So what if your favorite hockey team has...
...missed the playoffs two straight years?
...not made a splash in free agency for even longer?
...let not one but TWO team captains walk away without compensation?
...never quite shaken the identity of the red-headed stepchild of a city that sometimes seems cursed, and not just sports-wise?
Does that mean another wasted season? Fear not, Sabres fans. There is reason to not be ashamed for being optimistic. All you need to enjoy a spot in the playoffs is affirmative answers to the following questions.
1) Can Tim Connolly stay healthy?
Say what you might about a player who was received in trade for the incredibly-popular Michael Peca way back when...when he's on the ice, the man can play.
Forty-seven points in 48 games translates into team-leading scoring for this squad over a full season, and satisfies the one thing that Buffalo has lacked since the heady days of the early nineties—a bona fide game-changing talent who can both score and feed his teammates.
2) Will there be some defensive standouts this year?
There's no denying that the Sabres are pretty solid from a defensive standpoint...nothing flashy, nobody with the reputation of a Pronger or Chara, but nobody who stands out as being that far below average, either.
Problem is, the unit lacks identity. There's no one player or pairing for whom any opponent really needs to specifically game-plan for, nor anyone whom any opposing player fears facing.
A possible person to fill that mold would be rookie Tyler Myers. Most readers won't need updates about his size or his skill as demonstrated in juniors last year, so I'll skip that.
What I won't gloss over is the fact that his is—if he makes the squad out of training camp—the first face that would be instantly recognizable to any knowledgeable hockey fan to play for this defense since a certain gold-medal-winner's last game for Buffalo in the 1992-93 season. And that could make a big difference in the season's outcome.
It would also be nice to see Mike Weber returning to the amazing form he and partner Andrej Sekera showed down the stretch two years ago. Those two consistently outperformed anything Tallinder and Lydman did together last year; only problem was, they did it in the second half of a season already lost to injuries and bad judgement.
But if they can find that spark again, and Myers plays to anything close to his potential, that would make for a fairly formidable—and young—defense.
3) Will Vanek and Roy continue their upward climbs?
Before getting blasted by a puck to the face (while killing a penalty, mind you), Thomas Vanek was only the league leader for most of the season in goal-scoring. Derek Roy was coming into his own as a playmaking center, competent on defense, and a gifted playmaker on offense.
If their mutual improvements continue, the Sabres have a pretty good one-two punch up front. And if they remain on different lines, that does make them tougher to defend against.
4) Will the supporting cast actually, you know, support?
Much of last year's disappointment was due to injuries (Miller, Vanek) which no one can predict.
But at least as much was due to the fact that a number of players identified as being either the "young core" or the "veteran leadership" of the team (in other words, the role players) disappeared for long stretches. Some even disappeared for the entire season (I'm looking at you, Jochen Hecht).
Jason Pominville? Drew Stafford (even allowing for that one sick goal)? Where did you go? And will you be back?
5) Is Patrick Lalime healthy enough so that Lindy Ruff doesn't ride Ryan Miller into the ground?
There's no doubting Lalime is a quality goaltender. And usually, goalie skills don't fade quite so dramatically with age as his seemed to do last year.
But then word came out that he had to have surgery on both hips in the offseason; if he's recovered and healthy, it's hard to fathom that Ruff won't give Miller a few extra breaks during the (Olympics-condensed) season.
Of course, he may do that anyway if Lalime blows enough early games to make playing Miller against the cream of the NHL crop a moot point.
6) Will the team play with more energy from the opening faceoff every game?
This was the thing that gnawed at more fans' insides than anything else last year, the number of times a "lack of effort" was cited as a reason for losing.
I, personally, love the suggestion (might've been given by Bucky Gleason in The Buffalo News) that, for every game, Ruff starts Adam Mair, Patrick Kaleta, and Paul Gaustad, because they (a) never take a shift off and (b) are always getting under the opposition's skin.
They're the hardest working bunch on the squad, game in and game out. They never play recklessly, all have good hockey sense...what's to lose?
And I would pay good money I don't have to see those three line up at the opening drop against Alfredsson and Spezza. Especially if Chris Neil was their linemate.
7) Can Darcy Regier make a decent trade?
While this one is the most likely "no" answer out of all the above, there is at least a substantial precedent. For a brief period (commencing at the 2003 trade deadline), Regier was the slickest huckster in the league bar none for his fleecing of the Coyotes in the deal that sent Daniel Briere to Buffalo for Chris Gratton.
Regier has a fantasy-GM's worst nightmare, though. A roster stocked to overflowing with B and C-grade players who need to be moved because they're too good for Portland but not good enough to crack Atlanta's starting lineup.
There are 16 forwards in camp competing for 12 spots (plus one or two press box attendees), and the defensive side of things isn't any better.
If Myers and Weber and Sekera and Chris Butler (who was the Sabres' best defenseman for long stretches last season) all perform to expectations and potential, who sits? Can't be the captain, Rivet. Lydman? Tallinder?
We're already up to seven, with only six likely to be active night-to-night, and we haven't even mentioned Steve Montador (whose signature isn't even dry yet on his contract), Marc-Andre Gragnani (another "prospect with upside" who has pretty much gotten all he can reasonably hope for out of the AHL), and Nathan Paetsch (who, by virtue of his two-way play and ability to line up on the wing as well, reminds this writer of Coach Ruff in his prime).
And then there's the logjam at forward. Assuming lines like Vanek-Connolly-Pominville, Hecht-Roy-Stafford, MacArthur-Gaustad-Grier, and Mair (when healthy, otherwise Moore)-Ellis-Kaleta, who do you cut or send down? Nathan Gerbe? Tim Kennedy? Where does Daniel Paille fit in?
If I were Regier, I would find one (or two!) of those squads who always seem to have one or two star-quality players, but not enough depth to compete. See if they'd go for a two-for-one or three-for-one deal, and turn some of this excess depth into a more tangible asset.
One can't score from the press box, after all.
This is a decently-talented young team. I believe that Regier and Ruff are right to let most of these guys grow up together; it's a solid business model to lock up your core to long-term deals when they're reasonably cheap; the heavy lifters on this roster aren't yet quite at their athletic/physical peaks.
There is a lot of room for improvement, and surprise, amongst this bunch.
At the same time, sometimes confidence grows from the other direction. One move that the local media could point to as "ambitious" could turn this team from a worthy opponent into the guys nobody wants to play, all because a concrete sign was seen from above that ownership and the coaches believed so much in this team that they had to make sure it succeeded.
8) Will someone grab this team and make it their own?
This flows somewhat naturally from the last. There's no "voice of the franchise" other than Lindy Ruff, who, despite being a really good coach, isn't exactly the most compelling face for a team's identity.
I've been following the Sabres for nigh on 30 years, and I don't think I could describe Regier to a police sketch artist to save my life. And there is no one player (or two, hearkening back a couple of years) to whom all the rest of the roster—and, as importantly, the fans and media—grant deference.
Once upon a time, we had Drury-Briere. We had Michael Peca and Dominik Hasek. We had LaFontaine-Mogilny. And before that, Perrault and Foligno and...well, you get the point.
Whose team is this?
Who is going to grab this squad in the locker room and refuse to lose?
That is the greatest unanswered question about this year's Buffalo Sabres, and the one that probably will make the most difference in the long run.
Any decent team can overcome the problems presented by a couple of "no" answers to the first seven questions I've posed. But there are no teams who can win without a real identity. If this last question gets answered favorably, it could be an awfully long time til the offseason.
Let's hope someone takes the reins and refuses to let go.
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