Rasmus Ristolainen

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Sabres’ Scandella fined, not suspended, for slashing Penguins’ Hornqvist

The NHL is cracking down on slashing with more penalties – at times to almost an extreme – but suspensions might not come from them. At least not yet.

That point seems clear enough based on the league’s latest decision, as Buffalo Sabres defenseman Marco Scandella was fined (but not suspended) for a pretty gnarly slash on Patric Hornqvist of the Pittsburgh Penguins. To be precise, Scandella received a $5K fine, while the league didn’t provide an explanation for the decision.

(Generally, slashes don’t get a video, and the league is most likely to produce a full-fledged explanation when a suspension occurs. There are exceptions, but that’s usually how it goes.)

Video of the slash isn’t easy to find, but here it is in GIF form, if you feel like cringing:

Also:

The Sabres have to be relieved that Scandella avoided sitting out a game or more, as their defense is already dilapidated with Rasmus Ristolainen among those injured. It doesn’t seem like Hornqvist suffered an injury from the slash.

Again, the lack of a suspension follows the general pattern of NHL decisions, but it was worth noting.

There were some testy moments from last night’s game, with the most memorable moment coming when Jack Eichel was eager to drop his gloves after Ian Cole landed a huge hit on Sam Reinhart. The Penguins ultimately got the last laugh by rallying for a 5-4 overtime win against Buffalo.

The Sabres’ next game comes against the Red Wings in Detroit on Friday. After that, they get an opportunity to make some gains, as they play six of their next seven games in Buffalo.

After Thursday’s game in Ottawa, the Penguins also enjoy a home-heavy schedule going forward.

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.

Tough news for Sabres: Ristolainen now week-to-week

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Hockey fans annoyed by “day-to-day” updates should be careful what they wish for, because “week-to-week” is becoming a more common thing, and it’s more annoying. You might consider seven times as annoying, even.

After missing two games with an upper-body injury, Buffalo Sabres defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen goes from day-to-day to week-to-week.

Buffalo is already dealing with the loss of blueliners, although it’s worth noting that not all of the injury news was bad. Head coach Phil Housley mentioned that Josh Gorges and Nathan Beaulieu are both nearing returns from their ailments:

All  of these issues meant a heavy workload for Marco Scandella, particularly during Tuesday’s 3-1 win against the Washington Capitals, as the former Wild defenseman logged 26:34 of ice time. (Taylor Fedun stands out as another defenseman who was pressed into more duty amid all of these issues.)

Now, it’s fair to acknowledge the devil’s advocate argument that Ristolainen can be a real mess in his own zone. That said, his possession stats have shown some improvement through 13 games in 2017-18, prompting one to wonder if Housley might be able to help the well-compensated Finn.

The Sabres are on the verge of a back-to-back set, as they’ll host the Panthers on Friday and then face the Canadiens in Montreal on Saturday. That trip to Montreal begins a three-game road swing; following that, they’ll play four in a row and six of seven in Buffalo.

That opens the door for the Sabres to make some progress, but it sounds like they’ll spend a substantial portion of that time without Ristolainen.

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.

Jack Eichel’s 21st birthday present: Another Sabres loss

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Jack Eichel turns 21 today as the Buffalo Sabres host the San Jose Sharks. What do you get a guy who received an eight-year, $80 million extension not long ago?

Phil Housley’s answer appears to be a piece of humble pie.

The Buffalo News’ Amy Moritz reports that Eichel was bumped off the Sabres’ top power-play unit heading into this afternoon’s contest.

Take a look at the two power-play units, which get points for balance, if nothing else

PP1: Jason Pominville, Ryan O'Reilly, Ryan Reinhart, Rasmus Ristolainen, and Matt Tennyson.

PP2: Eichel, Kyle Okposo, Evander Kane, Victor Antipin, and Marco Scandella.

Honestly, even as a vocal proponent of ROR, I’d probably take that second group over the first. Maybe this is a merely nominal move, especially if Eichel and the second unit’s reps end up being nearly identical.

Eichel hasn’t scored a point in his past two games, so Housley is probably just trying to tinker with things to see if he can get a spark. On the other hand, the Sharks must be a little weary, playing at an odd hour and closing off a five-game road trip. You have to wonder if Housley might be getting a little “too cute” here.

