Henri Jokiharju

Jeff Skinner Buffalo Sabres disappointment surprise
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Buffalo Sabres: This season’s biggest surprises and disappointments

With the 2019-20 NHL season on hold we are going to review where each NHL team stands at this moment until the season resumes. Here we take a look at the long-term outlook for the Buffalo Sabres.

Victor Olofsson ranks as biggest surprise for Sabres

With four points in six games to close out 2018-19, Olofsson showed promise. Little did we know, Olofsson was also providing a sneak preview for 2019-20. Olofsson began with a bang, carrying over that late 2018-19 season to score his first seven career goals on the power play, becoming the first NHL player to do so. (Or, at least as far as we know, being that the NHL began recording the stat in 1933-34.)

The Sabres’ power play and record eventually cooled off, and so did Olofsson. In Olofsson’s case, it was not as much as some might think, though.

Olofsson generated 35 points through 42 games before the All-Star break, settling down toward the end with seven points in 12 games (42 points in 54 overall). Olofsson finished third in Sabres scoring behind Jack Eichel (78) and Sam Reinhart (50) despite missing 15 games due to a lower-body injury.

While Olofsson rode some hot streaks, his 15.7 shooting percentage wasn’t so outrageous as to totally wipe out his impressive season. And you might chalk up some of his cold finish to injury issues, much like you’d downplay some of that hot start due to puck luck.

Split the difference, and the Sabres might have a nice find on their hands. Being that he was a seventh-round pick (181st overall in 2014) Olofsson seems like a gem for Buffalo. It just remains to be seen if Olofsson is a full-fledged diamond in the rough, or something a little less valuable.

Jeff Skinner‘s season a disappointment for Sabres, even with lowered expectations

Skinner’s brief Buffalo period already features a fascinating run of twists and turns.

My personal feeling was that the Hurricanes were selling low when they traded Skinner before 2018-19, being that his shooting percentage was just 8.7 in 2017-18. Skinner created instant chemistry with Jack Eichel in 2018-19, scoring 40 goals on a career-high 14.9 shooting percentage.

The stage was then set for Skinner to cost a bundle. Honestly, it felt like the Sabres kinda had to break the bank to keep Eichel, even if they were buying high with his new contract after buying low in that trade.

And now it … yeah, looks like the Sabres bought high. Skinner managed a mediocre 14 goals and just nine assists for 23 points over 59 games in 2019-20.

Skinner failing to look like a $9M forward wasn’t all that surprising. Still, such a drop in production was agonizing for the Sabres.

That said, there’s hope that Skinner might flip the script again — to an extent.

Skinner suffered through a 7.7 shooting percentage in 2019-20, tying a career low. It’s also fair to wonder if the Sabres would have been wiser to play Skinner with Eichel more often. More Eichel and more puck luck could boost Skinner’s numbers back to a higher level.

Will he be worth $9M? Probably not, but focusing on that dollar amount will only make things worse for Skinner and the Sabres.

New cast members, same Sabres story of disappointments

Sometimes the Sabres feel like a sad rerun of a failed sitcom.

Actually, maybe call it a failed reboot, like Hollywood’s recent attempts to make “The Fantastic Four,” a thing. Different cast members haven’t equaled box office buzz or critical acclaim.

Buffalo brought in new head coach Ralph Krueger. They aggressively attempted to boost their defensive depth with Colin Miller, Brandon Montour, and Henri Jokiharju. Marcus Johansson seemed like a wise budget addition.

With a hot 8-1-1 start, it seemed like there was hope for the Sabres. Maybe they’d be able to build off of that early sprint after falling off the tracks following a early rise in 2018-19, too?

Nope, the wheels came off once again. For yet another season, the Sabres couldn’t provide Jack Eichel with enough help. Sometimes there was bad luck, but other times, they were guilty of self-destructive moves. All the while, fans seemed on the verge of revolt.

***

(The biggest of all Sabres disappointments is probably Pegula Sports & Entertainment’s layoffs amid the coronavirus crisis, though.)

MORE SABRES BITS:
Looking at the Sabres’ 2019-20 season (so far?)
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.

