The evidence is anecdotal, not an official survey of the fan base, but it’s telling just the same. In recent weeks, family, friends and acquaintances all have shared stories about their inability to find takers for tickets to Sabres games. It reached the point in which people couldn’t give them away.
Buffalo’s season finale against the Islanders on Friday night is relevant only to the two organizations involved. The game will be kicked off the local sports radar, replaced by the hope that comes with the Bills’ first-round draft choice. It will be a temporary reprieve from yet another sorry hockey season.
The Sabres have issues that need to be addressed before a growing number of fans reach their breaking point, but it wasn’t all bad. Don’t get the wrong idea here. I’m not getting soft or tired of criticizing them. It’s actually quite the opposite. But to overlook promising signs would be as irresponsible as ignoring their problems.
Here are five encouraging signs:
1. Cody Hodgson: He had 15 goals and 32 points in 46 games before playing the Penguins on Tuesday night, putting him on pace for 25 goals and 56 points for an 82-game season. His play slightly fell off after Jason Pominville was traded, but the same could be said for Thomas Vanek. He’s terrible defensively but could become a key player if they ever find a true No. 1 center.
2. Jhonas Enroth: Take away his mop-up duty in a game against the Rangers that spun out of control, and Enroth had a 1.61 goals-against average and .951 save percentage in eight games. He played only 53 games before Tuesday but could be a serviceable goalie who is worthy of more playing time and a longer look. His career save percentage is .914. Miller has the same save percentage in 498 games.
3. Mark Pysyk: The rookie defenseman has played well under trying circumstances. He keeps a very cool head, is a good skater and makes a very good pass out of the zone. He has much to learn but doesn’t make major mistakes (see: Myers, Tyler) that can suck the life out of a team. He looks like a keeper.
4. Steve Ott: He’s a Buffalo-type player who shows up more often than others, and he takes pressure off his team on the ice and in the dressing room. He produces to his skill level in the offensive zone, never stops hitting, never stops agitating and carries himself like a professional. The Sabres need more players with the same attitude but more talent.
5. Ron Rolston: He was tossed into a difficult situation after Lindy Ruff was sent packing. He had a 13-11-5 record with an inferior lineup compared to other teams. His strengths with teaching and development can help the Sabres’ youth, assuming Darcy Regier sticks around and keeps him. It’s still not clear whether he can make a difference for a veteran team, but he did as well as could be expected.
Here are five changes that are needed:
1. Trades: Ryan Miller and Thomas Vanek are no longer part of the long-term plan and need to be shipped out. Miller all but bid farewell last week against the Rangers and has reached a point in his career where he needs to play for another team. Vanek isn’t interested in sticking around for a lengthy rebuild. Every day they draw closer to the 2014 trade deadline, their value decreases.
2. Special teams: Buffalo was 27th on the power play and 26th on the penalty kill. No other team had a worse combination of both.
3. Tyler Myers: The 6-foot-8 defenseman was handed a $12 million bonus after signing his long-term deal. He has regressed in each of his four seasons since winning the Calder Trophy after the 2009-10 season. The fear is that the last two seasons are more his norm than his first two.
4. Bottom Nine: Vanek, Hodgson and Pominville, who was traded after 37 games, scored 43 of the Sabres’ 119 goals before Tuesday. It took their next seven highest-scoring forwards to combine for that many.
5. Beat the Weak: Buffalo was eight points behind Ottawa and the New York Rangers in the standings with two games remaining. The Senators had an 8-5-1 record against Southeast Division opponents while the Rangers were 9-3-1. The Sabres were 3-10-2 against the Southeast, which could have four of five teams miss the playoffs.
Is Geno the one?
The New York Jets’ extra draft pick in the Revis trade could force the Bills to change their thinking going into the draft, especially if Buffalo is thinking about taking a quarterback. The Jets can now address two needs with the ninth and 13th picks overall, and quarterback is likely one of them.
