Tool Time

We all remember those famous words from the Summer of 1999: “No Goa…”, err, I mean, “We’re going to give them the tools to get the job done”. Not only did those words prove to be untrue, it gave Sabre fans a false sense of hope.

I bet the Rigases wish they each had a rock hammer hidden in a bible now. Talk about giving them the tools to get the job done. I suppose I shouldn’t hold a grudge, especially now that we have a God-send of an owner, Terrence Pegula: hockey’s version of the Home Depot. Except this one seems to have a clue about customer service (ZING!).

The promise John Rigas and his sons couldn’t keep is seemingly being delivered. With the additions of Brad Boyes, Robyn Regehr, Christian Ehrhoff and Ville Leino, and the re-signing of Nathan Gerbe, Mike Weber,Drew Stafford, Jhonas Enroth, Reggie Sekera, Cody McCormick and Matt Ellis so far, Pegula has committed roughly $76 million in salary towards Lindy Ruff‘s roster for next year. Which begs the question(s): Are the Buffalo Sabres Stanley Cup contenders and, if so, how long of a leash will Lindy Ruff be allowed?

 

QUESTION 1

Are the Buffalo Sabres, as the roster stands on August 1st, 2011, Stanley Cup contenders?

Yes, they are a contender, but I wouldn’t exactly call them a favorite. Yet. Innocent until proven Cup-worthy. It’s nice, for a change, to have an organization, it’s ownership, and it’s players, nationally recognized for (most of) the right reasons. Some critics have complained about Pegula’s free-(over)spending ways, but I think  a lot of that is jealousy. Everyone was used to seeing the Buffalo Sabres take a back seat to all the big market teams. When Pegula, the 128th richest U.S. citizen, in an attempt to deliver on a promise of “multiple Cups”, kept his end of the bargain, it didn’t sit too well with many hockey fans outside of Buffalo. You know what I say?

Too damn bad, and it’s about damn time!!!

You know, though, it was kinda nice being an underdog all those years, and flying in under the radar. Especially coming out of the lockout, where nobody, and I mean NOBODY gave the Sabres a chance. That, people, has changed big time. I wonder if this team has the mental make-up to handle the expectations that people already have for them, and the ones that are going to come their way. Let’s face it, the Sabres were a good team last year. Flawed, yes, but good. No one, of course, considered them to be remotely on the same level as the Phillys, Vancouvers or Bostons.

Then came the summer of Terry.

Players were dealt, to and fro. Free agents were signed, and re-signed. The league and it’s followers took notice. All of the sudden, the Buffalo Sabres went from a team that, admit it, were first round chokers, to a team on the verge. Many have picked, and will pick, this team to take the Northeast division and push deep into the Spring of 2012. So, as we sit here in early August, how do we look?

GOALTENDING

The tandem of Ryan Miller and Jhonas Enroth has the makings of an elite goaltending pairing in the NHL. Miller is a top-flight stopper, a fierce competitor, and is just entering his goaltending prime. When he’s hot, he’s unstoppable. When he’s not, he’s still damn good, although has the propensity to allow the weak goal. There were times over the past few years that he was simply overworked, due to a less-than-stellar back-up goalie, or this ridiculousness we call the Olympics (just kidding). That should not be an issue now, thanks to the emergence of Enroth. The “Prince” held court last year down the stretch, in pressure-packed situations, and proved his mettle. The kid is a cool customer. A little under-sized, but nevertheless, calm under duress. He should give Miller 20-22 nights off this year. Both of these gentlemen should greatly benefit from a beefed up…

DEFENSE

This is the area that needed an upgrade from last year. Well, we got it. Gone are Steve Montador and Chris Butler, replaced with the snarly Regehr and the uber-talented Ehrhoff. These two will make their presence felt, but at different ends of the ice. The Butler for Regehr trade may go down on par with the Mike Wilson for Rhett Warrener deal from back in 1999. Butler, much like Wilson, was much maligned and some couldn’t wait to run him out of town. Regehr, much like Warrener, is poised to become a fan-favorite and a rock in the defensive zone. This may be the trade where Darcy Regier has re-energized his once dominant mojo. So, then, onto Regehr and Ehrhoff.

