With the 2013 season starting to roll, the Buffalo Sabres are hoping to get over the hump they were unable to conquer last season: The playoffs.
The Eastern Conference is very tight and the Sabres will need to find scoring, not only from their top line, but their second, third and fourth lines as well.
The defense will need to be stout in front of Ryan Miller, and Miller himself will need to be strong. If all goes as well as it has for the Sabres in the early going, they should be easily in the playoff conversation.
Here are my predictions for the upcoming, truncated season for the Sabres.
Thomas Vanek has the ability to be one of the best goal scorers in the league when he's on his game.
Vanek has started this season the way he started last year: On a torrid pace. Last year, Vanek had five points in his first two games, and 10 points in his first six games. This year in his first two games he has six points, including five on opening day against the Flyers.
Assuming he does not go through a slump resembling the one he had last January (two points in 12 games), Vanek will likely produce at a point-per-game clip.
Prediction: 24 goals, 28 assists for 52 points
It's safe to say that Jason Pominville has found a comfort level with Vanek on the top line for the Sabres.
As Vanek leads the league with six points, Pominville is just behind him at five in the first two games. This mirrors last season when Pominville jumped out of the gate with four points in two games.
Playing Vanek with a skilled center will make all the difference for the Sabres' captain, who loves the slot area. If the current top line stays healthy, Pominville likely will be right behind Vanek in his production, especially if his play on the power play stays at the current high level.
Prediction: 18 goals, 31 assists for 49 points
When he came over from the Vancouver Canucks in the trade deadline deal, Cody Hodgson was thought to be a realistic option for the Sabres as a No. 1 center.
He's certainly getting his chance.
Working between Vanek and Pominville, Hodgson has been taking full advantage of his opportunity to be the No. 1 guy in Buffalo. Not only has his skating improved, but his time in the AHL with Rochester allowed him to figure out Lindy Ruff's system, which he has excelled in, especially away from the puck (see Pominville's goal against Toronto Monday night).
He may not put up points at the pace Vanek and Pominville will this year, but he will benefit greatly from playing with them.
Prediction: 13 goals, 23 assists for 36 points
Tyler Ennis found himself at center last year in the stretch run of the season and excelled, scoring 27 points in the final 26 games of the season.
This year, with the ability to have a full season at the pivot, look for Ennis to continue his upward trend at the position.
Likely to stick with Marcus Foligno and Drew Stafford for most of the season, Ennis will be able to carry over the chemistry he found last season to this year. While he has not blown observers away on the scoresheet in the Sabres' first two games, he has been exceptional on the forecheck and has created many chances for his linemates.
Look for that trend to continue this year.
Prediction: 12 goals, 26 assists for 38 points
Drew Stafford is one of the most talented Sabres.
He has size, hands a great shot and excellent offensive-zone vision. All of these things are what allowed him to score 31 goals two seasons ago despite only playing in 62 games.
Stafford struggled at the start of last season, but picked it up once he started playing with Ennis and Foligno.
The biggest change in Stafford's game? He started going to the net with and without the puck. When he does that, he is so hard to stop given his great hands and big frame. If he continues to sniff out the net on the rush, he will continue to be rewarded.
Prediction: 19 goals, 17 assists for 36 points
Marcus Foligno surprised a lot of people last season, scoring 13 points in his 13-game stint in Buffalo in March and early April.
While unlikely to take anyone by surprise this year, Foligno will be the perfect complement to Ennis and Stafford on the Sabres' second line.
Foligno won't score at a point-per-game pace again this year, but will contribute on the scoresheet. He will also contribute in some non-scoresheet aspects of the game like hits, forechecking ability and defensive-zone responsibility.
Regardless, he is exactly the type of player the Sabres need in their top six.
Prediction: 11 goals, 13 assists for 24 points
Mikhail Grigorenko is likely the most talked about Buffalo prospect since Thomas Vanek.
His play in the QMJHL and the World Junior Championships has earned him a five-game tryout and, so far, he has done nothing to make anyone think he doesn't belong with the Sabres.
He may have been kept off of the scoresheet for the first two games, but he has been excellent in the defensive zone, showing Lindy Ruff he can do it at both ends of the ice. Ruff typically isn't concerned with his young guys producing points in bunches, rather he wants them to prove their worth defensively first.
Assuming he stays beyond his fifth game, Grigorenko will have the weight lifted off of his shoulders and will look to open it up a bit more offensively. It'll be hard for him to produce at the levels Vanek and Pominville will while getting third-line minutes, but he will impress as the season progresses.
Prediction: 9 goals, 14 assists for 23 points
Tyler Myers is one of the most important Buffalo Sabres.
When he plays well, the entire team ups their game and it makes the Sabres one of the toughest teams to play against in the NHL.
Myers' biggest issue right now is consistency, especially in the defensive zone. His skating ability and soft hands will always allow him to be an offensive threat, but the Sabres need him to clamp down defensively as he did at the end of last season.
Look for him to concentrate on the defensive end a bit more this year, but his natural abilities will allow for him to earn a respectable amount of points.
Prediction: 7 goals and 20 assists for 27 points
Christian Ehrhoff took a lot of heat last season given his contract, but he was easily one of the Sabres' best defenseman.
When he went down in the Washington game in late March, it was almost as if the Sabres' playoff chances hobbled off of the ice with him. His special-teams play was superb and the power play especially suffered in his absence.
He will need to do a bit more on the power play to improve the Sabres' meddling unit from last season, something that needs to happen for Buffalo to be a true force in the league this season.
Look for his power-play time to increase and his point totals to increase with it.
Prediction: 10 goals, 23 assists for 33 points
Ryan Miller is one of the top goaltenders in the NHL, and when he's on his game he's in the conversation for inclusion in the top three.
Miller has had a solid start to the season, sporting a 1.50 goals against average and a .953 save percentage in the first two games.
Miller's backup, Jhonas Enroth, will likely play 10 or so games this year, leaving Miller to play between 38 and 40 games. Given the workload Miller is sure to receive in the truncated schedule, you can expect some lulls in his game, but on the whole, expect Miller's name to be tossed around in the Vezina conversation at the end of the year.
Prediction: 2.36 GAA, .921 save percentage and 27 wins