(WIVB)–More than four months have passed since National Hockey League Commissioner Gary Bettman paused the 2019-20 regular season due to the coronavirus pandemic.
In lieu of completing the regular season and progressing to its traditional playoff tournament, the NHL instituted an expanded qualifier tournament, giving 12 teams from each conference a shot to compete for the Stanley Cup.
Sporting a .493 points percentage, the Buffalo Sabres missed the cut for that tournament by .007 percentage points. The Montreal Canadiens nabbed the final Eastern Conference qualifier berth with a .500 points percentage.
As the Stanley Cup Playoffs begin without the Sabres for the ninth consecutive season, here’s a look at nine Buffalo veterans still skating with a chance to hoist Lord Stanley.
Ryan O’Reilly, St. Louis Blues
Acquired by Buffalo: Traded from COL June 26, 2015
Sabres Stats: 224 GP, 65 G, 111 A, 176 PTS, 21:19 ATOI
Departed Buffalo / acquired by current team: Traded to STL July 1, 2018
2019-20 Stats: 71 GP, 12G, 49 A*, 61 PTS*, 20:34 ATOI
On April 9, 2018, a dejected Ryan O’Reilly faced a scrum of reporters as he cleaned out his locker inside the KeyBank Center.
“I don’t think I was mentally tough enough this year,” he said. “I feel throughout the year I’ve lost the love of the game multiple times.”
Three months later, O’Reilly was the only asset former Sabres General Manager Jason Botterill gave up in a trade with the St. Louis Blues.
Since that trade, O’Reilly has won the Stanley Cup, the Conn Smythe Trophy (most valuable player in the playoffs) and the Selke Trophy (best defensive forward). He’s been named a finalist for the Selke Trophy once again this season (while still leading the Blues in points and assists), and St. Louis is guaranteed a top four seed in the Western Conference once the Playoffs begin.
“It’s extremely hard to have the same impact in consecutive playoff years,” Sabres broadcast analyst Marty Biron said. “But Ryan O’Reilly will still bring that consistency, especially when it comes to faceoffs and the defensive-minded part of his game.”
Robin Lehner, Vegas Golden Knights
Acquired by Buffalo: Traded from OTT June 26, 2015
Sabres Stats: 133GP, 42-61-22, .916 SV%, 2.77 GAA, 6 SO
Departed Buffalo: Signed with NYI July 3, 2018 (free agent)
Acquired by current team: Traded from CHI/TOR Feb. 24, 2020
2019-20 Stats: 36GP, 19-10-5, .920 SV%, 2.89 GAA, 1 SO
Robin Lehner was haunted by personal demons in Buffalo: he opened up about his mental health and addiction challenges shortly after finding a new home with the New York Islanders in the summer of 2018.
Two summers later, Lehner has been instrumental in three teams’ playoff berths; been named a finalist for the Vezina Trophy (the league’s best goaltender); captured the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy (the player who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship, and dedication to ice hockey); and used his platform to reduce the stigma surrounding mental health conversations in the public arena.
The six-foot-four Swede is now competing with three-time Stanley Cup champion Marc-Andre Fleury for the starting job in the Vegas Golden Knights’ crease. Head Coach Peter DeBoer has yet to indicate how he’ll deploy the netminders once his team begins elimination play.
“We saw Robin Lehner even here in Buffalo at his best when he was simple in net,” Biron said. “He didn’t dive, he didn’t overplay the puck carrier and it was really inside the crease.”
Since joining the Golden Knights at the trade deadline, Lehner is 3-0-0 with one shutout and a .940 save percentage, including a 4-2 win over the Sabres on February 28. Vegas will face Colorado, Dallas and St. Louis in the Western Conference Round Robin as those four seeds jockey for the Western Conference’s top seed entering elimination play.
Tyler Myers, Vancouver Canucks
Acquired by Buffalo: 2008 First Round Draft Pick (12th overall)
Sabres Stats: 365 GP, 45 G, 106 A, 151 PTS, 22:52 ATOI
Departed Buffalo: Traded to WPG Feb. 11, 2015
Acquired by current team: Signed July 1, 2019 (free agent)
2019-20 Stats: 68 GP, 6 G, 15 A, 21 PTS, 21:30 ATOI
Tyler Myers won the Calder Memorial Trophy (best rookie) in his 2009-10 campaign with Buffalo, and he even received 16 Norris Memorial Trophy (best defenseman) votes in his sophomore season. He dressed in at least 80 regular season games and scored at least 37 points in both seasons.
