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Sabres Central

1ST QUARTER REPORT CARD
By Jon from Ft. Erie
Wednesday, November 24, 1999

The Buffalo Sabres have officially played 1/4 of their new season. If the playoffs were to end today, the Sabres would finish 8th in the Eastern Conference with 20 points. With a record of 9-10-2, the Sabres once again are playing mediocre regular season hockey. Go figure.

Now it is time to grade the Buffalo Sabres after 1/4 of the season has been played.

COACHING. When the Sabres struggled early, Lindy Ruff stepped up to the plate and hit a home run. He threatened to trade anyone who wasn't performing and he sparked the Sabres to win seven of nine games before heading into their disastrous Florida road trip where they would lose three straight before sweeping a home-and-home series against Atlanta. I still think Ruff should have gotten the team off to a better start, but you can't place all the blame on him when half the players at the start of the season were in contract squabbles and didn't have the benefits of a training camp. You have to give Lindy credit for saving a sinking ship after going seven games into the season without a single win.
Grade: B+

FORWARDS. In 21 games, the Sabres have scored 58 goals, putting them in the upper-tier of all teams in the Eastern Conference. Curtis Brown has stepped up to be a legitimate #1 centre. He leads the team with 15 points and a +7 on the year. His two-way play thus far this season is good enough to give the young 23 year old centre some early Selke Trophy nominations. Stu Barnes has also been impressive, possibly the top forward on the team this season. He still is providing the heart that he showed last season after coming to Buffalo from Pittsburgh; the only difference from last season is that this season he's finally hitting twine. Miroslav Satan is still putting up the goals at the pace he did last season. He's on pace for 35 goals this season, but I wouldn't count out another 40 goal season from Miro counting in a few of the hot streaks he'll string together down the stretch of this season. Only problem is that he has scored against the defencively-inept teams (this season, his nine goals come against Atlanta (2), Chicago (2), the Islanders, Montreal, Pittsburgh, Carolina, and a Boston team who played a poor defencive game that night). Michal Grosek has rebounded from a poor showing in the playoffs to be currently tied for the team lead in point-getting this season with 15 points. Geoff Sanderson has eight points this season. I doubt he'll be the scorer he once was, but the effort and hustle is still there and while the Sandman doesn't get rewarded from this in the statistics, his hustle doesn't get unnoticed in my books. Maxim Afinogenov is already making a push towards the Calder Trophy for being the most outstanding rookie of the year. In six games, Afinogenov has four goals and four assists for eight points. Many thought he would have a tough transition from playing in Europe to playing in North America, but he looks more than comfortable in the NHL. He has shown physical stability in the tight corners along the wall and doesn't back down from physical play down low in the trenches, something which eluded fellow teammate Miroslav Satan in his early years in Edmonton. The biggest disappointment this season has been the checking line. That line consisting of Mike Peca, Vaclav Varada, and Dixon Ward was the key line in the success of the Sabres' playoff run last spring. So far this season, there has been the occasional sign of spark from this line, but from what I have seen this line has been AWOL. This checking line was inert until Ruff decided to give Maxim Afinogenov regular shifts on this line. Dixon Ward and Brian Holzinger are in the doghouse and could be traded.
Grade: B

DEFENCE. Lindy Ruff throughout this season has been shuffling the defencive pairings. Originally (after all six regular defenceman were signed to contracts), the pairings were Zhitnik-Smehlik as the top pairing, McKee-Warrener as the second pairing, and the defencive pairings being closed out by Woolley-Patrick. Due to the Sabres uncharacteristically poor defencive play this season, Ruff tried to juggle the defencive pairings. Lately, Sarich and Zhitnik have been on as a pairing, Patrick and Smehlik as another, and Warrener, Woolley, and McKee rotating on a third defencive pairing. To this day, the Sabres' defencive pairing structure has been uncertain at this point in time. With seven defencemen in the regular rotation, odds say that the young Cory Sarich will be the odd man out, but don't be surprised if the Sabres swing a trade using one of their defencemen in the package. The most sound defenceman this season IMO has been the veteran James Patrick. He's picked up right where he left off in last years' playoffs. Alexei Zhitnik has not picked up where he left off. Alexei Zhitnik is the type of defenceman who can look like an All-World defenceman when he plays his "A" game, and look like a player who would be cut from a Junior B team when he plays the sluggish game we saw halfway through last season and up to this point this season. Richard Smehlik has slumped at times, but all-in-all I feel that Smehlik has played solid hockey, especially since being taken off the top pairing with Zhitnik. Jason Woolley wasn't happy with the contract the arbitrator awarded him with this season, but hasn't held any grudges as his play so far this season has been about as admirable as it was last season. Although he hasn't racked up the numbers many would expect him to put up for fantasy hockey leagues, he still has continued to be a consistent blueliner for the Sabres. Despite switching up the defencive pairings, there has still been signs of the rugged McKee-Warrener pairing playing together. Unfortunately, they don't seem to be the dominating physical force that fed off each other at the tail end of last season. Maybe part of the reason is because a training camp would have benefitted these two, but they definitely haven't shown the physical domination that they have shown last season. McKee has made his share of crushing hits, but has also made his fair share of costly mistakes as well. Overall, the Sabres defencive effort has improved since their first seven games of the season, but there's still a lot of inconsistency and instability on the Sabres blueline that needs to be addressed.
Grade: D-

GOALTENDING. I would have to give Dominik Hasek an F. Backup Dwayne Roloson not much better. Thank God there's Calder candidate Martin Biron who has looked impressive this season. He has been the best out of the three Sabres goaltenders this season, but even he has had some problems. Some of those problems include rebound control and shifting from side to side in his crease. But overall, Biron filled in nicely since Hasek injured his groin and although there still is some room for improvement, that is just expected from a rookie netminder who was suddenly "thrown into" what was at the time a dreadful goaltending situation in Buffalo. I still was very disappointed with how Hasek came into his final season, where I think he would want to prove to the world that he would go out as the greatest goaltender to ever play the game. His performance up to the point he got injured left a lot to be desired for anyone who would even want to be considered being honoured with that title.
Grade: D+

SABRES 1ST QUARTER GRADE: C-

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