16 March 2006

Sabres rock: Roy, Vanek (Hecht, Connolly)

Treasure Hunting, the Hockey Edition

By Rob Aquino


The return of the NHL has, among other things, brought a renewed emphasis on offence back to the league. Over much of the past decade, most teams had (at best) one “scoring line” and after that would hope for the best – often throwing out “muckers and grinders” on the second and third lines, trying to bruise their way to a goal or two. The new crackdown on interference has obviously led to much more wide open hockey and as a result – more goals. Another meta-result is that we are seeing many teams with a deeper attack than we’ve seen recently – many teams’ second and third lines are seeing smaller and faster (read: more skilled) players take over jobs from the grinders because they finally have the freedom to skate. Over the next few columns we’ll slightly change the focus at Treasure Hunting and look closely at a few of these “deep” teams who are taking full advantage of the new rules, and who might be able to give your fantasy team some help in these final weeks of the regular season.

Buffalo is being called one of the biggest “surprise” teams of the league this year, likely because of where most national publications predicted them to finish – out of the playoffs. But the surprise factor is gone – this is one of the very elite teams in the entire league, having lost only seven times in regulation since mid-November. While they are a complete team in virtually every way, their offence is what has propelled them close to the top of the league standings. Much is made about Buffalo’s so-called lack of elite scorers – not listing anyone anywhere near the top 50 - but there are at least two reasons to dismiss that fact: first, the Sabres’ offensive production ranks fourth in the entire league – scoring almost three and a half goals per game – mostly due to their deep and talented roster, with no less than ten players with at least 30 points. Second, the Sabres played a healthy chunk of the season without arguably their three most talented offensive players – J.P. Dumont (seven goals in last ten games), Tim Connolly (six points in four games since his return), and Daniel Briere – three former first round picks who are now all back in the Buffalo lineup, giving them perhaps the most dangerous offence in the entire league. Briere is making a case for himself as one of the absolute elite forwards in the NHL – since his return from a serious abdominal injury he has totaled an amazing 16 points in just eight games. He’s the rare player that elevates the offensive game of everyone around him, and his linemates Dumont and Jochen Hecht have been reaping the benefits since his return, as has the entire team. In the eight games since the Olympic break, the Sabres have scored 40 goals. Healthy and ready for the playoffs, the Sabres’ diverse attack offers as many options as any team in the league.

Let’s look at a few players on Buffalo that may be available in your leagues and will definitely help your team.

Derek Roy, Center, Buffalo Sabres

Sabres center Derek Roy has been absolutely red hot lately. He has torched opposing goaltenders to the tune of eight goals in the last seven games, including two hat tricks within one week against the Leafs and Lightning (in that Tampa game alone he was a +5) and getting a big game-tying goal Tuesday night against Washington. More importantly for his career, he has also been gaining coach Lindy Ruff’s confidence – last week in that wild game against Tampa Bay both teams were exchanging goals at a rapid pace. It may have been a fun game for the fans but both teams were playing terrible defensively and there seemed to be no end to the goals – after the Sabres went up 6-5 late in the third, Ruff – wanting to shore up their defensive play – benched two of his better offensive players in Maxim Afinogenov and Thomas Vanek and double-shifted Derek Roy, putting him between power forwards Mike Grier and Paul Gaustad – he responded by breaking in alone on Sean Burke and scoring Buffalo’s seventh goal which effectively sealed the game (later getting the empty-netter to complete the hat trick).

Roy was a fantastic player in junior with the Kitchener Rangers, leading them to the Memorial Cup championship in 2003 and earning Most Valuable Player honors in the tournament. Overall in his four years with Kitchener he averaged nearly 37 goals per season and always playing with what I would describe as a barely-controlled aggressive passion. There was no questioning his talent at the junior level – it was obvious to anyone watching him for two minutes, but his size – generously listed at 5’9” – was always a potential barrier for him. He split the 2003-2004 season between Rochester of the AHL and Buffalo and didn’t fare too poorly with the Sabres, getting 19 points in 49 games, but he clearly needed to work more to be able to fight through the physical play at the NHL level. Last season at Rochester he scored at just under a point-per-game and chipped in 11 points in nine playoff games. After starting this season in Rochester (much to his chagrin) he made the most of it by notching 20 points in just eight games. Finally he got the call to return to Buffalo in early November and he hasn’t been back since. He was eased into the lineup, getting usually around 12 minutes of ice time for his first month but since late December has been a regular in the Buffalo lineup, and his point total has reflected that.

