Things just haven’t been the same since Daniel Briere and Chris Drury left. While the Sabres’ scoring depth remains 9 deep, the continuing rotating captaincy means that no one has quite stepped it up in the batter’s box in terms of leadership. Brian Campbell was expected to fill that role in some sort of capacity but after failing to re-sign him he was dealt to San Jose at the deadline. Ownership and management have built a somewhat rocky reputation around the league, after failing to show full commitment to its players and they paid a heavy price. The Sabres aren’t short of talent, but they do seem to have a hard time retaining them.
Up front, Derek Roy and Jason Pominville are expected to lead the way after posting 80+ point seasons. The two forwards will also be counting on snipers Thomas Vanek and Maxim Afinogenov to provide some scoring, especially Afinogenov, who is coming off a very disappointing 10-goal, -16 season. Vanek, who was the subject of the first-ever offer sheet under the new CBA, needs to show that he is worth every single penny that Buffalo is paying him. Granted, the amount is not what the Sabres originally had in mind, but Vanek is taking up a significant chunk of the Sabres’ cap space and needs to show that the Sabres made the right decision. Scoring is not a big problem for the speedy Sabres (their 3.06 goals per game was 4th best), but size and toughness is. Management has chose not to address this issue and continue to play a finesse game, but it has yet to bear fruit in the playoffs asides from a short appearance in the 2007 Conference finals.
Buffalo’s defense isn’t very imposing. Their six-man group is well-balanced and after Campbell’s departure really lacks a go-to guy. The addition of Craig Rivet will help, defensively and in the locker room, while Teppo Numminen‘s return must’ve been a warm welcome. Toni Lydman and Henrik Tallinder are expected to reclaim their status as Buffalo’s number one shut-down pair. Players who are expected to become full-time regulars, like Andrej Sekera and either Mike Weber or Nathan Paetsch, are also counted on to alleviate the loss of Campbell.
What Buffalo lacks on defense they make up for in goaltending. Ryan Miller is easily one of the East’s best, but Lindy Ruff has a tendency to ride his starter for stretches, which resulted in Miller appearing in 76 games and showing signs of fatigue near the end. Patrick Lalime was brought in to help shoulder some of the load, and will most likely see at least 20 games before the season’s up.
The Sabres finished 4 points out of a playoff spot last year, and with no major changes to the lineup they’re expected to contend for a spot again. The Sabres’ greatest weapon, that their offense runs 3 lines deep, is also their greatest weakness. They lack the go-to scorer, and you can bet that Ruff has a hard time deciding who to send out on a last-minute offensive-zone play. The Sabres are one elite player, be it a forward or defenseman, away from vaulting themselves back into the East’s elite, although it remains to be seen if Darcy Regier is willing to go out and get that guy. Even with the addition of Rivet, the Sabres aren’t expected to drastically improve their 22nd ranked defense, but that should be fine as long as Pominville and Roy don’t take a big step back.
Sabres fans have grown restless after the less than amicable departures of their former big three (Briere, Campbell, Drury), but Regier has apparently learned from his mistakes and is undergoing contract negotiations with Pominville. The deal is expected to be worth roughly $30m over the next 5-6 years. The Sabres have ample cap room (about $9m) to make some noise during the season or at the deadline, although I would think Afinogenov ($3.33m), the oft-injured Tim Connolly ($2.9m), and veteran Ales Kotalik ($2.33m) would be approached for extensions before the end of the season. Buffalo is comfortable starting the season with their current roster, but with no clear-cut leader or elite player don’t expect them to repeat their 2007 successes.
Thomas Vanek – Derek Roy – Jason Pominville
Jochen Hecht – Tim Connolly – Maxim Afinogenov
Dan Paille – Paul Gaustad – Ales Kotalik
Clarke MacArthur – Adam Mair – Drew Stafford
Toni Lydman – Henrik Tallinder
Jaroslav Spacek – Craig Rivet
Andrej Sekera – Teppo Numminen
Ryan Miller – Patrick Lalime
scratches: Nathan Paetsch, Andrew Peters, Mike Weber
Head coach: Lindy Ruff
GM: Darcy Regier
Projected Finish: 3rd Northeast, 8th East