Traverse City notebook

Hockey can be a pretty crazy game.

The final standings for the 2014 NHL Prospects Tournament in Traverse City have the Buffalo Sabres in last place out of the eight team field. A year removed from appearing in the championship game, and three seasons from winning it all, the Sabres prospects were out-scored by a 17-6 margin in the event's four contests to skate away without a victory (0-3-1).

I realize that's not "crazy".

What's nuts, though, is when a team absolutely dominates five-on-five play and loses a game 6-1, like the Sabres did in Thursday's tourney opener versus Carolina.

What's crazy is a team with several skilled goal scorers out-shooting their opponents by a 134-100 margin, averaging 33.5 shots on goal per outing, only to bag a handful of markers.

We see this often in developmental hockey -- sometimes skill players do so many things well but just can't finish enough plays. Sometimes you dominate possession, but your goaltending falls short of expectations. That was a theme for this past week of hockey.

When you understand the root of the numbers, things make a little more sense.

The Sabres had trouble gaining regular space, especially in that box in the middle of the ice (where, of course, all of the goals are scored). Passing accuracy was inconsistent. There wasn't a ton of jam around the net, and thus secondary opportunities were few and far between. Popping off shots and establishing a good base for your Corsi is a start, but improving the quality of your chances will surely lead to better results.

And again, the opposition's goaltending was a hair sharper than Buffalo's. Invitee Francois Brassard posted the best Sabres' best performance of the week in the OT loss to the Rangers, but there were times when Alex Nedeljkovic (CAR), MacKenzie Skapski (NYR), and Niklas Lundstrom (STL) seemingly had horseshoes tucked away. Nedeljkovic was especially strong for the Hurricanes from start to finish.

There are positives to take away despite what the standings say. Lessons were learned, and like true professionals, these young men must always keep their highs low and their lows high, especially as they prepare for the main portion of training camp.

***.

Overarching thoughts when looking at the group as a whole:

- It's a fresh slate for everyone. Tim Murray draft picks are mixing with those from the old general manager. It's hard to get a read on what the new decision-makers think of some of the holdover prospects, so we got to hit the reboot button this week with a lot of these guys. Those who consistently competed and looked they were ready to go each shift were appreciated.

- Details, details, details. Proper positioning leads to cleaner zone exits (and eventually entries). Keeping sticks down defensively makes things more difficult for the opposition. Crisper stops/starts when the play reverses leads to more effective backchecks. The team made progress with these details, and when they executed they won the possession time.

- Part of the Sabres focus moving forward should involve creating more chaos in front of the opposing goal. Too many cleans looks for the goaltender. If there was one area where the team missed the speedy Nicholas Baptiste, this may have been it.

- The power play puck movement improved as the tournament played on. They needed to find more open lanes, and of course, shoot the puck even more than they did. The penalty killing also improved after a really poor performance to open the tourney. Some chasing led to some coverage issues early on, but they maintained a tighter box for the balance (for the most part).

***

A few notes on the players:

Sam Reinhart was credited with just one assist, but his numbers are not at all indicative of his impact. If you want to read box scores and pass judgment, go right ahead. You'd be missing some important details, though. His sense and patience, quick zone exits, faceoff proficiency, and smart defensive stick complement a package of vision and passing accuracy that is perhaps unrivaled in the entire Sabres organization. I'm curious to see how he melds into the up-tempo pace when the veterans arrive, but it seems that he's well equipped for the need to make quicker decisions as the level of competition increases. He's currently listed at 6-foot-1, 192 pounds, and he'll continue to have a target on his back.

The top defensive pair of Rasmus Ristolainen and Jake McCabe were absolute workhorses the entire way. In the eyes of many, Ristolainen was the Sabres top player, and for good reason. Following an off-season that saw him "trim the baby fat", the Sabres captain took charge of the team with sound defensive play, good timing on his checks, and a team-high 17 SOG. After a Monday effort in which he felt like he could have executed better, Ristolainen hit the gym for close to 45 minutes before calling it a workday. This guy gets it.

For McCabe, it was a slightly different story. Dinged up following the first game, the rookie defender forged ahead like a warrior, but not without mixed results with his own zone coverage. He was engaged physically and gained leverage in the corners, but it seemed like the rhythm of accepting passes and his overall feel with the puck didn't truly come around until the final game. As a result, he was able to punch a few more pucks low. Like his partner Ristolainen, McCabe was often pressing in an effort to take chances up-ice when trailing on the scoreboard (and also in the 3x3 portion of the OT vs. NYR). Kudos to he and Ristolainen for logging what had to be 30 minutes in all situations during the Monday game versus Dallas. Again, it needs to be noted that McCabe was not 100% healthy for the final three games.

