Monday, March 6, 2017

Narratives for the home stretch


After some duplicitous refereeing and "how come they always play that way against us" goaltending this past weekend, many Sabres fans are scratching their heads - unsure what to think about this team.

What the problem here? Is it the coach (no), is it the Pegulas (no), is it the GM (a bit), is it goaltending (no), the players (yes and no), is it "fake news" (depends who you ask)? 

Are we all Westworld hosts destined to live out the same narratives, year after year?

Fortunately, A Thousand Cuts is here to tell you a few bedtime stories. Some are scary.Some are hopeful. And some are "Sad!"

Dig in Sabres fans cause its going to be a loooong month.

1) A lack of game management
If you follow A Thousand Cuts on Twitter, you know this is a common refrain. The Sabres' game management has been so bad, we had to double check and see if Rex Ryan was behind the bench and Kyle Williams was pointlessly huffing and puffing around the field (or padding his stats in a blowout).

Just like the Bills' "bedrock" players, the Sabres veterans show up on the scoresheet, but haven't stepped up to make big plays when needed. 

Marcus Foligno is near the top of the league in hits, but nowhere to be found when a statement-making check is needed. Gionta can chip in a goal to pad a lead, but he can't find the net when they've just conceded two. Tyler Ennis can have the game of his life, and then disappear for weeks. Matt Moulson can.... he can.... hold on a second.... it'll come....

2) Extra frame boogeymen
While the Sabres have turned around their fortunes in the 3-on-3 extra frame, its the shootout that they stare down the gun barrel at like Ted the glitchy, ill-fated Westworld host in loop after loop.

Robin Lehner is 8-for-8 in shooutout, which sounds good until you realize that's 8 goals on 8 shots. He latest groan-inducing performance was capped off by Nikita Kucherov's game-winning phantom stickhandle, a move usually not seen outside of skate-and-shoot.

3) Special special teams
If there's going to be a bright spot to the season, its looking like the special team are a strong candidate. From last in the league for 2016-17, the Sabres' PP now sits at 2nd overall. Fans not willing to credit Bylsma in the powerplay's resurgence might want to look at his last three seasons with Pittsburgh, where the PP was 5th, 2nd and 1st.

The penalty kill currently sits near the bottom of the league, but that ranking is mostly because of a turgid start. Since the All-Star break, the PK has been 13th overall. Its a big turnaround that you might give the coaching staff credit for making. Might.

4) Comparing rebuilds and franchise players
Self-loathing Sabres fans like to point to Toronto and Auston Matthews as evidence that their hockey club is somehow doing it wrong. They also like to point to Edmonton and Connor McDavid or Winnipeg and Patrick Laine.

First of all, Eichel is a top-10 point producer since coming back from injury. Of the three franchise player just mentioned, only McDavid ranks above him.

Second, the Sabres are 5 points out of a playoff spot, not too bad considering Eichel missed the first 21 games. By comparison, the Leafs are 1 point out, with Matthews missing 0 games, and Jets are 3 points out, with Laine having missed 6 games. McDavid hasn't missed a single game for Edmonton, who have a 10-point cushion and look to make the playoffs.

Bottom line, and in light of Eichel's missed time, the Sabres' rebuild is on schedule, which is probably little comfort after this weekend.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Phantom sellers at the deadline and the missteps of GMTM


credit: WGRZ

After an untimely post-bye week slump, the Sabres had apparently cast themselves in the role of Deadline Day Sellers.

So what did they sell? Players? Nope. Prospects? Nah. Draft picks? Negative.

Tim Murray's appearance on WGR seemed to confirm that the straight shooting GM wouldn't even be selling hope for the balance of the season.

"I have a plan, we have lots of picks, we’ve got some good prospects coming, so I’m excited about some of our kids, but it takes time, but that’s not for me to decide if we’re going quick enough, that’s for you guys to decide," he grumbled.

You can probably guess what the collective local media has decided, but here at A Thousand Cuts HQ -- the jury's still out.

