Hockey Season Is Upon Us; How We Got Here and What’s Changed

The 2017-18 hockey season is upon us. The Buffalo Sabres open their season tonight at the KeyBank Center and the Rochester Americans open their season tomorrow at the Blue Cross Arena. A lot of changes during the off-season have reshaped the outlook of both franchises.

Many looked to the Sabres and Amerks as playoff contenders for the 2016-2017 season, but those thoughts were short lived. Jack Eichel got tangled up in the crease with Girgensons and we all know the story from there. Jack comes away with a high ankle sprain that put the season on hold. The wave Eichel gave to the fans at the Sabres home opener last season foreshadowed the outcome; sad and disappointing for both teams. Eichel’s injury was only the first in a long line of injuries (and the resulting recalls) that would ultimately bury playoff chances for the organization. An organization that lacked the depth necessary to weather a string of injuries.

Tim Murray was not the right man for the job of GM. He single handedly depleted and destroyed Buffalo and Rochester. The man knew how to blow up a team to obtain favorable draft picks, but didn’t know how to put them to good use or rebuild a cohesive organization. Could the Amerks and Sabres both have been in the playoffs last year? Yes, but on one condition that Murray never paid attention to—defense. Injuries plagued the teams from the start of the season. The defense took major blows once Zach Bogosian missed a few weeks with a lower body injury. Then our new acquisition Dimitri Kulikov, missed the first few weeks with a back injury he suffered in preseason at the Kraft Hockeyville game against Carolina when the bench door jarred open and his back was injured falling onto the edge of the door. Dimitri Kulikov never should’ve been a Buffalo Sabre anyways; but what do us fans know?

Tim Murray was never one for building the farm team. He liked his draft picks, but he never even blinked an eye at Rochester. Rochester was the small kid on the playground that the bully would always pick on for lunch money. Tim Murray just took whatever he had in Rochester; never cared to develop, nor replace its missing pieces.

The Sabres defense was a mess. Cody Franson was a turnover waiting to happen and Josh Gorges is a washed up defenseman that moves slower than a tugboat. Dimitri Kulikov never wanted to leave Florida, never mind play in Buffalo. He didn’t try his hardest and slacked on plays that could’ve and should’ve been avoided.

When the injuries struck, Tim began to pluck. Taylor Fedun, Justin Falk, Casey Nelson—things got so bad he had to pull 19 year old Brendan Guhle off of his junior team on an emergency call up to help fill the injuries. Rochester was left with nothing. No leadership and no chemistry was left on the blue line. Elmira barely had a 20 win season thanks to Tim because defensive talent was in such short supply that there was no one left to help out. When the facts are presented, it becomes obvious why Tim Murray was Fired.

Jason Botterill was headlined to the Buffalo Sabres General Manager position after Pittsburgh’s series win against Washington in the playoffs. Botterill knows what he’s doing, especially when it comes to farm team and player development. Botterill was the assistant general manager in Pittsburgh and also the general manager for their AHL team, Wilkes Barre-Scranton. Jason came over with a structure of how operations should flow. Look at Pittsburgh and Wilkes Barre-Scranton; two Stanley cups for the Penguins and Wilkes Barre-Scranton routinely finishes atop the standings in the AHL.

In the short time since being hired, Botterill has addressed the management deficiency in Rochester. Botterill hired Randy Sexton as assistant general manager and made him general manager of Rochester. Rochester needed its own man to be able to evaluate the team on a daily basis and be able to report back to Botterill about who is ready to be called up and how players are developing accordingly. There’s a very good chance that the Amerks will be fighting for a playoff spot this season. They have a good coach and a general manager that can lead them to success—both have come from successful seasons with a winning team. All these acquisitions have helped set both teams up for success.

As mentioned above, heading into the offseason the biggest area of deficiency was defense. Sabres needed an upgrade and fast. The task on Botterill’s hands was messy. He had very few pieces to work with, and absurd contracts to manage. Nathan Beaulieu for a third round pick was a move no one saw coming and it couldn’t have been a better trade. Nathan is a solid and fast top 6 defenseman that fits perfectly into new Sabres head coach, Phil Housley’s system. Botterill picked up a good defenseman for the price of a minor league player that won’t be ready to play for years to come; and on the plus side Beaulieu is only 24. Now try this, go on the video game NHL 17 and try to trade Marcus Foligno and Tyler Ennis for Marco Scandella and Jason Pominville; didn’t work did it? That trade was a blockbuster move and we gave away near nothing for a top line defenseman and a solid second/third line winger. Both add veteran leadership characteristics. The Defense has had a total makeover and is generally more put-together, with much more skill, compared to last year’s slow, talent-lacking, overplayed defense.

All these moves carry over to Rochester. After taking Fedun, Falk, Nelson, and Brady Austin throughout the season, Rochester was left without a cohesive defensive group. A group that lacked playing time together and communication. Linus Ullmark was left out to dry some nights, likewise Lehner was too. The Sabres and Amerks are far away from that now. With the arrivals of Scandella, Antipin, and Beaulieu, it creates massive depth for the organization.

The defense is finally jumping up into plays, shooting the puck at the net, and spearheading puck movement. The team as a whole looks much faster—much more upbeat. Where Bylsma was a coach of the past playing a dump and chase game, Housley is a modern coach who leverages the speed and skill of the current generation of players. Today’s players are fast, quick-thinkers, and elusive—qualities Housley possessed as a player.

This is a new organization, and if early indicators are accurate it’ll be a force to reckon with for this season and many more to come. While Jack Eichel could have played the season without an extension, he saw that doing so would be a distraction to the team. While he signed a huge 8 year, $10 million contract, he might have been able to get a better deal following an improved Sabres season. Instead he opted to add stability to the organization. Jack is your future along with these up and coming prospects in Rochester. Personally, I believe that in the next decade, the Sabres WILL have a Stanley Cup Banner in the rafters; along with another Calder Cup win for the Amerks.

Grab your pop and chips—the Buffalo Sabres are back against the Montreal Canadiens tonight at 7pm, and the Americans tomorrow night against the Syracuse Crunch. Cheers, fans, it’s going to be a great year!


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