2007-2008 would leave a bad taste in the mouths of Sabres fans.
After watching their co-captains, Daniel Briere and Chris Drury, bolt from the Sabres for the Atlantic Division, the outrage of fans became electric among message boards and around the water cooler.
In fact, during the 2008 National Lacrosse League championship when the Buffalo Bandits took home their fourth title in franchise history, the mention of Larry Quinn saw an array of boos coming from the sold out crowd of HSBC Arena.
The Sabres became only the third team to go from winning the President’s Cup to golfing in April, finishing with a 39-31-12 record leaving them 10th in the conference. There was much blame to be placed around the team, from Ryan Miller starting 76 games to the disappearance of left winger Thomas Vanek for the first half of the season.
The expected bright spot of the season, the Winter Classic, held at Ralph Wilson Stadium in Orchard Park, turned sour. The Sabres lost 2-1 in a shootout when Sidney Crosby beat Ryan Miller to end the classic. It would then become worse in February, as all-star defensemen Brian Campbell was shipped at the deadline for right winger Steve Bernier and a first round selection in the 2008 draft.
While Bernier exploded in the first game against the Nashville Predators, he was unable to continue the hot streak, and disappeared from the score sheet altogether for the remainder of the season.
Heading into the off-season, the Sabres started by dropping the Rochester Americans as their AHL affiliate. The twenty-nine year relationship turned sour once the Florida Panthers joined the affiliation. The team, seeking their own farm club, went to Portland, Maine, and the Portland Pirates became the teams new affiliate.
Luckily for Pirates fans, they will have some exciting players to watch in the 2008-09 season.
The Sabres signed college stars Nathan Gerbe and Tim Kennedy to entry-level deals. Gerbe, at 5'5, was a standout at Boston College, helping them win the NCAA Championship this past season. Kennedy had a good season for Michigan State, collecting 20 goals and 43 points for the Spartans last season. The team also signed defensemen Chris Butler from Colorado. A steady defensemen, Butler should take a couple years to develop in Portland before cracking Buffalo's rotation.
The team also signed goaltender Jhonas Enroth to a entry-level deal. With the Sodertalje SK of the Swedish Elite League last season, Enroth finished with a 2.13 Goals Against Average and a .932 save percentage. Though undersized as a goalie at 5'10, Enroth has the potential to develop as a steady NHL netminder. With Ryan Miller locked up for the next five years, Enroth should take time to develop his game in Portland.
The team started the fireworks early on July 4th. General Manager Darcy Regier decided to trade Bernier, acquired in the Campbell deal, to the Vancouver Canucks for a 2009 third round pick and 2010 second round selection. The Sabres had a surplus of right wingers, and Bernier was expected to receive an offer sheet of $2.5 million, hardly worth it considering he only put up 32 points last season.
A few hours later, Regier made the big move, much to the joy of the fans, acquiring defensemen Craig Rivet from the San Jose Sharks for a 2009 second rounder and the same second rounder acquired in the Bernier deal. Rivet is a veteran defenseman who's tough and reliable. Rivet was named the captain for the Sabres to begin the 2008-09 season, and should be paired up with Jaroslav Spacek.
The team also picked up Patrick Lalime to replace backup Joceyln Thibault. The former Ottawa Senators netminder, Lalime, 34, is coming off a rebound season as the backup for the Chicago Blackhawks. He posted a 16-12-2 record, with a 2.82 Goals Against Average. He should spell Miller for 20-25 games this season.
The team signed Mathieu Darche off free agency. The 32-year old winger is a career minor leaguer who played in 73 games last season for the San Jose Sharks, scoring 7 goals and adding 15 assists. He's a reliable veteran and will start the season in Portland. His veteran skills will be a help with the development of some of the players in Portland.
The final pickup was Matt Ellis off the waiver wire. The Welland, Ontario native should fit in the same role that Mike Ryan had last season. Ellis has shown a decent scoring touch in the American Hockey League, and is a grinding forward in the NHL. He had 8 points last season splitting the season between the Detroit Red Wings and Los Angeles Kings.
