Ville Leino, Jiri Tlusty

2011-12 season preview: Buffalo Sabres

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2011-12 record: 43-29-10, 96 points; 3rd in Northeast, 7th in East

Playoffs: Lost to Philadelphia 4-3 in Eastern quarterfinals

After scratching and clawing through the final stages to make the playoffs last season, new owner Terry Pegula’s summer of spending raises expectations considerably. Buffalo beefed up on offense and defense, but the question is: will it be worth it? That’s yet to be determined, but it should be fun to find out.

Offense

The Sabres scored the third most goals (245) in the East, yet they still decided to tweak their offense. Buffalo jettisoned gritty veterans Mike Grier and Rob Niedermayer, along with frequently-injured (but remarkably-gifted) center Tom Connolly to make room for their youngsters and their splashy new toy Ville Leino.

Buffalo might bring some fans back to the Chris Drury-Danny Briere Era, a short-term smash success that sent wave after wave of offensive threats at opponents before free agency tore it all apart. Sliding Leino into the second center spot is worrisome, as is the Sabres’ thin group of forwards who can excel at killing penalties. (It’s also hard to imagine Leino helping the team improve its ugly 47.7 percent mark on faceoffs from last season, although that couldn’t get too much worse.)

Still, this Sabres squad should light up the scoreboard thanks to rising young guns such as Tyler Ennis and Nathan Gerbe along with a dizzying array of wingers in their primes (including Thomas Vanek, Jason Pominville and Drew Stafford). Even much-ridiculed sniper Brad Boyes could bring a Michael Ryder-like hot-and-cold element to the team if injuries and slumps hit their bigger names.

Defense

Time and time again, the Sabres’ porous defense left goalie Ryan Miller on an island during the last few seasons. As troubling as some of the moves made during Pegulamania might be, their blue line looks significantly improved.

The Sabres essentially scuttled Chris Butler and Steve Montador for two remarkably different blueliners: Christian Ehrhoff and Robyn Regehr. Ehrhoff played big minutes and employed an erratic but howling slap shot on the Vancouver blue line while Regehr served as a rugged shutdown guy in Calgary for several years. Even if critics are right about Regehr’s skills diminishing a bit since he was once considered a world-class guy in his own zone, he’s still likely to represent a massive upgrade against the league’s most dangerous scoring threats.

Those additions ease the pressure on the team’s nearly Zdeno Chara-sized Myers, who probably buckled under excessive minutes last season instead of being guilty of a true ‘sophomore slump’. Jordan Leopold is an economical and useful depth guy while Marc-Andre Gragnani ranks as an intriguing wild card of an offensive threat.

Goalies

After a 2009-10 season that only the 2010-11 version of Tim Thomas wouldn’t envy, Miller caved under the pressure of too many starts and a steady stream of defensive lapses. That’s not to say that Miller was horrible, but he dropped quite a bit from a .929 save percentage in his Vezina season to .916.

One of the issues for Miller was the lack of a dependable backup to help him out for the first half of last season; Patrick Lalime seemed like a glorified goalie coach for most of that time (0-5-0 in 7 GP with an ugly .890 save percentage). Miller should get more breathing room with Jhonas Enroth as his full-fledged backup, especially after Enroth saved the day late last season when Miller struggled with concussion issues.

The Sabres would be wise to lean on Enroth more frequently this season, too, since they’ll deal with a league-leading 21 back-to-back games in 2011-12.

Coaching

In a sports climate in which two-time World Series champion managers can get reflexively canned and NHL bench bosses have the shelf lives of NFL running backs, Lindy Ruff ranks as a stark outlier. Ruff will enter his 14th season behind the bench in Buffalo, where he’s amassed 526 regular-season wins. This season ranks as a rare test for Ruff, however, because his defenders can’t lean on the time-honored ‘low-budget roster’ excuse if things go sour. His track record indicates that he’ll find a way to make a lot of moving parts run together smoothly, although it almost seems inevitable that Leino might end up in Ruff’s doghouse a few times during the life of his risky contract.

Best-case scenario

The Sabres improve on the power play with Ehrhoff’s blistering slap shots, Leino proves to be an even bigger hit in Buffalo than in Philly and Miller takes advantage of an improved defense to win another Vezina Trophy. Finally suited with a truly competitive roster, Ruff guides the Sabres to the Stanley Cup finals where … well, let’s not jinx it for perennially jilted Buffalo sports fans.

