Sabres’ rebuild is still going nowhere

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For about three weeks back in November the Buffalo Sabres had their fans fooled.

It was then that they went on an improbable 10-game win streak to record their best start in years and finally show some signs that their perpetual rebuild was going to produce a positive result.

This was going to be the year that all of the waiting, losing, and disappointment was going to be worth it.

Even if you were of the belief that the win streak was the product of some good luck and an unsustainable run of overtime/shootout and one-goal victories (which almost all of the wins were) it still seemed like they had done enough to give themselves a decent cushion to cover for whatever inevitable regression might follow.

The only thing that could undo it at that point was an epic failure on behalf of the entire team.

More than three months later it has become abundantly clear that the epic failure has happened. Given where the Sabres are coming from, should any of it be a surprise?

The whole thing was a mirage, a total fluke, and nothing more than a temporary and all too brief break from the miserable run of irrelevance that has plagued the Sabres organization for the better part of a decade.

The low point of the season probably came over the weekend when they played a Colorado Avalanche team that has been equally disappointing in the second half and was also playing without one of its best players in Gabriel Landeskog. In that game the Sabres put forth one of the sorriest efforts of the season by any team when they were outshot by a 43-18 margin in a 3-0 loss that was way more one-sided than the final score would have you believe. Keep in mind that with just under two minutes remaining in the game the shot clock had the Avalanche with a 42-12 advantage. It wasn’t until the Sabres pulled their goalie for an extra attacker in a last ditch effort to do something that they were able to register even the smallest threat of offense.

What is worse is that it is hard to see why there should be much hope for better results in the immediate future with this organization.

We have spent a lot of time this season (and rightfully so, I might add) marveling at the incompetence of the Edmonton Oilers to build a successful team around Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl (and it truly is stunning), but keep something in mind about the Oilers — they at least made the playoffs once so far with McDavid, won a playoff series, and were a Game 7 loss away from being in the Western Conference Final.

Sure, everything that has been sandwiched around that makes that one season look like an outlier, but the Sabres don’t even have that.

In a lot of ways this team is worse than the team that is widely regarded to be the most inept team in the league.

That is not good!

[Related: Sabres’ captain Eichel disagrees with two-game suspension]

You might counter that by arguing that the Oilers have more high-end talent with McDavid and Draisaitl, and were also starting from a better place with a boatload of literal No. 1 overall draft picks. That would be a fair point. Sort of. But it’s not like the Sabres haven’t had a run of great draft picks in recent years.

When the Sabres tore their organization to the ground back in 2013 the intent was to stock up on premium draft picks (hopefully one that would land them Connor McDavid), rebuild the organization around the type of impact talent you can find at the top of the draft, and go from there.

The lottery balls were not always in their favor, but they were still in a good position to load the organization with talent.

They have not picked lower than eighth in draft since 2012.

They have had two No. 2 overall picks and a No. 1 overall pick.

One of those No. 2 overall picks produced Jack Eichel, and while he may not be on McDavid’s level he is still a bonafide star and a player that should, by year four in the NHL, be the centerpiece of a playoff team.

The other one was used on Sam Reinhart, who was taken one spot ahead of Draisaitl.

The result of all of those top-10 picks and a full-scale rebuild is a team that is headed for its eight consecutive non-playoff season (and 10th in the past 12 years) and has not won a playoff series since 2007.

Things have been so bad this decade that if they maintain their current pace and reach 83 points it would be their best finish since 2012. Based on the current Eastern Conference playoff projections, that would keep them 12 points out of a Wild Card spot and 24 points behind the third place team in their own division.

Again, this is a team that two months into the season they had the best record in the league thanks in large part to that 10-game winning streak!

That is where the problems really start to show.

In the 58 games independent of that fluke run they playing at a 69 point pace over 82 games, which is just about on par with what every Sabres team has done over the past few years. And remember the context of that winning streak: Nothing about it was sustainable. Seven of those 10 games were won in overtime or a shootout, while nine of them were decided by a single goal. If even two or three of those games go in the other direction (which can easily happen when you rely on that many overtimes and shootouts) the season easily gets even worse.

