BT's 2008-09 NHL Season Preview: Buffalo Sabres

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BT's 2008-09 NHL Season Preview: Buffalo Sabres

Preface: I don't really have much to say on this one. I guess I'll start it off by saying the Buffalo Sabres jerseys remind me of a game of Rollerball.

Which is strange because I've never seen that movie.

Also, wouldn't it be neat if, before helmets, each player wore a different style of hat? Guy Lafleur was wearing a sombrero, Gordie Howe in a fedora, and Johnny Bower in a propeller-beanie—wouldn't that be sweet?

On second though, I'm probably just delirious from nearing the end of the previews...

 

The Buffalo Sabres have been an interesting team to watch. They were one of the NHL's most powerful teams coming out of the lockout, but their talent eventually caught up to them.

Like any talented team (except the Detroit Red Wings), the salary cap ravaged the organization's ability to hold on to all of their stars. In fact, the Sabres almost lost three top players before the 2007-08 season.

But as the cap was implemented, the "super long-term contract" was developed, which will help teams like the Sabres hold on to some of their more talented players.

 

Roster Additions: Patrick Lalime-G (F.A.), Craig Rivet-D (Trade)

Roster Subtractions:
Steve Bernier-F (Trade), Michael Ryan-F (Europe), Jocelyn Thibault-G (F.A.), Dmitri Kalinin-D (F.A), Nolan Pratt-D (F.A.)

How did 2007-08 go?
39-31-12, 90 points, 10th in conference, fourth in Northeast Division.

2008-09 Goal:
Second or third in Northeast, make the playoffs (sixth to eighth in conference).

 

Let's break'er down...

The Buffalo Sabres are one of the most overlooked teams talent-wise in the NHL. I guess it was just assumed that after they lost Daniel Briere and Chris Drury to free agency, they had nothing left.

Granted, last season was nothing like the past two years, but the Sabres are just a few steps behind where they were, and with the young talent preparing to step up, they could be back atop the division soon.

Well, at least before the Leafs will be—probably.

 

Pominville: It's more than just a city

The Sabres are a few years removed from having one of the most powerful offenses in the NHL. Back-to-back conference finals appearances seemed to imply a strong future for the franchise, but Chris Drury and Daniel Briere were soon lured away to other franchises, forcing the Sabres to build from within.

The Sabres' three key building blocks going forward are Derek Roy, Jason Pominville, and Thomas Vanek.

Roy had a huge season last year, becoming a 30-goal scorer for the first time in his career. Aside from that goal-scoring promise however, Roy is a balanced forward—he creates plays just as well as he finishes them. He's had back-to-back 40-assist seasons, and as he matures along with his teammates in this Buffalo offense, he could become a 90-point player within the next two seasons.

Just behind Roy production-wise last season was Jason Pominville. Pominville had a great season last year, really exploding on the playmaking side of things with 50 assists. Despite the increase, Pominville didn't lose any of his goal-scoring panache, potting 27 goals. Without the Brier-Drury hangover this season though, Pominville could be in line for a second career 30-goal season if the Sabres can start strong.

Then there's the $10 million, 24-year-old Thomas Vanek. After signing a huge offer sheet with the Edmonton Oilers—which was obviously matched by the Sabres—Vanek suffered a distinct falloff following a career year in 2006-07. Although he was still scoring goals (43 in 2006-07, 37 in 2007-08), Vanek had a little more trouble finding his linemates, tallying only 28 assists, culminating in just 64 points.

A year removed from that monstrosity of an offer sheet though, Vanek should be better acclimatized to the expectations he's going to face, forming a dangerously overlooked trio of youngsters.

From there, Jochen Hecht offers a solid second-line option for the Sabres. Hecht can provide the Sabres with a solid 50-point option down the middle.  He can also be a little dangerous if he goes unnoticed by opposing defenses, with 20-goal and 30-assist potential.

Speaking of unnoticed, Tim Connolly could be the king of unnoticed. Although his career has been a little bit of a gong show due to concussions, when he's been healthy, Connolly has been everything an NHL team could want from a secondary scoring option. He's a solid playmaker with speed, and if he stays healthy, he could easily be a 60- to 70-point player this season.

Maxim Afinogenov meanwhile, needs to prove that he's past last season's disappointment. Following two-straight 20-goal seasons, Afinogenov rolled over last season, posting a very subpar 28 points. Although he did struggle through an injured groin last season, Afinogenov still needs step it up this season and get back to that 60- or 70-point level to prove he can still be effective.

Ales Kotalik is another player for the Sabres who can be very effective this season. If he can hit his offensive stride consistently this season, he has the ability to put up a very proficient campaign. He's alternated years as a 20-goal scorer since 2002-03—and if the pattern is any indication, this will be Kotalik's down year. However, if Afinogenov steps up, it could be interesting to see if Kotalik can avoid his fall-off.

