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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    Flames ‘likely’ to leave Brouwer unprotected: Calgary Herald

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    He turns 32 in August, and he’s got three years left on his contract with a sizable cap hit of $4.5 million.

    He didn’t have a great playoffs either.

    So we shouldn’t be too surprised to read that the Calgary Flames are “likely” to leave winger Troy Brouwer unprotected in the expansion draft.

    From the Calgary Herald:

    The acquisition of Curtis Lazar at the trade deadline for a second round pick came with a public assurance from GM Brad Treliving that Lazar was a reclamation project he planned to protect.

    Thus, the list of seven forwards protected will likely include Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan, Mikael Backlund, Michael Frolik, Micheal Ferland, Sam Bennett and Lazar. First and second-year players like Matthew Tkachuk are exempt.

    Brouwer had just 13 goals in 74 games for the Flames this season. He signed in Calgary on July 1, leaving the St. Louis Blues as an unrestricted free agent.

    As the Herald notes, there’s no guarantee that Vegas will select him. But certainly, his old general manager from their days together in Washington, George McPhee, will give it some consideration.

    McPhee gave Brouwer a three-year extension in 2012, calling him “a physical and versatile power forward who can play both wings. … He is a Stanley Cup winner and a great leader.”

    Seguin undergoes surgery for torn labrum

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    By all accounts, Tyler Seguin and new head coach Ken Hitchcock can’t wait to start working together in Dallas.

    But now, they’ll have to.

    On Wednesday, Stars GM Jim Nill announced Seguin had undergone shoulder surgery to repair a torn labrum, per the Morning-News.

    The Stars announced the procedure is followed by a four-month recovery period. Nill said that Seguin is expected to be healthy and ready for September’s training camp.

    It’s a bit surprising to learn the 25-year-old had an injury of this significance. Seguin didn’t miss a single contest last year, marking the first time in his career he played a full 82-game campaign.

    Related: Hitch wants Seguin thinking, playing like a No. 1 center

    It’s a battle of red-hot goalies in Preds-Blues series

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    NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) No goaltender has played better this postseason than Pekka Rinne of the Nashville Predators, though Jake Allen of the St. Louis Blues came closest in the first round.

    Now their teammates have to figure out how to score on these two stingy goalies if they want to advance to the Western Conference finals. (Watch tonight at 8 pm ET on NBCSN or the NBC Sports app)

    “We have to try to solve Jake Allen and make life difficult for him,” Rinne said . “It comes down to me trying to maintain and try to be at my best. At the same time, of course, you’re going to look at the other side of the rink and the guy who you play against, you try to outplay him.”

    Rinne allowed only three goals on 126 shots faced in helping Nashville to its first postseason sweep in franchise history. He shut out top-seeded Chicago twice on the Blackhawks’ own ice, becoming just the fourth goalie to win four postseason games with a goals-against average of 0.70 or less.

    Related: Five impressive stats from the first round

    When the Blues open their conference semifinal Wednesday night in St. Louis, they hope to take advantage of some inside information to solve Rinne. Carter Hutton backed up Rinne the past three seasons in Nashville, and the two remain close friends. That friendship is about to take a timeout for the duration of this series.

    “He’s one of those guys that he’s a streaky goalie at the same time, so I think we have to do a good job of getting traffic and getting in there,” Hutton said. “But it’s going to be a battle of the goalies. We’ve got two of the best going at it here.”

    Allen ranks just behind Rinne this postseason with a 1.47 goals-against average and .956 save percentage in leading the Blues over Minnesota in five games in the first round.

    “He’s been our playoff MVP so far,” Hutton said of Allen.

    Read more: A remarkable turnaround for Jake Allen

    Longtime Habs assistant coach Jodoin resigns

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    There was a changing of the guard in Montreal on Wednesday, as veteran assistant bench boss Clement Jodoin resigned from the club.

    “Marc Bergevin and I regretfully accepted the resignation of assistant coach Clement Jodoin, who made the decision to end his long-time association with the Montreal Canadiens,” head coach Claude Julien said in a release. “At our post-season meeting, we offered Clement to remain on our coaching staff, but he indicated to us that at this stage in his career, he would be looking for a change and would like to explore other challenges.”

    Jodoin, 65, first caught on with the Canadiens in 1997 as an assistant under then-head coach Alain Vigneault. He spent six years with the club until returning to coach junior hockey in the Quebec League.

    In 2011, he returned to the Habs organization as the head coach of their AHL affiliate in Hamilton. One year later, he was back in the bigs in a familiar role — as Montreal’s assistant coach, working alongside Michel Therrien.

    Montreal had no immediate word on who will replace Jodoin on Julien’s staff.