I'm sitting in the Buffalo Sabres press box right now, watching the workers put boards over the ice down below and reflecting about tonight's game. Pretty surreal for a guy who's been a Sabres fan since he was 13 and also writer who lost his blogging mojo about a year ago before joining this site. But this isn't about me. It's about the Sabres vs Leaf game and more specifically two young players who have caught the eye of fans and media alike.
I'd be amiss if I jumped into my thoughts about Brayden McNabb and Zack Kassian without quickly exulting on what a tremendous game that was. You can read my live game blog from earlier for the details, but the game truly had a playoff atmosphere. The warring Sabres and Leafs fans made for a raucous, extremely loud building and it was definitely buzzing. All of that wouldn't have meant a thing if the Sabres didn't get the job done, however. They played with a lot of jump and verve and didn't let certain mistakes turn into the big disaster as they have in the past weeks. Let's hope this game is a stepping stone to the Sabres team we wanted to see during the long summer of anticipation.
My intention for the game tonight was to focus my attention on McNabb's play. I thought it would be fun and informative to pinpoint a certain player with the added advantage of my bird's eye view of the press box. I expanded that to include Kassian once I saw that McNabb was rotating with Gragnani for ice time on the 3rd defensive pairing. He ended up only playing 6:48 total for the game, and I knew I'd need more for this article. And Kassian sure brought his A game tonight to give me more than enough material.
Let's look at each player separately:
While Kassian stole the show with his play, I thought McNabb played admirably in his little bit of ice time. One thing that continues to impress me about his game is for a rookie he doesn't make the glaring errors. In some respects, it reminds me of Tyler Myers in his early days. Brayden is calm back there and nothing seems to rattle him all that much. Tonight in the second period he took a decent hit in the corner, but still was able to get the puck around the boards nicely without any panic. It's one of those plays that seem small, but when done consistently helps lead to victories.
The most obvious plays when you notice McNabb are the huge hits, and he had another one of those tonight also in the second period. It earned him the old Carubba Collision and was definitely a jarring one that the fans appreciated. But I noticed some other less blatant parts of his game that are quite impressive. He is an accomplished, smooth skater given his size (6'4, 204) - he moves fluidly out there, especially as he back tracks to return to the defensive zone. He also demonstrated a quick stick in keeping the puck in the zone and working opponents in the corners.
There were a couple negatives I noticed about his game tonight as well. Really minor stuff, though. Despite his cool, there were a couple times when he got sloppy with the puck and turned it over in the corner. I also noticed him slightly out of position early on after one of these giveaways. These are mistakes that you see out of every rookie in the NHL, but Brayden has played so darned well that it's almost surprising to see them.
So much to like about Zack's game in general in his 10 games but most specifically tonight. He was a beast, plain and simple. Similarly to McNabb, Kassian has a rare mix of skill and toughness. I was especially impressed with his skating as prior to arriving here I just assumed he was a bull who was slow and meandering. So not true. He has the quickness to get into the proper position and the strength to go through players as well. Sometimes at the same time! He's obviously not a speedster by any stretch of the definition, but his acceleration is deceptively polished.
I particularly like watching him skate down the wing, let go of his left hand to push the opponent's stick away as he continues to barrel forward. It's an example of sheer determination and grit and he is not an easy body to move off that puck. The Leafs at times didn't have a chance in that area. Another facet of his game that I definitely didn't notice just watching on TV but caught tonight is how well Kassian backchecks. He puts his head down and does everything he can do to get back up the ice. Derek Roy could take some pointers by watching #54. Zack's effort level should be much revered on a team that often gives less than they can.
Kassian's stealing of the puck that led to Vanek's goal is something I think we'll see a lot of in the future. When you combine skill with power and all out energy that's going to happen. Quite honestly, I'm having a hard time finding any negatives in his game right now. I took notes every time I noticed something in McNabb or Kassian's game as the night progressed and not one red mark for the toothless wonder. I'm not saying his game doesn't have weaknesses; they just weren't on display tonight.
The whole point of tonight's evaluation was to answer the following question: just how good are these kids really? The answer if you haven't yet deduced it yet is "quite good". I don't see any reason why either of these players should be heading back to Rochester. Now I know there are cap issues and for some ungodly reason Lindy wants to keep forcing Gragnani in there over McNabb, but you have to find ways to let these players stay. They're not lagging behind and in some cases are outplaying their veteran teammates. And the beauty thing is the Sabres are finally bringing in players with a nice balance of ability and sandpaper to slowly overcome the soft label. Good things all around with these two.
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