If Kotalik does slip up this season, Drew Stafford could push hard for more ice time. Stafford has consistently improved over the past two seasons, and his physical play could help him become a 20-goal scorer this season, and hit 50 points. If he can polish up his defensive game, though, the Sabres will definitely have a gem.

Daniel Paille also provides the Sabres with some quality depth. He can provide 40 points and 15 to 20 goals, while also offering a well-rounded game to help fill out the Sabres lineup.

Adam Mair is a good, hard-working fourth-line option, working alongside Patrick Kaleta to disrupt opponents' offensive game, while Andrew Peters' fists will certainly come in handy.

Paul Gaustad will be a player to watch coming off of a thumb injury—just to see if he can get back to his aggressive, solid-producing self quickly, or it takes a bit.

Clarke MacArthur's development will also be interesting to watch this season. In 37 games last season, MacArthur had just 15 points, which could be frustrating for him because he's never started very slowly at any level. If MacArthur works hard this season and shows some promise, then he could score 15 goals and 35 points—but the big thing is that he gets the time to do so.

 

Patrick Lalime had one too many Miller Genuine Drafts during his Ottawa Days

It's no surprise that Ryan Miller will be back between the pipes for the Buffalo Sabres this season.

The 28-year-old will be looking to post his fourth-straight 30-win season, following up last year's 36-win performance.

Last year really helped Miller's development as a starter though. For the first time in his career, he faced over 2000 shots (2,104), and he was able to lower his goals-against average from the year before (when he won 40 games) to 2.64.

The increased workload did have a bit of an effect on Miller, though, as his save-percentage dropped.  But Miller is just going to keep on getting better, and will continue to be a solid option in net for the Sabres.

Patrick Lalime, meanwhile, can do just what they need him to—be a solid backup when he's called upon. Despite his discouraging statistics over the past few seasons, Lalime will still be able to provide support for Miller when he needs a break from the action.

 

Is it truly a Rivet'ing' defense?

The newest face on the Sabres' defense this season is Craig Rivet, and the hope is that the veteran can bring a mature presence to the Sabres' back end.

Rivet has been around for a while, and he's proven to have the ability to play a variety of styles. Some years he'll be good for 30 to 35 points, while in others he'll just be a big, tough, physical presence.

The one thing that Rivet provides, though, is experience. He may not be a number-one defenseman, but he's certainly got some knowledge to impart to the members of this Buffalo blue line.

Teppo Numminen is another one of those guys who'll be really relied upon for his knowledge of the game. At the age of 40, he's certainly got experience—but he's also been off for an entire season following surgery on his heart.

Although he's been able to come back during the preseason, Numminen's role will be heavily reduced—not only because of his age, but because the former 40-point threat will have to get reacclimated to playing a full season.

Jaroslav Spacek—yet another veteran, at 34—could be very effective for the Sabres on the power play.  Although he's been fairly dependable in his own end during his NHL career (a career plus-23), Spacek turned in 22 of his 32 points last season with the man (or two-man) advantage.

Spacek's ability to reach the 40-point plateau once again—which he has probably passed, no matter what—will definitely depend on the mobility and the consistency of the forwards.  But either way the Sabres will have a strong presence working on the power play.

Former Calgary Flame Toni Lydman has certainly found his defensive stride with the Sabres. Although he's always been a 20- or 25-point threat, Lydman only posted one plus-season (+6) in his four with Calgary—that one season was preceded by a minus-eight bookended by two minus-7 seven.

In his three seasons with Buffalo post-lockout, though? Lydman is a plus-20. Sometimes a change of scenery just does the trick.

Henrik Tallinder has also started to develop into a really solid defensive defenseman over the past few seasons, and with the other offensive threats on the back end, Tallinder is free to concentrate in his own end.

Given more time at the NHL level, Nathan Paetsch will develop into an extremely well-rounded defenseman, able to play the body and put the puck in the net periodically. The Sabres are also bolstered by the sizeable Mike Weber, who could become a solid, low- to mid-pairing shutdown guy eventually.  Andrej Sekera could develop into a clutch offensive defenseman down the line as well, where he'll flourish if paired with a sold defensive-minded partner.

 

So what's it all mean?

The Sabres' defense may be a little old to keep up with some of the speed and physicality displayed in the Northeast, but the other pieces are all there.

Over the next few years, the Sabres will develop a very solid, very deep offense, and Ryan Miller will be there to stop the puck, with a group of dependable goalies behind him in the system (Jonathan Boutin, Adam Dennis).

Once those young defenseman really make the jump though—including the recently-returned Tyler Myers—the Sabres could be scary good once again.

The division may just be too deep this year, although they'll give it one hell of a shot.

 

Fourth in the Northeast


Bryan Thiel is an NHL Community Leader and Senior Writer for Bleacher Report. If you want to get in contact with Bryan you can do so through his profile, and you can also check out all of his previous work in his archives.

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