Let me begin by saying welcome back to The Gerbe Derby! TJ and I are as excited as anyone that the NHL Lockout is over. We look forward to some great hockey over the next 5 months.
Recap: Last season, the high spending Buffalo Sabres disappointed fans by falling short of playoff hockey. After a hot finish in the 2010-2011 season, new ownership, and a new found buzz, the Sabres had a season full of injuries and unfulfilled expectations. New addition Ville Leino hardly earned his paychecks, veterans such as Derek Roy and Drew Stafford were among many players that had slow starts, and the infamous Sabres “core” fell apart. The turning point? In November, Boston Bruins forward Milan Lucic ran over Ryan Miller, leaving him concussed. The team hardly responded and left Miller unprotected. Players such as Tyler Myers and Paul Gaustad (Miller’s best friend) allowed Lucic to skate off the ice without a single punch thrown. Questions arose at every turn about the team’s toughness, chemistry, and off-ice issues. They never recovered.
The new core of the team was given official leadership from coach Lindy Ruff. Many expected Thomas Vanek to be named captain, but the title was given to Jason Pominville on the team’s trip in Europe. Many thought this would disrupt Vanek’s game, but it actually motivated him. Vanek was arguably carrying the team on his back through the All-Star break. Pominville was consistent as ever, earning his first nod to the NHL’s All-Star game and remaining a leader throughout the season. The rest of the core? Derek Roy had always been rumored to be “cancer” in the locker room. Many media members have claimed that unnamed Sabres have confirmed this. General Manager Darcy Regier was finally able to deal Roy this past July (it was reported by WGR’s Paul Hamilton that Regier had been attempting to trade him for quite some time), acquiring the gritty Steve Ott and taking on a little extra depth with Defenseman Adam Pardy from Dallas. Center Paul Gaustad (set to become an unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2012) was dealt to Nashville for a 1st Round Draft Pick at the trade deadline. His fate was sealed after the non-answer to Lucic’s cheap shot of Miller. Drew Stafford struggled coming off a career season in 2010-2011. However, he found true chemsitry with Tyler Ennis and star prospect Marcus Foligno during the team’s incredible 20-9-5 run to end the year.
- Steve Ott – Ott was very popular during his time in Dallas. He is the antagonist the Sabres have thirsted for for years. He will get under the opposition’s skin night-in and night-out, finally freeing up stars Vanek and Pominville to play their own offensively-focused game. Ott also brings an offensive touch to the lineup and can take key faceoffs. Another thing: should Ryan Miller be run again, you can bet Ott will be out there the next shift.
- John Scott – The team greatly addressed their need of toughness in the offseason, signing enforcer John Scott on day one of Free Agency. Scott is 6’8″/258 pounds. He will see minimal ice time on the fourth line, but he will certainly protect his teammates. Teams may think twice about being overly physical against the Sabres, knowing that Scott will be in the lineup for the rematch.
- Adam Pardy – Brought in to free up cap space for the Stars while adding depth to an oft-injured Sabres roster, Pardy is a solid stay-at-home defenseman. He will likely not see a lot of ice time until some injuries occur. The Sabres (as seen below) are stacked on the blue line, especially with TJ Brennan being called up from Rochester and Alexander Sulzer resigning.
Departures: Brad Boyes (Islanders)
Organization Depth Chart
Left Wing Center Right Wing
Thomas Vanek (26) Tyler Ennis (63) Jason Pominville (29)
Marcus Foligno (82) Cody Hodgson (19) Drew Stafford (21)
Ville Leino (23) Steve Ott (9) Patrick Kaleta (36)
Nathan Gerbe (42) Mikhail Grigoernko (25) Corey Tropp (78)
John Scott (32) Jochen Hecht (55)
Cody McCormick (8)
Tyler Myers (57) Ryan Miller (30)
Christian Ehrhoff (10) Jhonas Enroth (1)
Jordan Leopold (3) David Leggio
Robyn Regehr (24)
Andrej Sekera (44)
Alexander Sulzer (52)
Mike Weber (6)
TJ Brennan (33)
Brayden McNabb (81)
5 Things to Watch for:
Mikhail Grigorenko’s Emergence – The Sabres had a fantastic first round in last year’s entry draft. They nabbed the Russian Star Grigorenko in the 12th spot (many projected him to be taken in the 3-5 range, but sickness and injury forced some teams to overlook him) and Latvian Center Zemgus Girgensons in the 14th spot (the Sabres traded up, making a deal with Calgary). Grigorenko has had a dominant season in the Juniors, producing nearly 2 points per game and nearly 1 goal per game. At 6’3, his size is ahead of his age (18). Coach Lindy Ruff has deemed his defensive game NHL ready, a high compliment from such a defensive minded coach. The team’s shortened Training Camp will determine if Grigorenko gets a shot at playing at the NHL level. The Sabres can keep him on the roster for 5 games before being forced to commit him to their roster or send him back to the Juniors. All eyes will be on Grigorenko to see if he will thrive out of the gate or if the Sabres decide to bring him up slowly.
