Sunday, August 28, 2011

NHL Western Conference Offseason Review

Alright, here comes part two of the NHL Offseason Review, and I'm writing this from Montreal, which is probably the best place in the world to be if you're writing about hockey. Also, if you like to have fun, I highly suggest it. Anyways, onto the teams and their offseason moves, and a tiny little prognostication.

Anaheim Ducks

Anaheim, hockey hotbed.... oh, who am I kidding. It's Anaheim, where people don't even show up to baseball games on time, and pretty much never show up to hockey games. The Ducks were pretty exciting last year, what with Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf, but it wasn't enough to get them past the first round. This year they went out and traded forMathieu Carle (D, Montreal) and Andrew Cogliano (F, Edmonton) to bolster the front and back lines, without losing too much in the process. So, mild improvement. With Hedburg back in goal and the offense slightly improved, they might get past round 1 this time.

Calgary Flames

Calgary's been on the decline for a couple years now, as their formerly all star core starts to age. This offseason looks like an attempt to get a little younger- they traded Robyn Regehr to Buffalo in return for young, somewhat promising Chris Butler and Paul Byron, and signed a couple new faces from around the league. Is it enough to return Jerome Iginla to the playoffs? This team still looks understaffed and not ready for any postseason success.

Chicago Blackhawks

The gist of the Blackhawks offseason was to get tougher. They lost some good two way forwards, but then just decided to sign and trade for bigger, tougher guys up front. Andrew Brunette, from Minnesota, adds a physically big scoring threat to the team, Carcillo (Philly) brings some dickishness, and the Blackhawks might be able to develop Rostislav Olesz (Florida) into a more consistent scoring threat. Overall, after getting out-toughed in their first round series against hated Vancouver, the Blackhawks responded this offseason by bulking up. This is a Cup contender in the West, once again.

Colorado Avalanche

Colorado missed out on the playoffs last year; and it appears they've made moves to try and get back. Without losing too much, they infused a massive amount of talent all over the ice- three new goalies, Hejda (Columbus) and O' Brien (Nashville) on D, and Kobasew (Minnesota) up front. Building around Paul Stansy after trading Chris Stewart last year is the path their taking, and they might be able to sneak into the playoffs.

Columbus Blue Jackets

Will Columbus ever be relavent? They just remain unknown, a team disappearing in what David Foster Wallace would call the Great Ohio Desert (English Nerdiness over now). This team might be trying to do something about that, though, with a ton of moves they made (probably to counter all the departures, as well). Most notably, they traded for Jeff Carter (Philadelphia) and picked up James Wisnewski (Montreal) and Vaclav Prospal (New York). They've got two pretty decent lines now, so, who knows, maybe someone will be watching when Rick Nash does something awesome in Columbus.

Dallas Stars

In news that I am glad to hear, there was a pretty big talent drain in Dallas this year (still not forgiven for their 1999 Stanley Cup. Never). They lost Brad Richards to New York, as well as Langenbrunner (St. Louis) and some other good players. For replacements sake, they brought in Michael Ryder (Montreal) and some others (Shelden Souray, for one), but the damage is still done. Dallas is going to have some trouble scoring consistently, and they'll have some trouble staying in contention.

Detroit Red Wings

The Red Wings' core of aging stars might not have many runs left in them. The team stayed effectively neutral this offseason, picking up Mike Commodore (Columbus) and Ian White (San Jose), while losing Kris Draper and Brian Rafalski to retirement. The team will still be near the top of the West, as per usual, but not Cup contenders anymore.

Edmonton Oilers

Edmonton hasn't done much of anything since their surprise run to the Stanley Cup finals in the mid 2000s. This team is very young, but they did bring in some nice additions to bring some experience to the team, and maybe some winning. The pickups of Ryan Smyth (LA), Ben Eager (San Jose), Eric Belanger (Phoenix) and Cam Barker (Minnesota) offset some of the losses this team faced, such as Sheldon Souray (Dallas), Andrew Cogliano (Anaheim),  and Colin Fraser (LA). This team could be one on the rise, but they have a pretty big mountain to climb to get back to the playoffs.