Reality

The Sabres have strengths in every area: top-end scoring, offensive depth, defensive defensemen, scoring blueliners and an elite goalie. This team’s relative weaknesses is on the penalty kill, unless Regehr can camouflage a dearth of quality checking forwards beyond Paul Gaustad.

For that reason, the Sabres might struggle a bit in the playoffs. That being said, their depth and talent will prompt many to predict that they’ll claim their second Northeast title in three season. On paper, it’s hard to argue against that conventional wisdom, but we’ll see if the team gels amid heightened expectations.

Anxious Sabres fans shouldn’t fret, though – their team should be a joy to watch again.

‘I felt a huge pop’: Bishop suffered an ankle/shin injury in Eastern Conference Final

Tampa Bay Lightning goalie Ben Bishop looks at the ice after allowing a goal by Detroit Red Wings' Gustav Nyquist in the second period of an NHL hockey game in Detroit, Saturday, March 28, 2015. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)
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Tampa Bay Lightning goalie Ben Bishop revealed he had strained ligaments in his ankle/shin area, which ultimately put him on the sidelines for the Eastern Conference Final.

Bishop was stretchered off the ice after suffering the injury in the first period of Game 1 versus the Pittsburgh Penguins, and never returned to game action, meaning back-up Andrei Vasilevskiy had to take over the starting duties for the duration of the series.

“When I went down, I felt a huge pop. I thought somebody two-handed me in the shin. Once I felt the pop and then it was a bunch of pressure and pain, I thought my leg broke,” Bishop told reporters.

“I pretty much strained all the stuff in my shin and ankle. I was coming back and it was getting better. I was able to skate there at the end but going down in the butterfly and those movements — like going up against the post — it was still really painful and I just wouldn’t have been effective.”

Bishop estimated he was getting close to a return, but still a “week or so” before he could play with the pain.

“It was getting there. Just tough timing.”

Bishop, 29, has one more year remaining on his current deal that comes with a cap hit of $5.95 million and is slated to become an unrestricted free agent at the end of next season. Vasilevskiy, 21, played well when called upon in the post-season and has one year remaining on his deal. He’s slated to become a restricted free agent after next season.

Lightning GM Steve Yzerman acknowledged that at some point, a decision on their goalies will probably be necessary, either for salary cap reasons or perhaps a potential expansion draft.

“We’ve got two outstanding goaltenders. I know that,” said Yzerman.

Added Bishop: “If you look around this league right now, you need two goalies to win.”

Yzerman: ‘I think the best thing for this team is Jonathan Drouin being on it’

TAMPA, FL - APRIL 30:  Jonathan Drouin #27 of the Tampa Bay Lightning celebrates his goal against the New York Islanders  during the first period in Game Two of the Eastern Conference Second Round during the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Amalie Arena on April 30, 2016 in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Scott Iskowitz/Getty Images)
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Talk about a whirlwind season for Jonathan Drouin.

The talented forward, and third overall pick in the 2013 NHL Draft, went from the center of a well documented controversy for a public trade request to a pivotal component for the Tampa Bay Lightning in its playoff quest that fell just short of a Stanley Cup Final berth after a Game 7 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Eastern Conference Final.

The 21-year-old Drouin, recalled from the AHL when Steven Stamkos was taken out of the lineup with a blood clot, scored five goals and 14 points in 17 playoff games. And, based on the comments of general manager Steve Yzerman to reporters, he’ll be a regular on this team when the 2016-17 season begins in the fall.

Drouin has one more year remaining on his entry-level contract before he’s a restricted free agent, as per General Fanager.

Funny how some things can change.

The Drouin trade request was one of the more contentious — not to mention ongoing — storylines this season. But it could be that both sides have since resolved their differences.

“I definitely want to be here,” said Drouin, as per the Tampa Bay Times. “I love the way this ended, I guess with this different and weird year. But the way this finished and it’s definitely somewhere I want to play.”

In this case, the best deal was the one Yzerman never made. Even as speculation and reports and rumor circulated the situation for weeks leading up to the trade deadline.

“He makes us a better team. Simple as that,” Yzerman told reporters. “He can do things — a talented young player that’s only going to get better.

“I think the best thing for this team is Jonathan Drouin being on it.”

 

Penguins enter Stanley Cup Final as favorites over Sharks: online bookmaker

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The Pittsburgh Penguins, led by the likes of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang, were last in the Stanley Cup Final in 2009, when they hoisted hockey’s silver chalice.

The San Jose Sharks are in uncharted waters, having never been here before, and that includes Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau, both veterans of more than 1,000 regular season games played.

