Risk Factors: Buffalo Sabres edition

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From the same bunch of pessimists who brought you“Why your team won’t win the Stanley Cup,” PHT presents a new series called “Risk Factors,” i.e. three reasons to be worried about each NHL team in 2014-15.

Buffalo Sabres

1. Ted Nolan’s coaching, in more ways than one. Sabres head coach Ted Nolan might be the best person to encapsulate Buffalo’s dichotomous 2014-15 season situation, as it’s more than reasonable to ask: “How successful does the franchise want him and the team to be, anyway?”

By just about every account aside from the typical “player doesn’t want to count his team out” stories, the Sabres seem penciled in to the Connor McDavid/Jack Eichel sweepstakes. It’s probably fair to say that Buffalo might have the best odds of grabbing the most lottery balls for the 2015 NHL Draft.

That’s where Nolan becomes an interesting case study, then.

On the pro-tanking side, there’s the fact that one might conclude that Nolan’s tactics could be a little outdated. He went a decade between his first two gigs (ending with Buffalo in 1996-97 and starting his two-year stint with the New York Islanders in 2006-07) and then saw another big gap before taking over with the Sabres once more. Sports leagues tend to follow predictable coaching hiring trends, yet Nolan really doesn’t easily fit into many categories because there are few who traveled such a pateh.

In other words, there’s some reason to believe that Nolan will be the right kind of bad for Buffalo.

Still, if there’s one positive thing Nolan seems to generally be known for, it’s helping a scrappy bunch of players overachieve. That trend even carried over to the 2014 Winter Olympics, as Latvia generated buzz for “believing in themselves” under Nolan’s tutelage.

“We never had a coach that actually believes in the players,” Kaspars Daugavins told reporters in Sochi, according to The Globe & Mail. “It’s always been, like, army style, where everybody just has to work hard and you never get a tap on your shoulders saying ‘Good job, buddy.’”

That’s great for a hockey nation hoping to build its confidence, yet will it be a self-destructive formula in Buffalo?

2. Goaltending – Sure, some seasons were better than others, but Ryan Miller’s netminding provided long-term stability for a team that saw peaks and quite a few valleys. That’s gone now, leading to unfamiliar questions in net.

While the Jhonas Enroth (81 games of regular season experience) and Michal Neuvirth (136 regular season games) pairing are positively seasoned compared to the Anaheim Ducks’ combo of John Gibson and Frederik Andersen, their experiences are still scattered enough that they remain legitimate question marks.

Neither goalie has awful individual career numbers (Neuvirth’s save percentage is .911 while Enroth’s at .913), yet it’s up to question if either can handle the expected torrent of pucks coming their way. Neuvirth’s brief run as a borderline starter in Washington feels like it came a long time ago, as he hasn’t seen a lot of action since 2011-12. Enroth hasn’t ever played more than the 28 games he appeared in last season. Miller was one of the NHL’s true workhorses in a time when that breed has become tougher to come by, so this could be a bumpy transition for Buffalo.

3. Scoring. Buffalo scored by far the fewest goals in the league last season (157), generated the lowest number of shots on goal per game (26.3) and possessed the second-least efficient power play unit (14.1 percent success rate). Incremental progress is plausible … unfortunately, they’re currently leaps and bounds behind the league’s contenders.

While Cody Hodgson’s a gem, the Sabres are glaringly low on the sort of top-level scorers who can help you win games and dominate puck possession. Matt Moulson could be a solid fit in his second stint with the Sabres, yet the team probably can’t expect much more than solid mentoring from the likes of Brian Gionta.

Sure, there’s a wild card or two in Chris Stewart and Mikhail Grigorenko, but the situation’s pretty bleak overall. (And Stewart himself admits that he’s gone into one too many seasons with “something to prove.”)

Really, it isn’t tough to poke holes in the team’s defense either, but one could see Nolan driving this group to do its best to “bend but not break.” There’s only so much you can do to camouflage a lack of scoring ability, though.

Alex Ovechkin lights up Habs’ Drouin with huge hit

via NBC Sports Washington
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Alex Ovechkin is known for scoring goals (my personal favorite, which was nearly replicated by a Penguins prospect), but the Washington Capitals superstar is so fun to watch because he’s also perfectly willing to throw his body around for a big check. It’s one of those things that made you believe that maybe he’d wear down, yet that Russian Machine Never Breaks.

Montreal Canadiens forward Jonathan Drouin received a painful reminder that you need to keep your head on a swivel when Ovechkin’s on the ice, as the Capitals winger leveled Drouin with a huge hit on Friday.

It wouldn’t be surprising if Drouin was shaken up almost as much by the second impact:

Drouin left immediately for the locker room, but he’s taken some shifts afterward, so he might be OK … we’ll have to see.

Sometimes big hits like that light a fire under teams. Maybe Ovechkin was hoping it would do so for Washington, but instead Montreal might channeled that anger into getting even on the scoreboard, as they rattled off a 4-0 lead in response.

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.

Pittsburgh prospect’s incredible Ovechkin-like goal (Video)

QMJHL
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Earlier this week James O’Brien continued our “My Favorite Goal” series with a look back at Alex Ovechkin’s signature goal from his rookie season when he scored that seemingly impossible, sliding goal in Arizona.

On Thursday, Pittsburgh Penguins prospect Samuel Poulin did his best to try and recreate the finishing portion of that goal in a QMJHL game when he scored on an absolutely bonkers play late in his team’s 6-1 win.

Have a look.

As if the finish wasn’t enough, how about the move in the slot to get around the defender?

