Ott looks good at Sabres skate

Jordan Leopold skates by the net in a small-sided drill.

Jordan Leopold skates by the net in a small-sided drill.

I checked out the Buffalo Sabres’ optional practice Wednesday morning at the Northtown Center in Amherst. It was tough to really gauge who looked ready to play (everyone looks good when no one’s really playing defense and the goalies aren’t professional caliber) but here’s what stood out to me:

—Steve Ott looked good. Everyone on the ice had his way with the goalies (even “coach” Andrew Peters), but Ott’s shots were particularly well-placed and he continued to create openings and finish when they broke into small-sided games.

—John Scott skated for the first time this week, donning New York Rangers gear and green socks. The 6-foot-8 newcomer’s biggest talent seems to be just that: being a large person. All pros are great puck-handlers and shooters, but other players on the ice were clearly a step above him talent-wise. Scott hasn’t scored since 2009-10, but that’s OK — his job is to be large and intimidating (and/or take out Milan Lucic) and he certainly accomplishes that.

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Sabres’ problems have no easy solution

Another Buffalo Sabres game, another loss. This team is getting more and more frustrating to watch.

We’ve lost five of six and haven’t won consecutive games since early November. Scoring is down, everyone’s hurt, goaltending is suspect, special teams are brutal and fans are calling for Terry Pegula to start handing out pink slips. What’s more concerning is there doesn’t seem to be a quick fix for the Sabres’ problems.

We could score more, and sure, picking up someone in front would be nice, but there’s no single thing the players can do differently tomorrow that will turn the season around.

There’s nothing we can do about injuries. The only way we’re going to get key players back is to wait, but time isn’t something we have a whole lot of. It’s nearly Christmas and we’re currently on the outside of the playoff picture, looking in.

Tyler Myers and Brad Boyes weren’t setting the league on fire before getting hurt, but it looks as if even having them at eighty percent was better than not having them at all. The Rochester replacements really haven’t played that bad, but life is different as a call-up.

You don’t show up in the NHL expecting to rack up the points and put the team on your back. A good day for a newbie is not messing up. Surviving. If you play well enough to not get sent right back down, your day was relatively successful.

Surviving isn’t enough for the regulars. They need to produce. While Zack Kassian and Myers have produced the same amount of points this season (six), we’re saying “Hey, pretty good job from Kassian” and “Man, we really need more from Myers,” even though they gave us the same thing. It feels like our rookies are playing well, but comparing it with the production it takes from regulars to win in the NHL is one reason why the Sabres are struggling — and there’s no easy way to fix it.

Goaltending also needs improvement. Ryan Miller is not playing at the level of a good NHL goalie, let alone anyway near the level he’s getting paid for. Jhonas Enroth, though less criticized, is in a bit of a slump as well. Both goalies have appeared in the same amount of games, with nearly equal results: Miller is 8-7-2 and Enroth is 8-7-1 (that’s best explained in baseball terms … even though they may have been credited with an appearance, they don’t necessarily get a decision).

Twenty-four goalies in the league post a better goals against average than Enroth’s 2.54, and his is more than a half-goal better than Miller’s (3.12, 37th). Enroth also has a better save percentage (.918 to .904), but Miller is the “proven” guy with a contract almost ten times as large.

"Bad goalie! Bad!"

How do you tell a goalie to play better? I kind of wish Lindy would hit Miller on the nose and yell “Bad goalie!” from the bench every time he got scored on, but I don’t think that would do it. He might be going down a little bit early, but Miller doesn’t seem to have have any major technical flaws that shooters are exploiting. He insists he’s free of concussion symptoms, so all that’s left is the mental aspect. Dominik Hasek took it personally when he got beat, but for a more introverted goalie like Miller, maybe he needs some time to get his head right. (Hey Millsy, do that thing you used to do when you sit in the stands with your stick seven hours before a game and look into space. That was cool.)

But goaltending wasn’t the problem against Toronto or Ottawa. Miller was fun to watch against Toronto, especially in the first period where he made several nice save. Miller turned away 35 shots and held the Senators to one goal in the first 48 minutes against Ottawa. The team didn’t play well in its own end either night and was held to two goals or less for the sixth and seventh times in the last 30 days.

One way to help the goalies out is to pick up bodies in front of the net. The Sabres are getting beat for a lot of second chance goals lately and while defensive zone coverage won’t put goals on the board, it will help keep them off it.

