2011-12 season preview: Buffalo Sabres

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2011-12 record: 43-29-10, 96 points; 3rd in Northeast, 7th in East

Playoffs: Lost to Philadelphia 4-3 in Eastern quarterfinals

After scratching and clawing through the final stages to make the playoffs last season, new owner Terry Pegula’s summer of spending raises expectations considerably. Buffalo beefed up on offense and defense, but the question is: will it be worth it? That’s yet to be determined, but it should be fun to find out.

Offense

The Sabres scored the third most goals (245) in the East, yet they still decided to tweak their offense. Buffalo jettisoned gritty veterans Mike Grier and Rob Niedermayer, along with frequently-injured (but remarkably-gifted) center Tom Connolly to make room for their youngsters and their splashy new toy Ville Leino.

Buffalo might bring some fans back to the Chris Drury-Danny Briere Era, a short-term smash success that sent wave after wave of offensive threats at opponents before free agency tore it all apart. Sliding Leino into the second center spot is worrisome, as is the Sabres’ thin group of forwards who can excel at killing penalties. (It’s also hard to imagine Leino helping the team improve its ugly 47.7 percent mark on faceoffs from last season, although that couldn’t get too much worse.)

Still, this Sabres squad should light up the scoreboard thanks to rising young guns such as Tyler Ennis and Nathan Gerbe along with a dizzying array of wingers in their primes (including Thomas Vanek, Jason Pominville and Drew Stafford). Even much-ridiculed sniper Brad Boyes could bring a Michael Ryder-like hot-and-cold element to the team if injuries and slumps hit their bigger names.

Defense

Time and time again, the Sabres’ porous defense left goalie Ryan Miller on an island during the last few seasons. As troubling as some of the moves made during Pegulamania might be, their blue line looks significantly improved.

The Sabres essentially scuttled Chris Butler and Steve Montador for two remarkably different blueliners: Christian Ehrhoff and Robyn Regehr. Ehrhoff played big minutes and employed an erratic but howling slap shot on the Vancouver blue line while Regehr served as a rugged shutdown guy in Calgary for several years. Even if critics are right about Regehr’s skills diminishing a bit since he was once considered a world-class guy in his own zone, he’s still likely to represent a massive upgrade against the league’s most dangerous scoring threats.

Those additions ease the pressure on the team’s nearly Zdeno Chara-sized Myers, who probably buckled under excessive minutes last season instead of being guilty of a true ‘sophomore slump’. Jordan Leopold is an economical and useful depth guy while Marc-Andre Gragnani ranks as an intriguing wild card of an offensive threat.

Goalies

After a 2009-10 season that only the 2010-11 version of Tim Thomas wouldn’t envy, Miller caved under the pressure of too many starts and a steady stream of defensive lapses. That’s not to say that Miller was horrible, but he dropped quite a bit from a .929 save percentage in his Vezina season to .916.

One of the issues for Miller was the lack of a dependable backup to help him out for the first half of last season; Patrick Lalime seemed like a glorified goalie coach for most of that time (0-5-0 in 7 GP with an ugly .890 save percentage). Miller should get more breathing room with Jhonas Enroth as his full-fledged backup, especially after Enroth saved the day late last season when Miller struggled with concussion issues.

The Sabres would be wise to lean on Enroth more frequently this season, too, since they’ll deal with a league-leading 21 back-to-back games in 2011-12.

Coaching

In a sports climate in which two-time World Series champion managers can get reflexively canned and NHL bench bosses have the shelf lives of NFL running backs, Lindy Ruff ranks as a stark outlier. Ruff will enter his 14th season behind the bench in Buffalo, where he’s amassed 526 regular-season wins. This season ranks as a rare test for Ruff, however, because his defenders can’t lean on the time-honored ‘low-budget roster’ excuse if things go sour. His track record indicates that he’ll find a way to make a lot of moving parts run together smoothly, although it almost seems inevitable that Leino might end up in Ruff’s doghouse a few times during the life of his risky contract.

