After the great let down that was watching our most hated rival clean our clocks in the Eastern Conference Final it was left to the commonwealth of Sabres fans to figure out what went wrong. Many comparisons to the previous year began to emerge and it gave me the idea of actually watching some taped games to see if their really was a difference between the two teams. What I discovered was that both shocking and nonexistent all at the same time.
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1) The 2005 Sabres were not as offensively skilled as the 2006 Sabres.
From what I saw the Sabres in the great year of 2005 had to rely much more on hard work and speed to score. They simply did not have the raw talent to put the biscuit in the basket on command every night. Players like Vanek had yet to come into their own and other stars like Briere and Dumont were injured for a big chunk of the campaign. Thus, players like Tallinder, Campbelle, Connolly, Afinogenov and Kotalik stepped up to provided timely offense. Yet, the key to our success that year was not flash and dazzle. There was a different "feel" to our offense.
2) Jay Mackee, J.P. Dumont and Mike Grier where never replaced.
Individually, you can make a case for each player staying in Buffalo. But it is not so much what they could do, but what they brought to the players around them. Now, before I go further, it simply was not an option Dracy had to resign these guys. We were already pressed against the CAP and choices had to be made. At the time I thought Dracy made all the right moves, and he did in terms of building a team full of skill. These missing links however were quite apparant while watching both seasons games.
I) Dumont : J.P. Dumont provided the Sabres with a speedy option down low on the PP. The brilliance of J.P. can be found in that he has great balance and speed. Unlike Jason Pomminville, who is a mere triviality for a rival defensemen with any size, Dumont was hard to knock down and fast enough to retrieve pucks shot into the opposing teams zone. Briere had great chemistry with J.P. and it really showed on the PP, Dumont would break to the net before Briere's pass was even off his stick, the rival defense would be too slow to react. Dumont's effort was strong game in and out. He made Briere more lethal and gave Buffalo's PP a puck retrieval man. His loss was felt in 2006 as Buffalo's PP sank below the league's average and gaining entry into the opposing teams zone became calculus on some nights for the boys in blue and gold.
II) Jay Mackee : Everybody was sad to see Jay go last summer but couldn't stomach the thought of paying him 4 million a year. Jay brought stability to the Sabres back end in 2005, something that was absent in 2006. His ability to block shots, eat the puck down low and punish opposing forwards entering the zone appear so critical when looking at his performances in hindsight. What I really noticed though was Mackee's ability to share the defensive burden with Tallinder and Lydman allowing the latter two players to be more offensive on a given shift if they happened to be out against a weaker line. Tallinder has an offensive up side and his ability to jump up into the play freely gave the Sabres a big offensive threat. This year Hank had to play lock down on most nights and by the end of the season he looked uninspired, or bored of it. He was no longer punishing players, but rather just containing them. Mackee made Tallinder and Lydman look THAT GOOD in 2005 and if the Sabres wish to move forward they need to replace his loss. In 2006 we went with a small but fast D, and the Ottawa Sens exploited it to the max. Everything Jay Mackee brought, we simply lacked against them.
III) Mike Grier: Zubrus will never be able to replace what Mike Grier brought to this team. His size, speed and grit gave opposing D and forwards nightmares. Buffalo seriously lacked that speedy power forward that could punish opposing teams D on dump ins. We all saw what happened to Ottawa when their D got hit, and if you go back to the 2006 playoffs, guess who was forcing Redden to turn the puck over? Grier. His speed on the PK forced defenders to be cautious at the point and made sure guys like Spezza were going to have to work hard to come out of the corner with the puck. His physical presence made Drury that much better defensively as well. His smart play, along with Roy's energy created what I think could have been one of the top checking lines in the league. It gave opposing teams fits.
All three players were let go because they either did not fit our CAP or we thought they were not skilled enough to be on our team. I remember the Grier comments, how some were happy he was gone because of his lack of offense. Some thought Dumont was easily replaceable with Pomminville. The footage says otherwise. These three players made the Sabres a team with more than just raw talent. There was an energy with the boys that went missing in 2006.
So as we get ready for UFA season I plead with Dracy Regier, make us more like the boys in 2005! Find suitable replacements for Jay Mackee and Mike Grier. Tell Jason Pomminville to hit the gym! The cup is not that far away.
I will add more later......
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