It looks like Blackhawks are sticking with Bowman, Colliton

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Before the 2019-20 NHL season went on pause the Chicago Blackhawks were headed toward their third consecutive non-playoff season and their fifth consecutive season without a playoff series win (with only three playoff game wins during that stretch).

It has been a pretty sudden fall from the top for an organization that was once the gold standard for winning in the salary cap NHL.

They are not only no longer a Stanley Cup contender, they are not even all that close to being a playoff team in what has been a mostly watered down Western Conference the past two years.

Despite the sudden descent into mediocrity, there does not appear to be any significant changes coming to the coaching staff or front office after this season.

In an interview with the Athletic’s Scott Powers, Blackhawks chairman Rocky Wirtz said the trio of team president John McDonough, general manager Stan Bowman, and head coach Jeremy Colliton will all be back next season.

From the Athletic:

Wirtz isn’t on the same page as those fans. Asked about his confidence level in the trio, Wirtz replied, “I think they’re all good.”

Does he envision all three returning next season?

“Oh yeah, absolutely,” Wirtz said. “There’s not going to be any changes in the front office.”

Wirtz reiterated that when he was asked about a rumored Bowman contract extension.

“I’ll let John (McDonough) get into all the details,” Wirtz said of Bowman’s contract. “But there’s not going to be any changes, so let’s put that away.”

The level of confidence there is a little surprising given the current state of the Blackhawks’ organization, especially as it relates to the key people in the front office responsible with building the team.

It was just a little over a year ago that the team parted ways with a three-time Stanley Cup winning coach (Joel Quenneville) after a slow start to the season 2018-19 season. It wasn’t a stretch to think that move would have started the timer on Bowman given that the attention would eventually drift toward the team’s roster management. Especially after the Blackhawks seemed to go all in this offseason on trying to fix their flaws with the hope of squeezing another run out of this remaining core. Obviously, that gamble has not paid off.

While the Blackhawks have to deal with salary cap restrictions that come from paying a pair of superstars big money at the top, that alone isn’t enough of a justification for the drop in success, especially while teams like Washington and Pittsburgh have maintained consistent success with a similar cap structure. The issue still comes back to roster management and some questionable decisions over the years. The Blackhawks tried to get ahead of their salary cap issues over the years but simply made things worse in the short-and long-term.

They needed to dump Bryan Bickell’s contract and did so by attaching Teuvo Teravainen to it and trading him to Carolina for next to nothing. Today, Teravainen is one of the Hurricanes’ best players and would easily be a top player in Chicago.

They feared how much Artemi Panarin would cost on his next contract and dealt him to Columbus to bring back Brandon Saad and some cost certainty. Talent-for-talent, the trade was laughably one-sided and saw them deal a superstar for a good player. Maybe they couldn’t have re-signed him for his current contract and lost him anyway, but how much more competitive would they have been the previous two years with him at forward with Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, and Alex DeBrincat?

Then there were smaller, minor deals this offseason like trading Dominik Kahun and Henri Jokiharju for Olli Maatta and Alex Nylander, and then getting an underwhelming return on Robin Lehner and Erik Gustafsson at the trade deadline. There are big mistakes. There are a bunch of small mistakes adding up into big mistakes. It all just keeps building up into what the Blackhawks have now.

That is not to say there have not been some successes.

Acquiring Dominik Kubalik has been one of the Blackhawks’ best steals in recent years. DeBrincat has turned out to be an outstanding second-round pick, while recent top picks Adam Boqvist and Kirby Dach look like they can be young building blocks going forward. But even with those successes and the promise they bring there are still more questions than solutions throughout the roster. Without dramatic change somewhere, the mediocrity might only continue to build.

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.

NHL On NBCSN: What does future hold for Stan Bowman, Blackhawks?

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with Tuesday’s matchup between the Chicago Blackhawks and St. Louis Blues.  Coverage begins at 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

By trading starting goalie Robin Lehner and defenseman Erik Gustafsson on Monday the Chicago Blackhawks officially raised the white flag on the 2019-20 NHL season.

