Category archive: Buffalo Sabres

A goalie in the mix for the Vezina and Hart trophies, a defenseman who is the odds-on favorite to win the Calder Trophy, a team offense that was top 10 in the NHL this season and a goals-against average that was top five.

Sounds like a Stanley Cup contender, right?

Well, you'd be hard-pressed to find many media pundits who have the Buffalo Sabres in their Stanley Cup finals predictions (I've got Washington coming out of the East). So, what gives? Why no national buzz for a Sabres team that essentially went wire to wire in winning the Northeast Division en route to a 100-point season?

"That's kind of what we want, to come in and surprise teams," Sabres center Derek Roy told on Tuesday night.

There's apparently not a great deal of buzz for the Sabres in their own backyard, reports my colleague, sports columnist Bucky Gleason of The Buffalo News.

I arrived in Buffalo on Wednesday on the eve of the Boston-Buffalo playoff opener at HSBC Arena and look forward to seeing it for myself; Buffalo fans were pumped for the Sabres clubs that came out of the lockout and went to back-to-back conference finals.

I'm not changing my pick; I still like the Caps to come out of the East. But let's give the Sabres a little love here. They have the best goalie in the NHL this season in Ryan Miller, the top rookie and a future Norris Trophy winner in Tyler Myers, a perennial Jack Adams Award candidate in coach Lindy Ruff, a balanced offense that produced the ninth-most goals in the league this season and a defense that gave up the fourth-fewest.

What's not to like?

"We've tried to keep an even keel all year long and not let the highs get too high and the lows get too low," said Roy, who led the Sabres with 69 points (26-43) in 80 games. "We've had a consistent season, and we're trying to bring that into the playoffs."

The offense produced this season despite getting only a 28-goal season from former 40-goal man Thomas Vanek and a disappointing 34-point campaign from Drew Stafford (who might miss Game 1 with a concussion). Balance is the key to this offense, Roy said.

"I'd say we pretty much play all four lines more than any other team in the league," he said. "We roll four lines really well. We get everyone playing and get everyone in the game. That shows how deep we are, and that's going to be important at playoff time. Everybody feels rested and ready to go, and we're going to need a different hero every night. Everyone has to step up."

A different hero every night. I like the way Roy said that. Because that is the rich history of NHL playoff hockey, isn't it? The Sabres certainly know that. The Bruins and Sabres have had some memorable playoff moments in the old Adams Division days; my favorite is the Brad May OT goal in 1993.

"I've seen that highlight a few times in the Buffalo area," Roy said. "It was a pretty big goal at the time and a very nice goal, too."

Roy was 10 years old, growing up in Ottawa, when May scored that goal. Watching the playoffs on "Hockey Night in Canada" was a big deal in the Roy household.

"I remember growing up watching the playoffs," Roy said. "We were a big hockey family, and it was certainly on. I have one younger and one older brother, and we'd be always sitting around watching those games."

Now, the Sabres' leading scorer has a chance to be a hero himself, and perhaps help his Sabres get a little more respect around North America.

Hello, puckheads. The big man is back at work. One week left in the regular season and then I'm on the playoff trail for two months. Giddy-up!

But first, some random thoughts after spending a week in Florida:

1. The Calder debate
Let me preface this thought by saying I believe Jimmy Howard should be nominated for the Vezina Trophy; his season has been that outstanding. But I do not believe the Detroit Red Wings goalie should win the Calder Trophy. Confused? Don't be. Howard is 26 years old, four years older than Sidney Crosby, who is in his fifth NHL season. Howard is five years older than Patrick Kane, the Calder Trophy winner from two seasons ago.

I understand Howard is eligible for the award (he just slipped under the age cutoff) and he will be among my five choices in my official NHL awards ballot when I fill it out this week, but he won't be my first choice.

Tyler Myers turned 20 this past February. What he's done patrolling the blue line for the Buffalo Sabres has been truly outstanding. Among all his defensive talents, he's third in rookie scoring, trailing only forwards Matt Duchene and John Tavares. The fact he's six years younger than Howard is a big difference in my book. A month ago, I gave Duchene the nod in an early look at the awards, but I've shifted back to Myers.

2. The Montreal net
In the dramatic and pressure-packed market that is Montreal, the goalie story has had incredible legs this season. And it only went up a notch last week. Some Bell Centre fans booed Carey Price last Wednesday after he was named third star in a 2-1 loss to Carolina. Tough crowd, indeed. And those fans are idiots for booing him. The kid has had no offensive support this season. Price's .912 save percentage is better than the likes of Pekka Rinne, Jonathan Quick and Marc-Andre Fleury, a fact that no doubt surprises many of you.

The problem is, the other guy sharing the net with him in Montreal this season happens to have the third-best save percentage in the entire NHL at .927. Jaroslav Halak also doubles Price in the most important stat of all: wins. That's why the Slovak has won out in the season-long battle and will be the starter come playoff time. But what do you do this summer if you're GM Pierre Gauthier?

