When the dust settled on the Buffalo Sabres' 2011-12 season, disappointment and excuses were all that remained.
No playoff run. No vindication for Darcy Regier. No credit for Lindy Ruff.
All that was discussed were the injuries, the moves that were made and the moves that were not made.
But that has come and gone. Now, with the 2012-13 season looming, the focus shifts. It's no longer what went wrong, but instead what will happen?
The first thing to consider are the roster changes.
While Bobby Ryan remains in an Anaheim Ducks jersey and Shane Doan plods through his free agency decision, hope will remain that Darcy Regier will bring that top-tier talent in this offseason.
But, as it stands right now, there are three major moves that Darcy made this offseason: Signing John Scott, trading for Steve Ott, and not bringing Jochen Hecht and Brad Boyes back.
The John Scott signing was nothing more than a message. This was Darcy Regier telling the Boston Bruins that it's no longer Sabres bashing time.
Scott is a scary fighter. Ask Kevin Westgarth. He's a guy even Milan Lucic will think twice about going after, and it will hopefully make the future Bruins-Sabres games about which team brings it on the ice and not which team is "tougher."
But beyond the physical aspect, Scott is not a marquee signing. He's huge, but he skates like he's huge (as in poorly) and will be lucky to post five points and skate 40 games. (The Sabres also signed Nick Tarnasky, a gritty fighting center, who will spend 76 games in Rochester and six games playing for the Sabres, all of which will be against Boston.)
Yet it is a departure for Darcy in the sense that he signed toughness, something he has not been willing to do in the past.
The second big move for Regier this offseason was the addition of Steve Ott in a trade with the Dallas Stars that saw the much maligned Derek Roy head to Texas.
Keeping the momentum of the Scott signing, Darcy gave Ruff even more toughness with Ott, known around the league as a deft agitator.
But what Ott does that Scott does not is make the Sabres' top three lines extremely deep. Notwithstanding Regier's latitude to make a major deal, Ott gives Cody Hodgson and Tyler Ennis the ability to concentrate on being the team's top centers.
Ott is a left wing, but he is a top-five centerman in terms of faceoffs and will likely be used in many defensive zone situations and the penalty kill at center. Look for him to be paired with one of or both Jason Pominville and Ville Leino, who are guys that can take over the center position in the offensive zone to maximize their puck control abilities. Their skills will fit in well with Ott's mucking ability in the corners and on the half wall.
And, like Scott, Ott will make the Sabres a bit tougher to play against, which is something this team has lacked since the post-lockout obstruction started creeping back into the game three or four seasons ago.
The last major move Regier made was not really a move at all.
Regier bid adieu to longtime Sabre Jochen Hecht who has been plagued by concussion issues since the 2010-11 season and Brad Boyes.
Hecht has had this a long time coming, as his $3.5 million salary was prohibitive to the Sabres' growth plans given his moderate point totals and diminishing defensive abilities. His leadership will be missed, but it can and should be replaced by the likes of Pominville, Stafford and Vanek.
Boyes was almost painful to watch last season. The former 40-goal scorer found himself in Ruff's infamous doghouse early and saw fourth line minutes for much of the season. Boyes still showed flashes on the power play and is a steal for the NY Islanders for $1 million next season, but his time in Buffalo was up.
So where does this leave the Sabres moving forward? (Note: All of these points will be fleshed out in more detail in articles as the season inches closer.)
First and foremost, each forward line has an element of toughness on it now. Assuming status quo, Marcus Foligno will be the buzzsaw for Drew Stafford and Tyler Ennis. Thomas Vanek and Cody Hodgson could start the year with Corey Tropp, who impressed in his 35-game stint last season. Ott will see time with Leino and Pominville, who may swap with Tropp on Vanek's line. Cody McCormick and Pat Kaleta will police the fourth line.
This gives the Sabres an edge they have needed for a long time. Darcy has been smart not to forsake talent for toughness, but the team does need some measure of grit to compete in today's NHL.
The departures of Hecht and Boyes also leave the door open for guys like Corey Tropp and Marcus Foligno to make the team from Day 1 this season, and the addition of Ott potentially allows Mikhail Grigorenko the chance to play with someone who can take the defensive load off his shoulders, giving him every chance to thrive offensively.
The glut of NHL-ready defensemen also gives Darcy the ability to make even more moves to fortify the top-six forwards especially. Shane Doan has not said no yet, but with his asking price seemingly at $7.5 million, a trade for Bobby Ryan seems a bit more reasonable.
A guy like Ryan or Doan to put with Vanek (assuming he does not need to go to Anaheim in exchange for Ryan) would instantly make Cody Hodgson better, potentially giving the Sabres that elusive No. 1 center they've coveted.
Also, the Northeast Division has not done much to make itself better this offseason. The biggest addition made was Toronto's acquisition of James Van Riemsdyk for Luke Schenn on the second day of the draft. Other than that, the other teams have remained pretty constant, with the only other big story being the likely emergence of Dougie Hamilton on the blue line for the Bruins.
But, as it stands right now, the Sabres have gotten tougher without sacrificing (too much) talent, and they have left the roster pretty much as is from last season.
After missing the playoffs by three points, that may not be the best plan at first glance, but when you lose Tyler Ennis for 34 games, Tyler Myers for 27 games, Christian Ehrhoff for 26 games and Ryan Miller for eight to 10 starts, those three points look a bit more conquerable.
Status quo assumed, the Sabres have made the right kind of moves to position themselves much better in the division, especially with the Bruins, and assuming the injury bug doesn't bite, then it is extremely likely they will reach the playoffs.
Beginning of August prediction: 46 wins, 101 points and 6th in the Eastern Conference.
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