Tuesday, November 20, 2007

First Quarter Comments

In honor of NaBloPoMO, I'll be attempting to post something every day in November. If you're not checking in every day, make sure you're catching all the posts! Tonight we talk about actual hockey! I know!

A week or so into the season, I had a conversation with Earl Sleek. The overall gist of the conversation was, "Good Lord, our teams can't really be this bad, can they?" and we assured ourselves that no, they weren't. Teams sometimes have slow starts, no big deal. Earl, being the stat-head that he is however, couldn't just let optimism rule the day. No, he had to drag numbers and you know, reality into the conversation. Earl pointed out that the last few Stanley Cup winners have done really well in their first sixteen games. A good record in the regular season doesn't necessarily guarantee playoff success - after all, the 15-1-1 Sabres flamed out in the playoffs last year while the 6-10-1 Senators ripped through the playoffs and played for the Cup - but it does seem to be a good sample size. So here are some observations at the almost quarter mark of the season, some about the Sabres, some about the league in general:

- As Thomas Vanek goes, so go the Sabres. Other players can take the load here and there - Pominville, Hecht, Connolly - but for the Sabres to win, Vanek needs to be playing good hockey. I know, shocker, right? The good news is, despite some bumps in the road thus far, I think we'll be okay here. Vanek has definitely struggled and he needs to learn to channel his emotions better - he and Derek Roy both seem quick to let frustration take over too quickly - but he's pushed through the struggles and played hard even when it wasn't paying off. I believe Thomas is completely sincere in wanting to live up to his contract (good luck, buddy!) and he's too talented to not score more goals than he is right now. I think it's a little soon to decide that we should have kept Daniel Briere over him.

- Tim Connolly is important, especially on the powerplay. Last season I thought people got a little crazy with the "Timmy will make our PP better!" pronouncements, but there's no denying that the special teams have been better this season with him (even without Briere and Drury!) and have suffered some - especially the PP - during his injury. Fans can complain all they want about the wisdom of putting so much responsibility on a player who seems to live on IR, but you can't deny Timmy's talent. I also think Tim is potentially one of the most important players in the room. Some of the younger guys - Vanek, Pominville, Roy, Stafford - have been fortunate enough to succeed quickly on good teams and now they're having to work through things not coming so easily. Tim isn't that much older than them but he's been in the league forever and he's certainly had his share of ups and downs. I think his more even-keeled on-ice personality will balance out Vanek and Roy until they learn to use their emotions in a more productive way.

ETA: It turns out I'm not totally making things up here! Mirtle has some powerplay stats that reveal that yep, Timmy is indeed the straw that stirs the drink. See, I do occasionally know what I'm talking about.

- Derek Roy needs to be better. He's made some progress in the last couple of games but he needs to be so much better. More hustling, more getting under opponents' skin, more shooting. Less stick-handling, less whining, and less blaming things like bad bounces and chippy ice.

- For all the complaints about our defense, they've been anywhere from serviceable to solid which is especially impressive with the loss of Teppo and Kalinin. Losing Teppo's experience and leadership was a big blow and I think Tri was one of the few guys who played well from the drop of the puck this season. Considering that we had two very inexperienced d-men in the line-up for a stretch, things have been okay back there. Most nights they're holding the score down enough that the team has a chance to win and that's what you hope for. This group certainly isn't going to blow anyone away and there have been goals that were definitely the result of some kind of break-down. But the defense hasn't been the biggest problem most nights which is a very good thing.

- It might be time for Maxim Afinogenov to move on. He's very frustrating to watch. I know that, in his own way, he's trying to make things happen but after he finally seemed to figure things out last season, it's tough to watch him take such a big step backward. If we have to part with someone to pick up a missing piece - a big, physical forward for example - he's probably the player I'd be the most willing to see leave.

- No one's really mentioned it, but I think this first part of season has probably been an adjustment for Lindy Ruff as well. He had a young team last year too but he also had Drury and Numminen and Briere to take on some of the leadership. I'm sure you coach a team with that kind of player presence differently than you coach a team that's lacking that. I don't know, maybe I'm wrong, but it seems like it would require a little more hands-on work, more building up, and calming down. It's possible that he's been adjusting to a new role as well.

- How good does that Jochen Hecht re-signing look right now? Pretty good. Jochen's been busting his butt every night at both ends of the ice and he's done a bang-up job at center while Timmy's been out. I'm all for keeping him between Pominville and MacArthur and letting Timmy center Max and Ales Kotalik. Jochen is exactly the kind of player that every team needs and while he's under the radar most of the time, I think we would've really noticed his absence if he'd ended up elsewhere next season.

- The schedule this year blows. It feels like almost every week the Sabres have played two games in three nights or three games in four nights and then not played for four or five days. And this all-divisional games month is killing me. We still have two games against the Canadiens and I'm already tired of looking at them. One more "Ole, ole, ole!" just might drive me over the edge of insanity. Is it really that hard to spread these games out over the course of the season? You have 82 games to work with! A home and home weekend against Montreal should be exciting because the two teams usually do put on good games, but we've played them what feels like 18 times in the last two weeks. This is not building rivalries, it's killing them.

- I'm glad the league seems to be taking suspensions a little more seriously but I won't be completely sold until Chris Pronger gets more than one game for a transgression.

- Definitely a disappointing start but there are signs of life and I think the team will be mostly okay. In the end, struggling now might be a good thing. Let the kids learn now that it's a new game this year. If they want to win, they're going to have to work hard every single night. That's definitely better than them getting some flukey wins, deciding they can coast, and then discovering (again) that it's not that easy in the playoffs. While it's nice to finish at the top of the division or conference, I'm a firm believer that in hockey you really just have to make the playoffs. Once the playoffs start, it's a new season and crazy things happen. Guys who have been scoring all season suddenly stop while guys who have scored a handful a goals all season are finding the back of the net. Goalies get hot and carry teams or freeze up and doom them.

- You never know.


amy said...

In Bucky's column on Sunday, he mentioned that there's rumors of a trade between Buffalo and St. Louis. It would be a Max for McKee swap. As much as I love Jay, that deal is not a good one for the Sabres.

Heather B. said...

Amy, I totally agree. I find that trade to be absolutely absurd. I love Jay and I suppose his salary looks a little better now but how many games has he lost due to injury since he left Buffalo? A ton. Even a struggling Max is a good value and he's worth more than Jay.