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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    Sharp to undergo hip surgery, expected recovery is 4-5 months

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    Patrick Sharp‘s difficult season is now over.

    The Dallas Stars announced on Saturday that the 35-year-old forward will undergo hip surgery on Tuesday. The recovery time, according to the club, is between four and five months.

    Sharp is in the final year of a five-year contract with a $5.9 million cap hit, per CapFriendly

    “We are going to get the surgery done and let him heal. He’s going to train and let’s take a look at him,” said Stars GM Jim Nill, per NHL.com. “We’ve had conversations. If he comes back, he wants it to be Dallas. He thinks he’s a Dallas Star.”

    Not only has Sharp dealt with injuries on the ice, but he is dealing with a personal matter off it.

    From the Dallas Morning News:

    But in battling through two concussions, hip pain, and his dad’s fight with leukemia, Sharp has shown significant fortitude. The Dallas chapter of the Professional Hockey Writers Association nominated Sharp Saturday as its candidate for the Bill Masterton Trophy, given each season to a player who displays the attributes of perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey.

    “It shows what kind of person he is and what kind of hockey player and leader he is,” said Stars captain Jamie Benn. “I think that’s why he’s a winner at every level he’s played at. I think that’s why he’s a great leader for this team and a great guy for a lot of these young guys to look up to.”

    Sharp was first sidelined with a concussion in October. He was then placed on injured reserve with another concussion in December.

    He has been held to just 48 games, with eight goals — his lowest total since the lockout-shortened season — and 18 points.

    ‘That was embarrassing,’ says Boudreau after Wild lose to Canucks

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    The Wild continue to struggle and fans on Saturday expressed their frustration.

    Think about this: The visiting Canucks are terrible at scoring goals, ranked 29th in the league in that category. Yet they managed to score four goals in the second period against the Wild. So bad was Minnesota’s performance to that point that there was a Bronx cheer directed at goalie Darcy Kuemper after he made a save on a harmless shot and fans later booed the Wild off the ice into the intermission.

    It’s bad when the Canucks, 27th in the overall standings, embarrass an opposing team.

    The Wild failed once again to clinch a playoff spot after a 4-2 loss. That score flattered the home team, which got late goals from Ryan Suter and Eric Staal. Too little, too late. Afterward, coach Bruce Boudreau lit into his team.

    “That was embarrassing. I’m embarrassed,” Boudreau told reporters. “To me, if I was the fans, I’d be booing even more because they pay good money for this.”

    As far as the playoffs are concerned, the Wild are in, even if they haven’t yet officially secured a spot. Sports Club Stats is giving them a 100 per cent chance of qualifying for the post-season.

    But prior to this month, Minnesota looked like a team that could do some serious damage in the playoffs. That’s not to suggest they are suddenly incapable of going on any prolonged run but they very clearly have some issues that need to be addressed over the next few of weeks.

    “Yeah, it wasn’t good enough,” Jason Zucker told the Pioneer Press.

    “We are leaving guys open. We aren’t winning battles. We are hanging our goalies out to dry. … I don’t think we’re prepared enough to start some periods and they score and we’re not being resilient enough to come back.”

    Meanwhile, for the Canucks, this game should provide at least a glimmer of optimism for their fans. Less than 24 hours after his college season ended with a double overtime loss to Boston University, Brock Boeser signed an entry-level deal and made his NHL debut versus the Wild.

    What a debut it was.

    Boeser, a first-round pick of the Canucks in 2015, scored the winning goal and was tied for the team-lead in shots on goal with four alongside Reid Boucher, who also scored twice.

    The unfortunate news? Jack Skille left the game with an ankle injury and didn’t return. The outlook doesn’t look good, as Canucks head coach Willie Desjardins said afterward, “I wouldn’t expect to see Skille in the line-up for a while.”

    Only eight games remain in Vancouver’s season.

    Another shutout for Bobrovsky as he steals one for Blue Jackets

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    Sergei Bobrovsky continued to make his case for the Vezina Trophy on Saturday afternoon when he stopped all 36 shots he faced in a 1-0 win over the Philadelphia Flyers.

    The win helped the Blue Jackets avoid what would have been their first three-game losing streak of the season.

