Buffalo Sabres’ determined not to repeat last season’s collapse

Heading into the last week of October the Buffalo Sabres were surprisingly sitting atop the Atlantic Division and tied for the Eastern Conference lead with the Washington Capitals. The Sabres were 9-2-1 for 19 points with 41 goals scored and 30 allowed. However, fans aren’t celebrating their good fortune too much since the club put together a franchise-record 10-game winning streak early last season before falling flat on its face.

The Sabres’ power-play success is definitely one of the reasons they’re off to a red-hot start at is was ranked fourth in the league at 28.9 per cent while their penalty-killing was 14th at 81.1 per cent. They have also been scoring at a pace of 3.42 goals per game while giving up 2.50 per night. Goaltender Linus Ullmark was ranked fourth in the league with a 93.1 save percentage and had a 2.56 goals-against average while fellow netminder Carter Hutton was 10th-best in GAA at 2.27 with a 92.0 save percentage as their platoon system was working well.

After the Sabres posted their 10-game winning streak last year they more or less collapsed and failed to reach the postseason. Head coach Phil Housley was sacrificed and Ralph Krueger was brought in as the team’s new bench boss. Krueger must be doing something right early in 2019/20 as his squad has been in fine form since the puck dropped . Twenty-two-year-old centre Jack Eichel has been leading the way offensively with six goals and 10 assists in the first 12 outings but the team has been getting consistent scoring from several other players.

Second-year blue liner Rasmus Dahlin, who was named one of the three finalists for the rookie-of-the-year-award last season, had contributed a goal and 10 points while forwards Sam Reinhart and Victor Olofsson also had 10 points. In addition, Jeff Skinner and Marcus Johansson each had eight points while Casey Mittelstadt had seven. Eichel, Olofsson and Dahlin have also proven to be key power-play contributors as Eichel and Olofsson had eight points each with the man advantage while Dahlin had seven. In fact, the 24-year-old Olofsson of Sweden set a new NHL record earlier this season when he scored his seventh-consecutive power-play goal in the league.

Olofsson became the first NHL’er to score the first seven goals of his career all with the man advantage. His streak actually began last year when he was called up for six games by the Sabres and notched a pair of power-play markers. The rookie winger then set the new record by scoring his first five goals this season on the power-play as well. The previous record of six power-play goals to start an NHL career was held by the Winnipeg Jets’ Craig Norwich (1979/80), The Hartford Whalers’ Sylvain Turgeon (1983/84) and the New York Islanders’ Jeff Norton (1987/88).

Olofsson has done well to make it to the NHL considering he wasn’t drafted until the seventh round with the 181st pick in 2014. He stayed at home in Sweden until last season when he skated with the Rochester Americans of the American Hockey League and impressed with 30 goals and 63 points in 66 games before the Sabres called him up for six contests. Olofsson made the team out of training camp this year and should give the Sabres’ offence a big boost.

If there has been a disappointment in Buffalo so far this season it would have to be 26-year-old forward Jimmy Vesey with just two assists after 11 outings while registering just 13 shots on goal. Vesey is a former Hobey Baker Award winner as the best collegiate player in America and had posted 50 goals and 90 points in his first 240 NHL appearances with the New York Rangers. The Sabres traded for him this summer for a 2021 third-round draft pick. Vesey was recently injured though and missed Buffalo’s 2-0 win over Detroit on October 25th, so may come back and pick up his game.

Colorado Avalanche off to flying start

The Colorado Avalanche have gone 7-1-1 to start the new NHL season and shared the league lead with the Edmonton Oilers and Buffalo Sabres as of October 21st with a game in hand on both teams. Like last season, the Avalanche is relying on their top line of Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen and captain Gabriel Landeskog to handle the majority of the scoring and they haven’t disappointed. MacKinnon had four goals and seven assists after eight outings while Rantanen had chipped in with five goals and six helpers and Landeskog had posted three goals and four assists.