Poulin, a forward for the Sherbrooke Phoenix, scored the goal late in the third period of their win over the Cape Breton Eagles. It was Poulin’s 16th goal of the season.

The Penguins selected him in the first round (No. 21 overall) of the 2019 NHL draft as part of a promising draft class that also included Nathan Legare. Those two have been a much-needed boost to a farm system that has been depleted a bit due to trades in recent years to keep the current Stanley Cup window open.

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.

Maple Leafs, Sharks, Golden Knights entering make-or-break stretches

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Even though the NHL season is only a quarter of the way through it is not too early for teams to start worrying about playoff seeding, or more importantly, whether or not they will even be able to make the playoffs.

The St. Louis Blues showed last year it’s possible to overcome a slow start, but there’s a far larger sampling of recent history that suggest it’s not very likely. Once the calendar starts to approach the end of November not many teams that are outside of a playoff position tend to climb into one, and the ones that do aren’t more than a couple of points back. We tend to emphasize the stretch run of the regular season as being the most important games, but it’s really difficult to make up lost points from early in the season.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at three teams that should be Stanley Cup contenders that are facing some really big stretches over the next couple of weeks that could potentially make or break their season.

Toronto Maple Leafs

Honestly, it’s time for this team and this coach to do something with all of this talent they have assembled. That is not even to say a Stanley Cup should be the expectation, but they should be capable of more than nothing but third places finishes and Round 1 playoff exits.

So far this season they have done nothing to show that anything with this team will be different.

Here’s the situation they are facing: They have lost three games in a row entering Friday’s game against a Boston team that has ended their season two years in a row, they are in fourth place in the Atlantic Division (sixth place by points percentage), and after playing the Bruins will be heading on a six-game road trip that begins Saturday night in Pittsburgh where they will be starting a backup goalie making his NHL debut. That road trip will also take them through Vegas, Arizona, and Colorado and be the start of a 15-game stretch where they will play 12 games outside of Toronto.

They have struggled on the road this season, still have not solved their defensive issues and do not have the goaltending to mask it. Even worse, they will now be without two key forwards (Mitch Marner and now Alexander Kerfoot) for the next few weeks. That is a pretty big challenge they are facing and if they don’t come out of it successfully things are going to get even more tense in Toronto than they already are.

Vegas Golden Knights

There was reason to believe at the start that this could be the best team in the Western Conference with a talented group of forwards, a solid defense, and a really good starting goalie. But so far pretty much everything about the team has been very ordinary. Their possession and scoring chance numbers paint the picture of a team that has maybe been a little unlucky so far, but they still have their share of issues, especially when it comes to finding another goalie that will not force them to run Marc-Andre Fleury into the ground, an issue that does not seem likely to go away anytime soon.

With only 21 points in 20 games they are on an 86-point pace for the season (that probably would not be anywhere near good enough for the playoffs) and have lost eight of their past 11 games entering the weekend. Some of the teams around them in the Pacific Division have been better than expected so far (specifically Edmonton and Arizona), while it is reasonable to conclude that San Jose and Calgary are going to improve as the season goes on.

If you assume 95 points is the “safe” number to secure a playoff spot, that would require Vegas to earn at least 60 percent of the possible points available to them the rest of the way. It’s a not impossible for this team, but it’s still a big number.

Saturday would be a good time to start making up that ground when they visit the Los Angeles Kings. Seven of their next eight games are either against Pacific Division opponents, or teams they are competing directly with for playoff spots in the Western Conference (Dallas, Nashville).

San Jose Sharks

Unlike the other two teams here the Sharks have already started to get their disappointing season back on track, winning five in a row entering the weekend. They are in the middle of a 16-game stretch where 12 games will be played at the Shark tank, and that home cooking has helped them stack some wins together. The offense has been ignited, the goaltending has at least been passable, and they are starting to get some production from their big defense duo of Erik Karlsson and Brent Burns.

Of all the contenders that stumbled out of the gate this always seemed to be the one that had the best chance of righting the ship because of the talent they have and the fact a lot of their problems could easily be solved with only one change (goaltending). They are not there yet, but they are on their way and with six of their next nine games on home ice they have a nice opportunity to keep digging out of that early hole.

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.

Flames’ update on Brodie: Tests negative, no timetable for return

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The Calgary Flames received a huge scare on Thursday when veteran defenseman T.J. Brodie had to be taken to a hospital after collapsing on the ice and convulsing during practice.

On Friday, the team issued an update on his status.

General manager Brad Treliving said that the initial neurological tests on Brodie have all come back negative so far, while also adding that more tests still need to be done and that no stone will be left unturned in trying to figure out what happened.

Team Doctor Ian Auld also added that so far it looks the incident was more likely related to a fainting episode than anything inside the brain.

“An event like this can be caused by something inside the brain, something scary, and it can also be caused by syncope or fainting episodes. The reasons for why people faint are many,” said Auld, via the Flames’ website. “I don’t think we have all the answers yet and we still have a few more tests to go but all the early indications are that it’s very likely more related to a fainting episode than something significant and inside the brain.”

There is obviously no timeline for Brodie’s return to the lineup at this point.

“We’re going to go through the process of checking every box and make sure we administer every test,” said Treliving. “But he’s come through everything thus far and doing well, feeling good. He’s on the mend. He will obviously not travel with us today as we head to Arizona and Las Vegas. He will stay under the supervision of our medical team led by Ian (Auld).”

The 29-year-old Brodie has spent all 10 years of his career with the Flames after the team drafted him in the fourth round of the 2008 NHL draft.

With him sidelined indefinitely the team has recalled Oliver Kylington from the American Hockey League.

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.