I wrote last week how Robyn Regehr, Andrej Sekera and the rest of the Sabres need to lose their puck focus and find a man. Four games and 19 goals later, the team is still having the same problem.

We’re picking on Mike Weber from Tuesday’s game in Ottawa, but after going minus-8 in his first seven games played, he has it coming.

Weber got beat by Chris Neal, of all people, for a home run pass through the neutral zone that led to the Senators’ first goal.

Here are shots about two seconds apart. In the first one, Neal has just slipped past Weber. Zack Smith, a few strides past the red line, is underlined.

There’s no excuse for getting beat like that, but it happens. You put your head down and try as hard as you can to catch the guy, and if you can’t do that, either make sure you clear the rebound and tie up the trailer.

Weber doesn’t do any of those. He coasts back to the net and lets Smith fly right past past him, as shown in the second frame. Smith has gone untouched from the middle of the neutral zone to the hashmarks in the same amount of time that Weber, who should be madder than anyone, went from inside the blue line to the top of the circles. Miller stops the initial shot (because it’s Chris Neal), but when Jordan Leopold can’t clear the rebound, Smith gets a backhand on the loose puck and knocks it past Miller.

Ottawa’s second goal was scored on a rebound and the third goal came on the power play when Jason Pominville didn’t pick up the man coming in from the point. Scoring goals is still a problem, but tightening up defensive zone coverage goes a long way for a hockey team.

After that, there’s not much left a coach can do. Lindy could get in guys’ faces and tell them they need to stop playing like a bunch of sallies, but that’s not his style. The Sabres have plenty of hockey left before the New Year with four games the week after Christmas, but they better figure things out soon, before fans and Eastern Conference teams leave them behind.

Puck focus

I like looking at people’s faces in the stands when I look at the pictures in sports section. The photographer is going for the action, but the people in the background help tell the story, giving instant feedback to whatever happened a split second before the shot.

The picture in Wednesday’s sports page has Ryan Miller looking up, probably swearing in his head, while Jared Cowen and Peter Regin celebrate their overtime winner.

The people in the stands are captured seconds after witnessing a defenseman sneak in from the point and release an uncontested shot that gave the Sabres their eighth loss in their last 11 outings.

The guy in the yellow hat is my favorite. He doesn’t have any outward display of emotion but you know he’s angry. His eyes are already cast off into the distance and his face tells you his thoughts aren’t fit for print.

The little boy over his left shoulder wears a Sabres-themed Santa hat and leans in for a better look. He seems caught off guard — the goal came only 45 seconds into overtime, after all — and a little upset that his hometown heroes had been defeated.

Cohen and Regin are about to skate past the boy and meet up for a celebratory hug, but right now their exuberance is separated by Miller and the goal. They wear bright white sweaters and have their arms up in victory, but space between them shows a stark contrast: in the shadows sits a goateed man with a shirt so dark you can hardly make out the logo. He shows no emotion but wears a rock-hard stare, perhaps aimed at Miller, who has now lost more games this season than he’s won.

Everyone in the stands has an angry look on his or her face. That will happen when you leave people wide open in front of the net.

I’m not sure what Drew Stafford was doing in overtime. Just count the players in front of you and assess the situation. Instead, he gets major puck focus.

It’s 4-on-4.  Stafford (21) let his man go to the net and watched the puck instead, apparently deciding two defensmen could handle three attackers. Andrej Sekera (44) is the only player allowed to be watching the puck because his man, Erik Karlsson, has it. Robyn Regehr takes a peek back at the play and picks up Regin (13) when the pass came across. Derek Roy (9) is also watching the puck and doing nothing, but at least he could claim to be covering the point, where his man, Jason Spezza, curled.

The only guy not doing a thing is Stafford. So what if he’s at the end of his shift. He lets his guy go, curls away from the net at the hash marks and stands and watches the play happen without even attempting to pick someone up. That’s a good way to get your name in the headline of a Bucky Gleason column.

The Sabres got caught watching the first goal too. It was a crazy series of bounces but somebody has to pick up the man in front. Forget the puck, find a man.

Wide open player, wide open net.

Again, it was Regehr and Sekera on D, and they could hold hands from where they were standing in front. Neither one thought to pick up Milan Michalek (9), who came into the game tied for the league lead in goals. They should probably know where he is on the ice.