However, Colorado is no longer regarded as a “one-line team” since the squad is getting some much-appreciated secondary scoring from several players early on. This may be a surprise to some fans since general manager Joe Sakic made several player moves during the offseason. He traded Carl Soderberg to the Arizona Coyotes as well as Alexander Kerfoot and high-scoring defenseman Tyson Barrie to the Toronto Maple Leafs. Sakic received centre Nazem Kadri and blue line prospect Calle Rosen from Toronto and signed forwards Joonas Donskoi and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare as free agents. He also added Valeri Nichushkin and Andre Burakovsky to the roster.

The 29-year-old Kadri was the most well known of the newcomers and he’s registered three goals and five points in eight games. He adds grit, experience and skill to the lineup and can also be useful on the power-play if needed. Burakovsky may be the most pleasant surprise though as the 24-year-old Austrian winger had four goals and eight points after eight contests. Donskoi had helped out with three goals and six points while defensive forwards Bellemare and Nichushkin had combined for four points in 13 games. The team was also getting offensive help from the blue line as 20-year-old rookie Cale Makar had seven points in eight games, and Ian Cole had four points in four.

Other players pulling their weight include Tyson Jost and Matt Calvert with five points each in eight games and J.T. Compher with four points in five encounters. Of course, the big question for the Avalanche right now is when will the bubble burst? Will the team continue to roll for most of the season or will the offensive production tail off? After eight games the club was leading the NHL in scoring with an 4.38 goals per game while the league average was 2.99. Their power-play was ranked 15th in the league at 20 per cent while the penalty-killing was sixth best at 87 per cent.

Defensively, the squad had the tenth-best goals-against average at 2.63. Goaltender Philipp Grubauer had five wins with a 2.79 GAA and 91.9 save percentage while new backup Pavel Francouz had won both of his games with a 1.95 GAA and owned the second-best save percentage in the league at 95.1 per cent. Overall, the Avalanche have gotten off to an excellent start in 2019/20 as the top line is getting help from the rest of the lineup and rearguard Makar has shown he can replace the departed Tyson Barrie’s offensive output.

Like all teams though, the Avalanche will have to endure some rough spots this season. But if they can rack up as many points as possible before the road gets rocky they should have an excellent chance of returning to the playoffs next April. And once there, they could end up being a legitimate Stanley Cup contender due to their fine mixture of youth and experience along with their knack for scoring goals and efficient defensive play.

Meet the new Leafs same as the old Leafs

The Toronto Maple Leafs installed a revolving door at the Scotiabank arena this summer as several players were jettisoned. Even though general manager Kyle Dubas spent most of his energy working on Mitch Marner’s new contract he still found the time to usher Nazem Kadri, Tyler Ennis, Nikita Zaitsev, Conor Brown, Jake Gardiner, Ron Hainsey and Patrick Marleau out of town. Toronto also made changes to its coaching staff as Paul McFarland and Dave Hakstol were hired as assistant coaches to replace D.J. Smith and Jim Hiller.

Newcomers include Tyson Barrie, Alexander Kerfoot, Jason Spezza, Nick Shore, Ilya Mikheyev and Cody Ceci while Dmytro Timashov and Rasmus Sandin made the team from the AHL’s Toronto Marlies. In addition, the Leafs faced off for the new season without the injured Travis Dermott and Zach Hyman. In addition, five of last year’s starting defencemen on opening night weren’t in the lineup for this year’s season opener. Morgan Rielly was the only returnee with Dermott sidelined.

But even with the massive overhaul, the Leafs of this season have started out like the Leafs of last season. They’ve already lost three games at home to Montreal (shootout), St. Louis and Tampa and were 3-2-1 after six games. Their victories were against two of the league’s weaker sisters in Ottawa and Detroit and they also managed to beat a Columbus side which lost its best players to free agency this summer.

Many experts feel this year’s roster isn’t really better than last year’s and it was basically assembled simply because the salaries were slightly lower. Even so, when Dermott and Hyman return, Dubas will have to clear some salary cap space somehow as he has to pay the massive contracts of Marner, Auston Matthews, John Tavares and William Nylander. It’s true that Tyson Barrie makes the team stronger on the right side of the blue line but without Gardiner they’re now weaker on the left side.

As usual, goaltender Frederik Andersen has gotten off to a mediocre start in October and was pulled in the Leafs’ 7-3 home loss to Tampa after allowing all seven goals. The defence still doesn’t appear to be strong enough to win a playoff round even though it’s been retooled but the team seems to have enough offence to make most games close. Their defensive zone coverage leaves a lot to be desired and perhaps it’s not the players who should shoulder the blame. Instead it appears to be the coaching tactics.

