2013 NHL Season: 5 Things the Buffalo Sabres Need to Address
Now that all of this lockout nonsense is behind them, the Buffalo Sabres can finally look at the 2013 NHL season as a certainty. They hope to erase the memory of a terribly disappointing 2011-12. So what are some of the issues facing this team as it begins to prepare for the shortened campaign?
Besides the typical topics like goal-scoring and goaltending, the biggest question marks are surrounding the Sabres' psyche as a unit.
After the now-infamous Milan Lucic incident last year, Buffalo's tepid response made them the laughingstock of hockey.
They tried to save face later in the season, but at that point it seemed forced rather than genuine.
With that said, let's take a look at five things the Sabres need to address as they get ready for the start of training camp.
1. The Power Play
After finishing 16th in the NHL with the man-advantage last year, those numbers need to improve for a team that's not expected to light up the scoreboard.
Christian Ehrhoff and Marcus Foligno will be key to Buffalo's power-play effectiveness.
Ehrhoff is coming off a subpar season where his inaccuracy from the point was a glaring weakness in his game. Simply put, he needs to hit the net more.
And for as good as Thomas Vanek's hand-eye coordination is at tipping pucks, no opposing defenseman's intimidated by the thought of covering him.
Foligno, on the other hand, is a different story. He showed in a small pocket of games last year how he can dominate physically, so his presence on the first power-play unit should be a formality.
Buffalo will also look to Cody Hodgson for production, especially in filling the void Derek Roy left.
All in all, there's no excuse for this team not to be in the top 10 in power play ranking with the tools they have.
Buffalo struggled in both facets of their special teams play last season, finishing 19th in the league on the PK.
Gone is Jochen Hecht, who had been a staple for this unit since 2002 until injuries limited him to 22 games in 2011-12. He and Jason Pominville had been the No. 1 team for years, and they clearly missed the German veteran when they were down a man.
The two players who Lindy Ruff and his staff should look to as replacements could get the penalty-killing duty by default.
Nathan Gerbe and Ville Leino both failed to provide anything consistent offensively last year. They need to find other ways to contribute, and this will be an area of need for this team.
We know Gerbe will be up for the challenge, but what about Leino? After his first-season disaster for the Sabres, there's no telling what they're going to get out of him in 2013.
3. Overall Team Toughness
Let's not belabor the obvious lack of grit the Sabres showed when it mattered most last season.
GM Darcy Regier should be commended for his acquisition of Steve Ott and John Scott. But the root of the problem goes to the core of this team.
Back in 2006-07, during a heated regular-season game versus Ottawa, Senators winger Chris Neil went head-hunting for Sabres captain Chris Drury. The way Buffalo responded was a textbook example of how you're supposed to stick up for a teammate.
Buffalo needs to build up that level of camaraderie again. Guys like Hodgson and Tyler Ennis need to play out of character by developing a bit of a mean streak.
This entire lineup should be approaching every game with a chip on their shoulder, because they have a lot to prove to not only their own fans but to the rest of the league as well.
The Sabres have to become a group that opponents hate playing against, and not just because of Patrick Kaleta.
4. The Goaltending Rotation
With the NHL likely to begin a 48-game regular season on January 19, Sabres head coach Lindy Ruff needs to avoid overworking Ryan Miller.
Now of course each game will be much more magnified with the condensed schedule. That's also going to mean weekly sets of back-to-back games.
Jhonas Enroth more than proved he's a capable backup last year. He played the majority of his games while the rest of his team tried finding itself after the Lucic embarrassment.
Miller should play no more than 40 games in 2013.
And unless Enroth regresses, Ruff needs to trust him to help this team win some important matchups.
Buffalo has to have Miller return to form to achieve any level of success over the next four months, but at the same time Enroth needs to be given the chance to show what an asset he can be.
5. Maintaining Competition
We've mentioned some names on this roster that have to bounce back in 2013. Christian Ehrhoff, Ville Leino, Drew Stafford and Nathan Gerbe all underachieved last year.
When you factor that in with the youth the Sabres have waiting in the wings, Lindy Ruff's leash should be short with certain players.
For one-dimensional guys like Leino and Gerbe, they need to compete every night to keep their spot in the lineup.
That's because the Sabres have their best prospect since they drafted Thomas Vanek in 2003. Mikhail Grigorenko has already been invited to training camp, according to what his junior coach Patrick Roy told French-language sports network RDS:
I spoke to Darcy Regier and he was very clear. He wants to bring him to Buffalo for the entirety of training camp. Afterward, they will see if [Grigorenko] can make the team or not.
Buffalo would be foolish not to give the 18-year-old a real shot at being on the ice for opening night. He could be an X-factor for a team that has a lot of questions heading into this abbreviated season.