And that is pretty much the point here. Six years into this process and the Sabres are on their third head coach (probably soon-to-be fourth), their second general manager, and are only marginally better than they were when the whole thing started. And that is after getting the franchise player, who has been just as good as advertised, that they so desperately needed to start the rebuild.

Once you get beyond Eichel, Reinhart, Jeff Skinner, and top pick Rasmus Dahlin the remainder of the roster is just so painfully bland that it is almost impossible to see where any short-term improvement can come from within, and that is before you consider the fact that Skinner is a free agent after this season. He very easily could — and probably should — test the open market this summer where he would probably the second-best player available. He could pick his team and name his price given the season he has had.

If he goes? Well … there is probably not another 40-goal winger that is a perfect fit alongside your franchise center that is going to be walking through that door.

For things to get dramatically better they need to keep Skinner. They need Dahlin to become a superstar (not just a good player, but an actual superstar on defense). They need Casey Mittelstadt to live up to the hype. They need Tage Thompson to just simply be passable or decent (and 12 points in 58 games isn’t passable) to make it look like the Ryan O'Reilly trade wasn’t a complete waste of everyone’s time.

Even if all of that happens — and when you are talking about multiple young players it almost never works out exactly as you plan or hope with all of them — they still probably need five or six more quality pieces just to get back to wild card contention, let alone catch up to the powerhouse teams at the top of the Atlantic Division.

It is almost as if they need a rebuild from the rebuild.

That is not where anybody in Buffalo hoped, or expected, this team to be when the whole thing started five years ago. The whole thing has been a failure.

More: PHT Power Rankings: Capitals playing like champs again

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.

Bruins, Blues set to clash in bruising Stanley Cup Final

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BOSTON (AP) — When the NHL altered its rules with an eye toward speed and skill, this is not the Stanley Cup Final it had in mind.

Hockey is becoming less of a big man’s game, offense is up and it’s faster than ever. Then there’s the big and tough St. Louis Blues facing off against the bigger and tougher Boston Bruins in the final that shows size still matters in the playoffs.

”They are physical, we’ll be physical,” Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy said Sunday. ”I don’t think we shy away from that type of game.”

The past decade-plus has been a study in the NHL getting younger and quicker, and previous champions like Chicago in 2013 and 2015 and Pittsburgh in 2016 and 2017 exemplified that. The 2019 champion will show there are still many kinds of blueprints for winning, though skill is still needed along with size and physicality.

When the puck drops on Game 1 Monday night, the bruises will begin in what should be a throwback series with the Stanley Cup on the line.

”At this point you’re going to get both teams coming out of the gates laying their hits,” big Blues defenseman Robert Bortuzzo said. ”It’s going to be a heavy series. It’s hard to say how much physicality will be going both ways. I’m sure guys will be looking to get their licks in.”

Boston and St. Louis don’t lack high-end skill, from goaltenders Tuukka Rask and Jordan Binnington to scorers Brad Marchand and Vladimir Tarasenko. They do resemble their coaches – Cassidy, who has become a mature, straightforward communicator and Craig Berube, a no-nonsense, team-first guy who has turned the Blues into a north-south, no frills team.

These teams are in many ways mirror images of each other based on their gritty styles and how tough they are to crack.

”The two hardest, heaviest teams are in the final,” San Jose Sharks coach Peter DeBoer said after his team was eliminated by the Blues in the Western Conference final. ”Everybody talks about skill and speed, there’s room for all these small players. There is a room for that. But I don’t think it’s an accident.”

It’s certainly no accident that the Bruins and Blues like to make opponents black and blue. Bruins forward Danton Heinen said physicality is what he and his teammates have tried to deliver all year long and will continue to, but the Blues figured out last round that they need to be more selective about dishing out punishment.

”You can’t just run around out there,” St. Louis forward Oskar Sundqvist said. ”When you’re going to hit, you need to hit with a purpose.”

The purpose now is to lift hockey’s hallowed trophy. After Bruins center Patrice Bergeron played the 2013 final with broken ribs and a punctured lung, there’s not much guys won’t do this time of year at their own expense.

”This is the Stanley Cup. This is what everyone plays for,” Boston forward Jake DeBrusk said. ”It’s going to be fun, physical and pretty intense, so hopefully the body holds up for everybody here.”