Numerous mock drafts have the Bills most likely to take West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith, so look for the Bills to select someone other than him. Here’s a tally taken from 15 online draft prognosticators from CBS Sports, the Associated Press, NFL.com, ESPN, Sports Illustrated and SB Nation:
Smith (six votes), Alabama guard Chance Warmack (two), North Carolina guard Jonathan Cooper (two), Syracuse quarterback Ryan Nassib (two), Southern California quarterback Matt Barkley (one), West Virginia receiver Tavon Austin (one), BYU defensive end Ziggy Ansah (one).
My prediction: Nassib. The Bills might have thought he would be available in the second round, but his stock increased after he nailed the Wonderlic test. Nassib reportedly had a 41 out of 50, which is very high. Add his intelligence to his knowledge of the Bills’ offense and confidence from the coaching staff, he seems destined for Buffalo.
The gift of grab
Many baseball fans attend hundreds of games over the course of a lifetime and never catch a ball. A 35-year-old bookstore employee caught two homers in the same game last week, increasing his career total to 24 homers snagged in his, um, career.
Zack Hample, profiled last week by the Associated Press, has a knack for catching balls hit into the stands. Last Thursday, he grabbed a homer hit by the Diamondbacks’ Didi Gregorius in the third inning in Yankee Stadium and later caught one off the bat of Francisco Cervelli in the ninth.
“It’s a little bit of luck, obviously. I move all over the place constantly,” Hample told AP after catching the two homers. “People don’t notice the seven games I’ve been to this year and didn’t catch a home run.”
Hample wrote a book 14 years ago called “How to Snag Major League Baseballs” and has a sponsor donating money to causes for every one he catches. By his count, he has 6,516 balls from major league ballparks, including 153 foul balls and five homers tossed his way from bullpens. The others were picked up during batting practice.
He keeps track on his website.
“I’m a dork,” he told AP, “but not a big enough dork that I have it all memorized.”
A Rose is a ...
Derrick Rose’s prolonged absence from the Bulls’ lineup has evolved into a mystery amid reports from Chicago that he has healed from a torn ACL. The latest oddity was Rose jumping in celebration when the Bulls beat the Nets in Game Two on Monday.
Rose, sidelined for nearly a year, was medically cleared to play a month ago but still hasn’t returned to the lineup. He reportedly has been their best player in recent practices, and he was shown in a video clip dunking a ball.
The star guard has acknowledged his problems are more mental than physical. The Bulls have grown tired of answering questions about him, and there have been subtle – or not so subtle – suggestions from management that he should be playing.
“Did you know that when Rose, [Luol] Deng, [Joakim] Noah and [Carlos] Boozer all play together, we win 86 percent of our games?” GM Gar Forman told Chicago Sun-Times columnist Rick Telander.
3 – Rockies’ games postponed in an eight-day stretch because of snow at Coors Field.
646,500 – Dollars donated by Major League Baseball, its players association and fans walking into Fenway Park last weekend that will be donated to victims of the Boston Marathon bombings.
35,000 – Dollars that will be given to first-round losers at Wimbledon, up from $22,100 after officials announced a 40 percent hike in overall prize money.
• Darrelle Revis is one of the best cover men in the NFL, but the Jets made the right move when they sent him packing. Forget the annual headaches Revis caused while whining about his contract. New York was playing the percentages knowing there’s no guarantee Revis will be the same after undergoing knee surgery.
• The home team winning eight of the first nine NBA playoff games was hardly a coincidence. The eight teams that opened the playoffs at home combined for a 263-65 record at home during the regular season. Only eight of the 30 teams in the NBA had a losing record this year on their home floor.
• How did the Capitals climb back into contention going into their matchup for the division lead against the Jets? Alex Ovechkin had 21 goals in 20 games before Tuesday night, leading Washington to a 15-4-1 record. He had nine goals in his first 25 games, and the Caps had a 10-14-1 record.