NHL’s Top Prospects will see plenty of Buffalo

NHL’s Top Prospects will see plenty of Buffalo

NHL’s Top Prospects will see plenty of Buffalo

Buffalo Sabres management has made no mistake about their desire to funnel all of the NHL’s top talent through Western New York.

In the coming weeks and months, Buffalo will play host to the CCM All-American Prospects Game, the NHL Scouting Combine and an Erie Otters home game. Meanwhile, just over the border, St. Catharines will play host to the CHL Top Prospects game this season. That means the top three (if not more) draft prospects for the loaded 2015 draft will be trekking through Buffalo at least twice before next June’s draft. This is a very exciting time for hockey fans in Buffalo.

Jack Eichel and Noah Hanifin will be first up as the All-American Prospects game rolls through on September 25. The pair represent two thirds of the Draft’s top three prospects and Eichel will be making a strong push to unseat Connor McDavid as the consensus number one pick. Tickets for the event are on sale now and if the last All-American Prospects game serves as a barometer, good seats will be available.

McDavid is next up on the docket as his Erie Otters come to town on October 22. For those of you who haven’t made the short trip to Erie to se McDavid, this will be your golden opportunity. The Otters are loaded with prospects not named McDavid, but the highly touted “Next One” will obviously be the main attraction.

If October 22 doesn’t happen to work out, you can also catch the Otters in Erie throughout the winter or on any of their visits to face the Niagara Icedogs. In addition to Erie’s regular season visits, McDavid will likely be a hop and skip over the border participating in the BMO Top Prospects game on January 22.

The beauty is that all of these events are happening less than 30 minutes from downtown Buffalo. Expand your hockey radius to Erie and consistent viewings of McDavid can be had in less than a 90 minute drive on a weekly basis.

NHL’s Top Prospects will see plenty of Buffalo

NHL’s Top Prospects will see plenty of Buffalo

All of this is in addition to what will be happening on the ice at First Niagara Center and Blue Cross Arena. Buffalo boasts the league’s deepest and most intriguing prospect pool and a great deal of those players will be on display nightly between both the Sabres and Rochester Americans. So even if the Sabres’ season quickly deteriorates into a mission to pick first overall, there will be plenty of quality hockey being played around the Queen City.

This will be an exciting year in hockey for fans in Buffalo, NY. With so many different teams and players making cameos, Western New York is strengthening its reputation as a hockey Mecca.

Eastern Conference second round preview and prediction

Eastern Conference second round preview and prediction

Eastern Conference second round preview and prediction

I managed to pull together a very respectable record in picking the first round series. Colorado’s late collapse on Wednesday kept me from a perfect record but I’m quite pleased going 7-1 over those eight series. I even managed to peg the length of a number of those series as well, a nice bonus to accompany the prognostication.

The East kicks things off tonight and the full second round will be up and running by this weekend. The NHL must be pleased once again as the divisional format produced an eventful first round and a few very enticing second round matchups.

Boston Bruins vs. Montreal Canadiens

Yet another storied rivalry that will grow thanks to the NHL’s new format. There’s a different type of hate between the fans in Boston and Montreal and there’s even a few rivalries on the ice.

This sets up as an interesting series that sees the Bruins pit the deep, physical lineup against the speedy, skilled group in Montreal. The Canadiens have some beef in their lineup, but from top to bottom their roster reflects differently than that of their opponents.

Both teams made quick work of their opponents in the first round as Montreal was the first team to advance with the Bruins not far behind. Boston’s series against Detroit was the last one to begin which shortened their break between series a bit. But Montreal’s sweep and Boston’s five-game series win will allow both squads to lick any lingering wounds before the next round.

They’re going to need their health, as well, as the Bruins can expect to drive to the paint in both ends and push their opponents around. Montreal will need to gear up to get knocked around during the series and will benefit from producing on the counterattack.

What to watch for

Montreal ousted Tampa in systematic fashion, benefitting from weak goaltending and a team with limited depth. Now they head to a series with arguably the league’s best goaltender a team with four terrific defensemen and at least three sound lines. Montreal will not only need to adjust to the level of competition but also  finding the proper match for Boston’s lines as the series progresses.

Boston should win this series. While the Canadiens have a great goaltender and some impressive talent atop their roster, there are holes that Boston can exploit along the way. First, I expect Thomas Vanek and Max Pacioretty to see a lot of Patrice Bergeron this series. While you could argue the Canadiens have other scorers, none function on the level of Vanek or Paciortetty.

Between the pipes

BOS: Tuukka Rask

MTL: Carey Parice

Edge: Boston. Only ever so slightly do I give Rask the nod over Price. This is primarily motivated by Rask’s postseason experience the last few years vs. that of Price. Both had strong showings at the Olympics and both have been strong thus far in the playoffs. I’ll take Rask ever so slightly above Price this time around.

