Buffalo Sabres 2011-2012 Season Preview

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Buffalo Sabres 2011-2012 Season Preview

The emotions ran high on that cold February night when Terry Pegula walked out to an ovation like none other, taking the reigns of a team that had broken hearts for so long. One emotion in particular was seeping out of the building that night: hope. The hope that finally the die hard fans of Buffalo would have a die hard owner doing everything he could.

Almost instantly, Buffalo became Pegulaville. The man may be worth billions, but he will never buy a drink in Buffalo again and he hasn't even delivered on his promise for a Stanley Cup yet.

But as always, the doubt crept in. How much could one man really do? Yes, he says that making money on the team wasn't of any interest to him, but we heard that before right? Tom Golisano saved the Sabres. And for that, the rest of Buffalo and I should be forever grateful. But he was more concerned about lining his pockets than hoisting a Stanley Cup.

Then came the trade deadline, a day usually laden with disappointment for Buffalo fans. But for the first time, unshackled, Darcy Regier pulled off a trade that made a lot of sense, bringing Brad Boyes into the fold for a second-round pick in the draft. 

This trade never would have happened BT, or Before Terry. To take on $4 million of salary? The Sabres? No. Never. Right? Wrong. 

And opinions on Boyes have been polarizing, which I'll address in more detail later, but it showed that things really could be different.

And then came the heart breaking loss in the playoffs when it seemed we had them on the ropes. But, those Philadelphia players didn't take credit for the win. In fact, many said they couldn't believe they pulled it out because, in their honest opinions, the better team wasn't moving on. A belief that showed in the Bruins' drubbing of them in four games the very next round.

And then came the trade deadline. The energy coming out of Buffalo could have powered the Eastern Seaboard for a year, and no, that's not including Niagara Falls. It all started with the acquisition of Robyn Regehr, the shut down defenseman Lindy Ruff has been craving for years. Then came the Christian Ehrhoff saga, which ended in a very good payday for him, and a power play quarterback for the team. Next came Ville Leino and his amazing puck control skills, penalty killing abilities and amazing playoff beard. Who were these guys?

In short, they're not the same Sabres that you've known. And that is why the rest of the NHL should be on notice. So what can we expect from these Sabres?

The lines are pretty well rumored to be as follows:

For the forward lines:

Vanek—Roy—Stafford

Ennis—Leino—Pominville

Gerbe—Gaustad—Boyes

Hecht—McCormick—Kaleta/Ellis

And the defense:

Regehr—Myers

Ehrhoff—Leopold

Weber—Gragnani/Sekera

Let the debate begin on those, the most obvious starting point being Derek Roy versus Ville Leino on the first line. I think Roy initially wins out on familiarity alone because I believe Leino will eventually take his place and be more effective. 

Derek Roy is an excellent hockey player, but he is not a number one center. Using what he's been given the past few years, Ruff has had to use him as such, but I think his spot there is not far from being usurped. 

Also, do not be surprised to see Roy lose time on the first team power play. The power play was exponentially better when Roy was injured in late December. Tyler Ennis showed more composure and was 10 times less turnover prone than Roy has ever been on the half wall. With the addition of Ehrhoff, look for Roy to take over the second unit.

Another major debate is the role Brad Boyes will play on this team in the future. Many seem to believe Boyes is on the trading block given the aforementioned $4 million cap hit and his "lack of production." Let me just take you back to what Boyes did in the regular season when he wasn't manning the pivot. Twenty-one games, five goals, 14 points. Do a little math, and had Boyes played with the Sabres all 82 games, he would have scored 56 points, an amount that would have put him second on the team. 

Boyes is not a center. He struggled in the Philadelphia series, yes. But on the wing he has 40-goal potential. Boyes will only improve as he gets an entire preseason to become familiar with Ruff's systems, especially the power play. He's not the player that needs to go.

That is Jochen Hecht. At $3.5 million, Hecht is carrying the cap number that would just about bring the Sabres back to the right side of the salary cap line. He also showed an aptitude for getting hurt last year. Now, in all honesty, I don't think we'd be able to get a practice cone for Jochen Hecht. He's 34 years old and missed 15 games last year. Simply put, I don't believe that he will be able to beat out the likes of Zach Kassian or Marcus Foligno in training camp this year. 

With one of those in the fold, and likely Luke Adam, the third of the Sabres' seemingly NHL-ready prospects, the Sabres third and fourth lines get younger, speedier and even more skilled. 

This doesn't even factor in the improvements made on the defensive side of the team. Regehr instantly adds a level of grit and toughness the team hasn't had in years. Ehrhoff has the puck-moving ability the Sabres' power play greatly needs, never mind his stout defensive play. 

The young, budding stars the team boasts on the back end are impressive, starting with Mike Weber. In 58 games, Weber showed his stud-like potential, scoring 17 points and posting an impressive plus-13 rating. Supplemented by a strong playoff performance, Weber has the ability to crack the top four by the end of the season. 

Marc-Andre Gragnani showed his offensive prowess in the playoffs, scoring seven points in seven games. This has gotten the Sabres faithful jumping on his bandwagon in droves. Gragnani has the ability to push the puck up the ice and has begun to show his defensive abilities as well. He has effectively made Shaone Morrisson useless and has made Andrej Sekera expendable. 

Speaking of expendable, there have been rumors of another Calgary-Buffalo deal in the works. This has led to a lot of names being thrown around, including Jarome Iginla. While I'm highly skeptical of such a move, especially given the two teams' cap positions, I would not be surprised to hear the names of Sekera and Hecht being thrown around. 

All in all, the Sabres are in a much better position than a year ago. They're only a few pieces away from being the type of contenders the Canucks or the Capitals are on paper, and have the ability to push deep into the playoffs. 

Just think, they were 4-1-1 against the Stanley Cup champion Bruins last year. Now with a team that has only gotten better, there is plenty of reason to be excited in Buffalo this season. 44 days.

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