Note: this is being re-posted today (October 4th) as part of our 2011-12 season preview. While written in June, the information below is more relevant now than ever.
I’m donning my professor’s cap today.
Remember my cute little “picket fence defense” lecture?
No? Sigh. Well pay attention now kids, because this stuff is important. And it will be on the test – the test that is a Stanley Cup Final. Got your attention now, I bet. Good. Moving on.
Back before the playoffs started, I analyzed what was one of the more glaring weaknesses on the Sabres roster – their young defense. Since then, the Sabres collapsed out of the first round, and Lindy Ruff didn’t waste much time in declaring that one of the team’s top priorities in the off-season will be to “develop a lockdown pair.”
When all else fails, buy the school a building. Or in our case, a new defense.
I know that many Sabres fans would love for Darcy Reiger to take his new, fat, diamond studded Sabres wallet and hand it straight over to Brad Richards’ agent when UFA negotiations open up on July 1st. Admittedly, I’m one of them. I’m a glutton for goals, and could only imagine how many we would be all gorging on if Richards was lined up between Vanek and Stafford.
But folks, we must remain focused. Our problem at defense hasn’t gone away. And it’s a big problem.
From that initial lecture:
(On March 18th) The Sabres have 203 goals for and 202 goals against. This equal ratio is a stat that has been dogging them for months. They can’t seem to score more goals then they allow, and I find that disturbing. What is more disturbing is every team ahead of Buffalo, save Tampa Bay, enjoys a wide winning margin in that category. (Carolina posts a terrible 198/212.) Brad Boyes was a nice addition for the stretch run, but this team is going to learn to have to finish as well as play smarter defense – and quickly – if they are to make the playoffs, or survive the 1st round.
Since the 18th, the Sabres have gone 5-1-1. Accordingly, their goals for/goals against ratio improved dramatically, to 226/214. It’s a telling stat: Carolina has gone 4-1 since the 18th, and their ratio has markedly improved to 220/228.
Stick with me here, class. I’ve gone back and bold-faced the key points, and will continue below:
So what does it all mean?
For Buffalo, it means that the Sabres, for the greater portion of the regular season, have not been able to score enough goals to keep up with the amount that they let in. Their offense has scored enough goals (226) to be ranked 4th in the East in that category, trailing only Philadelphia (243), Boston (232), and Tampa Bay (230).
The Sabres’ offense is great, but their defense is, well, not so great. The teams ahead of them, those considered to be front-runners for a shot at the Cup, all show a commanding mastery of the goals for/goals against ratio, and it’s no coincidence – teams control the scoreboard by keeping all three zones under control. It’s the Sabres’ play in their back end – the first step of every hockey rush, and the front lines of defense against a flurry from the opposition – that have kept them out of Cup talk, let alone much playoff talk.
The obvious statement from the professor troll in the front row here is “Ah yes, defense does win championships.” This is where I glare at said troll and say “Don’t cheapen my lectures with cliches.” There really is a lot to consider when putting a championship defense together, folks – and we’ll look at how that has been done over the last 10 years. Let’s quickly finish up reviewing this previous lecture, first. (Exasperated raspberry sigh from the dude in the back row, and pen clicking all over the place, I know, I know – stick with me.)
Buffalo is no lock for the playoffs, and the reason for this is the failure to be reliable in all three zones of the ice. Lindy Ruff has implemented a style of play – “The System” – which is supposed to keep all players, at all times, focused on controlling the puck, the play, and the game. The Sabres do their best, but their young defense just isn’t smart and experienced enough yet. In fact, Buffalo only has three defenders over the age of 24. A disturbing list:
- Steve Montador, 31
- Jordan Leopold, 30
- Shaone Morrisson, 28
- Chris Butler, 24
- Andrej Sekera, 24
- Marc-Andre Gragnani, 24
- Mike Weber, 23
- Tyler Myers, 21
Of those guys over 24, Morrisson has hardly been a defensive stalwart this season, and Leopold/Montador have not been able to stay on the ice. Indeed, if there is a weakness of the Blue and Gold that teams are going to expose until the end of this hockey year, it is going to be the green defense corps. Of all places, it is in their own zone, from where the team must take it’s most important steps, where their Achilles Heel is exposed.
I put that last sentence in bold because I really dig it.
Anyway, the Sabres problem is not effectually at center. Yes, they certainly need to add more talent and depth at that position, but last season proved that they certainly have no problem scoring goals. Brad Richards is a sexy idea, I get that – but if adding him means ignoring the need to augment our defense corps, then our Stanley Cup dreams are likely doomed.
Now, let’s talk about how a championship defense is made.
Bruce McCurdy of the Edmonton Journal wrote a smart piece that not only confirmed my worries about our green defense, but provided an analysis of all Cup-winning team defenses from the last ten years (this year’s Bruins excluded). The results of his study are truly damning of our current roster.
