Moving Forward

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As the sting of the disappointment of the 2012-2013 Sabres season begins to disapate, it is a good time to look at how the future of this team will stack up. With the playoffs heating up, and a renewed organizational drumbeat of long-term Stanley Cup contention, it is likewise a good time to evaluate our roster vs. the teams having success in the playoffs. This post will focus only on the organizations forwards, and how the Sabres should think about them, in attempting to build a legitimate Cup contender. Personally, I feel that one of the biggest things that has held the Sabres back in the past has been a lack of purpose in assembling the forward corps. It is not good enough to get the best talent available to you and try to figure it out where they will play once the team is assembled. Each piece should be brought in for a specific reason. Specifically, each piece should be carefully considered with the rigors of the Stanley Cups in mind. Below, I have listed the 20 forwards currently in the system that I believe will be given a chance to make the roster, and if not will likely form the corps of call-ups in Rochester. As we are looking at a true rebuild and I feel that the team’s centers are far from set in stone, I have only broken the players down by left hand vs. right hand shot.

Left: Vanek, Ott, Ennis, Adam, Girgensons, Grigorenko, Foligno, Lleino, Porter, Gerbe, Scott, Larson, Cattenacci

Right: Hodgson, Armia, Stafford, Flynn, Kaleta, Tropp, McCormick

As you can see there are a lot more lefties than righties. This shouldn’t really be a shock, as there are just more left shooting NHLers. Nevertheless the organization is much deeper down the left than the right.

Parsing through this group of players, figuring out which of these guys go, which stay, where they play, and what needs to be brought in around them is the crux of the rebuild (at least on the forward side). Ultimately you need to develop a core of players who can contend for a cup. In watching the playoffs this year and in the past I have seen lots of different kinds of teams have success. You can lean on a few stars, or do it with depth. You can be more defensive, or more offensive. You can be faster and more skilled, or bigger and more physical. You can just be a good balance of everything. In all cases, you will have to successfully defend against good offensive teams, outscore good defensive teams, not be bullied or easily injured by big physical teams, and you need to play with intensity. To me, the best way to ensure that you can do this is to have players who do multiple things well. The more things that each player does well, the more your team does well. Another way to say this is avoid one dimensional players when possible. Sure, there are some skills that very few guys can do at an elite level. For example, sometimes you just need goal scoring, adding an elite goal scorer who doesn’t do much else is the most efficient way to do that. Nevertheless, what you want in Stanley Cup players is similar to what you want in a Stanley Cup team. You want individuals who can score (or create scoring), defend, play physically, and play with intensity. To me, this starts down the middle. Cup winners are typically strong down the middle.

Like most teams a lot of the forward prospects have played center in the past. That doesn’t mean all that much as competition increases at the NHL level. To me Grigorenko is the only guy in the system I am comfortable with slotting into a center position on a team capable of winning a cup. Yes he has a lot to prove, but from a skill set perspective he has what it takes. There are other guys capable of playing the position (Cody Hodgson and Tyler Ennis were # 1 & 2 this year, but that didn’t necessarily work out all that well for the team). Again, this is not about if they can play center in the NHL, its about if they can be a center that wins the Sabres a Stanley Cup. In both cases I like that both guys have shown they can play center, and is an asset even if they are moved to the wing in the long term. However, both struggled defensively and in the circle, giving me doubts about them as Stanley Cup centers. Based on the Stanley Cup litmus test, I have broken the forwards up into guys I defenitly want to see as parts of the rebuild, guys I would like to see moved, and guys I am not yet sure about. As Herb Brooks would say, its not about the best guys, its about the right guys. I’d be interested to know how everyone else feels about these players.


Hodgson- a good offensive centerman, currently he is below average defensively (to be generous). He is not particularly physical, but I believe is a pretty driven player, the kind of guys who cares about the cup and would elevate his overall game in the playoffs. To me he is obviously an asset to this organization. Could play 1st line center, with exceptional defensive # 2 Center, could play 2nd line center with good 2 way play from the first line and a shut down 3rd line, or could play 1st or second line RW. One of the few proven commodities I think is definitely worth keeping.

Grigorenko- to me is a top 2 center of the future. Elite playmaking, size/range to play big minutes, win faceoffs, cover defensively, drive possession. Playoff teams need a legitimate # 1 center, right now he is our best bet. I don’t care what he did as a 3rd & 4th liner as an 18yr old. He has seen what it takes to be a pro, that is probably more valuable than dominating competition in the Q.

Girgensons - I am bullish on enough on Girgensons to say that he is a definitely a keeper above other players who have been productive sabers. He is very young and has played primarily wing as a pro. However, his intensity projects off the charts, he big, physical, can score… my bet to be the long term captain of this franchise. If he proves he can play 2nd line center, even better. Maybe I am getting ahead of myself, but just does too many things well to not be a contributor.

Tropp- Again, has not played a ton in Buffalo, but thought he would be a lock to make the team this year had he not been injured (had 2 goals in his one game with Rochester – 1 game I know, but I think he was ready to break out). He is a guy who does a lot well, intensity, physicality, defense, fights, secondary scoring. Hoping he locks down the 3rd line RW role and can play up a line with injuries.

Foligno – A little bit of a disappointing “rookie” season given last years offensive numbers. However, I think he is still finding his game. At best becomes top 5 power forward, at worst, very good 3rd line grinder. A lot of question marks, but size and attitude that stack up as cup caliber contributor.


Ennis - I like Tyler Ennis. He has provided secondary offense in the past, seems like a good kid. However, to me, he is not the kind of player that wins you cups. Maybe he’ll settle in as Briere-like late bloomer that becomes elite offensively, but at current he isn’t good enough to warrant his deficiencies in size and physical play. Great in space, but to me he is a notch below some of the elite slick smaller players (St. Louis, Briere, Kane). Good news is that as he is good offensively, there will be some kind of a market for his services. Could be an ok stopgap at center, but move him sooner than later.

Lleino – Sometime you just have to cut your losses – Lleino still has a future in this league, but not someone who makes sense in Buffalo. Lets hope we learned you cant just buy somebody into playing center. Pegula swung big and needs to pay for his mistake. Buy him out and move on.

Vanek – I am entirely on the fence on this one, but given that his contract is coming up its not really a wait and see situation. Value in return will be undeniable. As the Sabres chances are only as good as the play of their centers, I don’t see them making a legitimate cup run until there is a seasoned # 1 center in place. At the earliest, I think that is Grigorenko in 3 years. Given the beating Vanek takes, I don’t think he is worth keeping around for a window starting in a few years. Tough to move that kind of scoring though…

Porter – No longer a young developmental player. Good vet in Rochester if there isn’t a market. Not much to say, not going to be a part of winning a cup.

Scott – Just got resigned for one year. I think in the long run you need team toughness, with guys throughout the lineup who can play and fight. Nothing against him personally, but this is the kind of fighting I think is generally negative in the game. I don’t like the arms race, I prefer NHL caliber players who can also fight. Scott would be dead weight in the playoffs.

Wait and See-

Ott- Loving Ott’s game… good vet, making the sabers fun to watch, giving Weber confidence, a Buffalo guy. He’s the type of player that is built for the playoffs. Plays a hard style, so just not sure he is still productive when the new core is ready to compete. I hope he is.

Kaleta – Obviously the hometown favorite… would love to see this guy in the playoffs. Could be a great 4th liner in the playoffs, who could play 3rd if injuries require. I am hoping the need for his toughness is marginalized by toughness throughout the new core. I don’t see him being a difference maker one way or the other.

Stafford – Most people are probably dying for a Stafford fire sale. One of my biggest disappointments with Rolston was the continuation of a Lindy – esque relationship with Stafford. Unless he said or did something horrible that we don’t know about, a prudent organization would stick him back on their 1st line. Pommers trade creates a void in that position. Abig bodied right handed former 30 goal scorer sitting idle isn’t good for anyone. At least have him pot a few easy ones to get his trade value up. Best case he returns to form (his fight with Hartnell in the opener last year got my hopes up that he was finally becoming a leader, so lets hope he still wants to be that guys at least for trade value’s sake). As a playoff player he can score, and is big enough to be an effective physical and defensive player even if he doesn’t show it very often.

Flynn- Right handed shot is keeping him in my mix here. I think it is important to note that he is both fairly old (and physically mature) for a rookie, and was playing for his NHL life this year. Brought an interesting puck possession element and got on the score sheet. Kind of Lleino-esque in style, not what I necessarily see as a cup champion but maybe keep him depending on what else happens with the right wingers.

Armia – A lot of unknowns here… need to see him in North America before I judge. Reasonably productive in Europe as a young player. Shouldn’t need a ton of time to develop if he is going to be a contributor. Should know one way or the other in 2 years. Ceiling is replacing vanek as pure goal scorer. Would speed up rebuild tremendously.

Larson – Interesting prospect, looks like he’s played center and wing, good leadership – Captained team Sweden to championship. Kind of a stocky looking player. Not huge but, but a strong skater, not going to be outmuscled in playoff hockey. In the mix with Foligno and Girgensons as young lefty’s trying to find their spot on the roster. Could be a good 2nd LW option if Girgs can transition to center or vice versa.

Adam – Certainly has good size and has flashed great skill. Problem is mostly mental to me, similar to Stafford in that regard. Comes off as having a bit of trouble accepting that he needs to adapt to stick in the NHL. I think his contract is up, so days are probably numbered in the organization. Has a valuable combination of size and puck skill. Like Stafford, would like to see him get a shot as top 6 winger to see if we could boost trade value, or turn his confidence around.

McCormick – Didn’t love Cody being waved in favor of Porter this year. I think he has value as a 4th liner with center experience. Good character, often fought above his weight class , has taken role in Rochester like a pro. Could be a 4th liner on a cup team in my opinion. Lean towards keeping, but given his waiving doubt the organization feels similarly.

Cattenacci – Kind of the deep sleeper of the group, but he seems to have had kind of a cult following in juniors. Haven’t seen a ton of tape, but for a smaller guy plays physical, obvious scoring ability. Has a little Brian Gionta to his game from what I took from his tape. Exemplifies the idea of physicality vs. outright size. I like a guy who has had to work for everything the entire way… kind of a study in contrast with player like him vs. a Stafford or Adam.

Gerbe – I like Gerbe’s all around game. I think critics just need to temper expectations. Given his size, I think he is a 4th liner when the roster is healthy. I think if that’s where he is slotted, he will tailor his game to that role. Having said that, his natural goal scoring ability and intensity are undeniable. For a given stretch he is the kind of guy who can save a season. I think of it like the burst you get out of a call-up playing for their career. Given Gerbe’s skill you can get some scoring out of him when a guy goes down for a stretch. That plus the fact that he is all business and a great presence in the room, I would lean towards keeping him. I also don’t see a ton of interest in him materializing around the league.

Overall, I think that the team would benefit from another high-end prospect with the potentential to play as an elite defensive center on the 2nd or 3rd line I would prefer a young prospect/ NHL roster player over a draft pick, as at this point each time we are drafting a key piece of the Cup team, we are putting ourselves another year out of contention. Zemgus could be the guy, but it seems like he might stick at wing instead. Second to that, I think elite scoring talent is a concern. If Vanek is moved, there needs to be a plan in place. That could be Hodgson moving to the wing, and Armia emerging, and/or bringing in proven scoring once a solid foundation is laid. I think this is easier to do than it is to bring in a proven franchise centerman. James Neil, Marrian Hossa, or even Brad Boyes are guys of varying skill levels that have been brought in to support centers that were drafted. I do have to say, I think that in bringing in new players to the organization over the past couple of years Darcy has done a nice job in ensuring size, skill, and character, so in that regard I am a fan of the way things are trending with new players.


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