Buffalo Sabres: Ted Nolan’s Off-Season To-Do List

Ted Nolan’s Off-Season TO-DO List:

  1.       Reintroduce the defensive line to man coverage
  2.       Re-teach forwards how to shoot the puck
  3.       Explain the concept of passing without a turn-over
  4.       Match-making & trust exercises
  5.       Figure out WTH to do with my goalies?!

Obviously, this is not Ted Nolan’s actual TO DO list, but I bet it’s damn close. Provided he ever signs a contract, there are serious expectations for him to create a powerhouse team from the ashes that are the Sabres. While starting in the basement has the fortuitous advantage of having nowhere to go but up, the climb is a bugger.  (EDITOR’S NOTE: Edmonton Oilers say “hi”)

Long Road Ahead

Nolan’s going into the off-season with an undisciplined defensive line, forwards who won’t shoot the puck, and a general inability to make a clean pass. He has cache of talented prospects and GM Tim Murray has a pocketful of cash, but integrating new players takes time. A lot of the summer will be spent evaluating who should stay and who should go, finding compatibility between the final players, and building trust amongst line mates, something that is obviously lacking.

It’s that lack of trust and cohesiveness on the offensive line that has prevented the Sabres from scoring goals. Flip side, the timid and unruly play of the defense has opened the net for the opposition. Nolan has had five different goalies between the posts this season. Each has struggled to keep down the goals against number because of the lack of effective coverage.

So, here’s the rub for Nolan; even if he bangs out his top four To Do List items, he still has a big decision to make about who takes up the mantle as his starting goalie. He has four guys who’ve each shown they have the ability to perform well in the net. They’ve blocked shots that never should have made it to the crease and done all they could to stop the team from losing games.

Small aside here for those who tend to forget this – Goalies do not win games. Goals win games. Goalies stop teams from losing games, but they cannot win them on their own. Well, unless they’re Martin Brodeur.

Future In Net?

Loyalty says the Jhonas Enroth should follow Miller as the Sabres’ lead goaltender. He’s the guy who sat patiently on the Sabres bench and waited his turn while Miller collected pucks. It’s hard to fairly compare Enroth’s save percentage against Miller given he played only half as many games as Miller this season. Both had a season high 6 goals scored while they were in net. Neither has played a shut-out game. However, both suffered through the Sabres ineptitude at protecting their defensive zone.

Since Miller’s move to St. Louis, Enroth has won three games in contrast to his lone W prior to taking over in net. His injury during the March 16th game against Montreal ruined his chance for fans to see how he performs with a more consistent playing schedule. It’s also locked him into a mediocre season save percentage of .911, likely the lowest of the four potential competitors. Enroth’s size could be his most significant disadvantage in earning the starting position. It’s harder to cover post to post being only 5’ 10”, compared to the reach of guys 6’ 1”, 6’ 2”, and 6’ 5”. (Neuvirth, Hackett, and Lieuwen respectively.)

The Challengers

Enroth’s only challenger for the top position prior to his injury was Michael Neuvirth, the Sabres’ trade deadline acquisition from the Capitals. Unfortunately for Neuvirth, he’s also been sidelined by injury. His first two games as a Sabre were phenomenal games for him despite not recording a win.  He finished his first game with a .955 save percentage. He tied the franchise record 55 shots on goal set by Dominik Hasek in the March 13 game and finished that game with a .944 save percentage. Playing consistently at that level would certainly have tilted opinion in his favor as the choice for starting in net. Neuvirth’s experience at the NHL level combined with knowing he can handle a high-pressure game may be what keeps him in the running against the two back-up goalies that have joined the equation.

Nathan Lieuwen got the first call from the Sabres to serve as a back-up goalie after Enroth’s injury. Since Neuvirth’s injury, he’s made a great first impression in net. His play is confident and aggressive, though he too has fallen prey to the team’s sloppy defensive play and absentee offense. His record with the Amerks of 17-11-2 gave him a starting GAA of 2.34 and save percentage of .922. It’s hardly fair to even discuss his numbers in the two games he’s spent in Buffalo. However, he could be a huge asset to the Sabres and a key player in their ability to return to contention for a league championship.

Side note on Leiuwen – I shall commit the ultimate sacrilege as a Sabres fan and compare Lieuwen to Hasek. Having become a Sabres fan in the late 90’s I had an immediate reaction to Lieuwen’s playing style. The frog sprawl, the confident strolls to the far side of the circle, the aggressive challenge to the forwards – all classic Hasek. Leiuwen has a long way to go to learn the discipline and build the experience of The Dominator, but watch this kid play. There is only one Dominic Hasek. Imagine for a second having a goalie with even a fraction of his talent and drive back in the Sabres’ net. Good times are coming, people. Good times. 

Yet another injury opened a spot for Matt Hackett, a second AHL goalie from the Amerks. The problem for Hackett is that his inconsistent play in Rochester has followed him to Buffalo. After starting with a .898 save percentage, he quickly bumped up his numbers following a rare win for the team. He was fortunate in that game to have a more helpful team keeping down the shots on goal. His play has been better than good, but his history is worrying.

Hackett’s style of play is much less aggressive than either Neuvirth or Lieuwen. He leaves the crease to challenge attackers less frequently and seems to have more trouble staying in the game when things aren’t going well. His stress and frustration become more obvious the higher the goal count goes, making him an enticing target for the opposing forwards. However, props to him for being able to hang in and pull out wins in his first two chances.

Who’s Got Their Back?

Before I reveal my predictions for how the goalie situation will play out for this fall, I’m calling out the entire team on the topic of goalie injuries. Someone correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t part of the responsibility of the players to keep their goalie safe and make sure the opponents know he’s off limits. Yes, accidents and injuries happen, but not only were two goalies knocked out of commission in as many games, there was almost no response from the players or coaches.

No fire, no anger, nothing. Even Ruff would have been on the verge of a stroke over these plays. Where’s the ‘We got your back’ attitude? Where are the clear messages to the other side to keep it clean? The only exception to what looks like a general lack of passion, was Konopka’s calling out of Gazdic in the Edmonton game. He put the Oilers on notice that there would be no mauling of their players that night. Pity that he’s gone to being another injury scratch.

Rant over.

Next Year

Now, predictions for 2014-2015 – Nolan will move to larger stature goalies more able to hold their own physically in the crease. Look for Enroth to go back on as second string with Neuvirth and to be traded out at some point. Hackett may make a return as a back-up after Enroth is dealt out, possibly doing some trading off with Lieuwen over the season. He’ll eventually end up traded or back in Rochester.

Nolan will give Lieuwen one more season with the Amerks to season and mature before bringing him up as a full-time back up. By 2015-2016, we’ll see Lieuwen as either a starting goaltender in Buffalo, or a solid full-time back up. Neuvirth is likely to become Nolan’s go-to guy for all of 2014-2015 if he can recapture the momentum he had in his short premier.

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