Wednesday, October 26, 2011

You Know What A 6-Year/$27M Contract In Buffalo Means?

In the case of Ville Leino? A whole lot of microscopic critiques, questions, angst and anger--the rumblings of a potential "controversy" over his signing.

Leino's numbers through eight games:  one goal, one assist, minus-3, one third period benching.

Sabres LW Tyler Ennis, who, btw, hadn't registered a point in seven games, is on a week-to-week basis after messing up his ankle at Tampa Bay. With that, two things that'll affect Leino:  a move back to the wing (where he recently said he'd like to play) and more ice-time.

Pretty sure that this is a blessing in disguise for Leino as well as Head Coach Lindy Ruff. Ruff's been in a bit of a quandary this young season as his initial line of Ennis/Leino/Drew Stafford failed to produce anything of significance.

Catch-22 Averted

Leino, is like every other hockey player, wants ice-time. And according to him, he needs ice-time. But he hasn't produced enough to warrant the minutes. In fact, after averaging around 14 minutes through the first four games, Leino got less than 10 minutes vs. Montreal and found his butt parked on the bench.

It was a one game thing as he logged 14 minutes at Florida and over 17 at Tampa Bay. Last night vs. Tampa he had nearly 16 minutes. And, although he's barely registered a blip on the score sheet, snaring an assist in those three games, at least it's a start.

Ruff has always had a philosophy that ice-time is earned. And ya better be defensively responsible too. With Leino botching defensive responsibilities, Ruff needed to figure out how to get him the ice-time he needs while adhering to his philosophies.

The injury to Ennis makes it relatively easy. Leino goes to the wing which should help his comfort level, he'll get "second-line" minutes, and, in addition, he'll be getting that coveted power play time. Ruff, for his part, can "save face" by giving Leino all of this without altering his "ice-time is earned" philosophy.

But, it's somewhat of a band-aid solution that will only work long-term if Leino starts producing now and he continues to produce when he's moved back to center with the return of Ennis.

Ice-time Isn't Leino's Only "Need"

Bill Hoppe wrote a piece for after Leino-'s stunning playoff performance for the Flyers in 2010. The Detroit Red Wings had traded Leino because, according to GM Ken Holland via the Detroit Free Press, "He hadn’t done much here. We really liked him. We felt he could be an NHL player, but when we had all those injuries and he got significant ice time, he really didn’t do anything with it.” Significant ice-time with the likes of Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg.

OK, that didn't work out. But why did it work so well in Philly? What does Leino need to produce seven goals and 14 assists in 19 playoff games?

“I need a little freedom to play my hockey and make the plays I do,” Leino told the Free Press (via the Hoppe piece.) “When you can play the way you want and play the hockey you like, and then you have success, your confidence goes up and then when the whole team is winning, your confidence just keeps growing,”

Based upon watching the Sabres' Thomas Vanek cherry-pick early in the season, I'm pretty sure that Ruff has altered his stance on in-game play and has allowed more freedom to be creative and/or use the talents available to the player. But, if you're eschewing defensive responsibilities, you better make it up on the score sheet.

As an example, Vanek has seven goals and four assists in eight games this season and is a plus-3. Leino has one goal and one assist and is a minus-3. Vanek may not be a Selke candidate, but he's making up for it by scoring.

Ice-Time, Freedom and...

Let's review:
  • Leino says he needs ice-time which he'll get in Ennis' absence.
  • He'll be on the wing, something he's mentioned recently, which will inherently give him less defensive responsibilities and allow him to get up-ice quicker which, in turn, should lead to more scoring/playmaking opportunities.
  • Based upon plus/minus, Ruff has softened his stance a bit on skill players focusing too much on defense.
  • And Leino will have the freedom to play his way out of a slow start.
Anything else?

This past February, there was an article by Stephen Whyno celebrating Leino's one-year anniversary with the Flyers. Whyno called the trade for Leino "one of the biggest heists in franchise history."

He chronicled Leino's journey a bit and asked him why he was producing now after a very slow/rough start with Philly. This is what the winger said, “The player I am, it’s not always enough to just get ice time – you need to play a lot and play with good players,” he said. “I got a chance every now and then [with the Red Wings], but I didn’t really get a good chance that I wanted.”

OK. So not only does Leino need ice-time which as of now with the Buffalo Sabres is not really warranted, and not only does he need freedom, but he also needs to "play with really good players."

