Last season, it wasn't until March 6th that the Buffalo Sabres jumped into the Eastern Conference's playoff picture for good. For the first 150 days of the 2010-2011 NHL season before March 6th, the Sabres were outside of the top eight for all but three of them—the first three days of the year.
Suddenly, though, the Sabres had finally cracked the ice and were off and running in the postseason field. Buffalo finished the season with a 9-1-2 record from March 19th on and eventually slid past the New York Rangers for the No. 7 seed. The Sabres then took a 3-2 series lead in their quarterfinals matchup against the then-defending Conference Champion Philadelphia Flyers before falling in Games 6 and 7.
This summer, owner Terry Pegula opened up the bank account for spending of all sorts, and general manager Darcy Regier decided to take the opportunity and pour cash into a team that he hoped would soon turn into a Stanley Cup contender. And, in our minds, he's done exactly that.
Regier was able to make an impressive handful of trades and signings he wouldn't have been able to do without the support of Pegula, and, though he really did spend all the money he possibly could, was able to create an even better Sabres squad for the 2011-2012 season that truly has what it takes to go all the way. The past two seasons have certainly not been poor ones in upstate New York, but the upcoming year promises to be even more victory-laden than before...and here's why.
Note: This slideshow was Part 1 of a four-part series looking in-depth at a few specific teams who we believe have become new Stanley Cup contenders or new playoff teams with their offseason moves.
Part 2, portraying why the Florida Panthers will be a playoff team in '11-'12, can be found here. Part 3, looking at why the Los Angeles Kings are Cup contenders next season, can be read here. Part 4, stating our reasoning behind calling the St. Louis Blues a postseason team, is available here.
Assistant Captain Derek Roy has been a key part of the Sabres offense since their Eastern Conference Final run in '05-'06. Over a five-season span since then, he's scored 125 goals, including four 20-plus tally campaigns, 329 points and a plus-55 rating, including one plus-37 year. To add to his consistency, Roy missed just 25 games total, only five per season, over the entire half-decade.
Unfortunately, injury finally struck the 28-year-old winger this past season. A torn quad tendon in a game two days before Christmas resulted in a surgery that kept Roy out until he, at long last, returned on April 26th to play in the Sabres' season-ending game. Roy ended up with just 10 goals and 25 assists for the year, but was on pace, before being sidelined, to set a career best of 82 points (a point-per-game ratio).
A healthy return for Roy next fall would be a massive boost to the Sabres, who have just three forwards left, including Roy, that have remained on the team since their dynasty days in the two seasons directly following the lockout. A fresh 80-point full season for Roy in '11-'12 could not only get his career back on track but also launch a potential-laden Buffalo offense that was tied for 9th in goal-scoring last year even farther up the rankings.
The addition of Ville Leino—even with his controversially hefty contract—will, without a doubt, improve an increasingly powerful unit of top six forwards in Buffalo.
Leino's 19 goals and 53 points for Philadelphia last year was an extremely "pleasant surprise" for a player who's previous career best was seven points, and his even-more-impressive knack for playoff production, exemplified by his 10 tallies and 16 helpers over the past two postseasons, is an even bigger enticement to the Sabres.
Leino will join an optimistically-healthy Derek Roy as the top two centers on the roster and form a duo easily projectable to combine for 50 goals in '11-'12.
Thomas Vanek, the team's leading scorer in '10-'11 with 32 goals and 73 points, is also a lock for the top line and will likely be joined by hat trick specialist Drew Stafford, creating another pair of wingers that could combine for another 65-ish scores next season.
Jason Pominville, another typical 50-point scorer, should take a second line spot and leave the left wing open to, probably, 21-year-old Tyler Ennis, who just hit the 20-goal plateau for the first time.
All in all, it's not really a reach to project 170 or 180 goals out of that group, which would rank it without question among the best in the NHL. The talent they bring to the table should become a major factor in Buffalo's probable rise to the top of the conference.
This offseason was focused mostly on solidifying a fresh new defense for the team, which benefited last season from the skills of Ryan Miller as their backstop but wasn't anything special on it's own, ranking 17th in shots allowed.
Veterans Robyn Regehr, 31, and Christian Ehrhoff, 29, were acquired in trades from the Calgary Flames and Vancouver Canucks, respectively, and even though together they add over $8.0 million to the payroll, they will also add a lot more experience to a young defensive squad. The pair are as healthy as they come, having missed a total of nine games over the past two seasons, and will each fill a crucial role in the unit.