Best-case scenario

The Sabres improve on the power play with Ehrhoff’s blistering slap shots, Leino proves to be an even bigger hit in Buffalo than in Philly and Miller takes advantage of an improved defense to win another Vezina Trophy. Finally suited with a truly competitive roster, Ruff guides the Sabres to the Stanley Cup finals where … well, let’s not jinx it for perennially jilted Buffalo sports fans.

Reality

The Sabres have strengths in every area: top-end scoring, offensive depth, defensive defensemen, scoring blueliners and an elite goalie. This team’s relative weaknesses is on the penalty kill, unless Regehr can camouflage a dearth of quality checking forwards beyond Paul Gaustad.

For that reason, the Sabres might struggle a bit in the playoffs. That being said, their depth and talent will prompt many to predict that they’ll claim their second Northeast title in three season. On paper, it’s hard to argue against that conventional wisdom, but we’ll see if the team gels amid heightened expectations.

Anxious Sabres fans shouldn’t fret, though – their team should be a joy to watch again.

The Buzzer: Red Wings snap skid; hats off to Panarin

Artemi Panarin Hat Trick Rangers
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Three Stars

1. Jacob Markstrom, Vancouver Canucks. The Canucks probably had no business winning this game. They were badly outshot, outplayed, and needed to rely on their goalie to keep them in it. Fortunately for the Canucks, Markstrom was up to the challenge and played one of the best games of his career as he stopped all 43 shots he faced in a 1-0 overtime win. He held on just long enough for Elias Pettersson to score the game-winning goal thanks to a fluky assist from an unlikely source. Read all about it here.

2. Artemi Panarin, New York Rangers. The Rangers spoiled Bob Boughner’s San Jose coaching debut with a 6-3 win that was highlighted by another huge game for Panarin. He scored three goals and added an assist in the win to continue his incredible 2019-20 performance. His first year with the Rangers has been everything the team could have hoped for as he is now up to 18 goals and 41 total points in 31 games. The Sharks, meanwhile, are now 0-5-1 in their previous six games.

3. Jack Eichel, Buffalo Sabres. His point streak is now up to 15 consecutive games thanks to a two-goal effort in a 4-3 win over the Nashville Predators. It is the second game in a row that Eichel has scored a pair of goals as he continues to climb the NHL’s scoring leaderboard. He is unstoppable right now and trying to carry the Sabres to a playoff spot all by himself.

Other notable performances from Thursday

  • The Detroit Red Wings’ losing streak has finally come to an end. They were winners for the first time since Nov. 12 thanks to a 5-2 win over the Winnipeg Jets to snap what had been a 12-game losing streak. Robby Fabbri continued his strong play since joining the team with a pair of goals while Filip Zadina recorded three points.
  • The Calgary Flames improved to a perfect 7-0-0 under new coach Geoff Ward thanks to a 4-2 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs. Johnny Gaudreau scored a pair of goals as part of a three-goal third period for the Flames to get the win.
  • Tristan Jarry recorded his third shutout in his past four starts for the Pittsburgh Penguins as they were 1-0 winners over the Columbus Blue Jackets. Columbus coach John Tortorella had no words for his team’s lackluster performance. Read about it here.
  • Clayton Keller scored a pair of goals for the Coyotes in their 5-2 win over the Chicago Blackhawks to put them back in sole possession of first place in the Pacific Division.
  • Eric Staal was in the lineup after a scary injury on Tuesday and scored a goal in the Minnesota Wild’s 2-1 win over the Edmonton Oilers.
  • Oskar Sundqvist had a goal and an assist for the St. Louis Blues in a 4-2 win over the Vegas Golden Knights.
  • Another strong start for Jonathan Quick as he stopped 36 out of 37 shots for the Los Angeles Kings.
  • Steven Stamkos scored twice for the Tampa Bay Lightning in a huge 3-2 win over the Boston Bruins.
  • Jordan Eberle and Anders Lee each had a pair of points in the New York Islanders’ 3-1 win over the Florida Panthers.

