Next season’s Buffalo Sabres could look very different

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It seemed like the Buffalo Sabres’ organization received a surge of excitement from the moment new owner Terry Pegula took over. The team was in a dire situation months before that happened, especially when Derek Roy went down with a knee injury that ended his season (save for a single appearance in Game 7 of the team’s first round series against the Philadelphia Flyers).

The Sabres made a spirited run toward the playoffs, narrowly outlasting teams such as the Carolina Hurricanes and Toronto Maple Leafs for one of the final two spots. They made the aggressive (if questionable) move to acquire Brad Boyes during the trade deadline and generally seem willing to spend the money to go from a solid, playoff-ready team to a genuine contender in the East.

This prompts two important questions: is GM Darcy Regier smart enough to make the right moves and will head coach Lindy Ruff be able to guide that roster once it is completed?

No doubt about it, the Sabres have a lot of questions to answer this off-season. That could be a really good thing (the team should have $15.6-$18.6 million to work with if they plan on spending to the cap ceiling) or a bad one (they have 13 players under contract, with 7-10 spots to fill) depending on the decisions Regier makes.

For the sake of this exercise, we’ll just look at the players who could become unrestricted or restricted free agents come July 1.

Forwards

Tim Connolly (unrestricted, previously made $4.5 million) – Going into the stretch run, it seemed like Buffalo’s “Mr Glass” would be an obvious goner. Through his first 47 games, he scored just 26 points. Yet he seemed to get things together in March, scoring 16 points in his last 21 games. Finishing the 2010-11 season strongly (and an encouraging 65 points in 78 games in 09-10) might make him tougher to dismiss in Buffalo if he’s willing to take a pay-cut and short-term deal.

Nathan Gerbe (restricted, previously made $850 K) – In my mind’s eye, I tend to mix up Gerbe and Tyler Ennis with disturbing frequency. Maybe it’s the fact they’re both short in stature; perhaps it’s their unusual numbers (Gerbe wears 42; Ennis sports 63). Either way, they’re both undersized players who can provide some magic to the team’s forward mix. Buffalo will have to pony up a moderate raise for Gerbe this summer and a more significant one for Ennis in 2012.

Rob Niedermayer (unrestricted, $1.25 million); Mike Grier (unrestricted, $1.5 million) – These are two aging veterans who make marginal impacts in the regular season until their rugged play, hockey intelligence and experience helps more in the playoffs. The Sabres might be wise to offer them two-way contracts at this point in their careers.

Other unrestricted free agent forwards:

Matt Ellis (625K)
Mark Parrish (600K)
Mark Mancari (575K)
Cody McCormick (500K)

Backup goalie

Jhonas Enroth (restricted, $867K); Patrick Lalime (unrestricted, 650K) – Do the Sabres have their much-needed backup for all-world goalie Ryan Miller in Enroth? They certainly don’t in Lalime, who was basically a second goalie coach toward the end of the 2010-11 season. Enroth didn’t receive a ton of opportunities to prove himself one way or the other, but he did save the Sabres season, so maybe a modest backup deal for two years is in order.

Defensemen

Marc-Andre Gragnani (restricted, $500K) – After scoring three points in only nine regular season games, Gragnani was a difference-maker in the playoffs, putting up an outstanding seven points in seven contests. He might not be the offensive defenseman they’ve been dying for, but he could be a solid depth option and stopgap solution. The question is: how much will that hot run cost the Sabres?

Andrej Sekera (restricted, $1 million); Steve Montador (unrestricted, $1.5 million) – Neither of these defensemen are “world-beaters,” but they received around 20 minutes per game at affordable clips. Sekera has far more promise than Montador from a long-term perspective, but both of their negotiations will come down to price.

Mike Weber (restricted, $550K); Chris Butler (restricted, $850 K) – Again, these are two defensemen who are expendable but might be retained if their asking prices are modest. Like Sekera, they own the advantage of being younger since they’re all 24 years old.

***

As you can see, the Sabres have a lot of decisions to make, but there aren’t a ton of make-or-break questions to answer (not after signing Drew Stafford to a contract extension, at least). Signing Gerbe, Enroth and Gragnani will likely require the toughest negotiations while the other players require judgment calls.

It’s not crazy to wonder if the team might make a big pitch for Brad Richards considering their copious amounts of cap space and limited options to improve their biggest weaknesses on defense. Either way, we’ll keep you informed as the Pegula era truly beings in Buffalo this summer.