✱✱

If you read between the lines of that radio appearance, Murray seemed to confirm what we here at 1KC have been saying all season: The Sabres veterans have become expendable.

“I made a few calls to see if I could make a hockey trade to get younger and this is the end result.”

With one-goal deficits becoming two-goals, two-goal deficits becoming three and leads disappearing faster than a Tom Brady Superbowl jersey -- game management has clearly become an issue. Asking 20-year-olds to stop the bleeding or lock down the opposition for 40 minutes is a tall order, and that's why you have a solid veteran core, or why you should have one.

Moulson, Ennis, Gorges, Franson, Kulikov and Foligno have largely failed to make game-altering impact plays all season. Even Gionta has failed to live up to the C on his sweater -- chipping in enough goals to stay off fans' radar, but hardly a the type of difference maker you need your captain to be, night in, night out.

The worse part is, these veterans no longer have the threat of Deadline Day hanging over their heads. Expect them to pack it in as the young guns around them tragically cling to hope and scrap for overtime points.

Murray said he would gladly shoulder some of the blame and he should. He should have known Gionta is running on fumes at this point. He should have known Ennis would once again pull he dust devil act, swirling quickly in place and then dissipating into thin air. He should have known Moulson would rake in a pile of cash for warming the bench on a nightly basis.

Murray has been fantastic at sourcing big name players like Kane, O'Reilly and Lehner. However, he's fallen woefully short in building a solid foundation of difference-making unsung heroes. If the Sabres are going to become cup contenders, he needs to put those pieces in place this off-season.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Not a selfie (Sabres - Red Wings preview 1/20/17)

Back (again).

What is or isn't a selfie? For all you olde tymers out there, Robin Lehner seems to know and he definitely wasn't taking one after getting yanked against the Maple Leafs for leaking three quick tallies.

Fortunately for Ol' Crazy Eyes, his guy got inaugurated today, and he's got the night off, with Dan Bylsma opting for Anders Nilsson to take a peppering between the pipes tonight.

Coming off a barn-burner of a comeback win against Boston, the Red Wings roll into town looking for sweet revenge against the Blue and Gold. Detroit has found its scoring touch since the turn of the new year, although that hasn't necessarily translated into Ws. They get the hard-skating Darren Helm back tonight who should supply a bit of a boost, despite probably getting limited ice time.

The Sabres will also have their line-up bolstered by the return (again) of Tyler Ennis. The pint-sized powerhouse showed how much the Sabres have been missing speed on the forecheck and seeing him all over Detroit's susceptible D will be a welcome sight.

Despite suffering what felt like 1000 losses against the ahead-of-schedule Toronto Maple Leafs on Tuesday, Buffalo did control momentum or hold serve for much of that game. While that Street Fighter II-style combo of three goals were a shock to the system, the quick jolt of cold water is consistent with what this edition of the Sabres have been about all year -- inconsistency.

The Sabres have been led by youngsters since October and the lack of a veteran core making significant contributions has been painfully evidence. Veterans fuse a coach to the rest of the team. They run the room and are supposed to set the example when it comes to embracing a system. They're also supposed to step up and stop the bleeding when the going gets tough.

Gionta, Moulson, Gorges and Foligno have done none of that and the result has been uneven play, from week-to-week, game-to-game and even period-to-period.

Once again, they have a chance to step up tonight against a very beatable Red Wings side. Or they could just let the youngest drive the car with reckless abandon.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Sabres flip the script against Carolina

credit: the Daily Nonpareil

Friday night's shellacking by the Carolina Hurricanes saw a number of narrative flips for the Blue and Gold.

For much of the season, youth has been leading the way. The future core of Eichel, Risto, Reinhart have had their hands on the wheel for much of the season and results have been more erratic than the driving pattern of a car controlled by three people at once. Veterans like Gionta, Moulson, Gorges and Franson have largely failed to provide the guiding light for which they were hired, leaving the kids to careen through the fog with wild abandon.

Those trends have been reversing in the past couple games and on Friday night, they flipped completely.

