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.

Senators face long odds in ‘winning’ Erik Karlsson trade

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The Ottawa Senators needed to get rid of Mike Hoffman as soon as possible, even if they took a loss, which the Sharks and Panthers made sure of on Tuesday.

Maybe it’s a product of the bar plummeting incredibly low, but at least the Senators pulled off the Band-Aid quickly, by their poor standards. Losing the trade is akin to pulling off more skin than expected when removing that bandage.

[Senators land poor deal for Hoffman; Sharks then move him to Panthers]

On the scale of roster triage, the Hoffman situation was certainly important, but making the best of the Erik Karlsson situation is as close to “life or death” as it gets for an NHL franchise (beyond more straightforward issues such as bankruptcy and arena deals).

In virtually every situation, a team giving up a star player ends up losing a trade by a large margin. History frequently frowns on that side, even if context points to it being a no-win situation for the unfortunate GM in question.

Infinite crisis

This would be a desperate situation for any team, but the stakes seem downright terrifying for GM Pierre Dorion and the Ottawa Senators. Just consider the short version of their profound, gobsmacking organizational dysfunction.

  • They lost Mike Hoffman for quarters on the dollar, and he’ll still be in the Atlantic Division after the Sharks flipped him to Florida. The indication is that Ottawa was unwittingly part of a “three-team trade.”
  • Senators fans might become allergic to the phrase “three-team trade,” as the Matt Duchene swap looks awful already. Colorado made the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs, got a first-rounder, and an intriguing player in Sam Girard. The Predators added Kyle Turris. Ottawa may only have Duchene for about a season and a half, as he’ll be up for a new contract after 2018-19. If you were Duchene, would you want any part of the Senators?
  • Assistant GM Randy Lee was suspended as a harassment investigation is underway. That story surfaced mere weeks before the Hoffman/Caryk/Karlssons fiasco forced Ottawa’s hand.
  • Fans really want Melnyk out as owner. Franchise icon Daniel Alfredsson feels the same way.
  • After an unlikely run to the 2017 Eastern Conference Final, the Senators endured a brutal season, and their future outlook is grim. Not great when you consider that the team is likely to send its 2019 first-rounder to Colorado.

Again, that’s the back-of-the-box summary of Ottawa’s woes. It doesn’t even touch on Guy Boucher’s strangely harsh treatment or the fairly reasonable worries that someone might actually send a rare offer sheet to excellent forward Mark Stone.

Amid all that turmoil, it’s well known that the Senators are in a bind with Karlsson, as it’s very difficult to imagine the superstar relenting and re-signing with Ottawa. They’re at a serious risk of losing him for nothing as he approaches UFA status next summer, and he’s under no obligation to sign an extension if a team trades for him. Karlsson also has some veto power via a limited no-trade clause.

So, while the Senators gain some advantages that come with trying to trade Karlsson during the off-season (possibly as soon as this week with the 2018 NHL Draft approaching), his trade value suffers because a team would only get one guaranteed run with the Swede rather than the two they would’ve landed via the trade deadline.

No doubt, Dorion balking during the trade deadline will be mentioned if this goes sour.

The Senators certainly could’ve landed a better package for Hoffman during that time, and Karlsson’s value may have been higher then, too.

Ryan only makes things more difficult

For those who scoff at there being any doubt at all about the Karlsson point, don’t forget just how much of a star he really is. Contenders may go all-out for Karlsson now that they have the room to work with, and maybe someone could even convince him to agree to terms (official or tentative) in a hypothetical deal. In that scenario, the Senators might actually land a strong deal for their crucial blueliner.

Much like during the trade deadline, there’s a major stumbling block beyond the other context clues: Bobby Ryan‘s contract.

TSN’s Frank Servalli ranks among those who report that a Karlsson deal may still need to include Ryan’s albatross deal ($7.25M cap hit through 2021-22).

