The Christmas break is winding down for the NHL with 16 games set for tomorrow night to get the season rolling again. For hockey fans in the U.S., the 2019 IIHF World Junior Championships in Vancouver, B.C. begin this evening with Team USA and Sabres d-prospect Mattias Samuelsson
(2018, 32nd-overall) taking on Team Slovakia at 6:30 ET. Three other Buffalo prospects will be in action this year beginning today: the Czech Republic and forward Matej Pekar
(2018, 94th) open up the tourney vs. Team Switzerland at 4:00 ET while defenseman Oskari Laaksonen
(2017, 54th) and goalie Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen
(2017, 89th) of Team Finland hit the ice at 10:30 ET to take on Team Sweden, last year's silver medal winner.
Down in Cleveland, the Rochester Americans will be trying to shake a three-game losing streak as they return from the Christmas break with a game against the Monsters tonight. The Amerks are 0-3-0 since defeating Cleveland on both nights of a home-and-home Dec. 14-15.
The Sabres return to action tomorrow night in St. Louis against Ryan O'Reilly and the Blues. The two teams pulled off a blockbuster deal in the off season with Buffalo sending O'Reilly to St. Louis for forwards Patrick Berglund, Vladimir Sobotka and Tage Thompson along with a conditional first round pick and a 2021 second rounder. And with that in mind, we'll continue our quick hits on the Sabres forwards with one of those players involved in the deal.
--He's tall (6'6"), has an impressive wing-span, can handle the puck extremely well and when he has open space and enough time, he has a rocket of a shot. We've seen short spurts of incredibly skilled play from Thompson this season but have also seen him disappear for very long stretches which has him moving up and down the lineup. One would like to see him use his large frame more and though he skates very well, especially when he gets active, he's still seems to be behind the play a bit. The 21 yr. old Thompson has all the tools to be a scorer but he's been dropped to the fourth line lately, and ironically it may be the best thing for him. The two players anchoring that line are full-go compete and prior to the break Thompson looked as if he was feeding off/playing like that and if he can ever internalize the compete those two have, the Sabres could have themselves a heck of a scoring forward.
--One of the two mentioned above is Girgensons, who's been anchoring the fourth line nearly the entire season. You'll never get shorted in the effort department with the former first round pick (2012, 14th) and he does great work on the forecheck and along the wall. A disconnect between his head and hands (sometimes his feet as well) along with bouts of tunnel vision keeps him from producing as much as he could. Girgensons has a really good shot and his will gets him to advantageous spots on the ice, however he's had trouble capitalizing on his opportunities. For the fist time since he hit the ice as a rookie it seems as if the "Latvian Locomotive" has a defined role as that of a checker and penalty killer. From the start of the season Girgensons has been a big part of a fourth line that coach Phil Housley has called the team's best line on many occasions and he's also been on the top-unit of a penalty kill that is top-five in the league.
--Although he hasn't had a great season, Rodrigues' 10 points (2+8) is still ahead of first round picks Thompson (2016, 26th) and Girgensons in scoring and although it might not be saying much, it is what it is. The versatile, undrafted college free agent (2015) has been moved around in the bottom-nine by Housley as he tries to find a working combination and some chemistry for the second and third lines. For as much 5v5 trouble as he, and the team, has had, Rodrigues has been a constant on Buffalo's penalty kill and he's also been used on the second powerplay unit. In a year of struggles for any forward outside the top trio, Rodrigues needs to find consistency to his game no matter what line he's on.
a--Like many other forwards on the club, Sobotka is still looking for a home in the bottom-nine although prior to the break he was on a line with Conor Sheary and Rodrigues with second line duties. The trio looked pretty good and it seemed as if they'd found some chemistry accounting for seven shots on goal. Sobotka was having issues with his role in St. Louis as he felt he could be a scorer but was looked to more defensively. He's had ample opportunity in a scorers role in Buffalo but hasn't been able to take advantage of it with only five pints (3+2) in 32 games and has a team-worst minus-8 rating.
--At the end of last season many wanted him bought out and shipped out on the first boat back to Europe. However, Larsson knew he had a terrible season and went to work over the summer to make corrections. Housley noticed the change at camp and after fits and starts to begin the season the season, Larsson excelled and is now locked into a fourth-line center role with top-unit penalty kill duties. He and Girgensons have really made that line into a force and they might be having a positive effect on Thompson, who seems to have picked up his game. There's no doubt we would like to see better production than his five points (3+2) in 31 games but Larsson's defensive role, as well as that of being Housley's go-to faceoff guy as of late, makes him a solid piece on a winning team this year.
--Picked up off of waivers from the Dallas Stars, Elie has pretty much been a last resort depth forward allowing the Sabres to keep developing their prospects in Rochester, at least for the first half of the season. Elie's a grinder with some good speed who's pretty good on the puck. At present he's the only Buffalo forward without a goal although he's only played in 10 games thus far.
--When the O'Reilly trade was finalized, Berglund was expected to be a key piece while playing a mid-six role for the Sabres. After a very good career in St. Louis, the 30 yr. old found him in a place he really didn't want to be. The Blues shipped him off to Buffalo after his full no-trade clause expired and before his list of teams on a limited no-trade clause was submitted. Whether the Blues jumped early or the list was late hasn't been decided but it would seem as if Berglund wasn't too happy about being traded to the Sabres. When his ice time dwindled and he found himself in the pressbox after sub-par play, it only made matters worse. Berglund went AWOL and on December 15 he was suspended by the team before being placed on unconditional waivers with the intent to terminate his contract. On December 19 his contract was terminated. Details of the aftermath are unknown but we do know that Berglund walked away from over $12 million dollars and the Sabres gained some valuable cap-space as his $3.85 million cap-hit for three-plus years disappeared. Perhaps a friend of mine put it best when he said it was an "unfortunate win" for the Sabres.
--Suffered a broken ankle and has been out all season. He's skating with the team and is expected to return after the first of the year.