The team lost Ryan, Thibault, Dmitri Kalinin, and Nolan Pratt in the off-season. Although Kalinin was the Sabres first round selection in the 1998 draft, he failed to live up to his promise. A turnover machine, Kalinin was openly criticzed by head coach Lindy Ruff about his ability. Kalinin signed a one-year deal with the New York Rangers to fill as a 6th defensemen on the club.
Pratt played the role as the seventh defensemen. While he showed his smarts on the ice, his physical talents lacked NHL ability. Nathan Paetsch, who was the 6th defensemen all last season, is expected to take over as the seventh defensemen this season.
The team is looking to make the playoffs this season. Lindy Ruff is entering his eleventh season behind the Sabres bench. His current coaching record is 397-302-78-43, and will be joined by assistants James Patrick and Brian McCutcheon. Kevin Dineen will serve as the head coach for the Portland Pirates this season.
The Sabres depth at Center is above average. They will be missing Paul Gaustad for the first couple weeks of the season, as he is one of the premier face-off men in the NHL. Derek Roy is arguably the Sabres best center, and he is once again expected to log big minutes this season. Roy had a career high 32 goals and 49 assists last season, while having a very good face-off percentage at 51.2%.
During training camp, Roy was paired with Thomas Vanek and Maxim Afinogenov, suggesting a return to the RAV line, which was a top line in the 2006-2007 season. Roy can play the power play and penalty kill, and is still improving every season. Despite his reputation as a diver, Roy has the respect of his teammates and fans for his effort and his consistency.
The biggest question will be Tim Connolly. Connolly has played in only 50 games over the last two seasons, and is in a contract year. Connolly showed he has great playmaking ability after the lockout, but injures have prevented him from becoming one of the NHL's elite. His health will be something to watch this season, as it could decide his fate as a Sabre in 2009.
Gaustad is one of the best faceoff men in the game, mentioned above. He was rewarded with a new four year contract from the club after having a career high in points (36) last season. While Gaustad can be a physical player, he must continue to do it on a game to game basis. Gaustad will most likely be the third line center, but wingers Jochen Hecht and Ales Kotalik can also step in if needed.
Adam Mair is the fourth liner. After suffering a concussion during the 2005-06 season, it was a worry if Mair would ever return to his gritty form. But thanks to the addition of winger Patrick Kaleta, Mair has returned to form as being a pest and gritty player like the team hoped. Mair can also play right wing, and is a "do anything for the team" guy.
In the minors, the team has Gerbe along with Marek Zagrapan. Zagrapan is in the final year of his entry level deal, and must impress if he wants to get time in the NHL. Zagrapan improved on his AHL numbers last season, but nearly 45% of his points came during a hot steak. He has done well in training camp, but must translate that into the regular season in hopes of a call-up.
The addition of Ellis, mentioned above, should mean that hired muscle Andrew Peters won't see the ice much this season. While Ellis is expected to fill his role on the fourth line, the team has good depth at left wing, and the re-signing of Daniel Paille should continue the depth for years to come. But the big face of the left wingers is Thomas Vanek.
Vanek is coming off a sub-par season which he scored only 36 goals, down from the 43 from last season. A good sign, however, was that most of those goals were scored during the second half of the season. Vanek, who signed a seven year offer sheet that was matched by Buffalo, must show that he's worth the money. The kick in the butt from last season should allow for Vanek to reach his potential, as it showed in the 2006-07 season after Ruff benched him in the 06 playoffs in favor of Taylor Pyatt. With him expected to reunite with Roy and Afinogenov, Vanek should reach forty goals without a problem.
The quiet but workmanlike Jochen Hecht is the type of player that is a welcome addition to any club. Hecht reached the 20-goal plateau for the first time in his career last season, finishing with 22 goals and 49 points. It's expected that Hecht will also play some center this season, not surprising considering he's the best defensive forward on the club. He'll likely be paired up with Connolly and Jason Pominville, and should see 40 points this season.