No doubt, the Senators would like to get rid of Ryan’s lousy contract, but that’s where this situation could really get awkward. Ottawa could severely limit the returns for Karlsson if they attach the Ryan mistake to it. Would the Vegas Golden Knights even give up a package such as Shea Theodore plus “picks and prospects” at this point, as Servalli points to, especially if it includes Vegas’ original first-rounder Cody Glass? Is Theodore + Glass + picks good enough if it even landed Karlsson?

From a PR standpoint, the Senators would likely be wiser to get the best-looking deal for Karlsson, and then move some futures to a rebuilding team to house Ryan’s contract. One might “or they can just suck it up and deal with Ryan’s contract,” but … Melnyk.

Ultimately, it was almost inevitable for the Senators to “lose” in some way regarding Karlsson, unless they beat the odds and convinced him to sign an extension.

There are degrees of losing when it comes to managing these assets, though, and the Senators face a real risk of turning a tough situation into a full-fledged disaster. Dorion is in an extremely difficult spot here, and the Senators’ recent history points to more heartache and aggravation.

One way or another, we may find out soon if they can salvage this situation.

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.

Artemi Panarin involved in trade rumors again

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One reaction to the head-spinning series of trades that sent Mike Hoffman to the Florida Panthers was that the trade market for big-time forwards dried up considerably. Would the Montreal Canadiens see less interest in Max Pacioretty with Hoffman off the table and the Panthers no longer shopping, for example?

Well, we might not need to worry about the market drying up, depending upon how one very interesting situation plays out.

Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman reports that the Columbus Blue Jackets are “testing the market” for Artemi Panarin after Panarin revealed that he’s not yet ready to discuss a contract extension.

Panarin, 26, can become an unrestricted free agent after his $6 million cap hit expires following the 2018-19 season. One can absolutely understand why Panarin would want to maximize his value during the summer of 2019. Despite earning a Calder Trophy in 2015-16 and basically being a star since he entered the NHL following a strong KHL career, Panarin’s been in a tough spot when it comes to leverage, whether it be during his Chicago Blackhawks days or now with Columbus.

So it makes a lot of sense that Panarin wants the freedom to “test the market” himself.

It also is sensible that Columbus wants to gauge its financial future regarding Panarin and others.

The 2019 summer stands as a terrifying obstacle for the Blue Jackets, as Sergei Bobrovsky stands alongside Panarin as a pending UFA who could be in line for a big raise (even more than Bob’s current cap hit of $7.425M).

If that isn’t enough to make you mutter a “yikes,” consider that superstar defenseman Zach Werenski and coveted backup Joonas Korpisalo are both slated to become RFAs next off-season.

To recap: the Blue Jackets don’t know how much it would cost to retain Panarin, Bobrovsky, and Werenski after next season.

/insert another yikes.

By just about every measure, Panarin proved that he wasn’t merely Patrick Kane‘s running mate during his first season in Columbus. Panarin’s 82 points weren’t just a career-high, they also topped all Blue Jackets scorers by 25 points.

(Seth Jones came in second with 57. You have to reach all the way down to rookie Pierre Luc-Dubois’ 48 points to find the next highest-scoring Blue Jackets forward. Yeah.)

Oh yeah, Panarin was also a force during Columbus’ series against the Washington Capitals, scoring an overtime game-winner that oozed swagger:

That skill and swagger will come at a cost, and maybe the Blue Jackets would be forced to cut their losses via a trade? If Panarin is truly available, then any contender should go big to try to land him. His skills and affordable $6M cap hit make him a true game-changer.

Of course “testing the market” doesn’t mean that the Blue Jackets are likely to make a move. This could be more like dipping a toe in the water rather than diving in the deep end.

Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen provided the response you would expect:

“Artemi is an elite National Hockey League player. Our position has been that we want him to be a Blue Jacket for many years and that has not changed. He has a year left on his contract, so there is plenty of time to work towards that end. Should anything change moving forward, we will address it at that time and any decision we make will be in the best interest of our club.”

