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Howard Simon's Blog

Posts from February 2013

Sabres offense in deep freeze
Despite the win in Tampa, the Buffalo Sabres have a number of problems to solve.  The main one being, of course, their record.  They need to put together a lot of wins and fast but you probably shouldn't expect that from a team that has yet to win more than two games in a row this season.

Maybe the win in Tampa two nights ago is a sign that new Coach Ron Rolston will be able to clean up their own end but it's only one game and the Sabres gave up four goals to the Islanders in the game prior to that one.

While addressing play in the defensive zone, Rolston can't ignore what's happening in the offensive zone.  Actually, the problem is what isn't happening in the offensive zone and that would be goals.

Buffalo has scored two or fewer goals in four straight games and six of their last eight.  They have a total of twelve goals in those eight games and a 2-6 record in that stretch.

Thomas Vanek has cooled off after a red hot start.  Jason Pominville has been nearly invisible.  The remaining three lines of forwards aren't contributing enough and that leaves the Sabres in an offensive funk.

Vanek has one goal in his last eight games although he may be playing through injuries.  Pominville has just one point in his last 10 games, a goal in the loss to Winnipeg.  Its his worst offensive stretch since the 2005-06 season when he managed a mere two points over 15 games.

Off to the second line where Tyler Ennis has been producing but Drew Stafford and Marcus Foligno have not.  Stafford has one goal in twenty games and has been held pointless 13 times this season.  Foligno also has but one goal and it came in the fifth game of the season.

But Foligno's 15 game goal scoring drought is not the longest on the team.  Nathan Gerbe has yet to score a goal in the 16 games he's played in and Jochan Hecht is 0 for 20.  Hecht has equaled his career worst slump.  He went 20 games without a goal in the 2002-03 season.  

If you go back to last season, you'll find that Hecht didn't score in the last 11 games so his goal-less streak is actually at 31 games. Hecht's last goal came way back on December 30,2011 although he did miss the final three months of last season due to concussion issues.

Other players hoping to thaw out their game in the remaining time in Florida include Steve Ott who has one goal in his last eight games and Pat Kaleta who is still looking for his first point of the season.  He has zero's across the scoring board in 15 games.

The Vanek, Pominville and Cody Hodgson line has combined for 27 goals.  11 other forwards have mustered a grand total of 12 goals.

If the Sabres could get the power play going that would be a big help but their man advantage production this month has been almost nil. Buffalo is an unfathomable  2 for 47 on the power play which is a success rate of .04%.  Something happened when the calendar flipped because the Sabres connected at a 24% clip in January, going 6 for 25.

Vanek accounts for 5 of the team's 8 power play goals on the season.  Pominville, Ott and Tyler Myers have one each.  The last Sabre other than Vanek to actually score on the power play was Pominville on January 29th vs Toronto, some 15 games ago.  

The Sabres have only one road power play goal all season in 34 man up chances.  It was Vanek in Boston on January 31st.


Sabres make me think about NHL draft

At least I know the routine, thanks to the Buffalo Bills.  When all hope is lost in a season, start reading up on the draft.  That’s where the Sabres 4-0 home ice loss to the New York Islanders left me.

Good news  Sabres fans.  If they turn out to be one of the worst teams in the NHL this season, there should  be a silver lining in the form of an impact player in the 2013 draft.

The top three prospects are considered by many to be cornerstone pieces for a franchise.  One team’s head of amateur scouting told’s Craig Custance there might be six guys that could change the fortunes of a team.

Another scout said he thinks there will be ten impact players in the draft.

The prized trio of the group are Nathan Mackinnon, Seth Jones and Jonathan Drouin.

Mackinnon is a 5-11, 179 pound center who plays for Halifax in the Quebec Major Junior League.  He has 28 goals and 69 points in 41 games.  Last season Mackinnon recorded 31 goals and 78 points in 58 games.

The hype machine on Mackinnon has been in full force for the last couple of years.  He is considered a franchise center with tremendous skating ability and a combination of skill and grit.  Some scouts believe he is strong enough, quick enough and powerful enough to play against NHL competition right now.

Drouin is a teammate of Mackinnon’s in Halifax.  Drouin is 5’11”, weighs 176 pounds and plays left wing.  He comes from NHL stock, as his Dad Jude played more than 600 games with 4 different teams in his NHL career.

Drouin has absolutely exploded this season, leading with Quebec League with 36 goals and 93 points in just 42 games.  Last season the Quebec native had just 7 goals and 29 points in 33 games.

Even though he’s a winger, Drouin is considered a tremendous playmaker, as evidenced by his 57 assists this season.  He has sky rocketed up the draft boards while exhibiting a high skill level and making numerous highlight reel plays.

The other player in the big three is defenseman Seth Jones, who plays for the Portland Winter Hawks of the Western Hockey League.  A native of Plano, Texas, Jones is a big dude, standing at 6’4” and weighing 206 pounds.  He has 9 goals and 41 points in 43 games this season.  He missed some action to play in the World Junior Championships, where he was a member of the gold medal winning USA club.

To go along with his size, Jones is said to be at an elite level with his skating and skill.  He comes from an athletic background as well.  Jones’ dad is former NBA player Popeye Jones.

