Evan Rodrigues

Looking at the 2019-20 Buffalo Sabres

With the 2019-20 NHL season on hold we are going to take a look at where each NHL team stands at this moment with a series of posts examining their season. Have they met expectations? Exceeded expectations? Who has been the surprise? All of that and more. Today we look at the 2019-20 Buffalo Sabres.

2019-20 Buffalo Sabres

Record: 30-31-8 (68 points); sixth in the Atlantic Division, 13th in the Eastern Conference
Leading Scorer: Jack Eichel — 78 points (36 goals and 42 assists)

In-Season Roster Moves:

• Traded Evan Rodrigues and Conor Sheary to the Penguins for Dominik Kahun.
• Sent a conditional fifth-round pick to the Devils for Wayne Simmonds.
• Traded away Marco Scandella for the Sharks’ fourth-round pick, then flipped that fourth-rounder to the Flames for Michael Frolik.

Season Overview: 

Woof. What can you really say about the 2019-20 Buffalo Sabres but, “Woof?”

The Sabres present a story that’s felt basically the same for far too long, only with a rotating cast of characters.

While Jack Eichel’s basically willed them from seasons that rank among the worst of the salary cap era, the Sabres remain disappointing. Whether the coronavirus claims the season and playoffs or not, Buffalo’s playoff drought will extend to nine consecutive seasons. They’re heading toward a string of 11 misses in 13 seasons, and haven’t won a playoff series since that nice run in 2006-07.

Again, woof.

Sabres fans have largely had it, as you can observe from their Duane Drain. And who can really blame them?

If new head coach Ralph Krueger made any real difference, it’s negligible, at least in the short-term. The hope is that maybe he’s building something, but you have to squint to see the potential beyond Eichel, Rasmus Dahlin, and others making progress.

The Sabres added to that dire feeling with some brow-furrowing trade deadline moves. The season felt long gone when they traded for the likes of Wayne Simmonds, although at least Buffalo only spent marginal draft picks. Selling probably would’ve been the wisest move, but PR-wise, fans are likely far beyond tired of that liquidation approach.

Considering how tough the Atlantic figures to be for the near future, this Sabres franchise has its work cut out for it. Terry Pegula hasn’t exactly earned a lot of goodwill regarding how he’s handled COVID-19, either.

At least Jack Eichel rules though, right?

Highlight of the Season So Far:

The Sabres started 2019-20 on a heck of a run, going 8-1-1 in their first 10 games. They claimed that they didn’t fear echoing the 2018-19 season by ultimately falling apart, but, well … they did.

Again, Eichel authored many of the Sabres’ crescendos, including a robust personal point streak.

Victor Olofsson played a big role in Buffalo’s hot start with a historic early run of scoring, and while both the player and power play slowed down, Olofsson shows some promise.

Eichel, Olofsson, Dahlin and others simply need more help. Maybe Buffalo can actually build on the positives … eventually?

MORE SABRES BITS:
Sabres’ biggest surprises and disappointments
What is the long-term outlook for the Sabres?

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.

Panic time? Penguins staying patient during unexpected slide

Penguins losing streak reaches six games after Sharks shutout Flyers ahead
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PITTSBURGH — Mike Sullivan’s voice was calm as he urged patience and understanding, qualities that tend to be in short supply around the NHL when the calendar flips to March and the number of regular-season games dwindles.

They’re traits the Pittsburgh Penguins coach hasn’t had to rely on much during his four-plus years on the bench, which include back-to-back Stanley Cup championships. Yet with the Penguins mired in their longest losing streak since 2012 – a six-game skid that’s rendered their appearance at the top of the Metropolitan Division two weeks ago a mere cameo – the typically fiery Sullivan has taken a more muted approach.

”There’s no easy stretch,” Sullivan said Monday. ”That’s just the nature of the league.”

It’s a nature the Penguins have largely been immune to for years. Yet they have looked decidedly vulnerable while getting outscored 24-8 against a schedule littered with teams basically playing out the season. A winless road swing through California last week culminated with a 5-0 loss to San Jose that led captain Sidney Crosby to place the blame squarely on his shoulders.

Though Crosby – who has just one point since a 5-2 romp over Toronto on Feb. 18 pushed Pittsburgh into first place in the Metropolitan – hasn’t quite looked like himself of late, neither has the 19 other guys in the lineup on a given night. Asked if there was any one common thread for a swoon no one saw coming, Crosby shrugged.

”It’s hard to point the finger at one specific thing, but I think putting the puck in the net a little more would give us some breathing room,” he said.