Boston in six

Pittsburgh Penguins  vs. New York Rangers

The Penguins have the opportunity to take advantage of New York’s lengthy first round series with the Flyers. Scheduling constraints not only set the Rangers up with a back-to-back set for games six and seven but also puts them in a situation to see them play six games in eight days.

New York is going to be a darkhorse favorite for plenty of fans and pundits as the Rangers showed the ability to score in bunches (at times) while receiving timely goaltending. Meanwhile, the Penguins enter the second round this year much in the way they did in 2013. They clawed their way past a pesky lower seed in six games despite the better efforts of their goaltender to secure early tee times for the summer.

Marc Andre Fleury’s struggles continue to be amplified as the goaltender is looking at a third-straight postseason of a bloated goals against average and a sinking save percentage. He looked to have found his game in the deciding game six against Columbus before the Blue Jackets barrage almost tied the contest. Now, it’s likely that the fans and possibly his teammates are gripping their sticks a little tighter with concern over the play of the guy behind them.

What to watch for

This series is going to be all about goaltending for me. Can Fleury shake the cobwebs enough to string together a few  more wins? Can Henrik Lundqvist steal a game or two in order to put the heat on the Pens stars? Which goalie will take control of the series? It’s fun to think about because Lundqvist has been playing so well while Fleury’s play remains right around average.

The similarities between last year’s win over the Islanders and this year’s win over Columbus are unrelated when you consider the series that is upon these two teams. However, the same storyline now haunts the Penguins. While they dispatched a lesser opponent with a game to go, it never looked easy for the Pens. For a team with so much fire power that’s not necessarily something you want following you around.

Meanwhile, the Rangers simply need to find their offense. They exploded at times against the Flyers but were stymied just as much. This is a team that lives and dies with it’s top six and if Rick Nash, Brad Richards and friends aren’t firing on all cylinders it will be a quick series.

Between the pipes

PIT: Marc-Andre Fleury

NYR: Henrik Lundqvist

Edge: Rangers. Lundqvist was a rock throughout the first round. His game six hiccup came thanks to a number of odd-man chances for the Flyers and not so much weak or soft goals. While Lundqvist has a decided edge over Fleury in this series the jury is out on the Rangers ability to give him proper goal support.

New York in seven

Western Conference second round preview and prediction

There’s little doubt that the Western Conference boasted the better of the first round series now that the dust has settled. The Blues and Blackhawks lived up to expectations and the Kings-Sharks epic was must-see-TV. The Wild and Avalanche didn’t disappoint in their seven-game swing and the Ducks and Stars made things interesting despite not having much of a q-rating at the outset.

Now the challenge is to see if these two second round series can do the same. The Kings and Ducks certainly have the rival fan bases to make for an interesting series, but will it play out on the ice. Meanwhile, the Blackhawks and Wild rekindle their pleasantries from last year’s first round.

Chicago Blackhawks vs. Minnesota Wild

The Blackhawks have had a little more time to rest after their battle against St. Louis and they certainly needed the time off. They played a very physical six-game set and with a couple stars already nagged up entering the playoffs. They’ll have the edge in terms of depth and in net and while this won’t likely be the five-game cake walk that last year’s series was, I expect them to advance past the Wild.

Minnesota enters this series after going the distance with Colorado. They probably should have gotten out of that series sooner than they did but the Avs managed to steal a couple games early on. While I don’t think fatigue will be a major factor for the Wild, it won’t help them in terms of the grand scheme of matching up with the Chicago juggernaut.

What to watch for

The Blackhawks just have to keep playing their game. They have a consistent three-line attack and a fourth line that is serviceable enough to keep the ice time relatively balance across the board. Corey Crawford was terrific in the latter half of their first series and should be able to carry over that momentum to this series. If the Blackhawks carry a 2-0 lead to Minnesota this could be a very short series.

Minnesota needs to find a way to check Chicago’s big guns. The Blues weren’t able to contain them as Kane, Toews and Sharp ran roughshod over them in the first round and can do the same if the Wild can’t keep them on a short leash. Depth scoring will be vital as the Wild’s top line will more than likely be neutralized for a good portion of the series.

Between the pipes

CHI: Corey Crawford

MIN: Darcy Kuemper or Ilya Bryzgalov

Edge: Chicago. This is an easy one. Crawford was the better of the two goalies between he and Ryan Miller in the first round and will be the same against Minnesota’s third and fourth string goalies (technically). Kuemper’s assumed head injury will likely push Bryzgalov in net to start the series and after dropping the first two games to Colorado I’m not sure what he will muster against the Blackhawks.

