2011-12 season preview: Buffalo Sabres

2 Comments

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.

NHL on NBCSN: Coyotes hoping goals start coming as they visit Wild

Getty Images
Leave a comment

NBC’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Tuesday night’s matchup between the Arizona Coyotes and Minnesota Wild at 8 p.m. ET. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports App by clicking here.

Through the first two weeks of the 2018-19 NHL season, the Arizona Coyotes have had a big issue scoring goals. Getting shots on net hasn’t been an issue at all having averaged 36.5 shots per game so far. Finding a way to beat opposing goalies has been the challenge as they’ve been shutout three times already.

The Coyotes have zero even strength goals this season. Brad Richardson’s goal came shorthanded and Dylan Strome’s was on a power play. They begin a four-game road trip Tuesday night in Minnesota (8 p.m. ET, NBCSN) hoping the dam finally breaks.

And goal scoring is really the only issue for the Coyotes at the moment. They’re controlling play with a 60 percent Corsi, per Natural Stat Trick, to show for it and have had no issue hitting the 30-shot mark every night. Goaltender Antti Raanta hit the nail on the head after Saturday’s 3-0 loss to the Buffalo Sabres in saying that they’re making opposing goalies look real good.

“There’s the odds of it if you just keep doing the same things,” said Coyotes head coach Rick Tocchet via the Arizona Republic. “Obviously there’s things we can get better at, but we’re obviously not giving up much. It’s just the offensive part, and sometimes to score it has to be uncomfortable.”

[WATCH LIVE – 8 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

If there’s a time for goals to come for the Coyotes, it’s against the Wild, who are coming off a 4-2 loss to the Nashville Predators on Monday night. The game will be the first for Arizona against an opponent in the second half of a back-to-back. Add in travel back home from Music City and you’re talking about a tired Minnesota team that’s lost four of their last five games.

The Wild have had no issue scoring, showing off plenty of balance, but they’ve lost the possession game more often than not and have seen mistakes, such as the pair that led to goals from Mattias Ekholm and Filip Forsberg Monday night, cost them dearly.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

————

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 stays with status quo as Canada pot legalization looms

AP Images
4 Comments

As Riley Cote took and delivered countless punches over more than a decade of junior and pro hockey, he was eager to avoid painkillers.

Early on, marijuana was touted to the enforcer as a healing option.

”I started noticing some therapeutic benefits,” Cote said. ”It helped me sleep, helped with my anxiety and general well-being.”

Now a handful of years into retirement, Cote is a proponent of cannabis and its oils as an alternative to more addictive drugs commonly used by athletes to play through pain. Marijuana can be detected in a person’s system for more than 30 days, is banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency without a specific therapeutic use exemption and is illegal in much of the United States.

Canada on Wednesday will become the largest country in the world to legalize recreational marijuana. That means it will be available under the law in seven more NHL cities (it’s been legal to adults in Denver since 2012). The move is a step forward for those who, like Cote, believe marijuana has been stigmatized and should be accepted as a form of treatment.

”It was so tainted for a long time,” Ottawa Senators forward Matt Duchene said. ”And now people are starting to learn a little bit more about it and there is definitely some positive uses to different elements of it.”

The NHL and NHL Players’ Association plan no changes to their joint drug-testing policy, under which players are not punished for positive marijuana tests. It is the most lenient approach to cannabis by any major North American professional sports league.

”The Substance Abuse & Behavioral Health Program for decades has been educating players on using drugs, legal or illegal,” Commissioner Gary Bettman said. ”That process will continue and we will consider what changes, if any, in our program have to be made. But right now, we think based on the educational level and what we do test for and how we test, at least for the time being, we’re comfortable with where we are.”

While the NFL and NBA can suspend and MLB can fine players for multiple marijuana infractions, only a significantly high amount of the drug found in NHL/NHLPA testing triggers a referral to behavioral health program doctors. Cote estimated about half of players during his NHL career from 2007-2010 used some sort of cannabis for medicinal purposes, though players suggest use in hockey currently is lower than the population at large.

More than two dozen U.S. states allow marijuana use for a variety of ailments, but the federal government has not approved it for any medical use. Some players have already done research into the benefits of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD) oils. There’s a curiosity about whether marijuana could one day replace or limit painkillers like oxycodone, even if players aren’t yet ready to make that leap.

”There’s not a lot of science out there yet in terms of long-term effects,” said Winnipeg Jets center Mark Scheifele, who is still on the fence about cannabis use for medical reasons. ”I think it’s something that still needs to be thought really clearly about in terms of understanding the long-term effects.”

Through his Hemp Heals Foundation and work with Lehigh Valley University in Pennsylvania, Cote is doing his part to increase the information available. He’s quick to point to studies on cannabis that suggest it can help people after PTSD or head trauma. And yet he acknowledges there’s a long way to go.

”There’s a lot of different things that point to the fact that the science is now backing it up,” Cote said. ”There’s probably billions of anecdotal stories, but those don’t mean anything unless it’s backed by science, unless it follows the order of the way it’s supposed to be.”

Bettman contends the mainstream medical community has not concluded that cannabis prevents or heals injuries, and said an argument could be made to the contrary. NHLPA Executive Director Donald Fehr said it’s a subject that is ”at best in its infancy and is going to develop over time.”

Given the looming Wednesday legalization in Canada, the league and union opted for education over policy changes.

”What we feel was an important element is at least educating the players better on the current marijuana landscape both from a legal and illegal perspective and what’s permitted and not permitted,” Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said. ”But also ‘What are the products out there?’ because there’s probably publicly a great misconception of what marijuana is, how it’s used, what it’s used for to what the reality is.”

