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.

Carolina looks for big things from rookies Necas, Svechnikov

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RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — The Carolina Hurricanes were working on their power play during practice when first-year coach Rod Brind’Amour pulled first-round draft pick Andrei Svechnikov aside for some quick one-on-one instruction.

”Andrei,” the coach said, ”be a shooter.”

The Hurricanes likely will need plenty of shots – and goals – from Svechnikov and fellow first-round draft pick Martin Necas if they’re to finally snap the NHL’s longest active playoff drought.

But the way Brind’Amour sees it, nobody’s asking either of those teenagers to will the team to the Stanley Cup – like he did in 2006 as the team captain. In fact, to even think of the pressure in this situation as being on either of those rookies is misguided.

”I kind of view it the opposite – the pressure’s on us,” Brind’Amour said. ”We’re, ‘Man, we really hope he can play.’ It’s not on him.”

The Hurricanes seem confident that the 19-year-old Necas and the 18-year-old Svechnikov can handle everything being thrown their way during a critically important training camp for a franchise that has undergone a massive overhaul during the past nine months.

”The first couple of days (of camp), everything was confusing because it was new, the guys were new, bigger guys and the game is faster,” Svechnikov said. ”But every day I feel better.”

They’ve changed owners, general managers and coaches while unloading some key players, including their most recent face of the franchise, popular forward Jeff Skinner. Of the top eight point-scorers from last year’s team – one that missed the playoffs for a ninth consecutive season – three were traded away during the offseason.

With Skinner (49 points) now in Buffalo and Elias Lindholm (44) and defenseman Noah Hanifin (32) shipped to Calgary , the scoring has to come from somewhere else – and the two teenagers figure to pick up at least some of that load along with 21-year-old Sebastian Aho, who scored a team-best 29 goals last season and has been moved to center from a wing.

It’s still the preseason, but both players got off to a good start, with each scoring a goal in their preseason debuts this week and Svechnikov adding an assist.

”I don’t really think about” any pressure, Necas said. ”It’s important to not think about it, just play every game and try to play your best.”

Carolina spent the No. 12 overall pick in 2017 on Necas, a native Czech who played one game for the team last October before he was returned to his team back home to further polish his game as a playmaking center. Brind’Amour praised him after that successful debut, saying that ”when you give him a little time and space, he can make plays.

”It’s something that we’ve just got to keep teaching him,” he added.

The Hurricanes were among the winners at the NHL Draft’s lottery, falling into the No. 2 overall pick and using it on Svechnikov , a Russian winger and pure scorer who had 40 goals in 44 games for his junior team last season.

Their connection extends off the ice: Svechnikov says he and Necas are rooming together during training camp at a hotel, where they usually keep things low-key, going out to eat together or watching movies separately. Svechnikov says Necas plays more Fortnite than he does in those rare off hours, adding with a laugh that ”I don’t have time for that.”

On the ice, Svechnikov sure seems like a quick study so far – and that’s encouraging for his coach.

”I think for Andrei to be a successful player, the player we want, he’s got to make plays,” Brind’Amour said. ”That’s pretty obvious, stating the obvious, but at some point we know he’s going to be able to do that. It’s just, when? Can he do that as an 18-year-old? After (preseason) Game 1, you’d say there’s definitely promising things there, and he will be able to.”

For more AP NHL coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/NHLhockey

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Mike Green may miss start of Red Wings season with scary ailment

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Early word of Detroit Red Wings defenseman Mike Green dealing with fatigue issues in the preseason seemed unusual, but it turns out there’s a rather frightening reason why he might be dealing with energy issues.

Red Wings head coach Jeff Blashill announced that Green is sidelined indefinitely, as he saw an infectious disease specialist regarding  “a virus that attacked his liver,” according to Dana Wakiji of the Red Wings website.

“(Green’s) not available right now,” Blashill said, via Wakiji. “He’s got a virus that attacked his liver, so he’s seen an infectious disease person today and we should know more here in the next little bit. I don’t know how long he’s going to be out. I don’t know the totality of it.”

Scary stuff. (You can read more about viruses that affect the liver here.)

Green is no stranger to injury issues, including ailments that plagued him during his offensively dominant days with the Washington Capitals. Not long ago, Green spoke in positive terms about how he was feeling coming off of neck surgery.

This is unsettling news for a defenseman who’s already dealt with tough injury luck during his career. Here’s hoping that Green and the Red Wings take every precaution before he returns to the ice.

One silver lining is that, with Green sidelined, the Red Wings can open the door for some defensive prospects to get a longer look than they might have received under different circumstances. In particular, Dennis Cholowski and Filip Hronek stand out as blueliners who could really benefit from some additional opportunities, while Libor Sulak and Joe Hicketts should also be in the mix.

GM Ken Holland acknowledged as much while discussing Green’s health challenges, according to Helene St. James of the Detroit Free-Press.