Still, it’s fascinating to imagine all of the possibilities. Could the Vegas Golden Knights absorb some of Columbus’ other cap worries to grease the wheels? Might the Penguins improbably move Phil Kessel in some sort of mega-trade? Maybe the San Jose Sharks would get in on the star winger, or could it be the offense-needy Blues? (Remember, Vladimir Tarasenko campaigned enthusiastically for Panarin before he signed his first NHL deal.)

It’s all a lot of fun to think about, as people arguably still don’t realize how great Panarin is.

Well, it’s fun to get your imagination going unless you’re a fan of the Columbus Blue Jackets. Then you’re fearful that your team’s first true “gamebreaking” forward might just break your heart.

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.

Will Hoffman, Panthers get last laugh?

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Some of the hottest rivalries in hockey intensified on Tuesday.

No, not Penguins – Capitals or Bruins – Canadiens. Not even Matthew Tkachuk versus the Kings or Brad Marchand against that frozen pole in “A Christmas Story.”

Instead, two of Hockey Twitter’s favorite punchlines united – eventually – as Mike Hoffman (who will never want to scroll Twitter again) was traded to the Florida Panthers (who may never stop hearing about sending Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith to Vegas … at least on Twitter).

You could almost feel snarky hockey fans thanking the Panthers for efficiently consolidating their jokes into one spot. (Granted, not all of their jokes; the Canadiens and Senators are still reliable for that.)

The juicy part is that maybe, just maybe, Hoffman and the Panthers can band together to get the last laugh against their hecklers?

Let’s dig a little deeper on the shared motivations for the team and their newly acquired top-six winger.

The Panthers finished the season on a tear

Yes, Florida missed the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs, giving them plenty of opportunities to painfully watch the Vegas Golden Knights’ deep run from the comfort of their own homes. (They probably opted to go to the beach or play golf instead, but still.)

It’s easy to forget how strong a push the Cats made for one of the East’s final playoff spots, though.

As a reminder, the Panthers finished with 96 points, leaving them a mere point behind the New Jersey Devils for the East’s final wild card spot after ending 2017-18 on a five-game winning streak. Consider that, since the calendar turned to 2018, Florida went 27-14-3. That tied them for seventh overall in points (57) during that span, and their 27 wins was the fifth-best mark.

(Again, not in the conference, but in the entire NHL.)

Pieces falling into place

While it’s fun to mock GM Dale Tallon’s decisions during the 2017 summer – by all means, keep the chuckles coming – it’s not true to say that every choice was a poor one.

That’s particularly poignant if the Panthers believed that they couldn’t add Evgenii Dadonov without getting rid of Reilly Smith.

During his first NHL season since 2011-12, the Russian winger generated 28 goals and 65 points in 74 games. Smith and Dadonov bring a lot of things to the table, including both forwards standing as strong possession players.

Dadonov wasn’t just a fantastic addition. He was also effective enough that the Panthers were starting to find a better balance among their top forwards.

Eventually, Nick Bjugstad enjoyed some of the best stretches of his career finishing chances created by Dadonov and Aleksander Barkov, as that trio formed one of the league’s scariest top lines. Meanwhile, Jonathan Huberdeau trickled down to the second line, and he really seemed to build something promising with Vincent Trocheck.

Now, the natural joke is to say “Wow, now imagine how great they’d be with all of those guys alongside Marchesssault and Smith?”

That’s fair, but it might not be that simple for a budget team.

And also …

Adding a key piece

… Hoffman could really make things interesting, and dull some of the ache that comes with being a go-to punchline on social media.

Florida (claims to) give Hoffman a clean slate, while Hoffman brings undeniable sniping abilities to a roster that could be downright scary if they don’t need to make any key subtractions this summer.

The 28-year-old scored 22 goals last season, which was actually his lowest total since he began his 20+ goal streak in 2014-15. Hoffman’s 104 goals ranks 24th in the NHL during that timeline, leaving him ahead of players such as James Neal, Taylor Hall, Blake Wheeler, and Mark Scheifele.