Players who aren’t yet educated about marijuana are willing to ask around about potential benefits as more studies are done.

”I say this more talking about the CBD side of it, obviously: You’d be stupid not to at least look into it,” Edmonton Oilers captain Connor McDavid said. ”When your body’s sore like it is sometimes, you don’t want to be taking pain stuff and taking Advil all the time. There’s obviously better ways to do it. … You’re seeing a lot of smart guys look into it. You’re seeing a lot of really smart doctors look into it. If all the boxes are checked there and it’s safe and everything like that, then I think you would maybe hear them out.”

The possibility of experimenting with cannabis extracts is more possible in the NHL than for players with the NBA’s Toronto Raptors or MLB’s Toronto Blue Jays because of the regulations in those sports.

In the NBA, a second positive test carries a $25,000 fine and each subsequent test a suspension of five games, then 10 and so on. In baseball, a player on a 40-man roster could be fined up to $35,000, while a player not on a 40-man roster is subject to a 50-game suspension for a second positive test and 100 for a third.

A Raptors spokeswoman said it’s business as usual for the team because the new laws in Canada don’t change NBA drug policy. Blue Jays general manager Ross Atkins also largely deferred to the league office.

”Major League Baseball does a good job on educating players across the game on risk in and around that,” Atkins said. ”It’s a complex situation that is very personal. I’d need more information to say if we’d just tolerate it or not.”

For now, marijuana is technically a banned substance as a drug of abuse in the NHL. Cote would love to see marijuana removed from NHL/NHLPA testing to open the doors to widely accepting it, though players say it would take years for hockey culture to welcome such a change – if it ever would.

”I played in Colorado where it was legal for a while and I thought it was going to change society a little bit, and it didn’t, really,” Duchene said. ”I don’t think it’s going to be as big a thing as people might think.”

AP Baseball Writer Ron Blum, AP Basketball Writer Tim Reynolds and freelancer Ian Harrison contributed.

Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

PHT Morning Skate: Crawford close to return; draft steal Rielly

3 Comments

Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

Corey Crawford is very close to returning for the Chicago Blackhawks. If all goes well, he’ll be between the pipes Thursday vs. Arizona. [Chicago Tribune]

• “If the so-called ‘tough’ players on this [Canucks] roster aren’t being paid to prevent this from happening, and aren’t being paid to respond when it does, what are they being paid to do?” [Canucks Army]

• Former Canucks president Trevor Linden spoke for the first time since leaving the organization: “I think I left (the team) in a better place than I found it. At the end of the day, I recognized exactly the spot we were coming into this thing and the whole continuum of how teams are built … and how they need to get to where they need to be.” [Sportsnet]

• You can’t stop Patrice Bergeron, you can only hope to contain him. [Bruins Daily]

• Wanting to give him a chance to play somewhere, the Winnipeg Jets waived Marko Dano and he was picked up on Monday by the Colorado Avalanche. [Mile High Hockey]

• The 2012 NHL Draft featured plenty of talent, including Morgan Rielly, who could end up looking like a steal. [Featurd]

• How the “Shanaplan” is doing against the NHL salary cap. [Spector’s Hockey]

• Bob Hartley, now coaching in the KHL, says he would love if William Nylander came to his team, Avangard Omsk, who own the Toronto Maple Leafs’ forwards rights. “I would love to see him in our team. I coached his father in Zurich, and William himself is a great player, even though he is sitting without a contract.” Nice try, Bob. [TSN]

• How long will the good times last for the Anaheim Ducks? [Yahoo]

• Injuries will be testing the Philadelphia Flyers’ depth for the next little while. [NBC Philadelphia]

• The Imagine Dragons curse affecting the Vegas Golden Knights is real. [Knights on Ice]

Chandler Stephenson, first line center, will continue to be a thing. [NBC Washington]

• It’s way too early to start panicking about the St. Louis Blues. [St. Louis Gametime]

• A New York Rangers fan is willing to watch Henrik Lundqvist leave if it means a better shot at a Stanley Cup. [Gotham Sports]

• How do the Florida Panthers go about fixing their slow start? [The Rat Trick]

————

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.

The Buzzer: Tatar’s three-point night; Matthews makes more history

AP Images
4 Comments

Three Stars

1. Tomas Tatar, Montreal Canadiens. Two big wins in a row for the Canadiens. Two big nights for Tatar, who now has six points in his last two games. During a 7-3 win over the Detroit Red Wings, Tatar scored a goal and assisted on two others. Last season, Tatar had only two multi-point games the entire year.

2. Kasperi Kapanen, Toronto Maple Leafs. Kapanen continued his red-hot start with a pair of goals during the Maple Leafs’ 4-1 win over the Los Angeles Kings. He now has four goals and eight points through seven games this season, really making most of this opportunity in William Nylander‘s absence.

3. Craig Anderson, Ottawa Senators. A 37-save effort from Anderson helped the Senators dispatch the Dallas Stars 4-1. It was Anderson’s second win in a row and over his last two games he’s stopped 73 of 75 shots faced.

Highlights of the Night

• During their game Monday night, the Senators remembered the late Ray Emery:

• Maxime Lajoie can’t stop scoring. The Senators defensman potted his fourth of the season and now has seven points on the season.

• In his 1,000th NHL game, Tomas Plekanec scored:

• One of Kapanen’s goals was this bank shot:

• Good luck trying to stop this Matt Dumba rocket:

Factoid of the Night

Scores
Maple Leafs 4, Kings 1

Senators 4, Stars 1
Canadiens 7, Red Wings 3
Predators 4, Wild 2

————

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.