This week there have been multiple reports from sources like TSN's Bob McKenzie saying that the Buffalo Sabres have narrowed their list of general managers down and will begin their second-round interviews soon. 

Since the GM search began in early November, the Sabres have been a decidedly better team, going 7-9-3 during that stretch. While that's not a great record in and of itself, it looks like a division-winning pace compared to the 4-15-1 start the team had. 

Beyond even that, interim head coach Ted Nolan seems to be getting something out of a lineup for which Ron Rolston was laughed out of town, and that alone should be enough to get him a chance to remove that interim tag. 

Pat LaFontaine has stated that the newly hired GM will have the ability to choose his first coach, hence the interim tag on Nolan. That choice is the smart one, as no GM wants to be saddled with a coach that cannot or will not use the team's players in accordance with the GM's vision. 

Now, with the GM search likely coming to a close in the next couple of weeks at most, the question becomes simple: Will Ted Nolan be kept on as head coach?

The most obvious factor associated with that question is who the new GM is likely to be, and, according to Bruce Garrioch of the Ottawa Sun, it seems that Jim Benning, the assistant GM for the Boston Bruins, is the favorite and will likely score the job. 

Benning's hire would be a very positive thing for Nolan's job prospects moving forward. Nolan's first tenure in Buffalo coincided with Benning's time with the team as a scout. Benning also has learned under Peter Chiarelli, who has gotten the job done with another defensive-minded, role-player-loving coach in Claude Julien. 

But more important that that is how Nolan has turned this current team around. 

In the weeks since his arrival, there is more of a buzz surrounding this team than the last year combined. While the buzz certainly isn't based on the fact that there is a Stanley Cup contender playing in Buffalo, it is, at least in part, based on the notion that they may have found a way out of the hole they dug themselves into. 

The prospects and draft picks have been discussed ad nauseum as of late, and despite the recent surge, the odds that the team finishes with a top-three pick in June's draft hasn't changed much. But the problem with having all of these picks and youth is you need someone on the bench that can translate their talents on the ice night after night. 

If Nolan has done anything, it is to show that he can get more out of his players than he has any right to, and this Sabres team will need that for years to come. The team seems looser, and players are just playing hockey now instead of thinking their way through the game. 

The poster child for Nolan's return is likely to be Tyler Myers, who has easily been one of the Sabres' best players the last 20 games and has shown he may be able to find that trajectory he set in his rookie year. 

In his 19 games, Nolan has shown his ability to take a team of misfits and make them at least fun to watch.

But despite the fact that Nolan has earned a chance at the coaching job full time, he'll need to show a few things to remain long-term. 

While it is undeniable that Nolan has gotten a lot out of this team, he's done it with a lot of "Nolan guys." The biggest test is going to be how well he is able to coach a team that is not made up of "Nolan guys."

No matter who the GM is, the Sabres need to grow from the bottom up, and the young guys will eventually need to show what they can do.

Zemgus Girgensons has shown he is the real deal and will pester opposing defenders as a top-six forward for years to come. Mark Pysyk, while seeing his minutes ride a roller coaster, has shown he is at least a top-four defenseman, if not better. 

But beyond those two, not many of the Sabres' young guys have had a sustained look since Nolan arrived. Nolan's biggest question mark moving forward will be his ability to integrate the hoard of youth waiting to crack the NHL lineup.

Nolan has shown he can coach veterans, but in order for this team to take the next step toward Stanley Cup contention, he needs to show he can do it with prospects as well.

A team that can have John Scott playing 12 minutes in a game is not one that can compete for a Cup. 

But regardless of the significant question mark, Nolan has earned the chance to show that he can develop youth, and that he can take this team to the next level. 

What he does with that chance is up to him. 

Follow me on Twitter for NHL and Sabres news all season long: @SwordPlay18

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The Buffalo Sabres have given fans something to cheer about in recent weeks.