Los Angeles Kings

The LA Kings are riding a resurgence right now, and they had a big offseason to try and take that next step. They brought in Mike Richards from Philadelphia and Simon Gagne from Tampa Bay to add scoring to an already dangerous offense. This offsets some of their loses, like Ponikarovsky (Carolina), Smyth (Edmonton) and Handzus (San Jose). The Kings will once again be near the top of the West, and maybe even get to the Conference Finals. Hockey in LA...I guess it'll work.

Minnesota Wild

Minnesota has such a rabid fanbase, but they haven't really done much in the playoffs to convert any legions from outside Minnesoh-ta. They traded Martin Havlat and Brent Burns to San Jose in exchange for Dany Heatley and Devin Setoguchi, which seems like a steal for the Wild offense (even if losing Burns is a big hit to their defense). They also lost Brunette (Chicago) and Cam Barker (Edmonton). This team looks to be little improved from last season, all told, and they might scrape the playoffs, but I doubt it.

Nashville Predators

Ok, nobody really cares about this team. It's Nashville. To be honest, their offseason was nothing special- lost some guys, brought in able replacements. They'll keep playing defensive hockey, leaning on Pekka Rinne, and improbably finish well in the playoffs, infuriating teams with their ability to win despite seemingly no offensive weapons.

Phoenix Coyotes

Phoenix is like Nashville, except a million times less people could care about them. They made a bunch of signings, and they're all really...decent players. Nothing special. Then note that they lost Jovanovski, Belanger, and this kind of important guy, Ilya Bryzgalov, and it looks like Phoenix will come tumbling out of the playoffs this year.

San Jose Sharks

Ah, the Sharks. It is so easy to predict when you'll lose in the playoffs. It seems as if it will never ever even be in the Stanley Cup Finals, with the level of chokitude this team exhibits. The biggest move they made was the trade with Minnesota where they picked up Marty Havlat and Brent Burns (a huge defensive addition). They lost Dany Heatley and Devin Setoguchi, though, which is a hit to the offense. Still, it looks like this team is trying to bolster up on defense, and that might get them deep into the playoffs again, but I don't see any addition that will take them to the Stanley Cup finals.

St. Louis Blues

St. Louis is another pretty forgettable hockey team, and their offseason is one of the most boring I've seen. Lose no one too big, don't bring in any one too big. All the losses are offset with some decent signing. I can't muster any enthusiasm for anything this team has done. They'll be same old St. Louis. Nothing doing.

Vancouver Canucks

I started with Boston, and now I finish with Vancouver, the team Boston beat in the Stanley Cup finals. Vancouver didn't do much either this offseason, besides bringing in Marco Sturm from Washington and losing Christian Ehrhoff to the Sabres. They'll once again dominate the Regular Season, but with Luongo still in net... they won't be Cup winners, sorry.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Parsing the NHL Offseason: Eastern Conference

If you read my last post (all four of you!), you would know that I spent the last two months in the isolation booth that is my camp, sheltered from the daily onslaught of information that plagues anyone who uses the internet. I've been back for a week, now, and I'm slowly reentering the deluge. Little known fact: A lot happens in two months! So here's a little breakdown of the NHL Offseason for each team, from a guy who's just learning about it now. We start in the Eastern Conference, my preferred conference, the one I know just a little bit more about. Alphabetically, of course.

Boston Bruins

The Bruins sat pretty comfortably on their (oh god this hurts just a little bit) Stanley Cup Champion haunches, choosing not to make any big moves. Instead, they simply replaced parts that they lost in the free agency period. Michael Ryder left, so the Bruins went out and signed Benoit Pouliot from the hated Canadiens. Both Ryder and Pouliot are inconsistent wingers who can sometimes find the net, so its a zero sum acquisition. The Bruins also lost Thomas Kaberle to Carolina, and promptly traded for Joe Corvo- another offensive defenseman. The strategy, then, was just to replace spare parts, to keep the motor running. I'm sure the hope is that some young players--Marchand, Seguin,  will continue to evolve into consistent scoring threats, the defense stays strong, and Tim Thomas is even half as good as he was last year (I don't think any Goalie can keep that ridiculous streak up- just look at Ryan Miller last year). The Bruins are betting that the same team-essentially- can do it again.

