Last season was not a banner year for the Buffalo Sabres. It was a year of great change. Gone was the longest tenured coach in the NHL. In his place is Ron Rolston took over after 17 games, and pushed the team hard but couldn’t take them to the playoffs. They lost a lot, they lost some quality players to trades. Gone is Jason Pominville and with him Nathan Gerbe, Jochen Hecht is a Sabre no more, and the short stay of Robyn Reghr is over, Jordan Leopold wears another uniform, and those aren’t the only departures. They finished 23rd in the NHL with a 21 and 21 record. Interestingly, they took two of three from the Penguins last lesson, both after the coaching change, last season. On the plus side Henrik Tallinder is back and Tyler Myers played his best hockey during Tallinder’s first Buffalo tenure. Luke Adam added a year of seasoning, as did Grigorenko, Hodgson, Foligno, and new comer Jamie McBain.

The season opens with five games in eight days. They pay a visit to the Red Wings to open the season before scooting across the Great Lakes for a game at home in the first half of a back to back against the Senators, after the game they go south to play the Penguins, and then pop home for games against the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Number of days game 1-5: 8

Number of cities: 3

Best opponent: Pittsburgh Penguins

Weakest opponent: Tampa Bay Lightning

Home games: 3

Projected points: 4

The team can have a better season that last year if the young guns can pick up the pace and push some of the mote complacent members of the team forward. Uncertainty about how long Vanek and Miller will remain on the team, and serious questions about leadership will hold the team back. Also up in the air is the question of what this teams real identity is, they’ve been trying and trying to be tough guys, but I’m not sure there’s a team in the league who finds the Sabres physicality intimidating or even worth noticing. They could finish the season above 500, but will likely not make the playoffs as there are at least four better teams just in the new build “Atlantic Division”.

This season the Buffalo Sabres were expected by many to challenge for the very last Northeast Division title. The Boston Bruins were expected by most to fight like hell to win the division again. So far the Sabres have fired a head coach, declared open season on their roster, and wallowed around the bottom of the division and conference. The Bruins have missed out on acquiring future hall of fame inductee Jarome Iginla, traded away a world class goaltender the front office alienated, and had the decided displeasure of a rear view on the Montreal Canadien’s for much of the season.

Disclaimer;

You can seriously injury yourself, destroy property, or even die even if your participation in this drinking game is nothing more than water. If you should happen to do something incredibly idiotic and entertaining during this drinking game that makes it to Youtube, TextsFromLastNight or other fun sites; do send a link. It won’t make your life better, but I’ll get a laugh too. No one is responsible for the stupid you commit but you. Enjoy!

 

Take 1 Drink Whenever:

  • Lindy Ruff is mentioned
  • Jordan Leopold or other former members of the Sabres are mentioned.
  • The word “lethargic” is applied to either team.
  • The size of Zdeno Chara, Tyler Myers, Nathan Gerbe, or Tyler Ennis is mentioned.

Take 2 Drinks Whenever:

  • Sidney Crosby is mentioned.
  • Jarome Iginla is mentioned.
  • An announcer uses “shakeup” in discussing either teams problems.
  • The Lucic/Miller collision is mentioned.
  • Someone says they don’t like an officials call.

Take 3 Drinks Whenever:

  • Someone mentions players needing to wear visors or full cages.
  • Ryan Clowe is mentioned on tv, twitter or radio in connection with the Bruins.
  • Someone says “fire sale”, “wholesale changes”, or “rebuild” about the Sabres.
  • John Scott skates more than 2:25 seconds in a period.

Take 4 Drinks Whenever:

  • Game of Thrones is mentioned or alluded to.
  • Someone makes a trade deadline prediction.
  • Peter Chiarelli or Darcy Regier are mentioned or shown on tv.
  • There is a mention of any teams scouts.

Switch Drinks:

  • Between periods.
  • Whenever Mike Milbury makes the least sense in an intermission.
  • Whenever Doc goes more than four minutes of game play without using; knife, stab, or pitchfork.
  • If Patrick Kaleta, Andrew Ference, John Scott or Shawn Thornton score a goal.

Skip a drink;

  • You start to have faith the Sabres will make the playoffs.
  • You think the Bruins will fall out of the playoffs.
  • You think Liam McHugh is funny.
  • Greg Campbell wins a fight.