With points in seven out of 11 games in December including five wins, the team has distanced itself from the "laughingstock" moniker it had earned during the first two months of the season. It has almost been a tale of two seasons for the blue and gold—which makes it somewhat hard to believe 2013-14 is only reaching its halfway point.

As 2013 comes to a close, let's take a moment to give out some midseason awards to a team that has provided not only suffering (as former general manager Darcy Regier promised) but also hope for the future.

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Overtime between the Buffalo Sabres and the Phoenix Coyotes ended in a strange, butt-related fashion Monday night.

Tied 1-1 after three periods, the short-handed Sabres headed into sudden death hoping against hope to pull out a tight one at the First Niagara Center. Their hopes were answered by defenseman Mark Pysyk, who managed to tally what was one of the most remarkable goals in recent memory.

Following up on his own blocked shot, Pysyk clashed with Coyotes keeper Mike Smith and center Martin Hanzal. The puck deflected off a stick, flipped into the air and landed in a rather unexpected place—the back of Smith’s pants.

Oblivious to the puck resting in his Jockeys, the Coyotes keeper retreated backward into his own goal. His posterior crossed the plane of the goal, and after several confusing moments, referees blew a whistle.

It was a confusing moment, but after some investigation the puck was dug out of Smith’s pants, and officials awarded the Sabres the game-winning goal. 

Questions immediately emerged concerning whether the goal should’ve been allowed. 

The NHL’s “Puck out of Sight” rule states that the play should’ve been whistled dead after the puck vanished into Smith’s gear.

“Should a scramble take place or a player accidentally fall on the puck and the puck be out of sight of the Referee, he shall immediately blow his whistle and stop the play.”

According to Pat Iversen of SB Nation, the NHL has defended the ref’s decision to allow the goal.

“At 3:47 of overtime in the Coyotes/Sabres game, video review supported the referee’s call on the ice that Mark Pysyk’s shot deflected into the air and landed in goaltender Mike Smith’s equipment and, while attempting to make the save, Smith’s momentum propped him and the puck completely across the goal line. Good goal Buffalo.”

Feel free to read that last line as “Butt goal Buffalo.” I find it catchier.

Smith didn’t find anything amusing about the goal but did manage to cork off one of the best lines you’ll ever hear during Monday night’s postgame presser.

Wise words from a man who received the karmic equivalent of a size 16 Dr. Marten in his rear. 

We all knew there would be another Butt Fumble one day, but no one ever expected the second iteration to help out a New York team.

 

Merry Christmas, and a happy Butt Goal to all! 

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Mark Pysyk scored what might go down as the goal of his career Monday night.

A puck he chipped went over Phoenix Coyotes goaltender Mike Smith's head and stuck into the back of his pants as he slid back into the net, resulting in the game-winning overtime goal for the Buffalo Sabres.

It was one of a rare few memorable moments for the Sabres in calendar year 2013. Through Monday night's game, the team has gone 31-45-9 during the year, and a lot of those losses have been downright ugly. Thirty-eight different skaters have suited up for the team, including a gaggle of teenagers, and few have been able to make an impact on a consistent basis.

All this being said, for diehard Sabres fans, 2013 will still go down as a year to remember for various reasons. Aside from the on-ice highlights, there have been new players to get to know, player departures to come to terms with and—of course—the return of familiar faces behind the bench and in the front office.

The following slides present five players who have been bright spots in Buffalo at one point or another during 2013. Some are gone; others have seemed to fade in and out. But they've all provided memories for us during the past 12 months.

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The Buffalo Sabres' general manager search began a little over a month ago with the hiring of Vice President of Hockey Operations Pat LaFontaine and the relatively unceremonious firing of Darcy Regier

LaFontaine said that he was not cut out to be the new GM and that a formal search for one would begin within days, which is exactly what happened. 

There were murmurs around the internet of LaFontaine being granted permission to speak with a number of assistant GMs around the league, including Jason Botterill (Pittsburgh), Jim Benning (Boston), and Tim Murray (Ottawa).