GOALIE DUEL

With a league-best 1.42 goals-against average and .942 save percentage, Rask is the front-runner to win the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP. Rask is in his second final as a starter after being on the Boston team that lost to Chicago in six games in 2015.

”It’s a team sport,” Rask said. ”Everybody has to pull their load. That’s the only way you can win.”

All the Blues is win, win, win no matter what since Binnington made his first NHL start in early January. They won 30 of their final 45 games to get into the playoffs, and Binnington has a 2.36 GAA and .914 save percentage in the playoffs.

No goalie has won the Conn Smythe since Jonathan Quick with Los Angeles in 2012.

CUP EXPERIENCE DISPARITY

The Bruins and Blues play similar styles yet have very different levels of winning this time of year.

Five Boston players – Rask, captain Zdeno Chara, Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Krejci – are still around from the 2011 Cup-winning Bruins, and Joakim Nordstrom won in 2015 with the Blackhawks. St. Louis has two players with Cup rings, though even that should have an asterisk because Jordan Nolan (2012 and 2014 Kings) hasn’t played since January and Oskar Sundqvist (2016 Penguins) only skated 20 regular-season and playoff games with Pittsburgh that year.

”Our guys that have been there, that have won a Cup, have lost a Cup, that should give us an edge,” Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy said.

Of course, a year ago the Washington Capitals had only one Stanley Cup winner in Brooks Orpik before Alex Ovechkin lifted it in Las Vegas. Armstrong is banking on his players earning their experience in the final.

”Hopefully a year from now we’ll say, geez, St. Louis has got a lot of championship experience,” Armstrong said.

MAY SWEEPS

To say this has been a weird playoffs would be the understatement of the league’s 101-year history. Top seeds Tampa Bay and Calgary were knocked out in the first round along with fellow division winners Washington and Nashville, and the Lightning were actually swept by Columbus.

But there has also been a strange pattern with sweeping teams that the Bruins hope is a coincidence and not a trend related to too much time off. The New York Islanders swept Pittsburgh in the first round, then got swept by the Carolina Hurricanes in the second round. Carolina? Yeah, swept in the Eastern Conference final by the Bruins.

Boston also beat Columbus after the Blue Jackets swept the Lightning, making teams that won their previous series four games to none a combined 0-3 so far.

”It’s something that naturally you’re going to think about a little bit,” DeBrusk said.

INJURY WATCH

Attrition to the San Jose Sharks helped St. Louis get through West final, and despite their physicality, the Blues and Bruins have been fairly fortunate when it comes to injuries this postseason. St. Louis defenseman Vince Dunn missed the past three games with an upper-body injury but returned to practice wearing a full shield over his face, and forward Robert Thomas skated Saturday after leaving early in the third period West final clincher Tuesday.

Dunn is unlikely to play in Game 1 but could be available later in the series. Thomas is expected to play despite not practicing Sunday.

The Bruins have had a week and a half off to heal up, which is good news for captain Zdeno Chara, who was injured and didn’t play in Game 4 of the East final. They got a bit of a scare when Marchand jammed his left hand after bumping into teammate Connor Clifton during an intrasquad scrimmage to stay sharp during the long layoff.

Marchand missed practice Sunday, but coach Bruce Cassidy said it was for maintenance and expects Boston’s leading scorer to be good to go for Game 1.

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Bruins ready to shake off rust, use experience in Stanley Cup Final

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BOSTON — You ask the Boston Bruins how they’ve spent their 11-day break between the Eastern Conference Final and the Stanley Cup Final and the most popular response is sleep.

“Rest is a weapon,” former Ottawa Senators head coach Guy Boucher liked to say. And sure, any NHL player at this time of year would love to get some additional rest between series but nearly two weeks off isn’t ideal. It’s why head coach Bruce Cassidy organized a full scrimmage Thursday night in front of a full crowd at TD Garden. Keeping that sharpness is key and Cassidy and his staff have tried to figure out ways to maintain that ahead of Game 1 against the St. Louis Blues Monday night (8 p.m. ET; NBC; live stream).

But all that time off grew old fast for the Bruins. Whether they caught up on sleep, cleaned out the DVR, enjoyed the nice spring weather, or spent time with their families, puck drop can’t arrive soon enough.

