(Okay, technically 52 games, but let's not get too technical.)
I've been away from blogging mostly because I haven't been in a blogging mood in awhile. However, now that I'm back home, I can catch all the games on tv and it's woonnddeerffful!
I planned on doing a mid-season report before the All-Star Game, but because that didn't happen, you get my Sabres rambling now
BREAKING DOWN THE TEAM
1. Jochen Hecht: 40 games played and only with 6G 10A for 16 points, but what sticks out the most is the -10. The missed games are attributed to a couple short-term injuries and some healthy scratches. I know we signed him to a long-term deal and put a bit of trust in him, but he's got to play better. I hardly notice him on ice.
2. Craig Rivet: He's turned around his play during the team's January success, but for the majority of the 1st half of the season, he was incredibly underwhelming, especially since he played only 24 of those 54 games. Before January, he was sporting something like -7. I guess bringing in a 3.5mil/year defenceman gave me higher expectations and those just haven't been met yet.
3. Andrew Peters: Saying Peters occasionally makes a good play is like getting excited when a dog catches a frisbee. I don't have high expectations of him, so when he gets something like a takeaway (*gasp*) or an assist (*has a heart attack*) I can't help but be surprised even though the accomplishment isn't big. But to be honest, there's at least five other Sabres who have no problem dropping the gloves, and another five who throws harder checks than him without being a defensive liability and have offensive potential.
4. Ales Kotalik: One of the Canadian commentators during the recent non-MSG games posed this question: "Why does a guy like Kotalik not score 30 goals every year?" He undoubtedly has skill that should have 30-goal potential, but after 6 years in the NHL, he only averages a borderline 20 goals per year.
5. Henrik Tallinder: Of all the defenceman, Tallinder ranks the lowest in my books. He and Lydman used to play at about the same level as second-tier defencemen, but Lydman has improved to be the Sabres top d-man (in my opinion) while Tallinder has been on Ruff's bad side all year and has been sloppy on the blue line. It's not a good sign when I can name three Portland players I'd rather have than Tallinder.
On the bubble:
Players who are playing above average from time to time, but the Sabres need to see more from them to last in the playoffs.
1. Adam Mair: His role has always been quite similar to Paul Gaustad's, but I'd choose Gaustad over Mair in a heartbeat. (Disregarding contract extensions and price tags, which I know make this a Captain Obvious statement.) It's not that he doesn't play hard, but even solid fourth-liners are easily expendable.
2. Clarke Macarthur: Sometimes he makes excellent plays (see: give-and-go chances with Stafford against Toronto), and other times, he's a serious defensive liability as the -6 on his stat sheet goes to show.
3. Andrej Sekera: I know he's injured now and I know he's basically a rookie. However, in 43 games, he's racked up a -11. All it means is that he needs more experience. I know he eats up a lot of icetime but he's still developing and we have to keep that in mind.
4. Daniel Paille: Another -6. He helps on the PK a lot, but there are definitely other areas for improvement, unless he wants to remain a reasonable fourth-liner for the rest of his NHL career. Keep in mind he was a 1st rounder in 2002.
These guys don't need me to tell them how awesome they are, but I should list them: Ryan Miller, Thomas Vanek, Derek Roy, and Toni Lydman. When it comes to Derek Roy, I love how his stickhandling and quick reactions make up for his size, although it's always fun when he pushes around Chara (or tries to) when the Sabres play the Bruins. He makes some great plays and is so impressive on both the PK and PP.
I've also got a friend who makes fun of Vanek constantly, but I don't care, he's awesome and can have my babies ... or something. His goals aren't always flashy, his hands don't seem as quick as those other forwards making big bucks around the league, but he's getting the job done and now that his linemates are finding the back of the net, he's picking up assists alongside all his goals. No complaints here.
Honorable Mentions: Chris Butler and Jaro Spacek are mentioned below. Paul Gaustad has been receiving some well-deserved praise. He's a player that doesn't need to light up the scoreboard to be a force on the team, but a few points here and there are awesome. He's #13 in the entire league on faceoffs (over 54%), he plays the PK and PP, he checks hard, does the dirty work behind the net at both ends and in the crease, he gets into the occasional fight and protects the guys who do score goals. What else could you ask for?
The coach: I really like the decisions Ruff has been making. He's turning all his top forwards into strong two-way players that can handle PK and PP (Roy, Gaustad, Vanek), he's handling the injuries on the blue-line, and he's been sitting players when it's needed but it's only had positive results. Paetsch plays hard every time he's not a healthy scratch. Even the little changes to Vanek's icetime makes him play better. The constant Portland/Buffalo change-ups continues the strong AHL connection and builds the team for the future while making sure the team can sustain injuries like they have right now. Buffalo hearts you, Lindy Ruff!
- - -
Breaking down the defence:
Now that the offence is starting to flare up (I'm counting on you, Drew Stafford! And stay healthy, Tim Connolly!), it's the defence we've got to look at now. Ruff has admitted that defence is now the extra edge to skilled teams making it far into the playoffs, and Sabres have been cursed with having shaky defence since the Defenceman Massacre of the 05-06 playoffs.
1. Lydman - Looove his play. I remember the Calgary commentators were remarking on Lydman's abilities when the Sabres played them: "He sure didn't know how to do that when he was with the Flames." He's by far the most improved d-man, eating up icetime given all the injuries, getting his point shots through (1G and 13A to show for), leads the team in hits (103) and far outstrips his teammates in blocked shots (121). Oh and by the way, he's only missed one game all season.
2. Spacek - He gets a lot of flak on the message boards, but I don't care. Spacek is hands-down the best d-man after Lydman. He's playing solid, protecting Miller in the crease, and has been great on offence (2G and 21A leads d-men). Keep in mind that most of his icetime was with Sekera, who is still developing. He leads all the regular d-men in +/-, another indicator of his play. A lot of people are saying to trade him, but I'd easily trade Tallinder and let Numminen retire quietly before getting rid of Spacek.
3. Butler - The fact that Ruff has actually kept a Portland newbie up in the bigs for so long goes to show his trust for him. Sure, he got burnt in Calgary, but he's young and learning. I can see him growing into a solid blue-liner in a season or two that will fit perfectly into Sabres' long-term goals.
4. Rivet - The captain who's oft-injured. Notes are above.
5. Numminen - I really expect him to retire within the next two years. At best, I'd like to squeeze some more leadership from him before he retires, since a lot of the Portland kids look up to him. But when it comes to his play, I could go either way. I'd really like to see him retire as a Sabre though.
6. Weber and Gragnani - Haven't seen enough of either. They're a little behind the curve in comparison to Butler, but with a bit more shuffling between Portland and Buffalo, there's definitely going to be plenty of improvement in the next year or two.
7. Paetsch - He's been sitting for too long, but the good thing is that when he does get to play a game, he plays tough. I'm still split whether I like him as a d-man or a winger, and I think if he wants to get off Ruff's healthy scratch list, he's got to decide and then start to improve at that position. Basically, he needs to find his niche on the team, not as just "that 7th guy."
8. Tallinder - Disappointment. Already mentioned above.