The Leafs have changed players but are still playing the same old questionable system in their own end. They could stick Bobby Orr, Ray Bourque, Borje Salming and Nicklas Lidstrom back on the blue line and still struggle if the coaching tactics are wrong. The team often relies on long stretch passes to leave its own zone but this means they have to chase down and fight for loose pucks if the passes are intercepted or miss the mark. It also results in a lot more icing calls and the Leafs already iced the puck the third most times in the league last season.

Offensively, the only real change so far has been on the power play as Matthews and Marner are now playing on their off-wings to be better positioned for one-time shots. It’s worked well early on but the team’s penalty-killing still isn’t up to par. Based on pure talent, the Leafs boast one of the best lineups in the NHL. But they will continue to play inconsistent hockey unless the coaching staff realizes they need to play to their strengths and change their defensive system.

They may end up with another 100-point season but if this team doesn’t finally win at least one playoff series the campaign will be a failure. Head coach Mike Babcock has lost all three playoff rounds since being hired and with Sheldon Keefe coaching the AHL’s Toronto Marlies and former Philadelphia Flyers’ head coach Hakstol on the staff, Dubas might not hesitate to send Babcock packing during the season if the team doesn’t live up to its potential. Perhaps then and only then, the new Leafs may lose shed their resemblance to the old Leafs.

St. Louis Blues facing tough task as defending Stanley Cup Champions

The St. Louis Blues just raised the Stanley Cup banner to kick off the 2019/20 NHL campaign and may be headed to the White House to celebrate last season’s victory, but they’re going to find the going to be awful tough this year. In the eyes of many experts, defending a championship is a heck of a lot tougher than winning one. This doesn’t bode too well for a club that took just over 50 years to hoist the Stanley Cup for the first time.

Looking at the facts, the NHL’s silverware has been defended successfully just once in the salary-cap era, twice over the past 20 years and on five occasions in the last 35 seasons. It’s not impossible to achieve, but it’s certainly against the odds. The odds were against the club last season too though when they suddenly caught fire at the turn of the 2019 calendar year. The Blues resided in the league basement in early January then catapulted up the standings to make the playoffs and capture the Stanley Cup in seven games on the road in Boston.

The Blues more or less have the same lineup as last season with a couple of exceptions. Forward Patrick Maroon, who hails from St. Louis, left the team as an unrestricted free agent during the summer and inked a deal with the Tampa Bay Lightning. General manager Doug Armstrong then pulled the trigger on a significant trade by sending defenceman Joel Edmundson to the Carolina Hurricanes along with a seventh-round draft choice in 2021 and prospect Dominik Bokk for offensive blue liner Justin Faulk and a fifth-rounder in 2020.

The 27-year-old Faulk was signed to a $45.5 million, seven-year contract extension. In addition, Armstrong just gave forward Brayden Schenn a new eight-year deal worth $52 million. This leaves head coach Craig Berube with an arguably better squad than last season with the addition of Faulk, but with many other teams making several changes it’s possible the Blues haven’t done enough to keep up with them. Their season started on a sour note as they blew a 2-0 lead to the Washington Capitals in their season opener at home and lost 3-2 in overtime just hours after hoisting their championship banner to the rafters.

For the Blues to hold onto their title and repeat as champions they’re going to have to get better regular seasons from just about everybody. They can’t afford to wait until the campaign is three months old and then suddenly switch gears and make a run at the playoffs.  They need to play consistently from day one and stay in the thick of the playoff hunt at all times. Their key players will be netminder Jordan Binnington, captain and defenceman Alexander Pietrangelo and forwards Schenn, Vladimir Tarasenko, Ryan O’Reilly and Jayden Schwartz.

Binnington had a remarkable 2018/19 season as the Blues fortunes turned around when he was called up from the American Hockey League in January. He handled the transition physically and mentally and simply shrugged off losses and bad goals. He ended up setting an NHL record for winning 16 playoff games as a rookie and it will be interesting to see if he suffers from the so-called ‘sophomore jinx.”

