Buffalo Sabres: Ryan Miller and the Rest of the Projected Opening Day Lineup

Tim Daniels@TimDanielsBRFeatured ColumnistJuly 19, 2011

Buffalo Sabres: Ryan Miller and the Rest of the Projected Opening Day Lineup

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    Thanks to the deep pockets of new owner Terry Pegula, the Buffalo Sabres went on a spending spree this offseason that vastly improved the roster. Ryan Miller returns to lead the Sabres in an attempt to bring Buffalo the first major championship in the city's history.

    Fans and analysts across the league gawked when the Sabres gave Christian Ehrhoff a 10-year contract. Their jaws dropped when Ville Leino received $4.5 million per season based on one season of production. They were surprised when Robyn Regehr waived his no-movement clause to join the Sabres.

    The critics said the Sabres overpaid and still aren't contenders for the Stanley Cup. They are wrong. The Sabres were the best team in the entire league from Christmas to the end of the last season. They took the Philadelphia Flyers to game seven in the first round before bowing out of the playoffs. All of that, despite leading scorer Derek Roy missing most of those games.

    Derek Roy should return to form this season, Jason Pominville should be healthy again and Ryan Miller should get more rest than he has in the past few years, assuming restricted free agent Jhonas Enroth is re-signed.

    The bottom line is simple, the Sabres are a much better team than they are being given credit for in the media. Here is an early guess at which 20 players will make up the opening day lineup when the Sabres take on the Anaheim Ducks in Finland on Oct. 7 as a part of the NHL's continuing Premiere Games.

F1: Vanek – Roy – Stafford

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    The best true goal scorer on the team, Thomas Vanek has scored at least 25 goals in every season of his six-year career. The Austrian native scored 32 goals in 80 games last season and his 73 points was the second-highest total of his career. Vanek will be expected to eclipse the 30-goal mark again this season for an underrated Buffalo Sabres offense.

    Derek Roy was limited to 35 games last season before a quad injury knocked him out of the lineup for the rest of the season. He returned for game seven of the Flyers series, but clearly wasn't 100 percent. Many Sabres fans will argue that Roy isn't a clear No. 1 center, but I challenge those fans to find 30 centers in the NHL that have a better points per game average than Roy's (.82), which is even better over the last three seasons (.88).

    Likely the most controversial figure on the team, Drew Stafford is loved by some and loathed by others among the Sabres fanbase. Those who like Stafford point to a 25-year-old winger entering his prime who scored 31 goals last season and was in the top five in the NHL in goals per game. Those who attempt to downgrade the former North Dakota star say that he is inconsistent and can't be trusted in big moments.

F2: Ennis – Leino – Pominville

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    Tyler Ennis struggled at times during his first full season in the NHL, but when he did find his stride near the middle of the season, he was among the Sabres' biggest offensive threats. In total, Ennis scored 20 goals and added 29 assists while playing in all 82 games in his rookie season. The diminutive left winger figured out how to survive in the NHL without being blessed with great size and should continue to develop into an offensive dynamo.

    Ville Leino broke onto the scene in a big way during the playoffs two seasons ago, scoring 21 points in 19 games as the Philadelphia Flyers lost in the Stanley Cup Finals. He backed it up with a 19 goals last season, but many wondered if giving a one-year wonder a six-year contract was a smart idea. Only time will tell, but Leino is a physical player that will be able to do the dirty work while working alongside two players more known for their scoring abilities than physical play.

    If Drew Stafford isn't the most disagreed-about player on the team, Jason Pominville takes the crown. Pominville has scored at least 18 goals in every season he has been in the NHL, and has scored at least 20 each of the past five years, including 22 last season. His numbers should improve since he won't have to work the point on the power play any longer, a spot where he struggled mightily at times. His penalty killing skills vastly improved last season and should be an asset.

F3: Gerbe – Adam – Boyes

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    Nathan Gerbe, much like Tyler Ennis, struggled to find his game at the NHL level because of his small stature. He rounded into form near the end of the season and scored a highlight-reel goal in the series against the Flyers. He won't have much pressure on him this season and he'll be playing with two bigger players, so he might be able to break the 20-goal barrier.

    The Sabres will likely be employing a three scoring line, one grinder line approach this season after using more of a two and two approach in recent seasons. That is great news for Sabres fans. There are worries about the team's offensive ability, even though they were ninth in the league in goals last season, but the removal of an extra grinder line in exchange for a line with two hungry, young players and a player entering a contract year should bolster the goal total.

