Jason Brough

AP

Sabres preaching the process, but major roster holes remain

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The Buffalo Sabres have been hammered by injuries this season, with key players Jack Eichel, Ryan O'Reilly, Evander Kane, and Zach Bogosian all missing extended periods of time.

But injuries were no excuse for last night’s 2-1 loss in New Jersey. Sure, Bogosian was missing again, but the Sabres were relatively healthy otherwise, and they still got badly outshot, 39-23.

“It is up to us in this room to get things going,” goalie Robin Lehner told reporters afterwards, “and today we didn’t get things going.”

According to Sports Club Stats, the Sabres will have to go around 19-8-3 in their remaining 30 games in order to make the playoffs.

In other words, it’s looking like a sixth straight miss. They’re not officially out of it yet, but it’s getting close to “maybe next year” time.

Still, they have to play on. The Sabres host the Sharks tonight, the Ducks Thursday, then head to Toronto for a Hockey Night in Canada contest Saturday.

“Our players have to treat these games like they’re meaningful playoff-type games to get that experience of winning and playing playoff-type of hockey,” said head coach Dan Bylsma, per WGR 550. “That’s the process we have to go through, and it’s really important to have meaningful games for the players to have that sense about it.”

For GM Tim Murray, decisions have to be made ahead of the March 1 trade deadline. Brian Gionta, Dmitry Kulikov, Cody Franson, and Anders Nilsson are all pending unrestricted free agents. And it remains to be seen if Kane is going to be part of the future; he’s only signed through next season.

Murray, like Bylsma, has been preaching the process. And in the GM’s defense, it wasn’t that long ago that the Sabres stripped the roster bare in order to draft the likes of Sam Reinhart and Eichel.

“We’re not happy where we are,” Murray told The Buffalo News recently. “We’re trying to be better and we have been in certain areas. But when you go to the bottom, you can’t snap your fingers and learn how to win. This is a process and we’re sticking with it. You have to.”

But for the fan base, it is frustrating all the same to see a team like Toronto in the thick of the playoff chase. Winning the lottery and drafting Auston Matthews obviously helped the Leafs, but Eichel was supposed to be the same caliber of franchise center. So, why aren’t the Sabres having success too?

In reality, Eichel is the least of the Sabres’ problems. There are still major holes on the roster, especially on the back end, arguably the toughest area to fix with a snap of a GM’s fingers. Though Buffalo does have a nice prospect in Brendan Guhle, he’s only 19, and there’s no blue-chip blue-liner beyond him.

That’ll be up to Murray to address, and it won’t be easy. He’s not the only GM looking to upgrade his defense, and prices for top-4 guys are unlikely to come down.

Slumping Canucks kick off make-or-break road trip

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If the Vancouver Canucks are really a playoff team, now is the time to show it.

Otherwise — and this is the much more likely scenario — it’ll be time to start selling.

Five points back of a wild-card spot, the Canucks haven’t even looked close to playoff-caliber in their last three games, all regulation losses. And their next six are all on the road, starting tonight in Nashville.

Indeed, by the time the Canucks return home, the pressure on management to trade the likes of Jannik Hansen and Alex Burrows may have grown rather intense.

Which begs the question — will GM Jim Benning stand by his promise to not ask players to waive their no-trade clauses?

“We’re going to see where we’re at,” Benning told The Province ahead of the trip. “I’ll have individual conversations with those players and their agents, but we’re hoping we can stay in the fight. But it’s a tough trip.”

It sure is, with stops in Nashville, Columbus, Boston, Buffalo, Pittsburgh and St. Louis.

At least the Canucks will get Ben Hutton back tonight. Only Erik Gudbranson, Derek Dorsett, and Anton Rodin remain on the injured list now.

In other words, health cannot be used an excuse if the losing streak continues. If the Canucks can’t overcome the absence of those three, they just aren’t good enough.

Related: Decisions, decisions as Canucks fall out of playoff race

Sweeney: Bruins’ core deserves chance to ‘win now’

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The Buffalo Sabres were going nowhere. They could afford to tear it down and endure the “suffering.”

The Toronto Maple Leafs were a disaster. The only way out was some “pain.”

But the Boston Bruins are a different, more complicated story. They may have missed the playoffs the past two seasons, and they may well miss them again in 2017. But they also have Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, David Pastrnak, David Krejci and Tuukka Rask under club control for years to come — and they’re not about to tear that down.

“I’m not going to be shortsighted,” GM Don Sweeney assured reporters Tuesday after firing head coach Claude Julien. “I’m going to stick to the longer-term view.”

But at the same time, Sweeney believes his core players deserve “a chance to win now” — which is why he brought in a veteran like David Backes on July 1.

“Our core players are too good to not have that plan in place, in the short term and longer term,” he said.

So, it’s a balancing act, the present with the future. This past summer, Sweeney wasn’t willing to trade Pastrnak for defensive help, and Bruins fans are probably glad he didn’t.

Still, the Bruins need to improve their defense. Zdeno Chara is 39 years old. And while Brandon Carlo has been a pleasant surprise at only 20, there’s no telling when the likes of Charles McAvoy, Jakub Zboril, and Jeremy Lauzon will be NHL-ready.