Perhaps that’s why the Penguins, one of the marquee NHL teams given their generational super star Crosby, are -135 favorites to win the Stanley Cup, according to online bookmaker Bovada on Friday. The Sharks were listed as +115 underdogs.

The Penguins, a force in the NHL since a coaching change in mid-December, became the betting favorites to win it all following their series win over Alex Ovechkin and the rival Washington Capitals in the second round.

Game 1 of the final goes Monday in Pittsburgh, where the Penguins will start with home ice advantage.

So far in these playoffs, the Penguins have gone 7-3 at Consol Energy Center. The Sharks are 5-4 on the road, where they actually started 3-0 following the first round against the L.A. Kings.

Right now, the Sharks possess the top three point producers in these playoffs in Logan Couture, Joe Pavelski (the leading goal scorer with 13) and Brent Burns, while Phil Kessel — as part of that dynamic HBK Line — is fifth in the league and leads the Penguins with 18 points in 18 games.

 

‘Two legends’ Thornton and Marleau prepare for first Stanley Cup Final

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SAN JOSE, Calif. — Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau have been linked ever since they went one-two in the 1997 NHL draft to Boston and San Jose.

They became teammates with the Sharks more than a decade ago, won a gold medal for Canada at the 2010 Olympics and each had their captaincies stripped as they became the faces of so many postseason failures in San Jose.

Now at age 36 and after more than 3,000 combined games, 949 goals and 2,610 career points in the regular and postseason, Thornton and Marleau have the opportunity to add the only thing missing on their impressive career resumes if they can win the Stanley Cup.

“It’s just the next step for us,” Thornton said Friday. “We’ve been doing a really good job of staying day to day, shift to shift. This is just another challenge we’re hoping to come out on top on.”

Related: Here’s your  TV schedule for the Stanley Cup Final on NBC Sports

The two will take the ice in the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in their careers on Monday night in Pittsburgh, ending a long journey that included many disappointments and criticism that was often undeserved.

“It’s two legends,” teammate Brent Burns said. “I’ve said it before. Those two are some of the best players to ever play the game. It’s huge to get them here. They’ve done pretty much everything else. They sometimes take a bad rap in the media, which is unnecessary. Anybody that’s played with them sees the way that they work and what kind of teammates they are, what kind of people they are. They’re two of the best.”

They just haven’t always been considered that way because of the lack of playoff success that was at times as much a reflection on the lack of help they got as it was on any deficiencies in their games.

But both also had times when they failed to raise their game at the biggest points of the season. Thornton went pointless during a seven-game series loss to Montreal in his final playoffs in Boston in 2004 while he played with torn rib cartilage. Thornton also posted a -11 rating in the 2010 playoffs in San Jose when the Sharks got swept by Chicago in the Western Conference final.

Marleau struggled in the 2007-09 playoffs when San Jose got knocked out twice in the second round and then lost as the top seed in the first round to Anaheim in 2009. That led to the Sharks demoting him from captain.

The two have had plenty of playoff success along the way as well, but it has been the failures that colored people’s perceptions of them, none more than blowing a 3-0 series lead to Los Angeles in 2014 in a collapse that ultimately led to Thornton being stripped of the captaincy.

“We’ve been through a lot here,” teammate Logan Couture said. “I’ve only been here seven years but those guys have been here longer than I have and they deserve this. They’ve been through a lot, Patty especially.”

Marleau played 165 playoff games before reaching his first final, the most of any player. He lost his first three trips to the conference final and needed 16 trips to the playoffs to reach the final round.

Thornton was next on that list with 150 games, including two conference final losses before making it to the Cup in his 15th postseason.

The fact they will be there in Sharks uniforms only makes it more special. There was talk they could be traded the summer after the 2014 playoff collapse, Thornton had a public feud with general manager Doug Wilson last season and there were reports that Marleau was seeking a trade earlier this season.

Nothing ever materialized and the two are still in San Jose to the delight of all sides. Thornton is playing perhaps the best two-way hockey of his career, posting three goals and 15 assists through the first three rounds and dominating possession against the other team’s top players.

After spending much of the year as a third-line center, Marleau moved back to his more familiar spot of a second-line wing alongside Couture. He has four goals and eight assists so far, including two helpers in the third period of the conference final clincher against St. Louis.

“We’re just enjoying the ride right now,” Marleau said. “We’ve had some really good teams over the years. This team is a little bit different. The confidence we’ve built over the regular season and now in the playoffs, I think winning on the road helped us get close as a group during the regular season. It carried over into the playoffs so far. Just having each other’s back out there, working for each other.”