Buffalo Sabres

Ottawa Senators ’15-16 Outlook

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What happens after the honeymoon period wears off?

The Ottawa Senators may be a great test run for such theories in 2015-16. After all, there was a stark difference between the team that left MacLean making sardonic jokes on his way out the door to the one that stormed its way into the postseason under Dave Cameron.

So, what happens when Cameron gets to hold a training camp with this roster? Also, what happens if their goaltending is merely average after Andrew Hammond’s stupendous, burger-earning run?

One interesting thing to consider: some credit Ottawa’s turnaround with Cameron as much as they did with “The Hamburglar.” The possession improvements from MacLean to Cameron were occasionally drastic, but the common theme is that younger players like Mike Hoffman and Mark Stone emerged while veterans faded into the background.

Perceptions change, but the personnel’s largely the same

There are exceptions (see: Robin Lehner’s exodus), yet the Senators are more or less the same team after a quiet summer. It’s interesting, then, that it’s still difficult to forecast this team’s future.

Hoffman, Stone and Mika Zibanejad saw big gains under Cameron. Kyle Turris proved that he can be a top center in the NHL. More will be expected from Bobby Ryan while Erik Karlsson is, well, Erik Karlsson.

The offense looks like a solid strength, but Ottawa’s roster faces plenty of questions. The defense sees a huge drop-off beyond their top pairing of Karlsson and Marc Methot while Hammond could easily generate a goalie controversy with probable starter Craig Anderson.

In other words, by defying expectations in 2014-15, Cameron and the Senators raised the bar awfully high for next season. Will they fall short of that mark?

Poll: Anderson or Hamburglar in Ottawa’s net?

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Now that they shipped Robin Lehner to Buffalo, the Ottawa Senators face a more typical situation in net.

On paper, it’s actually pretty straightforward, especially if you’re looking at money. Craig Anderson is, theoretically, the clear No. 1 while Andrew Hammond stands as the probable backup.

Of course, the No. 2 guy also happened to save the Senators’ 2014-15 season and earn a lifetime supply of Mc-whatever-he’d-likes, so perhaps it’s not that simple.

A quick breakdown of Anderson vs. Hammond

Again, one would assume that Anderson, 34, at least gets the early edge.

With far more experience and a $4.2 million cap hit for the next three seasons, he makes the most logical sense. He’s also upped his game since coming to Ottawa, averaging a .920 save percentage in that span.

That said, you sort of know what you’re getting with Anderson, while “The Hamburglar” looms behind a mask of intrigue. Hammond only boasts 24 games of NHL experience at age 27, yet he was sensational. Ottawa needed just about all of his 20-1-2 run to make the playoffs, and that cannot be forgotten.

It’s plausible that this could end up being a platoon situation at times, but let’s narrow things down a bit: when Dave Cameron needs a win, which goalie should be turn to? Who should be in the net in a win-and-you’re-in regular season situation or a Game 7 in the playoffs?

Note: in tribute to Hammond’s out-of-left-field run in 2014-15, you can write in a different choice if you feel like the Senators have another random sensation waiting in the pipeline.

It’s Ottawa Senators day at PHT

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Throughout the month of August, PHT will be dedicating a day to all 30 NHL clubs. Today’s team? The Ottawa Senators.

Ottawa’s 2014-15 campaign was one for the record books.

Thanks to a remarkable 23-4-4 run down the stretch, the Sens staged a furious comeback to make the playoffs, becoming the first team in NHL history to qualify for the postseason after sitting 14 points back.

“It was special,” said Kyle Turris, per Sportsnet. “So many things happened and so many guys stepped up. It was a real special run and we won’t forget and we’ll learn from ultimately going forward.”

It was a special run indeed, and one filled with emotion. The Sens dealt with adversity throughout the way; GM Bryan Murray was diagnosed with colon cancer, assistant coach Mark Reeds passed away just before the playoffs and owner Eugene Melnyk was gravely ill before a successful liver transplant.

From that adversity, some new stars came shining through.

Andrew “The Hamburglar” Hammond went from obscure backup goalie to one of the NHL’s best stories, posting a 20-1-2 record with a .929 save percentage. The rookie tandem of Mike Hoffman and Mark Stone carried the club offensively at times, with Stone finishing the runner-up for the Calder. Erik Karlsson won his second career Norris trophy, and Turris continued to emerge as a bonafide No. 1, playmaking center.

In light of all that, Ottawa’s season had to be considered a success, even with its disappointing opening-round playoff loss to Montreal.