Joel Armia was more of a presence, consistently exhibiting scoring line skill level and using his size to protect pucks and win battles. He paced the forwards with 14 shots on goal. Snakebitten like the rest of the bunch, Armia led the forwards with 14 SOG and showed improved consistency in terms of his effort. Wearing an "A", Armia's work was even rewarded with some PK duty. He didn't try to do much too much himself while still allowing his one-on-one skillset to drive his game. Armia will continue to focus on getting to the middle of the ice moving forward, and that process definitely needs to happen more quickly. If a team gives him the center lane, he needs to take it with authority.

After having perhaps the Sabres greatest scoring chances in each of the first three games, it was really good to see Justin Bailey get the PP slumpbuster in Tuesday's final versus St. Louis. When the team looked softer when competing for second chances, Bailey was able to jam home his own rebound. The WNY product played with great determination throughout the tournament. He looks faster and stronger, and his play was rewarded with key minutes, especially during overtime of the game versus the Rangers. He was leading the team in SOG through the first two games, and I thought he took nice job applying pressure. If his play from Traverse City carries over into Kitchener, Bailey getting 40 goals could be reasonable.

Jordan Samuels-Thomas showed encouraging signs to firm up his status on the power forward depth chart. A powerful skater with an excellent net presence, JST was perhaps the most consistent when attacking the crease with the puck. He also proved strong in the corners using his big frame to maintain possession. He started the tournament with Reinhart and Armia, earning PP and PK minutes a long the way. A checking line role can be earned once he gets more experience with the Sabres/Amerks defensive expectations.

It took William Carrier a game to settle in on the line with Reinhart/Armia, but I think he ended the tourney on a good note. Like the others, mistakes were made, but he plays the game the right way at even strength with a mix of skill and grit.  His one assist (not officially captured) came when he made a nice play to the middle of the ice before kicking the puck to Brady Austin for a wrist shot goal.

Austin, by the way, did a nice job stepping into bigger minutes as the tourney played out. It was subtle, but I thought he was very good in the final game. He can always afford to be more physical, but his safe, mobile game is always welcome as he eases his way into his professional career. He used his body to squeeze guys out along the boards. I'd prefer to see even more of that once he gets comfortable with the elevated pace of the pros.

One of the reasons that Austin earned additional time was the game three effort by Nikita Zadorov. Despite some costly penalties that were converted by the opposition, I liked Zadorov in the first and last games. He had some urgency to his game, and it resulted in him using his size to skate the puck deep. I often say that once you're drafted, it doesn't matter where you were taken, but you just can't get benched in a prospect tourney as a first-round NHL pick like he did against the Stars. Luckily, there was a bounceback in the final game versus St. Louis that could get him moving in the right direction heading into main camp.

2014 draft pick Brycen Martin didn't make any jaws drop, but he looked like a safe defenseman who can make a good pass out of the zone. Classic case of a rearguard who excels when things are kept simple. He had a few nice plays using his body to meet the rush and others where he got his stick into lanes to bust up the transition game.

Fellow newcomers Branden Lemieux, Vaclav Karabacek and Eric Cornel spent most of the week together on a forward line, with the first two complementing each other very well down the wings.

Lemieux regularly applied puck pressure and played with emotion. When Reinhart was bulled over from behind in the opener, Lemieux was first on the scene to protect and defend the top forward. Staying focused on his next shift will be a key, but he got the other teams chirping, which means he was doing his job.

Karabacek used speed to gain the zone and didn't back down when challenged. In the Dallas game where the coaching staff was unhappy with the overall effort, Karabacek was one of a few playing hard in an attempt to make something happen. Good hands and an active defensive stick make him one of the surprises of the week.

Cornel had a solid opening night effort, with the rest of the tournament supplying some teaching moments. He has a great sense for the offensive game. Adding strength, speed and experience should make him a compelling prospect to watch over the next two seasons. I can see him excelling as a winger when all three come together.

Playing in his third Traverse City event, Dan Catenacci progressively became more effective. He created with speed and was solid on the PK. He's yet to find a regular home with his time still split between center and wing. His puck skill comes in handy down the side, while his speed out of the zone and improved defensive understanding serves well down the middle. One moment in the opener where he should have shot the puck as opposed to making the extras pass sticks out to me, but like Karabacek, he was another player who upped the ante late in the Dallas game when the rest of the team was appeared flat.

Justin Kea was consistent in his role as a fourth-line checker. His line got the puck deep and achieved decent zone time. Kea worked the boards, was his normal physical self, and looked to spark his team with two fights. He notched a goal and an assist to share the team lead in points with Ristolainen and Lemieux. KEa is what he is - he knows his role and started to put the work in this week before sitting out the finale.

Colin Jacobs played just one game before getting dinged up, and it may have been the best game I've seen him play since turning pro. Finished his hits, did a great job supporting his defensemen, and again showed skill at the faceoff circle. I felt that the team missed his element in the final two contests.

