Sabres-Oilers game lives down to billing - The Buffalo News
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Sabres-Oilers game lives down to billing

The Sabres and Edmonton Oilers both stink. I mean really-really-really stink. Certainly, that’s a master-of-the-obvious analysis of Monday’s pond hockey affair in First Niagara Center but it still needs to be said.

Weeks later, I promise to still be shaking my head over Christian Ehrhoff getting correctly nailed for interference early in the third period for playing the puck from the bench through the open door – before he stepped on the ice. A slapstick moment for the season for sure.

It’s kind of funny how the circle of life goes really. It’s easy to overlook but these two teams were just a couple injured Sabres defenseman from meeting in the Stanley Cup final in 2006. And that’s hardly from the silent movie era. The Oilers had wrapped up the West and were home watching Game Seven in Carolina. And you know the rest.

The Oil has since fallen into full slick mode, on its eighth straight non-playoff season in the wake of that surprising run. The Sabres, meanwhile, are going to miss for the third straight year and still haven’t won a postseason series since 2007.

They came into Monday’s game 29th and 30th overall in the 30-team NHL on merit. Jim Matheson, the Hall of Fame writer from the Edmonton Journal, snarkily tweeted in the morning that the game was a big four-pointer. After all, these teams are battling for last overall in the league and a big step up in the lottery to draft No. 1.

The Sabres, of course, haven’t done that since taking Pierre Turgeon in 1987. The Oilers did it in 2010, 2011 and 2012 and I know that has many of you worried.

Picking high in the draft gets you good players. Eventually you will win. That’s how it usually works and that’s the Sabres’ hope. It’s worked in places like Chicago and Pittsburgh. We saw in Saturday’s destruction in Denver how this has become a breakthrough year for the Colorado Avalanche.

I watch a lot of hockey on the Center Ice package on nights when the Sabres are idle. And plenty of it is late-night Western Conference games. I bet I’ve watched 15 Edmonton games this year. They’re not very good yet but they’re fun to watch. And I’m convinced they will be good soon.

We’ll find out soon enough if the Oilers should have taken Alex Galchenyuk, who went to Montreal at No. 3, with the top pick in 2012 instead of talented by enigmatic Nail Yakupov. Still, remember the motto that season of bottom teams? It was Fail for Nail. He was the pick.

They certainly didn’t miss in 2011 when they took Ryan Nugent-Hopkins at No. 1 in a draft that saw Colorado’s Gabriel Landeskog and Florida’s Jonathan Huberdeau go 2-3. You’d take either of them too.

They didn’t miss in 2010 either by taking Taylor Hall at No. 1 but wouldn’t have failed with Tyler Seguin, Erik Gudbranson and Ryan Johansen either and they went 2-3-4. Not to mention Jeff Skinner went at No. 7.

How about taking Jordan Eberle at No. 22 with their first pick in 2008? Another great call in a draft that had a loaded first round.

“They don’t just have first-rounders. They have some first overall picks and all the hype that comes with that,” said Sabres winger Drew Stafford, Buffalo’s No. 1 pick and the 13th overall in 2004. “Look over the years and there’s been some pretty special players coming in there. They’re in that rebuild for a while. It’s tough to shoulder that pressure as an 18- or 19-year-old.

“I wasn’t a first overall pick but you still had hype as a first-rounder. I paid dues in Rochester but I sure came in at a pretty good time with that ’06-07 group we had here. Edmonton’s young guys haven’t experienced that and it’s a hotspot up there. There’s nowhere for some one to hide up there.”

Hall entered the game tied for 12th in the league in scoring (54) and ninth in assists (35). Eberle had 19 goals and 45 points. Nugent-Hopkins had 15 goals and 42 points. All had more points than any Sabre. Only Yakupov (20 points and a minus-30 rating) wasn’t living up to his lofty status.

“It’s sure different than when I got drafted,” said Edmonton defenseman Andrew Ference, an eighth-rounder in 1997. “Guys weren’t expected to be in the league at 18 or 19. Even 20 was a lot. Now you look at 20-year-olds and they get 20 minutes of ice time. The league has changed that way. The expectations on high draft picks is greater. It’s tough to live up to that sometimes.”

The Oilers are getting closer. They have a coach in Dallas Eakins who won a lot of games with the Toronto Marlies. They’ll almost certainly take a defenseman with their No. 1 pick this year, likely Barrie Colts stud Aaron Ekblad, so Sabres fans shouldn’t fret if Buffalo lands the second pick.

With the Oilers a strong bet to go with a blueliner, the Sabres will get the scoring forward they desperately need. And that’s no matter what place they choose from, even if they were to slip in the lottery.

It’s crummy to have to sit through games like Monday but you’ll eventually get stars out of the draft. And I refuse to say this is forever for either side. Remember 2006?


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