Please welcome our guest lecturer for the day. Take it away, Bruce:
My own approach here will (namely be) to examine the defence corps of all Stanley Cup champions over the last decade. How did the winners go about assembling their blueline crews? Let’s have a quick look team-by-team and then draw some broader conclusions.
Bruce's first slide.
(After referencing the next 9 winning defenses, McCurdy went on to assess his findings):
As a whole, the champion defencemen were a veteran group. The average age was something over 30, with the top-pairing guys averaging a year or two more than that. Among 28 minute-munchers who averaged over 20 minutes a night (highlighted in bold), fifteen were 30 or older, just three 25 or younger.
Each of the last four Stanley Cup champs has featured a major UFA signing on the back end.
Thank you, Bruce. I’ll take it from here.
This season, our defense was exposed. It was exposed in the regular season. It was exposed in the playoffs. This is not a defense that gets to the Big Dance. This is the kind of defense that your own offense has to outscore.
I do believe that Sekera, Butler, Weber, Gragnani, and of course, Myers, are all going to evolve into top-notch defenders in their own niches, as they get older. The problem right now, however, is Ryan Miller is 31, and he is getting older too. The “old core” of Roy, Pominville, Vanek, et al simply cannot afford to wait for this group of young defensemen to mature. Pegula has this team on a very specific course right now – to win a Cup in three years. In order to make that possible, balance has to be restored between the offense and defense.
There are plenty of UFA defensemen available this summer that fit this very simple but desperate need. Meanwhile, the Sabres do have good trading power with these kids on the back end – as well as several blue chip defensive prospects. Buffalo would be wise to use this cache to either regain that 2nd round pick that they lost in the Brad Boyes trade – or dare I dream, to make a package deal to lure a stud center like Paul Stastny away from a team.
From here, what needs to be done is clear. The defense has to be bolstered. It can be done, and at the same time, the center position can be improved.
It’s now up to Headmaster Darcy to make it happen.
See also: “We’ve got a lot of Defensemen: How to Add Bieksa, Ehrhoff, or Wisniewski;” “Target: Brent Burns;” “Target: Paul Stastny“
Ladies and gentlemen, may I have your attention please!
The winners of the first 3 of our “Summer Awards” are in. Thanks to all of you who participated in the voting process. For those that read the posts and curiously did not vote, well, what can I say besides “how difficult is it to press a button on your screen?”
Then again, the voting wasn’t the sole determining factor with these things, so… oh wait, did I forget to tell everyone that? Oopsy. Ok, for those of you who did not vote: “Well played. Well played, indeed.”
But let us not let this voting controversy spoil our summer of awards love.
Let’s get it on. (For best results, upsize that video and keep it playing as you read on.)
Look for the next series of awards, which includes "The Bettman."
First up: “The Sully.”
This award goes to the member/player in the Sabres organization most enthusiastically loathed by a certain member of the Buffalo News (who just may just bear a name somewhat similar to the actual namesake of this award – the other destroyer in Buffalo – which is docked at the waterfront). I know, right? It’s just a total coincidence.
Our nominees were:
- Tim Connolly. Connolly may have never have lived up to his contract extension, but there are no worries as to if he ever knew about it.
- Terry Pegula. It didn’t take long for Pegula to get raked over the coals in this one newspaper town – during an on air rant at WGR55, our certain news writer spoke so vehemently about the new ownership’s decisions that Schopp and the Bulldog were actually rendered speechless for ten seconds. (Click on the 2/28 “Part 1″ feed – the 12:13 mark starts off the tirade that leads to the dead silence at 13:02.)
- Ryan Miller. Nothing like cornering an angry netminder in the locker room after a tough night – after he walks away from you. Nope, there is no escape from the wrath of the “Sabres’ Critic,” not even for the team’s all-world goaltender. Heck, there’s always time for name-calling and f-bomb dropping, even if it takes place in front of a bunch of little kids touring the facilities – it’s about staying objective, folks!
You (well some of you) voted for:
- Timmy – 66%
- Miller – 22%
- Pegula – 12%
Sorry folks, I know and understand the level of hate that many of you share towards Connolly, so I suspect this voting process was doomed from the start. Aside from that, the fireworks that shot out of Sullivan’s brain on WGR were spectacular. When’s the last time Schopp and the Bulldog have been
dumbstruck silent for more than 5 seconds? This broke new ground in the Sullivan tirade timeline. Terry, congratulations, you’re our winner, and will be receiving that vintage Sabres blue and red cotton candy soon (possibly at your next birthday serenade).
We’re unashamedly going to ride the publicity that is the recent Brooke Shields Tony Awards train wreck for our next announcement. Brooke, take it away!
