Buffalo Sabres turn-around under new owner Terry Pegula

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The Buffalo Sabres and their fans got a healthy dose of reality this afternoon when it was announced that all-world goaltender Ryan Miller will miss tonight’s game against the New York Rangers. For the most part, it’s the first bit of bad news Sabre Nation has received since fan-turned-billionaire-turned owner Terry Pegula acquired the team in late February. No doubt this has the potential to be a buzz-kill, but the city of Buffalo has had a heck of a honeymoon period.

Ever since Pegula took over the team, it’s like there’s an aura of excitement infused into the organization. We heard all of the things right after the purchase and the initial press conference. He was a fan, he was rich, and he wanted to drop money into his favorite team and make them as good as they possibly could be. It’s always great to hear that an owner wants to drop money into his newly acquired team, but this is a little different. Forbes recently estimated Pegula’s worth at $3 billion. That’s billion with a “b.” When he says the team is going to operate with an “unlimited budget,” it means something different than when the guy behind the counter at the Anchor Bar says it.

John Vogl captured the excitement during Terry Pegula’s opening press conference:

“The Buffalo Sabres’ new owner made two things clear today during his introductory news conference. One is that he has loved the team since 1975. He used to have friends in Olean put their telephone to the television when he lived out of town just so he could hear the game broadcasts. When he looked to his right today in HSBC Arena and saw Hall of Famer Gilbert Perreault, he broke down in tears and told the legendary center he was his hero.

Pegula followed up by telling the fans who don’t own the team exactly what they wanted to hear.

“The Buffalo Sabres’ reason for existence is to win the Stanley Cup,” the 59-year-old said. “We will aspire to be the best in the league at finding, developing and keeping players in the Buffalo Sabres family.”

That was all over a month ago. So what has changed in the weeks since the biggest change the Sabres have seen since Tom Golisano bought the team in 2003? Short answer: everything. They snapped a 4-game losing streak in the very first game under the new owner. After kicking the losing streak to the curb, the Sabres have continued on to an 11-4-3 record in the short Pegula Era. If they can keep this up for the next 10 years under his watch, they’re going to have to figure out a way to etch his face into the side of Niagara Falls. Things couldn’t have started any better—and they couldn’t have started at a better time. They were in 9th place when the new owner took over—tonight they have a chance to pull themselves into a tie for 7th.

The fiscal restraints that tied the hands of the front office were lifted and GM Darcy Regier immediately took advantage by doing something completely out of character for the franchise over the last decade. At the deadline they were able to bring in Brad Boyes for a 2nd rounder in a very “un-Sabres like” trade. Usually they’re the team trying acquire draft picks (not salary), but this time the skate was on the other foot. Thank Pegula.

Since his acquisition a day before the trade deadline, Boyes has joined Tyler Ennis and Drew Stafford to give the Sabres some serious secondary scoring they haven’t had all season. Boyes has 5 goals and 5 assists in the 15 games since he joined the Sabres. His linemates have improved their production as well: Ennis has 12 points (6 g, 6a) since Boyes has shown up and Stafford has improved as well with 9 points (4 g, 5a). Those aren’t the kind of numbers that are going to carry a team—but they’ll certainly give a team more offensive depth as they try to pick up the slack for the missing Derek Roy. (Note: it looks like Roy might be able to make it back for the 2nd round if the Sabres were to make it that far.)

For most of the year, the team went as Thomas Vanek, Tim Connolly, and Jason Pominville went; and let’s be honest, the trio hasn’t played like a line that could carry a team most of the year. But put them with another line that can score and all the sudden the Sabres have a look of a team that will be able to score on a consistent basis. Not only the top line, but Tyler Myers has rediscovered the game (offensively and defensively) that made him last year’s Calder Trophy recipient. In fact, they’ve improved to 8th in the league in scoring (2.90 goals per game). It’s a fairly simple formula: put together a team that can score a few goals and put an all-world goaltender behind them.

The offensive output is great, but any success in Buffalo is going to center around their goaltender. For the first 4 months of the season, they had a team that was inconsistent at best offensively and Ryan Miller was playing like a good goaltender. Good, not great. But over the last few weeks, he’s reminded people why he was a dark horse candidate for the Hart Trophy last season. Last week, he earned the #1 star of the week by the NHL by going 3-0 with 2 shutouts and a 0.67 goals against average and .976 save percentage. Even the worst offense in the league would be able to win a few games with goaltending like that.

