It is October 6, and everyone is already passing over Buffalo—the two-time Eastern Conference Finalist in the past three years.
But yet everyone is looking at them this year like they are nothing. I pose the question, "Why?"
This team lost few players this offseason. They got a solid veteran defenseman who can play both ways in Craig Rivet, and will also gain Teppo Numminen, who missed all but the final game last season.
After letting Chris Drury and Daniel Briere go for nothing two years ago, they reversed that trend and signed key guys like Jason Pominville, Paul Gaustad—and most importantly, Ryan Miller—to long-term contracts for the next several years.
Offensively, this team should become even better once they finally realize they all have to contribute—not expect one or two players to do all the work.
They were fourth in goals for last year in the entire league, with Derek Roy, Pominville, and Thomas Vanek combining for 95 of the 251 goals scored. However they were 22nd in goals allowed—but that is expected to improve, with the additions of Numminen and Rivet, and the added year of experience for players such as Andrej Sekera and Nathan Paestch.
Teppo was plus-17 in the 2006-07 campaign, while Craig Rivet was just plus-three—which would have put him tied for third for defenseman who played more than 50 games with Paestch.
While the defensemen overall will be good, there will be some growing pains in adjusting from Brian Campbell to Craig Rivet as their primary point defenseman (along with Jaroslav Spacek).
The goaltending situation as a whole is also expected to be much better, with Ryan Miller no longer having to worry about his contract situation. He can also feel more confident with the guys in front of him, as all the key players are locked up and more solid defensemen have been brought in.
There will also be less pressure on Miller to play 76 of 82 games again this year, as former star-goalie Patrick Lalime was signed to a two-year, $2 million dollar contract. If Lalime regains his form from his Ottawa days, this team will have a scary one-two punch in the crease—similar to Giguere and Bryzgalov in Anaheim.
This team a year ago finished just four points out of the playoffs—DESPITE losing 12 of 13 games from the end of December to mid-January.
But last I checked the Sabres do have Lindy Ruff behind the bench once again. He will not allow another collapse like that December-January stretch last year.
I fully expect Buffalo to be in the playoffs, perhaps as high as fifth—although my guess would be sixth, as the Rangers, Flyers, and Penguins will be in a dogfight all year for the Atlantic Division crown.