Heading into the 2013-14 season, the Buffalo Sabres have very little fanfare surrounding them. After a season in which they traded away their captain, Jason Pominville, and multiple veteran defensemen, the team is starting fresh.
In the offseason, the team made a commitment to getting younger, tougher and more skilled, which it appeared to do in the 2013 NHL draft. Still, this kind of adjustment takes more than one year—ask the Edmonton Oilers.
In this edition of the season preview, we'll check out some of the changes to the Sabres roster, go over the expected lineup and make some predictions. Let's take a look.
Rasmus Ristolainen will start the season in Buffalo
In a relatively quiet offseason, the Sabres mostly focused on shoring up issues in the defensive zone. In two separate trades, the Sabres acquired Henrik Tallinder and Jamie McBain from the New Jersey Devils and Carolina Hurricanes, respectively. Each defender should play a solid supporting role on the second and third pairings throughout the year.
At the 2013 NHL draft, the Sabres went big and mean in the defensive zone. To the surprise of some, Rasmus Ristolainen, the eighth overall pick, has made the roster and will likely remain in Buffalo for the entire season.
With these new additions on defense, the Sabres hope that they can improve upon their 22nd-ranked team defense in goals allowed per game.
In terms of departures, there wasn't a ton of turnover for a team that dumped a lot of expiring contracts at the trade deadline. At the draft, Andrej Sekera was dealt to Carolina in the trade that acquired Jamie McBain and a second-round pick, which turned into forward J.T. Compher.
In other news, the Sabres bought out the contract of Nathan Gerbe, the diminutive overachiever who struggled mightily to cement himself in a bottom-six role with the Sabres' forward unit.
While Sekera was one of the team's better defensemen, they brought in three new rearguards to shore up the team's defensive troubles. Losing Gerbe won't do much to hurt team offense, but they didn't do much to improve it, either.
Cody Hodgson will be extremely important to the team's success
Projected Forward Lines
|Thomas Vanek||Cody Hodgson||Drew Stafford|
|Steve Ott||Tyler Ennis||Ville Leino|
|Zemgus Girgensons||Mikhail Grigorenko||Brian Flynn|
|Cody McCormick||Johan Larsson||Patrick Kaleta|
At forward, the Sabres are extremely young. This is especially true up the middle of the ice, where Hodgson, Ennis, Grigorenko and Larsson are all 23 years old or younger.
On the wing, there's a more solid veteran presence provided by the likes of Vanek, Stafford, Ott and Leino, though youngsters Flynn and Girgensons will most likely figure prominently in the team's bottom six.
Though the unit is in no way devoid of talent, the Sabres are relying heavily on offensive production from their youngest players. If Grigorenko and Girgensons don't chip in on the scoresheet, the team could be in dire need of offensive help.
Missing from this list due to injury are Joel Armia and Marcus Foligno, the latter of which will make an impact as soon as he returns.
Projected Defensemen Pairings
|Christian Ehrhoff||Mark Pysyk|
|Henrik Tallinder||Tyler Myers|
|Mike Weber||Rasmus Ristolainen|
On defense, the Sabres have a solid mix of veterans and young, talented defenders. Christian Ehrhoff leads the way as one of the more underrated players at his position in the entire league. Alongside him you might see Mark Pysyk, the former first-round pick who very much held his own at the end of the 2012-13 season.
Henrik Tallinder returns to Buffalo for his second stint with the team and will be paired with Tyler Myers. The Sabres brass hopes that Tallinder will be able to rejuvenate Myers's development, which has been minimal since the former's departure.
The third pairing will consist of Mike Weber and young Rasmus Ristolainen. This pairing will definitely put the hurt on opposing forwards, and the Sabres hope that Ristolainen can quickly adapt to the smaller, North American rinks.
Projected Starting Goaltenders
Though there are many unknown entities on the Sabres roster, their goaltenders are not in question. As long as he remains on the roster, Ryan Miller will be the man between the pipes. Enroth, now in his fourth NHL season, will back him up for the foreseeable future.
Mikhail Grigorenko needs to play big in year two
As he enters his second professional season, Mikhail Grigorenko has high expectations placed on his shoulders. The 19-year-old Russian center was a disappointment last year, but apologists will be quick to say that he was mishandled by Lindy Ruff.
Now, with a full year of NHL-level strength training and practice under his belt, Grigorenko should look like he belongs. The Sabres need him more than ever, and he'll play a key supporting role to start the season off.
If Grigo can put up some numbers early in the season, he may be handed an even bigger role as the second-line center. His ceiling is very high, and the Sabres could desperately use his elite offensive instincts.
As always, a lot will ride on Ryan Miller
If all goes well, the Sabres will find themselves with a fast start out of the gate. If they can win a lot of games early in the season, there's a chance that this young bunch will gain some confidence and play like they belong.
For the Sabres to succeed, they'll need the best out of Miller, Vanek and Ehrhoff. If these guys can play up to their talent level and pick up the inexperienced players when they hit their inconsistent patches—and they always will—the Sabres could be a wild card fighting for a playoff spot.
Still, even in a best-case scenario, I see the Sabres on the outside looking in (perhaps ninth place) as the season comes to an end.
If the worst-case scenario comes to fruition, expect a very long season in Buffalo. All in all, the Sabres are not clearly superior to any team in their division, though an argument could easily be made against the Florida Panthers.
With all this youth, the Sabres are bound to be inconsistent. If they start off the season getting shellacked by the Eastern Conference's upper-level teams, they could lose confidence and spiral downwards.
Ultimately, if Ryan Miller has a subpar season, I think you can put the nail in the coffin. That team should be in contention for the first overall pick in the 2014 NHL draft.
Will Thomas Vanek be around for the whole season?
With a lot of young faces in the Sabres lineup, expect some growing pains. Guys like Grigorenko, Girgensons, Larsson and Ristolainen all could struggle early on. That means players like Hodgson and Ennis are expected to be consistent, veteran contributors (both are 23 years old).
I think the Buffalo defensive corps is improved from last year, though it remains to be seen how Pysyk and Ristolainen will fare over the course of an entire season. Though Tallinder is not the same player as when he exited Buffalo, I expect Myers to have a bounce-back season with a clean bill of health.
In the crease, Ryan Miller is in a contract (and Olympic) year. That means he has every motivation to be in top form, though, ultimately, he may suffer due to the rest of the team's performance.
With the new realignment, the Eastern Conference has gotten that much more difficult. Now, 16 teams are fighting for eight playoff spots, and the Detroit Red Wings and Columbus Blue Jackets have joined the party.
Look for the Sabres to finish somewhere around 12th or 13th in the Eastern Conference before possibly making a jump to the playoffs in 2014-15.