After finishing last in the Northeast Division for the first time since 2004 and missing the playoffs for the second consecutive season, the Buffalo Sabres are hitting the reset button. The first move was saying goodbye to head coach Lindy Ruff after 1,165 games behind the bench, then shipping captain Jason Pominville to the Minnesota Wild for two prospects and two picks.
The futures of mainstays such as Thomas Vanek and Ryan Miller are uncertain, and even less so for recent free agent signings such as Christian Ehrhoff, who have so far failed to live up the billing. Climbing back to the top of the Eastern Conference will be a bumpy journey and head coach Ron Rolston will also have to overcome a learning curve of his own as a first-time NHL bench boss.
Considered a playoff contender, the Sabres could not find their rhythm to get going. They remained poor on the road this year, but were just one game over .500 at home. At four separate times during the season, the Sabres lost four consecutive games.
Young players who were expected to take steps forward, such as Cody Hodgson, Marcus Foligno, and Tyler Ennis, had seasons that ranged from mediocre to disappointing. However, the silver lining for Buffalo, who were eliminated from playoff contention on April 19, was a chance to get a closer look at how their prospects perform at the NHL level. Mikhail Grigorenko returned to the Sabres to finish the season, and Chad Ruhwedel, signed out of UMass-Lowell after his junior year, managed to get seven games in.
The Rochester Americans narrowly made the playoffs, finishing seventh in a tight Western Conference with first and eighth place separated by just eight points. The Amerks drew the Toronto Marlies squad in the first round for the second consecutive year, with the Marlies victorious last year in a sweep behind Ben Scrivens' strong play. With the two teams finishing with the same amount of wins, 43, this year's matchup would be a lot closer. Ironically, the Amerks found themselves shooting at former teammate Drew MacIntyre, released as a free agent after failing to establish himself as the Amerks' starting goaltender in 2011-12. Like Scrivens the year before, MacIntyre shut the door and allowed five goals all series as the Marlies swept the Amerks again.
The good news for the Sabres is that 2012 first round pick Zemgus Girgensons led the way with three goals, followed by three assists from Johan Larsson, picked up from Minnesota in the Pominville trade. It is encouraging, despite their limited experience, that Buffalo's young players are performing in pressure-packed situations. Mark Pysyk and Brian Flynn did not miss a beat after rejoining the Amerks following the end of the NHL season, though neither managed any points.
Among those who were considered long shots or depth forwards, none stood out. Luke Adam, Philip Varone, and Jerome Gauthier-Leduc finished minus-11 as a group and registered zero points. Adam, who graduated as a prospect last season, has experienced a lot of ups and downs in his development with the Sabres, and with the power forward's contract expiring this summer, his future with the organization is still uncertain.
With a logjam in the goalie position, Connor Knapp was sent to the Greenville Road Warriors. Knapp was briefly recalled in early April, but spent the most majority of the season with Greenville where he played in 12 games in a backup role. In four playoff games, Knapp stepped up his play considerably, but Greenville was outmatched by first-seed Reading and lost in the opening round in six games.
Defenseman Corey Fienhage and the Gwinnett Gladiators finished third and easily dispatched South Carolina in a sweep, but were upset by Cincinnati in the second round. Fienhage was a staple in the Gladiators lineup and scored 15 points during the season but went pointless in ten playoff games.
Like Knapp and Fienhage, forwards Shawn Szydlowski and Riley Boychuk found themselves on the outside looking in with the Amerks and spent the season with the Fort Worth Brahmas. Losing just six games at home, the Brahmas rode a strong home record to a third place finish. The Brahmas advanced to the second but were swept in the second round by Wichita in four games. Despite finishing the season tenth in team scoring, Szydlowski led the Brahmas in post-season scoring with six points in seven games. Boychuk scored eight goals in 41 regular season games and did not dress in the playoffs.