Former first round pick Daniel Paille had a very good season last year, notching 19 goals and 35 assists. The results? A new contract. Paille should expand on those numbers, and will be key as a grinding 2nd-3rd line winger. His effort last season did not go unnoticed with fans. Paille is expected to play with Gaustad and Ales Kotalik this season.
Rounding off the left wingers is Clarke MacArthur. The young winger has spent the last two seasons going between Buffalo and Rochester, and is looking to find a home with the Sabres. While he has shown a scoring touch in both the NHL and AHL, his defensive play leaves little to be desired. MacArthur should see some playing time early this season with Gaustad out of the lineup, and must impress the club if he wants a spot on the team permanently.
In the minors, the team has Darche, Kennedy and Dylan Hunter as possible call-ups. Hunter, the son of ex-NHLer Dale Hunter, has progressed decently since he joined the Sabres organization in 2006. Hunter should see decent minutes while in Portland, but time is running out on his chance to be a regular NHLer. A good season this year may allow him for consideration as a possible Sabre.
The loss of Steve Bernier did not affect the Sabres much at all. The team enters the year with five solid wingers, in the form of Afinogenov, Kaleta, Kotalik, Pominville, and Drew Stafford. Playing time will come hard for the young Kaleta, who may even see time with the Portland Pirates this season. Afinogenov may not even see the end of the season for the club, with numerous rumors surrounding his possible departure. However, the team's top right winger is Jason Pominville.
Three years ago, Jason Pominville was waived by the Buffalo Sabres. Now, with a new contract in hand, Pominville is the Sabres best right winger. Despite people claiming Pominville was a product of Daniel Briere, Pominville had a career high in points with 80 last season. An underrated defender, Pominville has seen time on the penalty kill as well as the power play. Pominville will be a critical part of the teams future, and should reach 30 goals for the second time in his career.
Afinogenov may be in the final year as a Sabre, but he'll be looking to bounce back on a poor 2007-2008 campaign. Afinogenov mustered only 10 goals in 56 games, and saw himself playing on the fourth line at years end. Afinogenov has always shown flashes of brilliance, but has been unable to continue it on a year-to-year basis. The reformation of the RAV line should help Afinogenov return to form, and maybe earn himself a new contract with the club.
Fans were disappointed with the sophomore season of Drew Stafford. Stafford managed 38 points in 64 games, and should improve on those numbers again. Stafford looked disinterested at times, which prevented him from reaching his true ability. Known to stick up for teammates whenever, Stafford is well-liked by many in the organization. Stafford should see time this season on any line, but should get at least 15 minutes a night.
Ales Kotalik is in the final year of his deal, and should round up the top four. Kotailk has the ability to play the left wing or center position in a pinch, and provides a good bang for the buck. Kotalik had 23 goals last season, and should be around there this season. His lack of effort has caused him to receive heat from the fans, as he shows shades of former Sabre Jason Dawe all over again. Kotalik will need a big year if he wants to cash in on the free agent market.
Patrick Kaleta rounds up group. The pest and Buffalo native has a mean streak and doesn't shy away from showing it. Known for his electric hits, everyone knows when Kaleta hits the ice, good things happen. He can chip in a few goals this season, but he may see time in Portland due to the influx of right wingers in the system.
In the minors is Mark Mancari. The player whom some fans have developed a love affair for, led the Americans in scoring last season with 57 points. However, at 6'4, he doesn't use his body as much as he should, and hasn't impressed the Sabres staff as a possible NHLer. He will begin the season in Portland, and may see a call-up depending on injures.
With Rivet in there, the team is expected to carry seven defensemen. After leaving a good impression on the team last year, Andrej Sekera will join the crops and be a full-time player. The team returns Spacek, Paetsch, Toni Lydman, Henrik Tallinder, and Teppo Numminen from last season.
