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The Buildup July 15, 2012

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This offseason has not had the fireworks that Buffalo Sabres fans experienced a year ago. Last year we experienced what free agency under a committed owner feels like, with Terry Pegula and president Ted Black getting personally involved in transactions that led to the arrivals of Robyn Regehr, Christian Ehrhoff and Ville Leino. Kevin Dineen moved on to Florida and Ron Rolston was installed as the Dean of Sabres University in Rochester. The Sabres then contracted the Gwinett Gladiators as their ECHL affiliate to ensure the hierarchy and the youth system was being catered to. There was a full-scale reconstruction job on the locker room to ensure that the facilities were world-class. The draft looked pretty good and hopes were high that Pegula’s first full season as owner would be a good one.

Coming out of the lockout, Darcy Regier and Lindy Ruff showed some amazing prescience as to what the game would look like as the NHL struggled to win fans back and sought to end ‘negative’ hockey. They built a team which relied on speed and skill, and for two consecutive years reached the Eastern Conference Finals. Neither of them have shown any of that foresight since then, and it had felt like the Sabres were playing catch-up every year instead of being among the trailblazers in the League. The focus on speed has gone now and the physical element is once again a key component to success. Last offseason the Sabres failed to address that issue on the roster and it came back to bite them with a vengeance.

In the last couple of months, once again it feels like the Sabres management is trying to play catch-up with the way they have gone about addressing the toughness issue on this squad. The last three entry drafts have added bigger players to the system, with size being as highly valued as skill. The two offseason pickups so far, Steve Ott and John Scott both bring grit to the locker room. Maybe toughness will win it all this upcoming season, maybe it won’t.. but it doesn’t feel that Regier & Co. are ahead of the rest in their thoughts or actions. As for letting Derek Roy go, it could be addition by subtraction, remains to be seen. Brad Boyes has moved on as well, little boom and more bust.

It hasn’t been all gloom for the Sabres fans though. By all accounts the Sabres had a corker of a draft, addressing needs and picking up some excellent players all around. Mikhail Grigorenko and Zemgus Girgensons are going to be top 6 centers for many years to come. Regier wasn’t done there though, and went on to pick a total of five centers with the Sabres’ eight picks. Another goalie and two defensemen added to the squad depth. Girgensons then went on to forego college hockey at UVM and signed a three-year, entry-level contract with Buffalo and Grigorenko might do the same though the big and bad KHL is expected to come huffing and puffing at his door. The recently-ended development camp gave fans a chance to see the drafted players up close and personal. A couple of camp-invitees had excellent tryouts too and will probably be given professional contracts as well – Frederick Roy (son of legendary goalie Patrick Roy) and Jamie Wise should be on the Amerks next season.

This is the beginning of Year Two in the three year plan that Pegula and Black had spoken about when they took over the team. So far it’s come with less pomp and fanfare than Year One did, but hopefully it’ll end with more of a bang than then first.


A New Spin June 19, 2012

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There has been some recent chatter in the Buffalo media world about the effect social media has been having on the sports scene in Buffalo. Joe over at Buffalo Wins has made a call for bloggers to unite under one umbrella to take on the media old guard. More recently Chris at ArtVoice made a mention of the dozens of the amateur sports blogs and wondered what they were trying to accomplish, and what informed opinion they provided that were not being already provided by print media, radio and television. 2ITB compiled it all together in an excellent article where he describes his vision for consolidation –

If the sites that come together as a combination of writers can find the proper balance of news, opinion and open conversation, they will be wildly successful.

I have no doubt either that a one-stop Sabres site of that kind would absolutely corner the market and really give the traditional media a wake-up kick in the rear end.

Joe then went on to write another piece where he felt the Sabres need to differentiate between the two main types of bloggers out there.. the superfans and the journalists-in-training, and the different ways in which the Sabres can cater to them.

Both of these ideas brought about soul-searching on my part regarding this blog and the role that I play over at Die By The Blade. I often feel I am a superfan but also look to maintain some sort of journalistic integrity and poise, and because of that I have to curb the fan side of me when posting at DBTB. Which is why I took over this blog from Amanda to begin with, because I wanted to look at the Sabres from a fan perspective.

I have criminally neglected this blog, not that there was too much to write home about last season. So I am bouncing about some ideas about where I want to take this blog this year. For one, if you are going to be looking for an unbiased, neutral reporting on the Sabres then you will not be finding it here. The voice you will hear here is the one of that guy in Section 316 who starts the “Let’s Go Buffalo” chants, yells “Shoot!” any time the Sabres cross the blue line on a PP, drinks slightly too much and gets rowdy with visiting fans, is euphoric after every win and devastated after every loss.

As the new season nears, I’ll be looking at the locker room with player analyses, with what my gut feeling is regarding players and what is expected of them. And once the real fun starts in Fall, there will be weekly previews and match recaps which stick their tongue out at stats, and instead focus on what fans took away from the game they just watched.

Any other feedback is greatly appreciated as always, as are your feature articles if there are some fan-related ideas you have about the Sabres, and what you would like to read on this blog.

Momentum Shift December 27, 2011

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That was a game last night to whet the post-Christmas appetite, and more importantly, to wake the Sabres from their slumber. With injury after injury piling on, the Sabres seemed to have gone into a deadly tailspin and finally pulled themselves out of it with a dominating first period performance. November was a rough month with injuries, and December has been miserable on the scoreboard too. Playing against the Washington Capitals this season seems to be the panacea for the Sabres, and last night was no different either.

