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.

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Sabres offseason assessment

A 40th consecutive Stanley Cup-less season in Buffalo can only mean one thing: the team has several areas it can address in free agency, which opens this Friday, July 1.

The timely scoring and stout defensive zone coverage that propelled the Sabres from 14th to 7th in the Eastern Conference standings fell apart in a first-round playoff collapse to Philadelphia. The defense showed its youth and the offense underperformed.

Darcy Regier, Terry Pegula & Co. are already on their way to fixing those problems. They made an addition to the Buffalo blue line this weekend, receiving veteran Robyn Regehr in trade with Calgary that also brought back Ales Kotalik in exchange for Chris Butler and prospect Paul Byron. While he is known for his defensive abilities, at 6-foot-3, 225 pounds, Regehr also brings a physical presence to the Sabres defense that it has desperately needed the last several seasons.

Darcy says he sees hope for Kotalik’s NHL career, but the rest of us aren’t so sure. The Sabres still have several personnel decisions to make, so let’s take a look at what players the team has under contract.

 Several things should jump out at you:

  • They need a top-level center to play on line 1 or 2.
  • After the Regehr trade, they still only have four defensemen signed; three if you count ones who actually play something resembling defense.
  • They need to sign a backup goalie.
  • There is a ton of money invested in lines 3 and 4.

Center

The first thing I’ll address is the center. I’m ready to part ways with Tim Connolly. He does provide some value to the team, especially as a penalty killer, but it’s time to move on. Connolly has been a member of the Sabres longer than any other player on the roster, but it’s time to pass the torch down to Jochen Hecht and make way for a more productive player.

Letting Connolly walk leaves a hole on the second line, but I think that spot may be best for Derek Roy. He’s certainly a fan favorite, but I’m not as high on him as most other people are. He takes a lot of bad penalties and he doesn’t produce like a top NHL center. His career-best 32 goals in 2007-08 put him just 20th in the league. Bottom line is I wouldn’t pick a team to win the Cup with Derek Roy as its top center.

However, there is only one player in free agency who could dethrone Roy as the best centerman on the team, and that’s Brad Richards. Richards has reached 91 points twice in his career and is the best forward to be an unrestricted free agent on Friday, but also the most expensive. The last five seasons, his cap hit has been $7.8 million. Buffalo can afford a salary in that range, but they will have to decide if the juice is worth the squeeze.

The rest of the UFA class seems a little pricey for the expected production, especially because it is made up of a lot of older players in their late 30s. Ville Leino (27) is a younger player on the list that has some value, but he seems likely to return to the Flyers.

The restricted free agent side offers more talent but many of those players, like Steven Stamkos and Zach Parise, are rumored to be resigning with their current teams. One player down the RFA list a little ways that I do like is St. Louis young gun T.J. Oshie, who could be a nice fill-in on the second line — that is if he doesn’t resign with the Blues.

Defense

The Regehr move helps clean things up on the defensive end, but there’s still some clutter to be sorted out. The easiest thing to say, now that Butler is gone, is just resign them all. Steve Montador isn’t bad and Andrej Sekera has some real potential. Mike Weber is okay for now and he can battle it out with Marc-Andre Gragnani for the last spot in the lineup.

The only real issue is Shaone Morrisonn. The man only managed five points in 62 games this year and seemed perplexed by defensive zone assignments. Morrisonn averaged 16:10 in ice time per game — seventh among Buffalo defensemen. The only thing he had going for him was not being worse than Craig Rivet, but even that ended for him midway during the year. He doesn’t play on the power play and he occasionally kills penalties. You really hope to get a lot more out of a $2 million player.

The Sabres could do nothing and hope he finds his game, or they can waive him down to the AHL and just eat his cap hit (helps having a rich owner). It’d be nice if they could find someone to take him, but other teams have good scouting departments, too.

