Yesterday we examined the Boston Bruins.
While the Bruins do have a question to answer in who replaces Phil Kessel and how successful they are, we also have to consider that they were always planning for this a little bit anyhow—after all, they had to be prepared that he was going to be out until November, so they can just extend the contingency plan.
The rest of the Northeast has questions; big questions. The Sabres are just one of those teams with questions and whoever answers them is going to lay claim to second in the division.
2008/09 Record: 41-32-9, 91 points, 10th in East.
Additions: Mike Grier—F (FA), Cody McCormick—F (1 year/$550k), Joe DiPenta—D (1 year/$550k), Steve Montador—D (2 years/$3.1 mil).
Subtractions: Jaroslav Spacek—D (FA), Mikael Tellqvist—G (FA), Maxim Afinogenov—F (FA), Dominic Moore—F (FA), Teppo Numminen—D (Retired).
The Buffalo Sabres are the lost sister in the Northeast Division.
While everyone talks about the Boston Bruins’ defense of their division crown, the Ottawa Senators’ potential rebound goalie Pascal Leclaire, the Toronto Maple Leafs’ re-vamped…well…team, and the Montreal Canadiens’ full remodel, the lack of activity seemingly left the Sabres in the dust.
The Sabres, however, are not only in a position to better themselves from within, but this year may very well be the year a ton of young talent makes its mark.
The Miller’s Wife Is Churnin’ the Butter…
The phrase "winner" is tossed around when people describe NFL Quarterbacks. In fact, on Sunday, Brian Billick was talking about how San Fransisco 49ers QB Shaun Hill may not pile up the stats, but he's a winner—which is what matters in the end.
Ryan Miller is a winner.
Last season, if not for an ankle injury that derailed his month of March, Miller could've thrust the Sabres into the playoffs by himself.
With just one win in those 13 games he missed, Miller could have posted his third-straight 35+ win season. To put that in perspective, only two other goalies (Miikka Kiprusoff and Henrik Lundqvist) currently hold that streak, while Miller ranks behind Kiprusoff (166), Martin Brodeur (154), Roberto Luongo (150), Marty Turco (144), and Lundqvist (142) for wins (he has 140) post-lockout.
Not bad company, eh? Expect more of the same out of Miller this year, as he's stayed fairly consistent throughout his career: Year-to-year, his goals-against average has never moved more than .15 away from the previous year's total, while the 12-point jump last year (.906 to .918) is the biggest jump ever in his save percentage (previous years it's been within .05, which, admittedly is a little high).
Behind Miller, it'll be a battle between Patrick Lalime and Jhonas Enroth.
While Lalime brings a veteran presence to the Sabres' backup role, his effectiveness has diminished since his soul was crushed by Joe Nieuwendyk in the playoffs. The highly-touted Swede, Enroth, had a great year in the AHL last year and even if he can't steal away the backup job, starting in the AHL will have him fresh and ready to come up in case of injury or back up next year.
On a Defense That Lacks Offense…
The Sabres come into this season lacking one big thing: a solid, top-pairing, puck-moving defenseman.
With the loss of Jaroslav Spacek, the highest-scoring carry-over from last season is Craig Rivet. While Rivet does provide the Sabres a solid, experienced defender to help bring the youngsters along, Rivet has just one season of 30+ assists (30 in 2007-'08 in San Jose) and just three seasons of seven or more goals.
To provide that offensive presence, it'll be a slew of youngsters trying to bridge the gap.
The most experienced of which is Andrej Sekera. Sekera not only has no reservations about shooting the puck, but he's also very good at moving the puck. He's shown consistent improvement at the NHL level and with a full season, he could reach 30 points. Sekera just needs to remember about staying responsible in his own end.
QMJHL graduate TJ Brennan may not be able to rack in 30- or 40-assist seasons, but the New Jersey native carries a heavy shot from the point and will help Buffalo try to maintain last year's seventh-ranked power play.
Another highly-touted offensive defenseman is Tyler Myers, however Myers is trying to jump straight from the WHL (He had 42 points in 58 games last year), so he'll definitely have to impress. His ability to move the puck around the ice is definitely something that the Sabres need and might not be able to overlook if he can make the transition.
Marc-Andre Gragnani's AHL experience may help him beat out Myers, especially because it's difficult to continue throwing a defenseman in the minors with this career line: 154 games played, 23 goals, 80 assists, 103 points, and nine power play goals. Granted the -15 rating (although he had a 14 point improvement to -1 last year) is a little disenchanting, but Gragnani could be exactly what the Sabres need to maintain that power play.