    In a game where his team was outshot by a 36-21 margin and managed just a single goal (an Alexander Wennberg tally in the second period), it would not be unfair to say that he probably stole a couple of points for his team as the Blue Jackets continue to compete with the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins for the top spot in both the Eastern Conference and the entire NHL.

    Bobrovsky being the difference in a game is nothing new for the Blue Jackets lately because he has been a brick wall in their net for much of the season. But for as good as his performance has been overall, it is over the past few weeks where he has really started to establish himself as a Vezina Trophy front runner.

    With his win on Saturday the Blue Jackets are now 9-0-2 in his past 11 starts.

    Bobrovsky remains the NHL’s leader in pretty much every major goaltending category, collecting his 40th win (first in the NHL), raising his overall save percentage to .934 (also first in the NHL), his even-strength save percentage to .940 (also first in the NHL), and recording his seventh shutout (tied for second, just one behind Braden Holtby).

    He has four shutouts in the month of March alone.

    There are a lot of factors you can point to for the Blue Jackets’ massive turnaround this season, but none of them have been bigger at this point than the play of Bobrovsky.

    He has already won the Vezina Trophy once in his career, and he is putting together a pretty convincing argument to win it again this season.

    Goalie nods: It’s Anderson vs. Price for first place in the Atlantic

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    The Montreal Canadiens and Ottawa Senators are locked in a fierce fight for the top spot in the Atlantic Division, and they will have one more chance to take advantage of a head-to-head matchup on Saturday night.

    It will be the fifth and final meeting of the regular season between the two teams — and third in the past eight days — as the two teams enter the night separated by just a single point in the standing (Montreal has a one point lead).

    Montreal won the previous two head-to-head meetings this month, topping Ottawa in a shootout on March 18 then coming back the next night with a 4-1 win.

    As expected, both teams will be going with their No. 1 goaltenders on Saturday night with the Senators turning to Craig Anderson and the Canadiens starting Carey Price.

    With wins in eight of his past 11 starts, a stretch that has seen him surrender more than two goals in a game just two times, Price is once again playing at that Vezina Trophy level we have seen from him in years past. His overall numbers for the season may not be quite as dominant as we have seen over the past couple of years but right now he is one of his zones where he looks nearly unbeatable.

    Anderson has been on a similar roll for the Senators in recent weeks and has only lost three of his past 12 starts … two of them came at the hands of the Canadiens.

    Elsewhere on Saturday…

    — It was Richard Bachman vs Darcy Kuemper in Minnesota for the Vancouver Canucks-Wild game, while Sergei Bobrovsky went against Michal Neuvirth in the Columbus Blue Jackets vs. Philadelphia Flyers game.

    Braden Holtby will be in net for the Washington Capitals when they host Mike Smith and the Arizona Coyotes.

    — With Tuukka Rask out for the Boston Bruins’ huge game against the New York Islanders, Anton Khudobin will get the call. No word yet from the Islanders on who they will start after going with Jaroslav Halak on Friday night against the Pittsburgh Penguins.

    Eddie Lack was the first goalie off the ice for the Carolina Hurricanes on Saturday and is expected to start against Cory Schneider and the New Jersey Devils.

    — No word yet from the Chicago Blackhawks or Florida Panthers for their game.

    Frederik Andersen looks for his third shutout in a row when he starts for the Toronto Maple Leafs in their game against the Buffalo Sabres. Robin Lehner gets the call for the Sabres.

    Brian Elliott is back in net for the Calgary Flames after having his personal 11-game winning streak snapped against the Washington Capitals this past week. He faces his former team, the St. Louis Blues, who will be starting Jake Allen.

    Martin Jones gets the start for the San Jose Sharks when they visit Pekka Rinne and the Nashville Predators.

    — It is a rare night off for Cam Talbot in Edmonton as Lauent Brossoit will make his first start since Feb. 21 when he gets the start against the Colorado Avalanche. He has made just two relief appearances since then. It will be just his third start of the season. The Avalanche have yet to announce their starter for the game.

    Antti Raanta goes for the New York Rangers when they visit the Los Angeles Kings. Jonathan Quick is in the crease for the Kings.