Off-season recap

It was a quiet summer in Ottawa. All of the club’s young skaters — Hammond, Stone, Hoffman, Mika Zibanejad, Jean-Gabriel Pageau, Alex Chiasson — were re-signed, and Murray did little in free agency.

At the draft, Murray sent goalie Robin Lehner to Buffalo (along with David Legwand), which gave him two first-round picks; the Sens then proceeded to select Quebec League d-man Thomas Chabot, and USNTDP product Colin White.

What does Jack Eichel mean to the Buffalo Sabres?

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It takes a special type of player to dramatically alter the perception of your franchise and the mood of the fanbase before playing a single minute in the NHL, but Jack Eichel is not your typical high-end draft pick.

He’s the reason over 17,000 fans in Buffalo wanted to see a prospects scrimmage in July. By extension Eichel is the primary source of the optimism surrounding the team despite the fact that the Sabres are coming off of a 23-51-8 record.

In fact, that might even been underselling his impact because as an American he has the potential to accomplish things that no other U.S.-born talent has done before.

That’s what he is to the fans, but just how important was taking him to the Buffalo Sabres? What would it have meant to this franchise if it had missed out on the rare opportunity to draft a player of Eichel’s potential?

Getting Eichel, regardless of how well he does, isn’t nearly enough to guarantee the Sabres an era of long playoff runs and one or more championships. He doesn’t change the fact that Buffalo’s goaltending is an X-Factor, that they’re still dependent on several other prospects to breakout, or that they need forwards like Evander Kane to bounce back to help close the massive gap that existed between the Sabres offensively in 2014-15 and even just the league average. Buffalo still needs plenty of work and that’s true with or without Eichel.

And yet, while Buffalo might ultimately end up with little to show for the Eichel era, even if he proves to be a superb forward, he is the foundation that gives this franchise a good fighting chance at a championship in the mid-term.

He’s potentially a top-tier center, which is something most serious Stanley Cup contenders have and isn’t typically available on the free agent or trade markets unless you happen to be Jim Nill. Beyond that, he’s a potential “big-time” player and those are equally rare and near essential for success.

For much of the last six seasons, Chicago would have been a team with depth, a great defense, and significant scoring threats even if Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane were simply good rather than the elite forwards they have proven themselves to be. But that one downgrade alone might have proven to be the difference between a franchise locked in a dynasty debate and one that enjoyed some deep playoff runs without ever lifting the Stanley Cup.

As Mike Babcock put it in April when talking about the aging Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg, “In the end, you’ve got to have big-time players up the middle and on the back to be successful. So those are questions in our organization that we work towards, drafting good and developing good, but we’ve been winning too much (in the regular season to get high draft picks). That’s the facts.”

That’s what Eichel represents to Buffalo. Even if he lives up to the hype, he’s just a piece of the puzzle, but he’s one of the toughest ones to find.

Buffalo Sabres ’15-16 Outlook

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The Buffalo Sabres made huge strides this offseason, yet they may still fall closer to historic ineptitude than they will to playoff contention in 2015-16.

That’s not meant as a slight to GM Tim Murray’s work this summer; instead, it’s a reminder of just how bad that team really was last season.

By just about any measure, the Sabres were the worst team in the NHL. Honestly, it was probably wiser to compare them to the sorriest teams in recent history rather than last year’s Arizona Coyotes or Edmonton Oilers.

That said, Murray enjoyed an offseason that was so strong, he thought he might have consumed some fungus, so maybe a playoff trip isn’t so far away after all?

A host of improvements

Jack Eichel brings in the hype of a “generational player,” while Ryan O’Reilly is the sort of sturdy two-way center who can make life easier for his teammates. (Eichel can be sheltered as he gets used to the NHL game thanks to O’Reilly and perhaps David Legwand.)

Evander Kane will play his first game as a Sabre in 2015-16, too. Young players such as Sam Reinhart may take significant steps forward while vets like Matt Moulson could rebound next season.

Sabres fans might not be particularly excited about Robin Lehner, but Murray sure is. Most believe that Lehner will need to be outstanding to cover up what projects to be a putrid defense.

Read more about the pressure Lehner faces here and Buffalo’s defensive question marks here.

For all the improvements Buffalo made – and Dan Bylsma’s impact should not be dismissed, by the way – the smart money is on the Sabres missing the playoffs. Really, it’s not outrageous to imagine at least one more cellar-dwelling year before things get sorted out.

Feel free to disagree in this poll, but despite a strong offseason, it ultimately seems like Buffalo still has a long way to go.