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Sabres Central

MID-TERM REPORT CARD
by SECTION 116 (Jon from Ft. Erie)
January 10, 2000

It's that time again, the time that I can evaluate the team who I follow and support the most: the Buffalo Sabres.

FORWARDS

Mike Peca (D-) - Can the REAL Mike Peca show up? He hasn't been hitting, hasn't been producing, hasn't given the team the needed lift as captain, he just isn't doing his job this season.

Curtis Brown (B+) - Curtis Brown is really starting to mold into a #1 centre. He's been all over the ice, backchecking, playing well in transition and on pace to shatter his career-best scoring mark. Don't forget that he's only 23 still.

Stu Barnes (A-) - Last year when Barnes came to Buffalo he struggled. Those days are over. Stuuu this season has been a force on the ice and has really played superb in transition. He reads the play well and gets involved, creating turnovers which lead to odd-man rushes the other way in Buffalo's favour.

Brian Holzinger (C) - After a SLOW start to this season, I think Brian's finally starting to come on strong. He has finally came to his senses and is FINALLY showing his worth for this team. He needs to utilize his strongest asset (SPEED) to his fullest advantage like he has recently.

Wayne Primeau (C-) - He's had his occasional strong game (of course one of those games came against the Leafs), but for the most part he hasn't lived up to expectations. Ruff has juggled where he has placed Primeau in the lineup. He started on the fourth line, was promoted to the second line, and now somehow has found himself on the top line in the lineup card. He still has the ability to become a force in front of the net in the slot, but only on an occasional basis has he shown the power forward attributes that run in the Primeau bloodlines.

Miroslav Satan (B) - He leads the team in scoring with 22 goals (including three last night), but like in previous seasons hasn't attained consistency. His goals continue to come in bunches and until he goes beyond being a streaky scorer, no matter if he nets 40 this season (which he is on pace to do), I can't give him full marks.

Maxim Afinogenov (A++++++++++++) - Right now, the only forward in the league that is better than Maxim Afinogenov is Jaromir Jagr. Say he's too young to be praised this high, say that like Sergei Samsonov he's only a one-year phenom, say what you want, but I'll say this. Afinogenov, in his first NHL season, is the MVP of the Sabres team this season up to this point. Bar none. No one brings such electricity to the ice every time he plays. Whenever he touches the puck, he's bound to make something happen. Hardly ever do you see him casually dump the puck in when he hits the neutral zone. He uses his strong skating, agility and puckhandling skills to manuver around defenseman. He has an eye for the net. Even more impressive is how he has rounded out his complete game. Max is playing better defensively, is getting into the play physically, has gotten into a few tussles, is passing with efficiency, is really helping out our power play, and is having no trouble shooting. Everything you can ask from Afinogenov he's doing and only Jagr is a better player in this league. Too bad Ruff is only now starting to play him on regular shifts. He's a star player now and when he hits his prime, Afinogenov will be the most exciting player in the NHL since Wayne Gretzky (and also have a better all-around game than Gretzky). I wouldn't count out a Calder Trophy for this future superstar either.

Vaclav Varada (G, lower than an F) - By far the worst player on this team. He's an asset in the playoffs and is worthless now. Varada's the slowest skater on the team (even over guys like Ray and Kruse), isn't hitting like he can, and is floating instead of getting involved in the play. The only times I have seen Varada play is when the Sabres are blowing out the opposition (like in the 3rd period on New Year's Day against the Leafs and last night in the third period against Ottawa). Denis Hamel has as many goals in one game than Varad has all season. I think that pretty much explains something.

Rob Ray (C) - Give the guy credit. He's fulfilling his role well as an enforcer and a veteran leader. That's all you can ask from a character player like Ray; nothing more, nothing less.

Michal Grosek (C-) - Like always, Grosek is suffering from a case of inconsistencitus. He STILL isn't making the most of his size and isn't becoming the mucking power forward he's made out to be. Sure he's improved from his no-show in last years' playoffs, but there's still some room for improvement. One more thing I noticed is that he needs to shoot the puck more often.

Erik Rasmussen (B+) - Rasmussen's really coming on strong. Gradually, he's working his way up to becoming a force in the Sabres' lineup. When he was listed as a healthy scratch for a string of games after being a non-factor, you thought "here we go again", reflecting back on last season when he was up and down from Rochester. Recently, Rasmussen has had a regular spot in the Sabres lineup and has been a force. He's one of the few players hitting and has been forechecking hard. A much improved second quarter grade over that of the first quarter, meaning I still think there's still some promise in Rasmussen.

Geoff Sanderson (D+) - Last year when Sanderson wasn't producing, I still could say that he was giving 100% each and every game which was true. This season he may be on pace to score a few goals better than last season (although he isn't anywhere close to being the 40-goal scorer he once was), but his drive doesn't seem to be as present as it was last year. Anyone else noticing this?

Dixon Ward (F) - He obviously has no intent to stay in Buffalo. Expect him to be traded.

