And it’s all due to an excuse that people everywhere hate to hear, injures. The NHL season is just two months old, and the Sabres have dressed nine rookies to replace injured players. However, even though the Sabres can use the injury bug as an excuse for their poor play as of late, it’s not one that’s buyable as some of the league’s top teams have had to deal with the same problems and are still seeing success.
Going into Friday, the Pittsburgh Penguins have lost 126 man games due to injury or illness; the Vancouver Canucks have lost 103; even the NHL’s best team, the Minnesota Wild, has lost 96 man games. The Sabres have lost just 83.
The rookies that have played for the Sabres so far this year are far from being the reason for the team’s struggles. In fact, they’ve been one of the biggest bright sports of the season. However, for all the good they’ve brought via energy and production to the team, there is always that rookie learning curve.
Marc-Andre Gragnani, who leads all rookies in plus/minus rating with plus-10 and has been pretty steady for the most part all season, made a big mistake Wednesday night that cost Buffalo the game against the Flyers. He tried to blindy pass the puck across the Flyers blue line, but Claude Giroux stole the pass for a clear breakaway that lead to the game-winning goal in overtime.
“They’re working hard, the young guys are working hard,” Lindy Ruff said after the game on Wednesday. “Overall, you can’t complain…Our younger players have given us a good go, a real good go.”
Luke Adam currently sits third among NHL rookies in scoring with 19 points, and has easily been the biggest surprise on the season. Since taking part in the Traverse City Tournament in September Adam has been on a warpath on the ice and if it wasn’t for the outstanding play of 2011 first overall pick Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Adam would be garnering a lot more attention than he has. He started the year playing between Jason Pominville and Thomas Vanek on the team’s number one line and showed glimmers of future star potential before stumbling a bit in November until beginning to gel with line mates Ville Leino and fellow rookie Zack Kassian.
Kassian has been a spark plug it seems for this team since being called up two weeks ago. He’s shown he can skate well; he can pass; he can shoot, and that he’s one tough mountain of a man – something we all knew coming in. He has three goals in his first stint on an NHL roster.
Think about that for a second. Zack Kassian, in just six NHL games, has as many goals as Ville Leino, the man who was supposedly going to be an offensive force for this team. I will give Leino a bit of credit though as he has quietly put together a solid string of games recently; scoring four points in his last three outings, and showing some nice chemistry building with himself, Kassian, and Adam. Of Kassian, Leino was very complementary.
“He’s a good player, has good hockey instincts,” said Leino who will miss Friday’s game due to a one-game suspension that was laid on him because of an elbow he put on Flyers winger Matt Read Wednesday. “He can make plays – he’s a good scorer – big guy that protects the puck. He’s got definitely a good talent.”
With the way he’s played since coming up, Kassian is going to make it tough on management when it comes to sending him down when the team gets healthy, but Kassian wants to make it known he’s just taken it one day at a time. “That’s the last thing on my mind,” said the 20-year old Kassian. “With me as a call up, I don’t want to be a liability.”
“I’ve been impressed,” said Ryan Miller of the young players’ performances. “They’re doing what’s asked of them and maybe a little more.”
“We’ve needed more from older players than we have from younger players,” Ruff said. But will we see it?