Keep in mind the NHL draft lottery has changed in the new CBA.  All 14 teams that miss out on the playoffs are eligible for the first overall selection.  Under the old rules a team could move up no more than four spots so the only clubs that could have gotten the first selection were the ones that finished with one of the five worst records in the league. 

Under the old system, the team finishing with the worst record had a 48% chance of winning the lottery.  Now the odds have dropped to 25%.


Bills draft picture is murky
With the NFL draft just two months away, the picture seems to be getting fuzzier as opposed to clearer in terms of what the Bills might do with in the early rounds.

When Buddy Nix first took over as General Manager three years ago, he joked that the NFL should give the Bills extra picks because they had so many holes.  As Nix prepares for his fourth and quite likely  final draft as Bills G-M, he might want to ask the league for those extra choices.

Clearly the Bills need a quarterback and Nix maintained through the last half of the 2012 season that it was time for the Bills to select the player they hope will be the quarterback of the future.  When the Bills actually make that selection remains the big question.

In addition to quarterback,  Nix has also talked about targeting linebacker and wide receiver.  You can also make a strong case to address the cornerback position, where the Bills are extremely young.  Tight end has nothing to offer in terms of pass catching behind Scott Chandler who tore an ACL two days before Christmas.  The Bills might also be in the market for a guard if they are unable to re-sign Andy Levitre.

I still say, if the Bills have a quarterback they love and believe he is their "QB of the future", then go ahead and grab him with the eighth pick.  I don't care about all the draft experts who will yell and scream that its a reach.  If the guy turns out to be a franchise signal caller, who can lead the Bills back into the playoffs on a regular basis and into contention for the Super Bowl, no one will even bring up that "he was a reach."

If you don't take that player at eight, then you have to sweat it out that he'll still be on the board at the 41st pick, the Bills slot in the second round.  Buffalo could always try to move back into the first round, as they did for JP Losman and John McCargo, but its still a gamble. Who can you swing a deal with? How far up do you need to go? What if another team moves up before you have the chance and they take the quarterback the Bills coveted?

During an interview on WGR last week, Nix said they try not to "reach" in an effort to fill a need and will maintain the integrity of the board. But during the season, Nix also said he learned something about selecting a quarterback from the last few drafts.  He said wherever you have that quarterback slotted on your board, you should probably take him one round higher.

My gut is telling me the Bills won't grab a quarterback with their first choice but instead will go after a wide receiver or a linebacker.  Keep in mind Nix once cited the work of the Cincinnati Bengals when talking about what it takes to turn around a team's fortunes.  He referenced the 2011 draft where the Bengals grabbed wide receiver AJ Green with the fourth overall selection and then got their quarterback of the future, Andy Dalton, in round two at pick 35.  The Bills were intent on fixing their defense at that point and chose defensive tackle Marcell Dareus in the slot before Green.  The Bills went with cornerback Aaron Williams just before the Bengals sent in the card for Dalton.

You can make a very strong case for wide receiver with the eighth pick.  Nix has said the team needs a big, outside receiver who "can be open when he isn't open", meaning he can make plays even when covered.  The receiving corps is considerably thinner after the Bills opted not to tender contracts to restricted free agents Donald Jones and David Nelson. The receivers currently on the roster are:Stevie Johnson, TJ Graham, Brad Smith, Marcus Easley, Kevin Elliott and Chris Hogan.  

That's a whole lot of nothing after you get by Johnson.  Smith has the most career catches in the group with 101.  Graham had just 31 in his rookie season.  Elliott had 10 receptions in 13 games with Jacksonville last season.  Easley and Hogan are still looking for their first ever catch in a regular season game.

Linebacker was a need even before the Bills decided to release Nick Barnett.  Kelvin Sheppard, who was average at best last season, and Nigel Bradham would appear to be starters at this point.  The depth includes Arthur Moats and Chris White.  Bryan Scott and Kirk Morrison are unrestricted free agents.

Cornerback, which was one of the weakest positions on the team last season, remains a huge question mark.  According to Nix, at this point, Leodis McKelvin, who lost the nickel job last September, would be the starter opposite Stephon Gilmore.  That is if McKelvin re-signs with the Bills.  He is scheduled to hit the free agent market on March 12th.

Here are the corners currently on the roster with their total number of NFL games played and career interceptions:
Stephon Gilmore(16/1)
Aaron Williams(20/1)
Justin Rogers(29/2)
Ron Brooks(9/0)
Crezdon Butler(13/0)
TJ Heath(5/0)

Williams may have played himself out of the cornerback position and over to safety.  Rogers eventually lost the nickel job last season after taking over for McKelvin.  

As I mentioned, don't forget about tight end.  Who knows when Chandler will be healthy coming off the ACL injury.  The next guy on the depth chart is Lee Smith who has just eight catches in 26 games with the Bills over the last two seasons.  After that, we're talking Mike Caussin, who has five catches in his career and then rookie Derek Buttles.

Keep in mind, the Bills can certainly address some of these holes in free agency which will take place before the draft.  Nix said the Bills will be a player in free agency at some point, maybe not the first day or two.

