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Overreactions: CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game (featuring bonus Instigator Podcast)

HKO CHL ProspectsThursday night, the hockey world converged on nearby St. Catharines, Ontario for the annual CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game. The brand new Meridian Centre, home of the Niagara Ice Dogs, was the site of the yearly showcase for the best draft-eligible junior players in the Canadian Hockey League.

Team Orr (coached by Bobby) defeated Team Cherry (coached by Don) by a 6-0 score. But the score doesn’t matter. Everything Connor McDavid did does. It’s a chance for young players to stand out among their peers with NHL scouts filling the building.

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Some quick thoughts, including a podcast with my esteemed colleague Chris Ostrander from the Two In the Box:

  • Connor McDavid was the best player on the ice. He wasn’t the leading scorer, he wasn’t most valuable player, he’s just clearly the most skilled guy there. I wonder if he “jumped off the screen” to those watching at home.
  • When the CSS rankings got released this week, there was some chatter/outrage over Lawson Crouse being ranked ahead of Mitch Marner, who’s been putting up ridiculous numbers in London. Getting a chance to see them together, I’m coming around to seeing why Crouse is ranked higher. He’s not the type of player who’s going to rack up points, but he can generate offense and be a force in all facets of the game.
  • Former Sabres general manager Darcy Regier was in the house. He was sitting four rows in front of me. He makes an appearance in the podcast below.
  • Also spotted: Sabres legend Donald Audette. Audette is now an amateur scout for the Montreal Canadiens.
  • Paul Bittner was really good for most of the game. He’s ranked 19th among North American skaters and might be in play for a late-1st/early-2nd. I’d be cool with it.
  • It’s a shame Ivan Provorov won’t be available in a position the Sabres will be picking. He’ll go around 10-15. He’s gonna be a stud.
  • It’s a shame that the Sabres as an organization don’t do more with the IceDogs. They’re in their market. They should be playing a preseason game in St. Catharines each year. But then again, hard to sell Sabres to Canada when #WeAreBuffalo.
  • Still not sure I know how to say Travis Konecny’s name, but I really liked him. Him and Timo Meier were good, despite their linemate (McDav-something?) not really being all that generational.
  • Guy I liked: Nathan Noel. Scored a goal late, but just has that indescribable that-guy-looks-like-an-NHL-player quality about him. Not super impressive, just seems to have it.

Here’s a quick podcast we did during the second intermission:

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Tempering the McDavid/Eichel hype in Buffalo or Talking like an idiot

ARX_3633It’s been an interesting season in Buffalo. Regardless of how bad or horrendously bad you think the team is, there’s little reason to claim they’re uninteresting. And some of that is the debate between the merits of “tanking” and trying real hard to win games with a terrible roster.

There’s been a lot of resistance from a segment of the fan base and some of the scribes at The Buffalo News towards the idea of embracing the tank, and making the most out of this rebuild. Noted scribe Bucky Gleason dropped a whopper of a “MY COLUMN:” today, dropping a heaping serving of truth to all the tank enthusiasts who have dreams of Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel dancing in their heads.

Instead of just saying how stupid it is, I’m going to point out how stupid it is.

Last year, sometimes in meetings with front-office staff and other times in casual conversations, Ted Black was telling people that everything would be fine after the 2015 draft. The master plan called for finishing last, allowing the Sabres to land either Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel.

Not even half a sentence in and Bucky’s dropping that insider knowledge to create the illusion of insight. Ted Black, Tim Murray, and just about everyone in the organization has been referencing building with high picks since before the 2014 Draft. The Sabres have been building through the draft for four years, going back the 2012 Draft when they snagged Mikhail Grigorenko and Zemgus Girgensons. At some point, you move on. Is it a huge deal to acknowledge you’ll be comfortable doing so at a certain point? Unacceptable.

Forget that the Sabres would have only a 20 percent chance of landing McDavid, considered the better of the two prospects this season. Sabres staffers and delusional fans, some of whom happen to be the same people, convinced themselves that Eichel also would answer their prayers.

Yes, the Sabres would have only a 20% chance of retaining the top pick if finishing dead last. This would be more than the 13.5% chance given to the team that finishes 29th, or the 11.5% chance given to the team that finishes 28th, as well as every other team in the lottery. It’s as if you’d have the best chance to get the best player should you finish last. What a revelation!

