Monday, March 10, 2008

The Enigma That is Maxim Afinogenov

Maxim Afinogenov was drafted in 1997 by the Buffalo Sabres in the third round, 69th overall. He spent his first couple of years in his native land of Russia before making the jump to the AHL in the 1999-2000 season playing for Rochester. He would only spend 15 games in the AHL before making it to the big show where he would play 65 games in the only NHL sweater he'd wear for the next decade. He put up 34 points, including 16 goals, in those 65 games and averaged a little over two shots on goal per game. Afinogenov is the definitive hockey athlete in many ways. At 6'0, 191 lbs he has a solid reach, decent frame and world class, defense crushing speed. He's as fast and as nimble as nearly any player in the NHL, can dangle the puck at will and, since he's a right winger, he has the ability to stretch defenses and create space for other players.

Maxim would hover around the 35-40 point range for the next handful of seasons. Nearly everyone could see the potential, but for some reason he struggled to truly capture it. That is until the 2005-2006 season where the speedy winger would finally put all of his skills together and produced 73 points in 77 games. He had 51 assists that year and averaged over 3 shots on goal per game. Buffalo suddenly felt like they had a potential star on their hands. The next season was on-pace to be even better but Afinogenov was slowed by injuries, especially a broken wrist that cost him 21 games. He would finish the season with 61 points in only 56 games but the playoffs were an entirely different season and he would quickly learn that speed and puck handling aren't everything.

The Buffalo Sabres had the best record in the NHL and were an obvious favorite to hoist the cup. They went into the playoffs with the highest of hopes, but ultimately found that post-season hockey is very different than regular season hockey. They opened the post season facing the New York Islanders and quickly ended the series in 5 games. Maxim had a goal and 3 assists in a series that the Sabres handled easily. Buffalo was on their way.

Buffalo would visit the other New York team in the second round and take both games at home before heading to Madison Square Garden up 2-0. Afinogenov failed to register a point in either game and was limited to only 12:00 minutes of ice time in game 2. It seemed that Lindsey Ruff, coach of the Buffalo Sabres, was seriously concerned with Afinogenov's tendency to turn the puck over, especially in Buffalo's end, and was slowly ratcheting down his time on the ice as a result. Hockey is a game of mistakes, a game where defensive systems are designed to incite chaos and create turnovers, so his play was becoming unacceptable considering the stakes.

New York was not kind to Buffalo as they dropped the first playoff game on the road in double overtime. Maxim's minutes went up, but it had no impact on his production as he failed to register a point. In the playoffs, "your best players have to be your best players" which seems obvious but just ask the San Jose Sharks how they feel about Patrick Marleau in the post-season. In the always pivotal third game of the series up 2 games to 1, Maxim Afinogenov was nowhere to be found. It appeared that Ruff had seen enough and had chosen to bench one of his best offensive players. It didn't seem to help as Buffalo went on to lose a close game 2 to 1 and the series headed back to Buffalo even at 2. Afinogenov would have to scratch his way back into the lineup if he wanted to help his team, a team that was desperately in need of offense.

Game 5 was one of the most exciting hockey games I've ever seen. Henrik Lundqvist was absolutely amazing in a game in which he faced 40 shots from a Sabres team that was hell bent on securing a one game advantage. Ryan Miller, on the other hand, faced only 23 but with 10 seconds left in the game the Rangers were up 1 with a face-off in their zone. Chris Drury and Daniel Briere, both lost to free agency only a few months later, were on the ice with Tim Connolly and all three would play a role in one of the biggest goals in Buffalo fans' recent memories. Chris Drury, known to score big goals throughout his career, did some great work in the corner to free up the puck before pulling himself off the ice and swinging around behind the net. The puck made its way to Drury, as it often does in critical times, and Chris secured it just below the faceoff circle and ripped a wrist shot by Lundqvist to tie the game with only 8 seconds left.

Maxim Afinogenov was allowed to play that game, only 13:33 including overtime mind you, but he would ultimately do something that would secure his place on the roster for the remainder of the playoffs. Less than 5 minutes into overtime, Maxim Afinogenov received a pass at the point and rocked a slapshot passed Lundqvist to give Buffalo the win and a 3-2 advantage in the series. Afinogenov immediately turned, took 3 or 4 strides towards center ice and laid out on his belly like a baserunner sliding into third. It was a classic image as the team toppled on top of him. It was clear that his teammates felt for him and were excited to be a part of his redemption.
The Sabres took the next game and the series, and were ready to meet the Ottawa Senators in the conference finals. It seemed that Maxim might be back.

