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.

Expect steps in right direction, not leaps, from Flames’ new head coach

DALLAS, TX - NOVEMBER 21:  Head coach Glen Gulutzan of the Dallas Stars at American Airlines Center on November 21, 2011 in Dallas, Texas.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
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This is part of Calgary Flames day at PHT …

If you’re looking beyond the shaky history of Jack Adams winners and going for a more objective approach, it’s not especially easy to break down the impact of a head coach.

Still, we’ve seen examples where a guy really can make a difference. Mike Sullivan is merely the latest to transform a wobbly team into a champion thanks to some deft maneuvers.

What, then, can the Calgary Flames expect from Glen Gulutzan?

Let’s break down some of the factors involved.

Better goalies, more experienced players

As Flames Nation’s Pat Steinberg notes, Gulutzan’s most immediate advantage of fired Flames head coach Bob Hartley is that Calgary made massive improvements in net.

Brian Elliott and Chad Johnson both carry promising numbers into this situation. Elliott’s work with the St. Louis Blues, in particular, strikes you as All-Star-level.

Of course, some will attribute a significant portion of Elliott’s success to being in Ken Hitchcock’s system, so it’s up to Gulutzan to provide a more nurturing atmosphere than the one Flames goalies have experienced in recent years.

Modest improvements

Steinberg delved a little deeper than Gulutzan’s two Dallas Stars teams (2011-12 and 2012-13) missing the playoffs and found that they were a middle-of-the-pack squad from a possession standpoint. Nothing spectacular there, but Gulutzan did improve the Stars from its previous station.

Upon being hired, Gulutzan pointed to experience as much as anything else when explaining how he improved.

(Which makes sense since … the Vancouver Canucks didn’t exactly set the world on fire while he was an assistant.)

Solid match for personnel

“Possession has become a popular word,” Gulutzan said after the Flames chose him. “For me, what possession is, it’s not always having the puck, because you don’t have it all the time. What we want to be is a real connected group here. When I say connected, we want to be connected in fives in all three zones. We want to defend fast, we are going to defend fast. We’re going to utilize the assets that we have here. In defending fast, you want to get the puck back fast, you want to get it out of your end.”

That quote could probably be attributed to a number of new hires. It’s plausible that you could swap out Gulutzan’s name with that of Colorado Avalanche head coach Jared Bednar.

Even so, the important thing is that Gulutzan is emphasizing key elements of a modern approach. He’s saying the right things about puck possession and wanting to win the transition game.

When you look at the talent assembled in Calgary, particularly on defense, emphasizing speed almost seems obvious.

From Norris-caliber defenseman Mark Giordano to underrated blueliner T.J. Brodie all the way to the talented guys who could use a boost (Dougie Hamilton especially, perhaps Dennis Wideman as well?), the Flames’ defense seems best suited for an attacking style.

The potential drawback is that Brian Elliott and Chad Johnson could be exposed to some extra “high-danger chances” when an attacking style backfires … but the good might outweigh the bad if Gulutzan’s system can stop the possession bleeding.

Tipping point?

The dream scenario for Calgary is that a series of manageable improvements make for a cumulative jump.

Ideally, Gulutzan’s system combines with in-house improvements to young players with a vastly improved set of goalies to transform the Flames into playoff contenders.

In the limited sample size we’ve seen of Calgary’s new head coach, he doesn’t necessarily strike you as a miracle worker. Instead, he’s lauded for the structure he provides and his ability to communicate.

That might be enough for the Flames, especially if they give Gulutzan some time to work through growing pains.

The Flames shouldn’t expect Troy Brouwer to repeat his playoff performance from last year

PHILADELPHIA, PA - DECEMBER 21: Troy Brouwer #36 of the St. Louis Blues looks on against the Philadelphia Flyers at Wells Fargo Center on December 21, 2015 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
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This is part of Calgary Flames day at PHT…

Troy Brouwer was a big part of the St. Louis Blues’ run to the Western Conference Final this past spring when he put together a 15-game stretch that saw him record 13 points (eight goals, five assists) to close out the playoffs.

That hot streak was perfect timing for the veteran winger because it not only happened during a time when everybody in the NHL was paying attention (the playoffs), but it also came just weeks before he was set to become an unrestricted free agent. And if there is anything that can boost a player’s value going into free agency, it is a big showing in the postseason. Teams love that stuff, even if it’s not always the most reliable way to project future performance.

Once Brouwer hit the open market it did not take him long to land a spot with the Calgary Flames when they signed him to a four-year, $18 million contract that will run through the end of the 2019-20 season.

Postseason performances like the one Brouwer had for the Blues in 2016 can be a bit of a double-edged sword for both teams and players.

On one hand, it makes it really easy for the player to get noticed and it boosts their reputation because those are the big games you want to see your top players perform in. And when a player gets the reputation for being a big game player that can forever change their reputation and significantly increase their value.

The problem with that is teams can sometimes get into trouble when they make decisions based on that small sampling of play (look no further than big contracts given to players like Dave Bolland, Bryan Bickell and Ville Leino in recent years), and it can help create an unrealistic level of expectation for the player that they are usually unable to match in future years.

And that brings us to what the Flames should expect from one of their big offseason additions.