“Now we have five D, and we are probably going to start with seven,” Holland said. “Now, how long is Mike Green out? Certainly it appears he is going to be out for a little period of time. So probably we are going to start with two of these defense prospects – either Sulak or Hicketts or Cholowski or Hronek.”

One might argue that the Red Wings should already be taking measures to skew in a younger direction on defense, anyway. Getting more intel on Sulak, Hicketts, Cholowski, and Hronek would give them a better idea regarding how soon they might be able to contribute, or if they even figure into future plans.

Consider the ages of the Red Wings more settled defensemen. Green is 32, Jonathan Ericsson is pretty broken down at 34, Trevor Daley is 34, and Niklas Kronwall‘s nearing the end of his career at 37. It’s plausible that Nick Jensen and Danny DeKeyser (both 28) will be in a decline and/or out of the picture by the time the Red Wings wade out of the darkness, too.

The Red Wings have made some significant progress toward a rebuild – the Tomas Tatar trade was wonderful, and they followed it up with shrewd picks at the 2018 NHL Draft – yet there still seem to be moments where they’re too stubborn to fully embrace the growing pains. Bringing Green back felt a little bit like that, as there’s a strong chance that a healthy Green would provide better immediate returns than a Cholowski or Hronek. But, realistically speaking, would the upside be that strong?

Either way, here’s hoping there will be happier news for Green soon.

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.

Ekblad on Domi sucker punch: ‘Scores will get settled’

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The first game out of the December holiday break for the Florida Panthers and Montreal Canadiens won’t be your typical midseason meeting. After the Max Domi / Aaron Ekblad incident from Wednesday night, there will be some bad blood on display that Friday night at BB&T Center.

Domi spoke to the media on Friday for the first time since his five-game suspension was handed down for sucker-punching Ekblad, breaking the Panthers’ defenseman’s nose in the process. He apologized for his actions and respected the NHL Department of Player Safety’s decision to give him the rest of the preseason off.

“It’s a real tough situation, obviously, for everyone involved,” said Domi, who was given a match penalty and a a minor for roughing. “I feel bad about it. It’s not the way I wanted to handle that. It’s an emotional game. Obviously, I’m an emotional player. I’ve known Aaron for a long time, grew up playing against each other. Always played hard, always battled, whether it was minor hockey, junior, national level, and now the NHL, too.

“By no means did I want to hurt him, I feel bad about it. I hope he’s OK. But, you know what? I’ve got to suffer the consequences of it and it’s unfortunate. But it is what it is and I respect the league’s decision.”

[NHL not tough enough with preseason suspensions]

The suspension is obviously a joke. Five preseason games is almost a gift for any NHL player who has a job already sewn up. Plus, add in the fact that Domi won’t have to forfeit any salary and it’s a nice little vacation.

The Panthers had some choice words following the game, with goaltender Roberto Luongo saying they won’t forget what happened and calling what Domi did “a gutless play.” Ekblad, who was also sporting a pair of black eyes, said on Friday that it was a “dumb” decision by the Canadiens forward and hinted at some retribution coming when they meet on Dec. 28.

“I think he’s stupid for doing it. In the end, it’s hockey,” Ekblad said via the Panthers. “That’s the way it goes. Scores will get settled at a later date.”

That’s going to earn a phone call from the league to try and calm things down.

“It looked like Max was frustrated,” added Ekblad. “He obviously wasn’t doing much in the game and thought it was the right way to take care of something. I’m not sure what there was to take care of, considering I didn’t do much on the ice. I was just floating around trying to find my legs and play hockey. That’s what you do in the preseason.”

When told of Ekblad’s comments, Domi responded, “It’s part of the game. It is what it is. Everyone’s entitled to their own opinion. That’s hockey. We’ll cross that bridge when we get there.”

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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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.

Penguins ponder Brassard at wing; best fit for Jack Johnson?

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While it’s fair to warn against reading too much into NHL training camps, sometimes they indeed provide a helpful preview for the coming season. If nothing else, they present a worthwhile opportunity for coaches to experiment.

The Pittsburgh Penguins come into 2018-19 with slightly fresher legs, as their title defense fell short in two rounds. They also have some players to work into the mix, whether they landed them at the trade deadline (Derick Brassard) or through free agency and amid salty drama with their former team (Jack Johnson, Torts, and the Blue Jackets).

Tinkering with Brassard

Last year, the Penguins’ hated rivals from Philly yielded a rebound year from Claude Giroux, as he seemed to be revitalized by a move to the wing. Maybe a lot of that revolved around reduced defensive responsibilities, but it was enough of a success story that it makes sense for the Penguins to ponder such a possibility in hopefully getting more out of Derick Brassard.

Mike Sullivan discussed such experiments on Friday.

“We’ve given a lot of thought into it and it’s something that we’ll explore,” Sullivan said of trying Brassard out on the wing. “We know he’s a center by nature but we also know he’s a versatile player. It’s an option that’s on the table.”

