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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    Kucherov continues to be clutch for the Bolts this postseason

    NEW YORK, NY - MAY 03:  Nikita Kucherov #86 of the Tampa Bay Lightning skates against the New York Islanders in Game Three of the Eastern Conference Second Round during the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at the Barclays Center on May 03, 2016 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. The Lightning defeated the Islanders 5-4 in overtime.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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    TAMPA, Fla. (AP) The bigger the playoff moment, the more Nikita Kucherov shines.

    The young Russian has a knack for scoring when Tampa Bay needs it most, which is one of the reasons the Lightning are within one victory of reaching the Stanley Cup final for the second straight year.

    Kucherov has found the back of the net a NHL-leading 11 times in 15 games this postseason, seven of them in situations in which he’s either tied the score or given his team a lead.

    The 22-year-old’s latest addition to his impressive playoff resume he began compiling last year was a late goal Sunday to force overtime against Pittsburgh in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals. He also notched an assist on Tyler Johnson‘s winner less than a minute into the extra period.

    The 4-3 victory on the road gave Tampa Bay a 3-2 lead in the best-of-seven series. Game 6 in Tuesday night at Amalie Arena.

    “When you’re a rising star in this league, as he is … every team’s got one of those guys at some point,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “It just seems the bigger the moment, the bigger they rise to the occasion. He is proving that last year wasn’t a fluke. He’s just a gifted, skilled, determined player. He’s really a pleasure to coach.”

    Kucherov had 10 goals in 26 playoff games a year ago, including a pair of overtime winners that helped the Lightning to the Stanley Cup final, where they lost to the Chicago Blackhawks in six games. One more victory and Tampa Bay will become the first team to make consecutive trips to the championship round since the Penguins and Detroit Red Wings did it in 2008 and 2009.

    “He keeps climbing the ladder, and he keeps getting better. But what has really been remarkable for me this year in watching him is the timeliness of his game. He’s not scoring one goal in a 6-1 loss or the sixth goal in a 6-1 win,” Cooper said Monday.

    “He’s getting the game-tier, game-winner; sets up the biggest of the biggest goals, and that says a little bit about the type of player you are,” the coach added. “When you need him, he’s the one ultimately, more often than not, that’s there for you. I think that’s the one thing that’s remarkable about him.”

    Pittsburgh has gone from a 2-1 series lead to facing elimination for the first time this postseason after losing consecutively for the first time since January.

    Coach Mike Sullivan said he won’t make a decision on a starting goaltender for Game 6 until Tuesday morning. Marc-Andre Fleury made his first start in nearly two months in Game 5, and was unable to protect leads of 2-0 and 3-2.

    Rookie Matt Murray started the first four games of this series and is 9-4 with a 2.33 goals-against-average and .923 save percentage.

    “I thought Marc made some big saves for us, especially early in the game,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said, adding it was difficult to gauge how much the long layoff impacted Fleury’s performance.

    “It’s a tough circumstance. We believe in the guys we have. We think we have quality people, but it’s an imperfect situation,” Sullivan said before the team flew south to Florida on Monday. “All things considered, we’re trying to make the best decisions we can.”

    The Penguins are confident than can rebound Tuesday night and take the series back home for a seventh game.

    “I believe in my team. I believe in myself, and we can come back to Pittsburgh for sure,” Penguins star Evgeni Malkin said.

    “Every game you shake off, win or lose,” Penguins left wing Chris Kunitz said.

    “This group has done a terrific job all year of just staying in the moment and not dwelling on the past, not getting ahead of itself, and just trying to focus on that one game in hand,” Sullivan said, “and that’s what we’re going to have to do.”

    Tampa Bay plans to approach it the same way.

    The Lightning beat the New York Rangers on the road to take a 3-2 lead in last year’s conference finals. They returned home and were trounced 7-3 in Game 6.

    “You can’t sit here and dictate or guarantee what the result’s going to be, but our mindset going into the game has got to be a heck of a lot different,” Cooper said. “And our group is well aware of that.”

     

    PHT Morning Skate: Nobody is better at predicting the Stanley Cup playoffs than actor Will Arnett

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    –Will Arnett knows a thing or two about making good Stanley Cup predictions. (Top)

    –Some concept jerseys for the Las Vegas Aces. (BarDown)

    –Sharks center Joe Thornton really is a nice guy. (ESPN)

    –Watch the highlights from last night’s game between the Sharks and Blues:

    –The IIHF’s updated world rankings. (IIHF.com)

    Marc-Edouard Vlasic has done a good job against Vladimir Tarasenko.

    –Auston Matthews and Patrik Laine put together some solid performances at the worlds. (NHL.com)

    Datsyuk ‘wants to make sure the Wings have options,’ says his agent

    TAMPA, FL - APRIL 21:  Pavel Datsyuk #13 of the Detroit Red Wings checks his stick before a face-off against the Tampa Bay Lightning during the second period in Game Five of the Eastern Conference First Round during the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Amalie Arena on April 21, 2016 in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Mike Carlson/Getty Images)
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    Pavel Datsyuk‘s future with the Detroit Red Wings and in the National Hockey League has been up in the air for a while now, as he’s linked to rumors of a return to Russia and the KHL.

    His agent, Dan Milstein, recently explained to the Detroit Free Press that Datsyuk’s future should become clear in mid-June after meeting with Red Wings general manager Ken Holland.

    As per General Fanager, Datsyuk has one more year left on his current deal, which comes with a cap hit of $7.5 million.

    From the Detroit Free Press:

    “He would like to leave, but at the same time, he wants to make sure the Wings have options,” Milstein said. “He wants to help the team any way he can with the salary cap issue.”

    Wings general manager Ken Holland has said there are no loopholes. Because Datsyuk signed his last contract after he turned 35, his $7.5 million salary cap hit remains in tact even if Datsyuk departs. The Wings’ only option is to trade his contract to a team such as Arizona or Carolina that could use the hefty cap hit in order to be above the salary cap minimum.

    At the age of 37, his career in the league started in 2001-02, and has spanned 953 regular season games in which he’s accrued 918 points.

    He’s had a highly decorated career, with two Stanley Cup championships with the Red Wings, three Selke and four Lady Byng trophies.

    Allen or Elliott? Another goalie decision looms for Hitchcock

    ST LOUIS, MO - MAY 23:  Jake Allen #34 of the St. Louis Blues tends goal against Nick Spaling #16 of the San Jose Sharks during the third period in Game Five of the Western Conference Final during the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Scottrade Center on May 23, 2016 in St Louis, Missouri.  (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
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    The St. Louis Blues need to win Game 6 on Wednesday, or their season is over. Who they decide to turn to in net is likely to be a talking point — heated debate, maybe? — leading up to that contest.

    Do they go back to Jake Allen for a third consecutive start, despite the fact he allowed four goals on 25 shots in Monday’s Game 5 loss to the San Jose Sharks? Or, will head coach Ken Hitchcock turn once again to Brian Elliott, who started every single game from the series opener of the first round versus Chicago to Game 3 of the Western Conference Final.

    Hitchcock at least felt that going with Allen over Elliott in Game 4 provided the necessary spark for his team, as the Blues evened the series.

    But on Monday, the Sharks, on the strength of two Joe Pavelski goals, eventually overpowered the Blues for the win, moving San Jose one victory away from the Stanley Cup Final.

    “I thought he was fine. I don’t know, those are decisions we make in a day or so. But I thought he was fine today. He stopped some point-blank shots, especially early, three times early,” Hitchcock told reporters.

    “I don’t know. That’s stuff we’ll talk about tomorrow.”