After winning the President’s Trophy as the league’s best team during the 2006-07 season, the Sabres have not enjoyed the past two seasons—missing the playoffs by a narrow margin in both of them.
An offseason of few departures and some interesting acquisitions leaves Buffalo with an unknown future. However, there are five main questions that are looming over the Sabres before the start of the regular season.
1). How many games will Ryan Miller start this season?
The reports coming out of camp are that Miller is finally at 100%. If the Sabres want to make the playoffs then Miller needs to be the best player on the team. Last season Buffalo was 7-14-3 when Miller wasn’t between the pipes.
Backup goaltender Patrick Lalime proved that he could not carry the load in Miller’s absence and may have single-handedly cost the Sabres a shot at the post season by letting in a few “soft” goals late in the season. If Miller’s ankle gives him any problems, the Sabres will be in some serious trouble.
2) Which Thomas Vanek will show up this season?
Vanek looked much better last season compared with the previous season where his numbers dropped significantly. Nobody expects the +47 Vanek of 2006-07, but his defensive efforts were noticed by many last season.
He also more than likely would have eclipsed his career-high in goals scored had it not been for the broken jaw which sidelined him for one month. If Vanek’s game continues to improve as it did last season, he will certainly make up for a lack of scoring from the third and fourth lines.
3) Who is going to step up on defense?
The Buffalo defense scored a measly 23 goals last season, 8 of which were scored by Jaroslav Spacek who jumped over the border to Montreal.
Chris Butler, Craig Rivet, Toni Lydman, and Andrej Sekera are being reported as the only definite starting defenders at this point. The final two defensive spots are up for grabs between four players.
Many fans feel the organization overpaid veteran defenseman Henrik Tallinder, and they may be right after his abysmal 12-point campaign in 2008-09. Competing for the final three spots alongside Tallinder are newcomer Steve Montador, 6-foot-8 prospect Tyler Myers, and third-year defenseman Mike Weber.
Weber battled a number of injuries last season and only suited up for seven games. However, he was +12 while playing just 16 games two season ago. His attitude also seems right for the moment.
“This is my year,” Weber told the Buffalo News.
The key in Buffalo is not finding the right combinations on defense, it is finding the right combinations very quickly, or it might be too late.
4) Who’s on third? Wait, no, who’s on fourth? Wait, I’m confused.
The Sabres coaching staff, namely Lindy Ruff, needs to figure out who will be playing on the third and fourth lines together. Currently, Buffalo is looking for someone to jump onto the third line with Paul Gaustad and returnee Mike Grier, and need two-fourth liners to accompany the hard-hitting Patrick Kaleta.
Clarke MacArthur, Daniel Paille, Tim Kennedy, and Nathan Gerbe are all going to make their cases for that last third line spot. MacArthur seems to be the most logical choice of the four players, especially after putting up career high numbers last year.
Paille still hasn’t turned into the player Buffalo was hoping for when he was drafted in the first round back in 2002 and the Sabres are growing tired of waiting.
Kennedy and Gerbe have a great chance of rounding out that fourth line; especially after both were selected to the AHL all-rookie team last season.
5) How long will the Sabres take to get everything in order?
This is the biggest question facing the Sabres. Buffalo has a much easier schedule to start the season than they do to finish the season. If they can’t get their defensive pairings together, or their third and fourth lines don’t click, then it’s going to be a long season in Buffalo.
But if the Sabres find a way to get everything together quickly—if leaders like Vanek, Derek Roy, and Jason Pominville have the season they’re expected to – then they have a great chance at getting into the playoffs and maybe even making a little run once they get in.
Prediction: After two seasons of waiting, the Sabres will find a way to sneak into the playoffs as the eight seed.