NHL at the Quarter Pole

by Josh Brewster, Buffalo Sports Page

Sabres D: A bunch of zeroes
Jack Eichel gets the big bucks, and with it deserved scrutiny. He has many apologists, for sure, but a close look at the Sabres’ defensive corps suggests that neither Connor McDavid or Sidney Crosby could save the Nickel City swords. The club is simply awful, and the Arizona Coyotes are looking more legit.

Why? Glad you asked.

The answer is goals by defensemen. After 21 games, the Sabres have none. Zero. Zilch. Nada.

No team in the NHL can say the same. San Jose and Vancouver have just three apiece. Carolina, five, Arizona and Edmonton seven. For the more successful teams in the NHL, however, blueline help is a necessity: St. Louis leads with 21; Nashville, 17; Tampa and Ottawa 14; Anaheim and Columbus, 13; LA sports 11.

The Sabres’ offense is worst in the NHL at 2.29 goals per game, and 29th in the league in power play (14.9%). For all the issues afflicting the offense (Zemgus Girgensons, Matt Moulson, Kyle Okposo, for example) look no further than the team’s blueline when considering why the Sabres are unable to get that extra goal.

Kariya reemerges with Teemu at his side
Paul Kariya’s emergence from the tunnel at Honda Center on Nov. 19 elicited thunderous applause reminiscent of Game 6 in the 2003 Cup Final when he returned from Scott Stevens’ cheap, late hit to score a huge goal that helped force a Game 7. His enshrinement to the Hall of Fame with linemate Teemu Selanne this month was rare poetic justice.

Ducks owner Henry Samueli (born in Buffalo, by the way, before moving to Los Angeles early in life) indicated that further celebration was on the way, suggesting that Selanne’s number 8 banner “looks a bit lonely” in the Honda Center rafters. Kariya was, with Selanne, the face of the franchise for years, its first draft pick, a three-time first team all-star in six appearances who scored 50 goals once and forty twice. He enters the Hall akin to Eric Lindros, whose career was shortened and compromised by concussions, a scary trend that only in recent years does the NHL attempt to remedy.

A point-per-game player mostly during the “Dead Puck Era” (989 points in 989 games, including 402 goals), Kariya was 35 when he retired with a good deal of tread left on his tires. Seemingly embittered by an NHL that did little to protect its players from brutal, over-the-line head shots which compromised his brain capacity, Kariya wasn’t seen again at Honda Center save for the 2014 night when best friend Selanne played his last game. He was less of a slam-dunk for the Hall than Selanne (whose 684 goals and Cup win guaranteed immediate entry) but former NHL defenseman Sean O’Donnell–who won the Cup with Anaheim–put it best recently when he rightly asserted that at the height of his powers, Kariya was the best player in the game.

Gudas deserved more, but we’ll take it
When George Parros was named head of the NHL’s Department of Player Safety, eyebrows were raised by the presence of yet another enforcer/tough guy type atop the discipline heap. I argued for Parros to be given a chance, and in the case of Radko Gudas’ brutal slash to Jets’ center Mathieu Perreault’s head, the Princeton-educated Parros deserves credit for handing down a ten-game benching, without pay, to Gudas, the Flyers’ d-man who has never screwed his head on straight. We would have preferred 20, but it’s a start.

Gaudreau rebounds
Great to see Johnny “Hockey” Gaudreau recover from filet-of-finger last season to rebound to the top of the leader board. After a ten-game point streak (19 pts), the Boston College product straight outta New Jersey (OH!) is second to Steve Stamkos in assists (21) and his Flames (12-8-0) are upsetting the apple cart in the Pacific.

Winnipeg Jets Indeed
After an 0-2 start, Paul Maurice–often seen as the first coach on the firing line–skated the Jets into the pavement upon the team’s next practice. Then, he insisted that his Jets do a better job of staying out of the penalty box, and they did, now sitting middle-of-the-pack with 10 PIMs per game.

