Last season: (45-27-10, 100 points, 1st in Northeast Division, 3rd in Eastern Conference) The Sabres played above their heads and thanks to Team USA hero Ryan Miller, they were able to win the Northeast. The team’s lack of consistent scoring came back to bite them in the rear, losing to the Bruins in six games in the first round of the playoffs.
Head coach: Lindy Ruff begins his 13th season behind the bench. Luckily for him, he’s got job security. Unluckily, the fans in Buffalo are getting restless seeing the team do well in the regular season only to fold up shop in the playoffs. The problems may not start with Ruff, but he (along with GM Darcy Regier) take all the heat for the Sabres’ seemingly inconsistent ways.
Key departures: D Henrik Tallinder, D Toni Lydman, F Raffi Torres, F Adam Mair. Losing Tallinder and Lydman from the blue line stings a lot. Torres didn’t perform well after being acquired from Columbus. He won’t be missed.
Key arrivals: D Jordan Leopold, F Rob Niedermayer, D Shaone Morrisonn. Leopold and Morrisonn help fill the holes left by Tallinder and Lydman and gives them a more offensive-minded guy in Leopold and a defensive-minded guy in Morrisonn. Niedermayer helps the Sabres get a defined third-line center — allowing Paul Gaustad to anchor the fourth line — and his winning veteran presence will help in the locker room.
Under pressure: Take your pick amongst the forwards. Any one of Thomas Vanek, Tim Connolly, Jason Pominville and Drew Stafford could be seen as the guy under the most pressure. Of the bunch, the most is expected from Vanek and his struggles last year were well noted in Buffalo. Even though he lead the Sabres in goals with 28, it was still his lowest output since his rookie season when he netted 25. Vanek will need to be a 35-40 goal man again to get the heat off his back.
Much-maligned winger Stafford is under the gun as well. After showing promise of being a potential perennial 20-25 goal player in his first three seasons, he scored just 14 last year and ended the year with just 34 points. Pominville, a former 34-goal scorer, has seen his scoring output not reach those heights in three years. While scoring 20-25 goals is fine, Pominville is paid to be a 30+ goal guy making more than $5 million a season. It’s time to step up in a big way.
Protecting the house: The Sabres’ hopes and dreams all sit on Miller’s Vezina-winning shoulders. No pressure, right? Patrick Lalime is a capable backup and a guy that Miller looks up to to help him out with his game. We’re sure that Ottawa fans enjoy mocking this aspect when the Senators continue to beat Buffalo on a regular basis.
On defense, captain Craig Rivet holds things together while Calder Trophy winner Tyler Myers is one of the NHL’s rising stars. With the aforementioned Leopold and Morrisonn — along with Andrej Sekera, Steve Montador, Chris Butler and promising youngster Mike Weber — the Sabres should be strong along the blue line. Considering how much Miller had to stand on his head last season, perhaps the defense this time around can make life a little less stressful for him.
Top line we’d like to see: Thomas Vanek-Derek Roy-Jason Pominville. We know that this line has been done before in Buffalo with mixed results. It’s worth a shot to give it one more go to see if things can click well and ride Derek Roy’s good season to get two guys you need more scoring from going. At worst, it doesn’t pan out and you give something else a try. At best, they make magic happen and play-by-play man Rick Jeanneret gets to tell everyone where mama hides the cookies.
Oh captain, my captain: The well-traveled Rivet has done well to lead the mostly young Sabres through good and bad times alike the last two seasons.
Street fighting man: Lacking a true enforcer, Steve Montador can be banked on to do the majority of the fighting for the Sabres. Someone needs to step up to fight on a team where noted agitator/non-fighter Patrick Kaleta is your teammate. While Kaleta ends up in the middle of many scraps, fighting isn’t his main deal. Rivet and Gaustad will also occasionally throw down. On the off chance he gets called up to Buffalo, defenseman Tim Conboy instantly becomes the designated fighter.
Best-case scenario: Miller has a repeat of the success he had last season. Vanek returns to 40-goal form and Pominville and Drew Stafford have resurgent seasons. Roy builds off his big season and loses his habit of taking the occasional dive. If the Sabres can stay completely healthy for the first time in ages, they could use that to build for a run to the Stanley Cup finals.
Worst-case scenario: Pominville, Vanek and Stafford all continue to struggle to score causing their bad luck to rub off on their linemates in Roy, Connolly and youngster Tyler Ennis. Myers runs into the sophomore slump while injuries continue their annual plague on Buffalo. If Miller returns to earth a little bit, the Sabres could be fighting just to make the postseason.
Keeping it real: The Sabres should be looking at another solid season and certainly a playoff spot. They lost no one heartbreaking in free agency and filled those holes admirably. If, and granted it’s a bit of a big ‘if’, their stars return to form and produce the way they’re supposed to, Buffalo can be a very dangerous team. The talent is there to win and they have guys filling out all the roles on a team that you’d want to build a potential Cup-winner around. The key is putting it all together and making it work.
Maybe I can understand where the angst for Ruff comes from now. The Sabres will challenge for the division and could make for a very capable top three seed in the playoffs… unlike last season.
Stanley Cup chances: On a scale from 1-5 with one being the worst and five being the best, the Sabres are a respectable 4. Banking on a lot of things returning to normal is a bet I’m willing to make.