Those are all factors that the Sabres are dealing with on the ice. But to talk about play on the ice would only be telling part of the story. More importantly, there has been a fundamental attitude adjustment within and around the team. He’s bringing in a cultural shift that is almost as important as the fiscal shift his bank account is bringing in. The team is embracing its great history and tradition by bringing in greats of the past and making it a place where there’s an identity to being a “Buffalo Sabre.” There’s an excitement throughout the entire organization that we haven’t seen since their playoff runs in 2006 and 2007.

The fans in Buffalo will tell you there’s a change around the team as well. From Die By The Blade:

“How do you feel about the Sabres these days? The word that comes to my mind is ‘magical,’ but not for the reasons you might think. It’s not so much that the team’s playing great (which admittedly helps quite a bit) but it’s that so much has changed with the organization so quickly: the fan experience at HSBC Arena, a better TV experience, a suggestion box that’s actually being used, ‘Hockey Heaven’ and a rug with a logo, and a deadline deal that not only worked for once, but never would have been made under the old regime. After a decade and more of complete organizational stagnation, so much has changed for the better in such a short period of time that the only explanation my brain can fathom is that someone cast a magic spell over the city…”

Pegula said in his “media tour” after buying the team that he’s going to make decisions based on what he thinks is “right,” not by money. Immediately upon taking over the team, he issued a huge stamp of approval for Darcy Regier. At the press conference, he could be seen tearing up when he saw Gilbert Perreault—which was one of the best moments in hockey this year. Sure, none of those by themselves is a huge deal. But put them together and there’s a team that feels like they’re onto something. The fans feel it. And judging by their play on the ice, the players look like they’re feeling it as well.

GM Darcy Regier had a great line when he said the new owner is “filling the hope tanks.” That goes both ways—not only is he selling and encouraging hope amongst the fanbase; but there’s a noticeable shift with the team as well. Only time will tell if this is a short-term boost or the start of something great in Buffalo. But one thing is for sure, just about every fan in North America wishes they had a guy like Terry Pegula buying their team.

Dates of note from the 2018-19 NHL schedule

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The 2018-19 NHL schedule has arrived and the 1,271-game journey to the Stanley Cup Playoffs begins Oct. 4 and ends April 6. We’ll have banners being raised, old friends being reacquainted, outdoor games, games in Europe and nearly a full slate on the season’s final day.

Here’s a look at a dozen notable dates on this coming season’s schedule:

Oct. 3, 2018 – Boston Bruins at Washington Capitals

It’s not the Penguins like we all wished, so the Capitals will have to raise their first Stanley Cup banner against the Bruins. They’ll also be playing for a new head coach before traveling to Pittsburgh for a visit with Sidney Crosby and the Penguins the next night.

Also on Opening Night, we’ll get to see the Toronto Maple Leafs hosting the Montreal Canadiens, the Calgary Flames visiting the Vancouver Canucks and the San Jose Sharks playing host to the Anaheim Ducks.

Oct. 4, 2018 — Philadelphia Flyers at Vegas Golden Knights

An historic inaugural season ended in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final. But despite the tough defeat, there was plenty for the Golden Knights and their fans to be proud of. When fans return to T-Mobile Arena for their 2018 home opener, there will be a nice celebration with a banner or two going up in the rafters.

Boston Bruins at Buffalo Sabres

Sabres fans get a first glimpse of Rasmus Dahlin in action when they take on the Bruins in the home opener. The expected 2018 No. 1 overall pick brings plenty of hope to Buffalo as the fanbase prays hard that he, Jack Eichel and Casey Mittelstadt can end their years of misery.

Oct. 6, 2018 – Nashville Predators at New York Islanders

Trotz makes his debut as Islanders head coach against one of his old teams. And no matter how free agency goes, this will be an interesting night at Barclays Center. Either John Tavares will be in the Islanders lineup, having committed to the franchise with a long-term extension and thereby garnering a huge ovation, or he’ll be wearing another jersey and the mood in Brooklyn will be quite glum.

This day will also see the Edmonton Oilers and New Jersey Devils facing off in the NHL Global Series in Gothenburg, Sweden.

