It’s been well-documented over the last few days that the Buffalo Sabres have basically turned into the NHL’s steaming trash heap.
They lose games at an embarrassing pace in front of a fan base that deserves better, and they employ a group of players putting a stain on the rest of the NHL. That’s a pretty lethal combo when it comes to job security.
The Sabres dealt their best player, Thomas Vanek, to the Islanders over the weekend, which certainly helps confirm that they are going to detonate things entirely. They've already started building around an NHL roster that features four teenagers -- Zemgus Girgensons (18), Mikhail Grigorenko (19), defensemen Nikita Zadorov (18) and Rasmus Ristolainen (18) -- for the first time in nearly 20 years.
Zadorov, in particular, was impressive in scoring his first career NHL goal against the Bruins last week.
Buffalo GM Darcy Regier dealt Vanek to the Islanders for fellow future unrestricted free agent Matt Moulson and the Isles’ first and second round picks in the 2014 NHL Draft. That’s good value for the Sabres, particularly if they can also spin off Moulson into a few more picks at the trade deadline.
But executing a good trade or two certainly shouldn’t excuse the debacle that’s gone down in Buffalo over the last few years. New owner Terry Pegula came in and spent the money while Regier locked up Ville Leino, Tyler Myers and Christian Ehrhoff to long-term, big-money deals that were supposed to help spring the Sabres into contention.
Instead they’ve worsened to the point of bottoming out, and now Vanek is out the door after two first-round playoff exits over the last five years.
Goalie Ryan Miller will be following suit shortly, with the whispers still very prominent that he’ll end up with the Edmonton Oilers before their lacking goaltender situation sinks them into hockey oblivion.
But this isn’t really about the players in Buffalo. It’s about Regier not being the guy to handle yet another rebuild in Buffalo while qualified GM candidates like Rick Dudley and Tom Fitzgerald wait for a chance to run their own NHL franchise. One would have to wonder if a guy like Bruins assistant GM Jim Benning, who spent 12 years in the Sabres organization, would be willing to leave a successful situation he helped build in Boston if the chance to run his own team was an option.
It’s also about Sabres coach Ron Rolston, who is turning the Sabres into a joke. Rolston had no NHL experience when he took over in Buffalo following Lindy Ruff’s hiring, and his contract extension this summer was a head-scratcher for many with good coaching candidates expected to be looking for jobs. But he was an up-and-coming coaching prospect that had excelled in his time with Boston College, the US National Team Development Program and the AHL’s Rochester Americans.
Unfortunately, he looks to be over his head in the kind of Buffalo situation that can permanently tarnish a coach’s reputation. Watching Buffalo in person last week was eye-opening for the lack of hustle, attention to detail, and simple discipline that was all over the lineup. At one point in the game, Tyler Ennis simply gave up on a shift and stopped skating when he thought the puck wasn’t going to be coming his way moving into the offensive zone.
That kind of loafing and lollygagging is a sure sign of players that don’t respect their coach. But perhaps he doesn’t merit that respect.
Rolston’s decision to toss John Scott onto the ice in the third period against Patrice Bergeron’s line with the Sabres down two goals was pretty simple in the message he was trying to send. Rolston wanted Scott to make an impact, and unfortunately the Buffalo goon wasn't able to do that without throwing a cheap, dangerous hit at Loui Eriksson’s head.
It’s a direct reflection of both Regier and Rolston that the Sabres will have two different players (Scott and Patrick Kaleta) with 10-plus game suspensions less than a month into a new season. The usage of unskilled players to simply hurt people isn’t something the NHL should ignore.
Other teams could play the exact same way for undeserved wins or a few cheap thrills for a fan base willing to accept whatever they can get. But they don’t because it’s not what the NHL is all about, and it will end badly for all involved.
Scott had never executed a cold-blooded head shot or lamely chased after a skill guy (like, say, Phil Kessel) prior to this season, so one has to ask what exactly has changed with the Sabres this year.
“I don’t know where those decisions are coming from," Bruins coach Claude Julien said. "You see a guy like [Scott] drop the gloves with Kessel, and taking a blindside shot against Loui. I think it’s uncalled for, but that’s the unfortunate part. If a guy chooses to police his team so that nobody takes advantage of them, then I’m fine with that. If a guy chooses to be [like Scott] and a team chooses to have a guy like that, I don’t know. But I’ll never tell Shawn Thorntonto go after Sidney Crosby or anybody else that’s a top player in this league. I’ll never do that. So if he does, it’s on his own. And if he does it on his own, I don’t think personally I’d accept it.
