July 27, 2011

Fischler Report: Champion B's will face challenge from Sabres

by Stan Fischler

The Sabres could give Boston a run in its own division this coming season. (photo: Getty)

Could one of the biggest challenges to the Boston Bruins’ effort at repeating come from right in its own division?

Terry Pegula, the Buffalo Sabres’ new, no-nonsense owner has given his general staff plenty of ammunition to produce a winner. What remains to be seen is whether the chemistry is right for a Cup contender.

Our new columnist/editor Lauren Borsuk offers this view:

A look at the current, revamped Buffalo roster features the additions of skilled players such as Christian Ehrhoff and Ville Leino; as well as the usual suspects. The skill is there, but how about a leader?

The Sabres have had a vacancy in the captain department since Craig Rivet’s departure for Columbus. From season to season, the Sabres’ downfall has been rooted in every players’ unwillingness to step up and grab the team’s leadership reins.

Or, perhaps, the problem dates back to July 1, 2007, when both Daniel Briere and Chris Drury (Trumbull, Conn.) left for greener pastures.They took with them the leadership credentials that have yet to be matched by any current member of the Sabres.

The solution would be to assign the ‘C’ to Thomas Vanek, who’s entering his sixth season with the squad. But it’s still uncertain whether he’s ready for the added pressure, which his seven-year, $50 million mega deal has already put on him.

Vanek had a career year in 2007-08, posting 43 goals and 41 assists. He has since been unable to match those totals – or for that matter, such a level of play. Although 32 goals and 41 assists in his 2010-11 campaign was impressive, the Sabres need Vanek to step up and play to his full potential.

Leadership also rests with the coaching staff led by Lindy Ruff, who won a contract extension from Pegula. Since Ruff took over in Buffalo 14 years ago – he is the third-longest tenured coach in professional sports – the NHL has overseen 162 coaching changes. Although he is highly-regarded throughout the NHL, there’s a clamor for a Cup in Sabreland.

As relentless as he’s been, Ruff has come close but, still, with no cigar. Watch out, Lindy; boss Terry could get impatient if the new edition falters. It would help the veteran coach if he could find a leader in the Drury-Briere mold.

Observations

* Peter DeBoer’s hire by the Devils proves a few points: 1. GM Lou Lamoriello (Providence, R.I.) found a solid, savvy citizen to revive New Jersey’s fortunes. 2. Lamoriello keeps a no-leak secret as well as any sports executive. 3. Some awfully competent, experienced coaches -- Ken Hitchcock, Marc Crawford, et. al. -- are left without jobs.

Gossip

* If any player has an opportunity to live up to his glorious rookie press notices, it will be Blake Wheeler, who, hopefully will be a big man on Kevin Cheveldayoff’s roster with the Winnipeg Jets. Wheeler never cut the right kind of ice in Boston with the Bruins. Not that he needs any motivation, but a two-year deal for $5.1 million should get “Wheels” rolling.

* It took what seemed like an eternity for 21-year-old Steven Stamkos to sign a new pact with Tampa Bay. GM Steve Yzerman can exhale. His RFA center, who tallied 96 goals over the past two seasons, agreed to a five-year, $37.5 million deal with the Lightning.

It’s an interesting move, considering the lifetime contracts given to players such as Alex Ovechkin (13 years, $124 million), Brad Richards (nine years, $60 million) and Stamkos’ teammate, Vinny Lecavalier (11 years, $85 million).

So why only five years for a franchise player? “Five years is an appropriate term,” explains Yzerman, “and it’s something we’re comfortable with.”

* How amazing is former Bruins defenseman Sean O’Donnell? In 2001, when the now 39-year-old defensemen labored for the Devils, he looked like he was washed up. Many thought the backliner’s legs were gone. How wrong we were! And how right the Blackhawks are in signing the tough, wily vet for $850,000.

Stan Fischler can be reached at FischlerReport@aol.com.