Ville Leino, Jiri Tlusty

2011-12 season preview: Buffalo Sabres


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

PHT Morning Skate: Hockey’s spookiest goalie masks

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PHT’s Morning Skate takes a look around the world of hockey to see what’s happening and what we’ll be talking about around the NHL world and beyond.

–Here are some of hockey’s all-time spookiest goalie masks. (Sports Illustrated)

Beau Bennett‘s funny response to his name being left off the Stanley Cup. (BarDown)

Alex Ovechkin made this young fan’s night by giving him one of his sticks. (Sportsnet)

–Watch the highlights from last night’s game between the Rangers and Bruins. (Top)

–Everybody remembers Grant Fuhr, Curtis Joseph, Jacques Plante, Tom Barrasso and Sean Burke, but these are the teams you don’t remember them playing for. (The Hockey News)

–Bruins goalie Zane McIntyre honors his late grandmother on the back of his goalie mask. (The Score)

–Former NHL goalie Niklas Svedberg made an incredible stick save in a KHL game:


Rinne, Predators’ special teams have nightmare game in blowout loss

ANAHEIM, CA - APRIL 15:  Pekka Rinne #35 of the Nashville Predators in goal against the Anaheim Ducks in Game One of the Western Conference Quarterfinals during the 2015 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Honda Center on April 15, 2016 in Anaheim, California.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

As it turns out, the Anaheim Ducks didn’t really need Ryan Getzlaf on Wednesday night.

With their captain and leading scorer sidelined due to an upper body injury, the Ducks were still able to cruise to a convincing 6-1 win over the Nashville Predators thanks in large part to a five-goal second period that saw Pekka Rinne get chased from the game and Nashville’s special teams repeatedly get torched.

It was a night that saw Anaheim’s power play go 3-for-4 thanks to goals from Nick Ritchie, Jakob Silfverberg and Ryan Kesler, while the penalty killing unit added a pair of shorthanded goals via Silfverberg and Andrew Cogliano.

Giving up three power play goals is bad enough, but when you give up multiple goals when you are on the man-advantage that is probably a pretty good sign that it is not going to be your night.

Keep in mind, the Predators only allowed a league-low two shorthanded goals during the entire 2015-16 season.

They matched that total in one night.

Along with the special teams units, it was also a tough night for Rinne, seeing his first action in a week, as his evening came to an end after giving up four goals on 17 shots in only 27 minutes of action.

He was replaced by backup Marek Mazanec who then proceeded to give up two goals on the nine shots he faced in relief.

Given the makeup of their roster with a top-tier defense and a couple of young cornerstone forwards up front, the Predators are supposed to be a Stanley Cup contender in the Western Conference this season. But the one big question mark coming into the season was whether or not they could get the necessary goaltending to help them get to that level. Rinne, at one time in his career one of the better goaltenders in the league, has seen his production decline in recent years and was not particularly good a year ago. He has now given up eight goals on 59 shots in his past two starts.

The important thing to keep in mind here is that even though it is not the start anybody in Nashville wanted (2-4-0 after the loss to the Ducks) it is still ridiculously early in the season. There is plenty of time to get this turned around, and there is too much talent on this team for it to not get turned around. But Wednesday’s game was certainly eye-opening in how poorly the entire team played against a team missing two of its best players (Getzlaf to injury, Hampus Lindholm to not yet having a contract).


Video: Cam Talbot was very angry with T.J. Oshie


Cam Talbot had another strong game for the Edmonton Oilers on Wednesday night by stopping 34 of the 35 Washington Capitals shots he faced in a 4-1 win, improving his season save percentage to a robust .927.

Along with backstopping the Oilers to their sixth win in seven games to open the season, the team’s best start since a guy by the name of Wayne Gretzky played for them, he was also involved in some rough stuff in the second period when he went old school on Capitals forward T.J. Oshie for charging into his crease and cross-checking him.

Talbot’s response (as seen in the video above) was an attempt to feed Oshie his blocker pad.

The end result of that exchange was Oshie getting a two-minute minor for cross-checking and Talbot getting a two-minute minor for roughing. The NHL’s roughing rule gives officials the opportunity to eject a goalkeeper if they feel there was an attempt to injure an opponent by punching them with their glove or blocker pad.

Obviously in this case the officials determined there was no such intent on Talbot’s part, so he remained in the game to help keep the Oilers’ surprising start rolling along.

The Oilers are off to their best start since the Gretzky era

EDMONTON, AB - OCTOBER 12:  Connor McDavid #97 of the Edmonton Oilers celebrates a goal against the Calgary Flames on October 12, 2016 at Rogers Place in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. (Photo by Codie McLachlan/Getty Images)

The Edmonton Oilers just keep on winning.

Thanks to their 4-1 win over the Washington Capitals on Wednesday night, the Oilers are now 6-1-0 through their first seven games, have the best record in the Western Conference, and the second best record in the NHL behind only the Montreal Canadiens.

To find the last time the Oilers won six of their first seven games, you have to go all the way back to the 1985-86 season when Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Jari Kurri, and Paul Coffey still played for them and their dynasty was just starting to take shape.

Their best start since then was a 5-1-1 start during the 2000-01 season.

The recipe on Wednesday was similar to the one we have seen from the Oilers in every game this season. Cam Talbot gave them capable goaltending in net, while Connor McDavid dominated at times and added a couple of more points.

With his two assists in the win, including an incredible display of speed to set up Patrick Maroon‘s goal early in the third period, the second-year superstar is back in sole possession of the NHL’s scoring lead with 11 points, moving one point ahead of Toronto Maple Leafs rookie Auston Matthews.

Benoit Pouliot also scored a pair of goals on Wednesday giving him four on the year, while Milan Lucic added his third goal of the season.

Alex Ovechkin scored the lone Capitals goal, extending his current goal-scoring streak to four.

The big question now is whether or not the Oilers can sustain this and are for real. Their schedule to this point hasn’t been too daunting based on last year’s standings, but of the two playoff teams from a year ago that they have faced (St. Louis and Washington) they have beaten by a combined score of 7-2.

They have some real talent up front, and if Talbot can continue to give them strong goaltending that is going to be a pleasant change from what they have had in recent years.

The biggest issue is whether or not the defense can hold up over the course of the season because they do give up a ton of shots and have been on the wrong end of the shot charts more often than not so far. That is not usually a great sign for future performance. But whether they maintain this early season success or start to regress back toward where they were expected to be, two things are very clear early on: They do look like a much improved hockey team, and they are really fun to watch.

McDavid has a lot to do with both improvements.