If you’ve been watching this lost season and fearing the possibility of a major overhaul, check the standings and the schedule. Any evidence the Sabres need is sitting before them, explaining how better days could be ahead if they make intelligent decisions in a season going nowhere.
Saturday’s game against the Senators started a stretch of five games in eight nights that will include four games against Northeast Division opponents, interrupted by the matchup this evening against the Capitals. Buffalo plays Montreal, Toronto and Montreal again in the five days that follow a busy weekend.
Looking for an example of a team doing it right?
Montreal entered the weekend leading the conference, one point ahead of Boston, having made the jump from worst to first in less than a year. The Habs switched general managers, hired a new coach, tweaked the roster, stayed healthy and took off. Now, they can start thinking about winning the Stanley Cup if enough falls into place.
A total rebuild wasn’t necessary.
For all the whining from Buffalo about 334 man-games lost to injury last season, Montreal had 439, or 177 more than any time in its previous three years. Having taken their lumps literally with injuries and figuratively with criticism, their basement finish prompted an overhaul at the top.
Owner Geoff Molson assembled an all-star front office that the Sabres could have had if Terry Pegula was given the right advice when he took over. Pegula embraced status quo and watched his team spend more, win less and tumble down the standings. The Canadiens, Senators and Leafs moved in the opposite direction.
The Habs started turning around after hiring Marc Bergevin as general manager after he served an apprenticeship under Stan Bowman and Rick Dudley in Chicago. He surrounded himself with assistant general managers in Dudley and Larry Carriere, two top personnel men who once bled Sabres blue.
Montreal hired coach Michel Therrien, who has helped build the right chemistry with a healthy roster. The Habs entered the weekend fourth in scoring (3.18 gpg) and eighth in goals-against (2.18 per game), were fourth on the power play and fourth in shots against (26.8). All that with a few simple moves.
Crusty veterans Brandon Prust and Colby Armstrong arrived as free agents. They dumped Scott Gomez, re-signed P.K. Subban after a contract dispute and promoted undersized fifth-round pick Brendan Gallagher. Gallagher, 20, had eight goals and 16 points and was plus-9 in his first 23 NHL games.
Bergevin & Co., made another move three weeks ago, sending 2011-12 leading scorer Erik Cole to Dallas for forward Michael Ryder. Ryder took two games to get adjusted and had two goals and nine points in his next six games. The Canadiens are now in position to challenge the Bruins, who visit March 31, for the division title.
Look around the division.
Ottawa was in 13th place two years ago when it held a fire sale in which Mike Fisher, Chris Kelly, Jarkko Ruttu and Alexei Kovalev were shipped out in a two-week span. The Sens took a flier on Kyle Turris last year and landed their leading scorer. They also hired a good coach in Paul MacLean.
Last year, the Senators won with the fourth-highest scoring team in the NHL. This year, with their roster riddled with injuries to their top players, they entered Saturday’s games leading the league in goals against (2.00). Good luck finding a team with more scrappy no-names who have played with the same passion.
Jason Spezza (back) played five games this season. Norris Trophy-winning defenseman Erik Karlsson (Achilles) played 14. Former 35-goal scorer Milan Michalek (knee) has missed 12 games. Goaltender Craig Anderson (ankle), who led the league with a 1.49 GAA and .952 save percentage, has been sidelined since Feb. 21.
Ottawa has won only one game in regulation since Feb. 25, but it found ways to extract points from 10 of 12 games contests (6-2-4) before arriving in Buffalo. The Sens also found ways to stay in the playoff race while working toward their second straight postseason. Whatever hope was lost two years ago has been restored.
Brian Burke has his critics, but he built a Toronto team that woke up Saturday in seventh place and was very much in contention for the playoffs. He traded for two of their top three players, Phil Kessel and James van Riemsdyk, and drafted the other, Nazem Kadri.
Pegula has several assets, starting with Ryan Miller, Thomas Vanek and Jason Pominville, but he needs help. Trade them before next season or convince them to stay and build around them? It starts with hiring the right man to make smart decisions. That’s what the Sabres have lacked compared to their division rivals.
Look around. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out.
Left Coast awaiting Miller?
With so many variables, it’s difficult to predict whether the Sabres will look to trade one or more of their veteran stars or keep them past the trade deadline. Figuring out who is going where, and for whom, is even tougher. But there could be a natural fit for Miller, who has a limited no-trade clause. Warning: This is pure speculation.
But it makes sense.
Miller’s wife is an actress working in Southern California, where he has spent the last two offseasons while training with members of the Kings. Los Angeles isn’t trading Conn Smythe Trophy winner Jonathan Quick after he led them to the Stanley Cup and signed a 10-year deal worth $58 million.