 

 

The Calgary Flames and the twice traded Jarome Iginla may end up being the biggest trade of the year, but the first general manager to say they are listening to everything is Darcy Regier. Mike Harrington reports in the wake of the Jordan Leopold to the Saint Louis Blues that the embattled general manager is talking to every front office in the league. Nobody is off the market at this point, so let’s take a romp through the roster.

Top tier;

  • Ryan Miller should be an easy chip to move if he’s willing to get gone no goalie with more games played has a better save percentage than his .911, his $6.25m contract isn’t ridiculous, and at 32 he’s probably got four to five more years of solid play ahead of him minimum. When you look at guys around his size like Tim Thomas, Martin Broduer, and even Hedberg and Biron, you get the idea he might have another 8-10 years in him. He’s putting up solid numbers despite an awful season from the team, and that means even teams starting to rebuild might want to consider him.
  • Drew Stafford, the 27 year old right wing is having an off year, his point percentage is usually a bit closer to .66 per game, versus the less than half a point per game this season. With two more years at four million he’s in  the price range where he should be getting second line minutes, but if he’s outperformed by someone, or just fits better on the third line most competitive clubs won’t have sunk their chances of success. At six-two tall and two hundred pounds and change the former 30 goal scorer presents a pretty compelling , where he plays in all situations, even if his scoring touch isn’t there he can still contribute.
  • Cody Hodgson is not a player I would want to trade if I were the Sabres, but he’s one that might draw some pretty nice offers is anyone is paying attention. He’s young, he’s already taken part in a run into the Stanley Cup finals, and he’s a skilled one or two center. While he’s hardly large or physical, he plays on both the powerplay and the penalty kill and plays big minutes.
  • Thomas Vanek might be hard to move, not because of his skill set or age, but because his contract is a bit large to shuffle into the mix with the salary cap going down. This might be a situation where a team like say the Islanders or Red Wings takes on the player and most of the contract. When you can be more than a point per game on less than 19 minutes of ice time a game on a bad team in a compressed season your skill set is worth taking note of.
  • Jason Pomminville, another year with 5.3m left on the contract should really only slow down those with no cap flexibility at all. Twice a 30 goal man, five straight years of more than 20 goals, and a career points per game percentage of .79? The biggest question should be is anyone worth keeping wearing his number on your roster.

Mid tier:

  • Tyler Ennis, low risk, potentially high reward. The small forward is tenacious, a great skater, a good passer, and should easily fit in at anywhere from the 4th-10th forward spots. A bit over 2 million for his cap hit for one more year, a twenty goal year to his name, and just 23.
  • Tyler Myers, high risk, but the reward could be huge, or a perpetual drain on the payroll. He’s got a forever long contract and has taken a couple dozen steps back from his Calder Trophy form. A team that has a solid defenseman who can coach up the towering Texan into better play is probably in the best position to get the most from Myers. That defenseman might not even need to be on ice, Lidstrom played recently enough that he could likely make big strides Myers.
  • Christian Ehrhoff, while most defensemen age pretty well, this one has had more than one knee injury, and carries a cap hit of four million through 2012. The actual pay out is only only one million a year in the last three seasons, but a guy who relies on his speed and skating signed for that long with those problems already is worrisome. On the other hand, he’s only increased his minutes in the last two or three years and is playing in all situations. The contract length could mean the German defenseman stays in Buffalo even if someone has some interest.

I can’t see anyone targeting most of the rest of the roster. Marcus Foligno might garner a bit of interest, and defensemen are always in demand so shuffling out the current blueline for some prospects and picks is possible, and the fact that Regier traded for Ott shows there’s at least two people who think he’s got value (aside from his agent). Overall this team isn’t horribly built, it just can’t seem to ever get on the same page or four games in a row.

 

This series will cover all thirty teams and go over the most important player, and player who’s performance most needs to improve to help the team succeed.

The Calgary Flames are a team that can be charitably called in transition. It might be more accurate to call them quietly chaotic. Previous management left the larder bare of high end prospects and sprayed success retardant contracts that have threatened to snuff the spark. Last year they missed the playoffs by three points and spent a good amount of time spinning their wheels.

