2010-2011 NHL season preview: Buffalo Sabres

ryanmiller3.jpgLast 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.

stevemontador1.jpgStreet 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.

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    Predators first-rounder Tolvanen becomes youngest to score hat trick in KHL

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    Talk about making a great first impression.

    Nashville Predators prospect Eeli Tolvanen became the youngest KHL player to score a hat trick while adding an assist in his debut for Jokerit against Dinamo Minsk.

    Tolvanen turned 18 in April. It’s ludicrously early, but with a night like this, people are already wondering if the forward was a steal; the Predators nabbed him with the 30th pick of the 2017 NHL Draft.

    Here’s some footage of his performance:

    If that Jokerit debut is any indication, he could have a special season, especially for an 18-year-old in the KHL.

    A scouting report from Pension Plan Puppets touted Tolvanen’s shot as the best in the 2017 draft, and they believed he could be one of the big steals. And that was if he ended up landing in the teens, let alone No. 30.

    BREAKING: Predators GM David Poile and his staff know what they’re doing.

    Hextall deserves to see Flyers rebuild through

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    This post is part of Flyers day at PHT…

    If you look at GM Ron Hextall’s playing career, you might have expected the Philadelphia Flyers to continue their charming-yet-maddening run of impulsive, often-reckless moves. After all, Hextall echoed Billy Smith in goalie-stick-swinging rage.

    Instead, Hextall’s almost writing the blueprint for how to rebuild a team in a tasteful way. Almost to the point where you wonder if his absence may partially explain the erosion of the Los Angeles Kings’ salary structure.

    (Hextall was even rebuilding on the fly without the typical run of lottery ball luck, but that trend changed in Philly’s favor when they ended up with the second pick and Nolan Patrick.)

    Let’s consider the great job Hextall is doing, even if there’s some fear that someone else might ultimately get the greatest credit if management grows impatient with this incremental approach.

    Cleaning up

    Hextall inherited an absolute mess in Philly, and he’s been making lemonade out of Bobby Clarke’s lemons.

    Moving Vincent Lecavalier and Luke Schenn for Jordan Weal and a third-rounder felt like wizardry. The assets he managed for Kimmo Timonen, Brayden Schenn, and Braydon Coburn brought the Flyers a mix of picks, solid roster players, and financial breathing room.

    Even mixed moves seem to point to better things in the future.

    One imagines the Flyers getting a little more than they did when they took Valtteri Filppula off of Tampa Bay’s hands, especially since the Bolts didn’t retain salary in the process. You’d expect Jori Lehtera‘s time with Philly to be short, as the team seemingly took on his contract merely to get nice picks from the Blues for Schenn.

    Prospects and picks

    Hextall has assembled quite the war chest of prospects that mixes quantity with, ideally, quality choices.

    Even heading into the 2018 NHL Draft, the Flyers currently hold an extra choice in the first, fifth, and seventh rounds. That’s promising, especially since they’ve already made a lot of picks.

    Take a look at their draft history during the last three years.

    2015: two first-rounders, zero second, two third-rounders, two fourths. Nine picks.
    2016: Normal number of picks, except: three second-rounders and two sixth-rounders. Ten picks.
    2017: two first-rounders, plus Isaac Ratcliffe, who was close to a first-rounder at 35th. Also two fourth-rounders. Nine picks.

    And, again, they currently hold 10 choices in 2018. If the Flyers can aim those “darts” with even any accuracy, things look good for the future.

    Still some problems

    The troubling thing is that the Flyers don’t exactly look like a no-brainer playoff team in 2017-18. (Vote on that subject here.)

    They’re standing as something of a fringe team even as they still spend quite a bit of money; they’re only about $5 million under the cap ceiling right now, according to Cap Friendly.

    Still-troubling spending is part of the reason why Claude Giroux ($8.275 million per year) is under pressure. It’s not necessarily that Giroux and Jakub Voracek ($8.25M) are bad, but there are questions about one or both of them slipping, and with contracts that begin to look frighteningly long.

