As part of a continuing series, writer Benjamin Benya will be previewing all 30 NHL teams over the next two weeks in preparation for the 2010-2011 regular season.
Up next, the Buffalo Sabres.
Key Additions: D Jordan Leopold, C Rob Niedermayer, D Shaone Morrisonn, RW Tim Conboy.
Key Subtractions: D Henrik Tallinder, D Toni Lydman, LW Raffi Torrez, C Tim Kennedy.
The Buffalo Sabres once again proved that you can play with incredible heart and ferocity and win games in the NHL despite not having a single “superstar” in the ranks. Sure, Buffalo has had scorers step up at the right time, but last year, they created an all-new superstar thanks, in part, to the Winter Olympics.
A disappointing first round exit for the Sabres after winning the Northeast Division likely didn’t sit well with goalie Ryan Miller or head coach Lindy Ruff. So it was back to the drawing board in the offseason, making moves that would more or less keep the core of the team intact for another hopeful run.
Offensively, the Sabres have an impressive retention rate for nearly all their homegrown forwards. We are over a year removed from the dominant trio of Derek Roy, Jason Pominville, and Thomas Vanek providing all of the Buffalo scoring. Youth and experience has now made it a more collaborative effort.
This is not to say, of course, that these three aren’t as dynamic as ever. Thomas Vanek’s 28 goals last year were a far cry from previous 40-goal outings in which he really came on strong towards the end of the year. Vanek’s explosive potential and ability, including numerous three and four goal games over the past few years are perfect examples of what he can do.
Pominville and Roy, meanwhile, have both consistently produced in the 60-70 point range for the past two seasons and have a wonderful chemistry with one another. Pominville in particular should be noted for his all-around clean play, as he rarely finds the penalty box despite being gritty enough to fight for the rebound.
Buffalo’s ace-in-the-hole, however, is Tim Connolly, who the Sabres fought to keep for an extended period. Connolly is everything you can love about a top line center: he’s quick to the puck, has a great passing presence, and has decent size to screen a goalie. He hit career highs last year in both assists and points and looks to be adding more of a scoring touch as he ages.
Several other Buffalo players are lining the depth chart with breakout potential. Patrick Kaleta, Drew Stafford, Paul Gaustad, Tyler Ennis, and even the pint-sized Nathan Gerbe have shown that they could go off at any minute and provide the team with that little extra fire power.
Incorporate 33-year-old Jochen Hecht, coming off a decent 20-goal campaign, and Buffalo’s offense is as potent as it was when they had Chris Drury and Daniel Briere.
If defense wins championships, the Sabres must realize where their biggest weakness is. Once again this offseason, Buffalo watched as players who made the biggest impact for the team departed for larger salaries and contracts. In the past five years, the Sabres have cycled out D-men like Brian Campbell, Jaroslav Spacek, Dmitri Kalinin, and most recently, Henrik Tallinder and Toni Lydman, in an attempt to build another new foundation.
That foundation is, at the core, led by second year giant Tyler Myers. Last year’s Calder Trophy winner was everything you could want in a two-way defensemen. He scored goals and bruised bodies all while standing at 6’8” in a menacing Buffalo jersey. Myers still has a lot to learn at the NHL level, but to say he’s miles ahead of the curve would be a fair assessment.
Buffalo captain Craig Rivet will return for perhaps his last season this year as well. Rivet, 36, has seen his production decrease and his penalty minutes increase over the past three years, yet he’s still a valuable asset to the team due to his willingness to take the body and adjust to in-game situations. With an expiring contract and age factors setting in, Rivet may be up for one last hurrah.
The Sabres also brought in defensemen Shaone Morrisonn and Jordan Leopold to fill in the gaps left by Tallinder and Lydman. Morrisonn is a tough, stay-at-home type who is used to playing in a high-powered offensive unit from his days in Washington. Leopold, on the other hand, is a chronic underachiever that, if he can ever find his niche, has a huge upside.
As we said earlier, however, this team relies most heavily on the superstar play of goaltender Ryan Miller. Miller’s impact on the hockey world is still being felt after a stellar showing at the 2010 Winter Olympics, but his heroics in Buffalo were key in getting the Sabres back to the playoffs.
Miller is just about at the peak of his career, posting highs for wins (41), goals against average (2.22), and save percentage (.929, a ridiculously high figure) last season. While equaling those totals is indeed an arduous task, Miller plays best when he’s under immense pressure to perform.
Forward Tyler Ennis made a quick impact late in the NHL season this past year. Ennis has a more subtle approach than lumbering forwards who come before him. Considering he’ll be playing for a Buffalo team built on speed and skill, his game is contouring to the complete package.
The Sabres defense could take some time to mesh and if another scoring star doesn’t emerge, points will easily slip away. But Buffalo’s strength, and Ryan Miller in net, indicates that they’re due for another postseason rendezvous.
Second in the Northeast, Seventh in the Eastern Conference.