Regehr brings 867 regular and postseason appearances over 11 seasons, including seven straight without a negative plus/minus rating, to the table as well as plenty of physicality, having led the Flames in hits last season. That's something the Buffalo 'D', which ranked dead last in the category in '10-'11, desperately needs.
On the other hand, Ehrhoff has an impressive scoring touch from the blue line with a combined 34 goals and 94 points over the past two seasons combined. He can play on the powerplay and knows has a winning background, too, coming from a team like the 'Nucks.
Ehrhoff and Regehr will join fellow NHL vets Jordan Leopold and Shaone Morrisonn in Buffalo but will actually become part of a top-four unit headlined by ultra-talented Tyler Myers, the 2010 Calder Trophy winner. With the contributions of Andrej Sekera, Mike Weber, and Marc-Andre Gragnani all coming into their own, as well, the Sabres defense is prepared for a colossal improvement next year.
We've already mentioned quite a few of them, but the Sabres have one of the deepest collections of already prepared or soon-to-be-ready prospects in the league.
The 24-year-old Nathan Gerbe, 25-year-old Patrick Kaleta and the aforementioned 21-year-old Tyler Ennis make up a group of developing forwards that should, if they haven't already become top-nine staples in the next few seasons. More recent draft picks Zack Kassian (No. 13 overall in '09) and Luke Adam (44th overall in '08) should also see some NHL action during their upcoming campaigns.
Meanwhile, back on the blue line, Tyler Myers has already become a star at age 21 while AHL products Mike Weber, 23, Andrej Sekera, 25, and Marc-Andre Gragnani, 24, have all recently shown prominence at the top level after years of development in the farm system. Gragnani, though, could end up as trade bait with the Sabres' insanely deep defense and ridiculous $3.5 million in salary cap overage (according to CapGeek.com) fighting against his chances of re-signing as a restricted free agent (RFA).
In goal, 23-year-old Jhonas Enroth took over the backup job last winter and will be the goalie of the future once Ryan Miller, now 31, starts to age out.
With another season of experience on each of them, no matter where it'll be spent, the Sabres have a boatload of fully-prepared former prospects ready for roster jobs on Opening Day next October. Gerbe, Ennis and Sekera will prepare for their second NHL seasons while Weber and Kaleta hope to continue as full-time NHL-ers and Gragnani looks to build upon his March and April performances in his first occasion starting the year in the NHL...whether that's in Buffalo or not.
It's hard to deny that All-Star, world-class goaltending Ryan Miller is anything other than a netminder in the elite class of NHL goalies in this day and age. He might've been a part the Sabres team that's lost their first round playoff series for back-to-back years, but Miller's pure talent and skills—in the regular season and the playoffs—are just too good to overlook.
Miller, with his unrivaled 63.7 career winning percentage (not including overtime/shootout losses and ties), slipped a bit to a 34-22-3 record, .916 save percentage and 2.57 goals-against average (GAA) in '10-'11. When that's compared to his 41-18-13 season the previous year that came along with a .929 save percentage and 2.22 GAA, it looks mediocre at best. But when those most recent numbers are matched up against the typical starting goaltender, it begins to reveal exactly how dominant Miller is in his field.
The well-loved star goalie's supporting cast will also improve for the upcoming season. Former second round selection Jhonas Enroth was very reliable in his first NHL stint last season, going 9-2-2 with a 2.73 GAA, and proved himself a big improvement over his aged-out predecessor Patrick Lalime, who's been left without work this summer after posting an 0-5 record and .890 save percentage in '10-'11. Down with AHL Rochester, young David Leggio is another second-glance deserving prospect, while minor league veteran Drew MacIntyre provides some depth.
With Miller better positioned this time for another career-defining season, Buffalo should regain another piece to the puzzle of re-establishing themselves as legitimate Stanley Cup contenders. Of course, the other components we've already discussed won't hurt at all, either. Can they really make the jump in one year, though? Well, that's just yet to be seen.
Mark Jones is currently Bleacher Report's featured columnist and community leader for the NHL's Carolina Hurricanes . In his 34 months so far with the site, he has written over 295 articles and received more than 335,000 total reads.