And DON'T SCREW UP.
“Ok, no pressure! Ha ha!”
“The next award is “The Rayzor,” and was named I think for some guy named Robert Ray? Is that right? (Random expletive.) (Awkward laughter.)”
Just read the cue card, Brooke.
“This con…ten…tious award goes to the Sabres member/player, is that member ‘slash’ player or just ‘member/player?’ Um, the one who unleashed the most endearing tirade/emotional meltdown during the 2010-11 season. ‘Slash.’ Oh, (expletive).”
Excellent job, Brooke! I’ll take it from here.
Our nominees were:
In the Endearing Tirade category:
- Ryan Miller: who can forget his wild confrontation with John Vogl and Jerry Sullivan of the Buffalo news? F-bombs, name-calling, and wild accusations fly – all while a group of young children is being ushered through a tour of the facilities.
- Lindy Ruff: nominated for his infamous stick waving tirade – I’d describe it, but a gif file says a thousand angry words.
In the Endearing Emotional Meltdown category:
- Terry Pegula: Aww, Terry… who will ever be able to get over you choking up and coming to tears during your first official press conference for the team, for when you finally mustered up the gusto to actually look over to where Gilbert Perreault was seated and stammered “Where’s Perreault? Sniff.You’re my hero.” Terry, you even had me tearing up. (Well, trying to tear up.)
- Mike Grier: Mike, Mike, Mike – it just can’t end this way! You single-handedly pawed in the Game Seven goal against Philadelphia that crushed whatever shred of a hope the Sabres had with 18.5 seconds left in the 1st period, who were otherwise just being out-shot 16-2. After the loss, in tears, you told reporters “It’s just disappointing. I don’t know how much longer I have to play. Sniff. If I play again, it’ll be here. If not, that’ll probably be it.” Dang. Please, please, do come back, Mike. We’re all rooting for you.
You voted for:
- Ryan Miller – 34%
- Lindy Ruff – 28%
- Terry Pegula – 25%
- Mike Grier – 13%
Now that’s a horse race! Nice to see Miller actually winning something. It’s a nice change of pace, lately. I would hate to take any kind of winning streak away from him, so we’ll go with the voters here. Congratulations, Ryan! Your slightly worn copy of “The Razor’s Edge” will be arriving soon (I’ll probably just chuck it at the arena today when I drive by later.)
Our last award is “The Dirty Brett.” For those of you who saw that post and immediately felt inclined to go to the Urban Dictionary and type that in, I am soooo sorry. Well, not really. Anyone who goes there deserves what’s coming to them.
But no one deserved what Brett Hull did to us in ’99, the namesake behind this award.
This award goes to the player “most hated by Sabres fans, and who causes the most anger and/or sadness through their distasteful decision to continue to exist.”
Our nominees were:
In the “Reproachable Act” category:
- Daniel Briere. We could have included Chris Drury’s name here, if he hadn’t fallen off the face of the hockey world since skipping town, but Briere has done his best to continue to cause Sabres fans to revisit the whole July 1st, 2007 debacle, and tweet things such as “We should totally trade to get Briere back for next season!” No, we shouldn’t. Don’t be fooled by Briere’s boyish charm and classy act off the ice – while on it, he is still gutting us like an executioner cherub. In the 2010-11 playoffs, he lead the Flyers in points as they eliminated the Sabres in 7 games (though, technically, one could argue it ended in 6). As the Buffalo News was so quickly kind to point out the day after elimination:“Briere, much like he did a year ago, is leading the postseason charge. He scored a whopping six goals in seven games and tormented his former team from the opening faceoff. He won a clutch faceoff early in Game 7 that led to Philadelphia’s first goal. Briere, one of the top free-agent signings in team history, has 94 points (41-53-94) in 93 career playoff games.” Excuse me while I solemnly weep for a moment.
- Daniel Carcillo.
Surprise! We have another Flyer to deal with. Though Daniel Carcillo’s “head pat” of Nathan Gerbe lead to one of Buffalo’s most spectacular goals of the season, it is this kind of condescending act that Buffalonians have had to endure, and will continue to endure, until a Cup or Lombardi is finally delivered to Main Street. A contact watching Game Seven from a Jacksonville, FL sports bar informed me that he was mockingly patted on the head after the game was over by a grinning Philly fan, who followed up the gesture by saying, “And don’t bother trying. You aren’t scoring on me.” Yes, the Philly fan was a girl. All my empathy goes out to you, Jim from Jacksonville – and I promise you, if Carcillo wins, this Philly fan gets in on the curse, and it’s going to involve a lot of cheese steak.
