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.

Amid Karlsson trade rumors, Ryan to return for Sens

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During Tuesday’s Insider Trading segment on TSN, Bob McKenzie noted that to trade for Erik Karlsson, a suitor might need to assume the mammoth contract of Bobby Ryan. Ryan, 30, hasn’t played since Feb. 1 and has been limited to 39 games this season because of hand/wrist injury issues that have been plaguing him for years.

Remarkably, a day after that report surfaced, it sounds like Ryan might make his return to the Senators lineup. The current plan is for Ryan to suit up for Ottawa on Thursday against the Tampa Bay Lightning, according to reporters including TSN’s Brent Wallace.

There are a number of remarkable things about this development.

Obviously, the timing stands out, as this comes on the heels of that report, not to mention less than a week before Feb. 26’s trade deadline. It’s even amusing that Ryan is slated to face the Lightning, a team that may very well decide that it’s worth it to go all-in and acquire Karlsson, even if it means taking on Ryan. Surely getting a look at him, up close and personal, wouldn’t hurt matters?

(Allow me to think out loud: if Ryan Callahan‘s $5.8 million was involved as well, would that grease the wheels a bit?)

There are a few ways things can go for Ryan.

LTIR bound?

For one thing, it’s difficult to ignore the possibility that the once-potent sniper might go the way of the LTIR mainstay, much like Nathan Horton, David Clarkson, and others before him. The Athletic’s Chris Stevenson went into exhaustive detail regarding the rather confusing scenarios for Ryan possibly being LTIR material here (sub required).

Even if Ryan’s fated to go on LTIR – which might be a necessity for a contender that already has big commitments, considering the fact that his $7.25M cap hit won’t expire until after 2021-22 – the Lightning or some other team might want to see what he can do now. Assuming they can make the cap hits work in 2017-18.

More in the tank?

It’s easy to forget that Ryan isn’t that far removed from some impressive goal-scoring days.

His last 20+ goal season came as recently as 2015-16, when he collected 22 in 81 games. He basically averaged 20 goals through his first three seasons in Ottawa, as Ryan totaled 63 from 2013-14 to 2015-16.

Ryan showed flashes of that brilliance during the Senators’ remarkable run within a goal of the 2017 Stanley Cup Final. He managed six goals and 15 points in 19 playoff games, including a brilliant OT-winner against the Penguins:

For once, the bounces were going Ryan’s way, as he enjoyed the best playoff work of his career and connected on 28.57 percent of his shots on goal. So, yes, those results were inflated … yet they came during the 2017 postseason. If healthy, is that unreasonable to imagine Ryan posting nice numbers in Tampa Bay and becoming more than just a throw-in? Could he help even if his injury luck continues to come and go?

If Ryan was forced to be part of a Karlsson trade, the dream scenario for the Lightning or another contender might be something like Clarke MacArthur‘s 2017 playoff run with Ottawa. Maybe Ryan contributes to a postseason push, then lands on LTIR?

One other thought

It’s important to note that trading Ryan wouldn’t necessarily be the best-case scenario for Ottawa. (It might be for owner Eugene Melnyk, mind you, as it’s basically an open secret that he’s very … cost-conscious at the moment.)

To accept Ryan’s contract – even at a discounted rate – a bidding team would likely give up less actual, beneficial pieces in a Karlsson trade. Perhaps ridding themselves off Ryan’s contract would cost the Senators a draft pick, prospect, or some other key piece? It’s certainly something to consider.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Dion Phaneuf trade pays early dividends for Kings

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If nothing else, Dion Phaneuf knows how to make a first impression.

Think back to when Phaneuf burst onto the season as an NHL rookie. He scored 20 goals during his first season in 2005-06, which still stands as a career-high, and he enjoyed 50 and 60-point seasons in the next two years. During his first three seasons (2005-06 to 2007-08), Phaneuf collected 159 points, tying him with Brian Rafalski for sixth-most among defensemen. No other blueliner was even close to his 54 goals during that same span.

Between that scoring prowess and such a tendency to throw hard hits that his last name became a Kronwallian verb, it seemed like Phaneuf was destined to be the next Scott Stevens or Chris Pronger, or maybe the next Rob Blake.

… That’s not how things turned out, of course.

Phaneuf’s been known as much for a shaky contract as anything else lately, which is part of the reason Blake was able to get the Ottawa Senators to eat 25 percent of his salary to make a trade happen.