“If we want to clean this up, we need to support the league. I guess we need to help clean things up versus looking to avenge things. The most important thing for me is how we minimize [head shots] rather than how we avenge it. We have guys in our lineup that could be stupid if we wanted them to be. We can stand here, and nobody is clean in this game. We have some incidents that, as a coaching staff, we wish didn’t happen. But at the end of the day, we’re trying to clean our game up. The only way we can do it is as a group. Let’s not expect the league disciplinarian to do it by himself. Let’s not expect the players to do it by themselves. It’s up to everybody.”
That means it’s also up to the decision-makers in Buffalo to finally do something about a group of hockey people that are doing significant damage to the Sabres brand.
LIGHTNING NOW WILLING TO DROP THE GLOVES
Don’t look now, but the Tampa Bay Lightning somehow sit atop the Atlantic Division when they were expected to be Florida punching bags for their Original Six divisional rivals. Clearly the skill guys are part of it all with Marty St. Louis and Steve Stamkos doing their thing offensively, but the Bolts also find themselves tied for second in the NHL with 10 fighting majors nearly a month into the regular season.
The Montreal Canadiens also have 10 fighting majors, and the Buffalo Sabres lead the NHL with 12 fighting majors on the season.
Tampa Bay head coach Jon Cooper had a reputation in the AHL as a guy that didn’t exactly shy away from the rough stuff, and talks about the same “hard to play against” mantra that’s been so prevalent in Boston. That’s a change for a hockey franchise that barely engaged in the fighting game while Guy Boucher was garnering headlines with a gimmicky trapping system.
“I don’t want to misconstrue fighting as being hard to play against,” said Cooper. “Have we gotten into our share of battles and fights this year? Yes, we have. But I don’t think that’s been the identity of the team. We’ve been in some tight games and had to grind them out 'til the end. They’ve been close. There’s been a lot of hard hitting. That’s tough to play against.”
Energetic Bolts defenseman Radko Gudas leads the Lightning with three fighting majors, and two of them have come against Bruins forward Jarome Iginla. Iginla essentially admitted the two are building up a hatred for one another when asked about the rugged Gudas after their second tilt in Tampa Bay a couple of weeks ago.
What’s interesting about the Tampa Bay situation aside from the success they’re having is how vehemently their GM Steve Yzerman came out against fighting at the beginning of the season. Steve Y. was asked about this perceived hypocrisy given his stance that players should be ejected for fighting. He claimed no control over the style his head coach chooses to employ on the ice.
“I just want to win games,” Yzerman said. “I don’t tell the coach how to coach the team. We’re not going to tell players to fight or don’t fight. I just want them to play good hockey.”
The Bolts are playing good hockey, and they are fighting. Imagine that.
NOT TAKING THE DIVES
Conversely, the Vancouver Canucks had always had the earned reputation as a hockey club willing to dive, drop and roll around in agony to draw power plays for their high-powered offense. Some of the tumbles that center Ryan Kesler had taken over the years were the stuff of legend, and it was something that backfired on the Canucks during the Cup Finals against the Bruins three years ago.
Apparently those days are over for Vancouver, however. Under John Tortorella the Canucks are among the bottom-five teams in the NHL with 34 power-play chances in 13 games this season while also ranking 25th on the power play. Torts told the Vancouver media that the Canucks will no longer be a hockey team acting for penalty calls, and that’s played out this season.
"I know the reputation from the outside looking in, when I wasn't coaching here, and outside everybody thought Vancouver dove and did some whining,” said Tortorella. “Our team is not going to dive. Our team has already been talked to. We are not going to dive. I don't think there's much whining going on, either.
“I'm certainly not trying to accuse the league or the refs of that, but I know there's been a reputation. I have been coaching in the league long enough to know that sometimes that hangs around, too. So I guess it's my chance to say we're going to be an honest team, we are trying to be an honest team and I hope we get some [bleeping] calls.”
