The Buffalo Sabres entered this season under a pall of damning expectations, and nothing in their first seven games has changed that. At 0-6-1, a failure to win tonight would set a new franchise record for winless starts to the season.
The trade rumors about their big pending unrestricted free agents, goalie Ryan Miller and
captain (oops, er, Steve Ott is some how their captain) Thomas Vanek, date back to last season. But even when the fire of actual trade discussions momentarily recedes, there remains the constant smoke of logic: Neither player's future makes sense in Buffalo. Yet another, in Elliotte Friedman's 30 Thoughts:
Darcy Regier plays his cards very tight. Interestingly, three different teams have talked about how much they like Thomas Vanek even though the Sabres aren't scoring much. What does hurt Regier here is the perception Vanek wants to go to Minnesota.
That stuff is going to linger all year. It's hard to see how things will be anything but a lost season in Buffalo, an experience not far from Islanders fans' rear view. (It is in the rear view, right? ... RIGHT?) As such, the Sabres represent the ol' "caged animal" and "trap game" for the Isles when they meet at Nassau Coliseum tonight.
The Islanders are hardly at the top of their game, while the Sabres have at least lost by only one goal in five of their seven futile efforts. But this is a back-to-back night for the Sabres, their third game in four nights, and the Islanders will throw a remixed top line at them that could -- in theory -- have them running in circles.
Michael Grabner is replacing Matt Moulson on John Tavares' left wing, and each has historically put up points (playing separately) against Buffalo. Moulson drops down to a third line still seeking an identity with newcomers Peter Regin and Cal Clutterbuck. Meanwhile Pierre-Marc Bouchard returns and gets a top-six opportunity with Frans Nielsen and Josh Bailey.
From a purely academic and entertainment standpoint, it will be interesting to see the on-fire Grabner in this role. We see him so much in the counterattack mode and the "long ball to Grabner" approach that this will be quite a contrast. It could open up eyes; it could go very poorly.
Said Jack Capuano yesterday, when discussing a shakeup that doesn't sound permanent:
Just wanted to look at a few different things [regarding line shuffling]. Maybe give Bouchard a chance at some extra minutes, and see how he produces. … We've talked, he's gotta give us more if he wants to play. He wants the opportunity, we'll give him an opportunity and see where it goes.
Said the coach today, while indicating they will try this new Grabner-Tavares combo to start tonight's game:
"We played those guys together a little bit in Nashville and last year against Tampa Bay when Moulson didn't play, so we'll just see how it goes and take it shift by shift."
In his Islanders tenure Capuano has not historically been a constant line shuffler. Some would even say he sticks with lines too long, depending on how much value one sees in the occasional shakeup. But even if this produces some early results, it's doubtful the Moulson-Tavares duo will be separated for long.
At minimum, this should give players another perspective as they line up with teammates possessing different attributes and tendencies. The Islanders are still seeking "identities" -- to lean on a hockey cliche -- for Clutterbuck and particularly Bouchard, so roles if not lines can be cast during experiments like these.
(Oh also, on the blueline: Matt Carkner remains in for Matt Donovan. In goal, Evgeni Nabokov starts.)
Buffalo: Where To Start?
For the Sabres, it's not the goaltending: They're giving up over 34 shots per game but have a GAA of just 2.57. At the other end, they are logging only 25 shots per game and have scored only seven times. Vanek is still a star, but they have signed and are using Cody Hodgson as a number one center. That's kind of like asking Josh Bailey to center the Isles' top line: You'll get production, but not many wins.
Tonight, Buffalo's top pick last summer (eighth overall), defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen is expected back in after sitting for last night's 2-1 loss to Minnesota, reports John Vogl of the Buffalo News.
Up front, the scoreless Mikhail Grigorenko -- who struggled last year and was ultimately returned to juniors after his ELC already kicked in -- appears to be a scratch for the second time in four games. Some of the scuttlebutt knocks on Grigorenko are his awkward skating style and still-underdeveloped (for an NHLer) body.
So on paper, this opponent is the perfect tonic for the Isles: At home, they face a team that is actually being outshot by a greater margin than they are. But it's also an opponent that should bring a desperate effort, with a goalie in Ryan Miller who is capable on his best nights of stopping whatever the Isles throw at him.
Basically, one team is going to feel like absolute crap after this one.
Leave your First Islander Goal picks for tonight in this thread. And hope someone is right.