Of course, for the puck to go into the net, the Penguins actually need to shoot it. It’s something one of the league’s most talented offensive teams has struggled to do lately. While on the surface Pittsburgh’s average of 33 shots per game during the losing streak looks healthy, the reality is that the Penguins have fallen into the habit of trying to make the pretty play instead of the right one.

”Sometimes the ESPN highlight reel kind of gets in your mind,” forward Jared McCann said. ”But I feel like sometimes, especially with the way things are going right now, we’ve just got to throw pucks on net. We’ve got to throw it at a goalie’s feet. We’ve got to make the easy shot, sometimes it’ll go in.”

McCann attributed Pittsburgh’s scoring issues partly to bad ”puck luck,” that inexplicable phenomenon associated with the whims of a one-inch piece of vulcanized rubber. Though the Penguins have had the lead just once at the end of their last 24 periods, McCann insists the players aren’t frustrated. There are times when they feel they’ve played well for extended stretches only to have nothing to show for it thanks to a bounce here or a bounce there.

”You’ve got to laugh at it,” McCann said. ”What are you going to do? Sit there and mope? And you’ll just dig yourself deeper and make it worse. I’m trying to stay positive with it.”

Having the NHL’s longest active playoff streak helps. Pittsburgh hasn’t missed the postseason since 2006 and despite its current funk is still in relatively good shape. The Penguins are third in the Metropolitan Division and have three games in hand over Columbus, which currently holds the final wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference. The schedule also is division heavy over the final month, giving Pittsburgh opportunity make up lost ground.

”We have the ability to control our own destiny,” forward Bryan Rust said.

Also, the Penguins, who have been ravaged by injuries for much of the season, are close to having some familiar faces back on the ice.

Defensemen Brian Dumoulin – out since Nov. 30 with an ankle injury – and John Marino – out since Feb. 6 after taking a puck to the face – are both game-time decisions on Tuesday night when Pittsburgh hosts Ottawa. Forward Nick Bjugstad has been cleared for full contact and is close to playing for the first time since mid-November. While forward Dominik Simon is week to week with an upper-body injury and All-Star forward Jake Guentzel won’t be ready until late April at the earliest as he recovers from shoulder surgery, new arrivals Patrick Marleau, Connor Sheary and Evan Rodrigues give Pittsburgh versatility, speed and, in the 40-year-old Marleau, another veteran voice.

There’s no need to panic yet. Still, the wiggle room Pittsburgh enjoyed during its torrid play through December and January is gone. Team owner Mario Lemieux took in practice on Monday with president David Morehouse and general manager Jim Rutherford. Sullivan’s voice – unlike the tone he used while addressing the media – boomed through PPG Paints Arena as he tried to steer his club back on track.

”A team goes through points in the season where it comes a little easier than other points,” Crosby said. ”We’re facing some adversity right now. We’ve faced it all year long with different things. It’s a good test and a good challenge for us.”

New-look Penguins play first game since trade deadline on NBCSN

Hockey fans get their first post-trade deadline glance at the new-look Penguins on Wednesday. Then again, it’s also true that later versions of the Penguins will look different from the group that faces the Kings on NBCSN at 10:30 p.m. ET (stream here).

Penguins roll out new trade deadline additions in these lineups — for now

Like many other NHL coaches, Mike Sullivan likes to tinker with his combinations. Injuries forced Sullivan to do so anyway this season, and the Penguins’ trade deadline investments now give him a plethora of options. When/if certain players come back, the variety will only grow.

Let’s go forward line by forward line based on NHL.com’s projected combos for Wednesday, since that’s where Pittsburgh made acquisitions.

Jason ZuckerSidney CrosbyConor Sheary

As new-look as the Penguins feel, there seems to be warm-and-fuzzy feelings for the reunion of Crosby and Sheary. Personally, I never understood why Pittsburgh broke them up in the first place. (Especially if the answer is troublingly “to afford bad defenseman Jack Johnson.”)

In a lineup breakdown from The Athletic’s Josh Yohe (sub required), both Crosby and Sheary amusingly described each other as easy to play with. Sullivan’s comments provided a little more substance.

“He brings a speed element,” Sullivan said of Sheary. “He can finish. He’s good in traffic. A lot of attributes that Conor brings to the table are complementary to Sid.”

Sheary can think the game at a reasonable level with Crosby, and the early returns on Zucker indicate the same. (On paper, Zucker seems like a no-brainer fit for Crosby, but in reality not everyone clicks with 87.)