Jason Pomminville skated in circles as Senators passed around him and Paul Szczechura (not pictured) gave Spezza enough time to find a man wide open in the slot. Thomas Vanek, meanwhile, saw Ottawa shooting and thought it would be a good idea to hang out by the point. He barely got back into the screen for the goal. Miller got drawn too far out of the net and gave Michalek the whole net to shoot at … give a pro 3,456 square inches to choose from and he’ll hit one.

If you can’t protect your own net you better be able to score a bunch of goals. The Sabres were lucky to come out away with a point. The offense scored two quick goals towards the end of the first period but struggled to put together a consistent forecheck. The power play didn’t do much, now 0 for its last 11.

Szczechura finished his goal nicely, taking the puck to his backhand and roofing it, which was good because it wouldn’t have gone over well if he didn’t. The guy playing in his fifth game with the Sabres gets a pass in front of the net, has an uncontested 2-on-0 with Thomas Vanek, and keeps it. Tyler Ennis’ goal was the result of a nice passing play that salvaged Stafford and Roy’s day as he faked Craig Anderson down and put the puck in the open side.

Pretty goals are great but they count the same as ugly ones. We’ll see if players are willing to take the punishment in front of the net — ours and theirs — Friday night when the Maple Leafs come to town. If not, there are going to be a lot more unhappy faces inside the First Niagara Center.

Also, great tweet from something that happened during the broadcast.

Rick Jeanneret gives you the facts in an excited manner, Harry Neale says something that isn’t necessarily relevant to the conversation and … well, that’s Rob Ray being Rob Ray.


Lindy Ruff has made his decision: Jason Pominville will be the Sabres’ captain this year. Guess what? It’s just a letter. Being named captain doesn’t change anything.

Captains get to talk to the referees sometimes. That’s it. There are no special privileges that come with wearing a letter on your chest. Your jersey sales might go up and you might get more recognition because your sweater is visibly different from everyone else’s, but nothing changes.

Captains aren’t really “picked.” Those individuals wear letters because they possess the leadership qualities necessary to head a team, not the other way around. Wearing a “C” doesn’t change who you are. It doesn’t make you a better player.

Some players are natural leaders, others grow into the role through experience. Either way, they will have the same qualities to them regardless of what their uniform says.

Players who come to mind when I think of “captain” are Mark Messier and Ray Bourque. They wore letters most of their careers, even after switching teams. They were given those letters because of the qualities they possessed. If you took the letters away, they’d still be the exact same people with the exact same traits. They would still lead by example and show everyone else the way.

The players know who the leaders are in the dressing room. You would know, too, if you were with the team everyday. It’s nice to be recognized by a team vote or a coach selection, whichever a particular team decides to employ, but remember this guy already has the captain qualities to him before that letter gets stitched on. He doesn’t care about feeding the ego.

A lot of people thought Thomas Vanek should be captain, but I get the feeling he doesn’t really want to be it. Some players don’t want the responsibility. Sure, Lindy could have tried to push his buttons by giving him the “C,” and maybe that would have been a good idea. The team seems to go as Vanek does.

Both Pominville and Vanek are going into their seventh full season with the Sabres and both have three years left in their contracts. Vanek was a goal-scoring machine in last year’s postseason, but was also minus-7. Pominville actually averages more points per game in the playoffs throughout his career.

Both players are still going to be looked up to in the locker room. Both players are going to be counted on to lead the team, in more ways than one. A young guy isn’t going to skip over Vanek to go find Pominville if he has a question just because Lindy gave Jason the “C.”

Vanek will probably get an “A” anyway. He’ll be just as much of a leader with an “A” as he would be with a “C” or without any letter at all. There’s noting special about Sneetches with stars upon thars, it’s about what’s inside that counts.

A captain is more of a figurehead in today’s NHL. That “C” (or “A”) is there to show the officials who is the designated player to speak with. A referee never stepped onto the ice without knowing who Nick Lidstrom was. It’s ceremonial.

The team knows who its leaders long before the official announcement is made during a players- and coaches-only dinner in a foreign country. Leaders are leaders whether they’re wearing an “A” or a “C” or no shirt at all.

Getting a letter doesn’t give you any special powers you don’t already have; it’s the other way around.