17 February 2007

Testing Buffalo's Mettle

update: it'd be funny if it were someone else (like, say, the Flyers...)...hey! another Sabres forward down: Daniel Paille broke his finger last night against said Flyers and is out for roughly three weeks. Latest rumour has 61-year old Dave Aquino being called up for Thursday's game vs. Ottawa for salary cap purposes. He has offered to play on a game-to-game basis for a large Bocce's and a box of stale marshmallow peeps.


to be published at Sportingnews.com and SportsBlurb.com

“Here we go again!”

A phrase uttered by many a Buffalo sports fan over the years, this week it has once again reared its head due to Buffalo Sabres injuries occurring on an almost-daily basis. The injury woes suffered by last year's Sabres team during the playoffs have been well-documented, perhaps too-much so in some circles. Their impressive run went all the way to the seventh game of the Conference Finals with the Sabres' suffering a nearly unprecedented string of injuries: of the six defencemen that suited up in that game seven, only one was in the starting lineup at the beginning of the year.

When the team lost that game in the third period to a relentless and deep Carolina Hurricanes club the feeling was that better things were ahead for the
Buffalo franchise. Even while weathering a stressful off-season in which difficult arbitration cases and veteran free-agent losses dominated the headlines, the Sabres were able to get off to an all-time best 10-0 start to the season, en route to thus far leading the Eastern Conference wire-to-wire, and competing for the Presidents' Trophy for best record in the league. Aside from not having the services of Tim Connolly (still suffering from concussion-related symptoms after the Peter Schaefer knockout in last year’s second round) all year, the Sabres haven’t had much at all to worry about other than when the next shipment of slug jerseys would arrive in their gift shop (and how fast those would sell out).

Well, perhaps the odds have finally caught up to Buffalo. The prospect of injuries is always a specter hovering over a hockey team and within the past two weeks the Sabres have suffered yet another potentially critical series of injuries to their squad, none more damaging than the loss of dynamic winger Maxim Afinogenov, second on the team in points with 57. In last weekend’s tilt against the Edmonton Oilers, Afinogenov suffered a broken wrist that will likely leave him out of the lineup until at least the first round of the playoffs. It will especially be interesting to see the effect this has on Thomas Vanek - Vanek has meshed very well with Afinogenov this year leading to 29 goals and a +30 rating, among the league-leaders in both categories. Expect his line (along with Derek Roy) to take on more responsible two-way roles, something Vanek had a lot of trouble with last year, leading to his eventual benching during the playoff run.

Max’s injury is only the latest in a bad week that saw defenceman Jaroslav Spacek break his hand (out three weeks), tough winger Paul Gaustad take a skate over his ankle and sever a tendon (out for entire season), and center Jiri Novotny suffer a high ankle sprain (three weeks). On top of that, Ales Kotalik injured his knee Saturday night against the Boston Bruins and will be out for at least four weeks.

Buffalo Head Coach Lindy Ruff has seen this before, of course, and has publicly stated that he expects no drop-off in terms of the Sabres’ play, despite the injuries. His confidence may seem brazen until one realizes how deep the Buffalo organization is and has been over the past few years – last year when Daniel Briere and J.P. Dumont spent months on the sidelines, the Sabres called up Derek Roy and Jason Pominville from their farm team in Rochester (AHL), both now serving as Sabres regulars. Stepping into the lineup this week are names that - if recent history has told us anything - will likely be Buffalo regulars for the next few years: winger Drew Stafford, their top prospect, is one who already had a nice taste of the big leagues earlier this season, playing in 19 games. Stafford is a former first round draft pick (13th overall, 2004) out of the powerhouse NCAA program at North Dakota, whose combined physical and offensive talents should make him both a welcome teammate and fan favourite. Clarke MacArthur is yet another offensive speedster for Buffalo – a two-time 30 goal scorer for Medicine Hat of the Western Hockey League – he’ll likely be brought along a bit more slowly, as he saw time on the fourth line last night against Philadelphia. Mike Ryan is the latest addition since Kotalik’s injury – Ryan has been scorching of late with two natural hattricks for Rochester in the last week alone.

While some
Buffalo fans are clamoring for a trade, in this salary cap era a trade by the Sabres will be extremely difficult to pull off - they sit just under the cap and almost quite literally would need to make a dollar-for-dollar deal. Teams are only offered salary relief for players who are on the official long-term injury list (LTIR); in other words, if a four million dollar player is on the LTIR, their team is then granted an equal amount of relief under the salary cap. In the Sabres’ case this applies only to Paul Gaustad, who only makes $710,000 which means finding a replacement at that salary will be difficult at best. To his credit, Buffalo GM Darcy Regier is fully aware of the opportunity in front of the Sabres this season, and has admitted to having to “go for it” this spring. But what exactly does that mean? If they only have Gaustad’s salary to play with, that leaves very little room to acquire an asset without giving up a player already at the NHL level. The team's most marketable commodity clearly is backup goaltender Martin Biron, at a salary of roughly $2.1 million. The problem is that he's an unrestricted free agent at season's end, so what teams would give up a valuable return on a player they'll have an equal shot at come July 1st? Only a team who feels they are a quality goaltender away from a playoff run, and right now those teams are as prevalent as an Andrew Peters goal. The most likely scenario for the Sabres is that they make no deals of any impact, and hope for all six injured regulars to return for the playoffs (as of mid-February, the team is stating that they expect Tim Connolly to return at some point this season).

In the end, even in their injured state Buffalo must still be considered the overwhelming favourites in the Eastern Conference. As other teams over the first 60 games have bubbled up to briefly challenge them for first place (Atlanta, Montreal, New Jersey, and Pittsburgh of late) the Sabres have not yet been knocked from their perch. The Sabres have enough quality depth to be able to get through the final six weeks and hang on to the first or second spot in the east. If Afinogenov and company do return in time for the playoffs, this could actually strengthen the overall club by giving younger players some experience.

And finally, if you're one to believe in omens, Saturday night I witnessed something I'm not sure I've ever seen, and surely Buffalo sports fans are not used to. Bruins' goalie Tim Thomas seemingly made an impossible save on Daniel Briere with less than a minute left in the second period, and the teams went into the locker room with the score 3-2 in favour of
Boston. However, the review came back from the head office in Toronto that the goal was actually good, and the officials had to retrieve the entire Boston team from their locker room (greeting with a rousing chorus of boos by the Buffalo faithful, of course) to re-finish the second period, now tied at three.

Buffalo sports fans who have seemingly suffered at the losing end of many a controversial call over the past few decades it could be interpreted as a sign that perhaps nothing - not errant skate blades, holes in the net, or simple injuries – can get in the way of the ultimate prize at the end of the season.


Anonymous said...

Throw in a carton of Junior Mints and I'm there to help in any way I can......
Dave Aquino......who thinks he is really 16

Ricig said...

just so you know - they don't allow double-runners in the NHL.

Layne Meyer said...

Dave Aquino uses John Prior's red plastic stick that he found in the upstairs part of his garage.