As far as the draft goes, the Bills have one pick in each of the first six rounds.  They traded their seventh round selection to Seattle for Tarvaris Jackson.  


Ruff ran out of answers
On Thursday night, Sabres fans will experience something for the first time in more than 21 years.  They'll see how their team responds to an in season coaching change.  

You have to go back to December 11,1991 to find the last time the Sabres fired a coach during a season.  Rick Dudley was let go with the team mired in an eight game winless streak and with a 9-15-4 record.  Then General Manager Gerry Meehan made the move and announced John Muckler, who was the Director of Hockey Operations, would take over behind the bench.  There was no magic turnaround as the Sabres went 22-22-8 the rest of the season.

Clearly, current General Manager Darcy Regier and the Sabres brass are hoping this firing will have a different impact and keep the Sabres from missing out on the playoffs for the fifth time in the last seven seasons.

I was listening to Schopp and Bulldog  when they announced the news of the change, which had been tweeted by the Sabres.  My first reaction was "wow" even though many of you were probably not surprised.  I didn't think the team would fire Ruff during the season and I expected Regier to make player moves before even considering the removal of the man he hired in July of 1997.

I'm never happy to see anyone lose their job but this was a move the Sabres had to make.  Quite simply, it was time.  In fact, it was probably past the time.

Watching the game with Winnipeg on Tuesday and then listening to what Ruff had to say after the 2-1 loss, for the first time I felt he had run out of answers.  Not once during his weekly Tuesday segment with Jeremy White and me did I feel that way but he sounded different after the loss to the Jets.  He sounded resigned to the fact he wouldn't be able to fix the problems.

Ruff has always had a defiant side to him and was resolute last season when we would ask him about whether he could win with that team and turn the season around.  He would bristle at the idea of giving up and would take it personally when asked if he thought he could be fired.

Yet that defiant side was nowhere to be found in his post game press conference Tuesday night when he was asked if he realized the fans hate this team.  I thought his reaction to that question was very telling.

It was almost like that game was Ruff's last stand.  He finally benched defenseman Jordan Leopold for the first time in his Sabres career, even though it should have happened weeks ago. Ruff moved a struggling Drew Stafford all the way down to the fourth line and played him alongside Cody McCormick and John Scott.  He bumped up Pat Kaleta, who has yet to score this season to the second line with Tyler Ennis and Marcus Foligno.  He changed back later in the game.  

Nathan Gerbe got some shifts on the top line in place of Thomas Vanek.  Foligno, who was taken off the power play completely in the loss to Pittsburgh, was back on the power play and with the top unit.  But when all was said and done, an uninspired Sabres team ended up losing for the 10th time in regulation in 17 games.

In hindsight, you can make the case the Sabres looked exactly like the Washington Capitals did last season when they lost at First Niagara Center in what turned out to be the last game for Bruce Boudreau.

I don't know if anyone will ever find out the truth but my guess is Regier had to be convinced to make this move.  Either Terry Pegula realized the fan base was fed up and his franchise was suffering or perhaps someone persuaded Pegula that it was time to release the man who, when Pegula bought the team two years ago, said "ain't going nowhere."

I will say this, I do have a renewed sense of energy to watch this team.  I'm eagerly anticipating the game in Toronto to see if the Sabres look like a different group of players.  Over the last two weeks its been increasingly difficult to watch this team play and see the same defensive breakdowns, bad passes, and lack of physical play.  

I'm sure there are players who are very happy to see Ruff leave but I'm sure there are guys who enjoyed playing for him.  Either way, I expect a different voice leading the way will create a more inspired hockey team.  After all, the blame can no longer be placed at the feet of the head coach so its up to the players to now perform.