(Blogger puts head in hands and sighs)

It's Early, But I've Gotten A Headache From This

Not that all of this is really a big deal right now, but Lindy Ruff definitely has some work to do. Both he and GM Darcy Regier said they could make this work and it's really early in the season not to mention really early in Leino's six year contract. But, ya gotta wonder if Leino's primadonna-like tendencies were covered during the interview process. And ya gotta wonder how Ruff will handle all of this.

Is there a solution this early in the season?

Yeah, sure. The easiest thing for Ruff to do would be to put Leino between Vanek and Jason Pominville when Ennis returns. He'll get the minutes, have the freedom and he'll have "good players" on his wings.

Problem is, Luke Adam centering Vanek and Pominville has been the only consistent threat this season. Ruff called Adam a surprise--"a factor we didn't count on"-- on the Howard Simon show yesterday (5:00-minute mark) as they delved into a discussion concerning Leino. With Adam being very young and just getting a feel for the NHL, he also needs good players surrounding him. In fact his success thus far can be directly attributed to the confidence he has playing with veteran linemates.

And who's to say that a line of Vanek, Leino, Pominville would break Leino out of his funk anyway.

(shrugs) It could be a solution, though.

So could putting Nathan Gerbe on his wing. Leino played his best hockey with former Sabre Daniel Briere so having a player with Briere-like tendencies may just be what's needed. But, who on the Sabres squad can bring to the table what Philly RW Scott Hartnel brought to the Briere/Leino line? Rugged, front-of-the-net play with a good amount of skill?


If you've read this far, congrats...and thx.

It really shouldn't be that complicated. A player like Leino being signed for the dollar amount and term of his contract should be professional enough to adapt to a system and his linemates.

That being said, it's still waaaaay to early to even think of the panic-button with Leino, or the Sabres in general. Leino will need a significant period of adjustment. It's a long season and the Sabres are off to a good start this season which takes a lot of the pressure off...for now.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

The Debate On NHL Fighting Will Continue...

with both pro and con sides pulling out data, studies and statistics to prove their points.

And you can bet that the names of deceased tough-guys Bob Probert and Derek Boogaard both will be thrown into the mix. Probert's family donated his brain to science and it was found that there were "signs" of brain trauma from blows to the head.

 But there's a new study out that'll go through one of those "peer evaluations" before it's published and becomes "official."

Whether it holds water or not after the peer-process remains to be seen, but it does invoke some basic common sense as a basis for the study.

Were Eric Boulton (l) and
Travis Moen (r)
to battle outside a bar
 instead of on the ice,
some serious damage
 could be done.
The gist is this:  It's hard to fight on skates, and punches thrown do not have the power of a street fight punch simply because there's not enough traction on the slick surface of the ice.

Dig. From an article on the study:

"The risk of concussion in a fight was much lower for brawling hockey players (0.39 percent) compared to the per-game risk for those who checked one another (nearly 4.5 percent)."

Even roundhouse punches to the jaw seemed to lack the power to injure. 'If you're hitting somebody outside a bar on the ground, more than 50 percent of the time that's going to break a jaw,' co-author Dr. David Milzman said. 'We saw no jaw fractures in over 1,400 fights.'"

Kinda makes sense, doesn't it?

Thanx to Puckdaddy, via Kukla for a link to the article from U.S. News and World Report's "Health Day."


Thursday, October 20, 2011

The Leino "Dilemma"

I guess will get this out of the way right off of the bat. Were Sabres center Ville Leino making $3M per year instead of $4.5M, fans wouldn't be so harsh, nor would they rush to judgement after only five regular season games.

On paper, in the preseason and over in Finland, Leino with Tyler Ennis on left wing seemed like a very good fit. In fact a lot of things look good on paper, and most go awry, as is the case here.

After an incredibly slow start which saw Leino score the game winner vs. Anaheim in his native country the opener, but fail to register a point in the following four games, Leino has found himself on the "fourth" line with his minutes cut extensively. Ennis who is coming off of a 20-goal/49-point season, has yet to register a point in five games.

All of this leads to Leino, the topic of conversation on WGR's Howard Simon Show today. And they turned to beat reporter Paul Hamilton for some insight.

Hamilton went back to a piece he did the day before, about how Leino said that it took him a while in Philadelphia and that "it's always different with the teams."