Since then (including the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season), Myers has yet to match that 37-point plateau in any regular season, and he has dressed in 75 or more regular season games just twice.
“What we saw out of Tyler Myers and the success early in his career was his ability to jump on the rush, to create some offense, to come in as a second wave,” Biron said. “And he’s done a great job at that with the Vancouver Canucks.”
Myers did dress in 68 of 69 Canucks games before the pause, and he averaged more ice time (21:30 per game) than all Vancouver skaters except frequent defense partner Alexander Edler and Calder Memorial Trophy finalist Quinn Hughes. The Canucks will face the Minnesota Wild in a best-of-five series in the Stanley Cup Qualifiers.
Zack Kassian, Edmonton Oilers
Acquired by Buffalo: 2009 First Round Draft Pick (13th overall)
Sabres Stats: 27 GP, 3G, 4A, 7 PTS, 11:56 ATOI
Departed Buffalo: Traded to VAN Feb. 27, 2012
Acquired by current team: Traded from MTL Dec. 28, 2015
2019-20 Stats: 59 GP, 15 G*, 19 A*, 34 PTS*, 15:40 ATOI*
Former first round draft pick Zack Kassian loves stirring up trouble. Despite logging 13:06 of ice time per game in his nine-year career, he has averaged more than 87 penalty minutes per season.
Just this season, he’s tallied suspensions for kicking opponents and “being an aggressor” against frequent sparring partner Matthew Tkachuk.
But Kassian also displays more speed and skill than traditional enforcers of years past, and Biron believes that blend adds value to the Oilers’ forward group.
“They need somebody out there on the ice that’s going to help protect the Draisaitls and McDavids,” Biron said. “In a seven game series, you need a guy like Kassian to be around, policing it a little bit…but it also could lead to a negative impact, and that’s the trouble with Zack Kassian. You need to be able to walk that fine line.”
To Biron’s first point, Kassian has logged more ice time with Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl than any other Oilers skaters this season, according to Natural Stat Trick.
Kassian and the Oilers will face Buffalo native Patrick Kane, former Sabre Alex Nylander and the Chicago Blackhawks–the team that allowed the most shots per game before the pause–in the Stanley Cup Qualifiers.
Marcus Foligno, Minnesota WIld
Acquired by Buffalo: 2009 Fourth Round Draft Pick (104th overall)
Sabres Stats: 347 GP, 49 G, 67 A, 116 PTS, 14:47 ATOI
Departed Buffalo / acquired by current team: Traded to MIN June 30, 2017
2019-20 Stats: 59 GP, 11 G, 14 A, 25 PTS, 14:35 ATOI
“Moose” wore the blue and gold for six seasons, following in the footsteps of father Mike, before Botterill sent him to Minnesota in a trade that brought Jason Pominville back to Buffalo.
Foligno has averaged just 12:17 of ice time in three seasons with the Wild, but multiple coaching staffs have trusted him to operate in a shutdown role where he frequently faces opponents’ top two scoring lines.
“If Minnesota’s going to be surprising teams out West, it’s going to be because guys like Foligno are having such an impact on the physical side, on the forechecking side and they’re going to produce,” Biron said. “But I don’t expect Minnesota to go that far.”
Brayden McNabb, Vegas Golden Knights
Acquired by Buffalo: 2009 Third Round Draft Pick (66th overall)
Sabres Stats: 37 GP, 1 G, 7 A, 8 PTS, 17:38 ATOI
Departed Buffalo: Traded to LAK Mar. 5, 2014
Acquired by current team: Claimed in expansion draft June 21, 2017
2019-20 Stats: 71 GP, 2 G, 7 A, 9 PTS, 20:01 ATOI
Sabres fans barely had a chance to get acquainted with Brayden McNabb before former General Manager Tim Murray dealt him to the Los Angeles Kings in 2014.
McNabb didn’t see any ice time during the Kings’ 2014 Stanley Cup run, and he played third-pairing minutes in three seasons for Los Angeles before Vegas claimed him in the 2017 expansion draft.