[Trade: Senators send Phaneuf to Kings.]

At the time, it was a puzzling deal, with the main takeaway being that the Senators get to save money while the Kings hope to rejuvenate Phaneuf. So far, that rejuvenation has been remarkable, even if small sample size red flags pop out so much, they practically poke you in the eye.

Still, it’s been a cool, under-the-radar story. Through four games, Phaneuf already has three goals for the Kings. All three have come on the power play; Phaneuf scored in his debut for L.A. and also found the net last night, helping them carve out a 4-3 win against the Jets.

[A deeper look at debuts for Phaneuf, Marian Gaborik.]

Let’s watch all three of his Kings goals.

Phaneuf’s goal in his Kings debut is the anomaly, as he saw an opening for something of a backdoor goal, which isn’t really what you picture if you hear “Phaneuf power-play goal.”

His past two goals have been to type, with slappers from both points getting the job done:

Even skeptics would probably admit that Phaneuf can still fire the puck, so maybe the Kings will find a nice use for one of his enduring strengths.

Again, there really couldn’t be enough signs that this is a brief surge of luck.

Phaneuf has scored his three goals on 11 SOG, which translates to a 27.3 shooting percentage. He brought a 3.5 shooting percentage (in 53 games) with him from Ottawa, and his career average is 5.7 percent.

(You can stretch this out further to absurd PDO numbers and others, if you want to go exploring.)

The most interesting question will come down to how much value Phaneuf can bring to the Kings.

So far, his possession numbers are shaky, much like they were in Ottawa. He’ll get a chance to improve over the long haul, especially if he remains tethered to a solid middle pairing blueliner like Alec Martinez. Phaneuf has spent more even-strength time with Martinez than he has with any other King, Jonathan Quick included, according to Natural Stat Trick.

This brief but compelling surge is actually reminiscent of some other trades for the Kings. As you may recall, both Vincent Lecavalier and Jarome Iginla enjoyed brief-yet-notable surges in their swan songs in L.A.

Of course, the stakes are higher with Phaneuf. Even at a discounted rate, his $5.25 million cap hit is frightening, especially when you realize that it runs through 2020-21.

One must grade the trade with Marian Gaborik‘s also-challenging contract in mind, making this all a bit convoluted. If one were to wager, it seems most likely that this move will be remembered as a costly, creative, and somewhat confusing lateral move.

But, hey, at least the first chapter has been captivating.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Jarome Iginla skates with AHL Providence, still wants to play

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Jarome Iginla is still without a team but isn’t giving up hope just yet on one last ride in the NHL.

The 40-year-old Iginla, who last played in 2016-17 with the Colorado Avalanche and Los Angeles Kings, was spotted on the ice at Providence Bruins practice on Tuesday, but there’s nothing in the works as far as a deal anywhere, he told the Providence Journal’s Mark Divver.

Iginla’s name popped up in contention for a spot on the Canadian Olympic team this fall, but a hip procedure cost him time on the ice and ultimately a place in GM Sean Burke’s final roster for PyeongChang. (The Canadians are doing just fine without him having reached the semifinals of the tournament.)

Now living in the Boston area after buying a house last spring, Iginla, who played 78 games with the NHL Bruins during the 2013-14 season, was simply taking advantage of a favor from the team. He’s expected to skate with AHL Providence again on Thursday as he continues to see where his body is physically.

Iginla — and for that matter, U.S. Olympian Brian Gionta, who’s also looking to continue playing — can sign with any NHL team, but to be eligible to play in the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs a deal needs to be inked before the 3 p.m. ET trade deadline next Monday.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Fight Video: Nicolas Deslauriers lands several good shots on Brandon Manning

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The Montreal Canadiens may have come out on the wrong end of Tuesday’s 3-2 overtime decision in Philadelphia, but Nicolas Deslauriers definitely won his fight against Flyers defenseman Brandon Manning.

This was Deslauriers’ first game since signing a two-year, one-way contract extension worth $950, 000 per year. The 26-year-old has brought a physical presence to Montreal’s lineup, but he’s also chipped in with seven goals. On Tuesday, he made more of an impact with his knuckles than anything else.

Take a look four yourself by clicking the video at the top of the page.

Believe it or not, this isn’t the first time these two players go head-to-head on the ice. They also fought when Deslauriers was a member of the Buffalo Sabres.

If you’re more interested in finding out what happened last night’s game, click here.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.