For a summer that included no transactions involving superstar hockey players, fans are showing a lot of interest in how the revamped Sabres roster will perform this year; just ask the near 17,000 that showed up at HSBC Arena for the first preseason game.
There has been plenty of impressive work done by the Sabres in the exhibitions thus far, but like in most professional sports, these preseason matches are not a perfect litmus test; there are more than enough questions still unanswered about this hockey club.
Still, one man seems to be pretty confident that the team is on the right path, that man being Mike Grier. For a 35 year old player who only accounted for 10 goals last season, Grier is a great representation of the progress that the Sabres are making, and having him on the roster is bigger deal beyond his stats.
It is amazing that it can actually be said in the first place. In August 2009, he signed a one year deal with the Sabres, proving that both sides were reluctant about a long term commitment. Typically in the NHL, a one-year signing means exactly that- the player will be with that organization for a single year, and then a new organization the next. Yet, management and Grier managed to work it out so that he could return for the 2010-2011 season.
The irony is astounding, because only a few years ago Grier was the same guy that was fed up with the franchise’s direction. After the Sabres were kicked out of the Eastern Conference Finals by the Carolina Hurricanes in 2006, Grier opted to head west and join the San Jose Sharks by way of a three-year deal.
He didn’t do so in a silent manner, either. Grier likes to speak his mind, just ask Chris Simon after their infamous on-ice incident where a few ethnic and racial slurs were tossed back and forth. At the time of his departure from Buffalo, he was vocal about how he disapproved of where the team was heading management and talent-wise. His notions ended up being spot on, as the Sabres would go into decline after the 2006-2007 season and trudge through two disappointing years before seeing the playoffs again.
Even then when they did return to the postseason, they were eventually bullied out of the first round by an arguably less skilled Boston Bruins team. For all of the shortcomings that the Sabres have had in past years, Grier still wants to be a part of this hockey club, not just any team that is willing to drop him on a third or fourth line. The Sabres must be doing something right for him to want to wear blue and gold a little while longer.
If there exists any one, specific reason behind Grier’s enthusiasm for this current Buffalo Sabres team, it probably is the franchise’s movement towards a tougher lineup of players. Many of the more timid guys that weren’t offensive pillars like a Jason Pominville or Tim Connolly have been dealt elsewhere by now, while a number of gritty forwards and defensemen have found their way onto the Sabres roster. Joining Grier have been Steve Montador, Jordan Leopold, Shaone Morrisonn, Rob Niedermayer, and a myriad of young talent that play with great tenacity on the ice.
Having Grier around should be hugely beneficial for up and comers Cody McCormick, Zack Kassian, Nathan Gerbe, and even Patrick Kaleta, who has already established himself as an important member of the roster. These developing players are all forwards who compete with the same fiery style that Grier has been effective with, and is not always common for the position that rewards finesse more than anything else. It is an extremely demanding role for a hockey team, and Grier can help all of them succeed in fulfilling the role, whether it’s by acting as a mentor, or simply serving as an example of how to get the job done.
He is an ideal guy to want to emulate as a gritty forward, after all. Grier’s claim to fame has long been his ability to perform under pressure; an attribute that has been very welcome in his time with the Sabres. He isn’t intimidating because he’s a goon or some checking-machine, but because he rarely loses his cool on the ice. His poise helped him to be an integral member of the penalty kill with San Jose, when the team was ranked 14th, 1st and 4th for penalty killing during his three years with the Sharks. In his return to Buffalo for the 2009-2010 season, the Sabres were 2nd in the league on the Penalty Kill, and Grier once again was a mainstay while the team was shorthanded.
In recent years, he has also produced some admirable performances in the playoffs, which is by far the most intense scenario in the NHL. Grier amassed three goals and five assists in the Sabres 2006 run to the Eastern Conference Finals, and then nabbed four points in two rounds with San Jose a year later. His latest postseason contributions came when most of the Buffalo Sabres fell flat on their faces against the Bruins last year. Grier went on to collect two goals in the six contests, and was second on the team in shots on goal with 19, only one shot behind team leader Tyler Ennis.
Again, this is all the work of a player who has consistently scored 9-13 goals in the entire regular season. Tradition says that Mike Grier should not be such a vital member of the team, and carry such implications for it. But the Sabres are far from traditional, especially at this moment, and because of that, Grier is a stud in Buffalo.
Even better for Buffalo- there’s nothing wrong with any of that.