High card:

Jarome Iginla, I can’t think of any scenario for the Flames making the playoffs that doesn’t involve the Calgary captain having (another) exceptional season. In the past ten season he’s scored at least thirty goals.  Two of those seasons were forty goal seasons, two more were fifty goal seasons. Mr. Not-In-October may not have the luxury the slow starts he’s credited with this year. Without at least 35 goals, and probably closer to fifty its likely that ice quality in May won’t be anything in Calgary is worried about.

Wild card:

George R.R. Martin couldn’t write a more epic collapse than what Jay Bouwmeester has experienced in Calagary, when his contract was expiring he was exchanged for Jordan Leopold when the Panthers knew they couldn’t keep him. Since the trade it’s been dismal. Two years and just seven goals without even the sniff of the playoffs that were instantly expected when he was acquired. In his last year in Sunrise he potted fifteen goals. If the Flames are going to burn bright into the spring, Jay-Bo needs to return to form. In the season after the trade the frequently injured Leopold scored 13 goals in just 61 games playing on Florida’s defense while the NHL’s current iron man  netted just three.

 

Central:

Detroit:

The Grey Red Wings are hands down the oldest team in the NHL. With nine players 35 or older on the roster to start the season one has to wonder if there is enough heat left to make the team viable. I suspect the answer to that is no, certainly they are no longer contenders, but they are savvy enough to expose younger teams like Colorado, Nashville, and Columbus on a regular basis. They are also deep into “cap jail” with less than a million in cap space. Last years 102 points is probably they last time they hit the century mark for a season or two.

Columbus:

This teams position is improved almost without their own efforts. Detroit is older and creakier, Chicago is less deep and in theory sated and exhausted by a championship winning post season. Nashville had their captain and best offensive player smacked around by the oh-so-rugged Evgani Malkin in the preseason and who knows what’s going on in Saint Louis… That said they got back Nikita Filatov and his explosive speed and shot and Steve Mason’s likely looking to build on his reemergence late last season.

Chicago:

With the long discussed post Cup salary dump the BlackHawks are undeniably a much different team than the one who brought the rest of the hockey world to it’s knees. It remains to be seen if they are as capable. They have improved their goaltending by jettisoning Niemi and picking up the still hungry, Turco. And their true core is still largely in tact with Toews, Kane, Keith, Seabrook all still ready to answer the bell. Sharp, Hossa, Hjalmarsson, the rest will have to see if they can replace the contributions of the traded Sopel, Byfuglien, and Versteeg.

Nashville

This is a make or break year for the Music City. With years of failing to make the playoffs and then being knocked out early, there have to be major changes if the core of the team can’t drag it into at least the second round. This probably means that there will be major off season changes come next June. A forward group that features Flames and Leafs castoff Jamie Lundmark, the always news worthy Sergei Kostitsyn and Jordin Tootoo to support Weber, Suter, Hornquist, and Erat isn’t exactly inspiring. And yet, last season they finished with a strong 100 points. Don’t be surprised by this team, good or bad. They may not have much up front, but they arguably have the best top defensive pairing in the NHL.

Saint Louis

After a legendary run to vault from last place to sixth in the west they fell short of the playoffs last year with play that was mostly mediocre. Not much changed in the off season. Well, except they picked up a goal tender who can just short of win playoff series himself. Jaroslav Halak is probably the single biggest reason to expect this team to make the post season. The biggest reason to expect them to miss out again is their hot and cold running forwards. Brad Boyes went from 33 goals to 14 over the last two seasons, and newly acquired Vladimir Sobotka is capable of playing well enough to make a fierce claim upon a number two center spot on most NHL rosters, and also of making one wonder how he ever got called up. On top of that last season offensive bulwarks MacDonald and Perron were a combined -19 on a team that despite mediocre goaltending managed to score more than it allowed.

Southeast:

Atlanta:

When there’s a post Cup fire sale, there’s always a team that benefits most. Atlanta is that team. They grabbed defenseman Brent Sopel, defenseman turned forward turned defenseman Dustin Byfuglien, and Ben Eager for in exchange for spare parts and acquired draft picks. That said, the Caps and Panthers had better defense in the division last season, and with the additions to their defense, particularly as both men can skate they have a very good chance of making the playoffs. Alexander Burmistrov’s signing adds yet more spice to the Evander Kane, Little, Bergfors contingent. Anyone who writes this team off for lacking a superstar is probably doomed to fall to them.