Oct. 10, 2018 – Vegas Golden Knights at Washington Capitals

A rematch of the Stanley Cup Final that saw the Capitals victorious in five games. Maybe by Oct. 10 Alex Ovechkin will have been separated from the Cup.

Oct. 26, 2018 – Ottawa Senators at Colorado Avalanche

Matt Duchene has been a visiting player against the Avs, but that game actually took place in Sweden last season, so he’s yet to return to Pepsi Center as a Senator. Now, given the state of the Senators, we may get to late October and Duchene could be on a different team. But if he’s still with Ottawa, the reception he gets upon coming back to Denver should be interesting considering how his time with the franchise ended.

Dec. 1, 2018 – Columbus Blue Jackets at New York Islanders

As the Islanders prepare to leave Barclays Center in a few years, this game will be the first of 20 this coming season at their former home of Nassau Coliseum, now known as NYCB Live. The team will play games there over the next few seasons as a new arena gets built by Belmont race track in Elmont.

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Nov. 1-2, 2018 – Florida Panthers vs. Winnipeg Jets

In the second set of Global Games, Patrik Laine and Aleksander Barkov head home to Finland as the Jets meet the Panthers in Helsinki.

Jan. 1, 2019 – Chicago Blackhawks vs. Boston Bruins

Hey, what do you know? An outdoor game featuring the Blackhawks. After taking a year off, the Blackhawks are back outside for the Winter Classic and will take on the Bruins at Notre Dame Stadium. There will be plenty of shots of Touchdown Jesus and lots and lots of stories of Vinnie Hinostroza’s time in South Bend.

Jan. 18, 2019 – New York Islanders at Washington Capitals

Trotz returns to D.C. where he’ll get some very, very long ovations from the crowd and enjoy a tribute video ending with him raising the Stanley Cup.

Jan. 25-26, 2019 – All-Star Weekend, San Jose

A bit of a change this year as the Skills Competition has been moved to Friday night of All-Star Weekend and the 3-on-3 divisional tournament taking place on Saturday.

Feb. 23, 2019 – Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Philadelphia Flyers

The home-and-home Battle of Pennsylvania outdoor series concludes this February when the Penguins visit the Flyers at Lincoln Financial Field for a Stadium Series game. The Penguins were 4-2 victors when the two met in 2017 at Heinz Field. Hopefully the jersey choices are a little better than what they wore in their previous meeting.

April 6, 2019 – Super Saturday

The final day of the 2018-19 regular season will see 30 teams in action, with hopefully some playoff seeds and spots still up for grabs before we get to the postseason.

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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.

NHL salary cap ceiling set at $79.5M for 2018-19 season

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As expected, the NHL and NHLPA announced on Thursday that the salary cap ceiling for the 2018-19 season will increase to $79.5 million. That’s a $4.5 million increase from this past season.

Going back to December, the NHL’s revenues told them that the ceiling would rise by at least $3 million.

“The league has never been healthier,” said Commissioner Gary Bettman said at December’s Board of Governors meeting. “The game has never been healthier. Our franchises have never been healthier.”

Important news for teams like Ottawa and Arizona, the salary cap floor for next season will be $58.8 million, which means it’s time to prepare those Marian Hossa trade proposals!

The ceiling increase is also good news for those teams that regular spend to the limit. Now they have some more breathing room to either bring back some unrestricted or restricted free agents they want to sign or allow them to add a bit more salary under their cap if they want to go shopping this summer.

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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.

A talk with Lou Lamoriello excited Barry Trotz about joining Islanders

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Barry Trotz wasn’t divulging details — such is the life of working for Lou Lamoriello. But the New York Islanders head coach did say he’d already spoken with captain John Tavares within hours of officially being hired.

We’re still to reach a resolution on that front, and as far as Trotz’s resignation after leading the Washington Capitals to the Stanley Cup two weeks ago, he said it was out of “principle.” The Cup victory meant a clause in his contract activated giving him a two-year extension and a $300,000 raise. He wanted a longer term and a richer deal, but the Capitals weren’t willing to go down that route.

[Islanders hire Barry Trotz as head coach]

“When it came to the business aspect, I was willing to listen,” Trotz said during a conference call with reporters on Thursday. “From my standpoint, I felt that it wasn’t really sincere what we did together. I decided it was better to just move on.”