Can Bills Afford Levitre?
The Buffalo Bills have their work cut out for them this off season.  Moves are already under way with the recent releases of Nick Barnett, George Wilson and Terrence McGee.  The Bills cut ties with players who were not in their plans going forward but at the same time, the team opened up valuable salary cap space.
They'll need that space and perhaps even more to accomplish everything that needs to be done.  That list could include re-signing their two most important free agents in safety Jairus Byrd and offensive lineman Andy Levitre.  The team might also want to re-sign other free agents like Leodis McKelvin, Chad Rinehart(who could be the starting left guard if they are unable to reach a deal with Levitre) and Kyle Moore, although none of those three would cost anywhere near what it will take to keep Byrd and Levitre.
The Bills will also likely tender restricted free agent receiver David Nelson, which will cost $1.3 million and they'll need another $5.5 million to sign their 2013 draft class.  All of this would be in addition to having cap space to sign outside free agents and bolster positions of need like linebacker, safety and cornerback.
The first move the Bills will likely make is to place the franchise tag on Byrd, which would take up $6.798 million in cap room.  It’s much less expensive to tag Byrd than Levitre. The NFL doesn't have separate tag values for tackles, guards and centers so they group all of the offensive linemen together.  If the Bills used the franchise tag on Levitre, it would cost $9.66 million.  The franchise number for safeties is the third lowest by position.  Only tight ends and kickers/punters have a lower franchise number.
The Bills can still negotiate with Byrd on a long term deal, if they so desire, but at least they know Byrd will almost certainly be here for the 2013 season.  The window to use the franchise tag opened on Monday and will stay open for two weeks.  
Byrd could still get an offer sheet when the free agency signing period begins on March 12th, assuming the Bills place the "non-exclusive" tag on him, but the team pursuing Byrd would have to put together a contract large enough to keep the Bills from matching it and then give up two first round draft picks as compensation. That probably won’t happen.
If the Bills try to reach a long term deal with Byrd, considered by many as the second best safety on the market this year behind Ed Reed, it could cost them quite a bit of Ralph Wilson's money.
In 2011, San Diego set the market for the top safeties in the league when they gave Eric Weddle a five year, $40 million contract which included $19 million in guaranteed money.  
Last year, the Tennessee Titans initially tagged Michael Griffin, but eventually agreed to a five year, $35 million deal with $15 million guaranteed.
The Bills have a big decision to make with Levitre.  I doubt there is much debate about his performance over the last four years.  Levitre has started all 64 games since being drafted in 2009.  He's one of only four picks from that entire draft to play in every game and while playing mostly left guard, Levitre has recorded starts at four of the five O-Line positions.
The question will be how much is he worth?  It wasn't too long ago guards began receiving paychecks like they were tackles.  The Bills got in on that action when they gave Derrick Dockery a seven year, $49 million deal with an $18 million signing bonus in 2007.  
While Levitre probably won’t get that much total money, it wouldn't be out of the realm of possibility to see him receive anywhere from $6-8 million on the average, with a five year contract and a signing bonus in the range of $7-10 million.
Here's a rundown of the top 10 paid guards and the average salary of their contract, all of which were signed over the last two seasons:
Carl Nicks- Tampa Bay                         9.5 million
Logan Mankins- New England              8.5
Jahri Evans- New Orleans                    8.1
Davin Joseph- Tampa Bay                   7.5
Ben Grubbs- New Orleans                   7.2
Chris Snee- NY Giants                         6.8
Josh Sitton- Green Bay                        6.75
Justin Blalock- Atlanta                          6.4
Marshall Yanda- Baltimore                   6.4
Willie Colon- Pittsburgh                        5.8
For what its worth, former Bills General Manager Bill Polian recently did an extensive breakdown on the 2013 class of free agents and he included Levitre in the first tier of players, which he reserved for those worth paying "big, starting caliber money."
The salary cap for 2013 is set at $121 million but the Bills rolled over $9.8 million in unused space from last year so they have a cap limit of $130.4 million.  Keep in mind the Bills operate on a cash to the cap basis, so while signing bonuses are prorated over the life of a contract for league cap purposes, they could count 100% in the first year of a contract with the cash to the cap philosophy.
As of Monday, according to one league source, the Bills had just under $10 million in cap room but if you add in the rollover cap space, the number would be nearly $20 million.  That figure did not include Tarvaris Jackson’s contract.
 If you take out cap space for Byrd, Nelson and the draft picks ($13.6 million), that only leaves the Bills with about $6 million to play with.
They can always create additional space by releasing more players.  Chris Kelsay is a prime candidate to be let go.  Kelsay has two years left on his contract with a cap number of $4.975 million for the upcoming season and a base salary of $3.725 million.  If the Bills release Kelsay, it would open up more than $4.1 million in cap space.
Another candidate for early dismissal is Brad Smith who has two years left on his four year, $14 million contract.  Releasing Smith, whose cap number for 2013 is $3.8 million, would clear out about $2.8 million in cap room. 
Smith has not been as productive with the Bills as he was with the Jets.  In his two seasons in Buffalo, Smith has 34 carries for 203 yards and two touchdowns.  He has 37 receptions for 392 yards and three touchdowns.  Smith has returned 33 kicks for an average of 23.5 yards and one touchdown.  He has thrown two passes (one in 2011 and the other last season) and both were intercepted.
Those two moves would give the Bills almost $7 million in space to work with and could then give them the ability to not only re-sign Levitre but pursue outside free agents.
The Bills can also create cap space without releasing players by restructuring some existing contracts with Ryan Fitzpatrick being at the top of the list.  His cap number for 2013 is $10.45 million(second only to Mario Williams at 12.4).  If you were wondering, cutting Fitzpatrick wouldn’t really make much difference.  The Bills would only save $450,000.
Some teams will restructure contracts that have high base salaries but the Bills only have four players who have a base over three million dollars for the coming season.  Mario Williams(6.5 million), Fitzpatrick(4.25), Kyle Williams(3.855) and Kelsay(3.725).
Without additional moves it appears the Bills would have to choose between keeping Levitre or going after other free agents.
With Mike Pettine joining the team as the Defensive Coordinator, there is speculation the Bills could go after some of the players who will probably be released by Pettine’s former team, the New York Jets.  That group could include linebackers Bart Scott and Calvin Pace.
Safeties LaRon Landry and Yeremiah Bell will be unrestricted free agents come March 12th and the Jets are currently more than $20 million over the cap.
The Bills might also pursue Jim Leonhard who will be unrestricted as well.  Leonhard played for Pettine in New York and was in Baltimore in 2008 when Pettine worked under then Ravens Defensive Coordinator Rex Ryan.