I know if I were a fan, the last thing I’d want is the team’s staff to be on board with whatever put the team in the best position to win. No need for that delusional fan mentality. There needs to be detachment from what the team might be able to do to improve their roster.

Bucky’s totally right. Getting Eichel would be a worthless consolation prize. It’s hard to convince yourself that Eichel could be a valuable choice when TSN’s Bob McKenzie says “both McDavid and Eichel project as bona fide franchise players, A++ prospects who will be No. 1 NHL centers” or Craig Button says “Eichel and McDavid are generational players” or any other prospect report says that it’s the case.

I’m gonna go with Bucky on this one. Then I’m going to go step in front of a bus.

Quick question: Did ownership or people in the front office, other than GM Tim Murray and his scouts, watch them play enough to make that assessment? Are they absolutely certain that either player would really save the franchise, the way Sidney Crosby supposedly saved the Penguins?

Quick question: does it matter what team staff is discussing when they ultimately cede the decision to GM Tim Murray and his scouts? Read the rest of this entry

What to watch for at 2015 World Junior Championships

HKO World Juniors USA Canada 20130103It’s the most wonderful time of the year. While the NHL takes a short holiday break at Christmas, it serves as a short respite before two of the best weeks of hockey of the year.

The yearly IIHF World Junior Championships, an exciting tournament of good hockey that has become a referendum on whether or not Canada is a failure as a nation, begin today. By the time the gold medal is awarded January 5th, we’ll have a look at some of the best young hockey players in the world.

With the Sabres in a precarious rebuilding phase, this tournament takes on a greater importance. Not only is there a desire to see your players succeed, like Rasmus Ristolainen did last year, scoring the overtime game-winner in the final as he was named the best defenseman in the tournament, but it’s a glimpse at some of the best draft-eligible players. Unless you’re living under a rock with no access to the internet, you can guess that would mean Canada’s Connor McDavid and American Jack Eichel.

But with Buffalo’s draft position being nothing beyond speculation and hope at the moment, we can look at the top young players who already are in the Sabres’ system.

Unfortunately, despite the depth in the Buffalo prospect pool, the team will have a small number of players participating in this year’s tournament. Russia’s Nikita Zadorov is stuck with the Sabres, not getting released for the World Juniors because he’s pretty much the second best defenseman on the NHL roster. Czech forward Vaclav Karabacek was cut after he overslept and was late to a team meeting. Swedish goaltender Jonas Johansson had to drop out due to injury, and Canada’s Nick Baptiste didn’t survive the first round of cuts in their camp.

That leaves us with four guys to keep an eye on, so here’s what to look for:

Hudson Fasching, RW, #22, United States

F11C1994Who is this guy? Fasching wasn’t drafted by the Sabres, but thanks to Tim Murray’s dealings at last year’s trade deadline, he’s in the pipeline now. Acquired from Los Angeles with Nick Deslauriers in exchange for Brayden McNabb and two second round picks, hopes are high for Fasching. The Minnesota Golden Gopher is a big kid (6’2″, 207) who plays a big game and projects as a powerful forward. He’s got an incredible back story and could find himself in Rochester next season developing as a pro.

Fasching should get top minutes in all situations for the Americans, which will put him in a position to be a game-breaker. Hudson had two goals and two assists in five games in last year’s tournament, and should be counted on as a veteran on the team.

Best case scenario: Fasching dominates physically and emotionally while coming up with some clutch goals and assists. He finishes with 7-9 points in the tournament and has a strong performance in the final as the Americans claim the gold they deserve.

+ + + +

Victor Olofsson, LW, #12, Sweden

Victor+Olofsson+Sweden+v+USA+White+Sg3wy_OLaj9lWho is this guy? Buffalo’s seventh round pick (181st overall) in the 2014 draft, Olofsson could be a late round gem, but he’s still a ways off from being a top prospect. Currently playing in Sweden, he’s known for his shooting and scoring. Offensively, the tools are there, but word seems to be that he needs to develop the rest of his game as well.

Olofsson has been seeing time on the Swedish team’s third line, so he’ll get solid minutes and an opportunity to make a difference for a team that’s looking to avenge their defeat in last year’s final.