They enter Tuesday’s game against the St. Louis Blues (8 p.m. ET, NBCSN) in 12th place in the Western Conference and eight points out of a wild card spot with still four teams ahead of them.

Right now the cut-off point for a wild card spot in the West is around 88 points. The Blackhawks at the moment are only on pace for 82 points and would need to collect 27 points in their final 20 games (think 13-6-1 record) to gain enough ground to give themselves a chance. Given the way the season has played out, and the players they are now without, that seems unlikely.

It also means that the Blackhawks are almost certainly headed for their third straight non-playoff season and their fifth straight season without a playoff series win. Their decline from dynasty to mediocrity has been stunning and swift.

What makes it all even more shocking is they still have two superstar forwards (Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews) playing at a high level, while the threshold to make the playoffs in the Western Conference the past two seasons has been as low as we have ever seen it in the era of the three-point game. It only took 90 points to get in a year ago. It may not take that many this season. And the Blackhawks still seem unable to reach even that.

Adding to the frustration is that on Monday the returns for Lehner and Gustafsson just seemed, for lack of a better word, underwhelming. Trading them was the absolute right call. It had to be done. But there is nothing coming back in return that moves the needle in a meaningful way.

So what happens if (or when) this season reaches the conclusion it seems destined for? Is there any short-term hope that next season won’t produce the same result? And how much longer will Bowman get to try and get this team back on track?

As long as Kane and Toews are in the lineup there is at least a foundation in place. Dominik Kubalik has been one of the few home run moves hit by the front office in recent years, while recent first-rounders Kirby Dach and Adam Boqvist both look to be loaded with potential.

But that’s not enough, especially as the two superstars get deeper into their 30s. There has to be more, and Bowman has made his share of significant missteps the past few years. Brent Seabrook‘s contract to further complicate their salary cap structure. Trading Artemi Panarin and Teuvo Teravainen in an effort to fix their salary cap problems (there had to be better, more productive ways). Dealing young players like Dominik Kahun and Henri Jokiharju this summer for a pair of players (Olli Maatta and Alex Nylander) that simply have not added much.

Bowman’s roster moves this past summer were him betting on the current roster still being able to compete with a couple of tweaks.

That gamble has not worked, and it remains a roster that still seems to have more questions and problems than actual solutions.

When you add all of that up it’s put the Blackhawks in the worst possible position a team can be in — the middle ground. A team that is not good enough to compete, but still has enough reasons to think it should.

Gord Miller and Pierre McGuire will call the action at Enterprise Center in St. Louis, Mo. Tonight’s studio coverage will be hosted by Liam McHugh with Scott Hartnell and Mike Johnson.

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.

Kassian offered in-person hearing for kicking Cernak

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UPDATE: Kassian has been suspended seven games.

Edmonton Oilers forward Zack Kassian has been offered an in-person hearing with the NHL’s Department of Player Safety for his kick on Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Erik Cernak, per TSN’s Bob McKenzie.

Given the play in question, it’s not surprising to see the Department of Player Safety want to have a face-to-face with him. That means his suspension could be more than five games.

Kicking with a skate blade is a matter the NHL has to take seriously. Thankfully, Cernak wasn’t cut on the play. The NHL will usually factor injury into the length of the suspension, but this is one of the cases where they shouldn’t. It doesn’t matter that Cernak was fine after the play. The league has to send Kassian and others the message that using your skate blade in that way is totally unacceptable.

He attempted to justify his actions postgame, but it didn’t make him look any better.

“He was holding my leg, it was reactionary, I was just trying to get him off me, kick him off me,” Kassian said after the game, per the Edmonton Sun. “I was just trying to get my foot loose. I was laying there for a while, a couple of seconds, so I was just trying to pull my leg out.

“If I kicked him hard, I think he would have flew back or the ref would have called a penalty. I was trying to get off and pull my leg off. He was holding me and Archie down, I didn’t even know where the puck was I was trying to pull my leg up and get up.”

Over the course of the last little while, two players have been injured by blades. Red Wings forward Brendan Perlini was forced from a game against Buffalo after he caught a Henri Jokiharju skate to the face. Meanwhile, Islanders forward Casey Cizikas was sliced on the leg by Flyers defenseman Ivan Provorov. Both these incidents were accidental, but they’re an important reminder that a skate blade can do some serious damage.