TAKING RESPONSIBILITY ON HIS END
Full credit to hard-hitting Detroit Red Wings defenseman Niklas Kronwall, who was on the receiving end of a massive hit from Colorado Avalanche energy forward Cody MacLeod last week. The Avs enforcer certainly could have slowed down a little when Kronwall stopped and turned his back to MacLeod while playing the puck in the corner, but that didn’t happen as the boom got lowered on the Red Wings defenseman.
Normally it’s Kronwall laying out those massive, thunderous hits to opponents, so he had an amazingly reasonable understanding of the situation despite being the one taken out of the arena on a stretcher.
"I could have done a lot of things differently,” said Kronwall, who managed to escape serious injury on the play. "I shouldn't have put myself in that spot in the first place. He's coming in with a lot of speed, sure, but I did turn at the last second. It goes fast out there and it's so easy to go back and slow it down, look at it in slow motion, and be very smart about things.
"But it's hockey and everything is high pace and it goes fast out there. Guys will make some bad decisions out there sometimes. In my case, I ended up on a stretcher. But I'm feeling pretty good and looking to get back out there."
Despite Kronwall’s admission about his responsibility in the incident, MacLeod was hit with a five-game suspension despite no prior history of supplemental discipline. It was deemed that he had time to make a play on the puck without altering direction to deliver the knockout hit on Kronwall.
* The Pittsburgh Penguins will be keeping young defenseman Olli Maatta, which means they continue to have a group of young, affordable blueliners that will be vital for their salary cap situation. Word out of Steel City is that Kris Letang, Rob Scuderi and Maatta are the only untouchable defenseman among their NHL corps, and that could be interesting given the type of start Matti Niskanen (1 goal, 8 points and a plus-10) is off to this season. The price isn’t likely to be cheap given the prudence of GM Ray Shero, but a team desperate for a D-man should probably pick up the phone and dial up the Penguins with the trade chatter starting to pick up.
* There’s little doubt Matt Moulson will be traded again prior to the NHL trade deadline by a Buffalo Sabres team that’s going nowhere. Both the Sabres and Islanders knew that Vanek and Moulson weren’t going to be returning to their respective teams once they became free agents this summer. Moulson has been as dependable a 30-goal scorer as you could find in the league over the last five years.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK
“The one thing with Patrick [Roy] is, there’s no doghouse. If you’re not doing what you’re supposed to do, he’s going to bring you in, he’s going to sit you down and you’re going to correct it constructively, and then you’re going to move on from there. You don’t stay in that doghouse.” -- Matt Duchene to Adrian Dater of the Denver Post in a pretty good rip job of former coach Joe Sacco, who he said had the 'wrong plan' of dump-and-chase for the Colorado Avalanche.
* Last Monday’s 1-0 loss to the Colorado Avalanche at CONSOL Energy Center was the first time the Penguins have been blanked in their new building (which opened in 2011) during a game for which Sidney Crosby was active. The game also ended Crosby's personal best start to a season -- an eight-game point streak that bettered his electric start to his rookie season.
* All those wondering why the Calgary Flames were so hot and heavy for Malcolm Subban during the Iginla trade talks last season need only look at what’s going on with the Flames goaltending situation this season: Karri Ramo (2-2-1-0, 0.892 save percentage, 3.57 GAA) and Joey MacDonald (3-2-1-0, 0.894 save percentage, 3.01 GAA). They rank 27th in the NHL with an .888 save percentage, and only the Devils, Rangers and Oilers sit behind them.
* The lowly Sabres are the first NHL team since 1995-96 to play at least four teenagers -- forwards Zemgus Girgensons (18) and Mikhail Grigorenko (19) and defensemen Nikita Zadorov (18) and Rasmus Ristolainen (18). The impressive Zadorov scored on his first NHL shot against the Bruins on Wednesday in his second game, and also knocked Johnny Boychuk on his rear end in that game with a big hit at the blue line.
* Big spot for former UMass-Lowell alum Carter Hutton, who is getting a chance to carry the mail in Nashville while Pekka Rinne sits out with a hip infection related to offseason surgery for the Predators franchise goalie.
"Of course I think for me personally, just approaching it the same way, when I get a chance to play I have to win, and a little more eyes on me with Pekka being out and a little more pressure,” said Hutton. “But being a goalie, you’re not really going to hide from pressure anyway, so it comes with the job."
Hutton has started off solidly with a 2-1 record along with a 2.42 goals against average and .927 save percentage, but was lit up for five goals in a blowout loss to the St. Louis Blues over the weekend.