Eichel, Risto and Reinhart suddenly appeared to be in the full throes of a sophomore slump as the Sabres veterans started emerging from their holiday hangover.

Eichel's once-clairvoyant moves suddenly looked like cheap parlor tricks. His untimely obsession with the Though-the-Legs drag suggests he's been spending too much time watching YouTube dangle videos, and not enough time romanticizing the kind of gritty hard work that might engorge Don Cherry.

Reinhart had been mostly trending upwards since starting his season off on the wrong foot. He's expected to be the rocksteady Jonathan Toews to Eichel's flamboyant Patrick Kane, but on Friday he looked more like he had rocks tied to his feet. Reinhart was caught flat-footed and defensively in No Man's Land's several times as red jerseys swarmed around him. His -3 on Friday is tied for the worst single game (with 2/9/16 vs Florida) plus-minus of his NHL career.

Even the Mighty Norris-tolainen looked human against Carolina, only somewhat justifying his omission from this year's All-Star "Game." On the third Carolina goal,  Elias Lindholm had him chasing shadows along the half wall before turning and burning toward the net, firing a shot on Nilsson that led to a tap-in rebound goal.

The Sabres' veterans on the other hand made solid contributions. Gionta found a way to tally the team's first shorthanded goal. Bylsma and Wood's killers will hopefully be able to catch the spark of that first shorty and drag the PK unit up from the sub-basement.

With a run of massive divisional games coming fast and furious through the end of the month, the Sabres young core needs to atone for abysmal performances against Carolina, while the veterans need to continue to have an influence.

We've seen what this team is capable of when firing on all cylinders and it's playoff caliber.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Sabres - Flyers preview (1/10/17)

credit: sabres.nhl.com

If the Sabres oft-rumored, rarely seen forecheck were to make an appearance anytime soon, tonight against the Flyers would be a good night.

In their last game against Columbus, the Flyers struggled to swim upriver against the might torrent that is the Blue Jackets forecheck. A major reason Philly is vulnerable to a heavy O-zone press is a significant lack of talent on the back end. With Gostisbehere struggling, Mark Streit aging before our eyes and Del Zotto failing to do a convincing impression of a Top 4 defenseman, this D corp is ripe for the picking.

A heavy forecheck will also help keep the dangerous Giroux line from marking up the score sheet. Matt Read was recently bumped up to the top line, and the move has paid dividends. Along with Michael Raffl, Giroux and Read were driving both momentum and possession time in their last game against Columbus.

Between the pipes, Steve Mason has been reliable, but a bit shaky of late. Although, Mason is the type of goalie who can stand on his head when least expected.

For the Sabres fans, the comeback win against Winnipeg should be particularly heartening because it was fueled by veteran play. Players like Gio, Moulson and Foligno need to put in steady, reliable play. While the Blue 'n' Gold may be starting to gain a reputation for battling back to win games, a come-from-behind win is much harder to pull off against teams like the Flyers, who have cagey veterans throughout the lineup. Veterans who know how to lock down a game when necessary.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Sabres, Jets and Winning the Trade


With the recent Sabres slump sparking calls for the heads of Bylsma and GMTM, the annual visit of the Winnipeg Jets is a timely one, especially for defenders of Buffalo's general manager.

The Kane/Bogo for Myers/Stafford/Armia trade is arguably Murray's biggest to date, and only the haters completely detached from reality would argue that Winnipeg got the better of the deal.

Kane has been a regular bright spot in the lineup,powering toward the net on a nightly basis and owning his side of the rink, the complete opposite of his off-ice persona. Meanwhile Bogo has produced mixed results for his price tag. That being said, he's been a staple in the side for a reason: steady play and the occasional contribution.

On the other side if the trade, Myers still hasn't lived up to the promise of his Calder-winning season. In his first season, he was able to move his tall frame gracefully down the middle of the ice, looking like a giraffe loping across the Serengeti. Since then, he's looked too slow, too deliberate and suddenly too tall. Unfortunately for him, he's also been plagued by injuries since being shipped up north.