To make matters worse for Kassian, he’ll be considered a repeat offender in the Department of Player Safety’s eyes. He was suspended two games last month for being an aggressor in an altercation with Flames forward Matthew Tkachuk. Regardless of how you feel about that incident, you can’t take this one lightly.

“I knew right away when he was on the ice he kicked me,” Cernak explained. “I think he was little bit mad and I asked him what was wrong with him, because that’s not a right play to do on the ice and he didn’t say nothing, so I don’t know. He kicked me right in the chest, so luckily that wasn’t higher.”

Yesterday was a tough day for the league. Many were left puzzled after Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara received nothing more than a $5,000 fine for cross-checking Habs winger Brendan Gallagher in the chops. Teammate Brad Marchand‘s spear on Jeff Petry resulted in the Bruins forward getting four minutes in penalties, but no supplemental discipline either.

Using your skate in that manner just can’t happen. The league needs to make an example out Kassian in this situation.

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.

WATCH LIVE: Lightning vs. Sabres in 2019 NHL Global Series

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with Friday’s Global Series matchup between the Buffalo Sabres and Tampa Bay Lightning. Coverage begins at 2 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

The Lightning and Sabres head to Stockholm, Sweden for a “home and home” in the NHL Global Series. Friday’s game will mark the second Global Series game this season, with the Flyers beating the Blackhawks in Prague, Czech Republic on October 4.

This is the second regular season trip overseas for both teams. The Lightning lost both of their games in Czech Republic in 2008, while the Sabres won both of their games in Finland and Germany in 2011.

This will be the 33rd regular season game contested outside North America. It will be the 12th to be played in Sweden, the most among all countries, and the 11th game in Stockholm, the most of any city. The only game to take place in Sweden outside of the capital was New Jersey’s win against Edmonton in Gothenburg in October of last season.

The Lightning have lost three of their last four games, while they gave up six goals in their only win during that stretch (7-6 OT win at New Jersey). After opening the season with eight wins in their first 10 games, the Sabres have now lost four of their last five and head to Sweden on a three-game losing streak.

While captain Steven Stamkos leads Tampa with 13 points in 13 games (5G-8A), he has just one goal in his last seven games and none in his last three. Last season’s Art Ross and Hart Trophy winner Nikita Kucherov is second on TB with 11 pts (4G-7A) but has just one goal in the last nine games.

Sabres captain Jack Eichel, who just turned 23 years old last week, continues to lead the team in scoring with 17 points in 15 games this season (7G-10A). Eichel, who finished last season with a career-high 82 points, has seen his point total increase in every season of his NHL career. He is currently on pace for 92 points this season

[COVERAGE OF LIGHTNING-SABRES BEGINS AT 2 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

WHAT: Buffalo Sabres vs. Tampa Bay Lightning
WHERE: Ericsson Globe – Stockholm, Sweden
WHEN: Friday, Nov. 8, 2 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
LIVE STREAM: You can watch the Lightning-Sabres stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

LIGHTNING
Ondrej Palat – Steven Stamkos – Alexander Volkov
Tyler JohnsonBrayden Point – Nikita Kucherov
Alex KillornAnthony CirelliMathieu Joseph
Patrick MaroonCedric PaquetteYanni Gourde

Victor HedmanKevin Shattenkirk
Ryan McDonaghErik Cernak
Luke Schenn – Mikhail Sergachev

Starting goalie: Andrei Vasilevskiy

SABRES
Victor Olofsson – Jack Eichel – Sam Reinhart
Jeff SkinnerMarcus JohanssonVladimir Sobotka
Jimmy VeseyCasey MittelstadtConor Sheary
Zemgus GirgensonsJohan LarssonKyle Okposo

Jake McCabeRasmus Ristolainen
Brandon MontourRasmus Dahlin
Henri JokiharjuColin Miller

Starting goalie: Linus Ullmark

John Forslund and Pierre McGuire will call Friday’s matchup.