Buffalo Sabres

Well, I pretty much covered this in my last post,  but the Sabres were major offseason players for the first time since...well... not since I've ever known. They traded for Christian Ehrhoff (Vancouver), a great offensive defenseman,  as well as Robyn Regehr (Calgary), a big, physical defensive defenseman. Their big offensive splash was playmaking center/winger Ville Leino (Philadelphia). They also resigned key members from last years' playoff run: Stafford, Gerbe, Enroth, etc. They lost Tim Connolly to the Leafs, but not many are mourning his departure. Terry Pegula came in as the Sabres new owner and said that the only goal he had was to bring a Stanley Cup to Buffalo, and these moves reflected that- an improvement on defense and a splash on offense, and a lot of dollars spent to take this team close to the top of the conference. The lack of depth at center is troubling, though.

Carolina Hurricanes

This team is just about my least favorite in the whole NHL. Team in a market that doesn't deserve a hockey team? Check.  Beat the Sabres on the cusp of a Stanley Cup victory behind crappy officiating? Check. CHEERLEADERS? IN HOCKEY? Check. Ugh. Anyway, this team signed Kaberle from Boston and Ponikarovsky from LA, along with some other physical forwards, in an effort, I'm sure, to toughen up. They lost some defensive depth, though, and big winger Erik Cole. Overall, there doesn't look to be much improvement for a team that just missed out on the playoffs last season. They'll probably be around that point again barring some major steps forward on the roster.

Florida Panthers

Holy jesus, the Florida Panthers made an absurd amount of moves. But for all the praise this spree is getting (ESPN called it the best offseason in the NHL), I can't help but say, Arrested Devolpment style, "Her?" The list of free agents signed is long but unspectacular. The biggest names on it are Sean Bergenheim (Tampa), Kris Versteeg (Philadelphia), Ed Jovanovski (Phoenix) and Brian Campbell (Chicago). The 15 other names on the list are, somehow, less impressive than that. The biggest strength this oft forgotten team had was goaltender Thomas Vokoun, and he fled to Washington, where people care about hockey. The goalie they brought in is Jose Theodore (Montreal), and, well, CuJos been around the block a couple times, getting a little long in the tooth, is no spring chicken...insert your "This guy is OLD" descriptors. The team has been improved, sure- I like the Bergenheim signing and the Kopecky (Chicago)- but not by much. For me, it looks like a mediocre team swapped in a new mediocre team, this time with worse offense. This is a step towards contention, but playoff hockey for the Panthers still seems far off. God, I hope this team moves to Quebec City. (Attn. NHL Moneymaking Department,which is probably understaffed.)
Montreal Canadiens

Ah, the team of my future city. That's right, I'm going to McGill this year, and I'll be immersed in one of hockey's epicenters. Also, I might be getting the crap beaten out of me for wearing any Sabres gear. So, I'm going to have to be careful, but I'll also be in a country that cares for hockey above anything else. Anyway, Montreal (the team) didn't do much this offseason. They lost some defenseman and the aforementioned Benoit Pouliot, but signed Erik Cole (Carolina) to beef up the front line and some veteran defenseman. It should be more of the same in Montreal, probably battling Buffalo for 2nd in the Northeast behind Boston. Remember, this is a team that took Boston to seven very close games, so, they didn't need to make tons of improvements to contend near the top of the conference.

New Jersey Devils

A year after signing Ilya Kovalchuk to one of the most absurdly huge, backloaded contracts I've ever seen, the Devils did close to nothing this offseason. They added some tough, gritty forwards, and...well, they didn't lose anyone. It seems the Devils are betting on a return to playoff form because of the return of Zach Parise. Looking over the lines, though, the Devils don't look like they have enough offensive depth to get back. The Devils really need to get a youth movement going, because right now they're a team left behind by time, stuck in the late 2000s.

New York Islanders

Ah, the bastard child of the New York- New Jersey sports scene. The Islanders haven't been relavent since... well, I remember the Sabres played them in the playoffs one year, and they were the eight seed....  well, anyway. The Islanders are in the midst of their own youth revival, led by former number one pick John Tavares. They signed Sean Backman (Dallas) and Brian Rolston (New Jersey) for some more depth up front. They tried to acquire Christian Ehrhoff by trading for his rights, but he refused to sign with the Islanders. Bummer for them, a party for the Sabres. Either way, this is a team to watch in the future, but they're still missing a quality Goalie to take them the next step. The Islanders remain in relative obscurity.