Blackhawks in five

Anahem Ducks vs. Los Angeles Kings

The Freeway Faceoff finally gets to take place in the postseason. The fan bases of these two teams simply don’t get along and while the rivalry may not be as heated on the ice, the arenas will be packed and loud for the entire series.

The Ducks, like the Blackhaws, have had a few days of while the Kings wrapped up their reverse sweep of San Jose. Anaheim played a heated series with Dallas and having the ability to unwind a bit from such a tense series should serve them well. While they aren’t laden with grizzled vets, the Ducks will certainly benefit from the time off.

Los Angeles could potentially enter the series mentally zapped. They just strung together four-straight wins while facing elimination to knock off their neighbors from NorCal in the first round. Erasing San Jose’s 3-0 lead wasn’t going to be an easy task and hopefully the Kings didn’t empty their tanks just getting out of the first round.

What to watch for

Anaheim hasn’t been a sterling puck possession team this year. They’ve had struggles in that neighborhood and are now about to face one of the league’s best possessions squads. The Ducks also stumbled upon some goaltending questions after the first round and it’s looking likely that Jonas Hiller may retake his crease. Of course, it’s also possible that John Gibson gets a call to take over against the Kings.

LA simply needs to do what they’ve done all year. They carry possession and dictate the pace better than nearly every other team. They can rely on their goaltender and so long as their offense remains hot they’ll be a very difficult out for the Ducks.

Between the Pipes

ANA: Jonas Hiller

LA: Jonathan Quick

Edge: Los Angeles. Quick was spectacular once game four began. While Hiller has stolen series in the past he also lost his crease to two rookies this year. Bruce Boudreau seemed hesitant to go back to him against the Stars and it wouldn’t surprise me in the least to see Boudreau go in another direction. Quick is the winner here no matter who plays for the Ducks.

Los Angeles in six

Floating changes to the NHL Draft Lottery

Floating changes to the NHL Draft Lottery

Floating changes to the NHL Draft Lottery

As the talent at the top of the NHL Draft continues to rise each year the topic of tanking to ensure higher odds at the first overall pick is becoming a hot topic. While the current system is designed to give the 30th place finisher the best opportunity to pick first, there is a better chance that team picks second given the odds.

With next year’s draft featuring a pair of generational talents at the top of the prospect pool, rumors and chatter have abounded regarding change to the lottery system in hopes of curbing the practice of tanking.

There doesn’t seem to be a good system that is strictly based off the order of finish in the standings. The system floated by Elliotte Friedman a few weeks back included a few nuances that wouldn’t only decrease the 30th place finisher’s chances but take into account a number of seasons as opposed to the one that had just passed.

However, it’s a fairly nuanced system that points towards even more complicated and convoluted systems for determining the first overall pick while preventing teams from taking nosedives to the bottom of the standings.

One idea I’m particularly fond of is a version of something similar I heard on NHL Network Radio a while back. If I’m not mistaken the original thought came from Mike Brophy, so direct the appropriate praise to him for the genesis of this idea.

The plan would be to still reward the worst teams with the highest picks in each year’s draft. You can’t have parity and turnover within the league unless you follow such a pattern. It also ensures that bad teams will improve – or should improve if you’re the Oilers – by picking high. In a league driven by revenues, perennial basement dwellers will eventually see lots of red ink if they can’t bring in players to overhaul their roster.

My plan would include the league’s five worst teams – although this could be expanded if necessary – in a competition to determine who wins the first overall pick. I stress the term win because this would be a standings-based competition that would be evaluated on each team’s performance after a certain point in the year. This way you can’t simply hit the brakes on your year, sell off your assets and wait to see what the lottery balls do for you once the season wraps. Meanwhile, if you finish 30th you’re still assured to draft high enough to get some help.

The competition wouldn’t affect the regular season schedule, nor would it be a separate postseason tournament – although that would rule. It would simply be standings based just as each division race is determined. Whichever team ends the year with the most points after the competition begins wins the first overall pick.

Beginning this competition, let’s call it the NHL Draft Challenge, would likely be the toughest thing to determine. You could either run it over a certain number of games each year to ensure similar results each season or you could run it from the first game after the fifth worst team is eliminated.

There are a few issues with this portion of things, I know. First, the team in fifth on March 1 could wind up finishing ninth by the end of the year. Just as the team in 12th could nosedive and wind up 4th by the end of the year. This lends credence to using a set number of games each year towards the end of the regular season. The last 10 games for the league’s five worst teams, for example. That not only provides a concrete definition of the games being considered, but it also can provide a failsafe for those teams who surge or regress in the final weeks of the year.