Highlights of the Night

It came in a losing effort, but Nashville’s Matt Duchene scored an absolute beauty of a goal in Buffalo.

Check out this quick tic-tac-toe passing by the Islanders to set up Mathew Barzal for a power play goal against the Panthers.

 

Eichel’s goal to extend his point streak was an absolutely perfect shot.

Blooper of the Night

The puck ended up getting lost in Markstrom’s equipment and he needed a lot of assistance in finding it.

Factoids

  • Panarin’s hat trick on Thursday was the third of his career, all of them coming with different teams. [NHL PR]
  • Joe Thornton played in career game No. 1,600 on Thursday, making him and Patrick Marleau the first set of teammates to have 1,600 games played in their careers. [NHL PR]
  • The Islanders’ points percentage of .733 is the second highest in franchise history through the first 31 games of a season. [NHL PR]

Scores

Buffalo Sabres 4, Nashville Predators 3
Tampa Bay Lightning 3, Boston Bruins 2
New York Islanders 3, Florida Panthers 1
Pittsburgh Penguins 1, Columbus Blue Jackets 0 (OT)
Detroit Red Wings 5, Winnipeg Jets 2
St. Louis Blues 4, Vegas Golden Knights 2
Minnesota Wild 6, Edmonton Oilers 5
Calgary Flames 4, Toronto Maple Leafs 2
Arizona Coyotes 5, Chicago Blackhawks 2
Los Angeles Kings 2, Anaheim Ducks 1
Vancouver Canucks 1, Carolina Hurricanes 0 (OT)
New York Rangers 6, San Jose Sharks 3

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.

Pettersson gets lucky assist from abandoned stick on OT winner (Video)

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Sometimes you need a little bit of luck to win in the NHL.

The Vancouver Canucks received a healthy dose of it on Thursday night.

They were 1-0 winners against the Carolina Hurricanes thanks to an incredible goaltending performance from Jacob Markstrom and an overtime goal from emerging superstar Elias Pettersson. Markstrom’s performance gave them a chance, but it was a stroke of good fortune and a filthy finish from Pettersson that put them in the win column.

While the stat sheet will officially give the assist on Pettersson’s goal to Brock Boeser, the real assist came from an abandoned stick that previously belonged to Carolina’s Jaccob Slavin. As the Canucks controlled play in the offensive zone, Slavin lost his stick in a battle for the puck with Boeser.

It would prove to be costly for the Hurricanes because, well, watch for yourself in the video above.

Maybe Pettersson still ends up collecting the puck and scores the winner anyway if that stick isn’t sitting there. But Slavin’s stick sitting in the exact perfect spot made it significantly easier for him to score the winner.

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.

Tortorella has no words to describe Blue Jackets’ ugly loss

John Tortorella angry press conference
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PITTSBURGH — The Columbus Blue Jackets need points right now, and they managed to at least get one in a 1-0 overtime loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins on Thursday night.

But even more important than individual points, they need wins.

They need to take advantage of every possible situation that presents itself for them to get wins, and they seemed to have a prime opportunity sitting in front of them on Thursday night against an undermanned team that was playing without its top-two centers and a collection of players that combined for $35 million in salary.

It also should have been an opportunity to build on a promising 5-2 win in Washington — the best team in the league! — in their most recent outing and win consecutive games for just the second time since the start of November.

It did not go that way at all.

They not only failed to collect the all-important second point, but they only managed a season-low 17 shots on goal (while allowing 32) and were consistently outworked and outplayed by a Penguins team that was without Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Patric Hornqvist, Nick Bjugstad, and Brian Dumoulin.