It’s notable that, with a $5.19 million cap hit, Hoffman also fits into the mix of Panthers forwards who are solid-to-ridiculous bargains (Barkov being the biggest steal as a true star at just $5.9M per year). With two years of term remaining, the Panthers get some cost certainty while Hoffman should be hungry to drive up his value in the market.

Of course, considering all of the things people will be snickering about on Twitter, his value is almost certain to go up.

***

As a veritable scamp, I can’t in good consciousness advise people to stop making jokes about the Panthers and/or Hoffman. That would be like asking Alex Ovechkin not to enjoy his time with the Stanley Cup.

That said, there’s a decent chance that Hoffman and the Panthers could silence at least some of their critics next season. Or at least win enough games to change the tone of some of the mockery.

Update: Hoffman provided this statement on the move.

More on the Mike Hoffman trade

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.

NBC Sports to present exclusive coverage of 2018 NHL Draft, NHL Awards

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NBC Sports will present live, exclusive coverage of the first round of the 2018 NHL Draft this Friday, with NHL Live at 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN.  In addition, NBCSN will televise the NHL Awards on Wednesday at 8 p.m. ET from Las Vegas, as the NHL celebrates the top performers of the 2017-18 season from the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino.

2018 NHL DRAFT FROM DALLAS – FRIDAY AT 7:30 P.M. ET ON NBCSN

The 2018 NHL Draft is headlined by Sweden’s Rasmus Dahlin, a 6-foot-3 defenseman who tallied seven goals and 13 assists with Frölunda HC of the Swedish Hockey League in 2017-18. Dahlin, who is widely considered as the top prospect in the draft, can become just the sixth defenseman taken first overall since 1994.

A trio of forwards – Andrei Svechnikov (Russia) of the Barrie Colts (Ontario Hockey League), Brady Tkachuk (United States) of Boston University (Hockey East), and Filip Zadina (Czech Republic) of the Halifax Mooseheads (Quebec Major Junior Hockey League) – are also expected to be early first-round selections. Svechnikov scored 40 goals in 44 games for the Colts in 2017-18, Tkachuk led Boston University with 23 assists and finished fourth on the team in scoring, and Zadina totaled 44 goals and 38 assists for the Mooseheads. Three Americans, including Tkachuk, Quinn Hughes (University of Michigan) and Oliver Wahlstrom (U.S. National Under-18 Team), are projected to be picked early in the first round.

The New York Rangers lead all teams with three selections in the first round (9th, 26th, and 28th), and Original Six teams have a combined nine first-round picks this year.

Liam McHugh and Kathryn Tappen will host coverage alongside Emmy Award-winning analyst Pierre McGuire and NHL Insiders Bob McKenzie, Craig Button and Darren Dreger. Coverage will include a pre-game feature on the friendship formed between Tkachuk and Hughes, and a segment on Wahlstrom, who became famous at the age of nine for a trick shot he performed before a Bruins game at TD Garden.

2018 NHL Draft order

2018 NHL AWARDS FROM LAS VEGAS – WEDNESDAY AT 8 P.M. ET ON NBCSN

The 2018 NHL Awards will recognize the best regular-season players in a variety of categories, including most valuable player (Hart Trophy), outstanding goaltender (Vezina Trophy), outstanding defenseman (Norris Trophy) and outstanding rookie (Calder Trophy). The Ted Lindsay Award, which is presented annually to the “most outstanding player” in the NHL as voted by fellow members of the National Hockey League Players’ Association (NHLPA), will also will be awarded. Vegas Golden Knights’ George McPhee and Gerard Gallant are finalists for General Manager of the Year and the Jack Adams Award, respectively. New Jersey’s Taylor Hall, Los Angeles’ Anze Kopitar and Colorado’s Nathan MacKinnon are all finalists for the Hart Trophy.

2018 NHL Award finalists
Hart Trophy
Ted Lindsay Award
Jack Adams Award

Mark Messier NHL Leadership Award
King Clancy Trophy
Calder Trophy

Bill Masterton Trophy
Lady Byng Trophy
Norris Trophy
Selke Trophy
Vezina Trophy
GM of the Year