Ideally this would be something that you would track in realtime. Almost like the NASCAR standings. That way each night the teams in the running are truly competing for that top pick as opposed to simply evaluating the standings once the year is out. If that means you need to expand this beyond the bottom five teams, so be it. But I’d rather determine the participants by a certain point in the year – probably shortly after St. Patrick’s Day – and officially begin the NHL Draft Challenge at that time.

That way, as the end of the season approaches the teams in the cellar would have something to play for over their final 10 games. The team with the best record would win the first pick. I’d also reward the second and third place finishers in the Challenge with the second and third overall picks. The rest of the draft order would be determined by order of finish in the standings. This way you reward the teams who succeed in the challenge while not completely handcuffing the 30th and 29th place teams if they’re truly horrible.

One way to avoid that would be to install a sliding scale, of sorts. This Challenge could still encompass the five, seven, ten or even fourteen non-playoff teams but rather than using a set number of games a point percentage of games once a team had been eliminated. While teams who are eliminated on the final week or weekend may need to be excluded, it would eliminate some of the confusing elements to picking the participants. This way teams eliminated later could still be part of the Challenge while not being at a disadvantage in terms of the number of games they could play upon their elimination from playoff contention.

One other wrinkle this would add would be regarding the trade deadline and impending free agents. There is the potential to limit the number of true sellers at the deadline because of the potential interest in grabbing that first pick. Simply selling off UFAs for draft picks would be far less prevalent than true hockey trades so that even the league’s worst teams maintain some competitiveness.

Obviously there will still be sellers as a team like the 2013-14 Sabres who know they need to build through the draft will still value trades like the one that sent Matt Moulson to Minnesota. But I’d assume that some teams may hold onto certain players in the event they believe they can land the first pick.

This isn’t a perfect system. Picking the right time to choose the teams who would be participating and not excluding teams who may enter the bottom five later in the year would complicate matters. But it would also add excitement and interest for the teams and fans who would otherwise be wallowing through a 29th or 30th place season.

Here’s the rundown of the system once again:

–          The league’s bottom five teams would compete over their final 10 games to determine who wins the first overall draft pick

o   The number of teams could be expanded if necessary.

–          The number of points accumulated in the standings over those final 10 games would determine the winner

–          The competition would occur in real time as each of the final 10 games are played by each participating team

–          The top three finishers in the Draft Challenge would win the top three picks. The rest of the draft order would be determined by order of finish in the standings.

–          Teams that qualify for the Challenge would be determined once the fifth worst team was officially eliminated from the playoffs.

–          If the point percentage system is used, the Challenge would begin for each team once they were eliminated from the playoffs

o   Under that system, the percentage of points earned vs. available would determine the standings for the Draft Challenge

o   Teams eliminated on the final weekend or week of the season may not be eligible for participation depending on the number of games they’d have remaining

Junior Hockey trips

phenom named Connor McDavid

Otters boast another highly marketable feature in the form of a 17 year-old phenom named Connor McDavid.

There are 60 teams across the three leagues that make up the CHL. There are 16 more teams that make up the USHL and between the two leagues, they span across Canada and into 13 American states. Depending on where you live, you’re probably a lot closer to a major junior team than you think.

From Great Skate’s driveway you could make it to St. Catharines to see the Ice Dogs in 30 minutes or less. The Erie Otters are just about 90 minutes door-to-door while many of the OHL’s other clubs aren’t  much further away.

I was able to make three separate road trips to see junior hockey played this season, making two trips to Erie and another to St. Catharines.

The trip to see the Ice Dogs was particularly interesting as Niagara was playing their final season at Jack Gatecliff arena, which was originally built in 1938. The Ice Dogs will be moving to a new, state-of-the-art arena for the 2014-15 season and having the opportunity to see one of junior hockey’s last great barns was a special treat.

The intrigue of seeing a game played at the junior level is multifaceted. Young players, competing not only for their team’s success but their own futures adds to the narrative on a nightly basis. Each team has at least one established draft prospect who is often playing at another level as compared to his teammates and opponents. The fans a passionate and informed and the atmosphere is different than many professional games you may have seen.

Jack Gatecliff Arena has a small ice surface with no more than 10 rows of seating in the stands. Standing room fans pack in the tiny concourses and the low rafters and press box overhangs add to the intimate atmosphere. Only a handful of these smaller, “old school” buildings are left as more and more teams are moving into shiny, modern buildings with better amenities and a more professional set up.

If you’re looking to track down some of the older, more intimate arenas that are left, Stadium Journey has documented the homes of all 20 teams with full reviews of each building.

