The Buffalo Sabres burst out of the gate in the lockout shortened 2012-2013 season by earning back-to-back wins over Philadelphia and Toronto.
They subsequently lost four consecutive games and shuffled into the bears den at TD Garden to face the Eastern Conference leading Boston Bruins, Thursday.
While it is early in the season and there is no immediate reason to panic, it does raise some red flags that the concerns of last season are trickling into the current campaign. Consistency across all fronts is an issue.
The Sabres don’t get the same effort from individual players night in and night out. The glaring problem facing Lindy Ruff and his staff is that there are not just one or two players struggling to play their role, but a host of different skaters any given night.
The lack of consistency starts with effort and resonates
with a lack of secondary scoring. Additionally, Ruff finds
himself second-guessed with questionable decision making and head scratching
The top line of Vanek, Pominville and Hodgson has been the
only constant force for the Sabres thus far. Vanek exploded for 5-points for the second time in 7-games, while Hodgson and Pominville each added a goal and two assists. Vanek also scored 5-points in the season opener against Philadelphia.
Regardless, the top line has accounted for 65.2 per cent of
the team’s goal production through the first seven games and shows no sign of
Vanek currently leads the team with 15-points and with an assist on 18-year old rookie Mikhail Grigorenko’s first career goal, he passed Miroslav Satan for 10th
on the list of Sabres All-Time point leaders with 457.
With the rest of the offense struggling, Ruff should look to
Grigorenko to center the second line between Ennis and Stafford. He tried to
mix things up with veteran acquisition Steve Ott manning the second line pivot for the last two games, but Grigorenko’s talent is being wasted on the third line.
If ‘Grigo’ is given the chance to play with more offensively
talented wingers, he may blossom much quicker and in turn, help Ennis (7 GP, 2 goals, 3 assists) and Stafford (6 GP, 0 goals, 3 assists) get rolling.
It was not a given that Grigorenko would stay with the big
club, but with his 5-game trial period expired, he will remain with the Sabres
for the remainder of the truncated season.
Ott’s physical, sandpaper style of play is a better fit for
the third line anyway. He can team up with another phenomenal rookie Marcus
Foligno and any number of forwards on the other wing to create havoc against
other team’s first and second units.
With Kaleta and Leino banged up, the best fits for the wing
on the third line would be Nathan Gerbe or Jochen Hecht. Hecht brings a
defensive, veteran presence to the aggressive line, while Gerbe would infuse a
little more offensive spark.
Between the pipes Ryan Miller has been up and down. He stole
the first matchup with the Maple Leafs, but gave it back in the rematch with a
couple softies on Tuesday night.
The difference between the roller coaster Miller rode last
season and the one he’s riding so far, lies within his mental makeup. The
veteran backstop seems to be maturing into the leadership role he has occupied,
but not always exemplified over the past few seasons.
In his post-game comments after the Toronto loss, he
shouldered the responsibility. In turn the Vanek led Sabres rallied around their centerpiece in Boston, Thursday.
Perhaps the most disconcerting aspect of this young season
is the defensive struggles the Sabres have had to overcome. When the lockout
ended, the defensive core was widely viewed as the strength of the roster, but they have been abysmal thus far and it all starts with the
$11-million man, Tyler Myers.
Myers who was paired with Robyn Regehr for the first
5-games, has looked uncomfortable and hesitant in a season where he is expected
to contend for the Norris Trophy as the league’s best defenseman.
Myers is not the only defenseman struggling, Leopold, Sekera
and Brennan (who has only played one game) all sport a minus rating early on.
In one of Ruff’s mind boggling moves, he scratched Alexander
Sulzer, who has arguably been the Sabres most fundamentally sound blue liner in
favor of Mike Weber against Toronto on Tuesday.
Sulzer responded against the Bruins by blasting home the Sabres sixth goal on a great one-timer feed from Grigorenko.
Although Weber had a solid showing, Sulzer if healthy,
should be one of the few defensemen the Sabres trot out there on a nightly
basis. With Robyn Regehr sustaining a ‘lower body injury,’ rookie T.J. Brennan was
also in the lineup against the Leafs.
At this point it is baffling why Adam Pardy, who is 6-foot
3-inches and 230-pounds, a solid skater and physical presence has been
relegated to Rochester where it seems Myers and Sekera more deservedly belong.
Myers has played better and should eventually turn his game
around, but the Sabres could use Pardy and Sulzer as a tough pair in the
defensive end, something they have severely lacked.
John Scott earned his paycheck against Boston by sending Bruins tough guy Shawn Thornton to the dressing room after a great tilt in the first shift. Scott put a few punches in Thornton’s ear hole and the normally pesky agitator never returned to the ice.
An interesting tidbit from Vancouver so far this season is
that former Sabres first round pick Zack Kassian has been skating on a line
with the Sedin brothers. He has been involved on the top power play unit as
While Kassian has registered 5-goals, Cody Hodgson whom the
Sabres received from the Canucks in return for Kassian, has notched 4-goals and 2-assists in a similar role with the
Sabres top units. It will be interesting to see who has a more productive year
if each of them continues to play with the top dogs.