Maxim scored in the first game against the Senators, but Buffalo ultimately lost a tilt that was dominated by the Sens. In the second game, Afinogenov was given over 25 minutes of ice time, but the Sabres lost a heartbreaker in double overtime to start the series down 2-0. The Sabres would only manage to win 1 of the next 3 games as they simply could not keep up with the physical play of the Senators. Buffalo looked small against the Senators and they appeared to be shocked by the amount of hitting that saturated the series. It was the same bruising strategy that won Ottawa the first round against Sidney Crosby, broken ankle and all, and the Pittsburgh Penguins. Interestingly enough, it was also the same strategy that would be used against them in the Stanley Cup finals after Buffalo fell to the Senators in overtime of game 5. The Senators moved on to face the Anaheim Ducks in the Stanley Cup Finals and Buffalo's season was over. Ultimately, Afinogenov finished the playoffs with 5 goals and 4 assists in 15 games. A decent amount of production, but big players put up points at big times and, other than the overtime goal, Maxim was never able to really get into a groove. However, a loss in the conference finals was only the beginning of the Buffalo Sabres' woes.

Only months later the team's leading scorer, Daniel Briere, and leader Chris Drury were lost to free agency. Briere wanted to remain a Sabre but Buffalo refused to negotiate his contract during the regular season. Briere would have stayed for $5 million in January, at least that's what's been reported, but after posting another remarkable season with 95 points in 81 games he was worth a lot more in July and it was apparently more than the Sabres were willing to pay. Chris Drury ultimately moved on to broadway while Briere landed in Philadelphia. The Sabres failed to make any significant additions in the off-season and entered the 07-08 season deseperately depending on a spark from their host of young players, including Thomas Vanek, who led the team in goals in the previous year with 43. The sudden loss of two all star centermen left players like Afinogenov in a tight spot. Derek Roy and Tim Connolly are great pivots, but they can't replace the two men that left and guys like Vanek, and Afinogenov to a lesser extent, feed off the creativity and skill of others. They can create on their own, but they are deadly when paired with a setup man. The Sabres would need Afinogenov to have another big season and help provide some of the offense that was lost with the two all stars.

Maxim registered an assist on the opening night of the 07-08 season, but would ultimately only put up 2 goals and 2 assists in the first 10 games of the season. It was a slow start and it wouldn't get any easier as he would only score one goal in the next 10 games. After 20, Afinogenov had 3 goals and 5 assists and the Sabres were below .500 for the first time in recent memory.

Afinogenov continued to bounce around between lines and struggled to earn ice time as his coach still questioned his ability to protect the puck, make good decisions and play defense. In January, he received terrible news as what was originally expected to be a groin pull was actually a tear and he would be out indefinitely. An injury like that keeps any player on the shelf for an extended period of time, but for a player who's game is based heavily on speed, it's nothing short of a disaster. While Buffalo struggled to keep their head above water, including a streak in January where the team lost 10 in a row and 13 out of 14 games, Maxim waited, for that's all one can do with such an injury, for the tear to heal. The Sabres went from being in a solid playoff position to being on the outside looking in and, afraid to lose another player for nothing in return, Buffalo was forced to trade their captain Brian Campbell to the San Jose Sharks for Steve Bernier. While the Sabres struggles actually didn't have too much to do with Maxim's lack of production, it certainly didn't help and after Campbell left town many assumed that this was the end of the season for them.

Ultimately, the injury cost him 26 games and, unfortunately for Buffalo, his return hasn't really sparked much of a comeback in the Sabres. As a player, however, he seems more determined than ever. In his second game back, he scored 2 goals and added an assist in a game in which Buffalo beat the Philadelphia Flyers 5-2. Since his return, he's averaging a point per game. Fast forward to tonight's game (3/10) against the Rangers and you can see flashes of changed player. Late in overtime, Maxim was caught deep in the Rangers zone as New York was able to move the puck up quickly, trapping the speedy forward. The Rangers came in 3 on 2, dropped the puck back to the trailing man who quickly tried to slide the puck to the left wing for a quick, and wide open, one timer when Maxim appeared out of nowhere to block the pass and throw the puck to the boards near his defenseman. He saw that his man was going to collect the puck so he instantly changed directions, turned on those world class wheels and scorched through the middle of the ice and received a perfect pass in stride. He went in 1-on-1 against Henrik Lundqvist, but was stopped on a nifty little backhand shot. While he wasn't able to win the game for them, he may have saved it. It's the kind of play they expect to see from a guy with his natural skating ability. It's the kind of play for which I wish he was known, the kind of play only a guy with his level of natural skill can make. Maybe his return will help the Sabres scratch out a playoff spot. Maybe he'll show his coach that he's not a defensive liability, which will in turn allow him more ice time in which to produce offensively. Or maybe he'll disappear from the Buffalo roster in the off season and land on a team like Detroit, play with a guy like Pavel Datsyuk and compete for the scoring title. He has the ability, he just needs to show the will.

I wrote this because he's one of my favorite players to watch and he's also a somewhat unknown player among casual fans, if there is such a thing in hockey. For me, he embodies what makes the game exciting. He is exactly the kind of player that anyone could watch and understand why there are people who love this sport above all else and why it's a part of the fabric that makes up the Canadian culture. I understand Lindsey Ruff's concerns over the defensive play and he needs to learn to be more consistent in his own zone, but he's the kind of player that can change a game. At 29, he's not a young kid anymore and he might have 5-6 years left so I hope he figures it out because I'd love to see him have success again and I'd love to see the Sabres in the playoffs.

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