The Buzzer: Tuukka Time isn’t running out

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Be sure to visit NBCOlympics.com and NBC Olympic Talk for full hockey coverage from PyeongChang

Players of the Night:

Tuukka Rask, Boston Bruins: Remember when people thought Tuukka Time was running out? Rask stopped 28-of-29 against the Flames in a 2-1 overtime win for the Bruins on Monday. Rask, according to Sportsnet Stats, is now 20-2-2 with a 1.83 goals-against average, a .933 save percentage and two shutouts in his last 25 games, 24 of which has been starts.

Pekka Rinne, Nashville Predators: Rinne stopped 36-of-38 to help the Predators back into a tie first place in the Central Division. Rinne, who has won three of his past four starts, picked up his 30th win of the season, the seventh time he’s done so in his career, and fourth season in a row.

Jason Zucker, Minnesota Wild: Zucker notched two tallies in the game, his second and third goals in his past two games, to help the Wild to a much-needed win after dropping their previous two contests.

John Gibson and Ryan Miller, Anaheim Ducks: Gibson left after the second period with a lower-body injury. He made 13 saves. Miller came in for a relief stint and stopped 20 third-period shots for the rare combined shutout, just the second occurrence in team history.

Highlights of the Night:

Poor Erik Karlsson:

Brad Marchand uses his head for some good:

The Chronicles of Rittich:

Factoids of the Night:

MISC:

Scores:

Wild 5, Islanders 3

Capitals 3, Sabres 2

Bruins 2, Flames 1 (OT)

Predators 5, Senators 2

Kings 3, Blackhawks 1

Ducks 2, Golden Knights 0


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

U.S. beats Slovakia 5-1, will play Czechs in Olympic quarters

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GANGNEUNG, South Korea (AP) — Ryan Donato scored two goals, Troy Terry had three assists and the United States beat Slovakia 5-1 in the qualification round Tuesday to advance to face the Czech Republic in the Olympic quarterfinals.

College kids again led the way for the U.S., which scored more against Slovakia then it did in all three preliminary-round games. James Wisniewski, Mark Arcobello and Garrett Roe also scored for the Americans, who took advantage of a 5-on-3 power play for hits on Donato and goaltender Ryan Zapolski.

Shaking off a collision with Ladislav Nagy, Ryan Zapolski had arguably his best game of the tournament, stopping 21 of the 22 shots he faced. Zapolski and the U.S. also beat Slovakia 2-1 in the preliminary round when Donato scored twice. With his second two-goal game, Donato equaled his father, Ted, who scored four goals for the U.S. at the 1992 Games in Albertville.

Slovakia goaltender Jan Laco allowed five goals on 33 shots and Peter Ceresnak scored a power-play goal for Slovakia, which became the first team eliminated from the men’s side.

After a listless first period with no goals and few scoring chances, the U.S. wasted little time getting on the board early in the second. Terry, as he has done all Olympics, used his speed to get to the net, and Donato picked up the loose puck and beat Laco 1:36 into the period.

The Americans got not one but two scares 26 seconds later when Nagy ran over Zapolski and Slovakia defenseman Michal Cajovsky put a shoulder into Donato’s head in the neutral zone. Trainers attended to Donato and Zapolski as backup goaltender Brandon Maxwell stretched and prepared to go in.

Donato got stitched up on the bench and Zapolski took a few minutes before deciding not to leave the net. The ’90s hit ”Tubthumping” by Chumbawamba blared over the speakers when both players got to their feet and provided a fitting soundtrack for the next few minutes.

With Cajovsky given a match penalty – a five-minute major and an ejection – and Nagy in the penalty box for goaltender interference, the U.S. scored 18 seconds into its 5-on-3 power play with Donato screening Laco for Wisniewski’s first goal to make it 2-0 at the 2:20 mark. Terry took advantage of all the time in the world behind the net and found an open Arcobello for a one-timer to put the U.S. up 3-0 at 13:30.

After Jordan Greenway was penalized for slashing, Slovakia scored on the power play 16:54 into the second to cut it to 3-1, but the lightning-fast line of Roe, Brian O’Neill and Broc Little combined for a tic-tac-toe goal to make it 4-1 at 9:52 of the third. O’Neill flashed his speed down the right wing, took a hit while making the pass to Little who found Roe for a tap-in.

