Irony is a strange–sometimes amusing–phenomenon. Not two years ago, naming an established, successful player like Jason Pominville as captain was considered a major step forward for the Buffalo Sabres after they struggled for years to replace former leaders Chris Drury and Daniel Briere.
In July of 2007, the Sabres’ top brass nearly went into a panic at the possibility of losing Thomas Vanek to the Edmonton Oilers.
Vanek was subsequently re-signed to a seven year, $50 million contract, and it was universally agreed that the franchise dodged a bullet by keeping him in Buffalo.
Today, the consensus is that the Sabres more than gained by trading Pominville to the Minnesota Wild for a first and second round draft pick, along with a pair of prospects.
Vanek leads the team in scoring, but it hasn’t kept the Sabres from enduring an immensely disappointing season. When he’s been out of the lineup as he has for ten games thus far, the team has played no worse—in fact, if you just look at wins and losses, you could argue that they’ve played better.
A year ago, a Buffalo Sabres club without Pominville or Vanek would be considered an unmitigated disaster; so what gives? How can this team be no worse off without its top offensive leaders, its’ superstars?
It’s because this Buffalo Sabres team isn’t as bereft of talent as its’ record may suggest. This season has seen the quiet emergences of certain players who have played consistently solid hockey throughout.
While they both have played in nine or more games than Vanek has, both Tyler Ennis and Cody Hodgson are tied for the team high in assists (17) with the Austrian sniper, establishing that these young forwards are developing just as strongly at the setup game as they are at the scoring game.
Ennis in particular has been the model of consistency for the vast majority of this shortened season. Before the month of April, Ennis never went more than three games in a row without securing a point, and from February throughout all of March, he never went more than two games without tallying a point.
Not even Vanek could claim such consistency, while Pominville embarked on three separate scoring droughts that included four, five and six games, respectively.
“Before you can be a leader in any capacity, you’ve got to be consistent,” said interim coach Ron Rolston earlier this month, when speaking of up and comers like Ennis and Hodgson. “You’ve got to take care of your own game because if you’re not, there’s not a lot of people who are going to follow you if you can’t be consistent.”
Ennis’ scoresheet is only mired by an ugly -9 rating, but part of that can be attributed to nine of his 26 points having come on the power play; an area where he only trails Vanek on the team, and by merely a point.
Hodgson’s glaring weakness has been his defensive play, but the 23-year-old center has shown great strides in improving that aspect of his game. After February he was a -5, but dating back to March 2nd he’s a +4. It’s during that 20-game stretch that he’s collected 13 of his current 30 points.
Just as pleasant of a surprise hails from the blueline; an area where the Sabres have largely floundered all year. Despite the team having what’s regarded as one of the most miserable defenses in the league, Christian Ehrhoff currently sits with a +10 rating, among the top 20 defensemen in the NHL.
The next best Sabre in this category is Bryan Flynn with a +8, but Flynn has only played in 20 contests. For Sabres who have played in 30 or more games, the runner up is Steve Ott with a +5.
Ehrhoff has even managed the kind of offense expected of him—four goals and 13 assists, five of those points occurring on the power play. He’s done all of this while leading the team in time on ice at over 25 minutes a game, nearly four minutes more than the next best (Tyler Myers).
“I feel good; obviously, I like playing a lot,” said Ehrhoff in an interview from February. “It keeps you in the game when you got out there and you just get a good rhythm.”
But success from the likes of Ennis, Hodgson and Ehrhoff should have been expected given their raw talent; success from Steve Ott may have been a different story. The former Dallas Star was brought into the organization for an injection of passion and edge, not necessarily a boost in scoring.
Ott’s more than accomplished that, but he’s also somehow managed to record eight goals and add thirteen assists, good for 21 total points that places him fifth on the team (currently fourth without Pominville in the lineup).
He’s showcased a surge in his offense in the wake of Vanek’s time off from injury and Pominville’s literal and figurative absence; five goals and seven assists since the beginning of March.
By comparison, he tallied 12 and 11 goals respectively in his final two seasons with Dallas, where he played 74 or more games in each. If this had been a full season, it’s reasonable to think that Ott could have reached—even surpassed—his NHL career-high of 22 goals.
No doubt, his offense played a role in him being awarded an assistant captain position following Pominville’s departure.
“’I’m very honored to have [the A] on my jersey,” Ott said in a post-game interview on April 5th. “Obviously, there’s a lot of great leaders in this dressing room […] To have that representation means a lot to myself.”