New York Rangers

The Rangers, as they are wont to do, won the one big name on the market this year, Brad Richards (Dallas). Richards is a bona fide top line center, a great scorer, an able passer. He adds some offense to a team that sorely needed it. They didn't sign anyone else of great note, and didn't lose anyone big besides Vaclav Prospal. Hopes are high in New York now,  but can Brad Richards bring the Rangers to Stanley Cup contention almost singlehandedly? I lean towards no, given the track record of Rangers free agent signings wilting under the bright lights of Madison Square Garden. Brad Richards, welcome to the stable of big name free agents! Won a Cup yet? No, not yet? Alright, let's get another one!

Ottawa Senators

Ottawa was a perennial contender in the East for most of the late 2000s, and then last year they fell off the face of the Earth. The core (Spezza, Alfredsson, Michalek) is talented, but old. The 'big' signing the Sens made was Nikita Filatov, the young Russian sniper who has oodles of potential and almost no consistency. Maybe in this system, though, he could blossom. There was also a decent talent drain, with 8 departures. The Senators look ready for another season out of the playoffs, a minor pest in the Eastern Conference.

Philadelphia Flyers

Oooh, another team I despise (call it being a sore loser, but still, Philly. Yuck.) The Flyers had one of the most newsworthy offseasons', if not the best. They dumped Mike Richards (LA Kings), Jeff Carter (Columbus), Ville Leino (Buffalo), Kris Versteeg (Florida) and Dan Carcillo (Chicago) in an attempt to reinvigorate the team behind a new crop of stars- Claude Giroux and James Van Riemsdyk. They also signed Jaromir Jagr from the Euro-Leagues and Maxim Talbolt from the Penguins, to bolster their depth. Most important, though, was the acquisition of Ilya Bryzgalov, the outstanding goalie from Phoenix. Anyone who watched Philadelphia play musical chairs with their goalies last year could see that goalie should've been far and away their most pressing matter this offseason, and they solved it by getting an elite goalie, which spells trouble for the rest of the Eastern Conference. This team got younger, but also got better, much to my chagrin. They'll challenge Pittsburgh for the Atlantic title and the Eastern Conference itself.

Pittsburgh Penguins

The Penguins didn't bring in anyone special- just some depth on the front line- and didn't lose anyone of note, really, besides Maxim Talbolt. Boring. The key to this offseason was rehabbing stars Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby, and, despite some organizational shadiness, it seems as if those two will be back. This team succeeded last year despite this injuries, and with those two back, will be right back near the top of the Eastern Conference.

Tampa Bay Lightning

Tampa Bay is one of the few success stories from the NHL's awful decision to go South of the Mason-Dixon line, and its mostly because they won a Stanley Cup. Last year, they made it all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals and gave the Bruins a pretty tough test. They didn't do much to improve this summer, especially after losing Simon Gagne (LA Kings) and Sean Bergenheim (Florida). The team is banking on the continued production from Stamkos, St. Louis, and Lecavalier, and hoping that Dwyane Roloson continues to play beyond his age. It's a bold, misguided strategy, and it'll probably leave Tampa where it was last year- second in the Southeast Conference- but with less playoff success.

Washington Capitals

Washington is clearly tired of losing in the playoffs. They addressed one of their biggest needs, goalie, by signing Thomas Vokoun, and then added a ton of depth all over the ice, with notables Roman Hamrlik (D, Montreal) and Troy Brouwer (W, Chicago). The Capitals also didn't lose any hugely important pieces- if anything, they cut the fat off this team and made it more playoff ready. The transition they're trying to make is one from "Regular Season Champs" to "Stanley Cup Champs", and with this ambitious set of moves, they look ready to contend, finally.

Winnipeg Jets

Ah, the Eastern Conference Winnipeg Jets, aka We're Going to Be in The West Next Season Winnipeg Jets. The biggest move this team made was, obviously, the move from Atlanta to Winnipeg (which is a totally bizarre city... floods are a way of life there. They take flooding like its NOTHING. Oh, my basement's about to flood. Better have a sandbag party!). The team is pretty much the same as last year (some decent new faces, some decent departures), which is mildly interesting, but not talented enough for a playoff run. At least someone will be paying attention to their mediocrity this year.

