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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    Pre-game reading: Clayton Keller tops a good list to top

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    — Up top, Bob McKenzie explains how the bye week is going to work next season, and why it’s going to be changed.

    — Who are the best prospects who have yet to graduate to their NHL teams? TSN’s Craig Button has put together his list of the top 50, and it’s headed by Coyotes draft pick Clayton Keller. Writes Button: “Keller’s sleight of hand is matched by a creative mind that allows him to be dangerous every time he’s on the ice. The Arizona Coyotes prospect is an electrifying player who is highly productive.” (TSN)

    — In which Mike Babcock admits he’s “said lots of dumb things and handled situations fairly poorly at times.” The Toronto Maple Leafs’ head coach also shares his philosophy on the job, and talks about how to handle the pressures of being a bench boss. (Sportsnet)

    — What is the market for Ottawa’s Curtis Lazar? At first glance, it doesn’t seem all that strong. The 22-year-old former 17th overall draft pick has no goals and just one assist in 32 games for the Senators this season. Hence, all the trade rumors. But as noted by TSN’s Travis Yost, Nino Niederreiter went through a similar year with the Islanders, and he’s turned out pretty well since being dealt to the Wild. (TSN)

    — Why the Vancouver Canucks need to be sellers at the trade deadline, by Postmedia’s Jason Botchford, who writes: “For another season, the retool has been exposed a fraud, and there aren’t any options left this week. The Canucks have to rebuild their player base, and the next step in doing it has to be trading veterans for assets — preferably draft picks.” (National Post)

    — What’s it like to be a general manager on deadline day? Here’s how Flames GM Brad Treliving puts it: “The trade deadline is like five lanes merging into one. … With each hour that goes by there’s an excitement level building, but you have to block all of that out and be methodical in your approach and then have a sense of when it’s the right time to strike.”  (Yahoo Sports)

    Enjoy the games!

    Goalie nods: Khudobin makes second start in as many months

    TORONTO, CANADA - MAY 6:  Anton Khudobin #35 of the Boston Bruins stretches in the warm-up prior to playing against the Toronto Maple Leafs in Game Three of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals during the 2013 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs on May 6, 2013 at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. The Bruins defeated the Maple Leafs 5-2 to take a 2-1 series lead. (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)
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    Back on Dec. 23, Anton Khudobin stopped 20 of 23 shots in Boston’s 3-2 OT loss to his former team, the Hurricanes.

    Since then, he’s had exactly one start.

    That came back on Feb. 11 — a 4-3 win over the Canucks — and tonight, Khudobin get another look as the B’s play the second of a California back-to-back in L.A.

    Tuukka Rask played and lost last night in Anaheim, allowing four goals on 25 shots, so it’s little surprise Boston’s making a switch. Rask has been one of the NHL’s busiest netminders this season — starting 48 games, tied for fourth-most in the league — and there have been concerns about potential fatigue.

    The problem, of course, is that neither Khudobin or AHLer Zane MacIntyre have earned much trust. Former head coach Claude Julien didn’t have faith either could provide consistency, and Bruce Cassidy appears to be of the same mind. Cassidy has started Rask in four of five games since taking over from Julien behind the bench.

    On this note, we should mention GM Don Sweeney did say the B’s could add a goalie at the deadline.

    For the Kings, Peter Budaj is in goal.

    Elsewhere…

    Carey Price, who’s played well in his last two games (58 stops on 62 shots, a .936 save percentage), gets the call as Montreal hosts the Isles. Thomas Greiss is in net for the visitors.

    — The streaking Henrik Lundqvist gets a big test tonight, as the Rangers take on the high-flying Leafs in Toronto. Frederik Andersen will be in goal for the Buds, after allowing four goals on 20 shots in a OT win over Winnipeg on Tuesday.

    — It’s Brian Elliott versus Ben Bishop as the Flames take on the Bolts in Tampa.

    Pekka Rinne appears ready to start in Nashville, after allowing four goals on 13 shots (and getting pulled) in Tuesday’s loss to Calgary. No word yet on an Avs starter, but Calvin Pickard has started four straight.

    Mike Smith is playing well lately, have won four of five while posting a .936 save percentage, so he’ll draw back in tonight in Chicago. The ‘Hawks are countering with Corey Crawford, who has won five of his last six.

    Wideman open to being traded by Flames

    CALGARY, AB - NOVEMBER 7: Dennis Wideman #6 of the Calgary Flames skates against the Pittsburgh Penguins during an NHL game at Scotiabank Saddledome on November 7, 2015 in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. (Photo by Derek Leung/Getty Images)
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    The odd man out after Monday’s acquisition of Michael Stone from Arizona, Calgary Flames defenseman Dennis Wideman says he’s open to being traded, in spite of his no-movement clause.

    “If that’s something that (the Flames) want to do, then they can call and I definitely would be open to it,” Wideman said, per the Calgary Herald. “I think, as a player, you don’t want to be anywhere that you’re not wanted. So if they want to move you and someone wants to take you, then it’s nice to go somewhere like that if that’s the case.”

    Read more: Flames see a ‘style fit’ with Stone

    Wideman, 33, is in the final year of his contract. But with a $5.25 million cap hit, he may be tough to move, even if the Flames retain salary.

    Wideman was a healthy scratch in Calgary’s 6-5 OT victory Tuesday at Nashville. In 52 games this season, he has three goals and 13 assists.

    Related: Treliving won’t say if Wideman’s been asked to waive NMC

    B’s not planning to trade Carlo, but adding goalie is on radar

    BUFFALO, NY - JUNE 25:  Boston Bruins General manager Don Sweeney speaks to the media during the 2016 NHL Draft on June 25, 2016 in Buffalo, New York.  (Photo by Jen Fuller/Getty Images)
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    The Bruins have seven wins in their last 10, are surging under new head coach Bruce Cassidy and could be buyers as they head into the March 1 trade deadline.

    One guy that unlikely to be involved any potential deal? Talented young blueliner Brandon Carlo.

    Bruins GM Don Sweeney told the Boston Globe the B’s “want to be a team that believes it has internal fixes, that you are growing those players.” To that end, he’s not planning to move Carlo, who has developed nicely and played a significant role this season.

    Sweeney added this organizational approach means Carlo isn’t “worried [about] going somewhere.”

    Carlo, who only turned 20 in November, has reportedly been one of the pieces teams have tried to pry out of Boston (the other being Charlie McAvoy, the 14th overall pick at last year’s draft that’s currently starring for Boston University).

    At 6-foot-5 and 203 pounds, Carlo has terrific size and has shouldered a heavy workload, averaging over 21 minutes through 60 games this year.

    There have been rumblings of a Carlo-for-Gabriel Landeskog swap with Colorado, though reports suggest Sweeney balked at the asking price.

    What Sweeney could address, though, is the club’s unstable backup goalie position. The organization appears to have little trust in either Anton Khudobin or Zane McIntyre, a big reason why Tuukka Rask has started 48 games this season, tied for fourth-most in the NHL.

    “Yep, we could,” Sweeney told the Globe, when asked about adding a backup. “It’s tough to find at this time, but they exist. But it’s just a matter of teams are like, ‘Well, what are you giving up for it?’ That’s a big part of it.”

    There are a few candidates that might fit the bill. Anders Nilsson is a pending UFA and having a solid campaign in Buffalo, with a .922 save percentage in 20 appearances. What’s more, he carries a relatively low cap hit ($1 million). The Sabres, though only four points out of a playoff spot, would need to jump five teams to get there and could be sellers soon.