It is easy to understand what the Buffalo Sabres were thinking with Matt Savoie during the Rochester Americans’ Eastern Conference final playoff series against Hershey. It was probably just an ill-timed idea.
The Amerks had won Game 1 on the road, 5-1. Their speed clearly surprised the bigger, more veteran Hershey lineup, and you would imagine they thought adding even more might allow them to run the Bears out of the building. It didn’t happen.
Savoie will have to earn his ice time. But there’s confidence throughout the organization that it won’t take him long to do so.
Savoie, who was still in game shape from playing in the Western Hockey League final with Winnipeg, played Games 2 and 3 and didn’t get a shot on goal as Rochester lost both. At just 5-foot-9, the bruising Hershey roster was a bad matchup for him. There wasn’t the open ice that there would have been against more skilled opponents such as Syracuse and Toronto.
Coach Seth Appert went with the bigger Filip Cederqvist in Game 4, and he had two assists in the game. Savoie didn’t play the rest of the series.
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Coaches and front-office types walk a delicate line here. Players have been here all season and are suddenly displaced by more heralded prospects. We’ve seen it over the years with the Buffalo Bisons. The then-parent Cleveland Indians nearly tore the team apart at the 1998 Triple-A World Series in Las Vegas by promoting players from Double-A Akron for the season’s ultimate moment and sitting guys who had helped win an International League title.
The Amerks stayed together and battled hard through the end of their 1-0 loss that ended the series in Game 6 on Friday night. On his end-of-season video call Saturday, Amerks general manager/Sabres assistant GM Jason Karmanos said he understood all the variables of the situation.
“We didn’t take it lightly. We have big plans for Matt in the organization, and we think very highly of him,” Karmanos said of the Sabres’ first-round pick from July. “But also part of the equation is certainly the group that has been battling all year, and specifically in the playoffs and not wanting to disrupt that. … Everybody knows that we’ve got that two-pronged process going, where it’s development, and also hopefully in a winning environment.
The Rochester Americans’ unexpected, memorable playoff run ended Friday night with a 1-0 loss to the Hershey Bears.
“At the end of the day, we felt it was good to give them a taste. He will learn from that in a major way and already has, I’m sure. To jump into the conference finals, I personally thought he did very well, considering the circumstances. That’s a big jump.”
Karmanos said the jump was a key part of Savoie’s debriefing during the series, as the 19-year-old noted the speed of the pro game afforded him less time and space than in junior hockey.
“Until a kid is put in that position, he doesn’t feel it for himself,” Karmanos said. “So we think that’ll pay dividends for him going forward. He’s talented enough where it was a decision that we made to put him in and see what happened.”
“I put Matt Savoie in because I believe he gave us the best chance to win hockey games. That’s what it is this time of year,” Appert said earlier in the series. “And Matt Savoie played well. It’s not a knock on him at all.
“Guys are coming into your lineup in the American League all the time. You think you’re all set, and then a guy gets called up to Buffalo and then your lineup gets depleted, or guys come up from Cincinnati. … As players, they’re so used to guys just coming in and out of the lineup, I think it just becomes second nature and it doesn’t even affect you.”
It was a surprise to see Savoie so early in the series, and I quibble with the assertion he played well. He showed promise and great hands, but he was badly overmatched on the wall as a winger. Maybe giving him more space at center would have been a better play.
From this view, the expectation was that he would watch the first two games and perhaps be used as an injection of energy if the Amerks hit a bump in the series. I didn’t like putting him in and tinkering with a winning lineup at all, whether that was Appert’s call or came on orders from Karmanos and/or Sabres GM Kevyn Adams.
It didn’t put the player in a great spot, and impacted the Amerks’ chemistry that had been built through a seven-game postseason winning streak that suddenly went away.
Despite the series loss, it is hard to argue the success the Sabres have found in Rochester. The Amerks played into June for the first time since the 2000 Calder Cup finals against Hartford, and have won four playoff series the last two years. From 2001-2021, they won just three.
Appert noted Saturday how his team’s defense didn’t get the credit it probably deserved in the conference final, and he’s got a point. The Amerks gave up just two goals combined in Games 5-6, and had a shutout going for 50 minutes in Game 4 before their late collapse, but still lost the series. That 1-for-15 power play was a killer.
“I’m still very, very torn up about the loss because we were right there, and you felt like we are capable of winning the Calder Cup,” Appert said. “But at the same time, I’m also incredibly proud of what this group became and how far they took us.”
Kevyn Adams called the addition of Jason Karmanos as associate general manager a “critical hire” when the longtime NHL executive joined the Buffalo Sabres in May 2021. The Buffalo News spoke to Karmanos about the Amerks’ progress over since his arrival.
Karmanos confirmed he had multiple talks with the Pittsburgh Penguins in recent weeks about their general manager’s job, which remains open for now in the wake of the hiring of former Toronto GM Kyle Dubas as president of hockey operations. Dubas said in his introductory press conference the post will go unfilled for now.