Florida:

Well, they drafted well, but they still gave up a solid fourth line center and penalty killer in Greg Campbell, and former 30 goal scoring Nathan Horton. On top of this they lost hit machine Dennis Siedenberg, and shot blocking maestro Jordan Leopold. Their supposedly notable acquisitions include, Marty Reasoner, Chris Higgins, and the redoubtable Denis Wideman, sounds like a roster made for the lottery. Almost certainly the worst team in the NHL as their roster stands.

Tampa Bay

A lot of this teams fortunes depend on three people. One, Vincent Lecavelier. Can he return to the form that had him earning mention as one of the top players in the NHL? And can Mike Smith and Dan Ellis put together a backstop to a shaky defense and make the team a playoff contender? If the answer is yes, to each question their climb out of the basement might be quick enough to save us yet another season of the “Vinny to Montreal” rumors we all know and love, and possibly even spare us a fresh round of “relocate the sunbelt teams to Canada”, I’m slotting them into third in the division.

Carolina:

With the injury buy already gnawing the bones of the Canes roster, its tough to see how this already thin team can make any positive moves this year. Staal will be again expected to throw the team, and hockey in the entire state on his shoulders and carry them to the playoffs. With a defense that has to rely on Joe Corvo for name recognition, and probably the ceiling for it’s quality its doubtful the Canes can combine that and an offense that starts, and nearly stops with Staal to do anything worthwhile in front of the enigmatic and mercurial Cam Ward.

Washington:

The Capitals are largely unchanged from last season. Ovechkin being named captain probably counts as the biggest change from the start of last season to this one. Knowledgeable Capitals fans probably watched the playoffs and off season in horror as GM George McFee did squat to implement a defense worthy of the name. Sure the front office can point to youngsters Alzner and Carlson and call it improvement via draft and development, but this is a bill of goods unrivaled in the NHL this season. Well, except maybe for Backstrom being named a top ten star in the NHL.

More to come: The four other divisions, and how the top and bottom of the NHL will look.

Back on June 2, I tossed the gauntlet out at the hockey blogging world.  Create a team off the UFA list, pick the first players to resign, keep it under the cap for next year, and keep the deals realistic. In other words no 65 year deals for a certain Russian winger. And no $200,000,000 payrolls.

So here we go.

1st Domino:

Defenseman:

Anton Volchenkov. I just can’t see him making it long if his demands are at all reasonable with the number of teams that need a strong defensive defenseman.

Forward:

Matthew Lombardi, too many teams from the Flames to the Wild and the Canes need a good center right now.

Goal:

This is the pick i have the least confidence in, but I’m picking Dan Ellis.

Team UFA $57.4m All dollar figures in millions, $.400 would be $400,000

F

I. Kovulchuk $8.8m M. Lombardi $2.75m  B. Guerin $2.5

A. Frolov $4.25    M. Cullen $2.9  R.Torres $2.8

A. Ponikarovsky $2.8  K. Wellwood $1.5m C. Armstrong $2.5

M Satan $1  G. Metropolit $1.5  E. Artyukhin $1m

J Shelley $.800

35,100,000

Defense:

A Volchenkov 4.2m  D. Morris 3.5M

J. Leopold 3.2m   D. Hamuis 3.7m

A. Lilja 1.85m    S. Hnidy .850

T. Conboy .750

18,050,000

G:

D. Ellis 2.5M

M. Biron 1.75

4.25

Part 3 Worst Contract:

Ordinarily one could just flip a coin and insert the Rangers or the Canadiens, but since both are so cash strapped I’m going to go with a team desperate to make the playoffs.

The Panthers.

Part four Where’s Ilya:

Since this is my pick to make the Western Finals this season, with or without him and they have  a good chunk of cap space available too, I’m going with the sexy pick:

The LA Kings.

If you’re gonna take part, remember I need to get a link to your post tweeted or emailed to me by noon ET on June 30.

Follow this conversation on twitter with #nhlufachallenge