Other names that have been thrown around include Neil Smith, the former New York Rangers and New York Islanders GM; Paul Fenton, an assistant GM with Nashville and Joe Nieuwendyk, the former Dallas Stars GM. There are certainly others that have not been talked about. 

As it stands right now, one would have to believe that while the list is getting longer, the process has likely sped up significantly considering the Calgary Flames just parted ways with their GM Jay Feaster last week. Brian Burke is not one to wait in line for a candidate, and you can be sure LaFontaine is well aware of that. 

So beyond there being competition for a potential candidate, why is there such a rush for the Sabres to find their GM?

Mark Pysyk's demotion to Rochester of the AHL is a perfect example. 

Pysyk will be sent down to Rochester along with Brayden McNabb and Luke Adam, clearing the way for Mike Weber, Jamie McBain and Alex Sulzer all to receive more playing time. 

While Pysyk sat the other night, interim coach Ted Nolan said it was more of a "numbers thing" than it having anything to do with Pysyk's play. In fact, Pysyk has been one of the steadiest players on the blue line for the Sabres all year, which includes Ron Rolston's tenure. 

While he was not in line for the Calder Trophy, Pysyk has shown that he is almost a slam-dunk top-four defenseman, and his time spent with Christian Ehrhoff showcased arguably the team's best defensive pairing this season. 

Pysyk moves the puck extremely well, especially in the shallow defensive and neutral zones, something the Sabres have struggled with mightily this season. While not an offensive threat, his steady positioning and puck-moving abilities make him an asset to any scoring line. 

So why is he being sent down?

The answer is simply that right now, especially without a GM, the Sabres are not very interested in developing players at the NHL level. Instead, the team will hang its hat on low-end fourth-line options like John Scott, Matt Ellis and Cody McCormick before his upper body injury. 

It's not too hard to see the fact that either Ted Nolan has no interest in having young guys on the roster or that the team doesn't want him developing them to begin with. Either way it means that the writing is on the wall for Nolan when the new GM comes in.

Circling back to the need for a GM sooner rather than later, the Sabres have found themselves in a troubling middle ground with no GM, and therefore no real plan for the future. 

Not to say LaFontaine hasn't handled this well, because there is no question an extensive search needed to be conducted, but it's time that he allowed the organization to find a direction.

Each one of the GMs listed above will have a different philosophy and will need or want different players to carry it out. It's not a stretch to say that someone with a Penguins background is going to have a different outlook than someone with a Bruins background. 

Also, this is not to say that sending Pysyk down is a "bad" move.

His playing time has seen a significant downturn since Nolan arrived, mostly due to a combination of Nolan's hesitance to play the younger guys on the roster and the marked improvement in Tyler Myers' game in that time. He'll play a ton in Rochester, likely next to McNabb, and will be better for it. 

The issue with Pysyk's demotion is that it is clear that the team is putting the pieces in place for Nolan's system in the short run, and that personnel is not going to win a lot of hockey games, be it this year or five years from now.

The future of this team belongs to the guys that have been cast away in the last few weeks, not the ones that have been brought up to make the Sabres "harder to play against." That's only something you say when you're bad. 

A GM will help shore up a substantial part of this foggy future because the coach will need to adjust to their style. 

Yes, even Ted Nolan because if he ends up being a part of the long-term plan for the Sabres, which right now seems unlikely, he works for the GM and can be replaced in a blink of the eye. 

Needless to say, expect a lot of talk from various outlets concerning the Sabres' new GM in the coming days and weeks. While most of it may be due to the Flames' search, more moves like today's show that the team has absolutely no direction right now will ignite the fan base just as much. 

Follow me on Twitter for NHL and Sabres news all season long: @SwordPlay18.

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We all knew from the start that the 2013-14 season would be about looking ahead for the Buffalo Sabres.

With 49 games still remaining in a year that is going down in history for its futility, it's already time to start gazing toward June 27 in Philadelphia when the Sabres will start building for their future through the draft.

