Chris Stewart

Is Colorado’s rise a fair example of what might happen in Buffalo?

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The Buffalo Sabres are frankly expected to be one of the worst teams in the league in 2014-15. It’s easy to see why: They’re a rebuilding club coming off of a season where they posted a 21-51-10 record. They could have added six wins last season and still finished in last place. For that matter, they could have scored 37 more goals and still ranked 30th offensively.

The short-term situation is so bleak that there are Sabres fans rooting against their team as they’ve already abandoned hope of them being competitive next season and just want them to be able to draft a potential superstar in Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel.

Chris Stewart, who came to Buffalo from St. Louis in February as part of the Ryan Miller trade, doesn’t want the fanbase to write the Sabres off.

“Look at the Colorado Avalanche two years ago,” Stewart recently said. “They were a last-place team, and they were arguably one of the best teams in the league last year. So the past is the past. You look at our team now and there are 13 or 14 new faces. So we come in and think of last year as an anomaly.”

Of course you’d be hard pressed to find a player that wants to lose or, for that matter, one that is going to paint anything other than an optimistic picture going into the season, but does Stewart have a point? Does Buffalo have a chance to follow in Colorado’s footsteps?

Let’s move past the obvious answer, which is: Of course. Anything can happen, so obviously there’s a chance that Buffalo will make the playoffs. But is it a big enough one to give Stewart’s argument validity?

Well, first off, he is correct that the team will look very different than the one that opened the 2013-14 season, which right off the bat actually makes this story a lot different than the one in Colorado. The Avalanche team that surprised the hockey world in 2013-14 wasn’t substantially altered from the one finished with a 16-25-7 record in the lockout shortened 2013 campaign.

Additionally, different isn’t automatically better. The Sabres have lost Ryan Miller and Thomas Vanek for example and you can make an argument that no one on their current roster is better than those two players — at least not yet as some of their youngsters have high ceilings.

A few things did change in Colorado though. Patrick Roy took over as the team’s head coach and, in addition to giving them new hope, he joined goalie coach Francois Allaire in helping Semyon Varlamov take a huge step forward. Varlamov was at the center of the Avalanche’s success as they were bombarded with shots all season and relied on him to stand tall.

Meanwhile, Buffalo struggled largely in spite of Miller’s goaltending last season so while the new combination of Michal Neuvirth and Jhonas Enroth might prove to be solid, the single biggest change that bolstered the Avalanche wouldn’t have quite the same effect on the Sabres.

What Buffalo needs is for its defense to improve, but more than that, they need someone to find the back of the net. Colorado saw its offense improve in part thanks to a strong rookie season from Nathan MacKinnon and while the Sabres have some promising young forwards that might step up, they have a far bigger gap to overcome.

The Avalanche’s offense wasn’t great in the lockout shortened campaign, but Buffalo’s offense last season was statistically the worst of the 21st century.

It’s that gap that will be difficult for the Sabres to overcome in a single campaign. They do have some noteworthy scoring threats such as Matt Moulson, Cody Hodgson, and Tyler Ennis, but their top two lines don’t look overly promising on paper.

So maybe Colorado isn’t an ideal example for Buffalo, but the thing about a young team is that you never know quite what will happen. It seems realistic to assume that this will be a season of growing pains for the Sabres, but if they find their groove early in the season, then they might surprise people.

Report: Potential Shattenkirk trade fell apart over contract talks

TORONTO, ON - FEBRUARY 9:  Kevin Shattenkirk #22 of the St. Louis Blues waits for a faceoff against the Toronto Maple Leafs during an NHL game at the Air Canada Centre on February 9, 2017 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. The Blues defeated the Maple Leafs 2-1 in overtime. (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)
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Kevin Shattenkirk‘s name has been floating around the NHL’s trade rumor mill for sometime now, and according to reports from TSN’s Bob McKenzie and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch the Blues came very close to dealing him six weeks ago only to have the trade fall apart when the new team and Shattenkirk were unable to reach an agreement on a new contract.

It is not the first time that has happened over the past year.

According to reports from TSN’s Bob McKenzie and Jeremy Rutherford of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the Blues recently had a Shattenkirk trade in place with an Eastern Conference team that was believed to be the Tampa Bay Lightning. But when Shattenkirk turned down a long-term contract extension with the team that would have paid him $42 million over seven years, the trade fell apart.

Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman mentioned on Thursday night that the Arizona Coyotes also had permission earlier this season to speak to Shattenkirk about a new contract but were unable to reach a deal. A similar situation unfolded in the offseason when the Edmonton Oilers also tried to acquire the veteran defenseman.

The Lightning would make a ton of sense as a trade partner for the Blues here because they have been in desperate need of another big-time defenseman to add to their blue line along with Victor Hedman and Anton Stralman. They also have several restricted free agents (and a pretty tight cap situation) to deal with this summer that could have been part of a return in a Shattenkirk trade.

If the reported contract terms are correct, it’s a pretty good sign that Shattenkirk thinks he can get a massive payday on the open market this summer as a free agent. And he is probably not wrong. Since the start of the 2011-12 season Shattenkirk has been one of the most productive defensemen in the NHL, currently sitting 10th among all blue-liners in points (241) and posting dominant possession numbers.