Not long after he parted with the Capitals, Trotz’s agent got a call from Lamoriello expressing interest. Trotz flew in and met with the Islanders president and GM earlier this week and talked about a vision for the team. That’s when the head coach got excited about coming on board.

“If you know anything about Lou Lamoriello and his background and what he does, he’ll do what it takes to win,” Trotz said. “That got me excited right away.”

As for a staff, Trotz said Lane Lambert, his longtime assistant in Nashville and Washington, would be his “No. 1 choice” if he chooses to come to New York. Goaltending coach Mitch Korn could also be in the mix to follow Trotz.

With two straight seasons of playoffless hockey, Trotz understands that there’s work to do with the team, even beyond what happens with Tavares. But having coached against the Islanders for years, he knows there are some good pieces on the roster that could help in a turnaround.

“If we can get our structure right and we get our pace right, we’ll be able to score, we’ll be able to defend much better and we’re going to fix up some holes,” he said.

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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.

Senators GM on Hoffman trade: ‘Our dressing room was broken’

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Ottawa Senators general manager Pierre Dorion met with the media on Thursday afternoon ahead of the 2018 NHL draft, and while he refused to comment on the team’s plans regarding superstar defenseman Erik Karlsson and other players on the roster, he did speak extensively about the recent decision to trade veteran forward Mike Hoffman.

Earlier this week the Senators traded Hoffman, one of the team’s top forwards, to the San Jose Sharks in return for a package of players and picks that included veteran forward Mikkel Boedker.

The trade came less than a week after it was revealed that Hoffman’s fiance, Monika Caryk, was accused of harassing Melinda Karlsson.

[Related: Senators trade Hoffman for underwhelming return]

The first question Dorion faced was a blunt one: Why did you trade Mike Hoffman?

“Trading Mike Hoffman was something we needed to do,” said Dorion (via Sportsnet).

“We talk about — our dressing room was broken,” he continued. “We have to have a dressing room that wants to win together. Key components for us moving forward are, character, leadership, accountability, and we’re very happy with the return we got on Mike Hoffman. We feel Mikkel Boedker is a good player, he had a great second half, he was San Jose’s fifth leading scorer in their two rounds in the playoffs. We know with the culture that we’re aiming to get that he is going ot fit in that dressing room. I did talk to one player, not about his hockey abilities but about him as a person, that played with him, Matt Duchene, and Matt’s words to us were that he’s a great guy, he’s perfect for our room, and the culture we’re trying to build.”

Boedker has two years remaining on his current contract that pays him $4 million per season. He is coming off of a 2017-18 season that saw him score 15 goals and 37 total points for the Sharks.

Shortly after acquiring Hoffman from the Senators, San Jose turned around and flipped him to the Florida Panthers for a collection of draft picks.

Dorion was then asked when he first found out about the harassment that the Karlsson’s were subjected to following the death of their son.

“We heard a rumor at the end of the season,” said Dorion. “If we acted on every rumor we hear, we couldn’t do our job in management as a general manager. No player ever came to us about these things. At the start of every year we address the team. We address the team saying the general manager, our management group, we have an open door policy about anything personal or professional. The only thing we tell our players is don’t come see us about ice time. That is the coaches job.”

He continued: “I think when we address the players this year at the start of the year we are going to make sure in situations like this, they can definitely come to us. I think it’s important. I think in all of this the victim is Melinda Karlsson. If we can do something about it, we wish that this situation could have been prevented.”

This was just one of the many issues the Senators are facing this offseason.

The other serious one involves assistant general manager Randy Lee who is currently suspended indefinitely as he faces second-degree harassment charges for an incident involving a hotel shuttle bus driver in Buffalo during the NHL scouting combine.

Dorion said on Thursday that Lee’s situation will be re-evaluated following the court proceedings.

His next court date is set for July 6.

Along with all of this, it remains to be seen if Karlsson will be back with the Senators next season or if he will be traded (a trade they will have a difficult time winning) as he prepares to enter the final year of his contract.

The Senators also have a big decision to make regarding the No. 4 overall pick and whether or not they keep it (Dorion seems to anticipate they will) or send it to the Colorado Avalanche to complete the Matt Duchene trade (why they should consider it).

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.