The trip to St. Catharines was mainly motivated by the chance to see hockey in a building that had maintained for so long. It was also motivated by the fact that the Ice Dogs are the closest franchise to Buffalo and if there was any team I’d latch onto each season, their proximity would play a major role.

My two trips to Erie were similarly motivated (proximity) but the Otters boast another highly marketable feature in the form of a 17 year-old phenom named Connor McDavid.

As many hockey fans are already aware, McDavid is expected to be the crown jewel of next year’s NHL Entry Draft and he’s already dazzled in his first two years of junior hockey. Seats are increasingly hard to come by in Erie as the local fanbase is augmented by visitors from cities like Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Cleveland and more coming to see McDavid play. He’s worth the price of admission.

My first jaunt to the Erie Insurance Arena resulted in having to buy standing room only tickets for $17 each. The arena’s procedure for standing room landed us about seven rows behind the bench on the blueline, not a bad deal.

Instead of missing out on a seat the second time down, our group used the box office to buy tickets ahead of time in the section of our choice. We pad $16 to sit on the glass. Even without McDavid, the level of play far surpasses the price to get in the door at any arena, let along Erie.

What’s even better is that these trips are a piece of cake to plan. Many teams run cool promotional giveaways – we happened to be too late for the McDavid player posters they were giving away – and the tickets aren’t hard to come by if you buy them ahead of time. Another fun fact regarding those promotions, the player or players featured often sign autographs after the game to add to the unique souvenir.

You’re not going to be disappointed with your choice of a junior hockey road trip. The atmosphere is different than that of an NHL game, there’s rarely a bad seat in the house as the arenas are all right-sized for the crowd and the level of play is high. Maybe put together one or two for next season and grow from there.

CCM going back to Tacks

CCM going back to Tacks

CCM going back to Tacks

The return is coming. CCM will be reintroducing the world to the Tacks line in the coming months as the manufacturer brings a new skate line to complement the RBZ line that burst onto the scene last year.

Already being used in the NHL, Nathan MacKinnon made the unofficial news official when he posted a picture of his new skates to his Instagram account earlier in the season. While MacKinnon’s picture simply added fuel to an already burning fire of rumors and whispers about the skates, the official unveiling of the line won’t come until July ‘14.

The Tacks, on the surface look like a combination of the RBZ and Bauer TotalOne in the aesthetics department. It’s a sleek skate with bright yellow graphics that pop off a basic black boot. The design of the boot has plenty of surface similarities to it’s cousin, the RBZ. Adding in a Speedblade 4.0 holder and Hyperglide blade provides even more similarity between the two skates. Additionally, you can deduce that the Tacks will share the aggressive stance and turning radius that the RBZ boasts.

The comparison to the TotalOne is simply drawn from the yellow trim on a black base. However, the Tacks will utilize a stiff carbon boot construction designed to add straight-line explosiveness. Two features, the AttackFrame and T6 Pro Core will combine to add stiffness and high-end performance for the wearer specifically for explosive acceleration.

Exactly where the skates will fall on the fit scale is an unknown as many specific details about the new line are still under lockdown. Understandably so as CCM is bringing back perhaps the most storied and celebrated skate ever and introducing new technology that will put it on the same level as the most popular skates in stores today.

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.

LaFontaine and Nolan return amidst Sabres shakeup

LaFontaine and Nolan return amidst Sabres shakeup

LaFontaine and Nolan return amidst Sabres shakeup

A pair of very familiar faces are back in prominent positions with the Sabres organization as Pat LaFontaine and Ted Nolan were brought back in the fold after a massive shake up at First Niagara Center.

LaFontaine takes over as the team’s President of Hockey Operations with Ted Nolan stepping in as the interim head coach. Both Ron Rolston and Darcy Regier were relieved of their duties prior to LaFontaine and Nolan stepping in.

Ousting Rolston seemed like an inevitable choice given Buffalo’s woeful record and the ugly way they went about earning it. Exactly when the axe was to fall on Rolston was left to guesswork due to Buffalo’s current campaign for the first overall pick. The heat was rising fast, however, as Buffalo’s string of first period flops and ugly losses was punctuated by an inability to draw any sort of redemption from the progression of the team’s young players. When a coach lauded for his ability to develop players isn’t even doing that, obviously there is a problem.

Regier’s departure is only shocking when you consider the scope of this shakeup. The construction of the roster left plenty to be desired and his quest to mimic the toughness of the Bruins ended up sacrificing the overall skill level of Buffalo’s forward group. Like Rolston, Regier’s departure was something that was expected at some point in the coming calendar year, the timing is what comes as something of a shock, as were his replacements.

Pat LaFontaine strikes me as a solid, sound choice as the team’s new President of Hockey Operations. His lack of front office experience doesn’t make him a glowing candidate for the position of GM and he said as much during today’s press conference. What LaFontaine brings is a fresh set of eyes to evaluate and hire the general manager who will guide the team through this rebuilding process.

