Anyone who is anyone fully expected the Buffalo Sabres to be bad last year but not worst in the NHL bad. It got to the point where Buffalo at the 1/3 mark had more shootout wins than regulation wins. By the end of the season, they still were below two goals a game and still gave up scoring chances galore. They even lost the draft lottery to Florida which added insult upon insult to injury.
- 1. Last season was painful enough but then not winning the lottery had to be a punch to the groin like few ever felt. What was it like in Buffalo?
At first, it was pretty rough. Most people understood the team would not be good, but few expected them to be the worst team since we lost a season to lockout. However, after owner Terry Pegula fired general manager Darcy Regier midway through the season, there was a weight lifted off the fan base. Regier made some great moves along the way, but the fans never let it go that he was the one responsible for Danny Briere and Chris Drury walking out the door years ago.
Bringing in a new, more progressive sounding voice in Tim Murray had people feeling pretty confident in the future by the end of last year. Sure, they were unwatchable, but the idea that they would get a top draft pick and be in a good spot for the McDavid lottery made everyone feel quite good about the overall direction. What frustrated people the most was the “heroic run to eighth place” year after year. Almost everyone I know is buying in to the Chicago or Pittsburgh plan.
- 2. So a new weighted draft lottery will be changed to the point where by 2016 the worst team could feasibly draft as low as fourth. What are your thoughts?
As it pertains to Buffalo, the 2016 draft means nothing. By then, the organization plans to be back in playoff contention. And I believe they will be. Remember, they have had one of the best prospect pools for some time. Young players like Rasmus Ristolainen, Zemgus Girgensons, Mark Pysyk, Sam Reinhart – they are the core that will all be coming into their own by then.
As for the bigger picture, I’ve never heard a perfect solution for the broken lottery system. Sometimes I wonder if NHL fans care about this issue at all. If you lose on purpose, there is still a huge penalty to pay and you could end up being like the Panthers, Oilers or Blue Jackets who were bad year after year and never broke through. I like the idea of “Buyer Beware.” If you want to take the hit with your fans of finishing last and the risk on top picks, good luck to you.
- 3. In a year with relatively few shining moments, which ones were your favorites?
Uh, yes, this is pretty tough. The one that comes to mind is when Mark Pysyk scored a goal by shooting the puck into Mike Smith’s pants and Smith backed into the net. We dubbed it “Butt Goal” as seen above.
In seriousness, the progression of 2013 first-rounder Rasmus Ristolainen was incredible. He scored the golden goal at the World Juniors and took huge steps forward. He went from a shaky young kid to a confident, physical player with No. 1 defenseman potential.
Also the trade deadline was about as exciting as a Game 7.
- 4. Who winds up starting for Buffalo this year? Enroth or Neuvirth?
Enroth will get first crack, but the leash will be short. Tim Murray has gone on record as saying he likes big goaltenders and has raved about prospect netminder Nathan Lieuwen. As for Neuvirth, it reads like another iron in the fire. If we have learned anything from goaltenders, it is that you never know about goaltenders. For every big prospect that becomes a solid goalie, there’s a Tim Thomas. Murray is taking the right approach – find as many with potential as possible and hope one turns out to be the next Ryan Miller.
- 5. The leader in points for Buffalo last year was Cody Hodgson with 44 points. Can someone break 50 points in 2014-15?
I’ll say yes, but not with a ton of confidence. Hodgson and Ennis are both good power play scorers but struggle so much to score at 5-on-5 that it is hard to say they can be 50-point scorers or more. They will have more to work with on the top six. Remember, the Sabres were giving Matt D’Agostini minutes last season. This year it will be Chris Stewart, Brian Gionta and a full season with a very good scorer in Matt Moulson. So…maybe?
- 6. Some think Chris Stewart could be one of those players. Do you think Stewart has a shot at a big comeback campaign?
He will get the opportunity to do that. Anyone who can put pucks in the net is a total lock for the top six on this club. But it isn’t like he will have Sidney Crosby passing him the puck. I see him as a front-of-the-net power play scorer and it is hard to see the Sabres having a great deal of improvement on the PP after buying out Christian Ehrhoff.