Both goalies are restricted free agents. There's no room for both to return; neither goalie wants to share the No. 1 job again and, more importantly, the Habs have cap issues and need to re-sign UFA center Tomas Plekanec. So Price or Halak will almost surely be dealt.

Which one do you deal? Halak will turn 25 next month, while Price will be 23 in August. As one NHL scout told me this season, Halak is the better goalie right now, but you can't discount the upside with Price. Tough call for Gauthier. Either way, he needs to recoup some offense in return. And regardless of which netminder the Habs choose to keep, both goalies are No. 1 material for years to come.

3. Which team comes out of the West?
Before I went on vacation, I tweeted that Washington-Vancouver was my choice for a Cup finals matchup at that point. I still like the Caps coming out of the East, but now I have some doubts with the Canucks. And it's not just Roberto Luongo's struggles, but also the defensive-zone mistakes by the blue-line corps in front of him. The Canucks would have benefited greatly from picking up a top-four blueliner at the March 3 trade deadline, but I understand those players don't grow on trees and GM Mike Gillis has made it his mantra that he doesn't like paying for rentals.

I may still stick with the Canucks next week when I am pressed for my official Cup finals prediction, but right now I'm on the fence. The question is, if not Vancouver, then who?

San Jose has played better of late after breaking out of a March swoon that had Sharks fans feeling nervous. Still, the ghosts of playoffs past always give you reason for pause, not to mention the visions of Evgeni Nabokov in the Olympic quarterfinals.

The Blackhawks? There's the team I'd personally love to see in the finals just for esthetic reasons. I mean, can you imagine the roar at the United Center? The league would drool at the chance to get the long-suffering Original Six club in the finals with Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane taking on either Washington's Alex Ovechkin or Pittsburgh's Crosby. For that league dream to become reality, however, Antti Niemi or Cristobal Huet must turn in two months of hockey not too many people think they have in them. Niemi was solid Sunday against Calgary, but ...

The top three Western powerhouse teams have questions marks ... which has already led several of my media colleagues to jump on the comfortable Hockeytown, USA bandwagon. I mean, why not? The Red Wings are healthy, they're rolling and know what it takes once the calendar flips from April to May. Then, there's Phoenix. Is a trip to the Cup finals that much of a stretch? A bigger stretch than 102 points in the standings when everyone had them in the basement last fall?

I'll take seven more days to dwell on my Western pick, but I'll be doing it without much confidence. Never before has the West been so wide open, and that's great for fans of this game. We're in store for one heck of a postseason.

I have the strangest memory of Michael Peca.

It was the 2001 world championships in Hannover, Germany, and Peca was sitting on a hotel bed looking as though the world had crashed down on him. It was pretty close to that. Nearing the end of a yearlong contract dispute with the Buffalo Sabres, Peca had come overseas to salvage his season by playing for Canada at the worlds. He was the team's captain.

But halfway through the tournament, he fractured his cheekbone. Tournament over. I was the only Canadian reporter covering the event and was summoned to his room to interview the poor soul. Imagine seeing someone after his dog was run over by a car, and that was the picture that night.

"It was unfortunate I fractured my cheekbone," Peca recalled to me Tuesday, the day he announced his retirement from the NHL. "But you know what? I was extremely thankful to [GM] Lanny McDonald and everyone at Hockey Canada for giving me an opportunity to play some meaningful hockey that year. I guess I did enough before I got hurt to earn an invite to the Olympic camp in September that year, so despite the injury at the worlds, it was well worth it from that standpoint.

"And besides," Peca added with a chuckle, "me being knocked out elevated Ryan Smyth to captain of the team, and that was the birth of Captain Canada."

There's always a silver lining, right? The real payoff for Peca came less than a year later, when he was an associate captain for Team Canada as it ended a 50-year gold-medal drought at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.

"For me, the gold medal was almost just to be part of that team," Peca said. "I had to get over the way I felt about being selected for the team and playing with Steve Yzerman, a guy that I idolized growing up. Mario Lemieux was on the team, Joe Nieuwendyk, Brendan Shanahan, Al MacInnis, the list went on and on; and Wayne Gretzky was at the head of the management team. It was amazing.

"And really, when it was actually happening, the schedule was so compact that you really didn't enjoy it fully at the time. But looking back, you enjoy and embrace it more. Winning an Olympic gold medal is a great achievement in sport."

Peca last played with Columbus during the 2008-09 season, and although he kept his options open through agent Don Meehan this past fall, he said he called it quits a while back.

"I really came to this decision months back, but it's been a case where I've been so busy with other things and enjoying myself that I didn't realize I had to come out and formally announce anything to consider myself retired," Peca said. "But I guess people will stop asking me now when they see me after reading about it."