Meanwhile, the Jets’ offense continues its ascendance. Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler are consistently in the top ten in scoring (25 pts. each), Patrik Laine (10G) continues to prove himself worthy of the respect Connor McDavid gets in Edmonton, and the Jets’ offense sits sixth overall with 3.3 goals per game. D-man Tyler Myers is back from injury and has been as good as ever. Connor Hellebuyck (.925SV%; 11-2-0) has emerged to supplant free agent Steve Mason in the nets. The Edmonton Oilers captured Canada’s imagination last spring. Expect the Jets to do the same in 2018.

Barzal emerges
When the New York Islanders sent former top pick Ryan Strome (#5 overall, 2011) to Edmonton for RW Jordan Eberle (picked 22nd overall, 2008) they were hoping to jump-start one underachiever for another. Eberle started so-so, with four assists in his first eight games, but after a consistent pairing with center Matthew Barzal, the Isles’ 2015 first round pick (16th), a move away from John Tavares has been fruitful. Eberle has seven goals and three assists in his last twelve games, while Barzal delivered a five-assist night against Colorado en route to his current 19 points.

Barzal played for the Seattle Thunderbirds of the WHL and may be the only legitimate threat to top rookie Clayton Keller of Arizona in the Calder Trophy race. Barzal has given the Islanders a one-two punch down the middle that has the club in playoff position and well within striking distance of the top spot in the Metro.

Why not Houston? Fertitta tosses hat in ring
Forbes 400 billionaire Tillman Fertitta threw his hat in the ring for an NHL franchise and the league must be whetting its whistle, as the restaurant mogul and reality TV star recently purchased the NBA’s Houston Rockets and needs another tenant for his Toyota Center. Ironically, former Rockets owner Les Alexander made overtures in the 1990s toward establishing shinny there, but Fertitta went so far as to hold meetings with Gary Bettman and league brass.

Stay tuned. As Seattle emerges with former Kings honcho Tim Leiweke getting serious about a building, Houston–the fourth-largest city in the US–is a tantalizing choice for sure. The Carolina Hurricanes’ fate is up in the air as Peter Karmanos looks for a buyer, and Arizona continues to have big problems in getting a new building since they blew it with the decision to move to Glendale, rather than downtown Phoenix, decades ago. The Islanders are up against New York state politics, which is always a walk in the park (not!), but no one wants to see them move. The Calgary Flames are having a big problem with that city’s mayor, but another Canadian franchise departing the Great White North is undesirable as well. “Billion Dollar Buyer” is Fertitta’s CNBC show, where he rescues struggling businesses. It says here that the town where Gordie Howe plied his wares in the WHA is a very good bet for an episode on that program.

Think Quick
The modern-day version of Bernie Parent, Jonathan Quick, is the most predictable story of the season.

Hard not to see this one coming. The LA Kings needed a reboot so they brought in Rob Blake as GM, and promoted John Stevens as coach. They promised to play a faster style, and pressed impressive rookie Adrian Kempe into duty at second line center for the injured Jeff Carter. The story, as always, is Quick. Tied for fourth in save percentage at .926, he’s as acrobatic as ever .

Duchene Trade Scoreboard
Kyle Turris has five points in five games during which the Predators are 4-1 with wins over Pittsburgh, Washington, Colorado and Winnipeg. Matt Duchene has zero in the same number of games. Sam Girard, who went to Colorado from Nashville, has two assists over the same span.

Josh Brewster

Josh Brewster has served as postgame radio host for the Anaheim Ducks since 2006. He appears regularly on Sirius/XM NHL Network Radio and as a correspondent on NHL Network television.

He was the first to produce hockey feature programming for the web with "Hockeytalk Audio Features," and the first to make the leap directly from web broadcasts to the NHL.

Brewster has also written for NHL.com, The Hockey News, The Fourth Period and Hockey Digest. His career in hockey media is profiled in the book, "Living the Hockey Dream" by Brian Kennedy.

He provided color commentary for Team USA at the World University Games for Fox College Sports and has narrated programs on Animal Planet and USA Network.

A native Buffalonian and a graduate of UB, Brewster directed and produced his comedy, "O.J.F.K." at the New Phoenix Theatre in 1999 and has a history as an actor on Buffalo stages.

His radio archive is available at hockeytalkradio.com

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