He also hinted, at his unease with the defensive responsibilities at the center positon and that a move back to wing might click his offense in gear. Not to mention that he feels he'd be better on the powerplay so that he'd get more minutes and get into a more offensive flow.


All of this directed at a team coached by Lindy Ruff, a coach, as shown in the past, that doles out ice-time based upon effective play. Ruff, as well, expects at least as much passion on a backcheck as he does on the attack in the offensive zone.

So now, as Hamilton pointed out, they're in a Catch-22. Or even a chicken/egg scenario. Will Ruff allow Leino more playing time to work through it? Or will Leino heed the system and get on his horse for 60 minutes?

Somebody needs to pound it into Leino's head that Ruff's as stubborn as a mule. Get on the backcheck, move your feet and let your energy transfer from defense to offense. It works.

Right now, Ruff has Leino between Cody McCormick and fellow-underachiever, Brad Boyes. Not a recipe for success, imo.

Perhaps Ruff should consider putting Leino with Nathan Gerbe. Last year Gerbe got off to a horrendous start but ended up turning it around. Gerbe's also a guy who'll work it and be able to find an open man in the slot, a place where Leino is real strong.

Or perhaps, this whole scenario is being way overblown and it'll take a lot of time to find the right chemistry for all four lines.

Who knows? Right now the Sabres are in Florida and have a meeting with the Panthers who are off to a good start.

As for the Sabres? They are 4-1, even without Leino comfortable.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Ryan Miller Steals One In Montreal

This is not to discount what Jhonas Enroth did in the previous game by holding the fort in a 3-2 win at Pittsburgh either.

Ryan Miller snares one out of the air in his
40-save performance versus the Habs last night.
The Buffalo News' John Vogl didn't mince any words when he said that the Sabres got off to a "putrid start" versus the Habs, and Thomas Vanek put it plainly afterwards, "Millsie stole us this one, there's no other way of putting it."

The Sabres are now 4-1 on the season, ranked 8th in goals against average for the season at 2.00. And it's a tribute to their goaltending tandem.

Enroth has been playing so well in the back-up role that the calls for him to be the #1 goalie have started already, especially in light of the home loss that Buffalo suffered vs. Carolina. The stat-sheet said that Miller was average in that game, yet no one mentions how he kept the team in the game foiling a Eric Staal short-handed breakaway and a 4-on-1 deep into the third period a mere minute and thirty seconds apart.

It's all fodder for blogs and water cooler conversation. Miller is one of the best in the game who will have clunkers throughout the long NHL season. Enroth instills a sense of confidence as the team's back-up the likes of which we haven't seen since Marty Biron was in Buffalo over four years ago. Miller/Enroth could end up being the best goaltending tandem in the league this season. And after years of inadequacy (that's being very kind) from the Sabres back-ups, it's a real good feeling.

Perhaps Paul Hamilton put it best when he was on WGR's Howard Simon Show two days ago (click here, 15:50-mark,) "Why can't people just enjoy having two good goaltenders on your team and use them correctly to help you have a really good season?"

Maybe people really don't know how to enjoy themselves? Maybe they can't enjoy the fact that this is a really good hockey team that has a really good chance of not only making the playoffs, but have the goaltending, defense and overall depth to make a deep run this season.

'Nuff said.


One more point.

Last December, Hamilton was on WGR's Mike Schopp and the Bulldog.

The discussion was, in essence, the worth of Paul Gaustad outside his faceoff prowess. The Sabres were struggling to get to .500 hockey at the time and Gaustad's salary/production lead to the topic of faceoffs and the value of winning them.

Schopp said, "I just think it's really, dramatically overstated how important they are, very few goals are scored from the draw, that's a fact...there are a handful of goals a season that come from the faceoff."

Ironically, the next game vs. the  San Jose' Sharks, two Sabres goals were a direct result of a faceoff win, Gaustad being credited with one of them. (here's a link to a full blog on this "conversation.")

Last night, with the Sabres playing "putrid" for the better part of two periods, the Sabres were looking to escape the malaise with a 1-1 tie heading into the third period thanx to Miller and a goal by Jordan Leopold. The Candians were called for icing with six seconds left and this is what happened (pay attention, it happens really fast):

'Nuff said.


Last thing, I promise, Vogl also did an article on Jason Pomiville and how he's working on faceoffs. Said Gaustad, ""We want to be a puck-possession team, and it starts with faceoffs."