Sabres Ruff doesn't have top defensive teams

While giving a vote of confidence to his Head Coach recently, Sabres General Manager Darcy Regier said if he had to pick a coach to shore up a team’s defense it would be Lindy Ruff.  With all due respect, the historical data does not back up that claim.

Team defense, or lack thereof, has been the Sabres biggest problem in their 5-8-1 start.  Buffalo is ranked 27th in the NHL in average goals against at 3.43.  For the first time in Ruff’s 14 plus seasons behind the Sabres bench, they gave up at least four goals in six consecutive games.

The perception of Ruff, held by many Sabres fans, is that he is a defense first coach who stifles offense but the stats would prove different.  Here are the defensive numbers under Lindy season by season with the average goals against followed by where that ranked in the league:


2012-13            3.43(27th)

2011-12            2.72(18)

2010-11            2.78(17)

2009-10            2.45(4)

2008-09            2.79(14)

2007-08            2.84(22)

2006-07            2.90(13)

2005-06            2.85(10)

2003-04            2.70(22)

2002-03            2.67(13)

2001-02            2.44(10)

2000-01            2.24(1)

1999-00            2.49(8)

1998-99            2.13(2)

1997-98            2.28(3)


Since Dominik Hasek was traded back in the summer of 2001, the Sabres have finished better than 10th just one time.  In 2009-2010, Ryan Miller produced the best season of his career en route to the Vezina Trophy and rookie defenseman Tyler Myers looked like a polished veteran while skating away with the Calder Trophy.


The offensive numbers are better, post lockout. Ruff guided offenses that finished 5th, 1st and 4th.  They slipped to 12th, 10th,9th and 17th the next four seasons and are currently 13th.  Since the lockout, in every season except one(2009-2010), the Sabres offense has finished with a higher league ranking than the defense.


Here are some bonus numbers for you, under the category of did you know?


 *Buffalo has led after the first period in only three of the 14 games(they’ve led after two periods only once)


*Buffalo has the second worst home penalty kill in the NHL at 72%(the road power play is 1-30(3%) for the season which is also second worst in the league)


*Overall, the power play is 1 for 26 over the last 7 games


*Buffalo is 3-4-1 against Northeast Division teams(last season they were 13-6-5)


*Still looking for their first goal of the season are: Drew Stafford and Jochan Hecht(14 games), Nathan Gerbe(9 games) and Patrick Kaleta(8 games)


*Buffalo has won only one time in the seven games when the opponent scores first








Senators offense struggling
Imagine if the Buffalo Sabres best offensive player was out of the lineup for possibly the rest of the regular season.  Actually let's not because I don't want to think what the Sabres record would be without Thomas Vanek.

The Ottawa Senators are dealing with that nightmare and its left their offense in a deep freeze.  Jason Spezza tried to play through back pain but couldn't make it past the fifth game of the season.  He underwent surgery on a herniated disc and he might not return until the playoffs.  That is if the Senators can make the playoffs, without a player who has averaged just over a point a game in his NHL career.

Spezza has 621 points in 611 regular season games.  In four of the last six seasons, he topped the 30 goal mark.  Spezza scored at least 20 goals in the other two seasons.

Ottawa actually won their first two games after Spezza left the lineup and scored eight goals while beating Washington and Montreal. Maybe reality set in at that point because the Senators have managed just seven goals in the last five games while recording a 1-3-1 record. 

Four of those seven goals came in the victory over the Sabres at Scotia Bank Place last week.  Before that came a 1-0 loss at Carolina and a 2-1 defeat at Montreal.  After the offensive explosion against the Sabres, Ottawa suffered a 3-2 overtime setback to the Hurricanes and were shutout for the second time in five games, losing 1-0 to Winnipeg this past Saturday.

Ottawa has scored just five even strength goals over the last five games with three coming against the Sabres.  The power play has hit the skids as well going 2 for the last 15 chances.

A couple of players will need to thaw out and fast.  Milan Michalek hasn't scored a goal in his last six games and has only two on the season.  Michalek scored 35 last season.

Kyle Turris was a pleasant surprise last season, with 12 goals in 49 games, and was one of key factors in the Senators surprising run to a playoff spot.  Turris has gone eight games without a goal.

There's a good chance Daniel Alfredsson will register a goal tonight.  When Alfredsson scored against the Sabres last week, it was his 43rd career goal in 87 games against the Blue and Gold.  It moved the Senators captain past Jaromir Jagr and into first place all time for most career goals scored against the Sabres.

Former Sabre Kassian Flourishing

As the saying goes in sports, the best trades are the ones that help both teams.  Early on in this 2013 NHL season, the Cody Hodgson for Zack Kassian deal is doing exactly that.

Hodgson is off to a tremendous start, anchoring a line with Thomas Vanek and Jason Pominville that combined for 45 points going into the weekend.

Kassian is drawing rave reviews out west and is flourishing on the Canucks top line with Daniel and Henrik Sedin although their point total is considerably less than the Sabres trio with 20 in Vancouver’s first 10 games.

Going into the weekend, Kassian led the Canucks in goals with 5.  The five goals in 10 games already tops his total of four goals in 44 games last season and might be a surprise to many Canucks fans who didn’t see much from Kassian as he scored just once in 17 games following the trade out of Buffalo.