Named the team's MVP for the second year in the row, goaltender Andrey Makarov backstopped the Saskatoon Blades to a second place finish in the Eastern Conference behind the powerhouse Edmonton Oil Kings. Having been swept last year by the Medicine Hat Tigers in the opening round, the Blades had a chance to avenge last year's loss, just like the Amerks against the Marlies. But again, Makarov folded in the playoffs, the Tigers again sweeping the Blades in four games, scoring 15 goals in the process. The Blades became the only second-seed team to be swept in the opening round in WHL history. As the host of the Memorial Cup, however, the Blades saw their post-season extended anyway. They were vastly outmatched however and lost three of their four games. Makarov was under constant fire as well, facing 135 shots and finishing with a 4.09 goals against average.
After a disappointing season in which he missed 23 games and saw his point totals drop from 62 to 43, Victoria Royals center Logan Nelson kicked his play up a notch in the playoffs. He finished with six points in six games to finish second on the team in playoff scoring. His efforts would not be enough however, as the Royals would lose to the Kamloops Blazers in six games. Considered a project, Nelson will most likely play out his final year of major junior with the Royals where he is expected to play a central role and increase his production.
Despite being the Owen Sound Attack's regular season leader in goals, Daniel Catenacci mustered just three in 12 playoff games. The Attack came out victorious in a hard-fought six-game series against Sault Ste. Marie in the first round with Catenacci collecting six points, including two multi-point games. But he struggled in the second round against Plymouth, registering just one goal and finished a combined minus-eight in the final four games of the series.
The Sabres also got a good look at two of their defensemen with Brady Austin's Belleville Bulls and Alex Lepkowski's Barrie Colts facing off in the Eastern Conference final. A stay-at-home defenseman with limited offensive abilities, Austin surprised with five assists in 17 games, second on the team among defensemen. Lepkowski, another stay-at-home defenseman, also surprised, though he has developed a knack for scoring in the playoffs. Lepkowski scored two goals in last year's playoffs and added another two this year despite not scoring a single goal during the 2012-13 regular season. The Colts fell to London in a thrilling seven-game series in the OHL final, narrowly missing a Memorial Cup berth, but the continuing development of Lepkowski and Austin is encouraging.
Scoring 20 points in 40 games in an expanded role as a sophomore, Christian Isackson played a key role in helping Minnesota earn an at-large berth in the NCAA tournament and claim the first seed in the West Regional. However, eventual champions Yale upset the Golden Gophers 3-2 in overtime in the regional semifinals. Isackson played some shifts with the fourth line and was held off the scoresheet.
The Wisconsin Badgers were named WCHA champions, but as the fourth seed drew a strong UMass-Lowell squad in the Northeast Regional Semifinals. The Badgers suffered a 6-1 defeat, and neither defenseman Jake McCabe nor forward Brad Navin collected any points.
In Finland, Joel Armia and Assat Pori captured the Finnish league championship, the franchise's fourth overall and the first since 1978. Assat Pori blitzed through the playoffs, dispatching KalPa and JYP in five games each before finishing off Tappara in six games in the final. Armia's 19 regular season goals was good enough for second on the team, but scored only three in 16 playoff games, sixth on the team. Still, the highly touted forward's three-year career in Finland has been impressive. With his contract with Assat expiring, Armia will play in North America next year.
Notes and Signings
After a tumultuous 2011-12 season with the Seattle Thunderbirds, fourth round pick Colin Jacobs was facing a big uphill battle to get signed. Coming off an injury and posting career lows in goals and assists, Jacobs got a fresh start this season after getting traded to Prince George, where he set career highs across the board. With an impressive showing in his final major junior season, Jacobs was signed to an amateur tryout with the Amerks, where he collected a goal and three points in 11 games. Jacobs did not dress in the playoffs but the Sabres may elect to keep him around longer to see what he can do.
Forward Tim Schaller is the Sabres' most recent addition, signed in early April after four years with Providence College, serving as captain in his junior season and then serving as an alternate this year. Although Schaller has limited abilities on offense, scoring just 29 goals in 131 career games, he was named Hockey East's top defensive forward. Projected to be a utility, checking line player, Schaller will bring a defensive conscience to the Amerks next year.