Armia once inhabited the wild imaginations of Sabres fans who are perpetually fixated on the next draft or the latest prospect to wow at the World Juniors. Now, he's a third liner fighting off Healthy Scratch status, a disappointment if he doesn't start filling the net soon.

And then there's Drew "I'd rather be a musician" Stafford.

With Myers out for today, its up to Staff and Armia to show GMTM he made a mistake in dealing them. While they might do so, the smart money is on another anonymous performance from the pair of ex-Sabres, forcing local outrage peddlers to focus on any perceived missteps from Bylsma or whoever is between the pipes.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

No Jack Hustlers: What we learned without Eichel




Jack Eichel getting hurt in practice, a day before the start of the season is probably the most Buffalo thing to happen this year. Unless you include all the other injuries to key players. On both the Sabres and the Bills (#OneBuffalo).

The young and inexperienced Sabres were already working with a small margin of error if their goal is to make the playoffs, and the injury to Eichel narrowed that margin to near-impossible for many of the team’s watchers – particularly for the doomsday sayers parping on talk radio and in the pages of TBN, but not for us, the eternal optimists here at A Thousand Cuts.

Instead of doom and gloom, we got a team that was able to stay in games and claw out results. In a stark rebuttal of the Tank for a Savior Argument, we found out there is actually a team, leaders and a coaching staff around Eichel, all of whom capable of getting to overtime, and – gasp! – even getting wins.

Here a few takeaways from our time in No Jack City.

Moulson spilling points

Not having to do Eichel’s laundry has liberated Matt Moulson, as Jack’s former landlord has returned to form, racking up power play and timely goals. With 9 points over 21 games, Moulson is still a far way off from providing good value for his $5 million cap hit, but at least we’re not seeing him continue his Ville Leino impression.
The look of a man doing less laundry. credit: 26 Shirts

Disco Dan making moves

Early in the season, with Eichel riding his therapy scooter, Bylsma was taking the hit for a bad start.

“His system isn’t working!” screeched talk radio heads who in the next sentence would admit they don’t know anything about fancy “systems.”

However, Bylsma’s system was effective at times. When they were disciplined, the Sabres were shutting down channels and passing lanes through the neutral zone. They were working an effective 2-1-2 forecheck, which was suffocating at times. They were out hitting, out faceoffing, and out chancing many opponents.

It should also be noted that Bylsma and his staff have brought the PP unit from last in the league to an 11th-place tie with the Pittsburgh Penguins in just one year.

You could legitimately criticize Bylsma’s staff for the OT unit. During the extra frame, the Sabres looked so focused on keeping possession of the puck, they didn’t have any ideas when it came to actually putting the thing in the net.



Young goalies getting it done

With Sabres forward racking up the shots (analytics!), but not the goals, it fell on Lehner and Nilsson to keep their team in games, and the duo has been largely up to the task. Both goaltenders have been able to keep games competitive while seeing more rubber than Transit Road during rush hour.

However, it should be said that the “book” is clearly out on each keeper: Lehner has been noticeably vulnerable high, stick-side – while Nilsson’s Achilles’ Heel has been the Old Two-Hole.

Other leaders…?

We’ve also seen different leaders momentarily emerge in Eichel’s absence, but no one man stepped up to claim that mantle night after night.

The one exception, when he was healthy, might be Ryan O’Reilly. His dominance on the face-off dot has been a thing of beauty, and something we haven’t seen since Paul Gaustad left to third line it somewhere else. O’Reilly was also the driving force behind the short-lived MOO (Mouslon-O’Reilly-Okposo) line.

We’ve also seen Evander Kane step up on some nights. Most recently, it was against Calgary at home. That night he was a one-man wrecking crew, thundering up and down the left wing, dishing out hits and driving to the net, puck on his stick.

Okposo, Foligno, Risto, Larsson and Gionta also contributed, at times.

The one glaring omission from that list is Reinhart. Touted as a future leader, Reinhart has kept a tidy game defensively, but should make a larger impact if the Sabres are going to make him a cornerstone moving forward.