Jochen Hecht and Brad Boyes returned from injury and their experience has been sorely lacking. Make no mistake, the kids have done more than alright in their time up here, but we need the steadying hand that some of the veterans provide as well. The forward lines are starting to look NHL-calibre once again, and played like it too last night. Four quick goals in the first period had the Sabres comfortably in the lead and they cruised for most of the game, short of some time in the third period as the Caps attempted to mount a comeback (Sabres Capitals highlights).

The next couple of games – Devils and Caps on the road will provide an accurate barometer of whether the Sabres are well and truly playing better, or yesterday was just another flash of potential with the team mired in inconsistency.

NB: Love how physical the Sabres have been.. and really enjoyed Robyn Regehr bodyslamming Alex Ovechkin into the boards behind the goal!

Faded Rivalry December 14, 2011

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When I moved to Buffalo, it was the first season after the NHL lockout and it was the era of the fast & the furious Sabres. Ruff rolled out line after line of young skaters who whizzed up and down the ice and scored with relative impunity. The current core of Derek Roy, Thomas Vanek, Jason Pominville and the others were not even among the top six forwards! It was easy to fall in love with that team, with co-captains Chris ‘Mr. Clutch’ Drury & Danny Briere leading the charge.

Anyways, back to the point of the conversation.. back then the Ottawa Senators were the Sabres’ most hated enemies. Even before Chris Neil’s dirty hit on Drury and the subsequent mass brawl (who can ever forget Lindy Ruff standing at the bench hurling profanities at Sens coach Bryan Murray), there was a lot of bad blood and fervent rivalry with the Sens. Eight games a season between division rivals tended to get the fanbases quite riled up.

Ever since the Sens broke up their ‘pizza’ line of Daniel Alfredsson, Dany Heatley and Jason Spezza, it seems the team has fallen from contention and has gone to full rebuilding mode. The downside from the Sabres’ fans perspective is the ending of a very heated rivalry, which is a bit of a shame as it made for some very good hockey games and water cooler fodder.

Last night’s game, while not in the same category as some of the legendary games we’d seen in years past was chippy and competitive nonetheless. And had an ending that we’re becoming all too familiar with. Sabres unable to hold a 2-1 lead going into the third period at home and losing. They actually got a point out of the game which might have been lucky, considering how they were overrun in the third period.

I hate when the Sabres lose. I hate it twice as much when they lose after leading. I hate it twice as much more than that when it’s a division rival. Grr.

The Realignment Fiasco December 6, 2011

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Just by my usage of the word ‘fiasco’ should tell you how I feel about the decision made by the NHL’s Board of Governors. Andy Boron has an excellent summary of what the realignment looks like, and what it means for the Buffalo Sabres. While looking at all the changes, just remember that all the steps taken were approved by at least two-thirds of the GMs.

So, here’s a look at the teams that will comprise the four conferences. Yes, that is not a typo, we will have four conferences – two in the East comprising seven teams each, and two in the West comprising eight teams each. One assumes they will also have some better names than the generic A-D they have right now. I sincerely hope they do not go with naming them after past ‘great’ players, that always opens up a six-pack can of worms. So basically instead of moving either Detroit or Nashville or even Columbus to the East to fill the spot vacated by Winnipeg/Atlanta, the GMs opted to go with a completely different format for the league.

As far as how the 82-game season breaks down – each team will play the other teams in the conference six times (3H, 3A), and every other team in the league twice (1H, 1A). You can bet there is going to be a lot more travel fatigue involved. That also means your team is going to see a lot less of teams that were in your conference in the current alignment.

And then there is the playoffs, where it really gets murky. The top four teams in each conference will qualify for the playoffs, and the first two rounds will be held on an intra-conference basis, i.e the winners between A1-A4 and A2-A3 will face off for the conference title, and the four conference champions will then be reseeded for the Stanley Cup semi-finals. How they will be reseeded no one knows. Personally I can’t believe that setting up a fair and reasonable system for the playoffs wasn’t a higher priority for the thinktank of the league.

How it’s fair that the two eight-team divisions in the West have four teams qualify for the playoffs while the East has four each from the two seven-team divisions go through is also another mystery. At the very least the East should have had one eight-team conference and one seven-team conference, so that there are 15 teams in each ‘region’. But then the GMs voted this in, so evidently the smaller teams in the West either think they’re fine, or else they were badly outnumbered.. I expect details on the voting will eventually leak out, especially when some teams miss out on playoffs by the skin of their teeth.

Now, how do these changes affect the Sabres? First of all the boys will get to work on their tans a bit more with an additional pair of games in the Sunshine State added to the schedule. Sabres fans from the Carolinas north to NYC though will be shorted one game. Personally I don’t mind playing the Flyers and Penguins less, but I get the feeling we’re seeing years of history slipping away. And then come the playoffs. Back between 1982-93, the NHL used to have intra-divisional playoffs, and these were discontinued because of the lack of diversity this posed. Read this article by Dave Davis on how the Sabres struggled to get past the first rounds of the playoffs thanks to this.  With the Bruins looking as dominant as they have the last couple of years, we can expect that this quickly-simmering rivalry to kick up a few more notches into a furiously-boiling feud in no time at all.

What are your thoughts on the realignment?

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