With the regular season about to jump into high gear, the Buffalo Sabres will have a lot on their plate from now until the end of the regular season.
But before I go any further, let me say that I am very happy to be back writing for my loyal Sabres community. Writing for the Winter Olympics was a lot fun and I got a lot of coverage, but now I know where the term “everyone’s a critic” comes from.
The remainder of the season will be one of the toughest stretches of games that Buffalo has had in recent memory.
Every player will need to be on the top of his game and Ryan Miller, well, he just needs to keep doing what he does best. If anything I think that the loss in the gold medal game might just light a fire under Miller—rumor has it that Mr. Miller doesn’t take losing too well.
Okay, onto what the Sabres have in store for them over the next month or so.
The foremost thing on every Buffalo Sabres’ fan’s mind is will Buffalo trade for a capable backup goalie?
Rumor has it that Marty Biron will find himself back in a Sabres’ uniform shortly after the Olympic break.
Patrick Lalime has had his chances with Buffalo, and has just not been a reliable backup for the ever-consistent Miller.
He has shown brilliant flashes here and there—a 39-save effort in a 2-1 win over Chicago Blackhawks in December—but he's been too unpredictable to remain as Miller’s No. 1 support.
There's no doubt that Miller will need a little rest upon his return from the Vancouver Olympics, especially during a month where the Sabres will play 16 games in 31 days. Biron is the type of goalie who can play two or three games in a row to give Miller well-needed rest.
And let’s not forget Biron played his first 11 seasons in Buffalo where he was well-liked by the team and fans.
Don’t expect Biron to go on an 11-game win streak like he did in the 2005-06 season, but expect Buffalo to be much better with a qualified backup like the former Sabre in net.
As I’ve suggested before, Craig Rivet needs to be replaced as the Sabres’ captain.
It has been quite a while since Rivet has led by example—or at all for that matter–and now it's being noticed by head coach Lindy Ruff.
Ruff benched Rivet in a game against Boston before the Olympic break.
“There’s times where if you're struggling as a player and you're hurting the team, you can’t play as much,” Ruff told the Buffalo News. “We’re desperate to win. You have to play the guys that are going the best. He was having a tough night.”
Rivet is averaging just 19:06 of ice time every game—his lowest totals since the 2001-02 season. In his last 25 games, Rivet has been a plus-1 or better just three times.
Paul Gaustad, Tim Connolly, and even rookie Tyler Myers are all potential replacements for the struggling Rivet.
Maybe age is a factor, but maybe it’s not. Rivet’s constant turnovers, slow skating, and poorly timed pinches leave Ruff with few options.
But it appears that the best option would be to replace the current captain with a player who can lead every night—both on, and off the ice.
Tyler Ennis, Nathan Gerbe, and Mike Weber are all waiting for their chance in the NHL.
Ennis played his first NHL game in November against the Flyers. He scored his first NHL goal in the same game.
Gerbe, the defending AHL Rookie of the Year and Hobey Baker Award finalist, has played two games so far this season for the Sabres. He has two points in those games and recorded his first NHL goal in a big 3-0 victory over the league-leading Washington Capitals back in December.
Weber hasn’t gotten a shot with the Sabres yet this year, which is a huge surprise to me. In the 2007-08 season he played 16 games with Buffalo, and was a plus-12 overall.
With an offense that has struggled as of late, Ennis and Gerbe would be just what the head coach ordered. Ennis has 53 points in 53 games, and Gerbe has 28 points in 30 games.
Given the inconsistent play from guys like Rivet, Steve Montador, Toni Lydman, and Chris Butler on defense, Weber should have gotten his chance already. Weber's in the final year of his contract with Buffalo, and has been waiting patiently behind players like Nathan Paetsch and Olympian, Andrej Sekera.
But these kids have proven themselves so far, so give ‘em a shot.
Amidst the Sabres’ recent six-game losing skid, Ruff decided to start switching lines around in what was considered a “panic move.”
Over the course of the past few seasons, mixing lines up has only caused more problems. Ruff should be sticking with the lines that got the Sabres to the top of the Northeast division.
The first line should consist of Connolly, Jason Pominville, and Clarke MacArthur. The second line should be that of Derek Roy, Thomas Vanek, and the struggling Drew Stafford.
The third line is probably the most underrated line on the team, especially since it is more of a defensive line. At the beginning of the year, Gaustad was centering Olympian Jochen Hecht, and defensive specialist Mike Grier.
With Patrick Kaleta hurt, the Sabres will continue to use Matt Ellis and Adam Mair in his place. Therefore, assuming nobody gets called up, the fourth line should be comprised of Ellis, Mair, and Tim Kennedy.
Kaleta’s return to the lineup is very important for all four lines to work, especially since Buffalo is a team that relies on all of them to win.
Regardless of who is on what line, Ruff needs to stop changing things around and be patient with the lines that started the season.
There are several teams with some rough schedules ahead of them, but Buffalo’s is among the worst in the league. Here are some scheduling stats for you.
The Sabres have 16 games in 31 days in March, and six games in 11 days in April. Five of the six games in April are away.
They also have six back-to-back games. So far this season, the Sabres are 12-8-4 in back-to-back games.
Of the 22 games remaining, just 10 are against teams that are currently in a playoff spot in either conference.
All of this information supports the idea that the Sabres will need a capable backup goaltender for the remainder of the regular season, otherwise, Miller will be even busier than he was during the first half.
It was also obvious that Buffalo’s defensemen were beginning to tire prior to the Olympic break. Assuming the Sabres clinch a playoff spot relatively early, it might be a good idea to give Sekera—although he should be starting already—Paetsch, Weber, and even Marc-Andre Gragnani some time on the blue line to give their defense a rest.
The same concept with the defense should apply to the forwards if they begin to tire before the playoffs as well.
The rest of the season isn’t going to be easy for the Sabres, but taking care of everything mentioned on this list should help.