His choice on the new GM will have a trickle-down effect on the team’s current interim head coach, Ted Nolan. The interim tag given to Nolan indicates that the new GM will have the ability to make the final choice on the coach and should the two not see eye-to-eye, the GM will be able to replace him. Given that the chain of command has yet to be completed, this makes a lot of sense.

Nolan’s success could certainly dictate whether or not he drops the interim tag, but there is no doubt that the new GM will have final say on his tenure this time around. Given that LaFontaine is ensuring the new chain of command falls as it should, I’m not reading too much into Nolan’s hiring at this point. In fact, I’m willing to wait to not only see who the new GM will be, but what his choice of head coach will wind up being. At that point it will be slightly easier to pass judgement. Nolan will simply be keeping the seat warm for the time being with the opportunity to earn a full time role should he prove capable.

This decision also allows the Sabres to continue forward with a clean slate. There was a growing trend of negative comments made about the culture in Buffalo – namely from Jordan Leopold, Andrej Sekera and even Jason Pominville. What they were specifically referencing can’t be confirmed as they could just as easily have been referring to the entire hockey department or just the attitudes in the locker room.

No matter where it stemmed from, there certainly seemed as if there was a recruiting problem at First Niagara Center; starting fresh in the hockey department should aid in erasing that stigma. By cleaning house, Terry Pegula and his staff are taking strides to eliminate any sort of negative perception that had become attached to the organization under the Regier’s regime. That may serve as the most important aspect of this decision.

Not only is LaFontaine a familiar face and Sabres legend, he has no connection to Regier’s management team. In fact, there are indications that LaFointaine (and Nolan to an extent) wouldn’t have returned has Regier stuck around. So clearly there was some disconnect between how Regier operated and how it was embraced league-wide. With LaFontaine clearly separated from that modus operandi, there should be some positive results when recruiting a new general manager, coach and perhaps even free agents.

That’s not to say that hiring LaFontaine will magically make every free agent want to play in Buffalo, but I have to think it will give them more confidence than they may have had in a GM who held his post for nearly two decades.

The long term results of this hiring won’t even begin to bear results for some time. But the time for a drastic change at the top of the Sabres hockey department seemed to be long overdue. Today marked a big first step forward with the next step hopefully to come soon in the form of a new GM.

Headshots dominate early NHL headlines

Headshots dominate early NHL headlines

Headshots dominate early NHL headlines

A rash of suspensions handed down from the NHL’s Department of Player Safety in a response to a ridiculous number of illegal checks through the first month of the NHL season has been the primary focus of fans and media members alike.

John Scott’s elbow to Louis Ericsson’s head was the exclamation point on a two-week span that saw a handful of ugly hits and somewhat lengthy suspensions doled out as punishment  joined Pat Kaleta as the sole set of teammates on the list of suspended players and the combined games between the two illustrates the need for more strict policing both on and off the ice.

The worst side effect from these hits – outside of the media circus they often spark – is the long-term effects that players will suffer from repeated head injuries. With all the steps the NHL has taken in an attempt to curb head contact and dangerous concussions, it’s hard to say what type of effect the recent legislation has had.

Companies like Bauer, CCM, Easton and Warrior who each have a major claim in the helmet market have each taken strides to introduce technologically advanced helmets with features designed to help reduce the chances that a concussion will occur. The Bauer RE-AKT is the current trail blazer in this category as the Suspend-Tech liner introduces a padded liner designed to move independently from the helmet shell; thus limiting the chances that a jarring blow to the shell will cause the head and brain to react in a similar manner.

Interestingly enough, one of the most effective helmet designs with concussion prevention in mind was the M11 helmet that was on the market recently. Bauer has taken over the line and is utilizing the Seven technology in their new IMS line.

However, in the NHL at least, these technologically advanced helmets aren’t the norm. Many professionals choose to go the comfortable route with a VN Foam liner in their helmet. That isn’t to say that a player’s choice in helmets has anything to do with keeping them free from concussions, but the use of old technology can’t be helping, either.

Football and hockey have both shown that no matter what type of helmet you’re using that jarring collisions that cause the head to be shaken or rattled in a violent matter will likely lead to some concussion-like symptoms. Even on plays without head contact, violently altering a body’s motion has the ability to cause a concussion due to the whiplash effect.

Preventing head injuries is ultimately on the onus of the players. At the youth and professional levels, the responsibility falls on the participants to avoid dangerous hits, slow down when they see their opponents numbers and be smart when lowering a hit.