Robin Regehr was a beloved member of the Calgary Flames. He spent virtually all of his career with that organization. He almost didn’t become a Sabre. It was touch and go for a while. Until Terry and Kim Pegula sold him and his family on the benefits of playing and living in Buffalo. I swear, Terry Pegula could sell a leaking bottle of ketchup to a woman wearing white gloves. Anyway, Regehr should bring some sandpaper and calm to a Sabres defense that could have used a healthy dose of either last season. I don’t know how many times I screamed at my TV last year, “just CHIP IT OFF THE %$&#$*@ GLASS!”. This is the guy that is going to make a difference in the defensive zone, and will become one of Ryan Miller’s favorite teammates. He will block shots, hit hard and, by hopefully keeping it simple, “chip it out off the %$&#$*@ glass”.

Christian Ehrhoff was brought here to make a difference, on many levels. But, the things that should have Sabres fans drooling are his wheels, and his cannon of a shot (and his willingness to use it). He had the 60th most shots in the NHL last year with 209, and drilled home 14 goals and 50 points. He loves rushing the puck and jumping into the play, and will no doubt quarterback a Sabres power-play that has needed a true QB for years. He is, by no means, a bruiser or big hitter. While his bread and butter will be his offense, I have seen the man lose his temper and, when he does, IT.IS.NOT.PRETTY.

Tyler Myers is entering year number three, which is widely considered the year where a good chunk of pros break out. Myers will, mark my words, win a Norris Trophy someday, provided he continues his strong two-way play and builds on the 2011 playoffs, where his previously untapped mean streak finally reared its beautiful head.

Jordan Leopold, as the number four rearguard on the depth chart, will also reap the benefits of having a nicely stacked peer group around him. He will quarterback the Sabres 2nd power-play unit, thus avoiding the opposition’s top penalty-killing teams and potentially putting up better numbers than last year.

The bottom three of Sekera, Weber and Marc-Andre Gragnani will be in a heated battle for playing time as soon as the first training camp puck drops in September, with the latter still an unsigned restricted free agent. Reggie is going to have to step up his game and become a better, consistent two-way threat, which I believe he can do. Weber is a strong skater and plays a gritty, safe, stay-at-home game, and I believe his presence is a necessity given that Regehr is really the only bruiser we have on the back end. Gragnani showed us some slick skating and elite passing during last year’s playoffs. Unless he comes into camp and gives the coaching staff of Lindy Ruff, James Patrick and Kevyn Adams no choice but to play him, he may have to bide his time and wait for his opportunity. He may turn a guy like Sekera into trade bait, though.

Top to bottom, the Sabres could potentially have one of the better group of rearguards in the league, which will only benefit the…

FORWARDS

This team needs a healthy Derek Roy this year, mainly for his offense, yes, but also to keep certain wingers (Boyes) in their natural positions. The 2011-12 Buffalo Sabres will give coach Ruff the deepest core of forwards since the the post-lockout teams. Roy, Leino and Paul Gaustad form an interesting, and questionable triumvirate at center. Leino has said that his natural and most comfortable position is up the middle, but he hasn’t played the position consistently in 5 years. He does flash elite play-making skills, had great face-off numbers last season (a winning percentage of 57.4%, which should take some pressure off of the “Goose”) and, according to some sources out of Philadelphia, the man never quits on a play. Perhaps he is champing at the bit to show what he can do as a centerman. Can’t wait.

Does Gaustad have what it takes to be an everyday 3rd line center? He certainly comes to play and his face-off ability is second to none. His skating improves with every passing year, and he flashes a nice, nasty streak. I question his offense. He seems to be in that 10-12 goal, 25-35 point group, and I wonder if that’s enough for a 3rd line center. Could Lindy slide Jochen Hecht, a natural winger, in as the third center and drop Goose to number four? Does Hecht have what it takes to man the checking-line pivot? Hecht is coming off a terrible, injury-riddled season and is just plain awful on face-offs (43.1%). He has put up seasons of 42,49,56 and 52 points as a Sabre, however, and is always defensively responsible. Face-off drawbacks (pun intended) aside, Hecht’s big body and world-class skating ability intrigues me enough to slide him in at three.

Thomas Vanek, Tyler Ennis, Nathan Gerbe and Cody McCormick are a group of left-wingers that has the ability to put up some numbers, especially if Nate picks up where he left off last season. He finished the year with 15 of his 16 goals in the second half, which either bodes well for this year, or raises some red flags. I’m leaning towards the former. Despite being vertically challenged, he is built like a brick doghouse and his elite skating, great hands, relentlessness and jam are comparable to a poor-man’s Martin St.Louis.

