Improved Sabres still surrounded by many question marks

Improved Sabres still surrounded by many question marks

Improved Sabres still surrounded by many question marks

The 2014-15 NHL season is here and as the puck is set to drop at First Niagara Center, a number of questions surround the Buffalo Sabres.

Are they really trying to finish last in order to draft Connor McDavid? Will the goaltending hold up? How long will Sam Reinhart be kept up? Did they improve enough – or maybe too much – in the offseason to move out of the league’s basement?

All of the questions work off of last year’s 30th place finish that eventually led Tim Murray to the selection of Sam Reinhart at the 2014 Draft. The Sabres were historically bad in 2013-14, scoring the fewest goals in the league by a wide margin, trading away the fact of their franchise and even working through an ugly internal divorce only weeks after bringing in a new management team.

Buffalo Sabres Season Starts tonight 10/9/14. Are you Ready?

Buffalo Sabres Season Starts tonight 10/9/14. Are you Ready?

Whether you’re talking about the on-ice product, the hockey department or even the Twitter account, the 13-14 season was one to forget for the Sabres.

Things started turning around once Ted Nolan and Tim Murray were brought on. Nolan brought about a noticeable change in attitude from the players while Murray was the hard lining general manager that fans had pined for. Murray didn’t take long to make his presence felt, shipping off Ryan Miller, Steve Ott and Matt Moulson at the trade deadline and bringing back an extra 2015 first round pick along with a host of additional assets.

Buffalo Sabres Hockey

Buffalo Sabres Hockey

The next stage of the rebuild is now on his doorstep as Moulson is back on a five-year deal, Brian Gionta is back in Western New York for three seasons and Josh Gorges spurned a move to Toronto and waived his no-trade clause to come to Buffalo. Chris Stewart is healthy and Reinhart will play at least nine games in Buffalo before returning to junior. Murray also signed Andrej Meszaros to give his blueline even more depth this season.

But where does this leave the mission to draft a generational talent in this year’s draft? It might not have made as big of an impact as some think.

The Sabres are no doubt a better team on paper than they were last season. That improvement will be reflected on the ice as well. However, they are now without a goaltender in Ryan Miller who anchored the team with goaltending that was five percentage points above league average. That’s nothing to scoff at, and while Jhonas Enroth and Michal Neuvirth are more than capable NHL goaltenders, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see a slight decrease in the department.

Another factor to consider is the sheer amount of ground the Sabres need to make up compared with the rest of the league. They were a full 14 points worse than the 29th place Florida Panthers and scored 39 fewer goals than those same Panthers. While the offseason moves Murray made were strong, I’m not sure if they’ll account for seven more wins and 40 goals.

What is undoubtedly true is the improvement the Sabres have undergone on the blueline. Tyler Myers will likely pair with Gorges to start the year while Meszaros will pair up with Buffalo’s blue chip prospect, Rasmus Ristolainen. The bottom pair will likely be some combination of a possession savvy Mark Pysyk, Andre Benoit and Mike Weber. Compared to last year’s top six which prominently featured Weber, Jamie McBain and Henrik Tallinder, the Sabres should see a great deal of improvement from this unit.

Gorges isn’t truly a top pairing defenseman, but he should maintain the steady veteran presence that has allowed Myers to thrive in certain situations. Putting Myers in a situation to succeed is an important factor for the season as there are still a few steps left before he can be considered and elite defenseman. Ristolainen will be an interesting case as he’ll get a full dose of NHL action this season. He showed well in his professional debut last year but didn’t come out of his shell until he spent a lengthy stint in Rochester. Now he’ll be playing a top-four role alongside another NHL veteran who should provide some stability as he continues to blossom.

The rest of the defensive corps is going to be interchangeable. Pysyk is a victim of circumstance in some ways as his skill set certainly lends itself well to a more prominent role. However, continuing to give the former first round pick minutes is the true key for the young defenseman. Weber and Benoit will likely be the primary pair of rotational players depending on the lineup Ted Nolan is looking for on a night-to-night basis. Keep an eye out for Jake McCabe and Tyson Strachan to work in as well depending on injuries or even merit-based promotions. Nikita Zadorov is in Buffalo for the start of the year, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see him return to London after nine games.

Up front the Sabres boast some promising forward lines. Moulson has shown tremendous chemistry with Tyler Ennis and Drew Stafford and that trio will be expected to carry the load offensively. Reinhart is starting the year between Cody Hodgson and Brian Gionta but once his nine-game audition is over any number of players could step into that role; including Mikhail Grigorenko.

Zemgus Girgensons could also fill in for Reinhart once he’s set back but he’ll start the year on a very heavy line, centering Marcus Foligno and Chris Stewart. That line has the potential to play a strong role in Buffalo’s offensive attack and Girgensons offensive progression playing in a slightly more beneficial role is worth tracking.

Buffalo’s fourth line will be a combination of a number of names that’s likely to change on a near weekly basis. Brian Flynn, Torrey Mitchell, Cody McCormick and Nicolas Deslauriers are the four most likely to battle for playing time but once Patrick Kaleta and Johan Larsson are healthy, things could change quite quickly.

Without doubt, the Sabres are a better team today than they were at any point last season. But is a full year of Moulson coupled with the addition of Stewart and Gionta enough to make up that 40-goal deficit from last year? In turn, is the duo of Enroth and Neuvirth enough to at least keep the team’s goals against and save percentage at the same level or better? Or perhaps will the two factors negate one another?

