Monday, May 14, 2007

What happened to Buffalo?

The Sabres just skated off on the short end of a 1-0 result in Game 3 against the Ottawa Senators and find themselves looking up the steep walls of a 3-0 hole in games.

What's happened to Buffalo?

The Sabres won the President's Trophy in the regular season, largely on their ability to score goals -- they led the league in scoring. But there is a deception in that. Buffalo is a very balanced team, a characteristic that could wear down lesser teams. But they lack a certain high-end skill level. There really isn't a true "elite" player on their roster. Daniel Briere has had a nice year, but he might be in the best possible setting for his skill, too. Chris Drury is one of the true "clutch" players in the league, but he's never been a point-a-game player. The Sabres have almost an entire squad of what amount to 3-4 defensemen instead of a real "top pair" type. It was more than enough, in the regular season, to mask a weakness...

...special teams.

Buffalo was second (to Detroit) in the NHL in 5-on-5 effectiveness during the regular season. They lead the playoffs in that measure this spring by a wide margin. But in the regular season the Sabres special teams were rather average -- 17.4 percent on the power play (tied for 17th) and 81.4 percent in penalty killing (20th). The "special teams index" (power play success plus penalty killing success) of 98.8 was virtually identical to that of Boston (98.9), which did not make the playoffs. That weakness has been magnified and exploited in the playoffs. While the Sabres dispatched the Islanders quickly in the opening round, they struggled with the Rangers in the second round in a six game series. The last five games of that series were of the one-goal variety, and two of them went to overtime. Ottawa is not dominating the Sabres in this third round series, but they have been the better team over most stretches of play.

It is at this time of year when Buffalo's balance at the expense of high-end skill might be working against them. They have no consistent answer -- either on offense or on defense -- for the Senators' top line of Daniel Alfredsson, Jason Spezza, and Dany Heatley. This is reflected in a difficulty in special teams play at both ends, which has been a problem for the Sabres in this tournament -- a carry over from the regular season.

Look again at the idea of the "special teams index." Buffalo's mark of 89.0 so far in the playoffs is 14th among the 16 playoff teams -- only Atlanta and Minnesota are worse. In this series, that index stands at 76.5, including a big "o-fer"(0-for-18) on the power play. Compare that 89.0 number with the other three teams remaining in the playoffs:

Anaheim: 123.7
Ottawa: 114.6
Detroit: 107.9

Special teams are killing the Sabres, but it's a slow death that really began in the regular season.

Top Pick Slick Nick Reported Fine to Sign on Bottom Line

A Swedish hockey site reports that Nicklas Backstrom, the fourth overall pick in the 2006 entry draft, has agreed to terms on a rookie contract with the Capitals similar to those in the contract of Alexander Ovechkin. If confirmed, this is not unexpected, but his signing was not a sure thing, either.

Let the speculation begin. The Peerless thinks Backstrom will be penciled in as the number two center to start the season, between Alexander Semin and a right wing to be named later (it could be Eric Fehr, but The Peerless thinks this a long shot for three reasons – one, he’s still on the shelf with a back injury, and these things are often hard to predict; two, two rookies and a mercurial (if talented) player seems too combustible a mix for a team that needs consistency; and three, he’s likely not to be ready to assume a full scoring line role anyway).

And as for the comparisons, The Peerless is going to inject a measure of caution into the discussion. Of course, the ready comparison is to Peter Forsberg (which is cause for caution…). So, let’s compare them in their first three years in the Swedish Elite League:

Forsberg (with MoDo Hockey Ornskoldsvik):

Year 1: 23 games, 7-10-17
Year 2: 39 games, 9-19-28
Year 3: 39 games, 23-24-47
-- Team Sweden (Olympics): 8 games, 2-6-8

Backstrom (with Brynas):

Year 1: 19 games, 0-0-0
Year 2: 46 games, 10-16-26
Year 3: 45 games, 12-28-40

Forsberg played one full year and part of another with MoDo before joining Quebec in the 1994-1995 season at the age of 21. Backstrom will be joining the Caps with less SEL experience and at a younger age (he will not be 20 until November 23rd). Before folks start conjuring images of a second Calder Trophy in three years in the Caps trophy case, let’s just let the kid settle in . . .

Waiting on Varlamov

Semen Varlamov . . .

- Number one goaltender in waiting
- Drafted in 2006 – 23rd pick overall
- 15-7-6, 2.12 for Lokomotiv Yaroslavl in the RSL in 2006-2007
- 5-1, 1.51, .934 in the 2007 U20 IIHF World Championship
- 3-0, 0.33, .980 in the 2006 Five Nations Tournament

Going to be a star . . . sooner rather than later. Whoops, not so fast. Here is a list representing some of the finest European goaltenders in the NHL today:

Miikka Kiprusoff (25)
Dominik Hasek (26)
Henrik Lundqvist (23)
Kari Lehtonen (22)
Tomas Vokoun (22)
Evgeni Nabokov (25)
Nikolai Khabibulin (22)
Antero Niittymaki (25)

And here are two more, for good measure

Vesa Toskala (26)
Ilya Bryzgalov (25)

What are those numbers in parentheses? Their ages when they reached 20 games played in a season in the NHL. Why are Toskala and Bryzgalov set apart? Neither of those guys -- talented as they appear to be -- have played half their team's games in an NHL season yet.

Average age for the ten?...24. Varlamov is 19. He will be 24 on April 27, 2012

Expecting him to assume the mantle of "number one goaltender" for the Capitals before, say, the 2010-2011 season is a stretch, perhaps a big stretch.