What to believe
End of season rallies and postseason success create fascinating topics for the Sabres
I’m taking full advantage of modern technology and writing this post to you from my Delta flight down south. I’ve got time to kill and blew $5 to have the internet so let’s get to it.
Player performances late in a regular season that concludes without a postseason always bring about talk of “momentum for next season.” It’s a conflicting topic when it comes down to it. Momentum is, in my mind, a bit like Dumbo’s Feather. If you believe in it and it works for you, that’s great, but it’s not a tangible way to measure growth. This applies to how teams end a season and players as well. Think of Casey Mittelstadt for instance.
When Mittelstadt debuted for the Sabres after leaving the University of Minnesota in 2018, he had five points in the final six games of the season and it led many to believe he was off and running ready to be an instant impact player. Instead it’s taken him a few years and a lot of dedication off and on the ice to get back to a place in his career where it’s all come together for the most part.
Momentum can create false hope. It can lead to a skewed view of progress which can delay development. As a team, the Sabres made tremendous leaps in style of play, competitiveness, and confidence. They ended the season with wins in five of the last six games and leaving everyone wanting more. That’s good! Does it mean anything to how next year will go? Not one bit! But starting next season with a lot of confidence and knowledge of how they can play when they’ve got it together is something to use.
This brings us to the Rochester Americans and how J-J Peterka, Arttu Ruotsalainen, Peyton Krebs, and Jack Quinn are performing in the postseason.
Before the playoffs began and expectations weren’t very high for how the Amerks would do, conclusions were that Quinn and Peterka had outstanding seasons and that Quinn’s ticket to Buffalo was all but secured while Peterka might need a little more time in the AHL because of defensive concerns despite being an outstanding offensive performer.
After knocking out Belleville in the opening round and now with a 2-1 lead in a best-of-five against Utica, the opinion has shifted on Peterka. He’s score four goals with four assists in five games including a hat trick against Utica in Game 2 in which he scored the overtime game-winner. He’s stepped up remarkably against the Comets and has been a force.
After an incredible regular season, Quinn’s scoring has cooled off late in the year and in the postseason. He has one assist in the playoffs after posting 26-35-61 in 45 regular season games. It doesn’t lessen his season, but it does make you wonder if something is bothering him or if Utica and Belleville alike decided they’re OK with anyone else but Quinn beating them.
Krebs spent the majority of his time since coming over from Vegas in the Eichel trade with the Sabres, but they made him available to Rochester for the Calder Cup Playoffs. He’s taken full advantage by being the setup man with eight assists in the postseason. He’s one of a few potential centers jockeying to prove they can play the pivot and Krebs’ vision and passing skill are excellent. Question for him is whether that skill is best for him on the wing or up the middle. With Krebs, Mittelstadt, and Dylan Cozens all candidates to play up the middle behind Tage Thompson, the best way forward may be to have one of those guys go to the wing. You certainly don’t want one of those guys playing center on the fourth line.
That’s what brings us to Arttu Ruotsalainen. The 5-foot-9 Finn has had a bit of a strange trip. He was signed as a free agent a few years back and he’s played 35 games in the NHL with seven goals and three assists while averaging nearly 13 minutes per game. But in Rochester he’s been a dynamo, particularly in the playoffs.
In the regular season he had a line of 18-33-51 in 57 games (pretty good) and through five playoff games he has six goals and three assists (holy crap). He’s been a big game performer for the Amerks and a major reason why they’ve done as well as they have. This got me to asking a question on twitter:
I’ve discussed the Arttu Conundrum with Lance on Maintenance Day the past couple episodes and it really is a bit confusing that he seemed to be someone Kevyn Adams and Don Granato either felt he wasn’t complete enough for the NHL or just a player they don’t see as part of their future. He’s shown the kind of growth in his game they want to see from players and as he heads into restricted free agency this summer it will be fascinating to see what the Sabres decide with him.
Seeing former Sabres and Amerks prospects like Brandon Hagel and Colin Blackwell perform well in the postseason for the Lightning and Maple Leafs respectively should be reason enough to give pause if moving on from Ruotsalainen is in their plans. Buffalo doesn’t have the kind of depth (yet) that letting a potentially solid player go elsewhere is a good plan.
But this circles back to the start of this column: Is how he’s playing of late the real player or just a guy who got hit at the right time? Or is this a signal of how he’s grown and playing with confidence has unlocked his game? It ain’t easy being a GM.
Wheels down, gang.