They were unable to generate any sustained pressure in the Penguins’ zone, and on the rare occasion that they did they were unable to solve goalie Tristan Jarry as he recorded his third shutout in his past four starts. It was only the second time this season they failed to record at least 24 shots on goal in a game (previous low: 19).

The Blue Jackets’ locker room remained closed longer than normal after the game, and once it did open there didn’t seem to be any answers for what had just happened on the ice other than the fact they had just been thoroughly outworked.

“They just worked,” said Blue Jackets captain Nick Foligno. “They knew they were banged up. They just worked extremely hard. Early on we did not match that intensity at all. That is unacceptable on our part. We had moments, but not enough sustained pressure, not enough of what we bring. I don’t know what the answer is, but I know that is not going to be the recipe for winning, especially in this league with how hard it is.

“We need to make sure that is never the case again where we are getting outworked by a team that knows its backs against the wall with the situation they are in. We are no in position, with the situation we are in, to take anyone lightly or thinking it’s going to be an easy game. I don’t think that was the case tonight, but it just didn’t look like we had the jump tonight. It is unacceptable.”

When asked if anything changed going into the game for Columbus knowing that the Penguins would be without Crosby (sidelined for four weeks) and Malkin (late scratch due to being sick), Foligno was quick to say the team’s mindset was to “just jump on them.” He said their inability to do so was what made their slow start so disappointing.

Head coach John Tortorella was not quite as in depth with his post-game responses and, quite literally, had no words to describe what he saw.

When asked about Thursday’s performance overall: “I don’t have any words to describe it.”

On whether or not he knew what to expect from this team on a game-to-game basis: “I don’t have any words to describe it.”

If he thought the performance in Washington would lead to a positive carry-over for a game like this: “I don’t have any words to describe it. I don’t know what to tell you guys. I hope you asked [the players] the same questions. I hope they answered you honestly.”

When asked if he was disappointed in the low number of shots, he sarcastically quipped, “I’m just thrilled with it,” before adding “that’s a great question, too.”

And that was it.

This always seemed like it was going to be a tough season in Columbus following the offseason exodus that saw Artemi Panarin, Sergei Bobrovsky, Matt Duchene, and Ryan Dzingel bolt in free agency. But the Blue Jackets remained bullish about their chances and the team they were bringing back, and there were certainly reasons for optimism. Whatever optimism existed, however, is quickly fading. After Thursday’s loss in Pittsburgh the Blue Jackets remain in seventh place in the Metropolitan Division, are 10 points back of a playoff spot, and are now near the bottom of the league in nearly every major statistical category.

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.

Report: Sabres’ Bogosian requests trade

Zach Bogosian Trade Request
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With the Buffalo Sabres dealing with a logjam of defenseman, the team has been active in NHL trade rumors as general Jason Botterill tries to make a move to help address the team’s depth at forward.

It is not hard to connect the dots and assume a defenseman could be the player eventually on the move. And it seems veteran Zach Bogosian might be making the decision on which one to trade a little easier. According to TSN’s Darren Dreger, Bogosian has reportedly requested a trade out of Buffalo.

He is also not in the lineup for their game against the Nashville Predators and will be a healthy scratch as the team dresses seven defenseman, including second-year standout Rasmus Dahlin.

Dahlin will be making his return to the lineup after missing the past eight games due to a concussion.

As for Bogosian, he has been limited to just 10 games this season while injuries have been a constant issue for him throughout his career. That has been especially true during his Sabres tenure where he has never played more than 65 games in a season. He is in the final year of his current contract and will be an unrestricted free agent after this season.

The Sabres have 12 defensemen in the organization with NHL experience and are currently carrying eight on the roster.

As far as a potential return is concerned, expectations should be kept within reason given his contract status and inability to stay in the lineup over the past few years. It might be worth noting the Sabres have been rumored to be one of the teams interested in Pittsburgh Penguins forward Alex Galchenyuk as he continues to struggle to fit in with his new team.

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.