The team looks likely to finish the season with the worst record in the league, which would guarantee it a top-two pick after the draft lottery is completed. Buffalo also may have a second high first-round pick courtesy of the New York Islanders.

The pick dealt in the Thomas Vanek trade could stay with the Sabres, or it could be deferred to the 2015 draft if it's a top-10 pick.

Some speculate the Islanders may allow the Sabres to have the pick wherever it is, however, to hold onto what may be a more valuable pick in the following year's draft. What happens there remains to be seen.

But with one very high pick guaranteed, and another possible, let's take a look at five prospects the Sabres should be considering once this season is over and rebuilding can officially begin.

 

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The World Junior Championships provide hockey fans with an opportunity to see the future stars of the game all in one place.

At this year's tournament, which kicks off in Sweden on Dec. 26, the biggest names of the National Hockey League's future—including Canada's Sam Reinhart and Connor McDavid, the projected No. 1 picks of the 2014 and 2015 drafts, respectively—will be participating. It's a wonderful display of what we'll all be watching five, 10, 15 years down the road.

Five current Buffalo Sabres prospects are expected to take part in the event, as well. Three are names that are familiar to fans, as they have already appeared in NHL games with the young club. The other two may not be seen on the ice at First Niagara Center for years to come.

For all five—from 43-game NHLer Mikhail Grigorenko to 2013 fifth-round draft pick Gustav Possler—the tournament will give a chance for much-needed experience and the building blocks for success down the road in the Sabres' organization.

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No one change is going to turn this Buffalo Sabres season around.

With just two regulation wins in 30 games—and a total of just 14 pointsthe Sabres are deep in the NHL's basement. The real changes are going to begin to come during the offseason, when their putrid record will almost guarantee the team a top-three pick in the 2014 draft. And, depending on what the New York Islanders choose to do with the pick from the Thomas Vanek trade, a second high first-round pick may be in the Sabres' pocket, too.

(The Islanders, who currently have the NHL's second-worst record, ahead of only Buffalo, have the option to defer the traded pick to the 2015 draft if it's a top-10 selection. They may choose to hedge their bets, though, as the 2015 draft is generally considered to have more talent than the upcoming oneincluding Connor McDavid, "the LeBron James of hockey.")

But in the short term, the Sabres need to find ways to simply make their games more entertaining for fans to watch, keeping the seats filled at First Niagara Center during this long, painful transition period.

Here is one goal each of the four Buffalo Sabres lines should have as the team looks to keep fans interested during the 52 (dear God, is it really that many?) games that still remain in the 2013-14 season.

 

Note: Sabres line combinations have been in constant flux this season as players have gone in and out of the roster and as interim coach Ted Nolan has attempted to find a new identity for the team. For the sake of this article, I'll be thinking about the latest combination of lines, trotted out at the team's practice Monday morning:

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During another week of ugly losses for the Buffalo Sabres, the New York Rangers—to the surprise of no one—came to terms on a seven year, $59.5 million deal with their Vezina-winning netminder, Henrik Lundqvist. 

Beyond the fact that they were to play the Lundqvist and his Rangers that night, the extension hit close to home for the Sabres. 

Ryan Miller is in limbo, and this contract likely didn't make it any easier for him or the Sabres. 

Miller's play has been nothing short of spectacular at most points this season. In his 21 starts, Miller has faced 763 shots, an average of 36.3 per game. That is by far the highest in the league with Miller in front of the next player by almost four shots per game. That by itself puts his 3.05 goals against average and his solid, but unspectacular, .917 save percentage in context. 

Simply put, Miller has been the brightest spot on an otherwise incredibly dark season. He has not only earned a chance to secure a long-term deal similar to Lundqvist's, but he likely has also earned his way back onto the United States Olympic Team, something a lot of people felt he wouldn't be able to do. 

Obviously, between his play and the Lundqvist extension, many began to wonder if Miller being traded was as sure of a thing as many had led them to believe.