“You just want to play this time of year,” said forward Brad Marchand. “Nobody wants to practice. Guys just want to play. … This time of year no one needs to practice, no one wants to practice. You want to play the games.”

The start of Game 1 of the Cup Final is always interesting to watch. There’s an initial feeling out process that takes place before both teams finally settle into their systems, the nerves go away and the series officially begins. For the Bruins, they might start off slow given their extended break, but it’s not something that will stick.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

“You can shake off some rust and we might have a little bit of that, but fatigue is something you can’t shake,” said forward Sean Kuraly. “We’ve taken it in stride. It was the hand we were dealt. You take it like anything else in the playoffs.”

Assisting the Bruins in that department has been their veteran leadership. Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, Zdeno Chara, David Krejci, and Tuukka Rask played in the 2011 and 2013 Cup Finals, winning one and losing one. While when breaking down the Bruins and Blues you can see plenty of similarities between the teams and how they got to this point, there’s one area where Cassidy believes they have an edge.

“Experience,” he said. “I just believe that our guys that have been there, that have won a Cup, have lost a Cup, that should give us an edge. Some people disagree with that once you’re here, but I believe it will give us an edge. I think it’s helped us a lot this week in the preparation, with all the down time, and hopefully going forward that is an advantage for us.”

STANLEY CUP FINAL PREVIEW
Who has the better forwards?
Who has the better defensemen?
Who has better goaltending?
Who has the better special teams?
X-factors for Bruins, Blues

PHT Power Rankings: Conn Smythe favorites
Stanley Cup Final 2019 schedule, TV info

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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.

Finland defeats Canada for gold at IIHF World Championship

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BRATISLAVA, Slovakia (AP) — Marko Anttila helped lead Finland to its third world hockey title, scoring the tying and go-ahead goals in a 3-1 victory over Canada on Sunday.

Anttila tied it at 1 on a power play early in the second period and the Finnish captain made it 2-1 early in the third. Harri Pesonen added an insurance goal with five minutes to play.

”It’s awesome,” forward Toni Rajala said. ”It’s something that you know might only happen once in your life, but even before the game it felt great. I wasn’t too nervous about it. I was enjoying it. The team played an awesome game again. We played together, played 60 minutes. Kevin was awesome in the net. We were blocking shots. They were good today, but we were a little bit better. Three goals was enough.”

Kevin Lankinen made 42 saves for Finland, allowing only Shea Theodore‘s first-period goal.

”It’s an amazing feeling,” forward Jere Sallinen said. ”I don’t even know how we won. It’s unbelievable. We’re a pretty good hockey country. Maybe it’s a miracle on ice, something like that. Going back to Helsinki is going to be amazing. I think there’s a lot of people waiting there for us. Anttila – he’s a beauty.”

Finland also beat Canada 3-1 in the round-robin opener.

”It was a long tournament. A lot of fun, a lot of good guys,” Canadian defenseman Damon Severson said. ”I think we deserved a medal. We had some spells where maybe we didn’t, but overall we played a really good tournament. It’s unfortunate we got the wrong medal. Finland played a good game, the only team to beat us in this tournament was them, twice, and they played some good hockey.”

Matt Murray stopped 19 shots for Canada.

”I’m very pleased with how we played,” Canadian coach Alain Vigneault said. ”We gave it our best shot. At the end of the day, we weren’t able to capitalize on some of our plays and they were.”

Anttila also scored Saturday in Finland’s 1-0 victory over Russia. The Finns knocked off two-time defending champion from Sweden in the quarterfinal. Draft-eligible Kaapo Kakko led the team with six goals.

Finland also won titles in 1995 in Sweden and 2011 in Bratislava.

Earlier, Russia beat the Czech Republic 3-2 in a shootout for third place. Russia was outshot 50-30 through 70 minutes of play, including 10 minutes of sudden-death 3-on-3 overtime, then outscored the Czech Republic 2-0 in the shootout on goals from Ilya Kovalchuk and Nikita Gusev.

Unflappable Binnington won’t be affected by Stanley Cup spotlight

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BOSTON — The question was delivered after a 2-0 win over the Nashville Predators in February — a victory that came after the St. Louis Blues’ saw their 11-game win streak snapped a few nights earlier.