Vanek is always a lock for at least 30, and was a beast last year, more so after Roy went down with his season-ending injury. Roy and Vanek have been together for years now, and I’d like to see what kind of numbers Leino could drag out of Van the man.

“Tennis” wasn’t the best rookie in last year’s class, but he was top-five. He hit the 20 goal mark late last year and finished with a very respectable 49 points, nice totals for a first-year player. Ennis tends to over-handle the puck at times, to which this writer gave him the nickname “Afinog-ennis”, but his fantastic hands also led Sabres forwards in takeaways last season with 45. A potential 70-80 point guy who, like Tyler Myers, will no doubt receive a hefty raise before the 2012-13 season.

Cody Mc”muscle” was voted as the Sabres most improved player after last season, as voted on by his teammates. His 8 goals, 20 points and 142 minutes in penalties show that, while he will never be a big scorer, he can chip in with the odd timely goal while still sticking up for his teammates.

The group at right-wing is a bit of a wild card. One guy is coming off a career high in goals during a contract year; another is set to come back after a very serious lower leg injury which required surgery; third is a still brand-new Sabre who, out of necessity, played out of position as a centerman down the stretch last year and last is the team pest who can never seem to hit anyone in the corner without tweaking, breaking or blowing out some part of his body and ending up on the shelf for half the year.

Drew Stafford was Mr. Hat-trick last year, with four, en route to a career-high 31 goals and 52 points. Has Staff turned a corner? Those close to the team say that he has grown up and now realizes what it takes to be a top-line, everyday player. This will be one storyline everybody will intently watch.

The site of Jason Pominville hopping down the locker room runway on one leg during last year’s playoffs was sickening and a tough one to watch. You knew the injury was bad. A couple of inches lower, and we could be talking about Pominville’s career in the past-tense. The rehabilitation on his leg has gone better than expected, and he should be ready to go come October. He is usually pencilled in for 25-40-65 and, at $5.3 million per, that is at least where he needs to be. But, he may need some time to get back to top playing form, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s December before we see that. Hopefully, until then, he’ll kill some important penalties and chip in with some timely goals. Which is why…

Brad Boyes becomes so important here. When Boysie is on, he is a scoring machine. You don’t score 40+ goals in this league by accident, unless you’re Jacques Richard. Ruff needs to resist the urge to play Boyes at center, as was the case last season, because the natural winger looks uncomfortable there. A full season on the wing, with a better all-around cast, could maximize the return and push Boyes back to sniper status.

Can Pat Kaleta get through a whole year without getting hurt? Probably not, and that’s okay. But, he at least needs to get to the 65-70 game mark, for crying out loud. The kid has suffered through the last three years, never getting in more than 55 games in any one season. He showed so much promise two years ago, netting 10 goals in 55 games, and looked to be on his way to becoming the next Matthew Barnaby, an agitator with skill.

The Sabres depth includes veterans Matt Ellis (who, were it up to me, would have a roster spot on this team), Ales Kotalik (who, barring anything unforeseen, will play in Rochester and be an emergency call-up) and rookies Zack Kassian, Luke Adam (who may have a shot at making this team), Marcus Foligno and Corey Tropp (a player who has shot up the charts as a top prospect).

This lineup gives Lindy Ruff a deep, talented, fleet-footed, gritty team with which to work with every night. A team capable of scoring many goals on one end, while icing an outstanding group of defenseman and elite goaltending on the other. A team that many will put near the top of the conference, and that many believe can go on a nice, deep playoff run as possible Stanley Cup contenders. Which leads us to:

QUESTION 2

How much of a leash should Lindy Ruff be given?

Let me start by saying that I am, 100%, a fan of Lindy Ruff. I loved Lindy when he played, and feel fortunate to have him as coach of my favorite hockey team. Lindy is one of the most respected and innovative bench bosses in the NHL, has had varied success as a head coach and, well, I wouldn’t want someone else coaching this team.