It looks like Eichel is still on the top line from an even-strength perspective, so this probably isn’t too huge of a deal.

Not the greatest birthday present, either, though.

(H/T to Rotoworld.)

Update: The Sabres were solid on Saturday, with that non-Eichel PP unit getting a goal. Eichel assisted on a goal and had a would-be goal called back. The Sharks ended up winning 3-2, making for more frustrating in Buffalo.

Eichel looked frustrated, although you have to give him a Bo Jackson point here:

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.

Jack Eichel is ‘sick of losing,’ so what can the Sabres do?

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If you look at the Buffalo Sabres’ 0-3-1 record and blast Jack Eichel‘s $10 million extension,* then you might be part of what’s making the rising star so frustrated.

After Thursday’s 3-2 loss to the San Jose Sharks, Eichel had enough, as the Buffalo News’ Mike Harrington reports.

Harrington gets it right in describing Eichel’s comments as a mic drop.

Jack and little else

Commend Eichel for absorbing some of the blame, but consider this: his line with Jason Pominville and Evander Kane have scored all nine of the Sabres’ goals so far this season. (Eichel has a goal and four assists, Kane scored four goals and two assists, and Pominville has four goals plus a helper.)

It’s pretty easy to see that the Sabres need more from the likes of Ryan O'Reilly, who has an assist and is doing well in the dot … but that’s about it. He’s suffering from uncharacteristically bad possession stats and hasn’t scored a goal despite firing nine SOG in four games.

Ultimately, as bad as having one line scoring all nine of your goals might be, the 18 goals allowed stand as the bigger concern.

Defensive lapses

It’s just four games, but the Sabres are getting absolutely shellacked from a puck possession standpoint, with the fourth-worst Corsi For rating standing as just one example. If that’s too sophisticated for you, Buffalo’s been on the wrong side of the shots battle in three of four contests.

To some extent, the Sabres might be making some missteps in assessing who to put on the ice.

For example: Rasmus Ristolainen probably isn’t the guy you want playing 26+ minutes per night, far and away the most of any Sabres skater so far. Even with an average of 4:35 power-play TOI, he’s their even-strength leader, too.

Ristolainen has been criticized heavily by the fancy stats community, and his 2016-17 HERO chart provides a Halloween-worthy snapshot of why:

via Dom Galamini

Check out that miniature shot suppression bar … yikes.

Ristolainen shouldn’t be singled out as the only struggling Sabres player, though. His current numbers look a lot better than those of addition Marco Scandella, who is just under siege so far to start his Buffalo days.

Looking through the team, Canadiens castoff Nathan Beaulieu might be part of the solution, although he’s already pressed into a lot of action averaging 20 minutes per night. Sabres fans might also have to stomach the occasional gaffe; hopefully most won’t be as egregious as this “assist” to John Tavares:

With Dmitry Kulikov and Cody Franson out of town in favor of Beaulieu and Scandella, it remains to be seen if Buffalo will make that much of an improvement on defense.

If management can add help, that would be great, but they’d need to get in line with, oh, 30 other NHL teams who are sniffing around for defensemen.

New coach

Which brings us to the most important would-be difference-maker: Phil Housley.

Let’s not forget that the Sabres have a new regime installed, and while there are times when teams ride fast and loose with that “new car smell,” there are other times when teams stall to begin.

Housley has the right idea in having an attack-minded approach; that seems to be both in keeping with the trends in the modern NHL and in acknowledging the makeup of this team. The key is to execute on such ideas.

Net gains?

Of course, to some extent, it hinges on having the Sabres’ goalies bail the defense out on occasions.

The good news in that regard is that both Robin Lehner and Chad Johnson have track records that indicate that better work will come. Especially since they both have the motivation of contract years to keep them alert.

At the moment, Lehner has a .901 save percentage, which essentially translates to “weak backup.” His career save percentage is .917, while he’s been even more impressive in Buffalo with a .921 average over 84 games.

Goalies can be fickle beasts, but it seems like a reasonable gamble to expect more from Lehner and Johnson (who has a solid career average of .914).