What if Miller signed a similar deal here? Goaltenders don't grow on trees and, despite being 33 years old, Miller likely has at least four years left in him. And draft picks are so risky. A first-rounder does not always develop into a franchise player. 

Ted Nolan then threw a bit more fuel on the fire by saying he did not want to trade Miller. Nolan understands as well as anyone how important a goalie is to a team—see Dominik Hasek—and trading away a Vezina winner who is also clearly the best player on your team at the moment likely doesn't make him feel comfortable moving forward. 

That, however, is assuming that Miller wants to stay in Buffalo, something many have questioned since the beginning of last season, especially after Lindy Ruff was fired.

So what should the Sabres do with Miller?

The easy answer is to re-sign him for something similar to Tuukka Rask money (eight years, $56 million) and move on with him. 

That puts him squarely in the middle of the rebuild but also allows him to be a piece to build around because no matter what the NHL is or will evolve into, a solid goaltender, or at least solid goaltending, is always going to be important. 

So while that's the "easy" answer, it still is fraught with complications, the biggest being the salary cap moving forward. 

As it stands today, the Sabres have about $35.5 million in cap room for next year, assuming no increase in the cap, which, frankly, is a bad assumption. But no one seems to agree how much higher the cap will go next year, so the status quo is the best starting point. Inking Miller to a $7 million per year deal—which could be a low estimate—would bring them down to approximately $28.5 million. 

That's plenty, right? Wrong. 

Just assuming the Sabres want to re-sign their restricted free agents, they have Tyler Ennis, Marcus Foligno, Luke Adam, Jamie McBain and Brayden McNabb to deal with. All five of those players will likely be on the NHL roster next season, and all will likely be due some level of a raise. To think you're getting away from those negotiations by committing less than $10 million of the cap annually is nuts. 

Now you're down to around $18.5 million and you have Steve Ott and Matt Moulson staring you in the face. While many rightly believe Moulson is likely to leave in some fashion, be it the trade deadline or free agency, Ott has said he wants to stay and one has to believe the Sabres want him to stay. 

Ott will be due a slight raise, and will likely cost the Sabres around $3.5 million annually. That's now $15 million in cap space. 

Even without Moulson, the team needs to sign someone to replace him in body count at the very least. That may open the door for Joel Armia, but it could mean they pursue someone in free agency. Some names that may interest the Sabres include Dany Heatley, Milan Michalek, Ales Hemsky, Devin Setoguchi and Alex Steen. None of them will come cheaper than $5 million per season. 

Now the Sabres are likely under $10 million in space and they have a few roster spots to fill. Sure, using a compliance buyout on Ville Leino will be a popular solution once again, but that just means you need to spend more to replace him as well. 

It's not as if the Sabres' cap situation would be dire by signing Miller, but the final available cap number will be a lot less than many would have imagined, and spending to the cap in a rebuilding stage typically doesn't fair too well. 

So that brings one to the idea of trading Miller, something Sabres fans have been waiting for all season long. 

The return on Miller is going to be one of two things: way too much or way too little. That's likely to be the case because the market for a goaltender, even one of Miller's caliber, is not the best right now, especially when teams are nixed by a limited no-trade clause. 

A few teams have been linked to Miller for awhile, including the Edmonton Oilers, the New York Islanders, the St. Louis Blues and the Anaheim Ducks, but a betting man would guess that at least Edmonton and probably the Isles were on Miller's no-trade list. 

So in all reality, that leaves a pretty bare market right now, especially seeing the Ducks and Blues have been getting good enough goaltending to get them to the top of the Western Conference. 

Essentially what it comes down to is this: The Sabres either need someone to start playing extremely poorly or to get hurt to open the market. Without one of those things happening, Sabres fans will be very underwhelmed with the return on any Miller trade, especially from a contender. 

The worst part of this for the Sabres is that trading Miller for a stable of prospects and/or picks is probably the best long-term solution, but the only teams they'd get such a return from are likely on his no-trade list. The Islanders may as well have your grandmother in net right now and their general manager Garth Snow may be in the mood to trade away too much to potentially save his job. 