    Brad Boyes was on the fast track to becoming a fan favorite in Buffalo after being acquired in a trade deadline deal. He then made a permanent move to center, which effectively ended his production for the season. He will be entering a contract year and although nobody really knows if that is as big of a motivator as some believe, it certainly can't hurt. Moving back to right wing should help Boyes thrive again this season.

F4: Hecht – Gaustad – Kaleta

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    German native Jochen Hecht battled some injuries throughout the season, which limited him to 29 points in 67 games. However, he was still a very responsible player in his own end, finishing as a plus-4. Defense will be the main task of the bottom line, which might include Cody McCormick rather than Hecht, who could be on his way out of Buffalo. Hecht is a good two-way player that can still provide the Sabres with solid minutes.

    Paul Gaustad, or the “Goose” as he is affectionately known, is one of the best face-off men in the league and was out there for every big draw last season. He has scored 12 goals in each of the past three seasons, so you know what you're going to get offensively and he is a good decision maker. He isn't a flashy player, but he is willing to do what it takes to win and that's what you need from the fourth line.

    Patrick Kaleta plays the agitator role for the Sabres and does it very well. He gets opponents riled up and forces them into bad penalties. Unlike many players of his style though, he isn't a total negative on the offensive end of the ice, scoring 10 goals two years ago. He had a big goal in game one against the Flyers in the playoffs, as well. Kaleta knows his role and will be a part of a very effective fourth line for Buffalo.

D1: Myers – Regehr

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    Tyler Myers got off to a sluggish start last season, but still finished with 10 goals and 27 assists in 80 games. At 6'8'', 222 pounds, he is an imposing presence that is still growing into his body. His talent is undeniable and entering his third full season in the league, he should continue to grow into one of the biggest offensive threats in the league from the point.

    Fans were unsure what to expect in Terry Pegula's first offseason as Sabres owner. Yes, he had a lot of money, but could he convince players to play in Buffalo? When he was able to coerce Robyn Regehr to leave his NHL home in Calgary to join the Sabres, people started to believe. Regehr is an elite defensive defenseman and will be welcomed warmly by Ryan Miller, who was left out to dry a lot last season.

D2: Leopold – Ehrhoff

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    Jordan Leopold was a pleasant surprise for the Sabres defensive core last season, scoring 13 goals in 71 games and providing the power play with a much needed boost. Since he was the first time he scored in double-digits, he will likely regress this season, but should still score between 7-9 goals. He needs to improve his game in the defense end as he was a minus-11, but he shouldn't have to play against the opponent's top line anymore, which should help his cause.

    Christian Ehrhoff will be the power play quarterback that the Sabres desperately needed. He has scored 14 goals in back-to-back seasons and is a combined plus-55 over the time span. People were unsure what to think when the Sabres gave him a 10-year deal, but with a cap hit of just $4 million per season, it is a smart move that circumvents the cap. It will also become a very attractive contract after the front-loaded part of the contract ends.

D3: Weber – Sekera

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    Mike Weber is not going to jump out of the screen at you. He is a smart defenseman that protects his own end first and focuses on limiting scoring chances. Over the course of three seasons, he has played the equivalent of a full season (82 games) and is a plus-22. For a team that struggled defensively at times last season, especially when attempting to protect leads, Weber should be exactly the type of player that can thrive in those situations.

    It was unclear whether or not Andrej Sekera would return to the Sabres in 2011, but they announced today that he was re-signed to a multi-year extension. He is an offensive-minded defender, that showed improved two-way play last season. Some Sabres fans prefer Marc-Andre Gragnani to fulfill this role. Based on past experience, the Sabres will have more than their fair share of defensive injuries throughout the year and Gragnani will still play a lot of games.

G: Miller – Enroth

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    Ryan Miller is an interesting case. If you look at his 2009-2010 season and his play during the most recent Winter Olympics, you would think he is the best goalie in the world. His stats surrounding that season, however, would suggest he is nothing more than an above average netminder.

    His defense is vastly improved (and much deeper) this season and, once again assuming Jhonas Enroth is re-signed, he should get ample amount of rest throughout the season, which has been a problem. Miller will need to be world-class if the Sabres are going to make a deep run.

    Enroth is currently embroiled in a contract battle as he wants to be guaranteed he'll remain in the NHL and given what many consider slightly more than he has earned. He was 9-2-2 in 13 starts last season, with a goals against average of 2.73 and a save percentage of .907.

    The contract dispute should end relatively soon because neither side has many other options. He will give Miller the rest he needs to remain mentally strong and provide the Sabres with a much better chance to win than their other recent back-up goalies.

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