Anaheim is in a different situation after a great start. Ducks goalie Jonas Hiller has a 2.53 GAA and .918 save percentage in 264 career games before the weekend. Miller has a 2.58 GAA and .915 save percentage in 484 games. Miller has more big-game experience, and his best is better than Hiller’s best.
Hiller makes $4.5 million and is signed through next season. Miller makes $6.25 million and is signed through next year. An exchange of the goalies would make sense for an Anaheim team on the rise and has room under the salary cap and a Buffalo team that needs to trim payroll before the cap decreases next season.
Allen red-hot for Blues
St. Louis looks like it has another good goaltender in rookie Jake Allen, who improved his record to 7-1 with 28 saves against Phoenix for his first NHL shutout. He was summoned from AHL Peoria and appears intent on sticking around.
Allen, a second-round pick in the 2008 draft, had a 2.33 GAA and .915 save percentage in nine games this season. The Blues rode him for four victories in five games with Jaroslav Halak taking the loss in the other. The kid is making only $787,000.
“I just think he’s a good goalie,” Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said. “I think he’s sound technically, three-year pro, he’s figured it out. He understands positioning on the ice. He’s played a lot of hockey down there, so I don’t think he’s overwhelmed by anything.”
The Blues had the best tandem in the NHL last season with Halak and Brian Elliott, who allowed only 165 goals and ran away with the Jennings Trophy. Halak had a 5-3-1 record with a 2.38 GAA and .881 save percentage while Elliott had a 3-6-1 with a 3.65 GAA and .851 SP.
St. Louis is keeping three goalies on the roster for now. If Allen continues to play well, the Blues could look into trading one of their veterans.
Pinizzotto hits big time
Canucks forward Steve Pinizzotto waited so long for a chance to play an NHL game that he figured he would get the most out of his experience. The 28-year-old made his debut against Nashville and got into a fight with Kevin Klein on his first shift.
“I just had a ton of built-up energy and had to release it somehow,” Pinizzotto said. “But you can’t really explain stuff like that, you’ve got to live it and it was just a great feeling.”
Pinizzotto spent six years chasing one shift in the NHL after two seasons with Rochester Institute of Technology. He was an undrafted free agent, played parts of two seasons with South Carolina Stingrays (ECHL) along with five more in Hershey. He had four goals and 12 points in 24 games with AHL Chicago before getting the call.
“It was good, exciting fun,’’ Pinizzotto said. “I could say a million things. You wait a long time, 28 years.”
Flyers kept wrong goalie
Flyers GM Paul Holmgren must have been shaking his head last week knowing he committed nine years and $51 million to Ilya Bryzgalov when a better goaltender was right under his nose.
Sergei Bobrovsky had a 5-0-3 record since Feb. 23 and was the biggest reason the Blue Jackets climbed out of the Western Conference basement. He was named one of the NHL’s three stars last week. He had a 2.11 GAA and .927 save percentage and eight of the Jackets’ 10 wins this season.
All he needed was a few minor adjustments. Goaltending coach Ian Clark has him keeping his feet longer, especially when he can’t find the puck, before retreating to the butterfly position. It has allowed him to take up more space. He’s also getting better with more playing time, which vanished in Philly.
“I am feeling comfortable now, and happy,” he said. “The guys are playing great in front of me. I’m seeing every puck, reacting quickly. I’m working hard, and then the next day work, work, work. That’s how you get better. That’s only way to get better.”
Bryzgalov had a 12-12-1 record with a 2.86 GAA and .896 save percentage for the Flyers after losing three times in four starts and getting pulled from another game.
Around the boards
• Edmonton continues keeping an eye on Sabres winger Drew Stafford, who has not performed to his potential. Stafford is the kind of player who could blossom with a different team. Injury-prone winger Ales Hemsky, who has one full season at $5 million left on his contract, appears to be primary trade bait.
• We’ll see how things shake out, but it wouldn’t surprise me if the Rangers or Flyers fire their coaches and hire Lindy Ruff this season. The Rangers have been going through the motions under John Tortorella. Philly hasn’t played well all year under Peter Laviolette. Their tenures could be nearing an end.
• Talks are ongoing about adding an outdoor game during the 2015-16 season in Winnipeg. It would likely be held in late February or early March, which beats spitting icicles in January. The city is putting finishing touches on a 33,000-seat football stadium and would add about 7,000 seats for the outdoor game.
• Never known for his commitment to defense, Ilya Kovalchuk led the NHL with four shorthanded goals. Kovy begged last season for more time on the penalty kill. He had twice as many goals this year on the PK as he has on the PP. Opponents, beware. “They don’t expect you to be that aggressive,” he said. “That’s the key.”