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.

Johnny Gaudreau’s line is just on fire right now

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When you talk about the best lines in the NHL, don’t sleep on the trio Johnny Gaudreau is leading for the Calgary Flames.

With his 10th goal of the season coming early in a Flames – Washington Capitals game that is ongoing, Gaudreau collected his 30th point of 2017-18. As of this writing, only two other players have hit that mark so far: Steven Stamkos (35 points) and Nikita Kucherov (33), the headliners of a Tampa Bay Lightning trio that’s grabbing a lot of, well, headlines.

Here’s the goal Gaudreau scored against the Caps, keeping in mind that he has plenty of time to add to his lofty totals:

To an extent, it feels like Gaudreau’s fantastic work has been sneaking under the radar, at least compared to the likes of Stamkos – Kucherov. Then again, maybe some of it has to do with the fact that his hot streak is at least somewhat concentrated in the last few weeks?

Gaudreau, no doubt, is the catalyst. His playmaking ability is often spellbinding, and he’s well beyond questions about being a flash in the pan at this point in his career. The 24-year-old came into tonight’s game with 233 points in 251 career regular-season games; he’s scored more than the likes of Joe Pavelski and Evgeni Malkin since becoming a full-time player in 2014-15, according to Hockey Reference. (He ranks 12th overall during that span.)

His linemates deserve some of the spotlight, too.

There remains a debate about how much Sean Monahan can accomplish without Gaudreau, yet the counterpoint would be to wonder if it’s really that wise to mess with such a good thing. Such an argument is especially tough to make on the heels of his first career hat trick:

While Gaudreau has eight goals and 10 assists for a whopping 18 points (and possibly counting) during a 10-game point streak, Monahan collected his 21st point of this season on the primary assist. He added a helper to that hat trick the other night, so even if he’s stopped for the rest of Monday, Monahan has five points in two games. He also generated a six-game point streak (three goals, five assists) from Oct. 27 – Nov. 9.

When people haven’t been discussing Monahan’s dependence upon Gaudreau, they’ve wondered who might be the right winger for that dynamic duo.

Micheal Ferland might spell the end of that debate.

The big 25-year-old currently has 12 points in 18 games, but he’s really been revving up his production as of late. The Flyers snapped his five-game goal streak on Nov. 18, yet he extended his point streak to six contests with an assist (5G, 3A).

Logically, Ferland makes some sense for Gaudreau – Monahan. Neither of those forwards brings a lot of beef to the table, and Ferland has also shown some signs that he possesses the ability to finish the chances they can set up. As fun as it is to watch Jaromir Jagr with those two, Ferland might end up being the best fit for them since Jiri Hudler’s better Flames days.

(Ferland didn’t get an assist on Gaudreau’s goal, so he’ll need to generate some offense as this game goes along to keep his impressive streak going.)

***

Stamkos, Kucherov, and Vladislav Namestnikov probably carry the championship belts as the best scoring line in hockey, at least right now. One of the delightful things about this relatively high-scoring start to the season is that there are plenty of contenders for that imaginary title, and Gaudreau’s group shouldn’t be shortchanged in such debates.

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.

Sebastian Aho has found his scoring touch again

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There was a time just over a week ago that people were hitting the panic button on second-year Carolina Hurricanes forward Sebastian Aho.

Many of these people fell into two groups:

Group No. 1 consisted of Hurricanes fans desperate for their young budding star to get going and rekindle the scoring touch he possessed last season

Group No. 2 was made up of Aho’s fantasy league owners, thousands across North America, who were growing impatient with the 20-year-old’s unproductive start to the season.

And then there was Aho himself, but he chose to stay positive despite the drought.

“I think I’ve played better and better every day, and I think the goals are coming,” Aho told The News & Observer in Raleigh at the beginning of November. “I just need to stay positive. Just relax my game. Obviously, work hard, but still when I get the chances just relax.”

The above concerns of all parties involved were genuine, of course, Hurricanes management, too, were likely chomping at the bit as they awaited the Finn’s scoring touch around the net.