Playing with the Sedin twins certainly is a big factor for Kassian’s success but he also put in the work in the off season.  The 6-3, 214 pound Kassian changed his perspective about training, getting himself a personal trainer and also working out at a high performance center that Nike runs for its elite athletes.

Kassian also spent part of his off season working out with the Sedin twins who went to Canucks management and requested that.  The pair liked what they had seen in terms of Kassian’s potential and felt they could have a positive impact on the 22 year old forward.

In addition to improving his offense, Kassian has shown his physical side, consistently finishing checks and getting into a couple of fights on behalf of teammates.

One Vancouver columnist wrote about Kassian starting to bud and invoked the names of Todd Bertuzzi, the last true power forward the Canucks had, Cam Neely, the greatest power forward Vancouver ever traded away and even Vancouver native Milan Lucic, considered one of the top power forwards in the game today.


Pardy should play more

Last July the Buffalo Sabres traded Derek Roy to the Dallas Stars for Steve Ott.  The Sabres also acquired defenseman Adam Pardy in the deal and I, like many of you, figured he was just a throw in.

It was the same way I felt about Alexander Sulzer when he came to the Sabres as part of the Cody Hodgson for Zack Kassian deal.

As is the case with Sulzer, perhaps Pardy will turn  out to be more than just a throw in.  He certainly brings an element of size to the corps of blue liners.  Pardy stands 6 foot 4 and weighs 226 pounds.

He brings physical play on defense as well, as evidence by his game in Ottawa this past Tuesday.  I thought Pardy was solid in his own end and the fact that Tyler Myers had one of his better games this season may have been due in part to Pardy’s presence alongside him.

I was surprised Lindy Ruff opted to sit Pardy for Thursday’s game with Montreal.  Ruff had to find a spot for Christian Ehrhoff, who was returning from an injury, but Jordan Leopold seemed like the logical candidate to take out of the lineup.

Pierre LeBrun from TSN/ wrote a column about the Sabres this week and spoke to some people around the league in an effort to find out why the Sabres were off to a slow start.

One NHL scout told LeBrun part of the problem is the Sabres defense which the scout said was “too soft.”  Tell me something I don’t know.

With Robyn Regehr sidelined by injury, the physical presence pretty much comes down to Mike Weber and the occasional hit from Myers.  The lack of physical play on the back line is one reason why so many Sabre fans were excited to see Brayden McNabb make it up to Buffalo last season.

Pardy brings a good amount of NHL experience with him.  He played in 183 NHL games over the last four seasons with the Calgary Flames and the Dallas Stars.  The Newfoundland native even has six playoff games on his NHL resume, coming in 2009 with the Flames.

He won’t bring much offense.  Pardy has managed just 4 goals and 29 points in those 183 games but the Sabres don’t need offense right now.  They need someone to stand opposing forwards up at the blue line and knock some guys down in one on one battles, in addition to better decision making.  Pardy showed all of that during his appearance in Ottawa.


What has happened to Jhonas Enroth?

Faced with a compressed schedule, Lindy Ruff planned on giving Ryan Miller a night off 10 to 12 times this season.  The way Jhonas Enroth has played in his two starts may force Ruff to alter his plan. Although Miller’s play has tailed off after a strong start.

Enroth, who has faced long stretches on the bench when Miller has been healthy, didn’t have to wait very long this season to get his first start.  It came in the first week and the third game of the season.  But he was beaten five times on 37 shots in a loss at Carolina on January 24th. Perhaps that is why Ruff opted to go with Miller all last week despite the fact the Sabres played four games in six days.

 Enroth did replace Miller for the third period of a blowout loss at Montreal last Saturday, giving up two goals on 11 shots,  and just three days after that, he got his second start of the season.

Enroth gave up four goals on just 24 shots and was tagged with the loss in Ottawa, stretching his personal winless streak to 13 games.  Enroth is 0-10-3 since a victory over Washington on November 26, 2011. His goals against average in that stretch is 3.47 and his save percentage is just .897.

Enroth’s decline is puzzling since he was the player who saved the Sabres season two years ago.  With Miller sidelined by injury, Enroth went 5-0-1 from March 6th to April 5th and a furious second half of the season rally got the Sabres into the playoffs.  Enroth ended 2010-2011  with an impressive 9-2-2 record.

Last season, the native of Sweden won his first six decisions and Lindy Ruff surprised many when he said his goaltending situation was more one-A and one-B rather than number one and number two.  Enroth was even given back to back starts in early November after Miller was pulled  in a home ice loss to Philadelphia.  Enroth won games against Calgary and Ottawa.

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People: Jhonas EnrothLindy RuffRyan Miller

Ruff Still Searching For Second Line

A number of problems have emerged for the Buffalo Sabres through the first nine games of the season.  Chief among them are lack of secondary scoring, loads of defensive breakdowns and inconsistent goaltending.

It has led to what has become a regular discussion the last few years about whether or not Lindy Ruff should be fired. 

It was five weeks ago yesterday the Bills decided to end the Chan Gailey era at One Bills Drive.  It was a move most people could see coming.  Listening to Chan Gailey each Football Monday, you could hear the frustration in his voice and it sounded like he had run out of answers.