Roy’s play combines quickness, a deft touch, and the kind of feistiness that opponents loathe, but hometown fans love. As the Sabres have gotten healthy and solidified their lines, Roy has centered Vanek and Afinogenov to form another potent scoring line for Buffalo. Before this month began it’s likely not many casual fans or fantasy players would have heard of Roy, but the time is growing short to jump on his bandwagon now. Center is a deep position in the league but if you’re looking for depth, Roy is an excellent choice as he will be a good bet to continue scoring points down the stretch for Buffalo.

Thomas Vanek, Winger, Buffalo Sabres

Sabres rookie Thomas Vanek – another member of Buffalo’s “RAV” line (Roy, Afinogenov, Vanek) – came into this season with high expectations. Last year the former fifth-overall pick in 2003 finished second in the AHL in goals and was hoping to have a quick impact on the Sabres in his first year in the NHL. However, he suffered through a painful start, with no goals through his first 14 games, and only three up until the second week of December. Vanek looked out of place in the NHL.

Vanek’s career path is rather unique – born in Austria, he moved to the States as a teenager to improve his hockey prospects, and played for three years in the USHL before spending two fantastic years at NCAA powerhouse University of Minnesota. His freshman year at Minnesota was spectacular – breaking the school freshman scoring record with 31 goals and 62 points in just 45 games. More impressive were his playoff exploits, dazzling fans in the Frozen Four (played in Buffalo) en route to the national championship as he was named tournament Most Valuable Player. Sabres brass no doubt were no less impressed than anyone else and much to the local fans’ delight selected Vanek fifth overall two months later. The team felt it best that Vanek spend another year developing his game in college, where he had another great season with 28 more goals before deciding to turn pro.

Last year’s lockout was probably beneficial to Vanek as there was no doubt he’d play in the AHL rather than have the big club be tempted to call him up to the Sabres. With 42 goals in 74 games he appeared ready to make the big jump this year. Yet with only four goals in his first 27 games he was on the verge of being demoted back to Rochester (AHL). Coach Lindy Ruff kept Vanek in the lineup, showing confidence in the slick winger and it began to pay off with seven goals in the next eleven games. In any other year the Vanek would have started to become quite noticeable, but in this historic “year of the rookie” he was a bit overshadowed. That’s not so much the case anymore as suddenly Vanek has an impressive 23 goals with five of those coming in the last seven games. My only knock on Vanek is that in many games you’ll never even hear his name called – he tends to look lost at times and not get into the flow of the game. I’d resist being too negative and calling him lazy as other games he’ll be found hustling at both ends; I think he still has a lot to learn about the NHL game and anticipation, especially in his defensive end. In the end though, he has the skills to be a premier offensive talent in the league and has already scored some brilliant highlight-reel goals. Vanek has been sitting on my bench for much of the season before the past week – he’ll be starting from here on out and if you can get him he may even be worth protecting in deep keeper leagues.

Other Sabres to Note: Jochen Hecht and Tim Connelly.

We took a quick look at Hecht last month on the eve of the Olympics – he’s a player who has never put up huge numbers but his skills unveil themselves the more you watch him. He’s a great two-way player with good offensive talent. The Sabres seem to have found magic in the Briere-Hecht-Dumont line and with those two talents on his line he’ll easily back into a few points at worst. He has snuck up to 42 points on the season and with eight in his past five games, he seems destined to best his career high of 52. Hecht – especially if he qualifies at wing in your league – is another great depth acquisition.

If you had mentioned Tim Connolly’s name to a Sabres fan before this season you’d get a response somewhere between eyes rolling and disgust. Connolly was one of two players (Taylor Pyatt being the other) coming from the Islanders in the Mike Peca deal a few years back, and as such carried high expectations in Buffalo, to which he never really delivered. After suffering a terrible concussion two years ago and not playing since then, expectations had dwindled to barely above nothing this season, even from the coaching staff, but something finally clicked and his play has skyrocketed this year. He was unlucky enough to have an unscheduled and never-welcomed meeting with a Kasparaitus hip and missed about six weeks, but since returning he hasn’t missed a beat, using his dazzling puck control to give Buffalo more depth and becoming a mainstay on the power play. Note of warning – in the Washington game he did injure his knee and as of Wednesday it’s uncertain if he’ll miss time as a result.

Thanks for reading - next week we’ll have part two of this series and take a look at another deep and successful team containing a number of deep fantasy options.

Feedback can be sent to robaquino@sportsblurb.com.

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