Here's the link to the full article:

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Notes From the Sabres Opening Game Victory

Although the Anaheim Ducks are not the Stanley Cup team they were back in 2007, they are still a tough team to beat. They're big, mobile and skilled. And even though soon to be Hall of Fame defenseman Scott Niedermayer is retired and soon to be retired, future Hall of Famer Teemu Selanne is 41, the team is still mentioned as a contender coming out of the Western Conference.

For their part, the Buffalo Sabres are considered improved to the point where nearly all of the "experts" picked them to be a  #3-#6 seed for the playoffs this season. Some picked them to go as far as the Eastern Conference Finals, which doesn't seem to be that far of a reach at all.

Yesterday in their opener versus Anaheim in Helsinki, Finland, the Sabres kicked in the after-burners for a good portion of two periods en route to a 4-1 win.

The team jumped out to a 2-0 lead less than halfway through the first period, answered a Ducks goal in the second with a goal of their own :73 later, grabbed a three-goal lead with a little less than half the second period left and then went into a defensive mode for the remainder of the game. In fact the Sabres did not register a shot in the final period.

It's pretty impressive when a team can go full throttle for the better part of two periods, then switch to shutdown mode for the remainder of the game. Usually the latter will get a team into trouble, but Ryan Miller, his defense and a back-checking group of collapsing forwards did not yield a goal during that stretch.

The Offense and the Afterburners

The forwards on Buffalo are highly reminiscent of the 2006/07 team which Jaromir Jagr, at the time, called a "Ferrari." When they are in attack mode, they swarm the opposition with speed and quickness.

Ville Leino got his first goal as a Sabre due to a swarming forcheck, a pinching d-man and some pretty impressive hand-eye coordination (see video below.) 

The Sabres 1st-unit power play got off on the right foot
scoring two goals on four pp opportunities. Vanek,
Pominville, Stafford, Gragnani and Ehrhoff
Christian Ehrhoff was brought in to, among other things, help with the power play. Marc-Andre Gragnani was inserted into the line-up to, among other things, help with the power play. With those two on the point, Jason Pominville is now working down low. That group, along with Drew Stafford working the wall and Thomas Vanek in front of the net, scored two power play goals as the team went 2/4 with the man advantage.

The New Captain, Pominville, Nets One For "The Core"

Over the last four seasons, there have been a core group of Sabres that management and the coaching staff have put a lot of faith in to win. When Terry Pegula took over he had the opportunity to dismantle, or even tweak, that group. But, just like his retaining both Darcy Regier and Lindy Ruff, he did not.

In fact, Pegula, upper management and the coaches went the in the opposite direction, they gave "the core" even more responsibility by awarding them letters.

Pominville, who has worn a letter for years, including the rotating "C" in 2007/08, had that letter permanently sewn to his jersey. Derek Roy, who has also worn a letter for four years, continues as an alternate captain.

Two seasons ago, Paul Gaustad got the "A," and during that time the team made the playoffs. He's back in that role.

New Sabres Alternate Captain,
Drew Stafford, and his
Vanek was awarded an "A" last season when Roy was lost for the season, he retained that. And Drew Stafford, coming of of a career year and a multi-year, multi-million dollar contract extension, was chosen to be the final alternate.

Of the core as captains, Ruff said, "We talked with, obviously Darcy and management and even Terry was involved, we felt it was the right move for this group that has grown up together (see this from the Rochester Americans website We kept it to that same core, that it's their time."

Pominville, the captain, answered the Ducks lone goal with the third for the Sabres cycling in the circle down low with Vanek providing a screen. He also had a wicked shot stopped the Ducks' Jonas Hiller low, glove-side. "Pommer" continued to do what he's always done--a solid, if unspectacular game through and through. Both he and Vanek flanked rookie Luke Adam, who did not look out of place.

Robyn Regehr Does His Thing

Much will be made about the toughness Regehr brings to the table, and he showed it versus Anaheim by roughing it up with the league's toughest tough-guy, George Parros.

Regehr also did some pounding in the corners as well, which is typical of his game. For the Sabres, they haven't had Western Conference toughness in a top-pairing role and I'm sure that Miller and the rest of the team really appreciate Regehr having their backs.

But one play that really sets the tone for the season on the back-end, one that was mentioned by the media post-game, was Regehr breaking up a two-on-one by the Ducks. It was fundamental, Defense-101 as Regehr played the pass and Miller squared up to the shooter. Such a little thing like that was missing on most occasions last season, and frustrated Miller to the point that he couldn't figure out what he should do. The eventual lack of trust in his young d-men contributed to his less than stellar performance in goal.