***

Long story short, the Sabres have a lot of work to do, and some problems seem easier to fix than others.

More than anything else, Sabres fans and Eichel alike might need to practice patience as best they can.

* – Which, you know, technically doesn’t kick in until next season.

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.

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Sabres’ salary cap outlook with Jack Eichel’s massive extension

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PHT already discussed whether Jack Eichel is really worth $80 million over eight years for the Buffalo Sabres. Although the short answer is “Yes,” there’s room for debate, so click here for more.

Fair or not, many hockey fans will judge Eichel based upon how the Sabres fare as a team; if they remain also-rans, big numbers might not save Eichel from taking the heat for his $10M cap hit.

Really, though, Eichel will need some help. Let’s take a look at the structure of this Sabres team to see where the strengths lie, the big decisions ahead, and the red flags waving in front of our faces.

This is part of a running series at PHT, so click here for more salary cap breakdowns.

Long-term commitments

Eichel’s contract extension won’t kick in until 2018-19, so the Sabres get one more year of rookie-deal savings before they pay up. His extension expires after 2025-26; the Sabres own Eichel’s prime years, so it will be fascinating to watch the ups and downs.

Eichel joins a few other lengthy commitments. Ryan O'Reilly, 26, isn’t cheap with a $7.5M cap hit. He’s a borderline Selke-worthy two-way forward who’s still in his prime, and it’s unlikely that he’ll regress sharply during this current deal, which runs for six more seasons.

At worst, “ROR” is a “$5 shake.”

Kyle Okposo, 29, carries a $6M cap hit through 2022-23. It’s tough to beat up too much on the winger considering how comforting it is that Okposo is OK after his health scares. Okposo’s a solid guy right now, assuming he’s healthy, but that could be a problem deal.

Rasmus Ristolainen ($5.4M for five more seasons) is a fascinating case. On one hand, he scored 45 points at the ripe age of 22. On the other hand, he’s framed as a disaster in his own end; TSN’s Travis Yost listed him as a “dud” from an analytics standpoint. You might not find a better case of perception … unless “eye test” types aren’t impressed, either?

The Sabres boast two other mid-range guys with expensive, three-year deals: Zach Bogosian and Marco Scandella. That’s almost $10M in debatable defensemen (though they both could help, even if one or both might be overpriced).

Off the books soon

Jason Pominville ($5.6M) and Matt Moulson ($5M) are two aging wingers whose contracts expire after two more seasons. Pominville has more to offer going forward, but you’d think that management is keen on transferring many of those dollars to younger players.

Josh Gorges only has one year remaining on his $3.9M, so as much as Eichel adds to the bottom line, Buffalo is ridding itself of some problems soon.

You almost wonder if Buffalo might accept a bad expiring deal or two if this season goes wrong, just to gain riches soon enough?

Big choices

Robin Lehner can be a scary dude. The 26-year-old has also shown flashes of serious brilliance as a goalie. He’s in a contract year, so the Sabres must decide if the intimidating netminder is a part of the future or not.

Chad Johnson backs him up with a one-year deal of his own.

Evander Kane, 26, faces quite the crossroads in his career, as his $5.25M cap hit will expire after 2016-17. Kane is on the short list of players who future value is difficult to determine; seriously, what kind of contract do you expect for the power forward? Years and term both stand as tough to determine.

Growth areas

The Sabres have some interesting guys on two-year deals: Zemgus Girgensons, Jake McCabe, Nathan Beaulieu, and others could be key fixtures or short-term guys.

Naturally, the Sabres also have some other young players, with Alex Nylander and Sam Reinhart being make-or-break types. Buffalo’s been enjoying some strong draft picks while adding some potential foundational pieces; the crucial thing, then, is to actually develop some of them into difference-makers.

***

Cap Friendly places Buffalo’s 2018-19 cap spending at $56.56M with Eichel’s deal in mind. That provides some serious room to maneuver, even if the ceiling remains flat at $75M.

Despite this huge investment, the Sabres’ new management has room to operate. They have some nice pieces and a worry or two. Some crucial decisions and serious progress (or failed developments) may determine if Buffalo can really contend.