Alrighty, thats the Eastern Conference. Look in the next couple days for the Western Conference, and maybe something about being in Montreal.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Under the Northern Lights

Camp Pathfinder, where I've spent my last ten summers, seven as a camper, three as staff, is a canoe tripping camp in Algonquin Park, Canada. It's also a wellspring of blind optimism for the Bills and Sabres. The camp was founded in 1914 by two Rochester men, and the current enrollment of staff and campers is mostly comprised of guys from Buffalo and Rochester. Every June when I go up, I know there are at least fifteen people I can detailed conversations with about Buffalo sports. This stands in stark opposition to the decidedly one sided, slightly alienating conversations I have in Chicago. At camp, there are people who understand. We can commiserate over the pain of the last season or, rarely, delight in the highs we've experienced in the past year.

July 1st is the beginning of free agency in the NHL; and it's also the day the first set of campers arrive, referred to as "The Big Moment." While some staff say that they are disappointed to know that the campers are coming to ruin the staff-only paradise, there is still a sense of anticipation hanging in the air, a buzz, as we sit and wait by the motorboat dock (the camp is on an island) for campers to arrive. There is card playing, idle conversation, some reading, as we wait, and kids being dropped off by their parents slowly trickle in (as opposed to the ones who take the Buffalo/Rochester buses, who arrive in a massive flood) and staff man care called on to carry trunks and duffles to sleepages after their camper has taken an obligatory photo.

This year, however, a new anticipation was suffused onto the day for me and six or seven other diehards. We wondered, we speculated, we day dreamed a little bit. What would the Sabres do today? With our new owner, Terry Pegula, a free spender with one stated goal- win a Stanley Cup- we were suddenly players in the free agent market. The team was actively making moves to shape itself into a contender, a feeling I've never had in the Sabres (or the Bills), and I've only had once or twice before, when the Cubs made midseason trades in '03 and had big free agency splashes in '06-'07 with Soriano and Fukudome. Otherwise, my teams have always tried to homegrow talent and strike lucky from there, a plan that sometimes works but often leaves your team defeated in the conference championships, the league championships, never with a chance to play for the overall championship. This was the case with the Briere-Drury Sabres in '04-'06, the Cubs in '03 (sort of), the Bills in '99 (the last time they've made the playoffs) and the Bulls this year.

So now I got to watch, in a new kind of joy, as the Sabres tried to make that next step. First, pre July 1st, came the trade for Calgary defenseman Robyn Regehr (along with Ales Kotalik, back from sabbatical), a pure defensive guy, one who finishes his checks, a tough guy the Sabres need. News on the island is hard to come by- there is electricity on about four buildings on the island, cell phones are seldom used and basically banned, and there is a scarcely available computer with an internet connection. So this kind of news came to us in trickles, each new morsel satisfying our craving for information.

So we had gotten Regehr, and only traded fellow defenseman Chris Butler and Paul Byron, a young, expendable forward, undersized. Butler was maddeningly inconsistent. The only thing he could do consistently, it seemed, was screw up in important moments, and most fans did not trust him anymore, so it did not hurt to see him go.

I learned the next bit of pre July 1st news in a van on the eve of a day long whitewater training trip. The Sabres had just completed a trade for the rights to sign RFA D-man Christian Ehrhoff for only a fourth round pick, and promptly signed him the next day. Ehrhoff is an offensively talented defenseman who played in Vancouver last season, providing solid play on the powerplay and playing first pair minutes. With his signing, suddenly, the Sabres have, for the first time I can remember, a formidable defense. And all this before free agency had begun! Defense is something you can never have enough of in hockey, and the Sabres especially needed more after being exposed by the Flyers in this year's playoffs. Simply put, Ryan Miller couldn't do it alone. There are some nights when he is unbeatable and our defense can be subpar. But when it's not his night, and he's not playing at his transcendent peak, that was when the holes of the defense were exposed and the Sabres would lose because of it unless the offense made a monumental effort, not something that could be counted on consistently.