Simple plays like that, and with Regehr leading the defense back to basics in their own zone, should contribute to a lower goals against average for the team and allow Miller to challenge more, which is something seen repeatedly, when he's on his game.

What the Opposition Media Said After the Game

Fellow Finn and Ducks Legend Teemu Selanne may
have the mural, but new Sabres forward
and Finland native, Ville Leino,
netted a goal and his Sabres' team got the win.
From Lisa Dillman of the L.A. Times, this headline:  Ducks Buffaloed in Helsinki as teams put their best Finns forward. Not much to the article and not surprising considering the game's outcome. She did lead off with this, "The celebratory homecoming for one Finn could not have gone better or more smoothly." The Finn she was referring to was the one without a mural on the wall of the Helsinki arena but of a Finn who happened to play for the Buffalo Sabres--Ville Leino.

From the Orange County Register, writer Jeff Miller lead off an after-game notes article talking about the Ducks' big line of Corey Perry, Bobby Ryan and Ryan Getzlaf getting big minutes yet getting shut out. He had this quote from Coach Randy Carlyle, "I think our big line dominated the puck control down low for good stretches but didn't score, obviously" Carlyle said. "I think the frustration level built in that group."

It's an excellent start to the season for the Buffalo Sabres, but as Ruff has said on many occasions, it's a marathon not a sprint. Except on the ice where the Sabres will be going full-throttle.

Friday, October 7, 2011

2011/12 Predictions For the Buffalo Sabres

Here's what the media pedicts for the Sabres this season.

The Hockey News:
2nd in the division, 5th in the conference--"Everyone knows the Sabres are built around Ryan Miller and that hasn’t changed... the Sabres should improve on last year’s seventh-place showing and make for an interesting team to watch in 2011-12."

Adam Proteau (the Hockey News):
2nd in the division, 5th in the conference--"Overall, there’s no disputing Buffalo now has all the components to be a serious Cup threat. But if I were a Sabres fan, I’d temper my expectations with the knowledge it might take a year or two for the team to fully gel."

Bodog Odds To Win the Cup:

Kevin Allen, USA Today:
 2nd in the division--"Buffalo finished seven points behind Boston last season, and the Sabres might be six points better this season. But those last couple of points are what separate very good teams from great teams."

The Canadian Press:
2nd in the division, 6th in the conference--"There are no glaring holes in this Sabres team, especially if Ryan Miller plays up to his Vezina Trophy standard of 2009-10, making them a squad to keep an eye on."

2nd in the division--"Overall, it's not a roster with many holes in it whatsoever. It will just come down to how talented the team proves to be as there are multiple players capable of 50-plus point seasons."

Matt Barnaby, John Buccigross, Linda Cohn, Craig Custance, Steve Levy, Pierre LeBrun--1st in the division.

Cohn, Levy--Eastern Conference Champions

Levy--Stanley Cup Champions

TSN Consensus:
2nd in the division, 6th in the conference

Darren Eliot, Sports Illustrated:
1st in the division--"The Sabres have a complete four-line, six-D compliment for the first time in ages and the goaltending to back it up."

ESPN Power Rankings, Scott Burnside:
Sabres, #10--"We have to admit that we're still not sure how all the pieces will fit together in Buffalo, but this is not your grandfather's Sabres squad, that's for sure."

CBSSportsline Power Rankings, Adam Gretz:
Sabres, #9--"Who didn't these guys sign this summer for big money? Love the addition of Robyn Regehr, while Christian Ehrhoff and Ville Leino should improve them, even if those two contracts were a bit of an overpayment and/or gamble."

Yahoo Puckdaddy:
Greg Wyshinski--1st in the division, 2nd conference
Sean Leahy--3rd in the division, 8th conference
Harrison Mooney--1st in the division, 3rd conference
Dmitry Chesnokov--outside the playoffs (4th in the division behind Boston, Montreal, Toronto)
Ryan Lambert--2nd in the division, 6th conference
Dobber--2nd in the division, 7th conference

2011/12 Season Preview, Part 4--The Prediction

"I loathe making predictions about particular series. I put no stock my own or "expert" predictions because I truly believe that the most knowledgeable piece of hockey wisdom is that the game is unpredictable and all a team can do is try to be as well-stocked and well-prepared as possible."--Bill Meltzer,

This... what we're looking at as the Sabres head into the 2011/12 season.