    Combine those deals with Andrew MacDonald‘s $5M punchline of a cap hit and that’s about $21.5M on the books, just like that.

    There’s a path to greater financial freedom, especially if they part ways with Filppula ($5M) and Lehtera ($4.7M). Hextall’s run of strong goalie moves continues with the cheap pairing of Brian Elliott and Michal Neuvirth after Steve Mason‘s surprisingly impressive run, and Philly isn’t locked into any Bryzgalovian deals in net.

    So there are a lot of positives, even if it still feels like Hextall is hitting the “backspace” button on some salary cap death sentences.

    Who gets to see the light at the end of the tunnel?

    The Flyers boast a bounty of prospects, especially on defense; plenty of teams likely look at that farm system with some envy.

    Will everything fall into line at the right time, though? Key forwards such as Giroux, Voracek, and Wayne Simmonds might see declines in the near future, to the point that Hextall must be willing to at least consider bold moves there, too.

    Philly is getting close to the finish line as far as cap struggles go, which means that, sooner or later, they need to start making bigger gains toward being a stable contender. Hextall deserves to see it through, but we’ve seen more than a few examples of a GM laying the groundwork for someone else to put together the finishing touches.

    Maple Leafs may look to Russia to improve defense (again)

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    Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston reports that the Toronto Maple Leafs confirmed that Mike Babcock and Lou Lamoriello recently made a visit to Russia, but they didn’t admit why they went.

    It turns out that they were scoping out KHL defenseman Igor Ozhiganov, who plays for CSKA, according to Johnston and others.

    Ozhiganov, 24, did not go drafted. He does, however, have some interesting NHL connections. For one thing, he suited up for the same team that Nikita Zaitsev did, so that experiment has already worked out quite well for the Toronto Maple Leafs.

    As you can see from the tweet above, Ozhiganov will play in the KHL through 2017-18. That’s impressive due diligence from the Leafs’ brass, although you wonder if such maneuverings might put the defenseman higher on the radars of other teams hoping to add depth to their bluelines in the future.

    Raw Charge notes that Ozhiganov is a buddy of Tampa Bay Lightning star Nikita Kucherov, who definitely sings the defenseman’s praises. Even with Mikhail Sergachev in the mix, the Bolts are a group that will probably want to bolster their mix (especially in the uncomfortably likely event that Dan Girardi disappoints).

    Either way, NHL fans will need to wait at least a season to see what Ozhiganov is capable of … and where he lands.

    Devils give Jimmy Hayes a shot with PTO

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    The New Jersey Devils have made dramatic moves to improve their forward group over the last few years, but even with Taylor Hall, Marcus Johansson, and Kyle Palmieri in the mix, there’s still plenty of room for improvement.

    With that and the Devils’ recent struggles in mind, it only makes sense for GM Ray Shero to be open-minded to “reclamation projects.”

    Perhaps that will be the case with towering forward Jimmy Hayes, then. The Devils announced that the winger has been invited to training camp on a PTO.

    Look, there’s no doubt that Hayes has frequently struggled to make a difference at the NHL level. Not that long ago, he broke a 35-game pointless streak.

    Still, it’s probably fair to give him an incomplete grade instead of a failing mark from 2016-17. After all, there are only so many players who can produce much offense when they’re receiving 9:14 TOI per game.

    Hayes went from averaging 15:09 per contest in his best season (2014-15, when he scored 19 goals for Florida) to 13:50 TOI with Boston in 2015-16 and then that new low last season.

    So, no doubt about it, Hayes’ stock couldn’t get much lower.

    We’ve seen fringe guys become valuable assets after getting clean slates, including with bigger forwards. Zack Kassian resurrected his career following some significant struggles, just to name a recent example.

    The Devils could use another NHL-caliber forward, particularly with valuable center Travis Zajac slated to miss a chunk of 2017-18. Maybe Hayes can be part of the solution.