A $6 million per year cap hit would put him in the same salary range as Mike Green, Johnny Boychuk, and Erik Johnson.

He outperforms all of them.

Even though Shattenkirk is one of their top players, and the Blues seem on track to make the playoffs, the team still seems determined to move him before the deadline rather than risk losing him for nothing over the summer.

Blackhawks keep rolling with another dominant offensive performance

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Another night, another hat trick, and another dominant offensive showing from the Chicago Blackhawks.

On Thursday night it was Patrick Kane becoming the second Blackhawks forward in as many games to record a hat trick — following the three goal (and five point) effort Jonathan Toews had on Tuesday night — to help lead the Blackhawks to a 6-3 blowout win over the Arizona Coyotes.

Along with Kane’s three goals, Toews picked up two more assists to continue his recent scoring surge that has seen him pick up 23 points in his past 15 games. Keep in mind he only had 21 points in the 37 games prior to that.

Even more than Toews is the fact the entire Blackhawks team is clicking right now offensively.

Their win on Thursday is their eighth in the past nine games and every one of those wins has been a display of total offensive dominance, scoring 40 goals during that stretch. That is more than four goals per game. Everybody is contributing to it at this point as seven players (Toews, Kane, Richard Panik, Artemi Panarin, Nick Schmaltz, Artem Anisimov and Duncan Keith) all have at least eight points during this run.

It’s a stretch that has helped the Blackhawks gain some ground on the Minnesota Wild in the Central Division race, as they now sit three points back of the top spot.

Just about the only bad news for the Blackhawks on Thursday night was defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson leaving the game with what coach Joel Quenneville described as an upper body injury.

The Blackhawks knew he wasn’t 100 percent going into the game and dressed a seventh defenseman, Michal Rozsival, as a precaution in case Hjalmarsson could not finish. After skating just four shifts in the first period — a first period that saw the two teams combine for six goals — he exited the game and did not return. Rozsival ended up playing a pretty significant role in the game scoring his first goal of the season just two minutes into the second period for what ultimately prove to be the game-winner.

Lundqvist stays hot as Rangers move ahead of Blue Jackets

NEW YORK, NY - FEBRUARY 11:  Henrik Lundqvist #30 of the New York Rangers laughs as Kevin Klein #8 misses an attempt at a hattrick during the third period against the Colorado Avalanche at Madison Square Garden on February 11, 2017 in New York City.  The Rangers defeated the Avalanche 4-2.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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Remember those few weeks earlier this season when Henrik Lundqvist was struggling, he was losing playing time to Antti Raanta, and everybody in the NHL was freaking out about the Rangers’ goaltending situation?

At this point it seems like an eternity ago.

Lundqvist has been on an absolute roll over the past month and has helped the Rangers finally gain some ground in the Metropolitan Division.

After his 32 save performance — in the Rangers’ 2-1 shootout win in Toronto on Thursday night, the Rangers are now in the third spot in the Metropolitan Division, moving ahead of the Columbus Blue Jackets who for the time being move down to the top Wild Card spot. The Rangers are now just two points back of the Pittsburgh Penguins for a spot that would get them home ice in the first round.

Leading the way lately during this recent surge has been Lundqvist as he plays his best hockey of the season. In his past 13 starts the Rangers own a 10-2-1 record, while Lundqvist is carrying a .938 save percentage.

Even though the Rangers took huge steps over the summer to improve their forward depth — and it has absolutely paid off — it is still a team that is weak on the blue line and is only going to go as far as Lundqvist can carry it in the playoffs.

But with the way he is playing right now, and with the way the Rangers can roll four solid lines and score (3.28 goals per game, fourth best in the NHL) this could be a potentially scary team come playoff time.

Islanders shut out Canadiens for huge road win

NEWARK, NJ - FEBRUARY 18:  Thomas Greiss #1 of the New York Islanders in action against the New Jersey Devils on February 18, 2017 at Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey. The Devils defeated the Islanders 3-2.  (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
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Overall this season the New York Islanders have really struggled away from the Barclays Center, a point of concern when you consider how many road games they have down the stretch as they try to overcome their miserable start to climb back into the playoffs.

Their current nine-game road trip is off to a promising start with wins in the first two games, including a 3-0 shutout win over the Montreal Canadiens on Thursday night to improve their record to 12-4-2 under new coach Doug Weight.

The Islanders received goals from Anthony Beauvillier, Anders Lee and John Tavares in the win, while Thomas Greiss stopped all 24 shots he faced to record his third shutout of the season.

With the win the Islanders hold sole possession of the second wild card spot in the East for the time being, two points ahead of Florida and Boston (the Bruins are in action right now) and continue their stunning second half turnaround.

But while things are going great for the Islanders right now, the struggles in Montreal continue.

With their loss on Thursday they failed to put any extra distance between themselves and the rest of the Atlantic Division that has suddenly closed the gap on them. They remain just two points up on Ottawa and only four points ahead of Toronto. The loss also continues what has been a particularly brutal stretch over the past couple of months that has seen the team win just seven of its past 20 games.

It’s probably too early to start fully panicking in Montreal, but given the way the end of last season went this can’t be a promising development for Canadiens fans.