With a fully staffed group of Penguins forwards, it’s somewhat challenging to picture how Brassard would work better on the wing than he would as – ideally – a third center who could leverage certain matchup advantages.

Of course, the Penguins know as much as any other team that injuries strike. Brassard himself missed the first week of camp due to a minor chest infection.

The Penguins might as well gather as much data as they can for how Brassard might work with Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin in the event that their customary wingers suffer injuries. Via Natural Stat Trick, Brassard played just 7:01 of even-strength ice time with Crosby during the regular season, and he didn’t even reach two minutes with Malkin. (Phil Kessel was far and away his most common forward partner.)

In the flow of regular-season competition, it makes sense that the Penguins didn’t enjoy a ton of opportunities to tinker with different combinations for Brassard. Now’s the time to see what works, what does not, and what might merely need time to marinate.

The most important thing is that the Penguins are exploring avenues to get the most out of the veteran forward, rather than giving up on Brassard.

And make no mistake about it, this is a crucial season for the 30-year-old, as Brassard approaches 2018-19 as a contract year. Such drive could really manifest itself if he got the chance to play with Crosby and/or Malkin, and for all we know, the next phase of his career could be as a “winger to the stars.”

A formidable pairing

Penguins fans owe it to themselves to read this Johnson-related article from the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review’s Jonathan Bombulie for a host of reasons:

  • An amusing slight of privilege regarding Johnson’s adjustment to Pittsburgh. Gasp in terror at the thought of Johnson not finding a good sushi joint and possibly suffering from a bad hair style.
  • Enjoy a subtler form of shade at John Tortorella, as Johnson spoke about Torts’ grueling training camp, which apparently begins with a two-mile run that must be completed within 12 minutes. Johnson mostly dismissed such concerns, although it’s funny to see him describe the runs as activities that “don’t necessarily translate into how you’re playing or how hockey is.”

The most pertinent information, however, is that the initial plan is to pair Johnson with Justin Schultz.

That gnarly howl you just heard was analytics-minded people recoiling in terror, and possibly seeing their charts break. Seriously, Johnson – Schultz is a duo with the potential to get caved-in possession-wise at a level we rarely see.

Bill Comeau’s SKATR comparison tool brings a lot of the data to the forefront:

One can only picture – again, maybe in horror – the sort of defensive misadventures such a pairing might endure. (Granted, the Penguins can mostly point to Schultz as a relative success story, and the two could at least bring something to the table from a transition standpoint.)

Maybe the Johnson tinkering has just begun, as Sullivan instead paired him with Olli Maatta today:

Frankly, it might be difficult to find the right fit for Johnson because … well, if his career so far provides any evidence, he carries some deep flaws in his own end, and his offensive contributions rarely make up for such issues. The deeper you dig into “fancy stats,” the worse Johnson tends to look, but even simple measures tend to be less-than-flattering.

The Penguins are dug in here, considering the jarring five-year, $16.25 million commitment they made to Johnson. For a team that’s perpetually tight to the cap ceiling, squandering $3.25M per season could be agonizing.

For what it’s worth, GM Jim Rutherford shook off analytics worries about Johnson (not to mention Matt Cullen and Derek Grant) in an interview with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Jason Mackey.

“The same as any player, analytics play a role,” Rutherford said. “Our personal opinions and viewings play a role. And where they might fit into what we’re looking for. You look at different players in a different way. What are you looking for in your team? What are some of your needs and how do they fit? All those things. These are guys who fit for us.”

[Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule]

Of course, the risks with Cullen and Grant are pretty minimal, as each player’s only carrying a $650K AAV in 2018-19.

For a team that already struggles when it comes to turning the puck over in dangerous situations and allowing a ton of odd-man rushes, Johnson may only exacerbate such issues. It’s not surprising that management is resolute in defending the signing – what else can they say? – but there’s a strong chance Pittsburgh will regret this expensive reclamation project.

Then again, Schultz’s career was in a dire place when he was traded from Edmonton, so maybe the Penguins really do “see” something others do not? They’ve pulled off the unlikely before.

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As much attention is lavished on stars like Crosby, Malkin, Kessel, and Kris Letang, the Penguins – and other contenders – need other players to step up.

When Pittsburgh landed Brassard, the expectation was that he’s provide that additional pop. Some NHL GMs outright groaned at the Penguins landing him, and Vegas GM George McPhee’s logic in helping to aid a trade to Pittsburgh revolved around keeping the center off of a West contender.

In the post-deadline rush, Brassard didn’t meet positive expectations. Meanwhile, the Penguins are gambling big-time that Johnson will defy pessimistic expectations.

Training camp tinkering will likely be forgotten in the long run, yet either way, it’s crucial for Pittsburgh to find the optimal lineups and strategies to contend after falling short last 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.