Now, though, the defense should be strong. The top four of Tyler Myers, Ehrhoff, Regehr and Jordan Leopold rivals any other in the leagues in terms of depth. The last pair, probably Marc-Andre Gragnani and  Andrej Sekera, have plenty of potential, now get to play third pair minutes and develop into solid players, providing more depth. Tyler Myers should be particularly pleased by these additions- last year he couldn't play his usual offensive style of defensive because he lacked a solid defensive partner. Now he can settle into the groove he started to enter at the tail end of last season. For the whole unit, the hope is now that they will be tougher and able to punish teams defensively, allowing our offense to work in the other teams' zone. One maddening thing I've noticed about the defense is the inability to clear the puck after gaining the puck in their own zone-especially in the playoffs- and maybe, with more experience, that issue can be solved. Ehrhoff also brings considerable skill on the power play and on offense in general, a huge boost to the overall team.

So all this had come to pass in the week leading up to The Big Moment. As July 1st approached, we had visions in our heads of Brad Richards, a top line center (just what the Sabres need), the cream of the free agent crop, who we were reportedly in the contention for despite his price tag. As noon rolled by, the bell on the island rang for the arrival of campers, and also marked the beginning of NHL free agency.

We had to wait by the dock for our campers to arrive, or else I would've been trying to get on a computer to get updates. Luckily, a fellow staffman, Gill, who might be the biggest Sabres fan I've ever met, was receiving text updates on the sly from his friends in Buffalo, as well as my friend Jeremy. So every twenty to thirty minutes or so, I'd talk to them both for any sort of update. Not much was going on in the early going- no news of any sort. We talked about how good our defense was going to be and other moves we could make. Gill smartly pointed out that Tyler Myers was going to be a free agent next year, so some money had to be saved to keep a future Norris Trophy contender on the team for the long term future. My spirits were dampened, but still, I knew we were going to do something. 

Finally, after some interminable time, we had news, unexpected at that. It was not Brad Richards, no, it was Ville Leino, a RFA who the Flyers hadn't kept and I didn't even know would be on the market. Leino is a skilled winger who adds a scoring punch to the lineup. He has bounced from the Red Wings to the Flyers, two teams loaded with talent, and hasn't gotten the chance to be on a top six player, which he now has. Jeremy had seen reports that the Flyers would regret letting him go, which is always good news (though, I know now they acquired Bryzgalov, a top goalie. Still, they had a weird offseason, contenders dumping quality players and signing a back-from-the-KHL Jaromir Jagr). And, on a personal note, he always seemed to kill the Sabres whenever they played the Flyers, but now he had switched sides. Sure, he wasn't Brad Richards, but he helps the offense, another sniper who can aid our offense and powerplay. The Sabres last season seemed to be missing just one piece on offense, and while a center would've been nice, Leino should fit in quite nicely. The top six forwards project to be Vanek, Leino, Roy (hopefully in pre-injury form), Stafford, Gerbe and Ennis, though there's only one center in that group, so Brad Boyes will have to step in, and Pominville is a great two way forward who will probablu be among the top two lines. McCormick, Kaleta, Gaustad, Kotalik, Hecht, and maybe Luke Adam or Zach Kassain- Adam the AHL Rookie of the Year, Kassain a recent first round pick, fill out the rest. It is not a murderers' row, but there is a depth we haven't had since '04-'06, when the Sabres had four reasonably productive lines. The middle is decidedly weak, but that is an issue that should be worked on throughout the season, with Luke Adam hopefully stepping up. Overall, with the Sabres resigning Gerbe and Stafford, and bringing in Leino, the offense is unquestionably better. The team seems to take on Boston for the division crown and contend for the East and maybe even a Stanley Cup. Last year, at camp, we shook our heads as we learned that the Big Free Agent acquisition was Rob Niedermayer. Now, we celebrated.