Spacek is expected to be the key to the Sabres defense once again this season. After signing a three-year deal in 2006, Spacek was the Sabres best defensemen in 2007-2008, scoring 9 goals and adding 23 assists. He worked well with what he had, and is a very good skater. While his shot has more to be desired, Spacek is a decent option on the power play.
Toni Lydman is our Finnish answer to Jay McKee in terms of physical play. He is somewhat slow to foot, and won’t produce much on offense, but Lydman will block shots and clear traffic in front of the net. He has mental lapses at times, but he won’t make the fatal mistakes like Kalinin or former Sabres defensemen Rory Fitzpatrick did.
The Sabres had to be disappointed with the effort provided by Henrik Tallinder last season. While he has shown that he could be a top line defensemen, his recent injures have set him back. Tallinder plays as if he doesn’t want to get hurt again, and the grit he developed after the lockout has vanished. He is decent with moving the puck, but he’ll need to not worry about getting injured if he ever wants to fill out his potential.
After missing all but one game last season, it appears Teppo Numminen is back. The 40-year old defenseman is entering his 19th NHL season and his fourth with the Sabres, and he’ll be expected to provide leadership and be a mentor to Sekera. Numminen still can provide decent offense, and will have to rely on his smarts rather than his ability if he wants to get through the season. Since he won’t be paired with Kalinin, Numminen should have a decent season with the club.
To round out the top six is the young Andrej Sekera. After looking lost in his 2 game call-up during the 2006-2007 season, Sekera spilt the season with Rochester and Buffalo last season, and showed the talent the Sabres saw when they drafted Sekera in 2004. Sekera is a finesse defenseman that has the smarts to be a solid number two defensemen in the NHL. He’s not afraid to use the body, and should break out this season.
The man that will be seeing time in the Press Box will be Nathan Paetsch. After coming strong during the 2006-2007 season, the defensemen took a step back last season and he was exposed for his defensive shortcomings. Paetsch would usually get burned on plays, and more often than not, he’d look confused out there. He’ll need an all-out effort to show he belongs, or he could be possibly placed on waivers in hopes another team claims him.
In the minors, the Sabres have Butler, Mike Weber, Mike Funk, and Mike Card. Weber was a pleasant surprise for the club, he didn’t look out of place in 16 NHL contests last year. He uses the body well, is defensive minded, and isn’t afraid to drop the gloves. He looks like a young Craig Rivet, and should get another few games in Buffalo this season. Funk and Card are fringe prospects, and this may be their last shot to show what they have. Funk may have an upper hand due to getting a call-up last season, but both need a good season to stay on the radar.
Ryan Miller is the face of the franchise. The 28-year old goaltender signed a five-year extension to remain in Buffalo and is ready to put last season behind him. He played a Sabres record 76 games, and it showed in his game. The hybrid goaltender allowed soft goals during the stretch when it appeared he needed a rest. While he’s known to allow a squeaker in here and there, Miller will stop the tough shots and will save the defense when they have a breakdown. Some rest will allow Miller to have a campaign similar to his 2006-2007 season.
With Lalime as the backup, the Pirates will benefit from having Jhonas Enroth. If Enroth plays solid early, he could push Miller for playing time, or become possible trade bait. The expected backup in Portland will be Adam Dennis. Dennis has struggled due to having a weak Americans team to play in front of last season, and still has room to become a decent AHL goaltender.
The Sabres play in the tough Northeast Division, and a division crown appears out of the question. The Montreal Canadiens and Boston Bruins made significant changes in the off-season to put them over the top, and the Ottawa Senators are always a threat. The Sabres will have a difficult time against their division foes this season, but they have one of the best offenses in the league.
The blue line will be the Achilles Heel of the team. If the team can at least keep the shots to the minimum, it should allow for Miller and Lalime to have a good season, which should give them a playoff spot.
Thomas Vanek should rebound from his so-so season last year, and the defense should hold up enough to allow the Sabres to grab the seventh position in the Eastern Conference and a possible first round matchup against the winner of the Atlantic Division.