Resigning everyone is the easiest scenario, but there are good free agents out there if Darcy is still looking to add depth on the back end, which is never a bad idea. I really liked how Kevin Bieksa played for Vancouver in the playoffs, and he’ll be a UFA, but I have a feeling every other GM in the league also saw the playoffs and would like Bieksa on his team, too. His current deal was worth $3.75 million, but after a strong playoff performance that number will go way up. He probably signs back with Vancouver, but if not look for him to go to a team with deep pockets. With one $4 million defenseman already added, I don’t see the Sabres going out and signing an even more expensive player.

James Wisniewski and Ian White are younger, mid-priced defensmen who will be UFAs, if those names interest you.  I was interested in Christian Ehroff before he forgot how to play hockey during the Western Conference playoffs. All are in the $3 million range, but even that may be too high for the Sabres to spend. Shea Weber and Drew Doughty are big name RFAs, and while I’d love to have either of them, their going rates will likely be too high for Buffalo.

I’m interested to see how Gragnani develops. He has work to do still, but he led the Sabres in postseason scoring and that didn’t happen on accident. The kid is an offensive threat and could be our next power play quarterback. I don’t know how much that means for him right away this season, but if I’m in charge Gragnani gets a legitimate shot to make the team straight out of camp.

Backup goalie

Easy. Patrick Lalime can go play bar league somewhere while Jhonas Enroth signs a nice little deal. If Enroth plays his cards right he could probably get over $1 million just on the potential he’s shown. If not I bet someone else would give it to him. From the Sabres’ perspective, holding on to him for trade bait is another good reason. Ryan Miller is in the prime of his career and will play 60-some odd games. I’ve seen nothing but good things from Enroth, but Miller may be the best goalie in the league — in the world — on a consistent basis. Maybe they sent Enroth somewhere in a deadline deal over the next few years and pick up a scorer.

Lines 3 and 4

This is a real problem. I slid Kotalik in for Cody McCormick on the fourth line so his $3 million inflates the numbers, but it still should make Darcy weary. I liked what Brad Boyes did at the end of the regular season and Hecht is a core member of the team who provides leadership for the younger guys while playing a more limited role.

The problem is that when you add in what Nathan Gerbe will likely get — they better resign Gerbe — you end up with a third line that costs $8.5 million. That’s not how winning hockey teams operate. You need bargain players at the bottom who over-perform their small contracts so you have money at the top for your stars. Why pay guys that much to play 15-17 minutes a game when you could develop a younger guy for a fraction of the cost? (Zack Kassian, maybe? I can dream…)

Paul Gaustad has one year left on his $2.3 million deal, but that’s a way too much to pay a fourth-liner. Kaleta and McCorick could both be making under a million on the fourth line. That’s a typical fourth-line, grind-it-out type of guy. He can win faceoffs? That’ll be good to put on his resume this time next year while he’s packing up his house. One of the top centermen will take the defensive-zone faceoffs, not the fourth line.

Then there’s Kotalik. This one is an enigma, I tell you. $3 million is a lot to pay a guy to score in shootouts. I don’t know what the plan is here.

Other thoughts:

  • Mike Grier often gets forgotten. He may retire, but I like having him around. He’s welcome back on my team, just not for $1.5 mil.
  • See Tyler Myers on that chart? He has one year left at $1.3 million. How much do you think he’ll be worth as an RFA next summer? I’d try to work out an extension with him now. He’s good for it.
  • I’m excited to have Rochester back as the Sabres’ farm team. I’ve never paid to go to an Amerks game, but following a team 70 miles away and having your prospects there is much better than having them 500 miles away in Portland. It’s just better for business.
  • NHL draft was last weekend, and it has almost nothing in common with the NFL draft. The Sabres did pretty good… we think. Check back in six years.
  • I played an old NHL video game during the draft because, aside from the players’ sisters, it was kind of boring after round one. I played as the Sabres. My first thought after turning off the game: Man I really don’t miss Kotalik at all. Spoke too soon.
  • The NHL and NFL schedules are out… The Bills play the Jets on Nov. 6 and Sabres play the Jets on Nov. 8. That has to be the closest streak in all of sports, right?
  • Want to do some searching for yourself? Check out capgeek.com for more.