Growing Back the Backbone

Posted on October 30, 2009 by Dave Drews

It’s not hard to define what Thomas Vanek brings to the Buffalo Sabres. The Austrian winger was in the top five in the league for goals last year before his injury, and already has four goals in the seven games he’s played this season.

There’s nothing ambiguous about Ryan Miller’s contribution, either. He’s a top tier goalie who’s leading the league in both the Goals Against and Save Percentage category right now.

But this league is not, as this team has found out in recent years, only about flashy goal scorers and great net minding. Certainly those parts are necessary for a great team, but without a solid backbone, any team will fall apart. This year, it seems, the Sabres have grown back their spine.

New additions and a newfound spirit have lifted this team up to the high level they are at now, and three players this year seem to exemplify this.

Matt Ellis
Ok, so he doesn’t really look the part. Matt Ellis seems more like that dorky kid who sat next to you in your chemistry class in the seventh grade than the solid fourth liner he’s become. Claimed off of waivers by the Sabres in October of 2008, the general consensus was that he would be a role filler for Buffalo’s new AHL affiliate, Portland. Fast forward one year, and Ellis is now a fixture on the roster, grabbing a spot over long time starter, Adam Mair. The season is young, and Ellis already has three assists and a goal, which, by the way, happens to be a game winner.

At plus-five, both his work in the corners and his ability to get back on defense have helped his team night in and night out. He might not be an all star anytime soon, but if Ellis can keep this level of play up, he’ll be on this team for the long haul.

Henrik Tallinder
Being a defenseman in the NHL can sometimes be like being an offensive lineman in football. Do something right and you’re just doing your job. Do something wrong however, and everybody knows about it. Criticized in past seasons for being soft and turning over the puck, Hank is tied for fifth on the Sabres in hits with nine, and only has two giveaways, second least on a team that’s been very responsible defensively so far this season. Some hypothesized that Tallinder was afraid of getting hit after a few injuries several seasons ago, and for a while that appeared to be accurate based on what we saw.

This year though, he seems to have gotten his head on straight, and hasn’t been afraid of anything. Sure he’s not a stay at home stalwart who hits everything he’s near, but he hasn’t hesitated to get into scrums for the puck, and has been back-checking very well. Why the sudden change? Sometimes having the right defensive partner can make all the difference, and the way rookie Tyler Myers has been playing, it can only help anyone who’s on the ice with him in the right colored sweater. That goes both ways though, and Henrik Tallinder has obviously been doing his job to show the young skater the ropes of the NHL.

Mike Grier
Mike Grier has been the premier addition to the Buffalo Sabres this season. Don’t believe it? Well, don’t only look at the stats to back up that statement. Grier has three goals and is a solid +3, but that is far from telling the whole story. He brings with him, in addition to his offensive ability, years of experience and a steadying presence to the club. It has been four seasons since the 2005-2006 playoff run by a bunch of young kids, and they’ve grown a lot, but they’ve been without a real calming character since two certain captains left. GM Darcy Regier and coach Lindy Ruff tried to plug that gap with Craig Rivet a year ago, but he wasn’t enough on his own.

Enter Grier, a grinding forward who, knowing half of these young players from his last stint here, is able to step in and both motivate and support the team. He brings that great inexpressible characteristic, talked about, though never defined, by anyone who’s been the game of hockey; heart.

Maybe he’s a little slower than the last time around. Maybe his get-up-and-go takes a little longer to get out of bed. Grier, however, is proving that he still has what it takes to be a top-six forward, and that he can be a stabilizing force for the Buffalo Sabres once again.

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