Since joining the Golden Knights, McNabb has become a regular fixture in Vegas’ top four, and in 2019-20, he’s logged an additional 1:37 of ice time per game above his career average.
“McNabb has got to be able to play safe,” Biron said. “Unlike some other defensemen that need to jump up and create some chances on the rush, Brayden doesn’t need to do that to be successful.”
Tyler Ennis, Edmonton Oilers
Acquired by Buffalo: 2008 First Round Pick (26th overall)
Sabres Stats: 419 GP, 97 G, 139 A, 236 PTS, 17:00 ATOI
Departed Buffalo: Traded to MIN June 30, 2017
Acquired by current team: Traded from OTT Feb. 24, 2020
2019-20 Stats: 70 GP, 16 G, 21 A, 37 PTS, 14:43 ATOI
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: a former Sabres winger and first round draft pick has skated more with Connor McDavid this season than any other Oilers skater.
That’s where the similarities between Zack Kassian and Tyler Ennis end.
While Kassian uses his size and physicality to leave his mark on the ice, Ennis is better known for his finesse and finishing ability. But the journeyman’s five-foot-nine frame can make it more challenging for coaching staffs to send him over the boards consistently.
“Tyler Ennis, if you produce, you’re gonna stay there,” Biron said. “But if you don’t have production in the first three or four games, you may drop off in the lineup.”
Conor Sheary, PIttsburgh Penguins
Acquired by Buffalo: Traded from PIT June 27, 2018
Sabres Stats: 133 GP, 23 G, 30 A, 53 PTS, 13:55 ATOI
Departed Buffalo / acquired by current team: Traded to PIT Feb. 24, 2020
2019-20 Stats: 63 GP, 10 G, 13 A, 23 PTS, 14:27 ATOI
When Botterill brought Conor Sheary to Buffalo, fans were excited about the prospect of a young winger with multiple Cups growing alongside Jack Eichel and the rest of the Sabres’ young core.
When Botterill traded Sheary back to Pittsburgh less than two years later, it felt as though Sheary, despite his hustle and determined forechecking, never found a groove in Buffalo.
It’s no secret that Sheary thrived alongside Sidney Crosby in Pittsburgh, but Buffalo’s coaches rarely gave Sheary consistent playing time with Eichel, the Sabres’ top center. Before being traded back to Pittsburgh in February, Sheary logged more ice time with Casey Mittlestadt–who was sent down to Rochester in December–and Michael Frolik–acquired from Calgary in January–than with Eichel.
In the NHL’s first exhibition game this week, Sheary started the game with longtime linemates Crosby and Jake Guentzel, and Sheary scored 5:06 into the opening frame.
“Sheary’s success in the playoffs will be directly tied to Sidney Crosby,” Biron said.
Nathan Gerbe, Columbus Blue Jackets
Acquired by Buffalo: 2005 Fifth Round Draft Pick (142nd overall)
Sabres Stats: 188 GP, 29 G, 43 A, 72 PTS, 13:31 ATOI
Departed Buffalo: Signed with CAR July 26, 2013 (free agent)
Acquired by current team: Signed Jan. 24, 2018 (free agent)
2019-20 Stats: 30 GP, 4 G, 6 A, 10 PTS, 13:45 ATOI
Nathan Gerbe has had to scrap and claw for every second of ice time in his NHL career. Scouts and coaches have pointed to his five-foot-four frame as a major handicap, going back to his days as a Hobey Baker Memorial Award (collegiate most valuable player) finalist.
Since John Tortorella called Gerbe up from the AHL last Christmas (and to be sure, the Jackets dealt with several injuries before that call), Gerbe has tallied ten points in thirty games, regularly dressing with the Blue Jackets’ forward group.
“John Tortorella loves giving guys like Nathan Gerbe a chance to perform,” said Biron, who played for Tortorella between 2010 and 2013 with the New York Rangers. “I want to see how John Tortorella uses Gerbe…does he go as a shutdown forward or is he a fourth line, waterbug guy? I think Tortorella could have a diamond-in-the-rough situation if he uses Gerbe appropriately.”
Gerbe and the Blue Jackets, who stunned the top-seeded Lightning in last year’s Playoffs, will square off against the Toronto Maple Leafs in the Stanley Cup Qualifiers.