I didn’t get that sense listening to Lindy Ruff during his interview with Jeremy and me this morning.  Although, there was one time where I envisioned Lindy sitting in his hotel room with his arms stretched out by his sides and shrugging his shoulders as if to say “Guys, I have no idea what to do.”

He was asked about the possibility of moving Mikhail Grigorenko up to the second line.  Ruff responded by saying its hard to tell who that second line is right now.

Ruff has tried some different combinations but nothing has worked to this point.  The line of Thomas Vanek, Cody Hodgson and Jason Pominville has combined for 18 goals.  The other 11 forwards who have dressed in at least one game this season have a total of five goals.

I suppose it isn’t fair to expect much scoring from fourth line players so I’ll focus on the next 6 forwards after that top line.  Tyler Ennis leads the way with two goals scored.  Steve Ott, Mikhail Grigorenko and Marcus Foligno have one each.  Drew Stafford and Jochan Hecht, who had more even strength ice time than Vanek in the last game with Florida, have a big fat zero in the goal column.

Stafford is off to this worst start as a Sabre.  He had never gone more than six games at the start of the season before registering his first goal.  He is at nine games and counting.

Foligno had six goals in his first nine games after the March 10th call up last season but is stuck at one.

 As far as Stafford is concerned, Ruff  broke down all of Stafford’s scoring opportunities this season and told the winger, he isn’t getting tight enough around the net.  For that matter, Ruff said there were times when Stafford skated right by the net.  He added that Stafford has to do a better job of battling for rebound chances and tip chances. 

Ruff had a similar scouting report for Ennis who has gotten more of his chances on the rush rather than around the net.


All six of the forwards are getting ample opportunities to grab hold of the second line job since Ruff has pretty much balanced out the playing time for the group.  Ennis and Stafford are averaging just under  19 minutes a game while Ott, Hecht and Foligno are all between 16 and 17 minutes.  Grigorenko is the low man at less than 12 minutes a game.

The offensive deep freeze isn’t just when the Sabres skate five on five.  Do you remember Ott’s power play goal in the season opener against Philadelphia?  That is the only power play goal scored by a forward not named Vanek or Pominville in nine games.



Stevie Johnson angers some with comments on workouts
We like when athletes give us an honest opinion rather than give us a filtered answer in an effort to avoid a potential controversy.   Eric Wood may have forever endeared himself in the hearts of Bills fans when he ripped the series in Toronto.  But sometimes that honest answer doesn't go over well, as is the case with some comments made by Bills wide receiver Stevie Johnson last Friday.
Johnson was on the Jim Rome show and at the very end of a fairly nondescript 16 minute interview, Johnson clearly had the filter off when Rome asked him about his off season routine.  Johnson replied that he was actually going to work out and then laughed.  He said he usually doesn't have an off season regimen other than playing basketball and some running and the only time he did work out was the off season before his rookie year when he was trying to make the NFL.
“I probably shouldn’t be saying this" Johnson said.  "They give us the booklet and I put it in the drawer.  I really don’t do it.”
That may or may not have upset you but if it didn't, there's a chance his next comment did.
“I’ve had three seasons with a thousand yards and that’s without doing like real football work so who knows what will happen if I really put in work" Johnson said.   "Maybe I can eclipse a thousand and go to twelve hundred, maybe thirteen.  Maybe I’ll be more energized to finish out games and get things done. I’m going to be working hard from next Sunday(February 10th) till April 1st when I go back.”
I didn't hear the interview and had no idea what he said when I turned on Schopp and Bulldog on Friday, expecting to hear them talk about the Sabres win in Boston the night before.  I joined in mid segment and Mike was really angry about something and I had no idea what it was.  I listened to the discussion, heard what some of the callers had to say and eventually listened to the entire interview since it was in the On Demand portion of our web site.  That is a not so subtle plug to earn brownie points with my boss.
First off, I will tell you that I could care less what Stevie Johnson does with his off season workouts as long as he comes to camp in shape and ready to go.  Some guys go to the gym, some guys run up the side of mountains, other guys run stadium steps and others may run along beaches.  Whatever works for each individual is fine with me so the comment about taking the booklet sent to him by the team and putting it in a drawer didn't bug me.  I think the fact he plays basketball has turned out to be a benefit because he can use basketball moves to shake free of cornerbacks.
I didn't like what he said about having better numbers if he had "really put in the work".  To me, that sounds like a player who wasn't doing everything he could to make himself better.  It takes a certain amount of work to make the jump from college to the NFL and Johnson may have done more than many, having to earn a spot as a 7th round draft pick from a University of Kentucky program not known for producing a lot of NFL talent.
Then it takes another level of commitment and work ethic to not only stay in the NFL and succeed but to elevate your game once you are a proven commodity.  Johnson's comment gives the perception that he may have been satisfied with where he was at over his last three seasons with the Bills.  
I also consider Johnson a leader on not only the offense but for the entire Bills team and that isn't something I would want to hear from one of the team leaders.  
One caller to our show brought up the idea that Johnson has always had a problem with articulating his mindset and maybe he just expressed himself with the wrong words.
To me, mindset and articulation are two different issues.  If I agreed with the message that Johnson was trying to deliver but he just didn't say it in the right manner than it wouldn't bother me but its his mindset I'm worried about with these comments.  The remarks make it sound like he knew he could have done more, that he didn't, but now it is going to change.  
I am curious to see how this plays out with new Head Coach Doug Marrone who had a no nonsense approach at Syracuse.  After turning around the Orange program, Marrone was given credit for changing attitudes, laying down tougher rules and instilling some discipline.  Those who did not like his rules were told they could leave the team.  I wonder if Marrone plans to talk to Johnson about what he said or if he just lets it go as a non issue.
Schopp and Bulldog discussed the idea of cutting Johnson over his remarks.  There is no way I would do that because I think it would be a case of cutting off your nose to spite your face.  Johnson is a talented football player on a team that still doesn't have enough of that and with the right quarterback, he would have twelve to thirteen hundred yard seasons(regardless of his workout regimen) so lopping him off the roster only makes the team worse.  Instead of needing to bring in one impact  receiver this off season, the Bills would be in the market for two.
So for now, I will be glad that Johnson gives an honest answer to a question but also take a certain amount of anger away at what he said and how flippant his comments sounded.