Defensively, Chris Butler will give the Sabres a solid defensive defenseman. Butler came to the NHL in the midst of an up-and-down season in the AHL, but once he entered the pro ranks, Butler settled in. Although his point production may never reach the heights it did in Denver (0.4 points per game), defensively, Butler could shoot right up the depth chart.
Right alongside him will be another solid defender in Mike Weber, who'll be big in stabilizing the defense for years to come. Weber has a good frame (6'2"), but he's also got a little ways to go in terms of filling out, but definitely has the edge.
Looking at the veteran presences on the defense (outside of Rivet), Joe DiPenta will be providing depth for the Sabres while Steve Montador is a good low-pairing defensive solution.
Leading the back end will be Henrik Tallinder and Toni Lydman, both of whom are sound, stable defensemen who are able to chip in with 20-25 points each year. Neither are going to blow anyone away with their point production, but their poise is what they are paid for.
Lydman especially is underrated, as he can play an effective 22 minutes a game—his steadiness is just overlooked when compared to some of the bigger names in the division and conference.
Up to Increasing the Population of Pominville?
Up front, the Sabres have three prominent young scorers.
Thomas Vanek has been a big time goal scorer since he entered the league with 25 goals in his rookie season. From there, Vanek has posted seasons of 43, 36, and 40 goals and could one day be a 50-goal man easily.
Along with Vanek, Derek Roy has grown into a consistent scorer, but he's also developed into a dangerous two-way threat that is a dynamic play maker as well (133 assists in the past three seasons and not afraid to shoot), while Jason Pominville also has deft playmaking ability off the wing.
From there, the Marian Gaborik-esque Tim Connolly will be required to provide some auxiliary scoring. While Connolly has a ton of potential and is a point-a-game player, he's simply never stayed healthy enough to put it together for a full season since 2002-'03.
If he can, then the Sabres have (potentially) an 80-point player and four devastating forwards. If he can't stay healthy, then Connolly will probably produce as many points as games played.
Speaking of big-time potential, Nathan Gerbe is the same, but simply put in a Martin St. Louis-sized frame. Gerbe is a fairly balanced scorer who loves to shoot the puck, but can set up his teammates as well, meaning he may be good alongside Drew Stafford.
Outside of the big three, Stafford took the most shots out of any Buffalo forward and his 20-goal campaign may just be the beginning.
Even if not paired alongside Gerbe, Stafford's production should inch up like it has in previous seasons, as he may broach 50-point/23-goal territory.
Staying down the wing, Clarke Macarthur continued along his own path of development, doubling his production from the 2007-'08 season. Macarthur's 17 goals last year may be right around where he levels off, while Daniel Paille should be walking along his own "bounce back path" as he looks to get back to the 19-20 goal range.
Providing more experienced depth, Jochen Hecht could bounce back to the low 40s neighbourhood in production, while still providing a great two-way presence.
Along with him, Mike Grier will be providing leadership to the young Sabres as well, but his production is more low-line rather than rivaling Hecht's, who should be in second line territory (although if Hecht can't get back to the 40+ point plateau, he may get bumped for a youngster).
Paul Gaustad will be providing a "rough 'n' tumble" approach from back on the fourth line, while Patrick Kaleta will be right there along with him and Matt Ellis can grind it out as well.
Because Adam Mair won't be starting the season with the team (he had surgery late in the offseason), there is a bit of room up front.
Michigan State alum Tim Kennedy might be fighting for some room up front after an outstanding rookie season in the AHL that saw him net 69 points in 73 games.
Along with Kennedy, the burly Marc Mancari has proved to be a steal in the seventh round, having scored 73 goals in the past three AHL seasons combined. Mancari is the prototypical power forward that the Sabres need and if his transition to the NHL goes as well as his time in the AHL, the Sabres will have a powerful weapon.
Much like Tyler Myers, Tyler Ennis is taking a shot at making the team straight out of Junior Hockey. Although the Sabres are stocked with a ton of bodies up front, Ennis just put up back-to-back seasons of 43 goals and 91 and 83 points, respectively, for Medicine Hat. In other words, Ennis is proven to have real gifts and if those gifts can, they'll translate into an NHL career ASAP.
So What’s It All Mean…
Even though the Sabres lack that big time puck mover on the back end, they still have a ton of pieces to work with.
With three qualified scorers up front, one who’ll be dangerous once he stays healthy, and a top-level starting goalie, the Sabres have the pieces to get back into contention.
While the defensemen might be the on-ice problem, the off-ice one might be that no one believes in them. With each team having their own issues in the Northeast, though, the Sabres have a great shot at capitalizing.
Buffalo's question: Who's going to score from the back end?
If they can get an answer to that question, they can make second place.
Predicted Finish: Second in Northeast