McKenzie: Sabres ‘pointed in the right direction’

The Buffalo Sabres are off to a 5-4-0 start, bolstered in part by weekend wins over the Los Angeles Kings and Anaheim Ducks.

During a Monday morning radio segment on Edmonton’s TSN 1260, Bob McKenzie was asked if the Sabres are “looking like a team that’s starting to take a step finally in the right direction.”

“Yeah, you know what? It’s still too early to say for sure,” cautioned McKenzie. “But I think the early indications are yes. I don’t know that it’s a big step, but it’s the step to competitiveness.

“And a big help on this trip was the fact that Jeff Skinner got on track. They went out and got Jeff Skinner in the off-season. He waived his no-move clause to go for the final year of his contract to the Buffalo Sabres, and he’s got what, five goals including a hat trick over the last few games. On this road trip he really broke loose and scored another last night.

“So that really helps when you start to get different people chipping in because for the longest time they had a really pop-gun offense where if you stopped Jack Eichel, you basically stopped the team.

“So they’re starting to assemble a little deeper offense. They’ve got Rasmus Dahlin on the blueline, he’s still a work in progress as a No. 1 overall pick. Their goaltending has been better this year with Hutton and some of the depth guys they’ve got there.

“So yeah, I think they’re pointed in the right direction and playing much more competitive hockey, and look like they’ve got a few more offensive weapons for on the nights where they are cooking, they’re actually finishing their chances and not missing as they were many times in the past.”

Skinner is in the final season of a six-year contract, and Darren Dreger indicated in September that both the Sabres and the player’s camp had essentially agreed to wait on any potential extension talks until later in the season.

Casey Mittelstadt has a lone assist with no goals through his first nine starts, and as the conversation continued on 1260 McKenzie was asked if that “extremely slow start” was surprising.

“Yeah, obviously because if you saw him play at the world junior championship last year the two guys on the U.S. team that absolutely blew you away… were Brady Tkachuk and Casey Mittelstadt,” recalled McKenzie. “And Tkachuk obviously came in and immediately started paying dividends for Ottawa until he got injured, and he’s out at least a month with a high ankle sprain.

“But we assumed that Mittelstadt would be able to duplicate what he’d done at the University of Minnesota, and at the world junior championship - a smaller, but really dynamic, skilled guy that basically owns the puck when he’s on the ice. Think Johnny Gaudreau and players like that, that just captivate you when they’ve got the puck on their stick. And we kind of assumed that would be automatic. Well, it hasn’t happened yet and we’ve got to be careful that those high expectations get tempered a little bit.

“And you’ve got to be careful too that you don’t all of the sudden say, ‘Oh, well he’s not as good as we thought he’s going to be, so this guy is trash.’ He’s not. He’s still a blue-chip prospect.

“And one of the things the Sabres were worried a little bit about when they traded Ryan O’Reilly - and it’s part of the reason that they got Patrik Berglund coming back the other way - is that they didn’t want to play Mittelstadt as their second-line center. They wanted to insulate him a little bit, and make him the third-line center; but even at that, the numbers have been extremely disappointing.

“So I think it’s important with a young player that you just stay the course and be responsible in how you allocate the ice time. Make sure he’s getting enough ice time to continue to develop, but make sure that he’s not getting too much that it becomes obvious that you’re trying to force-feed something when it’s not there right now.

“So I’m sure that Phil Housley and Jason Botterill and the guys in Buffalo will be guarding this very well because he is such a blue-chip prospect. And I don’t think there’s any doubt in my mind or that of anybody that’s seen him play that he’s going to be a real good National Hockey League player, even though the results are really slow out of the gate.”

The Sabres are off until Thursday, when they’ll host the Montreal Canadiens.

Contract-related info via CapFriendly