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.

After ‘rough year,’ Kronwall seeking options for ailing knee

Winnipeg Jets' Blake Wheeler (26) is tripped up by Detroit Red Wings' Niklas Kronwall (55), of Sweden, during the third period of an NHL hockey game Thursday, March 10, 2016, in Detroit. The Red Wings defeated the Jets 3-2. (AP Photo/Duane Burleson)
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Coming off one of the worst seasons in an otherwise solid — and lengthy — career, Detroit d-man Niklas Kronwall is already looking to ensure the knee issues that plagued him won’t continue on into 2016-17.

Kronwall is “getting opinions” about how to fix the knee, Wings GM Ken Holland told the Detroit Free Press. The injury limited the Swedish rearguard to just 64 games played — and those 64 games were largely played with Kronwall not close to 100 percent.

More, from the Free Press:

At 35, Kronwall is showing the wear and tear of being, at his best, a hard-hitting workhorse defenseman. Productionwise, he had the lowest numbers of his career since 2006-07, scoring just three goals and finishing with just 26 points in 64 games. (Even during the lockout-shortened 2013 season, he had five goals and 29 points in 48 games.) His minus-21 was eye-popping.

“It’s been a rough year in a lot of ways,” Kronwall said. “Definitely, a summer of good training is the first thing that you need, and the rest of it will play out as you go along.”

The Wings will be hopeful Kronwall can return to form.

He’s still got plenty of time left on his current deal — three more years, at a $4.75M cap hit — and is still considered a key part to the Red Wings defense, which wasn’t great this year and doesn’t project to be a heckua lot better next year.

If Kronwall can’t get back to form, it could push Holland even harder to make a trade to beef up the blueline.

Halak practices fully, hoping to be back soon

Jaroslav Halak
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Jaroslav Halak took a major step in his return from a groin injury on Monday, participating in a full practice with his Islander teammates ahead of tomorrow’s Game 3 against the Lightning.

“He’s progressing,” head coach Jack Capuano said, per the Isles’ website. “I don’t know how far or where he is or when he could play, but I know that having him on the ice going through a full practice, but again it’s about conditioning and timing with goaltenders and their movement, but he’s progressing and it’s great to see.

“I don’t have a timetable yet though.”

Halak hasn’t played in nearly two months — he suffered his groin injury on Mar. 8. His initial timetable for return was 6-8 weeks, and Tuesday will mark his eighth week out of action.

It seems highly unlikely Halak will be an option — at least in terms of starting — anytime soon. He told the Isles’ site the lengthy layoff means it now feels “like the beginning of the season for me,” and Thomas Greiss has performed well through the playoffs thus far, posting a .937 save percentage and 2.06 GAA.

If anything, Halak’s goal could be to get in good enough shape to serve as Greiss’ backup at some point. J.F. Berube has filled that role during the postseason, but has yet to see any action.

Prior to getting hurt, Halak was New York’s No. 1 netminder and played reasonably well, posting a .919 save percentage and 2.30 GAA in 36 starts.

Martin Jones is making Doug Wilson look pretty smart

SAN JOSE, CA - MAY 01:  Martin Jones #31 and Tomas Hertl #48 of the San Jose Sharks blocks the shot of Colton Sissons #10 of the Nashville Predators in Game Two of the Western Conference Second Round during the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs. at SAP Center on May 1, 2016 in San Jose, California. The Sharks won the game 3-2. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
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The thing about rolling the dice on an unproven goalie is that you can look really foolish if it doesn’t work out.

That’s the risk Doug Wilson took when he bet on Martin Jones. Fortunately for the Sharks’ general manager, it’s looking like a great wager these days.

Seven games into the playoffs and Jones is 6-1 with a .923 save percentage. The 26-year-old has been especially good against the Predators. He was named first star in Game 2, a 3-2 San Jose victory that gave the Sharks a 2-0 series lead.

Jones, you’ll recall, was acquired in an offseason trade with the Bruins. The Sharks gave up a first-round draft pick and a prospect to get their man, whom they immediately signed to a three-year, $9 million contract.

At the time, Jones had only started 29 games in the NHL. He was slated to battle Alex Stalock — another relatively inexperienced guy — for the starting job in San Jose.

“I think I’m ready to definitely take that step and play more hockey games,” Jones said. “I had a great two years in L.A. learning from Jonathan Quick. It’s been a big couple of years in my development and I’m looking forward to the new challenge.”

Make no mistake, it was a big risk for Wilson to bet on such an inexperienced tandem. If the Sharks had missed the playoffs again this year, who knows what would’ve happened in San Jose?

But while goaltending remains arguably the most important position in hockey, recent history shows it doesn’t take an experienced, big-money netminder to win. Quick had a $1.8 million cap hit when he won his first Stanley Cup with the Kings. Corey Crawford‘s cap hit was just under $3 million when he won his first Cup with the Blackhawks, who had Antti Niemi and his sub-$1 million salary in goal when they won in 2010.

Quick and Crawford have both signed big deals since. But the temptation for frugality remains, thanks to a seemingly endless supply of quality netminders. After all, the more cap space a team can save on its goalies, the more it can spend on its skaters.

The key, obviously, is picking the right horse. Choose poorly and it can be a disaster. That’s why some GMs will opt to pay a premium for experience. Track records can be comforting. Youngsters, on the other hand, can buckle under the weight of expectations.

So far, Jones has handled the postseason pressure like a veteran, and he’s a big reason why the Sharks are two wins from reaching the Western Conference Final.

Seguin resumes skating in Dallas, Ruff notes ‘they have flights into St. Louis every day’

Dallas Stars' Tyler Seguin makes a pass during the first period of a preseason NHL hockey game against the St. Louis Blues Saturday, Sept. 21, 2013, in St. Louis. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)
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The latest on Tyler Seguin (and fellow injured Stars forward Patrick Eaves), per the Dallas Morning-News:

Q: On the statuses of Patrick Eaves (leg) and Tyler Seguin (Achilles)

Lindy Ruff: “Both skated today, both progressing.”

Q: On if Seguin and Eaves will travel with the team to St. Louis for Game 3

LR: “No, but they have flights into St. Louis every day.”

Seguin, as you’ve probably heard, hasn’t played since a Game 2 win over Minnesota in the opening round.

That was on Apr. 16.

Dallas’ All-Star center returned from a partially lacerated Achilles to participate in said Game 2, a nasty injury that cost him the final 10 games of the regular season and the series opener against the Wild.

The Stars say this latest injury has nothing to do with the previous one, but reporters haven’t been privy to much information beyond that.

In speaking last week, Ruff didn’t even want to put a timetable on Seguin’s return, for fear of what an inaccurate timetable might cause.

“I really can’t,” Ruff said. “I don’t even have a guesstimate on it. I don’t even think it’d be fair. If I guessed and if I’m off, everybody else will be wondering why did he guess that?”

GM Jim Nill did say the club expected Seguin to miss the first two games of the Blues series and, as of last Thursday, confirmed Seguin wasn’t skating.

“He’s day-to-day,” Nill explained. “Once he gets on the ice, it’s probably four to five days from there.”

This series, currently tied 1-1, will resume on Tuesday from the Scottrade Center in St. Louis.