were on their way to another ugly loss, continuing what has been a miserable start to the season. At one point in the second period they found themselves trailing by a 4-1 margin. But they slowly started to chip away then after Evander Kane scored a late third period goal to tie the game, Ryan O'Reilly ended up winning it in overtime on this beauty of a play to give the Sabres their second win of the season.

Factoid of the Night.

The Tampa Bay Lightning have two superstars at forward. They are playing like it. Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov are the first pair of teammates in more than 15 years to start a season with matching nine-game point streaks. [NHL]

Misc.

— Three more assists for Erik Karlsson on Saturday night giving him six on the season. He has played in two games. After major ankle surgery. He is not human.

Clayton Keller added to his rookie leading goal total with his sixth of the season. He is the one bright spot for the Arizona Coyotes this season as they remain winless after their 4-2 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks.

— With the first two-goal game of his NHL career Tyler Pitlick was the difference for the Dallas Stars in their 4-3 win over the Carolina Hurricanes.

Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak are both off to tremendous starts for the Boston Bruins. Both players scored a pair of goals for the Bruins on Saturday night in their 5-4 overtime loss to the Buffalo Sabres. Both players already have six goals on the season.

James Reimer was great for the Florida Panthers, stopping 41 shots in their 4-1 win over the Washington Capitals. With Roberto Luongo on injured reserve the Panthers are going to need a couple of big games from Reimer over the next week.

Mikhail Sergachev looks fantastic for the Tampa Bay Lightning. He is now up to eight points on the season.

Wayne Simmonds was the hero for the Philadelphia Flyers on Saturday with a late goal to help lift them to a 2-1 win over the Edmonton Oilers. He is now up to six goals on the season. Claude Giroux scored his fifth goal in the win.

Logan Couture‘s hat trick was not enough to help the San Jose Sharks in New York on Saturday night against the Islanders. John Tavares had a goal, two assists in the win.

Scores and recaps

New York Rangers 4, Nashville Predators 2

Philadelphia Flyers 2, Edmonton Oilers 1

Buffalo Sabres 5, Boston Bruins 4

Tampa Bay Lightning 7, Pittsburgh Penguins 1

Ottawa Senators 6, Toronto Maple Leafs 3

New York Islanders 5, San Jose Sharks 3

Los Angeles Kings 6, Columbus Blue Jackest 4

Florida Panthers 4, Washington Capitals 1

Dallas Stars 4, Carolina Hurricanes 3

Chicago Blackhawks 4, Arizona Coyotes 2

Minnesota Wild 4, Calgary Flames 2

Vegas Golden Knights 3, St. Louis Blues 2

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Jaromir Jagr leaves game with lower body injury

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Calgary Flames forward Jaromir Jagr played just four shifts on Saturday night before exiting their game against the Minnesota Wild in the first period.

The Flames later announced that Jagr would not return with what the team is calling a lower body injury.

They had no other update.

After going through the entire summer unsigned as a free agent, Jagr finally landed a one-year deal with the Flames just before the start of the season. So far he has appeared in five games for the team recording a pair of assists.

He recorded 46 points (16 goals, 30 assists) while playing in all 82 games for the Florida Panthers a year ago.

Even though he appeared in every game a year ago he still showed some signs of finally starting to slow down, and you have to assume that there is going to be some sort of an injury concern for a player that is turning 46 years old in February.