Still, there are a number of different factors that could break these fellows up. What if Jake Guentzel beats the timeline for recovery from his shoulder surgery, at least for the playoffs? Will Penguins eventually want a right-handed shot with Crosby instead of two other lefties?

This seems like a good mix overall, at least to start, though.

Bryan RustEvgeni MalkinPatric Hornqvist

Business as usual there, basically. Rust and Hornqvist can work with Crosby if needed, so that’s nice.

Patrick MarleauEvan RodriguesDominik Simon

Trade deadline additions make two-thirds of this third line, and the potential is interesting. Simon ranks as the most feasible candidate to move up, possibly with Crosby again. While Marleau ranks as a bigger name, Rodrigues stands out as a fascinating wild card.

People have been noting Rodrigues’ potential as a hidden gem for some time.

(His underlying numbers still look good at Hockey Viz, although things slipped a bit in 2019-20 compared to more robust work in 2017-18 and 2018-19.)

The sheer variety of useful players in the Penguins’ top nine is really something, especially when you realize that Jared McCann could end up being a more regular fit as third-line center. Nick Bjugstad already feels like old news, considering the revolving door of Penguins forwards, yet he’s another interesting player if health eventually permits.

Sam LaffertyTeddy BluegerBrandon Tanev

Then you have what seems to be a pretty strong fourth line from a defensive standpoint. Quite a group.

(Oh yeah, and there’s also Zach Aston-Reese. Healthy scratches could eventually become straight-up awkward if most/everyone actually gets healthy.)

[COVERAGE BEGINS AT 10:30 P.M. ET ON NBCSN]

Defense and other considerations for Penguins

NHL.com projects Pittsburgh’s Wednesday defensive pairings as such:

Jack Johnson — Kris Letang

Marcus PetterssonJustin Schultz

Juuso RiikolaChad Ruhwedel

Naturally, injuries have been a factor for the Penguins’ defense (and also goalies including Matt Murray). Moving past players who have worked past injuries like Letang and Schultz, Pittsburgh has some significant blueliners on the shelf. It’s possible Brian Dumoulin may return with time to shake off rust before the playoffs, while rookie revelation John Marino is recovery from surgery after a wayward puck broke bones in his cheek.

In other words … the Penguins’ defense could continue to look quite different as things go along, much like their forward groups.

Despite all that turbulence, the Penguins figure to be a formidable opponent, particularly after stocking up with Zucker, Sheary, Marleau, and Rodrigues in recent times. Catch your first look at that new-look group against the Kings on Wednesday on NBCSN.

More: Kings aim to upset Penguins

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.

NHL on NBCSN: Rebuilding Kings attempt to play spoiler against Pens

NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with Wednesday’s matchup between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Los Angeles Kings.  Coverage begins at 10:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

The Penguins and Kings are heading in very different directions right now. Pittsburgh is chasing a Stanley Cup and Los Angeles is chasing the top pick in the NHL Draft.

Heading into tonight’s game, the Penguins are four points behind the Washington Capitals for first in the Metropolitan Division. Pittsburgh has two games in hand.

On Monday, general manager Jim Rutherford made a couple of moves to improve his roster. He acquired Patrick Marleau from San Jose, and Evan Rodrigues and Conor Sheary from Buffalo. They also made a splash earlier in the month when they acquired Jason Zucker from Minnesota. So the team looks pretty different than it did at the beginning of February.

Sidney Crosby is the beneficiary of these trades. He’s now skating on a line with Sheary, who he played with during his first stint with the Pens, and Zucker.

Speaking of Crosby, he’s been unbelievable since returning to the lineup from a core muscle injury. The Pens captain has eight goals and 16 assists in the 16 games he’s played post-injury.

“He’s just such an impactful player,” head coach Mike Sullivan said. “We are a very different hockey team when he’s in our lineup. He’s been terrific. I think he’s getting better every game. I think his game is gaining more traction, and I think he loves playing this time of year.”

This will be the second game of a four-game road trip. The Pens got their trip starting with a disappointing loss in Washington on Sunday.

“It’s disappointing we didn’t get the result, but I thought we played a much better hockey game,” added Sullivan on Sunday. “It was a competitive game. They’re a good team. We’re a good team.”

As for the Kings, they didn’t really have much to play for between now and the end of the season. They’ll be reduced to playing spoiler between now and the end of the season.

GM Rob Blake managed to swing four trades over the the last few weeks. Here’s the moves they’ve made:

Traded Away: Jack Campbell (Toronto), Kyle Clifford (Toronto) Tyler Toffoli (Vancouver), Alec Martinez (Vegas) and Derek Forbort (Calgary).

