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.

What is wrong with the Kings?

Los Angeles Kings center Anze Kopitar, front, of Slovenia, picks up a loose puck as Colorado Avalanche left wing Gabriel Landeskog, of Sweden, pursues in the first period of an NHL hockey game, Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2017, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
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The first year of Anze Kopitar‘s $80 million contract extension may end up being the worst year of his NHL career.

In a full 82-game season, the 29-year-old center has never put up fewer than 61 points. But with just six goals and 27 assists in 54 games, Kopitar, the reigning Selke Trophy recipient, is on pace for only 46 points in 2016-17.

Last night, Kopitar was held pointless for a fourth straight game as the Kings fell, 4-1, to the Bruins at Staples Center.

“Can’t chase the lead,” said head coach Darryl Sutter, per LA Kings Insider. “Early goal, just a constant theme. Chase the lead. Need some production out of the top end of your lineup to overcome that.”

With the loss, the Kings found themselves four points back of the second wild-card spot with only one game in hand on Calgary.

Sutter was asked if there was one thing that concerned him above anything else.

“Yep,” he said. “Production from the top end. Absolutely, 100 percent.”

Given Jeff Carter has scored more than his share of goals (29), the coach was clearly talking mostly about Kopitar.

That being said, Marian Gaborik only has six goals himself, and that’s a problem for Kopitar because the Kings, after losing Justin Williams and Milan Lucic in the last two years, aren’t exactly swimming in high-scoring wingers.

Gaborik, who turned 35 just a few days ago, is signed through 2020-21 for a cap hit of $4.875 million. Combine that with Dustin Brown, 32, being signed through 2021-22 for a cap hit of $5.875 million and the Kings have over $10 million in cap space tied up in two aging wingers who aren’t providing many goals.

So, that’ll be the challenge for GM Dean Lombardi going forward. It just remains to be seen if there’s a solution.

The Kings host Anaheim tomorrow.

Report: Berglund, St. Louis talking contract extension

SAN JOSE, CA - MAY 21:  Patrik Berglund #21 of the St. Louis Blues in action in game four of the Western Conference Finals against the San Jose Sharks during the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at HP Pavilion on May 21, 2016 in San Jose, California.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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These are busy times for Blues GM Doug Armstrong.

In addition to dealing with the Kevin Shattenkirk situation, Armstrong has to address the future of Patrik Berglund, the 28-year-old center that, like Shattenkirk, is a pending UFA.

Here’s the latest, from the Post-Dispatch:

The club is believed to be in talks with the center and Berglund told the Post-Dispatch that there is is mutual interest from both sides on an extension. His agent, Peter Wallen, did not return a message and Armstrong was unavailable.

“I would like to still be a Blue,” Berglund said Monday, before the Blues broke for their five-day bye. “I think everybody in here and upstairs knows that I want to be a Blue, too.”

Berglund has spent his entire nine-year career in St. Louis, emerging as versatile forward that can play the middle or wing. He’s also found the back of the net 17 times this season, and is flirting with matching or surpassing the career-high 22 he scored back in ’10-11.

As mentioned above, Berglund’s in the last of a three-year, $11.1 million contract that pays $3.7 million annually. With signals of a Shattenkirk trade getting stronger, it’s reasonable to think Berglund will be kept around.

Simply put, the Blues might be unable to handle more significant roster turnover. The club has moved on from the likes of Barret Jackman, T.J. Oshie, David Backes, Troy Brouwer and Brian Elliott in recent years, and lost some of its identity in the process.

Welcome Drew Stafford to the trade rumor mill

Anaheim Ducks v Winnipeg Jets - Game Three
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Another name to add to the pile as we gear up for next Wednesday’s trade deadline:

Drew Stafford.

Stafford, the 31-year-old winger that’s spent the two-and-a-half seasons in Winnipeg, has reportedly been the subject of trade calls, per ESPN.

Stafford’s had an injury-plagued campaign, limited to just 39 games due to upper- and lower-body injuries, yet still managed to rack up 12 points while averaging just over 13 minutes per night.

It’s easy to see why teams are making calls.

Stafford has history as a productive goalscoring winger, finding the back of the net 21 times last season (with a career-high of 31 back in ’10-11). He’s got enough ability to play up and down the lineup and, what’s more, he’s about as pure a rental as they come — Stafford’s a pending UFA, in the last of a two-year deal that pays $4.35 million annually.

What’s more, the Jets are one of those “are they buyers or are they sellers?” teams.

Winnipeg is only four points back of Calgary for the final wild card spot in the Western Conference, but would need to leap two teams — the Flames and the Kings — to get there.

The Jets have also played 63 games, to Calgary’s 61 and Los Angeles’ 60.

In the end, Stafford’s contractual situation and the team’s glut of forwards could see him move along. In addition to all the youngsters Winnipeg already has up front, the likes of ’15 first-rounders Kyle Connor and Jack Roslovic are still looking to make the leap.

Preds’ Forsberg becomes first player since 2010 to score back-to-back hat tricks

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Remember when Predators forward Filip Forsberg couldn’t buy a goal at the beginning of the season? Yea, neither do we.

It may be hard to believe, but Forsberg didn’t find the back of the net until the 14th game of the 2016-17 season. He didn’t score his second until game no. 19. But the 22-year-old has really put it together.

On Tuesday night, he scored three goals in a 6-5 OT loss to the Calgary Flames and he netted a second hat trick in two games in Thursday’s 4-2 win over the Colorado Avalanche (you can watch his latest hat trick by clicking the video at the top of the page).

It’s the first time in Predators history that a player has back-to-back three-goal games and he’s the first player in the league to do it since Canucks forward Alex Burrows in 2010.

Despite his slow start, the two hat tricks now put him on pace to hit the 30-goal mark for the second consecutive year, which is really impressive.

“It’s tough to explain,” Forsberg said, per NHL.com. “Sometimes it feels great but you don’t score, and sometimes you feel bad but you still score. Tonight was a lot of fun.

“I think I always felt a responsibility, and I think that goes for every player in this locker room. Everyone wants to contribute and help the team win. Obviously I can’t expect myself to score a hat trick every game, but I just try to work hard and if I can score goals, I’ll take that as well.”

Not only has he been better, but the whole team is showing that the slow start they endured in the first few weeks of the season was just a fluke.

The Predators are comfortably sitting in a playoff spot (if that even exists in today’s NHL) with 67 points in 60 games, which puts them in the first Wild Card position. They’re one point ahead of Calgary with a game in hand and five points ahead of Los Angeles, who’s on the outside looking in.

Nashville is also neck-and-neck with the St. Louis Blues for third in the Central Division. Both teams have the same number of games played and points, but the Blues have three more regulation/overtime victories.