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Not-So Special Teams
February 16, 2009 - Matt Spielman
The Sabres still sit in eighth place in the Eastern Conference playoff race, three points ahead of the Carolina Hurricanes with about 25 games to play, so this year has been better than last year by far. But with teams ahead of them continuing to falter, Buffalo should be making a move upward and it isn't.
The main problem the last couple of weeks has been special teams. The Sabres were the third-best penalty killing team and near the top 10 in power-play efficiency for much of the season, but lately it seems like they are giving up one or two man-advantage goals every game. The Ottawa Senators game a little while ago was painful to watch as Buffalo went 1-for-12 on the power play.
The Sabres aren't the 5-on-5 team they were a few seasons ago when they went to the Eastern Conference finals and special teams become even more important in these times. Thomas Vanek's injury is killing the power play. It's not that Buffalo isn't putting players in front of the net — I've seen one or two guys there every man advantage since Vanek went out — but the guys there clearly aren't as talented at tipping pucks, pouncing on rebounds or just plain finishing. Sabres blue-liners are finally getting pucks through from the point, there is just nobody down low to bang it into the back of the net.
The penalty kill is a different story. When at a disadvantage, it seems to be all about hard work. Wanting the puck more down low at the boards, blocking shots from the point and tieing guys up in front of the net is the name of the game. What I don't understand is watching a Buffalo defenseman work the puck loose and then try to skate around to find an opening to flip the puck out of the zone. Once they retrive the puck, I just want them to turn and fire a slap shot as hard as possible. If it hits somebody on the other team, they'll probably have to skate off for a change and it will be even strength for a minute. If it doesn't hit anybody, mission accomplished.
Players are available to help the Sabres make a difference. At the high end of my wish list is Keith Tkachuck. The veteran winger plays both ways, can be helpful short handed or on the power play and is making $4.5 million this year. With about a third of the season remaining, that puts the Sabres on the hook for less than $2 million. If that is too expensive for Buffalo, how about hometown guy Todd Marchant. Also a free agent after the season, Marchant is only making $2.6 million this year, can win faceoffs and can kill penalties. Other upcoming free agents on non-playoff teams who I feel could help the Sabres include Michael Peca, if the two sides can reconcile their differences from the first time Peca was here; Jordan Leopold on the back end; Erik Cole; Kyle Calder; Bill Guerin; Mike Sillnger; etc.
The standings don't show the Sabres in desperation mode yet, but their style of play does. If Darcy Regier wants to stock up the youth and draft picks, then now is not the time to make a move. But if ownership and the general manager are serious about a playoff run, do something to show it and make a move.
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Keith Tkachuk AP photo