Acquired: Trevor Moore (Toronto), 2020 third-round pick (Toronto), 2021 conditional third-round pick (Toronto), Tim Schaller (Vancouver), Tyler Madden (Vancouver), 2020 second-round pick (Vancouver), 2022 conditional fourth-round pick (Vancouver), 2020 second-round pick (Vegas), 2021 second-round pick (Vegas), and 2021 conditional fourth-round pick (Flames).

As you can see from the players and picks they acquired, they’re all about the long-term rebuild.

“We’re at that phase now where the next layer has to step up and contribute,” head coach Todd McLellan said. “The players that have come up from Ontario have shown to this point that they’re ready to go and they understand the structure, that they’re competitive like we thought they’d be, and they’re excited to be here. They give us a little spark, a little jolt of enthusiasm, which we need at this time of year. For as much as they help us out, we’re excited as well. It’s a good mix right now. Something our team dearly needs.”

Nikolay Prokhorkin, Blake Lizotte, Austin Wagner, Mike Amadio, Sean Walker and Matt Roy have all gotten an opportunity to play some more over the course of the season thanks to this rebuild. Cal Petersen has also made four starts since Campbell was shipped to the Maple Leafs.

Kathryn Tappen will host Wednesday’s coverage on NHL Live alongside analysts Keith Jones and Patrick Sharp and NHL insider Bob McKenzie. Alex Faust and analyst Jim Fox will call the action at STAPLES Center in Los Angeles, Calif.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Wednesday Night Hockey: Avs, Sabres took surprising deadline approaches

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with the Wednesday Night Hockey matchup between the Buffalo Sabres and Colorado Avalanche. Coverage begins at 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

The Avalanche and Sabres were in very different positions heading into the trade deadline. Colorado was comfortably in a playoff spot, while the Sabres were far enough out of a postseason position that no one expected them to make a trade to bolster their team. But the NHL is an unpredictable place.

One of the first moves made on Monday morning was between Ottawa and Colorado. The Avs sent a 2021 draft pick to the Sens for Vladislav Namestnikov. That’s a solid, low-cost depth move by general manager Joe Sakic. The expectation was that the Avs would continue to swing a few deals throughout the day, but outside of a move for veteran goalie Michael Hutchinson, they didn’t do anything else.

Sakic’s team has been hit pretty hard by the injury bug. Mikko Rantanen, Nazem Kadri, Colin Wilson, Matt Calvert and Philipp Grubauer are all sidelined right now. Now that the trade deadline has come and gone, all they can do is wait for these bodies to get healthy again.

Rantanen is arguably the most important player of the bunch. Since he went down to injury though, the Avs have found a way to win all three of their games. As difficult as it must be to not have him and other key players in their lineup right now, these guys should all come back fresh for a playoff push. They just have to find a way to survive without them in the present.

As for the Sabres, they surprised us on deadline day by giving up one of their 2021 draft picks for pending unrestricted free agent Wayne Simmonds. Even though their odds of participating in the playoffs were slim, general manager Jason Botterill wanted to give his team some kind of spark.

“I think we made Jason’s job a little bit more difficult, which is what our goal was,” forward Kyle Okposo said after Sunday’s win over Winnipeg. “We like the group that we have in here. I think we’ve shown some resilience that’s been missing in the past.”

Simmonds is nowhere close to being the player he was with the Philadelphia Flyers a few years ago. That’s why he fetched a fifth-rounder two years from now. But for a young Sabres team, adding a veteran like him could help them immediately and potentially heading into next year if the marriage between these two sides works.

The 31-year-old has eight goals and 24 points in 61 games with New Jersey this year and five of his eight goals have been scored on the man-advantage.

Botterill also acquired forward Dominik Kahun from the Pittsburgh Penguins for Conor Sheary and Evan Rodrigues. The 24-year-old is currently day-to-day with a lower-body injury.

The Sabres were six points out of a playoff spot on Monday. They’re now eight points behind Toronto for the third place in the Atlantic Division, but they have two games in hand. Keep in mind, they’d have to leap over the Leafs, Panthers and Canadiens to get the job done. That’s not an ideal situation to be in, but they’ll have to make the most of it.

Kathryn Tappen will host Wednesday’s coverage on NHL Live alongside analysts Keith Jones and Patrick Sharp and NHL insider Bob McKenzie. John Forslund, Eddie Olczyk and Brian Boucher will have the call from Pepsi Center in Denver, Colo.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.