“I actually talked to people here when I was going through the process that I was a little conflicted, to be honest with you, about how excited I am about what’s going on in this organization,” Karmanos said Saturday when asked about the Pittsburgh talks. “What happens is when we have success as a group, individuals like myself can be considered for other opportunities. That’s part of what goes on in our business. So I’m grateful for that.
“But at the same time, this is a type of situation where I’ve been working 25 years now in this league and this is probably as excited about a situation as I’ve ever been, in terms of what we can do moving forward, and the success that we are on a good path toward. It was good experience, good to go through it, good to get as far as I went in the process just for personal experience moving forward. But I’m really excited about what’s going on here.”
It made perfect sense for Dubas to join Pittsburgh after his sudden departure in Toronto. It was just a question of whether the Penguins would give him the control that Leafs president Brendan Shanahan would not. But Fenway Sports Group is still a neophyte when it comes to NHL ownership and needed someone to hitch its hockey ride with, so making Dubas a club president was a good fit.
“As the Sabres make their ascent, they have to love another marquee team in their division suddenly getting plunged into uncertainty and transition,” writes Mike Harrington.
And don’t forget that Red Sox owner John Henry was the guy who hired analytics guru Bill James in Boston, and tried to hire “Moneyball” maven Billy Beane away from the Oakland Athletics before inserting Theo Epstein into the slot to break the 86-year World Series drought. Dubas, of course, is considered one of hockey’s top analytically inclined executives. In baseball terms, a Dubas hire was an easy Henry fastball down the middle.
By the way, you had to love how Dubas and the Penguins tweaked the Leafs by announcing his hire – and then stealing his old team’s thunder by pushing a news conference the same afternoon a half-hour before Toronto unveiled Brad Treliving as its new GM. Savage move there.
A note from legendary Boston Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy in the wake of the Celtics’ Game 7 flameout against Miami in the NBA’s Eastern Conference final: Starting April 19, when the Bruins lost Game 2 of their first-round series to Florida, the Bs and Celtics were a combined 3-9 in playoff games at TD Garden.
“The Florida Panthers are on one of the luckiest runs in Cup history. And perhaps in the playoff history in any of the four major team sports,” Mike Harrington writes.
The Bruins dropped the final three games at home against the Panthers, losing Games 5 and 7 in overtime, and the Celtics went 3-6. That includes 1-3 in the Miami series.
On the night the Celtics flamed out, former Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy was qualifying for the Stanley Cup final in Vegas’ Game 6 win in Dallas. For all the winning done in Boston in multiple sports since 2001, that’s a heavy dose of bad losses in just over a month.
• TSN’s Darren Dreger dropped a bombshell Saturday, reporting that Mike Babcock is in line to get back into the NHL as head coach in Columbus, and the only thing in the way is he has to wait for his contract in Toronto to run out this month before he can take the job.
• Here’s an interesting idea the Sabres should consider: Vegas season ticket members have a program that’s going through the Stanley Cup final called “Knights Vow”, which provides the most significant price savings off the single-game price – but prohibits resales through any secondary platform. Fans get their tickets electronically 12-24 hours prior to each game.
Fans can opt out if they want to resell tickets, allowed only through the team’s authorized secondary partner, but will lose the biggest discount price and move to a lower-level discount.
It ensures your fans are in the building and that fans of the opposing teams aren’t getting their hands on prime seats, a longtime problem in Buffalo that the Sabres must work harder to eliminate the closer they get to becoming a playoff team.
Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart were hoping to get to this moment together in Buffalo. Instead, it’s happening in two places they never imagined when they were drafted, Harrington says.
• According to the NHL PR department, the 368 games Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart played together in Buffalo are the seventh-most in history for former teammates before meeting as opponents in the Stanley Cup final. The record is 742 between Ralph Backstrom and Henri Richard, who met in the 1973 Chicago-Montreal final after Backstrom was traded to the Blackhawks. No. 2 on the list came last year as Andrew Cogliano and Corey Perry played 561 games together in Anaheim before meeting in the Colorado-Tampa Bay final.
• Weird goings-on in Nashville, where new GM Barry Trotz took his time and then turfed coach John Hynes with a year left on his contract in favor of Andrew Brunette, who was on Lindy Ruff’s staff in New Jersey after leading Florida to the Presidents’ Trophy last season.
Trotz, long considered a defensive coach, pushed back on that notion after the hiring of Brunette. Trotz noted he played a tight style in Nashville and Long Island because that was the personnel he had. And, after all, he did win a Stanley Cup in Washington with plenty of elite talent.
To illustrate his point further, Trotz revealed his message to his scouting staff for the draft later this month in the Music City: “Take some swings, take some high-end swings on some guys. I can find you third-line, fourth-line guys no problem. Go get me some guys that get people out of their seats.”
• With the scouting combine coming to Buffalo later this week, a friendly reminder to all our friends in Chicago: Eichel and Connor McDavid both got drafted in 2015, and it’s taken eight years for Eichel to win a playoff series and, now, make a Cup final. McDavid still hasn’t reached hockey’s ultimate stage.
Based on that history, it might be the 2030s before Connor Bedard gets the Blackhawks there. Nothing is guaranteed.