Andrey Makarov needed to be better. At times he killed plays by directing the puck properly, but his rebound control could have been better and some of the Ryan Miller high-glove blues were apparent in his two-and-a-half games worth of work. We've seen this before from Makarov - he runs hot and cold - but when he's good (hot), he's great.

As far as invitees go, Joseph Blandisi and Francois Brassard stood out from the pack. Blandisi battled for chances, scored a goal by simply shooting the puck, and even earned a PK shift in the finale. Brassard displayed excellent technique and composure en route to a 33-save performance in a 2-1 loss to the Rangers before allowing three goals on 12 shots in 20 minutes versus Dallas. Brassard no doubt kept the Sabres in the Saturday's game.

Right there with them was Ryan MacKinnon, who played guarded minutes through two games but made some nice hustle plays and generally looked a responsible all-around player who can shore up AHL depth for a team in need.

Jack Rodewald showed flashes as a hard-driving checker. Blazing speed really isn't his thing, but Rodewald has that heavy style that you can see competing as an AHL checker at some point. He just may have scored what should have been the tying goal in the third period Tuesday versus Dallas thanks to a smart play by Samuels-Thomas, but the ECHL officiating crew didn't think it went in (I'm almost positive it did).

Michael Joly showed some offensive skill in a limited role. There's a mix of energy and hands to him, and he combined with Rodewald for two chances in the final contest. He nearly earned the potential game-winner in the third period versus the Rangers when he rang one off the crossbar off a nice cross-ice feed from Karabcek.

Jared Walsh looks like a solid mobile defender for the junior level who has a solid foundation to build from. He wasn't extremely noticeable in guarded minutes, but the experience should really serve him well for his season in Mississauga.

I'm probably forgetting a few things, but that's what I saw.

And by the way, congrats to the Columbus Blue Jackets for winning their third tourney title. They've got a good group of forwards over there.
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Anonymous
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Thursday, September 18, 2014 ×

Anything more on Samuels-Thomas?

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Kris Baker
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Thursday, September 18, 2014 ×

what do you want to know? Talked about him a lot last week in post-game videos and at intermissions. He was terrific in the offensive zone. Worked hard in the corners. Just needs to continue working on helping the team get out of their zone.

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Anonymous
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Thursday, September 18, 2014 ×

Hi Kris,
Don't you think that almost everybody tries to mellow out the underachieving play/results of these prospects in Traverse City? It was expected from them to play in the championship game based on their skill level (which now is questionable). And to be burned that much on PK when you have Ristolainen, Zadarov and McCabe is truly abysmal. Not too say there too many bright points about our PP and 5 on 5. Reality check for these guys so called "the best prospect pool of prospects in the NHL". These results makes you think how much truth is here...

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Kris Baker
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Thursday, September 18, 2014 ×

retracting previous replies....everyone has their own right to interpretation. Trav City is behind them. Let's sit back and see what/if they learned.

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Friday, September 19, 2014 ×

re: Samuels-Thomas - Anecdotally, he was the weakest link in the first line's chain (at least according to some accounts I've read). Do you think Reinhart-Armia were better served with Carrier instead of JST?

He's a new face in training camp. Good to know you thought he looked alright in tournament play. What I really want to know is 1) Do you think he'll turn out to be a good pickup for our AHL squad and 2) what role do you think he fills on to the Amerks lineup?

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Kris Baker
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Friday, September 19, 2014 ×

Hi Ross -
I imagine much of the "weak link" thoughts surrounding JST are due to him not having hands and puck skills of the traditional top line player. He did get space for the skill guys and I know the coaches were happy with his work in the o-zone. I think he'll be a good pickup for the Amerks as a role player. Depth forward, 3/4 line guy who can chip in some goals. Guys who skate hard and continue getting better in his own end will be appreciated. But no, I do not see his role in Traverse City (top line for first two games) indicative of his future use.

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Kris Baker
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Friday, September 19, 2014 ×

Regarding Carrier - he plays the game correctly, meaning he goes hard and battles. It was tough to judge his move in the first game because they went with both he and Armia on their off wings. I thought Carrier looked much more effective in the final game, but as a whole, the Reinhart line was probably at their best in the first two with JST.

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Monday, September 22, 2014 ×

Thanks for your input. Regarding JST, I suspect Reinhart may need a gritty player to clear some room for him - Foligno and Stewart (or Girgensons) should do the trick. I'll be glad to read your thoughts on the Capitals game when you finish your writeup. Grigorenko seems to be the one who exceeded expectations the most last night although I was happy to hear Armia was making smart choices (I'll have to rewatch the play to figure out how much of that goal was on Joel). If those two pan out, I could handle losing out on the McEichel lottery. I'm a little surprised it wasn't more of a blowout considering the lopsided nature of the two team's skill levels. Still the refrain of "hard fought loss, we 'competed' but it wasn't enough, get' em next time" will start to wear thin as we plod into February. Although, I'm glad to know they're practicing their interview responses for the regular season ;)

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