Vanek Underappreciated

I’m not quite sure why, but Thomas Vanek doesn’t seem to get enough credit from Sabres fans.  He’s a hot topic after his beast-like performance and five point night in Thursday’s win over Boston.

15 points in the first six games of the season is Vanek’s best start ever.  He had 15 at the ten game mark last season.

Vanek already is one of the best goal scorers in Sabres history and if he plays his entire career in Blue and Gold, he could pass Gilbert Perreault for number one all time.

But Vanek has evolved a great deal over his previous seven seasons, becoming more reliable in the defensive zone and improving on his playmaking skills.

First and foremost though, the Sabres first round pick in the 2003 draft has a gifted pair of hands and can score goals in many different ways.

That was on display as Vanek recorded his 8th career hat trick and singlehandedly led the Sabres to a slump busting win over the arch rival Bruins.

Vanek’s first goal came as he ripped a one timer past Tuukka Rask.  Goal Number two came on a re-direct off a shot/pass from Christian Ehrhoff, a Vanek specialty on the power play.  The hat trick goal was a nice display of stickhandling by Vanek in front of Rask.

Going into the weekend games, Vanek had 236 goals in his Sabres career which places him 7th all- time behind Perreault, Rick Martin, Dave Andreychuk, Danny Gare, Craig Ramsay and Mike Foligno.  Vanek is 11 goals behind Foligno and 16 in back of Ramsay so he could finish the season in 5th place.

Pearreault is the gold standard for Sabres skaters.  He scored a goal once every 2.32 games on the average.  Granted Vanek has played in about half the games Perreault did but Vanek scores a goal once every 2.34 games.

If you look at Vanek from a league perspective, his 236 goals are the 7th most by any player since his rookie season of 2005-2006.  The only players who have scored more goals than the native of Austria over the last seven plus seasons are: Alexander Ovechkin, Ilya Kovalchuk, Dany Heatley, Jarome Iginla, Eric Staal and Patrick Marleau. 

Yet another reason to appreciate Vanek is his ability to come up big against one of the best teams on the Sabres schedule, year after year.  In 46 career games against the Bruins, Vanek is averaging more than a point game with 28 goals and 26 assists for 54 points.


Habs have their own prized prospect
While the Buffalo Sabres were trying to figure out whether or not to keep Mikhail Grigorenko on the roster or send him back to juniors, the Montreal Canadiens were going through the same process with their first round pick from last June's draft.

Like the Sabres, the Canadiens decided to keep their prized prospect on the roster. So far, so good for 18 year old Alex Galchenyuk.

Galchenyuk was taken with the third overall pick and was considered, along with Girgorenko, one of the prized forwards in the draft class. He played junior hockey for the Sarnia Sting of the Ontario Hockey League.  His debut campaign in 2010-2011 was quite impressive.  Playing with 2012 number one pick Nail Yakupov, Glachenyuk scored 31 goals and added 52 assists in 68 games.  Galchenyuk, who is of Russian descent but was actually born in Milwaukee, saw action in only two games last season due to a major knee injury.

He was back in Sarnia when the lockout kicked in where his 61 points in 33 games  proved that not only was he fully recovered from the injury, but that there wasn't much else for him to accomplish at the junior level.  Like Grigorenko, Galchenyuk got a chance to play on the international stage as he competed for the gold medal winning USA team at the World Junior Championships.

He has provided quite a spark for the Canadiens who are off to a 4-2 start.  Galchenyuk has one goal and four assists and is averaging just under 12 and a half minutes of ice time.  He's been on a line with fellow rookie Brendan Gallagher and off season acquisition Brandon Prust.  Glachenyuk's five points is tied for the most among Canadiens forwards.

Gallagher is quite a story himself, going from a walk on at age 16 for the Vancouver Giants of the Western Hockey League to being selected by Montreal in the fifth round of the 2010 draft and now to the NHL where he has two goals and four points in the Habs six games.


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