NHL Hockey is back!
Let me start by saying a thank you to the NHL and NHLPA for finally getting the job done. The late start to the hockey season has allowed me to focus on business and creative endeavours that game-watching and my obsession regarding player movement and statistics would have undoubtedly impacted.
I will say one more thing regarding the lockout. I am baffled that the leaders of the NHL and NHLPA delayed conversations about the nuances of running a 3 billion dollar business until the final 90 days of the expiring agreement after having endured 3 previous lockouts in the past 20 years. Real leaders have pro-active conversations, informal discussions and begin a real negotiating process long before the 11th hour.
At the end of the day, I do not have a fiscal stake in the game, so I have no need to “make them pay” or seek some sort of handout to make me come back. It’s their product and I ultimately have the choice as to whether I want to watch or not. I am Canadian and I have loved NHL hockey a very long time so I am just glad it is back.
Katie and I went to Buffalo, NY last night. If you are not a local reader, downtown Buffalo is about a 30-minute drive from our home in Port Colborne, Ontario. I lived in the US for 17 years and Katie was born there and we like to make the occasional trip to the US to change things up a bit. The fact that there is an NHL team there (that isn’t the Leafs) was another compelling reason for us to make a home in Niagara.
We went to Buffalo to take in a free event put on by the Buffalo Sabres: an intra-squad game/practice. This game consisted of blue and white squads playing three 15 minute periods with referees and linesman (minor penalties were called for 1-minute duration).
All of the current regulars were in attendance (with the exception of an injured Nathan Gerbe who is recovering from off-season spinal surgery), as well as a number of Rochester Americans’ players on 2-way contracts (except for Nick Tarnasky and Kevin Porter due to waiver implications). Also on display was the dazzling skills of the Sabres’ 2012 first round draft pick, Mikhail Grigorenko.
Team White consisted of a top line of Vanek, Hodgson and Pominville and an equally effective offensive line in Leino, Grigorenko and Steve Ott. Their top defensive pairing was Robin Regehr and Tyler Myers, and Jhonas Enroth was in the net.
Team Blue reunited Foligno, Ennis, and Stafford on their top line with Ehrhoff and Sulzer logging the most minutes on the back-end. All-star goalie Ryan Miller looked in mid-season form from the moment the puck dropped.
The pace of the scrimmage was fast and it was clear that the players were just as enthusiastic as the crowd to be back on the ice.
The white dominated the offense in the first period, blue in the second and they essentially traded chances in the 3rd period.
The “regulation” and 5 minutes of 4-on-4 ended 1-1 with both goalies having earned the tie despite some great chances and more than a few pucks clanging off the pipes.
A shoot-out followed and went 5 shooters aside before Cody Hodgson won it in close on Ryan Miller with a deft backhander.
My observations about this 2013 team:
This defense is deep and full of NHL-calibre players but something is going to have to give before they lock down a roster on Friday. They are sitting at 9 NHL defensemen and TJ Brennan has developed well in the Sabres’ system and his emergence as an AHL All-Star makes him a lock to stay with the team. It is likely they will need to make a trade or likely lose a quality guy on waivers.
Goaltending is a strength as long as nothing happens to Miller or Enroth. The depth at this position is still a concern for the organization especially should Miller go down for any length of time during this season’s condensed 48-game schedule.
I like the speed and shiftiness of the offensive players in the group, particularly on the wings, but the young centres at 1A and 1B in Ennis and Hodgson lack size and grit and neither are particularly strong in the face-off circle. That being said, I still liked the look of both players on their lines tonight and Ennis proved that his line still had the chemistry they showed at the end of last season.
Hodgson did a pretty good job of keeping up with his line mates tonight and has the offensive smarts to play with Vanek and Pominville but I wonder if the difference in foot speed will impact his defensive game. I think of how well Adam played with them at the beginning of the 11-12 campaign but tailed off as time wore on and he just couldn’t keep up.
Grigorenko looked good at centre, had more speed than I anticipated and seemed undeterred by the rough ride he got a couple of times through the scrimmage. If the team isn’t sold on either Ennis or Hodgson as offensive centres he may stay up past the 5 games they allow the team to hold onto a junior player, but I think in this shortened season it may be a disservice to his development (and not a great use of a year of his entry-level contract). If they were any deeper at natural centres I don’t think they would even consider it. Re-signing Hecht as much as admits to that veteran shortcoming.
The thing I really expected them to address in the off-season was some sort of replacement for Paul Gaustad (shipped off to Nashville at last years trade deadline). His size, edge and face-off prowess (particularly in the defensive end) is something this team is sorely lacking. They still have pieces, particularly on the back-end, that might help them address this issue through a trade. If not, they will be chasing the puck a lot in their own end this season.
General Manager Darcy Regier did a great job of acquiring grit and toughness in the off-season and I think in this shortened season that sandpaper will pay dividends. Adding Steve Ott, Adam Pardy and BIG John Scott to Regehr, McCormick and Weber is going to make this club much harder to play against.
I won’t make a prediction about how far the team is going to go this year, but they have the goalie and all the tools to go on a solid run towards the play-offs especially with a little healthier a season than last year and a couple of skaters playing up to expectations. The Buffalo Sabres should compete well within their division and I expect them to make the play-offs.
The Buffalo Sabres made this event available at no charge, including free parking at The First Niagara Center and even reduced the concession rates to “family-friendly pricing.” The result was an exuberant crowd of 10,175 that included an enormous amount of young families who may have made their first trip to see their favourite NHL team playing in their home arena.
I love the First Niagara Center, it is a fantastic venue for taking in a hockey game and the Sabres operate a first-rate organization including all of their staff. This event was a testament to the organization and their commitment to their loyal fans and the community.
At the end of the night, I was happy to see the team back on the ice, hockey fans of all ages clamouring from the arena in team colours and I am optimistic about the sport again. The vile Philadelphia Flyers are in town for the first home game of the season on Sunday, January 20. Go Sabres!