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 give Laviolette a two-year extension

    NASHVILLE, TN - MAY 09:  Head coach Peter Laviolette speaks to referee Kelly Sutherland #11 during the third period of Game Six of the Western Conference Second Round against the San Jose Sharks during the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Bridgestone Arena on May 9, 2016 in Nashville, Tennessee.  (Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images)
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    The Nashville Predators have been on a roll lately, and keeping Peter Laviolette around seems like it keeps things going in a positive direction.

    The team announced a two-year contract extension for Laviolette during Saturday’s State of the Union event.

    During his first two seasons behind the bench in Nashville, the Predators have managed two playoff berths, beating the Anaheim Ducks in the first round during this last postseason trip. The Predators have managed to stay competitive in the Central Division, which is no small task.

    With P.K. Subban added to the mix, it makes great sense to retain Laviolette’s surfaces. You never know how a situation will work until it plays out, yet on paper, his system seems like a seamless fit for the star defender.

    Nashville’s shown some promise already under Laviolette’s watch, particularly in quietly putting up some promising possession stats. At this moment in time, the future looks even brighter.

    It can’t hurt that the guy has a Stanley Cup on his resume, either.

    Goalie mask tour: Seinfeld references, tributes and more

    NEW YORK, NY - JUNE 23:  Actor Patrick Warburton attends The Apartment VIP Party on June 23, 2015 in New York City.  (Photo by Monica Schipper/Getty Images for Hulu)
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    As difficult as it is to believe, it’s October already. You know what that means*; hockey season is rapidly approaching.

    Along with stories about guys who might still be a little injured claiming they’re “100 percent” and teams carrying in optimism that will eventually look foolish, we also get fun stuff like new goalie masks.

    We’d already seen Petr Mrazek pay tribute to Joe Louis Arena a month ago, but with the preseason in high gear, we’re seeing more masks.

    While there will likely be some other fun entries before the games start to count in 2016-17, PHT is kindly saving your delicate fingers a few extra clicks by collecting a few choice masks in one post.

    To start things off, Michal Neuvirth paid tribute to late Philadelphia Flyers owner Ed Snider:

    Michal Neuvirth knew what he wanted on his new Philadelphia Flyers mask. He wanted it transformed into an epic tribute to the one and only, Mr Flyers himself, Ed Snider🙏🏻. Michal and I we brainstormed together and a plan emerged how to create the painting. I just love to create Storyteller masks📕. I wanted this to be truly special❤️. Put a lot of thoughts into every detail. We wanted it to be subtle and clean design that live and breath Flyers in the core. It was an honor to create this piece. On the side is also the wonderful logo of Ed Snider created by fellow artist David E. Wilkinson. In the design you will also just as always find a painting of the castle from Michal's hometown. Thank you Michal, we have worked together for so many years and it always a joy to create your mask paintings😊🎨 Thank you! #neuvirth @philadelphiaflyers #nhl #DaveArt @nhl #DaveArtCreativity #aflyerforever

    A photo posted by David Gunnarsson (@davidofdaveart) on

    This Miami Herald video shares Roberto Luongo‘s very-cool concept: the old Panthers cat on one side, the new one on the other. Here’s a shot from George Richards:

    (Anyone else get a little John Vanbiesbrouck nostalgia from that lid?)

    Thankfully, no birds were harmed in the making of Louis Domingue‘s mask, which features Arizona sports figures from Randy Johnson to more obvious Coyotes choices:

    Nitpick: Steve Nash’s hair could have been floppier. Just saying.

    Finally, hockey and Seinfeld once again mix better than a black-and-white cookie in Scott Wedgewood’s mask, which features a Puddy reference:

    If you want more goalie masks, DaveArt.com’s list should keep you entertained for some time.

    * – Barring all-too-frequent lockouts.

    Malkin is ‘not happy’ with the way he’s been playing lately

    CALGARY, AB - NOVEMBER 7: Evgeni Malkin #71 of the Pittsburgh Penguins skates against the Calgary Flames 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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    Evgeni Malkin is back in Penguins training camp after a stint with Team Russia at the World Cup.

    Malkin and his team reached the tournament’s semifinal before being knocked out by the eventual champions, Team Canada.

    The Pens forward collected three points in four games, but he wasn’t satisfied by his overall performance.

    “I need to start now,” Malkin said on Saturday, per the Tribune. “I’m not playing great. I’m not happy with my game at the World Cup. I will play better here and now.”

    When he’s at his best, Malkin is fully capable of taking over games. That’s easier said than done in a best-on-best tournament, but those are the standards he’s set for himself.

    So, what does he have to do to get back to that elite level?

    “Play more with the puck. That’s my game always, if I have the puck and I spend more time with the puck. The last four, five games in the World Cup, I tried to use my partners, but my confidence when I play with the puck.”

    The 30-year-old dealt with some injuries last year, but still managed to produce 58 points in 57 games during the regular season and 18 points in 23 games during Pittsburgh’s Stanley Cup playoff run.

    Video: Incredibly awkward ceremonial puck drop before KHL game in China

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    KHL hockey is still relatively new in China and it showed prior to Kunlun Red Star’s game against Lada Togliatti earlier this week.

    Prior to the game, the team organized a ceremonial puck drop, which ended up being a little awkward to say the least.

    You can watch the entire thing by clicking the video at the top of the page.

    That’s pretty funny!

    The awkward look the two captains gave each other was priceless too.