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Gordo on the NHL: Long-suffering Sabres finally climbing from cellar

Gordo on the NHL: Long-suffering Sabres finally climbing from cellar

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In our lifetimes, the Buffalo Sabres will finally get back in the playoff chase.

If fact, they sit in third place in the Atlantic Division as we sit. They would be in the postseason if it started Tuesday. No kidding.

They have earned points in seven of their last nine games and they are 8-3-3 at home this season. The Blues will have their hands full with them Tuesday night in Buffalo.

First-year coach Ralph Krueger liked the fight he saw from his group during its 3-2 overtime victory at Edmonton.

"Overall there is a consistency now and a belief in what our game is," Krueger said. "It's one thing to know that we have a plan, it's one thing to know we have a game, but the other thing is it starts becoming automatic and that the habits come through.

"That's what we're seeing more and more here, is that we're able to recover within a game like today where we let it slip and could have easily fallen apart. But we got back to that plan and religiously carried it through."

Krueger, 60, coached the Oilers earlier in his career -- but he has spent much of his career coaching hockey and managing soccer in Europe. For 13 years he was the national coach in Switzerland, so he knows how to build a program.

Those principles apply in Buffalo as he tries to end the Sabres' cycle of despair.

"I always say there are 10, 10, 10 in the NHL," he told the Buffalo News. "There are 10 at the bottom, 10 in the middle and 10 at the top. You want to move into the 10 in the middle, first of all. We're realistic about that and I think we have a lot of hard work to do. It's a project for sure.

"It's going to be a question of time. This is going to go much faster than what I experienced in Switzerland, for sure."

He has struck the right tone with the long-suffering Sabres. What's the key to that?

"Well, just his demeanor," winger Kyle Okposo told NHLcom. "The way he treats everybody. He's honest, he's fair, he's demanding, fun. He's an extremely good motivator. He's a guy that everybody wants to play for. I know talking to the guys that were in Edmonton that had him, I didn't hear one bad thing about him. I know that he's very well liked and he's pushing us to be better. We're appreciative that we have him."

Talent is not an issue for the Sabres. They have an admirable surplus on the blue line and defensemen are always in demand around the league.

At some point general manager Jason Botterill will be able trade one of them for more firepower up front to join Jack Eichel (10 goals and 13 assists during his 13-game points streak), Jeff Skinner, Sam Reinhart, et al up front.

On the down side, the various former Blues are not doing great:

  • The Sabres have lost goaltender Carter Hutton's last eight starts, so he has lost his lead role to Linus Ullmark.
  • Forward Vladimir Sobotka produced just one goal and two assists in 16 games before suffering a knee injury that required surgery.
  • Forward Tage Thompson was sent to the AHL to start the season, then he suffered a shoulder injury in his first game back.
  • Patrik Berglund is back in Sweden finishing out his career after walking out on the Sabres last season.

But the Sabres have moved on from their disastrous Ryan O'Reilly trade and they are finally giving a good hockey town some pretty good hockey.

AROUND THE RINKS

If Colorado Avalanche GM Joe Sakic goes "all in" this season -- something teams owned by Stan Kroenke seldom do -- then he could have the best shot acquiring winger Taylor Hall. He has the defensive prospects that could fit a suitable trade package (prospect, first-round pick, young player, conditional pick) for the New Jersey Devils. Hall is headed toward unrestricted free agency and the struggling Devils figure to move him as part of their ongoing rebuild.

The Avalanche have fared amazingly well this seasons despite taking massive injury hits. The latest casualty was rookie defenseman Cale Makar, who suffered a minor upper-body injury. He is a prime candidate to win the Calder Trophy this season.

The Winnipeg Jets have gone 12-3-2 after starting the season 6-7-0. They have done this despite trading defenseman Jacob Trouba, losing defensemen Tyler Myers and Ben Chiarot to free agency and have Dustin Byfuglien walk away from the team and undergo ankle surgery. Goaltender Connor Hellebuyck is playing out of his mind behind a makeshift defense.

The Minnesota Wild won just seven of their first 20 games, then assembled an 11-game points streak to regain relevance in the Western Conference playoff race. That allowed new GM Bill Guerin to take his finger off the detonation button, at least for now.

On the other hand, keep the Detroit Red Wings in your thoughts and prayers. They went 7-21-3 in their first 31 games this season with a goal differential of minus-58 goal. Former Blue Robby Fabbri has 12 points in 14 games, but also a minus-12 rating. Andreas Athanisiou had five goals and a minus-33 rating after 29 games; last season he scored 30 goals and posted a more reasonable minus-9 rating. New GM Steve Yzerman will has quite the rebuilding project on his hands.

Jeff Gordon is an online sports columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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