In other words, don’t expect the Kevin Shattenkirk speculation to go away. The 28-year-old is a pending unrestricted free agent. If he’s available this summer, the Bruins will surely be interested. They might even have interest before the trade deadline, as long as the price isn’t too steep, and as long as they know they can re-sign him.

Read more: Bruins management failed to improve roster as planned

For now, though, the focus will be on making the playoffs under interim coach Bruce Cassidy. The Bruins host San Jose Thursday, Vancouver Saturday, and Montreal Sunday. Then they get their bye week, before heading off to California for a tough road trip.

“These decisions are not easy, and Don has my full support,” said Bruins president Cam Neely in a statement. “I believe that we have a better team than our results to date show. I also recognize that there are areas that we as a group need to improve upon.”

That last part was Neely’s way of saying it wasn’t all on the coach. And to be sure, now that Julien has been fired, the focus will turn far more to management and what can be done to improve the roster.

Sweeney said he’s sticking to the plan.

The only hard part will be executing it.

Related: Sweeney defends timing of Julien firing

As Patriots paraded, Sweeney defended timing of Julien firing

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It was a real grilling today in Boston, where Bruins GM Don Sweeney had to answer for firing Claude Julien on the same day the Super Bowl-champion New England Patriots were parading through the city.

Sweeney was asked multiple times about the optics of this morning’s announcement. He insisted he didn’t want to take anything away from the football team, but that the Bruins’ schedule provided an opportunity to make the coaching change.

sched“We had a couple of days off,” said Sweeney, “and we have two days of practice before we (play) a few games, and then we have a real opportunity to step back from the emotion of this and allow the players to get away and vacate mentally and physically. I felt there was an opportunity today and tomorrow to get their feet in the ground for a practice environment, which we haven’t had.”

He added, “I apologize that it fell on a day where obviously New England is incredibly excited, but I didn’t make the schedule.”

Bruce Cassidy will take over behind the bench on an interim basis. Sweeney is hoping that a fresh set of eyes and a new voice, with a few tweaks to the system and perhaps more up-tempo practices, will help get the Bruins into the playoffs.

But Sweeney also acknowledged that the roster he’s assembled has shortcomings, and he doesn’t intend to sacrifice the future for the sake of the next couple of months. To illustrate, he referenced his refusal this past summer to trade David Pastrnak for defensive help.

“I’m not deviating from the plan,” he said.

So, why fire Julien then?

“We have areas, and we have gaps, in our game that exist,” said Sweeney. “Whether that’s strictly personnel-related, or whether or not those are some tweaks that we need to make, that’s what’s going to unfold here.”

So, basically, the rest of the season is going to be an audition. If the Bruins can turn it around, Cassidy will be in the running for the full-time job. If not, it will be up to another coach.

“I’m excited about whether or not [Cassidy] and his coaching staff can make their own imprint,” said Sweeney. “Let’s see where that goes.”

Related: Bruins management failed to improve roster as planned

Pre-game reading: Philipp Grubauer is enjoying the compressed schedule

— Up top, Philipp Grubauer notched his third shutout of the season Sunday. The Capitals’ backup goalie now sports a 10-3-2 record with a sparkling .931 save percentage.

— Grubauer, 25, is one of the few players who’s enjoying the NHL’s compressed schedule. “You don’t have to wait two or three weeks to get a chance. It helps winning because if you lose it’s going to stick with you for a week or two weeks. If I lose I don’t want to be seen, I don’t want to be seen around the rink.” Grubauer’s strong play has likewise been good for starter Braden Holtby, who’s been able to get a rest whenever he needs it. (Washington Post)

— In praise of Oilers starter Cam Talbot, who’s been by far the busiest goalie in the NHL this season. “Talbot started his league-leading 49th game on Sunday, ran his league-leading minutes played total to 2,922:08, league-leading shots against total to 1,439, and league-leading saves total to 1,326. He also put up his 27th win, good for a second-place tie in the NHL, and a fifth goose egg, tying him for third.” Talbot has played almost 260 more minutes than the NHL’s second-busiest goalie, San Jose’s Martin Jones. (Edmonton Journal)

— Why it’s time to bring back the Quebec Nordiques, by Ryan Kennedy of The Hockey News. “As in Winnipeg, a love for hockey never died in the city. You can still walk into sporting goods stores and find rafts of Nordiques gear, while major junior’s Remparts currently bring fans to the Videotron Centre. In fact, the Remparts are one of the top-drawing CHL franchises around, despite being a middling team this year. The team’s most recent game, against Rimouski, drew more than 12,600 fans.” (The Hockey News)

— A look at which teams have the easiest and hardest schedules down the stretch. Good news for the Carolina Hurricanes, who still have two games against both Arizona and Colorado. Bad news for the Vancouver Canucks, who kick off a six-game road trip tomorrow in Nashville. (TSN)

— The Islanders are hosting the Maple Leafs tonight, so of course the traveling Toronto media inquired about John Tavares‘ contract status (UFA 2018). Here was his response: “At this point, I’ve got enough to worry about with our team and trying to make the playoffs. I can understand and respect why the questions are being asked. It’s something to talk about, it’s something that’s coming up in the future. But for myself, I just try to worry about playing.” Tavares indicated at the All-Star Game that he’d be willing to negotiate an extension with the Isles this summer. (Toronto Sun)

Enjoy the games!