Not one of the hits that led to a suspension in the NHL this year showed any sort of caution or care for the opponent. In a sport as physical and competitive as hockey this isn’t necessarily a surprise. However, the reckless actions that were taken by John Scott, Cody McLeod and Maxim Lapierre could have been easily prevented had the player processed what they were doing prior to leading with their elbow or throwing their opponent into the boards head first.

Goons, enforcers and grinders aren’t the lone culprits here either. Skill players who get away with taking liberties due to their status is a trend that cannot continue. While the physical force of the game isn’t likely to be drastically changed anytime soon, longer suspensions for violators in these cases will continue to serve as the deterrent for these plays.

Sabres prepared to defend Traverse City title

Sabres prepared to defend Traverse City title

Sabres prepared to defend Traverse City title

You can’t say the Sabres haven’t won anything. They enter this year’s Traverse City Prospect Tournament as the defending champions after their triumph in 2011.

Buffalo’s title defense was delayed after last season’s lockout and they may benefit from the delay as they are prepared to ice a scary talented roster for the 2013 tourney. Mikhail Grigorenko will lead Buffalo’s other top prospects including; Joel Armia, Zemgus Girgensons, Johan Larsson, Rasmus Ristolainen, Nikita Zadorov and others in search of another tournament championship.

Sending stacked rosters isn’t necessarily something that only the Sabres participate in. Each team manages to send a combination of pro ready prospects, new draft picks and players who have seen pro ice time to the tourney. It just so happens that Buffalo makes sure to construct a roster of their best prospects.

In 2011 the top line of Luke Adam, Marcus Foligno and Zack Kassian bullied their way through the rest of the tournament and claimed the first championship the franchise has ever seen.* Considering that Armia, Girgensons, Grigorenko and Larsson are amongst those participating, I think the Sabres are betting on bringing back another championship.

In addition to Girgensons, Grigorenko and Larsson – all who played professionally last year – Buffalo has a pair of NHL defensemen (Chad Ruhwedel and Mark Pysyk) to skate along with another NHL-ready player in Ristolainen.

Traverse City Tournament provides in live action for an organization’s prospects prior to the start of preseason action. For those players who aren’t expected to see time in the preseason – mostly newly drafted junior players – it serves as a way for coaches and scouts to see their new players live.

Even though the tournament serves more as an evaluation tool, it is still a nice point of pride for the winning club. It almost serves as verification that one team owns a better prospect pool than the others in some ways. For Sabres fans, this should offer a nice barometer for seeing how Darcy Regier’s recent investments are developing.

One benefit from the tournament is putting brand new prospects in a team setting with some of the older members of the group. This not only allows players like Nick Baptiste to see how Pysyk carries himself, it gives Pysyk a leadership opportunity that would otherwise be missed in the regular season.

That type of locker room and off-ice growth is a valuable fringe benefit that goes along with the on-ice play each of the prospects get over the course of the tournament. Although it didn’t seem to do too much for guys like Adam or Kassian in 2011, perhaps the inclusion of an established talent like Pysyk indicates the Sabres are hoping for him to take the reins.

Like the Sabres, the other participating clubs don’t shy away from using their big guns. The Stars will have Jack Campbell, Radek Faksa and Valeri Nichushkin among others on their roster, proving that each team is indeed out to impress during the event.

Buffalo’s participants include a handful of very intriguing names who will be very interesting to watch. Seeing Johan Larsson in a Sabres jersey for the first time will be cool and having the chance to see him skate with someone like Girgensons will be particularly exciting.

Fans are likely hoping to see Armia and Grigorenko skate on a line together – Kris Baker from Sabres prospects points to Dan Catenacci as their linemate, which I fully endorse – and having the chance to see Ristolainen playing in North America is also encouraging. Obviously those five are the marquee names wearing blue and gold but they’re not the player’s I’m most interested in seeing during that weekend.

Catenacci is one of my favorite Sabres prospects and I’m very hopeful that the 2013-14 season serves as a major stepping stone for him moving forward. An NHL callup isn’t what I’m hoping for, so much as a great growth year that prepares him for a solid NHL career. Colin Jacobs found his footing as a shootout specialist in his Rochester debut and I’m hopeful that he can evolve his game now that the Sabres invested a contract in him. Logan Nelson could also push for a professional deal if he has a strong showing, and the Coon Rapids, MN native has an offensive side that would be great to see flourish.

In addition to Jacobs and Nelson, I’m waiting to see if Brady Austin grows into a late-round sleeper and I’m also hoping to see Justin Kea explore the physical side of his game.

A few of those names are boring, long-term prospects who don’t carry the pedigree of the big names who will likely grace Traverse City and First Niagara Center during this season. But they’re also prospects who appear to have solid value given their draft status.