The losses we suffered weren't bad, either. Richards went to the Rangers for a high price, filling out their stable of high priced stars who all seem to fade out under the bright lights. We let Steve Montador go- he was now expendable with the new defensive acquistions. My Blackhawks fan friends were excited to get him but most Sabres fans are ambivalent. He was over-the-hill, anyway. Most hilarious was the 'loss' of Tim Connolly, the perennially injured, too often showboating, party animal center, chased out of Buffalo behind cocaine rumors. And who signs him but the Maple Leafs, desperately overpaying the center in a thin market, to try and look like they are making an effort to get back in contention. They signed him to two years, 9.5 million, a bigger cap hit per year than Leino is to the Sabres. There are some Leafs fans at camp and I spent a good deal of time laughing in their faces.

That was July 1st and beyond. My commiserates were lost in a daze of optimism for the next couple days, an optimism, this time, that was actually based on something real, a reaction to to something that has actually happened as instead of a hope of the unseen, of something that could happen if the pieces fell into place magically. Now, this time, there was someone placing the pieces, planning ahead, making us believe.

As for the Bills, well, we kept believing in the pieces somehow falling into place, stumbling through a field of fog looking for a beacon. The lockout ended later than I expected- I kept coming back from canoe trips, expecting it to be over, but kept getting the same news- no news, no progress. But near the end of July, when news hit that the owners had come to an agreement, and the players had signed off to the new deal, the fervent Bills optimism began. "Now we can begin our Super Bowl Run! Bills in 2011!" said many, in the way that only Bills fans can. Hope is really all we have left, and we cling to it, shoot for the moon and invariably miss it, but still ready to make the journey again. In a word we are indefatigable, we can't give up now.

The Bills, unlike the current Sabres, do not spend big. They are one of the teams far below the salary cap, but they do not have or intend to spend the money. As the 1st half ended, I traveled with a friend to Buffalo to spend two days off between the two halves. This was just as the lockout ended, so SportsCenter was exploding with football, with not a word about the Bills, of course. Still, it was nice to see football back and now the Bills would report to camp soon. I returned to camp for 2nd Half and the slow trickle of news began again. The Bills resigned all their draft picks, a good sign. The Bills had what I thought was actually a good draft, focusing on fixing a leaky run defense. Unfortunately, in the first days of Free Agency, we lost Paul Pozlusny, severely thinning an already weak linebacking crew. We did sign Nick Barnett, former Rookie of the Year, coming off the IR, who might just be better than Poz. The Bills made some more minor splashes, with the signing of Brad Smith, a receiver who specializes in gadget plays (the Wildcat), and adding some depth at WR (especially now that we traded Lee Evans- but to be honest, he was a shell of a number one receiver, and there are a lot of guys below him who look ready to play). I guess its a good pick up, if only to screw with the Jets gadget plays. The Bills also picked up a back up quarterback, Tyler Thigpen, who has thrived under Chan Gailey's system before. Now he serves as a dependable back up if Fitzpatrick gets hurt. In the end, the Bills, through this whole offseason, have gotten a tiny bit better. The D-line, with Dareus (he's looked great this pre-season) and Kyle Williams, might be the first good D-line we've had since Pat Williams was a Bill. The secondary looks decent, and the linebackers have some potential and might be helped by the improved D Line. On offense, the Bills have plenty of potential- a young, deep set of receivers; Fred Jackson and CJ Spiller, hopefully effectively splitting carries, and Fitzpatrick making more ballsy decisions as he settles into the role as at least the transition franchise quarter back. The offensive line is still iffy, but perhaps developing into a decent unit. It's easy to forget that the Bills played 9 games against playoff teams last year, including both Super Bowl participants and the Jets and Patriots each twice, and took the Ravens, Steelers and Chiefs to overtime. They kept it close with the Bears and the Patriots once. They're not far from being .500 or even a playoff bid. 

I see three possibilities- a sneaky playoff run (wild card); they hang around till the end of the season and just miss the playoffs (labeled a sleeper team for next season); they bottom out and get the first pick (Andrew Luck!). There is nothing behing that three pronged, cover all the bases prediction other than feeling, either blinding hope of damning realistic pessimism. At camp, though, we just laugh off the bad omens, bear through the storm clouds collecting, and march through, gazes fixed on what awaits s on the end of the trail, that it will be a place of beauty, as it is on our canoe trips. It is this reassurance that aids us to sleep as we lay down in our tents for another magnificent night, beneath a night sky that is full of satellites, constellations, shooting stars, possibility.