So, again, the Sabres enter a wait-and-see mode, hoping that either a need arises or that Miller decides he wants to stay and signs a favorable extension. The odds either happens? Probably slim, but those are the team's best options right now. 

Right now the only certainty in this ongoing saga is that Miller will see a lot of rubber thrown his way the next few months. 

Follow me on Twitter for NHL and Sabres news all season long: @SwordPlay18

 

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With the Buffalo Sabres unable to score goals once again in the still relatively young season, the reality has likely settled in for most who follow the team: They'll be picking very, very high in next year's NHL Entry Draft. 

How high? Jeremy White of Buffalo's local WGR 550 radio station tweeted that SportsClubStats.com gives the Sabres a 97-percent chance of picking in the top three. 

So to start, the Sabres will have an all but guaranteed top-three pick. Then comes the saga that will surround the first rounder obtained from the New York Islanders for Thomas Vanek that can be deferred to next season if the Isles finish poorly enough to pick in the top 10. 

The story will involve the Islanders' internal debate of whether or not to defer the pick given what is on the horizon in terms of prospects next year.

As of Friday, the Islanders would pick second in the upcoming draft—assuming the Sabres win the lottery. Aside from John Tavares, the Islanders don't seem to be getting much better anytime soon either, especially with their current situation between the pipes. With that in mind, it is not a stretch to think the Isles will be as bad, if not worse next year, especially if they part ways with Vanek

With Connor McDavid as the top prize in 2015, and names like Dylan Strome, Mitch Marner and Travis Konecny behind him, the Isles may not want to forfeit their chance to acquire one of them, so a top-three, let alone a top-10 pick, in this year's draft is not guaranteed to be deferred. 

This means that the Sabres have the ability to have two top-three picks on top of three second rounders in 2014. As discussed before, this does not include any picks acquired in trades including potential UFAs Ryan Miller, Matt Moulson and Steve Ott, all of which would likely be at least second rounders. 

If the Sabres are going to get better anytime soon, these picks, however they are utilized, will need to play a huge part in the future of the team. There is no way Pat LaFontaine and the new general manager will draft five players as Darcy Regier did last year. While Darcy's haul was impressive, the three second rounders, J.T. Compher, Justin Bailey and Connor Hurley, are each at least three years away from being in the conversation for an NHL roster spot.

The Sabres need to start adding "right-now" players, and the players available at the top of the next two drafts—Sam Reinhart and Connor McDavid—certainly fit that bill. The players in the mid-first and second rounds likely do not. 

As Sabres President Ted Black has said many times this season, draft picks are a special kind of currency in the NHL and should be treated as such. There's more than one way to spend money, and there's certainly more than one way to use a draft pick. 

Continually drafting five or six guys in the first two rounds can only get your team so far. Sure, those prospects themselves become their own currency, but the picks typically have a lot more value. 

If the Sabres were to net themselves another first-round pick(s), likely in a Miller and/or Moulson trade, it's likely they'll come from teams making a playoff push and will be later in the round. Those picks can be swapped for immediate, top-six goal-scoring talent.

There are a number of soon-to-be restricted free agents that may have trouble re-signing given their team's cap situation like Derek Stepan of the New York Rangers and both Craig Smith and Colin Wilson of the Nashville Predators. They should be targets of the new Sabres GM.

The common theme in all of this is that the basis laid in 2014 will tell the tale of how well, or poorly, this rebuild will go. The new regime in the front office may have walked into a bad situation on the ice, but there is no denying that Regier has done a good job stocking the player cupboards, especially on defense.

LaFontaine and his GM choice need to take that and build on it this offseason, and that will almost certainly happen around the draft. 

So whether Reinhart is wearing the blue and gold or not, the team needs to be able to take a step forward, and it needs to start in June.

 

Follow me on Twitter for NHL and Sabres news all season long: @SwordPlay18.  

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