- Ennis, Foligno, and Stafford Reunited – Last season, prospect Marcus Foligno was called up to help fill in roster space after injuries plagued the team. Previously, the Sabres had given every opportunity to Zach Kassian to not only keep a permanent spot, but to play big minutues with players such as Vanek and Pominville. Kassian impressed early on with his physical play and scoring touch, but quickly faded out. Darcy Regier made a bold move and shipped him out to Vancouver at the trade deadline, landing another big prospect in Center Cody Hodgson. Foligno not only filled in, he earned what is considered to be a permanent spot on the Sabres roster. He was consistent with intimidating physical play and produced at nearly a point per game pace once paired with Stafford and Ennis. Tyler Ennis exploded upon his return to Center, having played the Wing for the majority of his first two seasons. These three will be together on opening day against the Flyers and will counted on to bring big offense and speed.
- Will the Sabres acquire any help up the middle? – The Sabres glaring need comes at the Center position. With a thin market last summer for free agents, the team began to address toughness and the search for a bonfide “Number One Center.” Grigorenko could be the guy, but he also could be a few years away. Agitator Zemgus Girgensons has good hands too and will certainly figure into the team’s short term and long term plans. He has had a great season of growth in Rochester, but will likely finish the season there and possibly next season as well. Centers Roy, Gaustad, and Tim Connolly are all gone. Jochen Hecht has been brought back in for depth. I don’t agree with this decision, because Hecht’s best years are behind him and his concussion issues have not gone away. Not to mention, the team’s theme of filtering out the old, losing core somehow doesn’t apply here. So who are the studs? Third year player Tyler Ennis was dominant in last year’s final third and emerged as the team’s number one center, for the time being at least. First round draft pick Cody Hodgson was slated for big plans in Vancouver, but got buried on the depth chart. He also had a tough relationship with the Canucks staff, which led to a favorable trade for Buffalo. Hodgson is mature, has great vision, and will likely play between Vanek and Pominville. Hodgson has also been working out with Gary Roberts, who will certainly bring Hodgson’s physical abilities to the next level. The team has not had star centers since Daniel Briere and Chris Drury. Look for the team to jump at an opportunity if presented one at the deadline. If nothing emerges, they will likely persue all options through the draft and free agency.
- Players in need of a bounceback year – Outside of Pominville and Vanek, the entire team either had a below average year or failed to meet expectations. Even Vanek had a stretch of issues, primarily due to his injuries. The key to a more balanced attack is health. When healthy, the current Sabres roster can be lethal at times. Tyler Myers had another slow start. Ville Leino was by far the biggest disappointment. He not only failed to break double digits in goals, but decided to jump back to the wing after 3 weeks of play. Many cited a poor work ethic. He could be a player that the team decides to buy out this summer if he does not improve during the shortened season. Robyn Regehr played solid as always, but had to carry too much of the load when Myers and Ehrhoff both got hurt. Stafford played poorly until being sparked upon his emergence with Ennis and Foligno. Ryan Miller had concussion issues and never recovered until February. Backup Goaltender Jhonas Enroth had a cold streak to end the season. Nathan Gerbe took a step back in production. Many felt Hodgson played poorly after arriving in Buffalo, but I disagree. Having a major role in a new city at such a young age can be difficult, and Hodgson still performed at a solid level. If the team can have a bounceback across the board while remaining healthy, the Sabres can make the postseason.
- Will Ryan Miller return to Vezina form? – Ryan Miller was inconsistent after the Lucic hit, leaving him in a poor state mentally and physically. Once Miller shook things off in late January, we began to see the dominant goaltender we have experienced in the past. If Miller can focus and get into a groove in this short season, the Sabres could catch fire and go far. A lot is riding on Miller’s shoulders and all seems to be well. He appeared to be happy to be back on the ice in Buffalo and even joked with the media (Miller has never had a great relationship with the media). Enroth will also play a role and must be prepared to give Miller a rest when called upon.
Final Thought – The Sabres can have a great season if they remain healthy, focused, and hard-working. If the younger, newer players such as Hodgson, Foligno, and Grigorenko bring their game to new levels, the opposition will have too much to worry about. They must then divide their defensive focus between Vanek, Pominville, and agitators such as Steve Ott. My prediction? If the team is healthy and Miller plays to his abilities, a 6th place spot in the East is within reach.
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