I expect Sabres fans will have a pretty good idea of where their team stands once the calendar hits November. The team is certainly going to be better. But will they be good enough to climb out of the basement

Buffalo Sabres Fans

Buffalo Sabres Fans

Street HockeyFest 2014 presented by Great Skate

Street HockeyFest 2014 presented by Great Skate

Street HockeyFest 2014 presented by Great Skate

Street HockeyFest is returning to the streets of Buffalo for lucky year number 13 on August 24 with Great Skate serving as the presenting sponsor.

There is a slight alteration to the summer tournament as the games will be held on the surface parking lots in Buffalo’s Cobblestone District immediately adjacent to First Niagara Center. The change is necessitated due to the active construction of HARBORCENTER and the street closures that accompany the project.

Registration for the tournament is open now and will close on August 15. Each team can have up to five players and all games will be played three-on-three plus a goaltender. The tournament is open to all players aged eight to 17 and will see the teams split into seven divisions for boys and five divisions for girls. The divisions are determined based on age and gender in accordance with USA Hockey’s age classifications. The exact breakdown of the divisions for Stree Hockey Fest can be found below.

Players are required to provide their own sticks, sneakers and gloves along with goaltender equipment. Any additional equipment that can be worn is optional but is recommended. Players in the micron and mite divisions will be required to wear helmets.

Check-in begins on the 24th at 8:00 am and the first games of the day will begin promptly at 9:00 am. Registration and additional participant information can be found on the Sabres website or by following this link.

Boys

  • Microns 6 & under (2008 and later)
  • Mites 8 & under: (2006)
  • Squirts 10 & under (2004, 2005)
  • Pee Wee 12 & under (2002, 2003)
  • Bantam 14 & under (2000, 2001)
  • Midget 16 & under (1998)
  • Midget 17 & under (1997)

Girls

  • 17 & under (1997)
  • 15 & under (1999)
  • 13 & under (2001)
  • 11 & under (2003)
  • 8 & under (2006)

Murray’s track record shows a strong hire for the Sabres front office

The Buffalo Sabres press conference introducing Tim Murray & Craig Patrick

The Buffalo Sabres press conference introducing Tim Murray & Craig Patrick

With Tim Murray named the new General Manager for the Sabres, the front office makeover has been completed nearly two months after it began with the introduction of Ted Nolan and Pat LaFontaine.

LaFontaine’s extensive search for a GM ran through a gamut of candidates before landing on Murray, who served as Ottawa’s Assistant General Manager prior to this appointment. While the process took far longer than expected or desired for many (including myself) it would appear that LaFontaine exhausted all options and vetted every candidate on his list to the fullest extent. While the original timeline was expected to only be a few weeks, I give credit to LaFontaine for conducting the search properly. If it indicates the type of work ethic LaFontaine will put into his position, I’m confident that the Sabres will be in good hands with him at the hockey department’s helm.

Murray also seems like a strong pick despite the early clubhouse leaders being names like Jason Botterill and Paul Fenton. A vast majority of Murray’s tenure in the NHL has seen him at the reigns of amateur talent evaluation and draft operations. He was part of a management team that scouted and drafted players like Joffery Lupul, Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and Bobby Ryan in Anaheim before working with his uncle in Ottawa to draft players like Erik Karlsson, Jared Cowen, Jakub Silfverberg, Robin Lehner and others. One interesting thing I found when perusing the drafts of team’s he’s been with is that he’s had varying success in the middle rounds (like most GMs) and the Ducks swung and missed on back-to-back first round selections after Murray’s departure.

Pierre LeBrun has pointed out that Murray’s talent lies in talent evaluation and it would appear that his talents are particularly effective with younger players as his duties as Binghamton’s GM helped the Baby Sens win a Calder Cup just three years ago. Given the scores of picks and prospects the Sabres own, Murray appears to be a strong fit for guiding the Sabres through their rebuild.

Murray’s tenure as Buffalo’s General Manager begins at an interesting time, with the Olympics just a month away and just two months out from the trade deadline. Murray will need time to evaluate the organization, evaluate the talent depth from the junior level up through the AHL and then determining what assets he already has in the NHL as well.

It’s likely a tricky situation to find himself in as he’ll likely want at least a month to go through his own organizational evaluation before being in a situation to make any necessary decisions towards the future of the team’s future. That includes trading or re-signing Ryan Miller, Matt Moulson and Steve Ott among other decisions that will need to be made prior to the deadline.

I’m expecting a quiet January from Murray as he figures out exactly what he has in the NHL and AHL while also assessing the direction the team will be heading in the offseason. The Olympic break will prevent him from making any moves prior to the deadline, but it will also allow him an extra month to take a look at his prospects in junior and Rochester prior to the NHL getting back up to speed leading up to the trade deadline. The only real question mark about Murray is the role that he played in the trades made by the Senators in recent years and if he’ll be a strong presence at the trade tables when it comes time to negotiate for the Sabres.

Don’t expect to see any fireworks from Murray in the short term as I would expect and adept talent manager – as Murray is said to be – to take their time determining the strengths and weaknesses of their organizational depth. Certainly there will be fans who expect him to wheel and deal from the minute he settles into his new office, but that seems wildly unrealistic.

He’s going to be tasked with determining the solution to the Ryan Miller saga and he’ll likely be judged on that in the short term, particularly if Miller leaves for greener pastures. While the route he takes with Miller will likely shape his legacy, his actual effectiveness won’t be determined for at least two or three years as how he drafts might wind up being the most vital trait he brings to Buffalo.

While it’s important to get first overall selections and land generational talents, it’s equally important to have a GM who is capable of guiding the ship in the right direction. Murray’s knack for talent evaluation and strong drafting says a lot about his pedigree.

I’m certainly confident in the choice the LaFontaine and the Sabres have made with Murray and although it may be some time before he makes a significant move, I’m looking forward to seeing how Murray operates at the helm.