It would seem as if Terry Pegula, Senior Advisor Ken Sawyer and President Ted Black have the same philosophy. Pegula gave the green light to the organization to not only go after talent, but add to the coaching staff and the scouting staff--said Pegula, "there will be no financial mandates on the Buffalo Sabres hockey department."

The hockey world has been focusing on the obvious in their Sabres previews, Pegula let Darcy Regier spend to the point that they had the highest payroll in the league. But before we get to the players on the ice, it should be noted that the Sabres had some changes to the coaching staff behind Lindy Ruff.

Out was long-time Assistant Coach, Brian McCutcheon. In is Kevyn Adams, a former Stanley Cup winner with Carolina. Adams has been working with the players as a player development coach for over a year and has been said to be directly responsible for the successes of Tyler Ennis, Nathan Gerbe and Paul Gaustad. He will join Assistant Coach James Patrick behind the bench.

New to the coaching staff is former Sabres defensman and veteran of 20 NHL seasons, Teppo Numminen. Numminen will be up in the booth communicating directly with Adams during games breaking down the opposition.

Having another coach on the team means more direct interaction with the players. Said Ruff, "We've done a lot of individual work with players, and due to the size of the staff you can spend time now. You can have Teppo spend time with one or two of our defensemen. You can have James Patrick and Kevyn Adams doing the same."

Patrick, Adams and Numminen will be working with a well-stocked team this season thanks to an unprecedented off-season spending spree by Regier.

It Wasn't A "Perfect" Off-Season, But It Was Pretty Damn Solid

All the question marks concerning the Sabres heading into the 2011/12 season revolve around the center position.

Ideally, Regier could've gone out back to the #1-center tree and picked one. And they put in a good bid to hire the services of Brad Richards. But Richards, seemingly, pulled a LeBron James and made a spectacle of a foregone conclusion. In hindsight, there was little doubt he'd be headed to Broadway. Pegula and Regier were rather quick to figure it out and instituted Plan B immediately.

In comes Ville Leino.

Nobody knows what he will bring to the team, but he wants to be in that position, Ruff believes he can at least play, if not excell, there and he'll have a very deep pool of wingers with which to build some chemistry.

The team seems to be three lines deep with talent. Thomas Vanek, Jason Pominville, Drew Stafford and Brad Boyes have all reached the 30-goal mark with Vanek and Boyes scoring over 40. Sophomore Tyler Ennis reached 20 last season while Nathan Gerbe showed he's capable of a 20-goal season.

After finishing 9th in the league last season in goals/game, the team will be looking to score more with the addition of Leino and with Boyes playing a full season for the team on the wing as opposed to center.

An area that will help improve that ranking is the power play. It was also 9th last season. There will be some juggling with the major move being Pomiville down low instead of playing the point. And one of the main reasons he'll be able to move there is the acquisition of defenseman Christian Ehrhoff.

Regier Fills Holes On Defense

A Sabres strength this season could be the emergence of the defense as an even stronger two-way force.

Erhoff has a penchant for finding open ice, whether 5-on-5 or on the power play, and has a deft shot. Tyler Myers seems hell-bent upon attaking as much as he can at any given moment and with Robyn Regehr covering his back, he'll be able to do that more confidently. Add in Marc-Andre Gragnani and his puck-moving skills for a full season, and you have three puck-movers with a big scoring upside. And we haven't even touched upon Jordan Leopold and Andrej Sekera, who are no strangers to putting points up.

That's a total of five defensemen jumping into the rush and acting as a "foruth forward."

This mode of attack doesn't necessarily mean that the team will be a sieve on defense. The top-three of Myers, Regehr and Ehrhoff all are responsible in their own end. Leopold at one point last season lead the team in +/- and Gragnani looks to be pretty solid as well. Mike Weber, who culd be the odd man out early, is very solid as well.

As long as they take care of their job and cut off the back-door play, there will always be Ryan Miller to bail them out.

This year not unlike, the 2009/10 season, Miller will have some solid veteran rear guards taking care of business in their own end which will allow him to get high into the crease and do what he does best, challenge shooters.

Miller can expect a number of odd man rushes this season due to the attack-mode the team will be in on offense. We know he can stop the breakaway and we know he's able to stop the two-on-one, if his defenseman plays it like he should.