Donato scored his second of the game, this time on the power play, 16:46 into the third.

NOTES: St. Cloud State defenseman Will Borgen was a healthy scratch again for the United States. … Veteran forward Jim Slater returned to the lineup, replacing Chad Kolarik. … Former NHL player and coach Craig Ramsay coaches Slovakia.

Follow Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno

Be sure to visit NBCOlympics.com and NBC Olympic Talk for full hockey coverage from PyeongChang.

Desperate for goaltending help, Flyers acquire Petr Mrazek

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The deal: The Philadelphia Flyers acquired goaltender Petr Mrazek from the Detroit Red Wings for a conditional fourth-round pick in the 2018 NHL Entry Draft and a conditional third-round pick in the 2019 NHL Entry Draft.

Why is Philadelphia is making this deal? Simple: With the injuries to Brian Elliott (out five-to-six weeks with a core muscle injury) and Michal Neuvirth (out indefinitely with a lower-body injury), the Flyers had Alex Lyon, a veteran of just four NHL games, left to shoulder the load. Philly needed help after Neuvirth went down on Sunday and they went out and got it in 25-year-old Mrazek. The Flyers are currently third in the Metropolitan Division. Even with their six-point cushion from the second wildcard spot, relying on a rookie to see out the rest of the regular season could have been met with disastrous consequences.

Why is Detroit is making this deal? Sam Carchidi of Philly.com said Flyers general manager Ron Hextall had spoken with the Red Wings about Mrazek prior to Neuvirth’s injury, but the Detroit Free Press reported that the Flyers turned down a deal that would see a third-round pick go the other way. With the Red Wings being sellers, and with Hextall even more desperate for help after Sunday, he had no choice but to fold to Detroit’s demands.

Who won the trade? Pretty even. The Red Wings get a couple of picks over the next two years as they rebuild their team. The Flyers get immediate goaltending relief and perhaps an upgrade on the oft-injured Neuvirth. And Flyers fans will like that the team didn’t overpay to fix their problems. A good move from Hextall.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Blackhawks ban fans after racist chants directed at Capitals’ Devante Smith-Pelly

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The Chicago Blackhawks took action on Monday, banning a few fans from team home games after their involvement in directing racist chants at Washington Capitals forward Devante Smith-Pelly on Saturday.

In a post on the team’s website, the Blackhawks said they have “contacted the offending individuals and notified them that they are no longer welcome at Blackhawks home games.”

“Racist comments and other inappropriate behavior are not tolerated by the Chicago Blackhawks,” the Blackhawks said in a post.

Four Blackhawks fans were kicked out of Saturday’s game against the Capitals at United Center after racially-charged taunts were made toward Smith-Pelly.

Smith-Pelly, serving a five-minute major for fighting in the third period, got upset with a fan next to him who, according to the Washington Post, was chanting, “Basketball, basketball, basketball,” toward Smith-Pelly, who is black.

On Monday, Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville spoke about the incident.

“Totally unacceptable in our game, in any sport and in society,” Quenneville said. “We have to learn from something like that. (It) can’t happen. I talked to (Capitals coach Barry Trotz) yesterday, apologized to the organization and the player, Devante. We’re sorry about what happened and let’s learn from it.”

Anthony Duclair, who is black, also spoke to the media.

“It’s not ok,” Duclair said. “Whether it happens to Devante Smith-Pelly or a random person on the street, you should be comfortable in your own skin and gender and nationality or religion, your beliefs. Everyone’s equal. Everyone should love each other.”

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman released a statement on Sunday morning:

“Last night in Chicago, individuals directed racial taunts and abuse at Washington Capitals player Devante Smith-Pelly,” said NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman. “The National Hockey League condemns this unacceptable and reprehensible behavior. The League fully supports the actions taken by the United Center and the Blackhawks to eject the offenders and would expect the same response to any similarly unacceptable behavior at any of our arenas.

“While this incident was isolated in nature, no player, coach, official or fan should ever have to endure such abuse at one of our games. The League will take steps to have our clubs remind all stakeholders that they are entitled to enjoy a positive environment – free from unacceptable, inappropriate, disruptive, inconsiderate or unruly behaviors or actions and may not engage in conduct deemed detrimental to that experience.”

February is Hockey is for Everyone month in the NHL.

Be sure to visit NBCOlympics.com and NBC Olympic Talk for full hockey coverage from PyeongChang.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck