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.

Nylander already showing flashes of brilliance for Maple Leafs

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After a contract holdout that extended almost until the last minute on Dec. 1, William Nylander finally signed with the Maple Leafs, yet he was unable to generate a point in his first two games back. One could almost feel the restlessness build in Toronto, but there were breakthrough moments in the Maple Leafs’ 4-1 win against the Hurricanes on Tuesday.

Granted, there were also some breakdowns on Nylander’s part, too. Some of that is just the nature of the beast when it comes to NHL hockey, but rust is a factor, as well.

Nylander generated his first two points of 2018-19 in Tuesday’s win, both being assists.

His first didn’t seem like an assist at all, as Morgan Rielly was credited with a goal after it became clear that Dougie Hamilton was guilty of a tragicomic own-goal. Nylander’s second assist came on a brilliant pass to Patrick Marleau, who converted on what was the hockey equivalent of a layup:

Nylander might just deserve that token assist, really, as he made another brilliant pass to Marleau that did not result in a goal.

That’s some great stuff, and the Maple Leafs have the potential to be truly terrifying if Nylander, Marleau, and Nazem Kadri can make for a strong line while Auston Matthews, John Tavares, and Mitch Marner also confound defenses at different times. We’ve seen a lot of NHL teams load up with supreme top lines, hoping that the gains would offset any losses. Toronto could score a monumental advantage over most opponents if they can really leverage this depth.

As tantalizing as those thoughts are, it’s not as though Nylander is a finished product.

The 22-year-old experienced some sloppy moments during that same game against Carolina, finishing the night with six penalty minutes. Maybe his high-sticking penalty ranks as one of those things that just happens, but Nylander essentially had to take an interference penalty out of exhaustion, as he was caught out on the ice during a shift that went too long.

After the game, Nylander acknowledged that some shifts went too long, while Mike Babcock had an interesting take on what the winger is going through.

“It’s going to take some time, let’s not get carried away,” Babcock said. “They’re all fine as long as the ice is open. As soon as it is in contact and you’ve got to get your legs going and you can get stuck out on a shift. He took a penalty the one time he got stuck out on a shift … It’s going to take some time. We’ll be patient and he has to be.”

Maple Leafs fans should be heartened by that last sentence: the team will be patient with Nylander. That’s crucial, and it’s especially promising coming from a coach who can sometimes be … hard-driving, like Babcock’s known to be.

Now, about that patience: when should the Maple Leafs expect Nylander to be at full speed?

Ignoring the potential advantages that come with skipping months of bumps and bruises by beginning his season in December instead of October, Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston reports that Toronto believes that a player gets truly up-and-running about 12 days after training camp.

By the best estimates of the Leafs sports science department, it typically takes a player 12 days after training camp before his heart rate levels out during exertion.

That would put Nylander on schedule to be functioning at his peak sometime in mid-January after hitting the ground running last week and so far playing more games (three) than he’s had full practices (two) with the Leafs.

As much as any other team, the Maple Leafs have the resources to research such sports science issues, so the league should keep an eye on developments like these. If any league could see a franchise exploit “rest versus rust” for, say, gains in the playoffs, it might be someone in the NHL. Plenty of franchises lack that eye for innovation, so those who do might enjoy at least a brief edge.

The thing is, it’s human nature to fixate on mistakes like Nylander’s interference penalty, and lose sight of the big picture (his assists, and strong overall play).

Consider that, according to Natural Stat Trick’s individual rates, Nylander’s Corsi For Percentage was 61.29-percent on Tuesday, the second-best mark of any Maple Leafs player in that game (Igor Ozhiganov topped all at 65.22). Perhaps you can nitpick that a bit being that Nylander didn’t face the toughest Hurricanes competition during much of the contest, but you’d be grasping at straws.

In other words, there’s already a lot to like about Nylander three games into his latest season, even if there are signs of growing pains. He could be a boon to the Maple Leafs in his current form, and chances are, he’ll get up to game speed and shake off all the rust, possibly quite soon.

Long story short, Nylander’s showing that he’s worth the wait.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Penguins heavy NHL odds favorite against beleaguered Blackhawks on Wednesday

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It is rare for a road team in the NHL to go as deep into minus money as the Pittsburgh Penguins are for their game against the reeling Chicago Blackhawks (8 p.m ET; NBCSN), meaning a trend could be shrugged off due to small sample size.

The Penguins are -195 road favorites on the NHL odds for Wednesday night with the host Blackhawks coming back at +155, while there is a 6.0-goals total at sportsbooks monitored by OddsShark.com.

The Penguins are only 1-5 in their last six road games as a favorite of -190 or greater on the moneyline, as well as 3-7 in their last 10 road games, but are 4-1 in five road games this season against Western Conference teams.

The Blackhawks’ trends are even more abject; they have surrendered the first goal in 11 consecutive games and are also 2-6 in their last eight home games at the United Center. Chicago also played Tuesday night, losing 6-3 against the Winnipeg Jets, and is 4-16 in its last 20 games when it played the previous day.

Pittsburgh is 13-10-6 on the season, including a 6-2-2 mark over its last 10 games. The Penguins are well off of their Stanley Cup form of two seasons ago, but still have a strong first two lines centered by Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Both Pittsburgh special teams units are in the top 10 of the NHL, with the power play ranking ninth (23.2 percent) and the penalty killing unit ranking sixth (83.5).

With No. 1 goalie Matt Murray (lower body) close to a return to health, the Penguins could have a choice between him and Casey DeSmith, who is 3-1-1 with a 2.16 goals-against average and .926 save percentage in five starts so far in December.

Chicago is 9-18-5, including 1-9 in its last 10 games, and there is little to suggest much in the way of an immediate turnaround. Captain Jonathan Toews‘ line is one of the least proficient first lines in the NHL and the next waves of attack, which include right wing Patrick Kane, have been just ok, which is why the Blackhawks have not scored more than three goals during any of their last eight home games.

The Blackhawks are also 31st, or dead last, in power play efficiency (11.6 percent) and 28th in penalty killing (74.4 percent).

Cam Ward played in the Winnipeg game, which would suggest the Blackhawks will start goalie Corey Crawford, who is winless in his last eight starts. Crawford is 5-14-1 with a 3.21 goals-against average and .901 save percentage, but his rate stats improve to 2.39 and .925 on home ice, which might provide a glimmer of hope for upset-minded bettors.

The total has gone UNDER in six of Pittsburgh’s last 10 road games against the Central Division, according to the OddsShark NHL Database. The total has gone UNDER in eight of Chicago’s last 10 home games.

For more odds information, betting picks and a breakdown of this week’s top sports betting news check out the OddsShark podcast with Jon Campbell and Andrew Avery. Subscribe on iTunes or Spotify or listen to it at OddsShark.libsyn.com.

Rangers’ Shattenkirk out 2-4 weeks with shoulder injury

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NEW YORK (AP) — The New York Rangers say defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk will be sidelined two to four weeks with a shoulder injury.

Shattenkirk left in the second period of Monday night’s game in Tampa. He took a check around the left shoulder and had a sling on his arm postgame.

The 29-year-old was checked out on Tuesday. General manager Jeff Gorton announced Wednesday that Shattenkirk had a separated shoulder.

Shattenkirk has one goal, seven assists and zero penalty minutes in 29 games this season. He suffered a knee injury last January that ended his season.

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Bruins’ David Backes takes skate to face, returns

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BOSTON (AP) Boston Bruins forward David Backes rushed himself off the ice Tuesday night after taking a skate blade to the face late in the first period but returned at the start of the second and finished the game.

Backes pushed Oliver Ekman-Larsson near the side of the net and the Arizona defenseman went to the ice, kicking up his left skate on the way down. It caught Backes in the face, and he went down before skating on his own quickly to the bench and out the tunnel.

Backes returned and won the faceoff to start the second period. He did not speak to reporters during the open locker room period but told The Boston Globe as he left the building he had a cut on the side of his nose that required a few stitches and some ointment.

“It’s always scary when your teammate takes a skate to the face, or really anywhere,” Bruins forward Brad Marchand said after scoring twice and adding an assist in the 4-3 victory. “He’s a little prettier now and no worse for wear.”

Backes required 18 stitches to close a cut on his leg after a game against Tampa Bay in March.

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports