One Improvement Each Buffalo Sabres Line Must Make
No one change is going to turn this Buffalo Sabres season around.
With just two regulation wins in 30 games—and a total of just 14 points—the Sabres are deep in the NHL's basement. The real changes are going to begin to come during the offseason, when their putrid record will almost guarantee the team a top-three pick in the 2014 draft. And, depending on what the New York Islanders choose to do with the pick from the Thomas Vanek trade, a second high first-round pick may be in the Sabres' pocket, too.
(The Islanders, who currently have the NHL's second-worst record, ahead of only Buffalo, have the option to defer the traded pick to the 2015 draft if it's a top-10 selection. They may choose to hedge their bets, though, as the 2015 draft is generally considered to have more talent than the upcoming one—including Connor McDavid, "the LeBron James of hockey.")
But in the short term, the Sabres need to find ways to simply make their games more entertaining for fans to watch, keeping the seats filled at First Niagara Center during this long, painful transition period.
Here is one goal each of the four Buffalo Sabres lines should have as the team looks to keep fans interested during the 52 (dear God, is it really that many?) games that still remain in the 2013-14 season.
Note: Sabres line combinations have been in constant flux this season as players have gone in and out of the roster and as interim coach Ted Nolan has attempted to find a new identity for the team. For the sake of this article, I'll be thinking about the latest combination of lines, trotted out at the team's practice Monday morning:
Top Line: More Scoring
Pucks in the net.
It sounds so simple, but it's an obvious point that needs to be addressed—the Sabres must find a way to put more biscuits in the basket.
In his first game with Buffalo after he was acquired from the Islanders in the Vanek trade Oct. 27, Matt Moulson found the net twice against the Dallas Stars. In 16 games since, he's managed to hit it just twice more. His play was so lackadaisical in early November that he was benched by then-head coach Ron Rolston in what the winger called the most embarrassing moment of his career.
There's a good chance that Moulson, an unrestricted free agent at season's end, will be dealt by the Sabres before the trade deadline. Therefore, it is in the best interest of all parties involved—the team, fans and Moulson himself—that he start increasing his season goal total sooner rather than later.
If he is to do so, interim coach Ted Nolan needs to find a pair of consistent linemates for him. Moulson has been playing with an array of centers and wingers throughout his short stint thus far in Buffalo, none of whom have been able to find regular chemistry with the dynamic player who has scored 30 goals three times already in his career.
His two-goal game against Dallas back in October came while on a line with Tyler Ennis and Cody Hodgson, while his most recent goals (in back-to-back games against Montreal and Toronto) came while skating with Hodgson and Drew Stafford. Now interim coach Ted Nolan appears ready to put him on a line with Ennis and rookie Zemgus Girgensons—a favorite of Nolan's, in part because of their work together on the Latvian national team.
In a Monday column in The Buffalo News, John Vogl quoted Nolan's faith in Girgensons.
"I’m not sure about the expectation that we should put too much on the young kid, but he played well," said Nolan, who coaches Girgensons in the Latvian national program. “I’ve known the kid for about three years now and have watched him play. He does this all the time. It’s one of those things with maturity and his body matures, he’s going to get better. The one thing you can’t teach somebody is to give them that work ethic that he has."
Girgensons will get his chance to prove his worth with the Sabres beyond the third- and fourth-line role he's played so far this season. And if he meshes well with Moulson and the crafty Ennis, the line has the potential to be the regular producer the team and its fans are counting on.
Second Line: Improve Plus/Minus
In formulating his new lines Monday, Nolan said the point was to make, in a way, multiple "first lines."
"Our top line was having a bit of trouble, maybe the chemistry wasn't quite right, so instead of one (line), we're going with three" -Nolan— Buffalo Sabres (@BuffaloSabres) December 9, 2013
So in order for this to work, captain Steve Ott's line needs to provide a spark—and a security blanket—for the Moulson-Ennis-Girgensons line.
Ott has been feisty this year for the blue and gold, just as one would expect him to be. He is tied for the team lead in penalty minutes with 39 with defenseman Tyler Myers—but Ott's time in the sin bin has been mostly for acts of team defense and momentum-swinging, not run-of-the-mill boneheaded plays (see Myers).
Foligno and Stafford, meanwhile, have stats that aren't impressive until you remember they play for a Sabres team that's been starved for goals from top to bottom. Their point totals (nine for Stafford and eight for Foligno) both rank among the team's top six 30 games into the season, as sad at that is.
So this line will be physical and will get some points here and there. In hopes that the trio's goal scoring increases a bit, and there's a boost in scoring from elsewhere on the roster as well, the main aspect of the game this line needs to focus on is its defensive play.
Ott's plus/minus through 30 games is minus-14, worst on the roster among forwards. (Defenseman Mike Weber, who somehow has managed to go minus-16 in just 17 games played, is the only Sabre worse overall.) Foligno (minus-nine) hasn't been much better.
Ott is on pace to go minus-38 for the season. No Sabre has even finished below minus-20 in a season since Tim Connolly (minus-28) in 2002-03. That is simply unacceptable, playing on a bad team or not.
Third Line: Increased Forechecking
Cody Hodgson getting knocked all the way back to third-line center duty seems unfair.
With a team-leading (by far) 18 points so far on the season, Hodgson may help provide a scoring touch from the deeper ranks of the Sabres bench. But in order for that to happen, his linemates—a couple guys who've played a combined 11 games for the team this year and combined for one point—will need to work to get the puck out of the corners.
Luke Adam (6'2", 206 pounds) and Matt D'Agostini (6'0", 198 pounds) aren't the biggest guys on the ice, but they're no small fries—and they'll need to be willing to throw their bodies around to make things happen in the offensive zone. Hodgson (6'0", 192 pounds) can pull his own weight, too.
Together, the trio will need to not only work hard every shift but be smart with the puck in doing so. They don't necessarily have the talent—and they certainly don't have the chemistry—to try to work the puck end to end. Dumping the puck into the zone and then fighting for it on the boards will be the way to go for this bunch.
In 2010-11 with St. Louis, D'Agostini lit the lamp 21 times—nearly half the goals he has scored in his almost 300 games in the NHL. When he was picked up by the Sabres off waivers from the Pittsburgh Penguins Nov. 27, he told John Vogl of The Buffalo News he hoped to re-live that magic.
“We weren’t making the playoffs that year,” D’Agostini said. “That was a time I got my minutes and got some goals under my belt and got some confidence. I’m hoping to get back to those ways."
The Sabres are not making the playoffs this year, either. For the 27-year-old, an unrestricted free agent at season's end, this is his chance.
Fourth Line: Be Tougher, Smarter
The fourth line is reserved for the tough guys—and Brian Flynn. And, it would appear, Ville Leino.
Yes, this current amalgamation the Sabres are calling a fourth line is a mishmash of enforcers (John Scott/Cody McCormick), disappointing players (Leino) and borderline NHLers (Flynn). They won't see the ice more than eight or nine minutes a game. Scott, McCormick and Flynn are used to that.
Leino, with zero goals and just five assists on the year, despite playing with top lines, should get used to it. McCormick even has a goal this year. Flynn has two.
But this line isn't about scoring. This line is about laying the hurt on opposing players. And that's something they need to do more.
John Scott needs to get himself into opponents' paths more often. The man has only two shots on goal for the year and no points. He very obviously only has one role with the team, and it's to cause mayhem. Unfortunately, he often manages to do it at the wrong time, in the wrong way.
Not only did that hit on Loui Eriksson cost Scott seven games, it also gave him 15 of the 38 penalty minutes he's accrued this season. Another 14 came after a single incident involving Dion ("Princess") Phaneuf on Nov. 16. Outside of those incidents, Scott has been in just one fight on the season, squaring off with Montreal's Douglas Murray back on Nov. 27.
McCormick seems to have become Buffalo's go-to enforcer, battling six times so far this season. He is the leader of the Sabres' fourth line, whether fans like him or not.
When all is said and done, the fourth line needs to provide just a few things for this Sabres team—a burst of energy (Flynn), a place to put a player who doesn't fit anywhere else (Leino) and some protection for the top-line players (McCormick/Scott).
Putting in a goal of their own here and there wouldn't hurt, either.
Follow me on Twitter @DEmkeSabres for team news and commentary.
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