With that in mind, it shouldn't be too difficult for the Sabres to significantly improve upon their 18th goals against ranking last season. The defense also looks staunch enough to be able to lift the penalty kill from it's #13 finish last season.

The Prediction

The 2011/12 edition has the talent with which to improve in all areas this season, but what it may come down to is attitdude.

Terry Pegula has given the team it's goal. He's all-in.

Darcy Regier has gone out and filled holes.

Lindy Ruff has the team focusing on a business-like approach to the season.

Now it's up to the players.

While in Mannaheim, Germany playing on a larger ice surface, Ruff told his team to play like it was on an NHL rink. And the players obliged. That's a good sign that everyone is on the same page.

For the Sabres to take the Northeast Division crown away from the Stanley Cup Champion Boston Bruins, they'll need to make up seven or eight points. And that's within the realm of possibility with this group as long as they remain focused upon this, from Terry Pegula, "Winning is not a goal, it's a belief."

With that being said, I believe they will put together a real good season and expect the Sabres to finish:

1st in the Northeast
3rd in the Eastern Conference

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Sabres 2011/12 Season Preview Part 3--The Forwards

Two areas of weakness were exposed last season in the playoffs: veteran, top-four talent on defense and the lack of a true #1 center up front.

The former, being somewhat easier to fill than the latter, was addressed in a matter of a few days as the team traded for Robyn Regehr and the rights to Christian Ehrhoff whom they signed soon thereafter.

Buffalo was in the running for the only bonafide #1 center on the free agent market, Brad Richards, but Richards opted to sign with the NY Rangers. GM Darcy Regier immediately implemented Plan B and signed former Philadelphia winger Ville Leino whom the team plans to play at center.

The whole Leino signing was a head-scratcher--from a return to his preferred position at center, to the length and term of his 6-year/$27m contract. But Head Coach Lindy Ruff, having watched Leino's work up close for seven games versus the Flyers in the playoffs, saw enough to be convinced that Leino will work at center for the team.

With that in mind, we take a look at the forwards heading into the 2011/12 season starting with the centers.

Ville Leino, now a Buffalo Sabre
celebrates his overtime game-winner
in Game 6 of last year's playoffs.
Ville Leino--What Ruff saw against Philadelphia in the playoffs was Leino often times playing down low as a center. He saw a gifted passer who could hang on to the puck while waiting for trailers. And what he also saw is a player who could get himself into position to bury the puck in crucial situations as evidenced by Leino's overtime game-winner in Game 6 with the Flyers on the brink of elimination.

Leino's journey to a fixture on the Sabres for the next six years has been long and full of ups and downs. Going forward, this season presents a whole new set of circumstances that he'll need to adjust to. He's going from big-city Philly to small-city Buffalo. He's moving from wing to center. His contract goes from $825K to $4.5M. But the saving grace for him, as he plays under the microscope in Buffalo, will be that he's replacing former Sabre Tim Connolly. Connolly was a whipping boy, deservedly or not, for a number of years and it won't take much for Leino to endear himself to the fan base and media in Buffalo.

One would expect Leino to surpass his 19 goals and 34 assists from last season, but to expect a breakout year may be asking too much. It will take some time for him to adjust. His capacity and desire to learn and grow in his new role will be key. Should he adapt well, it's not out of the question to see him pick things up in the latter part of the season and into the playoffs.

Derek Roy may find himself not
wearing a letter on his sweater.
Will it affect his game?
Derek Roy--A fixture in the top-six for the Sabres since 2007, Roy will continue in his role as 1A center on the team. There's no denying his consistent point production over that span and were it not for a season ending injury last year, he'd have been near the top of the Sabres scoring once again.

It's never been about production when it comes to Roy, though. It's always been whether or not he can ditch the sophomoric tendencies that he's clinged to since his placement in the top-six. As the season went on last year he seemed to ditch the immaturity--the diving, the complaining to referees--and was looking like a complete player.

Roy has always seemed to be at odds with Ruff and how he wants his team to play. In direct contrast to the team game Ruff wants to see, over the years we've seen too much of "Dipsy-doodle Derek" and his dangling-puck showmanship. Once again, though, that seemed to be abating last season before Roy's injury.

