The Sabres defense is simply too young.
As I’ve described before, the Sabres defense is full of greenhorns. If Pegula and Co. really want to win a Cup in the next 2-3 years, then the Sabres will need to add grit and experience on that blue line.
Meanwhile, the news out of Montreal was that the Habs finally came to terms with ’04 draftee, Alexei Yemelin. This could mean that UFA James Wisniewski will not be re-signed by Montreal – and should then be immediately pursued by the Sabres. From the the Montreal Gazette:
“The signing gives the Canadiens three defencemen under contract for next season – Yemelin, P.K. Subban and Jaroslav Spacek. Next up for negotiations are unrestricted free-agent Andrei Markov and restricted free-agent Josh Gorges. Both finished last season on the long-term injured reserve list after major reconstructive surgeries.”
“The Canadiens are unlikely to bring back James Wisniewski or Brent Sopel because of cap restraints, but Hal Gill and/or Roman Hamrlik are possibilities.”
At 27 years of age, Wisniewski (or “Wiz,” as he is called) has everything Buffalo needs – the age, the experience, the point production, the mean streak, heck, he even has a rare right handed shot for the power play. These are all qualities that Buffalo should covet.
The Sabres exited the playoffs with only three players on defense 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 was hardly a defensive stalwart this season, and Leopold/Montador were not able to stay on the ice. Indeed, if there was a major weakness of the Blue and Gold that was exploited in the series against Philadelphia, it was the green defense corps (see: Butler getting victimized behind his own net).
Of all places, it is in their own zone, from where the team must take it’s most important steps, where their Achilles Heel lies.
A few more points on “Wiz” that should get you thinking:
- 51 points (10g, 41a) in 75 games last year (his highest offensive totals, as he now enters his prime)
- 7 power play goals
- Smart hitter – only took 38 PIM’s
- 119 blocked shots (for the Sabres, Montador had 138, Leopold 123, Weber 99)
Pegula is in a lucky spot right now – the old core boys, Roy, Miller, Pominville, Vanek, et al are still around as the new core boys, such as Myers, Ennis, Weber and Gragnani are coming up. Both cores are full of talent, both are full of the desire to win, but the defense remains perilously inexperienced.
Pegula noted when he came in that the loss of key veterans Toni Lydman and Hank Tallinder was a major mistake. If Terry is looking to restore that sort of stability on the back end again, you better believe he will write Darcy Regier a veritable blank check to land Wisniewski.
Of course, there are plenty of other teams out there (likely all of them) that would love to add Wisniewski to their club, and there is no guarantee Wisniewski will want to leave. Despite the Canadiens’ cap constraints, he appears to be ready to take a pay cut in order to stay in Montreal, where he apparently wants to raise a family.
Perhaps part of Darcy’s pitch should be how great a family town Buffalo is.
See also: James Wisniewski’s blog.
I’m already putting money aside for a red white and blue Foligno jersey.
First the Sabres and the Bandits - now the Amerks. What's next Terry - the Bills? The Statler?
Not that I want to get ahead of myself – the word that Terry Pegula was in the final stages of a negotiation process to purchase the Rochester Americans is still a rumor, but –
Jody Gage, also known as "Mr. Amerk," may be getting a very large fruit basket from Buffalo soon.
Cancel that line of thought.
From Kevin Oklobzija, from the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle:
“NEW at 4:14 p.m.: The Associated Press is reporting that the Sabres have signed a nonbinding letter of intent to purchase the Amerks. The AP cites an unnamed source as saying there is no out clause with the Portland Pirates, so negotiations between the American Hockey League, the Pirates and the Sabres would need to continue (yes, I believe they’ve already begun that process).”
The reason this matters (besides the decades of legacy shared between the Sabres and Americans) is that it will serve to empower Pegula – even more – as he seeks to further expand the Sabres’ fan base.
For fans, this means a quick hour and a half drive could get you to a game featuring some of these newest Sabres prospects that we are all drooling over. Heck, maybe Terry will even host a huge Amerks Alumni Day (welcome back Jody Gage)!
And hey, it looks like if Mancari re-ups, he’ll finally get out of Portland. Welcome back to Rochester, Mark!
Who’s up for a road trip?
The HSBC can be a pretty quiet place sometimes.