Best case scenario: Olofsson chips in 4-5 goals throughout the tournament, enough to get noticed and leaned on a bit as the games get bigger.

+ + + +

J.T. Compher, C, #7, United States

J+T+Compher+USA+Blue+v+USA+White+08omLVqERUllWho is this guy? Compher is one of the more exciting prospects in the Sabres’ stable. A fantastic two-way forward out of the University of Michigan, he was pegged to be a part of last year’s team before he injured his foot blocking a shot in practice. Drafted by the Sabres with a second round pick acquired from Carolina in the trade that sent Andrej Sekera to the Canes, he’s been having a solid sophomore year with the Wolverines.

Compher should play in all situations for the Americans, and his speed and all-around game should make him a valuable part of the squad.

Best case scenario: Compher chips in a point or so each game while being reliable against top players on opposing teams. He goes off in the final, racking up three points and helping the United States sneak out a 9-2 win in the gold medal game.

+ + + +

Sam Reinhart, C, #23, Canada

F11C1596Who is this guy? Buffalo’s second overall pick in this past draft, he’s got both NHL experience from the start of this season and World Junior experience from last year’s tournament, where he picked up two goals and three assists in seven games as the Canadians lost hilariously in the bronze medal game. Sam’s already been named an assistant captain for the Canadian squad, and he’ll get top-6 minutes and be leaned on in key situations.

Reinhart will be considered one of the top players in the tournament, and he’ll be expected to stand out and perform. He struggled offensively in his stint with the Sabres (like the rest of the team), but his 27 points in 15 games with Kootenay since being returned to junior shows he’s still a force at the junior level.

Best case scenario: Reinhart dominates, leading the tournament in scoring with 14-16 points while developing an intense on-ice and personal chemistry with Connor McDavid, to the point that McDavid expresses his desire to go full-Lindros on whatever team drafts him and demands a trade to Buffalo. They become best bros and a reality television series is developed and they win Cups on Cups for years. Meanwhile, despite the All-Tournament Team performance of Reinhart, Canada loses their battle for Canadian Gold (bronze) and in their medal-less devastation, the nation to the north realizes that winning this tournament is pretty much meaningless, so they relax and learn to enjoy good hockey.

Overreactions: Believe the hype. McDavid shines, Otters defeat IceDogs in Buffalo

Connor McDavidIt should’ve been expected.

For many in Buffalo feeling conflicted about the merit of the tanking that’s totally not going on this season, tonight was the first glimpse at the prize waiting to be claimed: Connor McDavid.

And the Erie Otters forward showed why.

In front of a large crowd at First Niagara Center (announced at 11,391 and realistically around 9,000), McDavid and his teammates put on a show, with Erie defeating the Niagara IceDogs by an 8-4 final.

The first period was enough for people to see, as McDavid tallied three assists and showed his flare on almost every shift, propelling the Otters to a 4-2 lead. He’d add a goal in the third to push his point total through the first 10 games of the season to 29 (9+20), extending his league lead.

McDavid’s linemate Alex DeBrincat (2016 Draft eligible) scored twice, as did Kurtis MacDermid (LA Kings free agent signing). Troy Donnay, Patrick Murphy and Shaun Bily also scored for the Otters, who sit 9-0-0-1 on the season.

Niagara’s Jordan Maletta (undrafted) had two goals, while Graham Knott (2016 Draft eligible) and Cody Payne also scored for the visitors from across the border.

Buffalo native Stephen Dhillon ended up getting cleanup duty in the IceDogs’ goal, stopping 11 of 13 shots in 27:09, just his second OHL appearance.

Some thoughts on the night:

  • I’ve seen Connor McDavid play four times. He has 15 points in those four games. This was an average night for him. It’s incredible.
  • Lots of talk about Erie’s Dylan Strome (who could also be a top-5 pick in this summer’s draft) heading into tonight, warning fans not to forget about him. To be honest, he looked solid, you can see the talent, but he was unremarkable. Hard to stand out when you’ve got #97 on your team, but he reminded me of the times I saw Niagara’s Brendan Perlini last season. Perlini was targeted as a top 10 pick, and went in the first round to Phoenix, but never really stood out or showed star quality. I’m sure I’ll see Strome again, but first impression wasn’t great. Read the rest of this entry