The Buffalo Sabres received a nice Valentine’s Day present from the NHL this week, to the tune of some much needed rest (two entire days off!) and a light travel schedule due to the fact that both of this weekend’s games are at home. Of course, the NHL wasn’t too generous, as the Sabres get to host the two teams who currently seem poised to battle it out for the right to represent the Eastern Conference in the Stanley Cup Finals: the Boston Bruins and the Pittsburgh Penguins. Home ice advantage – and the Sabres really haven’t enjoyed that yet – or not, these next two games are going to be tough.
With that in mind, let’s look at this weekend’s Sabre storylines.
1. Has Thomas Vanek cooled off? And can you blame him?
None of you truly thought Vanek was going to keep his torrid pace up, did you? What’s that – you actually believed he was going to explode for 90 points this shortened season? You’re not interested in buying any real estate, are you? Because that’s just not using your noggin. Vanek’s career numbers are good – okay, better than good – but there’s nothing to suggest he would be able to lead the league in scoring with the team he has. Maybe if he had . . . ah, I won’t go there today. Well, at least not until you get down to number three below. Head over to NHL.com and look at the people trailing Vanek right now: Vanek’s the only offensive leader not playing for a winning, playoffs-caliber team. Those other players have guys around them who can create; Vanek has Pominville, and that’s pretty much it. I still feel Vanek’s going to have a monster season – he could still wind up as one of the top ten scorers this year – but I fear his hot streak may be over. He has to work too hard, and will attract the attention of every defense the Sabres play. He hasn’t had a point in three out of the last five games (against Ottawa, Boston, and Ottawa again), nothing to panic about, but certainly a sign that he’s not going to average a point a game for the entire season, which is what some fans were dreaming about. Unless he starts getting help from his teammates, I fear his numbers are going to come back down to earth, and his reign as the NHL’s leading scorer will come to an end sometime next week.
The fact that Grigorenko was a healthy scratch against the Bruins last Sunday mystified me; when I received the rosters before the game and saw that he was not playing, I nearly leapt of the press box in surprise. Equally mystifying as that, though, is the fact that Ruff may as well make Grigorenko a healthy scratch every game, as he has buried him on a line that has little to no chance of generating any scoring chances for this kid. Rumors are swirling that maybe Ruff didn’t want Grigorenko to stay with Buffalo for the full season, to which I say, get over it (if that’s true, of course). The rookie is clearly still a work in progress, but the Sabres need – gasp! – goals, so why not move him around in the lineup? Put him on the second line, or even the first – why not see how well he works with Vanek and Pominville? For God’s sakes, what do the Sabres have to lose at this point? If they could jump start this kid by putting him on a power line, his confidence may just grow enough to help him fortify the second or third line for the remainder of the season. I shouldn’t have to figure all of this stuff out for you, Sabres coaching staff.
3. What to Do With Drew
Alternate captain Drew Stafford has not scored a goal yet this season, and has only managed to produce 5 assists in 14 games. The guys at MSG were preaching patience the other day – Mike Robitaille resorted to using the tired and 1oo% useless “He’s a streaky player” excuse – but when a team that was supposedly built to bring home the Cup is dead last in its division, fans don’t have much patience for a high-profile player who isn’t producing. If the Sabres truly are shopping around, they might want to consider offering teams a package that includes Stafford with a defensemen or two. After all, Stafford is normally good for roughly 50 or more points a year, so he could be a valuable addition to a team looking for a solid second or third line contributor. You gotta give to get, and the only way the Sabres are going to bring a top-notch player into Buffalo is to give up someone who could potentially play well given a change in scenery. Of course, we all know I’m being too optimistic here – does anyone really believe the Sabres are going to go after a top 50-caliber player? – but it’s worth considering.
By the way: I love the fact that Ryan O’Reilly is just now starting to be discussed as someone the Sabres should consider going after. Way to be weeks behind, everyone! O’Reilly’s situation is practically screaming, “Hello! I’d like to be traded to a team that needs a gifted center!” Buffalo should have been all over this weeks ago.