Sure, a lot of the quieter sections of the arena were made that way by some rather dull personalities and uninspired play on the ice, and the fan base did get jacked up for the stretch to the playoffs and for Round One.
But on regular season nights, the crowd needs to be loud. Maybe we need a “Sam’s Army.”
The official logo.
From Ryan Miller, after the Sabres clinched the playoffs in the last game of the regular season:
“We can feel it, we can tell on the ice that we need the crowd behind us, even when we’re not playing our best we appreciate some support. You can’t always go into the locker room feeling boos, we need some help, we need some support, we need everybody in this city behind us to do this the right way, that’s just how it goes.”
“You go into these other buildings and it’s energy for the other team, going into Philly we’re going to have to be a close bunch because they’re going to be charged up there and it’s the same here I think we need that energy, we need to feed off it, even the smallest plays.”
“I think that’s the difference this year – I think people are ready to start buzzing and last year they were waiting for something to happen, we kind of backed our way in so there is a little bit of a difference there. I think that’s what people around here are waiting for, they don’t want to be let down and we’re going to need their help to do it the right way so, come along for the ride!”
Miller got his wish – well, sort of – naturally, fans are going to be three-arena-beers-in-crazy during the playoffs. It’s the part where he notes how fans were sorta waiting around for something good to happen before they decided to start making some noise.
Lots of folks say, “Well, if they stink I am gonna’ boo them. I bought tickets. When they play well I cheer. So what?” Well, because that sounds an awful lot like bandwagoning, that’s what.
I am not doubting the passion of Sabres fans – who are of the most ardent, passionate, and hockey-savvy fans in the world. But turning that passion into a little noise sure would be a nice change.
Sometimes it’s hard to be that guy who starts the “Let’s go, Buffalo!” chant in the stands when the boys on the ice are faltering. Maybe, because of that, we need our own hockey version of soccer’s “Sam’s Army.”
I know, I know – I know what you are thinking:
“What is soccer?” “What is Sam’s Army?” Their mission statement:
“Our mission is clear; SAM’S ARMY® wants enthusiastic soccer fans who will PARTICIPATE at games! We want people who will STAND and SING for the DURATION of the game, show their colors, bring original flags, give our team the home field advantage, and ENERGIZE the rest of the crowd! We want to make these events as fun as possible for everyone! If you feel up to this challenge, then SAM’S ARMY® is for you! The goal of SAM’S ARMY® is to make soccer games a more enjoyable experience for everyone. We will not tolerate hooligan, racist, or violent behavior.”
Sounds good to me. Where do I sign up?
Well, I can’t – right now it’s just an idea, but one that I hope catches on.
I say we call it “Stanley’s Army.”
Who’s with me?
*Tip-o-the-sunglasses to reader Derek Fettes for alerting me to “Sam’s Army.” Derek: you’ve been promoted to corporal. Congratulations!
We’re re-visiting this post on the heels of today’s announcement that Mike Grier has, in fact, done the retirement thing. Best of luck Griersie. We’ll really, really miss you.
One more year.
Call me sentimental if you must, but Mike Grier’s hard-nosed career simply cannot be remembered for ending in this way.
Yes, the Sabres were decimated by injuries. Yes, they imploded as a team in Game Seven. But they were about to survive that first period with a 0-0 score, despite being out-shot 16-2. Anything could have happened in the 2nd period, but after that puck deflected off of Grier’s hand and into the net with 18.5 seconds left, it was over.
Instead of stopping that damned puck, he was faced with the
gutty gutting task of describing what happened to reporters after the game, the series, and the season, was over.
“You know, the guys battled hard all year. I gotta block that shot on the first goal. I tried to catch it. It went off my glove and went in. It gave them some momentum. It’s just disappointing. I don’t know how much longer I have to play.”
But he didn’t stop there.
“Tough one to swallow. I don’t know if I’ve played on a team that I’ve been more proud of. It would have been easy for the group to go the other way and get selfish. The guys stuck together and dug in. The coaching staff did a good job keeping us together. As a group, I’m proud. They played as hard as they could all year.”
“If I play again, it’ll be here. If not, that’ll probably be it.”
“It’s a great group. I’ve been on teams that probably had more talent, more skill, but I’m probably most proud of this team here with what they’ve been through. There was a lot of adversity this year. It would’ve been easy for a team to just kind of self-destruct and fall apart, but the guys held in there and stuck together, came to the rink every day ready to work and have fun. It was great to see.”