Berube himself was also a catalyst for the team last season as he replaced former coach Mike Yeo on November 19th when Yeo was fired. It took the team about six weeks to get used to Berube’s ways and once everybody was on the same page they gelled. Once they reached the playoffs, the team collectively dug in even deeper and their gritty play combined with excellent goaltending and timely scoring resulted in the Stanley Cup. The Blues defending their title isn’t likely this season, but what they achieved last campaign was perhaps even more unlikely.

New Jersey Devils should be playoff bound this NHL season

With the 2019/20 NHL season knocking on the door, fans of the New Jersey Devils should be anxious to see how their team performs. The club made the Stanley Cup Final five times from 1995 to 2012 and won the silverware three times in that span. However, they haven’t done much since. That could all change this season though if everything falls into place. They failed to make the postseason five consecutive years after their last appearance in the final before making it in 2017/18, but missed out again last year.

They went 31-41-10 last season for an eighth-place finish in the Metropolitan Division and were also third-worst in the entire league. Fans felt it was a setback especially since the club won the 2017 draft lottery and selected forward prospect Nico Hischier first overall. In addition, they acquired some elite scoring from the Edmonton Oilers when they landed Taylor Hall in a trade for defenceman Adam Larsson. Hall came over in the summer of 2016 and would win the Hart Memorial Trophy for 2017/18 as the league’s top player. He missed most of last season due to injury but still posted 37 points in 33 outings.

General manager Ray Shero worked hard at improving the roster during the offseason and also had a bit of luck go his way. The Devils won the draft lottery again and selected young scoring sensation Jack Hughes from the American hockey program. The 18-year-old Hughes of Orlando, Florida, scored 116 in 2017/18 skating with the U.S. Hockey National Team Development Program and posted 112 points last season in just 50 contests. Hughes set a new record for scoring with the program by posting 228 points and the 5-foot-10-inch center spent the preseason with New Jersey proving he’s ready for the NHL.

Shero traded for 30-year-old defenseman P.K. Subban in the offseason as he sent a second-round draft choice this summer and next to Nashville along with prospects Steve Santini and Jeremy Davies. Subban was named the best defenceman in the NHL in 2012/13 and took home the Norris Trophy for his efforts and is also a three-time NHL All Star. Davies had yet to play an NHL game and fellow rearguard Santini had 21 points in 114 career contests.

Shero also landed 21-year-old forward Nikita Gusev from Russia from the Vegas Golden Knights for a third-round draft pick in 2020 and a second-rounder in 2021. Gusev was originally drafted in 2012 by Tampa Bay in the seventh round as the 202nd overall selection. He’s yet to play in the NHL though as he remained in Russia to play with in the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL). Vegas took him in the league’s expansion draft when the club entered the NHL.

Gusev played 391 games in the KHL with 332 points on 119 goals and 213 assists and added 28 goals and 40 assists in 67 postseason outings. He led the KHL in scoring in 2018/19 with 17 goals and 65 helpers in 62 games for 82 points. He was MVP of the league and honoured as the best forward at the 2018 Olympics with four goals and eight assists in 12 games. Shero managed to sign Gusev for $9 million over two years.

The GM wasn’t finished there though as he signed 31-year-old power forward Wayne Simmonds as an unrestricted free agent from the Nashville Predators. Simmonds was inked for a season at $5 million after struggling in 2018/19 with 17 goals and 30 points. On the bright side, he’s notched 74 goals with the man advantage since 2012/14 to rank second behind Alexander Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals with 120 power-play markers.

Simmonds played eight campaigns with the Philadelphia Flyers before Nashville traded for him at the deadline last season. Simmonds scored a minimum  24 goals in six of his seasons with the Flyers and cracked the 30-goal plateau on two occasions. He’s scored 243 NHL goals up to now with 94 of them coming on the power-play, so should be a big help in that department as New Jersey were 21st in the league with the man advantage last season.

The Devils appear to have solid scoring with Gusev, Hughes, Simmonds and Subban added to the lineup while Hischier has an added year of experience and Hall should be healthy. If they can get good enough goaltending and play well inside their own blue line the team should still be in the thick of things when the 82-game schedule concludes.