Friday, October 18, 2013

10 Minute Misconduct: Sabres Living Scrub Life

ryan miller sabres
Better days.
It isn't an easy time to be a hockey fan living in Western New York. Heck, it isn't a good time to be a hockey fan living anywhere in New York considering the poor start by the New York Rangers.

1. It isn't all doom and gloom around the league. There have been plenty of surprising teams so far this season. Last week I went over the Toronto Maple Leafs, a team tied with the Pittsburgh Penguins for first in the Eastern Conference, despite looking like the sloppiest team in existence. Incredible goaltending and elite special teams have masked the major deficiencies at even-strength, and luck has probably helped too. But if Thursday's loss to Carolina is any indication, that luck might be running out. Not only did the linesmen blow an easy icing call (league conspiracy, perhaps?), but Jonathan Bernier whiffed as the puck bounced back off the end boards, giving the Hurricanes the game-winning goal in a bizarre Toskalean play. Toronto is joined in the surprising column by Calgary (actually winning games!) and Colorado (winning games while being led by someone criminally insane). Remember, it's a long season. The standings a few weeks into October often don't always resemble the standings in April, although I pray to Reimer's god they will.

2. The most unsurprising team so far this year is definitely the Buffalo Sabres. I'm not sure there's a bigger collection of scrubs in the league. The Sabres are 1-7-1, that loser point giving them a one-point lead on the last place Philadelphia Flyers. The Sabres have managed only 11 goals in those 9 games and the only player with more than one tally is Thomas Vanek. If you squint hard enough you can make out the rough etchings of future core, but it's a stretch. Cody Hodgson is a quality player and there is a bit of young talent throughout the roster, but overall this is a team that needs to be burned to the ground and sold off for the insurance money.

3. The rumours of Ryan Miller and/or Thomas Vanek being dealt for a package including Nail Yakupov are cruel to Sabres fans. There is no way this trade ever gets made, and not because Miller has the Oilers as a team on his no-trade clause. Why would the Oilers deal a 20-year-old drafted first overall in 2012 for two players in their 30s (Vanek turns 30 in January) with expiring contracts? Makes no sense, especially when you consider Miller has only been slightly above average the past three seasons and Vanek is a solid first liner, but still one bolting at year's end. The deal would likely be contingent on Miller/Vanek signing an extension, and how well has Edmonton done in the past convincing those type of guys to stick around?

4. When analyzing a trade rumour, you should first ignore anything from a man named Bucky. Second, when a sentence reads " Regier has an affinity for players taken high in the draft for reasons that aren’t entirely clear" you should definitely close your browser and take a walk. I don't know, Bucky, maybe guys taken high in the draft are really good. Just a thought.

5. "But the Oilers desperately need a goalie!" delusional Sabres fans cry. Since the 2010-11 season, Devan Dubnyk's save percentage is .914, only a hair below Miller's mark of .917. And those figures include Dubnyk's disastrous start to the 2013-14 season. If the Sabres had Miller instead of Dubnyk since 2010-11 they would have allowed 11 fewer goals. I'm not trying to minimize how badly Dubnyk has played so far this season, but to suggest the Oilers are desperate enough to deal Yakupov for a package including Miller ignores seasons worth of data suggesting Dubnyk is pretty much as good as a post-30-year-old Miller.

6. "But Yakupov sucks! The Oilers would be lucky to land Vanek for him," shout other Sabres fans. Considering the following (courtesy of Jonathan Willis): Through the first 53 games of his NHL career, Nail Yakupov has 17 goals, 14 assists, and 31 points; Taylor Hall through 53 games had 17 goals, 16 assists, and 33 points; John Tavares had 17 goals, 16 assists, and 33 points; Steven Stamkos had 7 goals and only 22 points. Yakupov will be fine.

7. Plus, all the rumours have Vanek signing with the Minnesota Wild in the summer. He played NCAA hockey in Minnesota, his wife is from there, and he's good buddies with Jason Pominville. That's given the rumour life. But it also makes me wonder whether "everyone wants to sign in Minnesota" is a thing now after Zach Parise went home. Or maybe every media outlet pulls the same move when a local boy (or loosely local) is about to hit free agency. It's a such a predictable move, making an easy connection (he grew up here or his wife is from here being the two most popular) to prove that a star free agent is coming home. It happened with David Clarkson, and Parise is obviously a huge sign for the Wild, so it does happen. But it seems more often than not to be nothing more than smoke.

8. Sabres fans should probably start mentally preparing themselves for Vanek's departure. More importantly, they should start preparing themselves for the inevitably disappointing return they get for both Miller and Vanek as well (especially since they are getting their hopes up with Yakupov). The Sabres are in a similar situation as the Calgary Flames were last season, having two somewhat desirable, albeit flawed players (Jay Bouwmeester and Jarome Iginla in Calgary's case). Calgary received a pair of first-round picks and four middling prospects, disappointing Flames fans hoping for a major return. But the days of huge deadline deals are gone. Teams can't stock up in free agency anymore to compensate for gutting the farm and the value of quality players on cheap entry-level contracts in a cap world has made GMs unwilling to deal multiple high-end prospects/picks for rentals. The Sabres did well to get a first- and second-round pick for Pominville last season, and they should at least get a few high picks for Vanek and Miller, and maybe one high-end prospect, but probably not an elite one. It just doesn't happen anymore unless the player being dealt has some term left on his deal and is on the right side of 30.

9. Buffalo is also a cautionary tale to teams throughout the league. Mikhail Grigorenko, taken 12th overall in 2012, has zero points through seven games, has been a healthy scratch at times, and looks completely lost. This comes after the Sabres kept him with the team last year, gave him no minutes, and generally bungled his development so badly that they sent him back to junior—after already giving him 25 games, thus burning the first year of his entry-level deal. Teams around the league like Calgary, with Sean Monahan, or even Toronto, with Morgan Rielly, should look at what's happening with Grigorenko and think long and hard about the best place to develop their young talent.

10. It's such a hard decision, however. Alex Galchenyuk made the Canadiens as an 18-year-old last season after missing almost all of his draft year with a serious knee injury and put in a solid rookie season. In year two he has seven points in seven games and is one-third of a pretty fun and dynamic kid line with Brendan Gallagher and Lars Eller. Sometimes when you're ready, you're ready. Clearly, Grigorenko wasn't ready and now the Sabres are paying the price. He's still young enough that not all is lost, but when you mess up a high draft pick it can set back a rebuild even further. These are dark times in Buffalo.

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