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Offseason Christmas June 30, 2011

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These are truly dizzying times for Sabres fans. With the July 1st free agency approaching, the Sabres are in the news long and loud, and not because the interwebz are reporting which unrestricted free agents can’t wait to leave newly christened ‘hockey heaven’. This promises to be a very exciting Friday, ensure you are glued to your favorite media source come noon!

All of this can be traced back to new owner Terry Pegula, who along with his family and appointed-president Ted Black have taken it upon themselves to change the face of a venerable franchise. In the period of a few months, the Sabres are changing from ‘that plucky team that tends to overachieve’ to ‘this lean mean hockey machine built to win’. The city of Buffalo has struggled in recent decades and it seemed that the sports teams were following that spiral down too.. but up stepped Pegula with his vision of ‘hockey heaven’, and his motto that the Sabres sole reason for existence going forward is to win the Stanley Cup, and then do it again.

Apart from the dozens of changes on the operations end, from something as minute as letting fans choose gameday tunes to be played at the arena to an entire reconstruction of the locker-room facilities, the new management is pulling out all the stops. Now we all know newly embroidered carpets in a circular dressing room is not going to win multiple Cups, but Pegula Inc did not stop there. Right off the bat the Sabres added salary at the trade deadline by picking up Brad Boyes, a move unheard of here in Buffalo for over a decade. Players within the system that have been identified as part of the Cup-push have been signed to long term contracts. A list of players on other teams who would fit the master plan here was made, and even better, aggressively pursued. Defensive rock Robyn Regehr was chased down and convinced that his services would be highly appreciated here in Buffalo. Another defensive stalwart Christian Ehrhoff is also feeling the full brunt of the Pegula machine this morning as he wakes up in Germany.

There were two glaring needs on this team in 2010-11 – a top line center, and a solid defense. With Regehr signed to pair with Tyler Myers, and another Top 4 d-man on the way (Ehrhoff, or Tomas Kaberle, or James Wisniewski)**, one can confidently say that the back-end of the team is all set. That leaves the Sabres sitting pretty to approach the conundrum of how to address the lack of top centers on the team with the double-barreled shotgun of cap space and prospects to spare. This kind of aggression from Sabres management definitely gives you the feeling that somehow or the other, there will be changes made to the forward ranks. Whether we get Brad Richards or not, there will be a top line center starting for the Sabres come the start of the season. You can take that to the bank, because Pegula Inc. owns that damn bank!

**EDIT – since the time of writing Christian Ehrhoff has been signed on as the newest piece of the Sabres’ defense, to a front-loaded 10yr, $40 million contract.


NHL Entry Draft review June 28, 2011

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By all accounts the Sabres have had a pretty successful entry draft; if you were looking for one word to describe the process it would have to be ‘steal’ . Of course, all of this is on paper until the players actually prove it by cracking the starting lineup. In the NHL more so than any other pro sports, this does have a longer timeline. GM Regier and his crew have been enjoying a pretty good success rate of converting draft picks into roster spots, but at the same time those results are tempered by the fact starting places on the Sabres lineup might have been easier to have come by due to the grooming policies in place during the Golisano era, and the fact that Sabres were never big players in the free agent or trade markets thanks to their recruiting style of using retreads and bit-part players.

1st Rd – #16: Joel Armia, RW – While the Sabres were expected to go with the safe and solid pick of Mark McNeill to address the weak C position, instead they picked Finn Armia, who is not only a big body at 6’3″ 191lb, but is also a sniper of repute, and has been often compared to fellow Finn Teemu Selanne. Armia was a lock to go higher in the draft and getting him at #16 can be considered a steal. Described by the experts as a pure finisher equipped with an amazing set of hands and excellent creativity, he is expected to make the Sabres squad in a year or so.

2nd Rd – #46: No pick – Traded to St. Louis Blues at the deadline for Brad Boyes

3rd Rd – #77: Daniel Catenacci, C – Finding this former OHL #1 pick in the third round was definitely a heist for the Sabres. Catenacci is a speed merchant, arguably the fastest skater among all the prospects, and plays with a physical edge despite his 5’10”, 183lbs frame. A natural center who scores at a point-per-game, he has good vision, a quick release and fills the gap created when Paul Byron was traded.