If I were the Sabres, I’d be looking to trade him early in the season to a team that has an injury early and could be desperate. You don’t want to get into a Thomas Vanek situation at the deadline last year where the return is so-so.
- 7. Can Buffalo score more than two goals a game over the 82 game span?
Yes. The Sabres will not be a juggernaut, but their offense will be improved. They’ll have a few younger players filling out the roster like Johan Larsson and Nicholas Deslauriers rather than a few fighters who couldn’t play at all. I expect the defense to be much more effective in creating offense, too. The addition of Chris Stewart should help and Zemgus Girgensons playing top six minutes full time.
How much will they improve offensively? Probably not a whole lot.
- 8. There has been a lot of talk in Buffalo about openly tanking for McDavid. If something were to befall the NY Islanders again, Buffalo could possibly draft twice in the top five even top three. What would that be like?
I just can’t see it. The Islanders’ goaltending was so horrific last season that there is no way it will be that bad again with Jaroslav Halak. They will also get John Tavares, an elite player, back in the lineup and have a real second line center in Mikhail Grabovski. They look more like a fringe playoff team than one that will be at the bottom of the league. They’ll be buying at the deadline, too, if there is any shot of a postseason berth because they’re well aware they can’t afford the embarrassment of giving away a lottery ticket.
What would it be like? It would be franchise-changing. It would shape the next 10 years of Sabres hockey and make them a lock to compete for the Cup for years to come. But, again, it seems pretty farfetched.
- 9. Which prospects should we be keeping an eye on for 2014-15 and then 2015-16?
There are so many on this club. As I’ve mentioned, Rasmus Ristolainen could throw his name in the hat as the next great No. 1 defenseman. He has the potential to be a true franchise player who can put up points, play physical, kill penalties and be a leader.
Beyond him, the most intriguing are Sam Reinhart, the No. 2 overall pick, who may see NHL time this year.
I will be watching Mikhail Grigorenko the closest. He was touted as an elite offensive talent in the 2012 draft and has not shown it yet at the pro level. Still, his size, passing and puck control skill is top notch. He will get every opportunity to play top minutes in the AHL this year and prove he deserves a place in the future.
For 2015-16, people inside the team are really excited to see 2013 first-round pick Nikita Zadorov. He has to play in junior this year, but he is big, can skate and has a big shot. They see him as another major part of the future.
- 10. The Buffalo Sabres have a ton of work to do in order to become more competitive. What is the most glaring need?
Oddly enough, I really don’t think they have a ton of work to do. They have laid the ground work over the past three or four years by stocking their system and drafting high. The Sabres’ defense is set, they have lots of goaltending options and a crop of solid forwards. What is missing is McDavid or Jack Eichel. They have a bunch of role player types, Matt Moulson on a long-term deal and a couple prospects like winger Joel Armia who could be point scorers. Buffalo lacks Sidney Crosby, Ryan Getzlaf, Anze Kopitar etc. Once they get their hands on that player (which is no guarantee by drafting high), they will be an instant competitor for at least the postseason.
- 11. Buffalo will be hosting the NHL Scouting Combine for the next two years. What does this mean for the city and the Sabres?
I think we’ll have to wait and see. The Buffalo Sabres’ brass has said they want every young player to see the city of Buffalo and realize it is a great hockey town and place they might want to be down the road. Buffalo has had a pretty bad reputation – largely based on a worn-out perception that is not true at all. Sure, it is not New York or Los Angeles, but there are a ton of ex-Sabres who have made their post-career lives in Buffalo. The Sabres want to show that off. They are also opening a mega hockey facility right next to their arena called Harbor Center that gives off the “we are hockey” vibe. Will that have any sort of tangible effect? Hard to say.
- 12. What is your prognosis for the 2014-15 season? Could it be worse than 2013-14?
It can’t be worse. They added enough talent and have enough players coming up through the system to make them much more competitive. My expectation is that they score a few more goals, have a few more exciting games and finish 30th.
If the Buffalo Sabres somehow finish above the 29th or 30th spot, it should be viewed as a gigantic failure by Tim Murray. You cannot get this close to the golden goose only to give it away to win a meaningless game here or there.