What he is going to do is come in and give them a veteran presence on the wing that can play a physical game and be around the net to score some dirty goals. In that sense, he will be a fine addition to the team, at least in the short-term.

What he is probably not going to do is score at the same pace the he did in last year’s playoffs when he was a 0.65 point per game player (that is close to 55 points over an 82-game season) and scoring like a first-line winger. Even at his best he has been a 40-point scorer for almost his entire career, and that includes his years in Washington where he was playing on an extremely skilled team with great talent around him. At 31 he is also probably at a point in his career where that production is only going to start declining (it already did last year during the regular season).

If you’re the Flames, a reasonable expectation for Brouwer this season is to bring his gritty style of play, a lot of experience, and maybe 15-20 goals and 30-35 points. And for $4 million per season, that is probably fair production.

The issue the Flames might have, and the one that will make-or-break this contract long-term, is what happens two or three years into the contract and whether or not he is able to maintain that kind of production into his mid-30s.

Poll: Will the Flames be a playoff team in 2016-17?

CALGARY, AB - JANUARY 7: Johnny Gaudreau #13 (L) of the Calgary Flames confers with his teammate Sean Monahan #23 during a break in play against the Detroit Red Wings during an NHL game at Scotiabank Saddledome on January 7, 2015 in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. (Photo by Derek Leung/Getty Images)
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When the Calgary Flames reached the second round of the 2015 playoffs there were a lot of concerns about whether or not they could repeat that level of play the following season. Even after adding Dougie Hamilton to their blue line in a trade with the Boston Bruins they were still a popular pick to see a big regression in 2015-16.

They not only regressed and missed the playoffs for the sixth time in seven years, they finished as one of the worst teams in the NHL standings and fired Bob Hartley, the NHL’s coach of the year from the previous season.

Along with hiring a new coach this summer — former Dallas Stars coach Glen Gulutzan — they also added Troy Brouwer in free agency from the St. Louis Blues and overhauled their goaltending by trading for Brian Elliott and signing Chad Johnson in free agency. If the Flames are going to rebound in 2016-17 the latter additions are going to have to be the biggest reason why.

Even though the Flames have Mark Giordano, T.J. Brodie and Hamilton leading their defense, a top-three that can be as good as any other top trio in the NHL. As a team, they only allowed teams to get an average of 29 shots on goal per game, a number that was good enough for the top-10 in the NHL. But because they received the absolute worst goaltending in the NHL and were the only team that couldn’t collectively top a .900 save percentage, it sent the team to the bottom of the goals against leaderboard.

If their goaltenders could manage even a .910 save percentage, which would still be below the league average, on the same number of shots it could shave as many as 40 goals off of that total over the course of an 82-game season. That alone could help close that gap in the playoff race.

Along with what should be an improved goaltending situation and their excellent trio on defense, the Flames also still have that exciting group of young forwards led by Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan and Sam Bennett, and could potentially be adding No. 6 overall pick Matthew Tkachuk to it as well.

Expecting them to catch Anaheim, Los Angeles and San Jose at the top of the Pacific Division definitely seems like a long shot, but the bottom half of the Western Conference has taken a big step backwards over the past couple of years. A team made the playoffs last season with 87 points, and while that number should increase this season, once you get beyond the top five or six teams in the West the field is pretty wide open, and if the Flames can get that improved goaltending from Elliott and Johnson they should be able to be right in the thick of that race.

So, can they do it?

Under pressure: Brian Elliott and the Flames’ goalies

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 12: Brian Elliott #1 of the St. Louis Blues tends net against the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden on November 12, 2015 in New York City. The Rangers defeated the Blues 6-3.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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This is part of Calgary Flames day at PHT…

The Calgary Flames had their share of flaws during the 2015-16 season. None were more damaging than a goaltending situation that produced the worst team save percentage in the entire league.

That, perhaps more than anything else, contributed to the team giving up the most goals in the NHL and going from a team that was in the second round of the playoffs the year before, to a team that finished with the fifth worst record in the league.

To help address that glaring weakness the Flames completely overhauled their goaltending over the summer by acquiring Brian Elliott from the St. Louis Blues and signing Chad Johnson in free agency.

The Elliott move is obviously, the big one, but the pressure is going to be on both of them to solidify a position that was one of the worst in the NHL a year ago.

For Elliott, it is going to be a huge opportunity because he is finally going to be the No. 1 guy without having somebody else constantly looking over his shoulder. During his time in St. Louis he consistently put up great numbers, including a .925 save percentage that was among best league between 2011 and 2016. But even with that strong play the Blues never seemed willing to fully trust him to be their top guy and and were always going out of their way to take playing time away from him, whether it was with Jaroslav Halak, Jake Allen, or acquiring Ryan Miller in a deadline trade.

That is not going to be an issue for him going into Calgary.

That also means a little added pressure. Because he’s almost always been a part of a goaltending platoon during his career (he played more than 38 games one time in five years in St. Louis), and because he spent the past few years playing behind a Ken Hitchcock coached defensive team, he is going to have to prove that he is not only capable of sustaining that level of play as a full-time starter, but also that his success in St. Louis wasn’t the product of a system.

If he can do both and come even close to performing the way he did in St. Louis it is going to go a long way toward helping the Flames erase the memory what was pretty much a lost 2015-16 season and get back closer to the postseason in 2016-17.