Coaching statistics

Team Year Regular season Post season
G W L T OTL Pts Finish W L Win % Result
BUF 1997–98 82 36 29 17 - 89 3rd in Northeast 10 5 .667 Conference Finalist
BUF 1998–99 82 37 28 17 - 93 4th in Northeast 14 7 .667 Stanley Cup Finalist
BUF 1999–2000 82 35 32 11 4 85 3rd in Northeast 1 4 .200 Conference Quarter-Finalist
BUF 2000–01 82 46 30 5 1 98 2nd in Northeast 7 6 .538 Conference Semi-Finalist
BUF 2001–02 82 35 35 11 1 82 5th in Northeast - - -
BUF 2002–03 82 27 37 10 8 72 5th in Northeast - - -
BUF 2003–04 82 37 34 7 4 85 5th in Northeast - - -
BUF 2005–06 82 52 24 - 6 110 2nd in Northeast 11 7 .611 Conference Finalist
BUF 2006–07 82 53 22 - 7 113 1st in Northeast 9 7 .563 Conference Finalist
BUF 2007–08 82 39 31 - 12 90 4th in Northeast - - -
BUF 2008–09 82 41 32 - 9 91 3rd in Northeast - - -
BUF 2009–10 82 45 27 - 10 100 1st in Northeast 2 4 .333 Conference Quarter-Finalist
BUF 2010-11 82 43 29 - 10 96 3rd in Northeast 3 4 .429 Conference Quarter-Finalist
Total 1066 526 390 78 72 .564 Points % 57 44 .564

There have been a few bumps in the road, but these numbers speak for themselves. Coming out of last season, there were questions as to whether Ruff wanted to come back, and some questioning whether or not the team should even bring him back. Count me as someone who was relieved when Terry Pegula, at his introductory press conference as new owner, said “Lindy ain’t going nowhere”. No, the Sabres haven’t won the grand prize. Not yet, anyway. Lindy has been given opportunities, yes, with some of those elite teams he coached in the mid-2000’s. We all know that, in 2006, against Carolina, the team was decimated with injuries. They had players like Doug Janik, Jeff Jillson and Nathan Paetsch (insert “puking face” emoticon here) playing in place of three of their top six defensemen. Had these injuries not occured, the Sabres most likely would have (could have) beaten the Hurricanes, and would certainly have smoked Edmonton in the finals. Speaking of which, Lindy has been to the finals with Buffalo just once, yes, but with a team in ’99 that (besides having the best goalie on the planet in Dominik Hasek) probably had no business being there. They hung in with a far superior team in Dallas and, well, we all know how that ended. Who knows what would have happened had the league not sh!t the bed on the “no goal” non-call. We may have ended up back in Dallas for game 7, and emergency rooms across Buffalo would have been flooded by hockey fans with chest pains.

So now, with a seemingly better line-up at his disposal again, expectations will soar. Lindy is about to coach the Sabres in what will be his fourteenth season. His goal is to win a Stanley Cup in Buffalo. He has said as much. I believe that Terry Pegula coming along has re-energized Ruff (and Regier, for that matter) and we will see the best Lindy has to offer going forward. At some point, though, without significant deep runs into the postseason, something’s got to give. Whether it’s Lindy remains to be seen. Darcy cannot be let off the hook here, either. Although I am more of a fan of Ruff than I am of Regier, and although Darcy has made his own bed and had to sleep in it too, I believe both of these men have been, far too many times, victims of circumstance (crooked ownership, meddling upper-management, injuries, bad luck, etc.) and need to be given a chance to succeed under Pegula. For how long?

That’s a tough one. Good coaches just do not become bad coaches over night. Ruff has won 526 games in this league, and not by accident. I believe he deserves every chance in the world to display his talents on a level playing field with the bigger markets in the league. Having Pegula allows this. But, it can also reveal any shortcomings, too. Now, unlike before, there are not many more excuses Ruff can use. I believe that this current team, as it stands today, is a Stanley Cup contender. However, I also believe that they are an elite centerman away from being a legitimate Stanley Cup favorite. That last point, though, shouldn’t prevent Ruff and his charges from doing some damage next spring.

Terry Pegula came in, toolbox in hand, and said that there was a three-year plan to win the Stanley Cup. Ambitious, yes, but Lindy (and Darcy) should be given the keys to the car for those three years. After that, as much as I would hate to see Lindy go, all bets are off.

Hopefully, by then, we have already celebrated our first major sports championship in Western New York, and we can start the bitching as to why we can’t win a second one!


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Tags: Boyes Buffalo Sabres Stanley Cup Ehrhoff Ennis Enroth Gaustad Gerbe Gragnani Kaleta Leino Leopold Lindy Ruff McCormick Miller Pominville Regehr Roy Sabres Sekera Stafford Terry Pegula Tool Time Vanek Weber

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