4th Rd – #107: Colin Jacobs, C – More of a two-way forward than Catenacci, Jacobs is another big body (6’1″, 197lbs) who seems destined to be a checking line center who can score as well. Expected to go between the late-first and early-second rounds, Jacobs fell to the Sabres in the fourth round who gladly picked him up. Ironically, he only started playing hockey after being inspired by the Dallas Stars beating the Sabres in the famous ‘no-goal’ Stanley Cup Finals. Jacobs is a power forward and relies on his size to fight for the puck around the boards.

5th Rd – #137 – Alex Lepkowski, D – Keeping up with their newer trend of picking local kids as well as gritty players with size, Lepkowski is a 6’4″, 212lbs from West Seneca not ranked on the pre-draft boards. However he will drop the gloves when required and can fit into the Mike Weber mold. Many of the Sabres D prospects are of the flashy offensive kind and Lepkowski should be able to take care of business in his own end anchoring them. Should turn into a fan favorite if he can make the squad.

6th Rd – #167 – Nathan Lieuwen, G – The Sabres goalkeeping prospect depth has been looking thin, and this athletic, 6’5″ goaltender will provide cover in Rochester as Jhonas Enroth should be the backup in Buffalo this year. He will compete with David Leggio as both Brad Eidsness and Connor Knapp are still in college. Limited in his ability, he is destined to be a backup more than anything else.

7th Rd – #197 – Brad Navin, C – For a seventh round pick, Navin is more than just a depth player. Navin tore it up in the Wisconsin high school system last year offensively and made the jump straight to college, committing to the Wisconsin Badgers, without the almost-mandatory one year USHL transition. His all-round offensive ability (Navin also played QB in his high school football team) has the potential to to make him a late-round star.

Sabres keeping busy June 2, 2011

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As I watched the Canucks beat the Bruins in one of the better 1-0 games we’ve ever seen, I couldn’t help but feel that we would have been overmatched had this year’s Sabres even made it this far. Sometimes you just have to be honest, and over the last two playoffs the Sabres haven’t stepped up collectively as a unit to reach the level that playoffs demand.

Meanwhile the Thrashers franchise is going to be shipping up north of the border to Winnipeg – too late for there to be any significant impact for the 2011-12 season, but the realignment of the divisions for the season after should be very interesting. Die By The Blade contemplates a future where Winnipeg goes to the Western Conference, and one of Columbus, Nashville, or even Detroit moves East. Nashville by location makes sense for the Southeast, while Columbus would slot into the Northeast or Atlantic divisions. Bringing Detroit over to the Eastern Conference would go a long way in improving this conference just by their being here.

What is good to see though is that the Sabres are not sitting around twiddling their thumbs waiting for the next season. Brian McCutcheon has been let go from the Sabres coaching staff – the Sabres’ much-maligned special teams woes over the last couple of years have been attributed to him. While I’m not the best judge of whether that is fair or not, I think change will be good. With Gragnani expected to play on the Sabres PP next season, I’d like to see some good principles instilled in him.

Unfortunately the Sabres also had to say goodbye to Portland Pirates coach Kevin Dineen, who has done a stellar job with the Sabres’ affiliate. The success of the rookies who have come from up the AHL with the big club, as well as three straight rookie-of-the-year awards are testament to his coaching and vision. He is moving on to Florida to become the head coach there, and we wish him well in his travels, except when we play them of course – the Sabres struggled against the Panthers’ neutral zone this season, and it will be interesting to see what Dineen changes there. No word yet on replacements for either of the coaches, who are your recommendations?

Finally, today brought the news that 2010 first round pick, defenseman Mark Pysyk has been offered an entry-level contract with the Sabres. Since he is not age-eligible, this will mean that if he doesn’t make the Sabres roster after ten games, he will be sent back to the WHL’s Edmonton Oil Kings, where he had 40 points and was +23 on a quite miserable season for the team.

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