Originally posted on Buffalo Wins  |  Last updated 2/22/13
We’re 18 games into a season that has been marked by inconsistent play by the team on the ice and a frustration level of fans that has reached a boiling point.  There is plenty of blame to go around for the team’s slow start.  The most obvious problem that the Sabres have is poor coverage in the defensive zone, and I don’t blame that solely on the defensemen.  Any hockey player or coach will tell you that defense is just as much a responsibility of the forwards as it is the defensemen.  After their 3-1 loss to Toronto, the Sabres have now given up 59 goals on the season.  That puts them 29th in the NHL in total goals allowed, ahead of only the Islanders. In my humble opinion, one of the reasons for the Sabres struggles is their youth and inexperience at the center position.  I’m not blaming the centers per se, it’s just part of their maturation as an NHL player.  Young players have a lot to learn coming into the league, but often one of the hardest is defensive zone coverage.  A successful team needs strong two-way centers.  At this point in their careers, the young centers just aren’t there.  It shouldn’t be a surprise that the team is struggling defensively and has been amazingly inconsistent.  That’s the definition of young players.  If we compare the top three centers on this team (Hodgson, Ennis, and Grigorenko) to the centers of seasons passed, we see that they are considerably younger and much less experienced.  On opening day, this year’s trio had an average age of 21 years and 231 days, and an average experience of 77 career NHL games.  Hecht and Ott have filled in for Grigorenko on the 3rd line on occasion, but even so, it still leaves two 22/23 year olds as your top two centers.  Now they have called Kevin Porter up from Rochester.  He’s been advertised as that two-way responsible center the team needs.  But where do you play him?  If Porter stays as the 3rd line center, you hit the pause button on Grigo’s development.  Mikhail watching from the press box does him no good.  Personally, I say put him on the 3rd line wing with Porter at center and Ott opposite.  Sounds like a good line to help someone learn the game the right way.  You can move him back to center anytime down the road. In past years, there has been more experience at the pivot.  Let’s look at the last 3 years and the average age and NHL experience of the centers.  Note:  For last season, I used three different combinations because there was a lot of line juggling.  At the beginning of the season, Luke Adam centered Vanek and Pominville on the top line.  Leino and Hecht both tried their hand at center for awhile and Gaustad played on the 3rd line at times.  But no matter what combination you use, the story is still the same… they collectively had more experience than this group.         Career Games Prior to Season Start     Age at Season Start     Years Days 2013         Cody Hodgson   22 337 91 Tyler Ennis   23 106 140 Mikhail Grigorenko   18 249 0             AVG 21 231 77           2011-12         Roy   28 156 469 Leino   28 1 149 Hecht   34 155 764             AVG 30 104 460.67           Roy   28 156 469 Gaustad   29 246 423 Leino   28 1 149             AVG 28 256 347           Roy   28 156 469 Leino   28 1 149 Adam   21 111 19             AVG 25 333 212.33           2010-11         Roy   27 157 434 Connolly   29 154 559 Niedermayer   35 284 1082             AVG 30 320 691.67   When you look at the above, you notice one thing right away.  None of the top 3 centers from two seasons ago are even with the team today.  Darcy knew that he needed to upgrade the center position on this club, and he set out to do so.  He traded for Hodgson and drafted Grigorenko and Girgensons.  That’s a major overhaul of the pivot position.  There are going to be growing pains with any large change like that.  With growing pains come inconsistency and fan frustration.  That’s where we are today.  The good news is that there are better days ahead for all three of the Sabres young centers.  They will gain experience and become more responsible in the defensive zone.  As an organization they need to be patient and let these guys grow into their roles.   As fans, we have to have the same patience.  Everyone wants to win now, but that clearly isn’t happening.  It doesn’t mean that we blow up the entire team and start over again.  The team on the ice today is not a cup contending team, in part because of the youth and inexperience at the center position.  However, in a few years, assuming the current guys remain, we very well could be talking about our centers as the backbone and strength of this team.  Give them time.  They will develop.  Herein lies the problem to me, and maybe the main beef that I have with Darcy’s plan as it sits today.  If we know that it will be a few years until these centers are truly ready to lead in all areas of the ice, where does that leave the long term plan of the team?  At the end of next season, the true core of the team (Vanek, Miller, and Pominville) could disappear.  Imagine this current team without those three guys.  I shudder to think how badly we would get beat on a night in, night out basis.  But all three of them will see their long term contracts expire at the end of the 2013-14 season and hit the open market (unless Darcy locks them up beforehand).  It’s unlikely that all three will be back after that.  Maybe two but more likely one.  If you are Darcy, who do you focus on?  Your leading scorer, your captain, or your elite goaltender?  If you let them go, you again start a rebuilding process.  And you again frustrate one of the most loyal fan bases in sports.  So the window of opportunity for the Sabres to reach the promised land (or maybe even just make a run at it) is closing.  It’s clearly not this season and after 2013-14, we may lose 1 or 2 of our best players.  So that leaves next year.  In my opinion, that’s the best chance that the Sabres have to contend.  But can the centers develop quickly enough before the window closes and Miller is making saves in another uniform or Vanek is doing his patented around the world shootout move in another building?  Nobody knows, but it might be asking a lot of a very young group of guys.  We, as fans, all want a championship.  Guess what.  Darcy does too. He made the moves that he thought would bring this team closer.  Ask yourself this question, do you feel better about the team’s future at center with Hodgson, Ennis, and Grigorenko than you did with Roy, Connolly, and Gaustad?  I do.  But the key word is future.  The future, by definition, isn’t today.  My concern is the core of the team could be gone before the future is here.  Time will tell. For more Sabres stats nuggets in 140 characters or less, follow me on Twitter (@SabresStats). LET’S GO BUFFALO!  
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