Perhaps Aho just doesn’t like running with the big pack out of the gate. Slow and steady, as the old saying goes. Despite the lack of pucks behind goalies, Aho has been a strong possession player this season and his expected goal numbers are equally as good.

Aho also has his brief history in pro hockey on his side.

Indeed, Aho’s rookie season didn’t start much different. Last season, it took the Finn 13 games to score his first NHL goal, but he managed to finish the season with 24, an impressive number from a new commodity.

He was only off that pace by two games this season.

It took him 15 games (over four-and-a-half hours of ice time) to register his name and number in the goal section of the scoresheet.

It was just a matter of time, and now, he just can’t help himself.

Aho has been on a tear since that Nov. 13 coming out party where he scored his first marker and added two helpers in a dominant 5-1 win against the Dallas Stars.

After adding another goal and another apple on Sunday, Aho now has 13 of his 17 points this season in his past 10 games. He’s also the proud owner of a four-game goal-scoring run.


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

Flyers’ Radko Gudas disagrees with 10-game suspension

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Radko Gudas is just like you and I in the sense that he also expected a big suspension for slashing Mathieu Perreault of the Winnipeg Jets in the back of the neck. He was a right as the NHL Department of Player Safety announced on Sunday that he will sit for 10 games and be docked $408,536.60.

While the Philadelphia Flyers defenseman knew a suspension was coming, he didn’t think it would be as many as 10 games.

“I was surprised. I did not expect that, no,” Gudas said on Monday via Flyers TV.

All of Gudas’ previous encounters with the DoPS involved bad hits, usually to an opponents’ head. This was the first time he’ll sit due to bad stick work.

[Radko Gudas suspended 10 games]

“Before, I never used my stick in any way like that,” he said. “It was unfortunate.”

Despite the ugliness of the slash, Perreault was fine and hasn’t missed any games for the Winnipeg Jets. He was well-aware of Gudas’ rap sheet and while he said the defenseman apologized, he was weary at the thought it wasn’t intentional.

[Perreault bemoans ‘stupid’ slash]

“He apologized in the penalty box, but when you look at the replay, it looks like he did it on purpose,” Perreault said last week. “It wasn’t an accident. He’s been known for doing stuff like that, so I certainly don’t appreciate it. I’m sure the league will take care of it.”

Gudas won’t be able to return to the Flyers’ lineup until Dec. 12 and it doesn’t look like he’s going to appeal. It will be interesting to see what happens the next time he runs afoul of the NHL rulebook given this latest suspension.

“I don’t agree with it, but I accept their decision,” Gudas said. “There’s not much else I can say.”

————

Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Julien: Price’s return to practice “encouraging”

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A Montreal Canadiens team struggling for answers in the early going this season got a bit of a boost on Monday.

Goaltender Carey Price returned to practice on Monday morning in Montreal, a welcome sign for a team struggling to stop pucks and desperate to start winning as they wallow in the depths of the Eastern Conference.

Price worked on lateral movements with Habs goaltending coach Stéphane Waite prior to practice starting, per TSN’s John Lu, and continued to work in the Canadiens’ backup net for the rest of practice.

Canadiens head coach Claude Julien confirmed after practice that Price would be on the team’s upcoming quick two-game back-to-back road trip beginning in Dallas on Tuesday. Julien also said Price is still listed as day-to-day and that there was still no timetable for his return. Charlie Lindgren will man the crease against the Stars.

Truth be told, the Canadiens weren’t very good with Price in the lineup before he went down with a lower-body injury, forcing him to miss the past eight games.

In 11 starts, Price has been above a .900 save percentage in just three of them and owns a 3-7-1 record. His save percentage sits at .877 with an equally unhealthy 3.77 goals-against average.

Montreal has the second-worst team save percentage in the league at .886 and have several other issues to contend with, including being 29th in goals for, 30th in goals against, 27th in power-play efficiency, 28th killing penalties and dead last in shooting percentage.

Indeed, the Canadiens will take any positives that come their way at the moment.


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