Hockey - real live, counts in the standings, totally valid to freak out about hockey - is finally, FINALLY just around the corner. I don't know about the rest of you but I really felt like this off-season was never going to end. Ever. But in 72 hours or so the Sabres will have claimed their first victim of the season - and I mean the Canadiens not me, fellas - so it seems like it's time to lay out a couple of thoughts and predictions about the upcoming season. If I were a real journalist I would sit here until my thoughts were all nicely organized and worked but I'm not. I'm a lowly blogger who's not making any money doing this. Some totally random, unorganized thoughts:
TIMMY, MAX AND AL
Tim Connolly, Maxim Afinogenov and Ales Kotalik are all in contract years and their futures with the Sabres are cloudy at best. I think only one of them - if any - will be in Buffalo next season and they all definitely come with their pros and cons.
We all know how talented Timmy is. He's amazingly gifted and he's shown flashes of really pulling it together especially on the playmaking end. There have been times in the past when he's pulled moves that have left me staring at the TV. I had a game on our Tivo for almost an entire calendar year because of the last goal in this highlight package. I just now watched it three times. The Sabres have taken some crap for making a commitment to a guy who was out with concussion problems at the time but I think that's a blatant use of hindsight. It was a risk but a risk worth taking considering how dominant he'd just been in the postseason.
It's no newsflash that Tim's trouble is injuries. The concussion troubles are bad enough but there always seems to be something else going on too. I will admit that I did actually say to Mark a couple of weeks ago, "I have a good feeling about Timmy this season. I think he's going to play 70 games." I have no idea what I was thinking. A couple of days later he was nursing a sore back already and the preseason had barely started. Granted, he is coming off a surgery but we keep hearing that he worked out really hard the rest of the off-season and he was in great shape and I don't know, while I obviously have no idea what kind of pain he's feeling in that fragile little body of his, I've reached the point where I have to really wonder if he has the toughness and the desire to have the career that he could have if things worked on talent alone. I'm sure Tim understands how much he needs to have a great season - at 27 this could be his last, best chance at a big money contract - and I'm sure he'll have his usual near point a game numbers in the parts of the season he does play... I just don't see him making it through a whole season.
Regardless, I don't think he'll be back next season for one reason: Lindy Ruff sounds more and more frustrated every time he talks about him. I think he's clearly had his fill of "What's going on with Tim?" questions and we all know Lindy has a lot of say in personnel decisions. The Sabres made their commitment, it didn't work out, I really don't see them trying it again especially with so many talented forwards already on the roster and coming up through Portland. It really is too bad.
I said my piece about Max not that long ago. He was terrible last season but while I do find him pretty frustrating I really do think a lot of that can be chalked up to his injury - groin pulls do have to be pretty tough for a guy whose entire game is based on speed and quick cuts - and being played on some very ill-fitting lines once he was back from injury. I'm sure Max will pass the puck to a myriad of opponents and pull Derek Roy offside a million times but I also won't be the least bit surprised if he scores 25-30 goals and has fans reconsidering whether we should get rid of him or not.
But like Timmy, I think Lindy has reached the end of his patience with Max which means he will also be gone, possibly before the end of the season. And like I said before, I think he'll catch on with another team, enjoy the freedom of a new coach and new system and do really well for himself. And all of Buffalo will complain incessantly about letting him go for years to come.
Finally that brings us to Al. Oh, Al. If you made me rank all the Sabres players from favorite to least favorite, Al would be pretty darn close to the bottom. Some nights he would be the bottom, yes, ranked below even Andrew Peters. I find him completely infuriating because people say all the time, "He can be physical, he can shoot the puck, he can can can" but he usually doesn't do those things. Max is annoying and set in his ways but if nothing else, he tries hard. He actually probably tries too hard to do too much. Al completely disappears for 20 game stretches - he doesn't score, he doesn't hit, he makes absolutely no impression at all unless he's taking a really stupid penalty - and that drives me crazy. I would gladly cast Al into a hockeyless pit of despair.
That said, if any one of these guys will be back, it's him. Let's face it, not everyone on your roster can be a highly skilled, highly paid star. Every team needs shorter, cheaper contracts to move around their core and Al is exactly that kind of player. He's not a total disaster on the ice and despite my complaints he has averaged just under 20 goals per season (19.75) for the last four seasons. As long as he's agreeable to a shorter contract for a reasonable amount of money (always the tricky part) I could see him sticking around.
The offense was pretty good last season overall but it would definitely help if the above guys all had good contract years especially Timmy who still seems to be the only player we have who can run a power play.
Ryan was really bad last year. There are lots of valid reasons - the death of his cousin Matt right at the beginning of the season and the number of games he started being the two biggies - but the bottom line is, he played some very, very bad hockey. And good lord, what the heck happened with the shootout? He had ice water in his veins the previous two seasons and suddenly looked jittery the second a guy started moving in on a breakaway. As off as some of the other components of the team were last season, they missed the playoffs by four points. Better goaltending would have made up that ground easily. The team probably wouldn't have done much damage in the playoffs once they got there the way they were playing but they would've made it.
The good news is Ryan looks and sounds great right now as opposed to looking and sounded like he needed a very long nap at the end of April. It would appear that he built his frame up a little in the off-season which has to make a difference over the long grind of a hockey season. It sounds like he's also found a little better balance between playing goalie and trying to lead the team. Last year I think he tried to take on too much of the leadership mantle that was suddenly left vacant and his game suffered for it. There's an interview with him up on Sabres TV right now where he talks about how hard it is for a goalie to handle the responsibility of his game while also worrying about addressing questions and concerns about the rest of the team so it sounds like he's thought a lot about how to handle that coming into this season.
And let us all say a prayer to the mighty hockey gods that Patrick Lalime shows himself capable of playing 20 or so games in a somewhat adequate fashion. He played all of the preseason game I attended and he looked pretty good so fingers crossed.
JASON POMINVILLE AND JOCHEN HECHT
God bless Jochen and Pommers.
Looking at last season, Pommers is the one youngster on the team whom I have absolutely no complaint about. Even when he wasn't scoring he was finding some way to contribute night in and night out because he never, ever quit working hard. I think he got stronger on the defensive side of the puck, he's much more responsible with the puck than some of his buddies and he showed so much maturity off the ice. Everyone else seemed to have stretches where they were clearly panicking and flailing, pressing way too hard. If Pommers ever felt that way he sure did a good job of hiding it. I don't want to turn every post into "Lindy, for the love of god just name a captain please!" but even if you want to argue that he has some growing to do yet, I have no doubt he'll grow right into any letter you put on his chest.
Most of the above applies to Jochen too. Every team needs a Jochen - quiet, responsible and dependable. A lot of people may have been willing to part with him but I think he's exactly the kind of player you miss when he's not there. I'm still grouchy about a chart the Buffalo News ran last season after the trade deadline, suggesting that Brian Campbell's absence was responsible for the current skid because it completely ignore that Jochen was also out for that stretch and his absence always makes a difference.
(An aside since we're talking about Brian Campbell: In the ESPN preseason picks, Scott Burnside picked Campbell for the Norris. Someone please explain to Burnside that the Norris is for outstanding defensemen. There's obviously some confusion here.)
It's 1:18 in the morning so a couple quick predictions before I post this:
Leading goal scorer: Thomas Vanek
Leading assister: Derek Roy
Leading in total points: Derek Roy
Derek Roy's final tally: 36 goals, 65 assists, 101 points