Leafs score on Sabres

Sabres owner blames “massive, catastrophic injury problem” for poor record

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Tonight in Buffalo, the Sabres will play their biggest game of the season. Lose to the Leafs and the club that took on millions and millions in payroll during the summer could fall seven points out of a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.

As it stands, the Sabres sit eight points back of seventh-place Toronto and five back of eighth-place Washington. The Capitals host the struggling Lightning tonight.

So where did it all go wrong for a team that many thought could compete for a Stanley Cup?

Ask Sabres owner Terry Pegula, the man who opened his enormous wallet to put this group together, and he points to one big factor — injuries.

“I have to believe we’re a better hockey team than we were last year,” Pegula told The Buffalo News yesterday evening. “We just didn’t have this massive, catastrophic injury problem. Put yourself in anybody’s place in the organization. How do you evaluate what’s going on?”

Speaking of last year, Buffalo’s record today (18-19-5) is the exact same as it was a year ago to this very day. And with a 3-2 win over Carolina at the First Niagara Center, the Sabres kicked off a remarkable 25-10-5 run and went on to clinch seventh spot in the East.

But let’s face it, that’s not likely to repeat itself.

Not that the Sabres are utterly incapable. It’s just, those things don’t happen very often. Otherwise they wouldn’t be remarkable. That’s how big a hole the Sabres are in. They’ll have to be “remarkable” to make the playoffs.

Stamkos close to game shape, but return might be weeks or months away

Tampa Bay Lightning forward Steven Stamkos (91) competes in the hardest shot competition at the NHL hockey All-Star game skills competition Saturday, Jan. 30, 2016, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)
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Steve Stamkos began to practice again on Tuesday and he was back out there on Wednesday and Thursday, which some might interpret as him being close to returning. It seems premature to say that definitively.

“It could be weeks. It could be months,” Stamkos said of his timetable, per ESPN. “That’s the tough part.”

The problem isn’t getting back into game shape after undergoing vascular surgery in early April. He feels he’s already close to reaching that objective. The issue is that Stamkos is on blood thinners, which prevents him from taking any contact. It remains to be seen how long he’ll be on blood thinners.

For what it’s worth, Tampa Bay’s Andrei Vasilevskiy underwent the same surgery and was out for two months and the original timetable provided on April 4 for Stamkos was one-to-three months. So based on that, it sounds like it would be surprising if he returned anytime soon.

Bergeron, Kesler, Kopitar named Selke finalists

Boston Bruins center Patrice Bergeron celebrates after scoring against the Montreal Canadiens during the second period of an NHL hockey game Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2016, in Montreal. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press via AP)
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Will Patrice Bergeron join Bob Gainey as the only players to have ever won the Selke Trophy four times?

That’s a distinct possibility after the Bruins center was named as a finalist along with Anaheim’s Ryan Kesler and Los Angeles’ Anze Kopitar.

The Selke Trophy honors the league’s top defensive forward and for three of the last four years, that distinction has gone to Bergeron. However, Kesler and Kopitar have been popular with the voters of this award as well.

Kopitar has finished second in the voting in each of the previous two campaigns while Kesler won back in 2011, though he finished outside of the top-five in each of the last three years prior to the 2015-16 campaign.

Among the trio, Kesler excelled this season on the draw with a 58.5% success rate, which was good for second in the league among forwards who took at least 200 faceoffs. Bergeron was up there too, winning 57.1% of his draws while Kopitar posted a 53.5%. Meanwhile, Bergeron ranked seventh in the NHL with 67 takeaways compared to Kesler’s 39 and Kopitar’s 43. Where Kopitar stood out was in plus/minus as he finished second in the league at plus-34. Kesler was plus-five and Bergeron was plus-12.

Kopitar similarly led the trio with a 57.4% Corsi For versus Bergeron’s 55.9% and Kesler’s 52.9%.

Capitals get Orpik back for series opener

Washington Capitals defenseman Brooks Orpik (44) celebrates his goal with teammates on the bench during the third period of an NHL hockey game against the New Jersey Devils, Saturday, Feb. 20, 2016, in Washington. The Capitals won 4-3. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)
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Capitals defenseman Brooks Orpik missed half of Washington’s first round series, but he’s back in time for the opener against his former team.

Orpik last played on April 18 and was regarded as questionable going into tonight’s contest against Pittsburgh. He’s expected to be paired with John Carlson throughout the contest.

Washington’s other projected pairings are Karl Alzner and Matt Niskanen as well as Dmitry Orlov and Nate Schmidt.

Orpik was limited to 41 games during the 2015-16 regular season, but when he did play he averaged 19:48 minutes per contest. He also recorded 125 hits and 102 blocked shots despite missing half the season. The 35-year-old blueliner got his start with Pittsburgh and played in 703 regular season contests with them and an additional 92 postseason contests. This is his second season with Washington.

Wild GM Fletcher undecided on Vanek buyout, but notes ‘our cap situation is much better this year’

Minnesota Wild left wing Thomas Vanek controls the puck during NHL hockey training camp in St. Paul, Minn., Friday, Sept. 18, 2015. (AP Photo/Ann Heisenfelt)
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Thomas Vanek hopes he’s not bought out, but his rough 2015-16 campaign has made that a possibility.

Wild GM Chuck Fletcher certainly isn’t ruling it out, but at the same time he also presented an assessment for Vanek that was in a way more of a mixed than negative review.

“I thought Thomas in October and November was arguably our best forward – or certainly played as well as any body on our team,” Fletcher said, per the StarTribune. “He seemed to lose confidence. But I thought he really shot the puck well and did a lot of great things early. And there’s no question he pressed after that and then got banged up. He’s a goal scorer and we need to find a way to score more goals. Our cap situation is much better this year.”

That last point is particularly relevant given that a buyout essentially boils down to missing out on the chance of Vanek bouncing back in exchange for some short-term cap relief. To put figures on it, buying out Vanek would save Minnesota $5 million in cap space for the 2016-17 campaign, but then it will cost Minnesota $2.5 million in 2017-18, per General Fanager.

With Vanek in the books, the Wild are projected to consume $63.8 million in cap space next season and that figure doesn’t including pending restricted free agents Jason Zucker, Jordan Schroeder, Zac Dalpe, Matt Dumba, or Darcy Kuemper. If the 2016-17 ceiling is $74 million, as has been previously suggested, then it seems reasonable to believe that Minnesota can lock up its RFAs, keep Vanek, and still have some flexibility left over to engage in other changes over the summer. Although obviously gaining an extra $5 million would make it easier for them to make more sizable moves.

“I’m much more comfortable with our flexibility this year than last year. It’s going to give us more options,” Fletcher said.

The plan is for Fletcher to take a couple weeks before deciding on what to do with Vanek.

Related: No Chemistry issues or character problems here, says Wild GM