Paul Kruse (D-) - His best performance all year has been in the Super Skills Compeition a few weeks ago at the Marina. He's been invincible this season in real game play and Ruff cannot insert him in the lineup. Expect him to continue to see lots of time in the press box listed as a healthy scratch.

DEFENCE

Alexei Zhitnik (D) - Like many of his teammates (and his coach), he is not a regular season performer. Often times I question his motive. Whether it be failing to hit like he did in the playoffs, missing passes on the power play (and being reluctant to shoot with the man advantage), or being caught out of position MANY times (especially in recent games) costing his team crucial goals, Zhitnik is going through his usual regular season woes. Somehow, someway, I expect Alexei to step up his game to top-notch level in the playoffs as he always does (that is IF the Sabres do make the playoffs).

Jason Woolley (C) - At times, he has impressed me while other times he has given myself and Sabres fans headaches. A lot of the time he has played positionally sound and has covered a ton of ground on the ice, executing his strength of skating backwards. Unfortunately, he has made quite a few crucial mistakes that has cost his team goals, many more than a veteran defenceman like Zhitnik should be making. Not to forget that his scoring production at both even strength and on the power play has been distressing.

Jay McKee (C+) - I expected him to be much more dominating physcially. Missing training camp hurt McKee, but by now he should be hitting in full-gear. He has not. The "bash brothers" of McKee and Warrener, Buffalo's strongest defencive pairing, hardly has been the powerful force they were last year after Rhett was traded to Buffalo from Florida. And of the two "bash brothers", Warrener has been the more physical of the two. At least Jay is on pace to break his career-high scoring mark of one goal.

Rhett Warrener (B-) - Although young Cory Sarich is making a push, Rhett remains the Sabres' most physical force on the blueline, showing what a great pick-up he was for the services of lady-like Mike Wilson who hasn't done anything with Florida. He seems to be the only defenceman who is clearing the crease of traffic and is doing a good job of doing it. Will be an asset as the season goes on and into the playoffs whenever the power forwards try invading the crease in front of Biron or Roloson.

Richard Smehlik (D-) - Like always, Smehlik hasn't been playing good defencive hockey and Ruff has finally realized this by listing him as a healthy scratch for a good part of the season. He's now out with a rib injury, but his presence on the Sabres' blueline will not be missed. Expect him to possibly be traded as with Sarich, Campbell, and even Kalinin trying to crack the Sabres' lineup on the blueline there won't be any room for Smehlik.

James Patrick (C) - Started off the season well after a strong playoffs, but has tailed off since. He has been lackadaisical at times in covering his man in his own end of the ice. He provides veteran leadership and is a stable defenceman most of the time, but don't expect anything more than a 5-6 depth role from Patrick. Also expect him to see a lot more ice time in the playoffs like he did last year where his veteran charisma comes to use.

Cory Sarich (C+) - When he first came to Buffalo from Rochester I was impressed. He was hitting and was giving all he had. Now that he knows he has a roster spot secured, he has slacked. He continues to make costly defencive mistakes, but I'll accept that for now as that will improve through experience as every rookie defenceman makes his fair share of mistakes. He continues to hit, but not to the extent that he did when he first came here. Smehlik was back in the Sabres lineup last night and when Warrener returns, expect Sarich to be sent back to Rochester for further development (remember that since he started off the season in Rochester he doesn't need to clear waivers).

GOALTENDERS

Martin Biron (C+) - People give Biron WAY too much credit. Sure he came in for Hasek and posted good numbers in his first few weeks as the Sabres' starter, but that was because he wasn't facing the number of shots that Hasek was. Biron lately though has struggled. Although his rebound control has improved, his lateral movement across the crease still needs work. Even worse is the way he handles the puck behind his own net. That needs a lot of work and cost him in the Toronto game. He's very weak on breakaways (although I may be spoiled by Hasek's brilliancy on breakaways), which has been shown both in games and in the Super Skills competition where Biron was rocked. Will Hasek be back and healthy in time to play in the playoffs? We'll have to see, but I'm having my serious doubts if the Sabres can ride Biron's shoulders to the Cup and it'll have to take another total team effort a la last years' playoff performance to see this happen. Give Biron a few years to work on the fundaments and he'll be a keeper. Although Biron hasn't been the superb goaltender that his stats may indicate IMO, I'll have to say that considering the positon he was thrown into after Hasek went down he's not doing all that bad. He's just not doing as great as many people would think.

Dwayne Roloson (C) - At times he has looked better than Biron, other times he has struggled (see Detroit game, which was by far his worst performance of his career). He's been reasonably solid, not spectacular, with a minor setback every so often. Like Biron, don't expect Roloson to carry the Sabres deep into the playoffs.

OVERALL (C-) - The Sabres have rebounded from a sluggish start to this season, only to play inconsistent mediocre hockey. The Sabres are not a regular season team. I feel that if they make the playoffs, they'll step up their games in the playoffs. Now the only question that remains is IF they make the playoffs this year and have the chance to shake a few heads come playoff time.

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