Last year's division champions are looking for a repeat performance this season. The roster is somewhat retooled, and by bringing back the key pieces, they seem ready for the challenge.
The Buffalo Sabres open their season with a challenge right away, facing the Ottawa Senators this Friday. Are they ready to bust through the force field that the Senators have seemingly put around themselves since the 2005-06 season?
It's possible, and not only do the Sabres have to get through the Senators (playing six games, might I add), they must also get through the rest of their 76 games against the other 28 teams in the NHL, as well.
Offseason Losses: D Toni Lydman (Anaheim Ducks), D Henrik Tallinder (New Jersey Devils), F Adam Mair (Free Agency), F Tim Kennedy (Bought Out), F Raffi Torres (Vancouver Canucks)
Offseason Gains: F Rob Niedermayer (New Jersey Devils), D Shaone Morrisonn (Washington Capitals), D Jordan Leopold (Pittsburgh Penguins)
Last Season: The Buffalo Sabres were not the likely pick to win the division last year, but that's just what they did. Behind the stellar play of Ryan Miller and a fairly underrated defense, the Sabres were able to win games late, something they weren't able to do in two seasons prior to that. The team seemingly learned how to win. They never lost a game in the regular season leading after two periods of play, something they weren't able to carry into the playoffs against the Bruins.
Forwards: The Sabres bring back their usual faces, adding veterans (Rob Niedermayer) and rookies (Tyler Ennis and Nathan Gerbe) alike. The Sabres are continuously adding more toughness to their team through the additions of Niedermayer and Cody McCormick to go along with the already tough Paul Gaustad, Patrick Kaleta, and Mike Grier.
They're also looking for more scoring from the rookies in Gerbe and Ennis. Ennis brings a ton of skill to the Sabres' top six, if he cracks the top six at least. For right now, Ennis and Gerbe will likely end up on the third line due to stellar preseason performances by Drew Stafford and Derek Roy. Jochen Hecht may find himself the odd man out to move down should the top six fail to generate any chemistry, with Tyler Ennis comfortably stepping into the fold. Ennis was the Sabres leading scorer in the playoffs last year, playing on the top two lines and the power play.
Adam Mair should not be missed too badly, as Cody McCormick could add more of, but not much of, a scoring presence on the fourth line. Thomas Vanek will need to shake off a bad season and play like the 40-goal scorer he is. Jason Pominville is a liability in the beginning parts of the season, but seems to find his game closer to the end of it all.
Defense: The Sabres suffered two defensive losses this summer with the departures of Henrik Tallinder and Toni Lydman. However, Darcy Regier filled the vacancies with equally, possibly better, talented players.
Jordan Leopold may give the Sabres a powerplay quarterback they've been searching for since Brian Campbell left. Shaone Morrisonn gives the Sabres a shutdown defenseman they've been lacking since Jay McKee departed in 2006. Tyler Myers hopes to avoid a sophomore slump after a stellar rookie season in which he won the Calder Trophy. Mike Weber could finally step up and upgrade the Sabres defense that has seen Andrej Sekera and Chris Butler alternating the past season due to neither player wanting to beat out the other for a roster spot. The defense will be carrying eight players this season.
Goaltending: Not much to explain here. Vezina Trophy winner Ryan Miller returns with his partner in crime, Patrick Lalime. You know what to expect with Lalime: a guy who looks like he plays about once a month. While I don't agree with the resigning of Lalime, Ryan Miller and the rest of the locker room love the guy. I say if Miller wants him around, keep him around.
Still, it would be nice to see Jhonas Enroth get some time up with the big club to see what the 2006 second rounder has in terms of skill. His positioning needs some work, but he could just be another goalie that the Sabres seemingly have no trouble finding.
Depth Chart: Here's what the lines should shape up to be on opening night:
Line 1: Vanek-Roy-Stafford
Line 2: Hecht-Connolly-Pominville
Line 3: Ennis-Niedermayer-Grier
Line 4: Kaleta-Gaustad-McCormick
Pair 1: Morrisonn-Myers
Pair 2: Leopold-Montador
Pair 3: Rivet-Butler
Goalies: Ryan Miller, Patrick Lalime
Extras: Nathan Gerbe, Mike Weber, Andrej Sekera
Ridiculously Early 2010-11 Final Standing: 1st in the Northeast, 3rd in the East
Possible Candidates for End-Of-Season Trophies: G Ryan Miller (Vezina), F Tyler Ennis (Calder), D Tyler Myers (Norris), F Jason Pominville (Lady Byng)
Captaincy Watch: Don't be shocked if Craig Rivet loses his captaincy midseason due to his imminent departure at the end of next season. Rivet is a great locker room guy, but with the shift of captaincy going to players who lead by example (i.e. Johnathan Toews, Sidney Crosby), Rivet might not be the best fit for that mold.
Possible candidates are Jason Pominville, Thomas Vanek, or Tyler Myers. However, Myers is the most unlikely. A wildcard could be Paul Gaustad.
Summary: There's no reason this team can't repeat for the division. All the key pieces are back, and they've even brought in more veterans like Niedermayer to go along with guys like Mike Grier and Craig Rivet to steer these young guys in the right direction.