How can you not love a guy like Mike Grier, who comes to the rink every day, puts in his 110%, plays the boards, both zones, is one of the strongest penalty killers in the game – and continually credits his teammates? Heck, he wasn’t even supposed to be in the NHL, but his herculean work ethic earned him a long stay.
Grier was originally drafted by the Blues in the 9th round (219th overall) of the ’93 draft, and was considered a long-shotto make an NHL team.
He took those odds, and crushed them with sheer willpower.
In his early playing days, he skated with Saint Sebastian’s School and later with Boston University, culminating in his best amateur season in 1994–95, where he was named a first team all-star. During his time at BU, Grier’s NHL rights were dealt to the Edmonton Oilers (along with Curtis Joseph) in exchange for a pair of first round picks.
He left college in 1996, and immediately cracked the Oilers lineup as a checking-line right-winger, scoring 32 points and bearing a respectable +7 plus-minus rating. He did it as the first African-American player – (aside from Val James, who briefly cracked the Sabres lineup in 1981) – in the NHL.
15 years later, Grier has been through 1060 NHL games. He’s netted 162 goals, added 221 helpers, and earned the reputation for for being one of the league’s better penalty killers and playoff performers.
And 15 years later, there’s a scuff on his glove from a puck that may have ended his career – a puck that he tried to get in the way of, like he had so many times before in his career, only this time, he directed it in the net.
“It’s just disappointing. I don’t know how much longer I have to play.”
Disappointing is an understatement. Everyone in the Sabres organization knew that the Sabres were already reeling in that Game Seven, but terribly, it all seemed to be lost after that moment that Grier failed to knock down that puck.
Sure, they could have won in Game Six, as Ryan Miller was quick to point out after the game:
“There’s a lot of disappointment right now. That’s what happens when you don’t step on a team’s throat when you have a chance. We had our opportunity to end this series and didn’t do it.”
Lindy Ruff agreed:
“For four months we asked them to go above and beyond, and they have done everything we have asked. They haven’t used an excuse in the book. We lost a lot of good players and we lost our goalie, and we found a way to get to this point. The disappointment was that we didn’t find a way of getting by Game Six.”
Still, in the end, even Miller had to admit what happened in Game Seven was series-changing:
“We almost got away with that first period and maybe it would have been a different game. I thought we were going to get away with it and it was a tough bounce. It changed direction on me a bit. I was reaching to play it to the corner and it ended up diving down off Mike.”
That can’t be the way Grier goes out of this game. What he has done for the league, for African-Americans, and for the Sabres, means so much, and means that he deserves so much more.
Unfortunately in the NHL, deserve’s got nothin’ to do with it.
Grier already has a lot going against him, with younger studs like Mark Mancari, Zack Kassian, Marcus Foligno et al already barricking for next year’s spots in the bottom six. Besides the competition, he also has to recover from knee and wrist injuries. He’s 36 years old, and his time to skate in the NHL is coming to a close, fight as me may.
And he will fight it. Hard.
If Grier’s story tells us anything – a story that began with his fight and drive to make this league, the grit to be be successful, and the wisdom to remain a critical component for a team in the postseason at age 36 – it tells us that he has plenty of fight left. I have a strong feeling that Grier will be back with the Blue and Gold next season. Kassian and Foligno need their pro seasoning in the AHL. Grier, a bit slower now than he was when he was 26, is dependable. He’s a leader. He can maintain himself and help the team, and serve as a mentor in the locker room for the guys waiting to take his place.
“He’s one of the nicest guys I’ve ever played with, one of the best leaders I’ve ever played with,” said Tyler Ennis, on locker clean-out day. “I hope he keeps playing. I hope he comes back.”
If his health allows it, Grier will be back. He’ll have his shot at checking the Team Goat into the boards. He’ll do it heavily, with passion, responsibility, and all the verve of a rookie. And when he skates back to the bench, he’ll give a nod to the youngsters – “This is how it’s done.”
One more year.
Don’t get all antsy: they aren’t taking nominations to put fans in the Hall.
At least not yet – anything is possible with Pegula.
In any event, the offseason fun has officially begun over at the HSBC. Sabres fans should be recovered enough from that Game Seven disaster to hop back onto Sabres.com and get their favorite alumnus into the Buffalo Sabres Hall of Fame.