In the “Permanently Loathed” category:
- Zdeno Chara. Tormenting Buffalo while he played in Ottawa for 4 seasons apparently wasn’t enough, as this Czech troglodyte dragged his knuckles on to Boston, where he has been a devastating force since the 2006-07 season. His timeline-o-ugly goes back quite a ways, so in order to make this quick, I consulted the oracle known as “Yahoo! Answers.” Here are some of the remarks inspired by the Bruins’ captain. ”(Expletive) Chara!” ”He sucks at life.” ”We want to make him cry and run off the ice.” Really? Run? Moving on… “Gorillas shouldn’t be playing hockey.” (Editors note: but, as we all know, smaller primates are more than acceptable.) ”His big schnozz.” ”Canadian fans feel he sold out and left Canada for more money.” ”Stanchions!!!” Finally, there was also the quizzical “It’s nothing personal.” Oh, yes it is.
- Eric Staal. Forget the fact that this pre-convict seems to have his face permanently flexed into a position that makes it seem as if he is constantly debating who he wants to murder on the ice. Staal was a member of the Carolina Hurricanes in the 2005-06 season that ousted Buffalo in the Conference Finals in Game Seven (through that herculean effort of waiting until almost every starting defenseman for the Sabres was injured before finally finishing Buffalo off). Staal had 2 goals and 3 assists in the series before moving on with his team to beat the lowly Oilers for the Cup.
You voted for:
- Briere – 42%
- Chara – 32%
- Carcillo – 16%
- Staal – 10%
Oh, c’mon folks, really? You’re still not over that 2007 debacle? Get over it! Besides, I am not over the 2005-06 debacle, so Staal is our winner in a landslide (of a whole 2 votes that he received). Congratulations, Eric! You’ll have just received a sweet curse courtesy of “HockeyJobu.com.” Enjoy next season, (expletive). (Bang the link to see the curse – it might take a little while for it to appear.)
Well, that was fun! More awards are forthcoming, so please, get ready to actually vote this time. Thanks to all who participated, and to Brooke Shields, my first childhood crush. And yes, that song was for you.
There will be no call for Drury duty in Buffalo after all.
Larry Brooks of the New York Post is reporting today that the Rangers cannot buy out their captain, due to his lingering knee injury. In fact, the injury is degenerative, and it looks like the 35 year old will miss the entire upcoming season, an event that will force him into retirement.
Whether you wanted Drury back with the Sabres or not, no one wanted his career to end this way.
Drury will close out his 12 year career with 892 NHL regular-season games, in which the Little League World Series’ winning pitcher from Trumbull, Connecticut recorded 615 points (255-360). In 130 playoff games, he scored 88 points (47-41).
Danny Gare at Alumni Day. Sadly, we may be seeing Drury at the next one of these things.
Meanwhile, the Sabres announced yesterday that Kevin Sylvester will make the play-by-play with Danny Gare at his side for select away games for the upcoming season. Sylvester is the likely eventual replacement for Rick Jeanerette, who is hoping to extend his career by taking the brunt of the travel away from his schedule.
If you forgot what Sylvester’s style is like, here’s a video from last season where he called a Drew Stafford hattie against the Bruins.
They say that it’s within us all.
“The Heart of Darkness,” a book by Joseph Conrad, is a story you may be very familiar with, having been the inspiration for the movie “Apocalypse Now.” It’s a tale that exposes three ugly truths:
“The darkness of the Congo wilderness, the darkness of the Europeans’ cruel treatment of the natives, and the unfathomable darkness within every human being for committing heinous acts of evil.”
Last night, after the Canucks lost Game Seven of the Stanley Cup Final, the people of Vancouver got ugly, they got destructive, evil, and had succumbed to that dark heart. Rioting in the streets, they burned cars, looted stores, running primitive and rampant like wild beasts within their own beautiful civilization. For the sake of capping off the book’s analogy, think of the “wilderness” as the long descent into the anxiety of a very long playoff tun, and the “cruel treatment” as simple modern-era struggles of our time.
Today, social medias like Twitter are alight with condemnation, and rightfully so, for the people of Vancouver and what they unleashed from themselves and into their city last night. But how far removed are we from them? Should we really be casting stones, so to speak, or should we try instead to understand how this happened?
More importantly – could this happen in Buffalo, and what do these latest riots mean for the future fan experience of the NHL?
Welcome to the jungle.
Yes, we’ve got a lot to cover here, so we’ll get right to it.
Today we’re taking a close look at a Russian center, who stands at 5-10 and weighs in at 172 pounds. I know, you’re already thinking about diminutive forwards Tyler Ennis, Nathan Gerbe, and Paul Byron – but stick with me here. Sometimes it’s the size of the fight in the dog that matters, and with Khokhlachev, that’s what you get.
"Koko" also comes with a heavy serving of passion.
He’s got a great hockey personality as well, as he was able to show off in a recent Subway commercial – but more on that later.