Depth in the prospect pool is something each and every team at the Traverse City Tournament shares. I’ll be keeping my eye on the depth players while waiting to see if Buffalo’s big guns earn another title.

Predicting the 2014 USA Olympic Roster – Forwards

Predicting the 2014 USA Olympic Roster – Forwards

Predicting the 2014 USA Olympic Roster – Forwards

As time continues to tick down towards the opening ceremonies at the 2014 Winter Olympics, hockey fans are gaining more interest in which players will be representing their country at the Sochi Games.

After an impressive and surprising silver medal effort in Vancouver, the United States will come to Sochi with much higher expectations and a much more impressive roster. With an impressive amount of defensive depth and a bevy of talented goaltenders to choose from, the biggest challenge will be determining who will be scoring the goals for the Americans next February.

I expect to see a few roster spots turnover for the US team this time around, but the same strong core will return up front:

LW

C

RW

Patrick Kane

Joe Pavelski

Dustin Brown

Zach Parise

James VanRiemsdyk

Phil Kessel

Max Pacioretty

Paul Stastny

Bobby Ryan

David Backes (A)

Ryan Kesler

Ryan Callahan (C)

Derek Stepan

 

The offensive engine for the United States will be powered by Patrick Kane, Zach Parise and Phil Kessel. Those three bring a different level of electricity to the ice and they should thrive on the big surface where they can escape from the high traffic areas they typically encounter on the NHL pad.

As of now I have Kane skating with Joe Pavelski and Dustin Brown. Brown is riding shotgun for the offensively gifted duo and his muck and grind style should result in a few ugly tallies throughout the tournament. Pavelski is going to play a major role for the United States as they’re woefully thin at center from top to bottom.

The Kane, Pavelski, Brown trio should combine will with Parise, James VanRiemsdyk and Phil Kessel to form a top-six with plenty of scoring acumen. While my penciled in top line has a little bit of two-way responsibility (Brown and Pavelski), my second unit won’t be entering the Selke race any time soon.

I also take a slight stretch by placing VanRiemsdyk at center. This isn’t his natural position but I love the idea of he and Kessel feeding off their preloaded chemistry from the regular season. Parise is the outsider in a sense, but he’s such a great talent that I doubt he will struggle to run up some points with that pair.

My third line is something of a set of sleepers. Max Pacioretty, Paul Stastny and Bobby Ryan as all American veterans from various international tournaments and Stastny and Ryan will be returning for their second Olympic games. Stastny was going to be off my list until his stunning play at the Worlds changed my mind. Putting him with two battleships like Pacioretty and Ryan should allow him to serve as playmaker to the two snipers.

Lastly comes the grind line. The Americans succeeded in Vancouver thanks to their goaltending, physical play and plenty of gutty leadership. Veterans like Chris Drury and Jamie Langenbrunner weren’t expected to be major contributors but the pair brought more to the table than was expected. A trio of 2010 vets should bring the same attitude to the table in Sochi.

Ryan Kesler, Ryan Callahan and David Backes are all first or second line players for their respective NHL squads and they all happen to be world class defensive forwards. Playing an overly physical game on the big ice in Russia is going to be a risk/reward game plan and these three are talented enough to find a healthy balance. When it comes to shutting down the countless superstar lines from Canada and Russia, these three will likely earn the toughest task. I don’t know if I could think of a better set of forwards to handle such a task.

Derek Stepan is my extra forward and he makes my team based on the fact that he can play center. The US is so thin at center that they need all the help they can get. Stepan is a shifty, dangerous forward who can step in as a pivot and produce if necessary. If he makes the team, most of his minutes will come on the wing. But when needed, he can slide inside.

This roster is contingent on a couple of factors. First; the staff needs to feel confident that one of those top three lines is capable of playing a little bit of defense. The Backes, Kesler, Callahan line is a shutdown dream but the rest of the forwards are more of the one-way variety. Second, the health of certain players (Kesler to be precise) will weigh heavily on how the roster comes together. Bearing that in mind, here are a few watch list players to keep an eye on:

TJ Oshie – A dynamic winger who has some strong two-way ability. Oshie is young but has shown great promise in St. Louis’ defensive system. He was may final “cut” but could easily find his way on the roster.

Brandon Dubinsky – Think of Dubinsky as Kesler Light. He’s a solid two-way player who can fill a shut down role. If defensive responsibility is at a premium, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him.

Alex Galchenyuk – A darkhorse, but someone to keep in mind. He’s incredibly talented and there’s no reason to think that he wouldn’t have a place on this roster. I doubt that he’d see time as a center, but if he has a big start to the season, he could be a possibility.

Up next, the defensemen and goalies