The Blues has just played their ninth game of the month that finished within two goals. They were in the middle of turning around their season and the backbone for the change in fortune was a 25-year-old rookie goaltender who hadn’t made an NHL start until this past January. All those tight hockey games surely had to have brought out a few nerves in Jordan Binnington, right?

“Do I look nervous?”

“No.”

“There’s your answer.”

That line was put on a t-shirt, which has sold throughout St. Louis since, with even some of Binnington’s family members grabbing a few. 

That win came in Binnington’s 18th career NHL start. But way before that game at the end of February, his teammates already knew that he was pretty unflappable.

“It’s just how he is,” said Blues captain Alex Pietrangelo during Stanley Cup Final Media Day. “He’s pretty quiet. He just goes about his business. That quote’s obviously funny but every day he just shows up, does what he has to do. For us, it’s enjoyable when he does stuff like that because we get a kick out of it.”

The quiet confidence that Binnington possesses has been an integral part in helping get the Blues to within four wins of the franchise’s first Stanley Cup. Even after defeats, that memory is erased from his head and he’s looking forward as “don’t look back” is a big mantra with head coach Craig Berube. The same can be said for his goaltender, who has only lost consecutive starts twice this season, both coming in the playoffs.

“If you want to be successful, you want to have that demeanor, you can’t let things affect you and nothing seems to bother him,” Pietrangelo added.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Binnington even has a tie to the Bruins organization after having been loaned to their minor league affiliate in Providence last season since the Blues didn’t have their own AHL team. While sharing one with the Colorado Avalanche, general manager Doug Armstrong was allowed to place one goaltender with the AHL team in San Antonio. That goalie ended up being Ville Husso. Armstrong then alerted his fellow GMs that if anyone was looking for an experience netminder on loan, Binnington, who rejected a move to the ECHL, was available. That’s when Bruins GM Don Sweeney reached out and a deal was made.

Binnington played 28 games last season in Providence and three more in the Calder Cup playoffs.

“They were nothing but good to me,” Binnington said of AHL Providence. “The Boston Bruins prospects are in good hands, I can tell you that. It was a great city and I’m very fortunate they took me in. Met a lot of good people.”

“It would be disingenuous to say that this was all part of the master plan, bring him in January and be here today,” said Armstrong. “But what he did do is he never quit on himself and that’s what I take away.”

After that experience, Binnington still had to continue fighting for a place in the NHL. He began the 2018-19 season in San Antonio and waited for his opportunity. 

It took 164 AHL and 40 ECHL games, but his chance came in January as starter Jake Allen continued to struggle. A 2-0 shutout over the Philadelphia Flyers was not only the birth of the team’s victory anthem — Laura Branigan’s “Gloria” — but also Binnington usurping the No. 1 job, reaching the Cup Final, becoming a 2019 Calder Trophy finalist, and him likely cashing in this summer as he’s scheduled to become a restricted free agent on July 1.

All that time waiting for an opportunity didn’t damper Binnington’s confidence.

“I realized a couple years ago I was in a situation where my back was against the wall,” Binnington said. “Got to handle it right, and I’ve just had this belief and hunger in myself to be the best I can be and make the most of my talent. I’m very fortunate to be coming to a team like this and it’s been a pretty special season so far.”

Binnington’s teammates have enjoyed being up close to witnessing his journey over the past four months. Who knew that night in Philadelphia in early January would lead to this? 

The 49 starts since have prepared Binnington for this moment as his team plays on the biggest stage. Some players who have never played in a Cup Final might be feeling the butterflies right now, but to Binnington it’s just another series. There’s no spotlight big enough that will made him prepare and execute his game any differently.

“I think that’s where experience comes in and you learn that confidence comes from preparation,” he said. “You want to be prepared for anything that’s thrown at you and that’s kind of the way I look at my life now and hockey specifically. I think that’s an important way to look at it.”

STANLEY CUP FINAL PREVIEW
Who has the better forwards?
Who has the better defensemen?
Who has the better goaltending?
Who has the better special teams?

X-factors
PHT Power Rankings: Conn Smythe favorites
How the Blues were built
How the Bruins were built
Stanley Cup Final 2019 schedule, TV info

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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.