Peca made it official in a release put out by the NHL Players' Association. No news conference or conference call. The two-time Selke Trophy winner and one of the game's premier two-way centers during his heyday, Peca didn't want to make a big deal of it. "I've never been a guy for big bells and whistles," he said.

No, but he's a guy who used every inch of his body to block shots, win faceoffs and earn room on the ice.

For me, he'll forever be remembered as a Buffalo Sabre, the leader of a young, blue-collar team in the late 1990s with superstar Dominik Hasek in net. That's when Peca was at his best, a force at both ends of the ice with clutch goals and key blocks. One night, he'd shut down the opposing team's top offensive threat; the next, he'd score a big goal.

"Nothing but great memories in Buffalo, even despite the way I ended up moving to the Islanders [after the yearlong contract dispute]," Peca said. "It's a place that really gave me the opportunity to get my career going and establish myself as a player. A lot of that is Ted Nolan and Lindy Ruff, and of course John Muckler bringing me in."

His heart always stayed in Buffalo, even if his skates didn't. Today, he lives there with his wife and two kids.

"Buffalo is the kind of town a person like me loves to live in because it's a great people-loving community," said Peca, who will turn 36 in March. "It's a city with small-town values, and it's a great place to live."

I met Peca when he was a junior star with the OHL's Ottawa 67's in the early 1990s. The Vancouver Canucks chose him in the second round (40th overall) of the 1992 draft.

His stay in Vancouver would last but one full NHL season, as the Canucks moved him to Buffalo in a blockbuster deal. The July 1995 trade saw the great Alexander Mogilny and a fifth-round draft choice (Todd Norman) go to Vancouver in exchange for Peca, Mike Wilson and Vancouver's first-round choice (Jay McKee).

"It's something that kind of caught me by surprise," Peca recalled. "I thought things were going well, so I was pretty surprised when I was traded out of Vancouver. But obviously Mogilny was going the other way, so I when I look back I guess I did have value to the Canucks organization, and they viewed me that way.

"When I got to Buffalo, Mogilny was obviously gone, [Dale] Hawerchuk was gone, a lot of veterans were moving on and the team was going in the youth direction. I knew it was a chance for me to establish myself."

The highlight was the 1999 Cup run, a magical spring that ended bitterly on Brett Hull's controversial in-the-crease triple-overtime goal in Game 6.

"That was a very difficult moment," Peca said of Hull's goal. "It's a blue-collar town. It wasn't just the players that enjoyed that great ride, but the community as well. The Bills had their four straight Super Bowl defeats, so Buffalo was looking at their first pro championship for the city, and unfortunately things ended the way they did. But still very good memories."

His 2000-01 contract dispute finally got resolved with a June trade. Peca was sent to the Islanders for Tim Connolly and Taylor Pyatt. He was named captain and helped lead the team back into the playoffs after a seven-season dry patch.

"[Owner] Charles Wang was real eager to put that team back on the map," Peca said. "As much as I love Buffalo, this guy really loves Long Island and wanted to do something special for Long Island. Bringing in Peter Laviolette, I have the utmost respect for him as a coach. We were able to do something that first year. It was great to see. Long Island is a great place, and the fan base is extremely passionate, and I was happy we were able to get people excited."

The Isles made the playoffs all three seasons Peca was there. After the 2004-05 lockout, he was dealt to Edmonton for Mike York and a fourth-round draft choice (later traded to Colorado). Peca spent only one season in Edmonton, but what a season it was. Edmonton went all the way to the seventh and deciding game of the June 2006 Cup finals against Carolina.

"That was one of those rides; I try to explain that playoff run to people," Peca said. "That year in Edmonton really emblemized what a run is about -- it's about guys really believing in themselves. No. 8 seed against No. 1 seed, Edmonton taking on Detroit. Once we beat the Wings, you slowly saw the confidence grow and guys really believing in each other."

Then, a boyhood dream was fulfilled in the summer of 2006, as the free-agent Peca signed on with his hometown Maple Leafs. It was an injury-shortened season, but wearing the logo he had grown up watching was special.

"I obviously wish I could have extended that stay for many years," Peca said. "But unfortunately I broke my leg, and I can't blame them for wanting to go another way. But it's one of the greatest organizations in professional sports. It's really top-notch, and they look after the players there. I had lots of fun even though it was short-lived."

Peca played his final two seasons in Columbus and helped the team clinch its first playoff berth last season. Now, the only hockey in his life involves coaching his son's minor team.

"I've had just a lot of fun with that," said Peca, although that doesn't mean he has the pro-coaching bug. "I don't think so, because the part I like now is not traveling. I don't really see myself getting into that."

Family time rocks. He's at peace with himself. It was one heck of a ride.

"I don't think I'll ever stop reminiscing," he said. "The game has given me everything I've got. I'll be forever thankful."