“We have players that score, but do we have players that rise to the occasion?”

– Mike Schopp

For those of us who just got done watching the Sabres top lines get manhandled by the Bruins, it’s easy to convince us that player size matters.  I’ve heard fans say things like, ‘Tyler Ennis is scrappy, he’ll go into corners and fight for the puck.’ 

I hate to break it to you guys, but Tyler Ennis is 5’9”, 163.  I don’t care how scrappy he is; he’s TINY!  He is never going to consistently win battles against big D-Men. 

Having small quick players is fine, you just can’t have your top 2 lines, full of these type players.  When you have lines like Ennis-Roy-Pominville, there’s absolutely NO Physical presence.  Teams will simply shoulder you out and clear the puck.  It doesn’t matter that Jason Pominville is a ‘sniper’ if he never gets the puck because Roy lost a battle to the 6’4” Defenseman in the corner.

Lines one and two as of now: (LW, C, RW)

1)    Vanek, Roy, Pominville

2)    Hecht, Connolly, Stafford

Extras: Tyler Ennis, Tim Kennedy

 

Let’s start with the positives… hmmm...(scratches head)…

The team did win the division with these players as their ‘scoring’ lines.  Vanek led the Sabres with 28 goals, Roy  26 goals, Pommer  24 goals, Hecht 21 goals.  It was whispered that Lindy Ruff’s ‘system’ limited players’ creativity and led to decreased goal production.  I’m not buying it.  The Sabres 3rd and 4th lines produced a healthy amount of goals as far as expectations were concerned.  So why couldn’t the top 2 lines follow suit?  I believe that the 3rd and 4th lines bailed out the scoring lines more than once.  I think the team achieved the 3rd spot in the Eastern Conference DESPITE the 1st & 2nd lines lack of production.  

So why could our 1st and 2nd lines not score more?  That’s not my question to answer.  The question to ask is, Is this what we can expect from this group?  I believe the answer is yes.  What’s the solution?  It’s probably a combo of a few things, but here are a few ideas to get us started:      

Home grown players: RW – Zack Kassian. Played in Juniors this year.  Most likely will play in Portland to start next season.  Kassian is 6’3”, 215 and does his fair share of scoring.  He’s a top 2 line RW in Juniors; let’s hope he can prove to be a top line player in the NHL.   http://www.ontariohockeyleague.com/stats/player.php?id=4909 …Oh, and he’s a fighter.  Type his name into Youtube and enjoy.  Wikipedia says: Kassian plays a power forward style, and has been compared to Boston Bruins forward Milan Lučić.  Sign me up for that!

RW – Mark Mancari.  Has patiently played in the AHL for the past 4 seasons.  I guess the Sabres management know some limiting factor about him that I don’t.  All I see is his 6’3”, 225 frame and 4 seasons of 18+ goals.  This past year he had 29 goals and 38 assists for Portland.  He played a handful of games for Buffalo in ‘09-’10.  Let’s give him a legit chance next season, even if he ends up mostly on the 3rd line. 

LW – Tyler Ennis – We all saw him in the playoffs.  And most of us loved him.  But let’s be realistic; he was buzzing all over the ice, mostly to the outside.  He may light a spark on the first or second line, but he’s just another afinogenov/roy/connolly as far as size goes. Nathan Gerbe can be thrown into the same pot as Tyler Ennis; a talented small forward.  We’ve got plenty already.  Ennis/Gerbe could serve as good trade bait if the organ-I-zation wants to get bigger up front.

Relying on home grown talent to solve the issue of lack of size/scoring is not a strong leg to stand on.  The odds aren’t great that any of these guys will be superstars.  The positives are that they are low-wage players that can fill roster spaces and leave cap space to sign veterans.

 

The unseen solution: Keep the current roster, but try different line combos.  There’s no rule that says Vanek, Connolly, and Pominville have to be on the first line.  Of course you want all 6 of your top 2 lines to be ‘scorers’.  But how terrible would it be if only 2 of 3 were pure scorers with Paul Gaustad on Wing or Center?  Then we might actually win a wall-battle every so often.  The point of examining this solution would be to distribute the size/toughness more towards the top two lines.  In exchange, you’d have to move a skilled player down to line three.  Remember in ’05-’06 when the Sabres had 4 dangerous lines?  Imagine having a true scorer down on both the 3rd & 4th line.  This could happen again.  It’s up to Lindy Ruff to put the exact combos together, but I think it’s worth looking at as a partial solution.

The Popular solution: Get rid of _____________and trade for/sign __________.  The two popular names right now to get rid of are, Tim Connolly and Derek Roy.  This is due to their lack of productivity in the playoffs.  Again, the size issue pops up.  These 2 players were simply outmuscled in the Boston series.  I’m happy Tim Connolly made it thru a regular season, but he was useless in the playoffs, and I’m tired of having my #1 center be a non-contributor. (He did hit the post in OT of game 4 which could have changed the series)  I’ll include Pominville as another player on this list, although JP had 2 goals and 2 assists in the playoffs, and is generally recognized as a strong 2-way player, unlike Roy and Connolly. 

The problem with this solution is that it’s difficult to execute.  30 goal scorers don’t grow on trees; especially guys like Roy who are locked in for 3 more years at a bargain contract.  If I woke up tomorrow and Roy or Connolly was traded, I’d be ok with that.  These guys might be decent complimentary players on other teams, but they’re not the players we need to win The Cup.  The problem is finding a replacement for their scoring.  No team is going to trade you another proven 30 goal man for Roy or Connolly.  So, as un-popular as keeping these 2 around might be, I would not let them go unless we have a definitive plan to bring in a real superstar (See my article on Vinny Lecavalier, May 3rd).

Also, this solution involves putting your money where your mouth is.  If you say you want to improve your top 2 lines, then every man on those 2 lines is up for discussion, including Thomas Vanek.  This solution doesn’t seem too sexy when it’s Vanek on the trade block.  Be wary of Free agents, as many players have huge seasons only to tail off as soon as they sign that mega-deal.  We’re stuck with a few of those deals ourselves(Pominville & Hecht).  I am all for trading either Roy or Connolly if there’s a legitimate opportunity.  I think new blood would serve this group well. 

Listening to Marty Biron on WGR in the days after the Sabres were eliminated, he brought up the fact that, ‘these guys GOT you to the playoffs’.  Biron also said that you need a mix of players; some that can carry you thru the regular season, and some that can raise their game short term in the playoffs.  These are both valid points, but serve to point out the Sabres weaknesses.  The Sabres only have guys who consistently score, and are lacking in the clutch department.  Mark Recchi scores less goals than Derek Roy each season, but somehow comes thru in the playoffs.  Why not keep a Mark Recchi down on your 3rd line during the year, give him a limited role (to prevent burnout), and then increase that role come playoff time?   

Extra note:  Each man on the top 2 lines, with the exception of Stafford(who I wouldn’t consider a top 2 line player) had his fair share of points.  The issue is that the total # of goals was too few.  It’s ok to have a couple 25 goal scorers when you have a Crosby or Ovechkin scoring 50.  But all we have is 25 goal guys.

My personal opinion of each player and what should be done next season (Salary in Parenthesis)

1)    Thomas Vanek (6.4M) – Keep him(unless you can get Staal or Lecavalier).  He will probably score more goals next season.  He’s only 26 years old.  Still has tremendous upside.  Exhibits toughness in returning from injuries and by all accounts is a great leader and holds himself accountable.

2)    Tim Connolly (4.5M) – Keep him(but let him walk next year) Players usually step it up in their contract year, which ’10-’11 will be for the Syracuse native.  After next season ‘ see ya later, Timmy!

3)    Derek Roy (4.0M) Trade him You will get something good for Roy.  He is young, scores goals, assists, and is signed for a bargain contract.  Why don’t we want him if he’s so great?  We’re not winning the Cup with this guy taking dives, whining to the refs, and scoring no goals in the playoffs.

4)    Jason Pominville (5.5M) –Keep Him He is overpaid for his production, but as he proved in his rookie year, he can be a great complimentary player.  He has been noted as a good two-way player, a skill you might lose with a young replacement such as Tyler Ennis.  He also mans the point on the PP.

5)    Jochen Hecht (3.8M) Trade him – (if you can). I don’t think there would be too many takers for Hecht, mainly due to his 3.8M salary and low goal production.  He does posess good PK skills and good puck posession.  He is also getting up in age and probably past his prime.  To trade him would serve as a salary dump and a shake-up to the top 2 lines.  I have nothing personal against him, it might just be time to move on an get someone else in there.

6)    Drew Stafford (1.9M) Trade him or put him on 3rd/4th line.  Drew Stafford has been the target of many Sabres fans for much of this season.  I don't think he's terrible, I just don’t think he’s top line material.  We’ve seen flashes of brilliance, but they’re too few and far between.  His effort has also been questioned at times.  I’m not sure how his teammates feel, but the fans are ready to cut the cord on this one.  The only reason I see him sticking around(on the 3rd line) is that his salary is reasonable.  Right Wing is probably the Sabres weakest position.  This would be a prime area for a reasonable free-agent signing.

Conclusion: The Sabres Need To…

1)    Face the obvious- not going to win the Cup as the top 2 lines are currently constructed.  My opinion – We need SIZE SIZE SIZE!!!

2)    Find a solution – what is it?, probably a combination of moves. But Something MUST be done.

3)    Don’t overreact – As Marty Biron said, these guys got you to 3rd in the Eastern Conference.

 

Now let’s take that next step and be ready to make some painful choices.