This is a signature moment for Roy as to how he's perceived by not only Ruff, but his teammates as well. The team went on a tear to reach the playoffs last season with him on the sidelines and the mantle of leadership may pass him by. He may not wear a letter this season and how he handles all of this may be a determining factor as to how he fits in to the Sabres plans beyond the season.

There's a new core rising and a set of leaders that are more in-tune with Ruff's five-men-as-a-unit concept than Roy seems to be.

Make no mistake, Derek Roy is a valuable component to the team as he's on the ice in all situations. Whether or not he can accept his diminished status and lead without being expected to be a leader is another story.
Sabres Alternate Captain,
Paul Gaustad, may not get big
minutes, but he's still a big man
 both on and off of the ice.

Paul Gaustad--"Goose" will anchor the bottom-six and dependent upon who's in the line up he'll either be on the third line or fourth line. Regardless of where he plays, he'll be expected to provide two things:  leadership and proficiency on the dot.

The 6'5", 225lb center has a presence about him both on and off of the ice. Were it not for his bottom-six role, he'd probably be the captain of the team, though it doesn't really matter. 

Gaustad will be looked to for his typical 10-15 goals and 30 points and as well as the staunch defense of his teammates in hostile situations. We'll also see him on the dot in a crucial face off situation as well.

"Goose" is a consummate veteran. He knows his role on the team and leads by example on the ice. We know he'll never be a "Jumbo" Joe Thorton in the scoring department, but he has shown the capacity to be a lesser Johan "The Mule" Franzen and I wouldn't be surprised if Gaustad's numbers took a decent jump if we see him centering the likes of Nathan Gerbe and Patrick Kaleta, a trio that worked together during the off season. That line has been solid lately.

Luke Adam--The determining factor as to whether or not, and where, Adam plays is the health of Jochen Hecht. Hecht still is not fully recovered from an inadvertent hit to the head by teammate Shaone Morrisonn early in training camp.

One thing we do know is that Adam is making strong push to be in the lineup for Friday's season opener versus Anaheim in Finland.

WGR beat reporter Paul Hamilton is adamant about the progress made by Adam ever since he was removed from linemates Zack Kassian and Marcus Foligno (both who've been sent Rochester) and placed in a top-six role centering Thomas Vanek and Jason Pominville (WGR audio 11:24-mark.) Adam seems to be much quicker and his hockey sense is getting much sharper and he seems to be adapting well to the speed of the game.

It remains to be seen just what Ruff will do on opening night, but there's a good possibility that Adam, because Hecht will not be in the lineup, will be a part of the roster, not in a bottom-six role, but up top. We know the kid can score and be a force in the AHL, what remains to be seen is what he can do with the big boys.

Jochen Hecht--As one of the Sabres best two-way forwards, Hecht will find himself in the bottom-six once he returns to from his concussion. Ruff really likes him because of his two-way play and because of his defensive work. But Hecht is no slouch when it comes to scoring. Twice in the past four years he's scored over 20 goals and he's averaged 40 points over the past six seasons.

Sabres fans cringe at the though of Hecht at center and would rather see him on the wing (actually most, because of his $3.5M salary, would like to see him gone.) Having Hecht in a bottom-six role for the last year of his contract is not a bad thing for the team, no matter what position he plays, and you can look for him to be a big part of the Sabres' penalty kill.

Left Wing and the Emerging Youngins 

Both left and right wings are loaded with talent on this edition of the Buffalo Sabres. But we'll move over to left wing and start with a player who's considered the biggest scoring threat on the team as of now...

Thomas Vanek looks good with
the "A" on his sweater. What else
is in store for the winger?
Thomas Vanek--Vanek has performed extremely well for the team as he continues on a path to a complete player. A lot has transpired since his early years with the Sabres both with the team and for Vanek himself.

He has passed through a multitude of thresholds which saw him go from being benched in the playoffs early in his career, to being a consistent threat over the last two playoff seasons and has probably matured more than any other "core" Sabre over that timespan. He has gone from bearing the weight of his ridiculous (at the time) contract to shouldering the mantle of leadership last season. And he's gone from pure offense to a player who Ruff may look to on the penalty kill (see 1:50 mark of WGR audio clip here).

Thomas Vanek has never scored less than 25 goals in his NHL career. He's surpassed 30 goals four times reaching 40 or more twice. And he can score in many ways including a wicked slapshot or a tip in while being harassed in front of the net.

Vanek also seems poised to take the reigns of leadership this season as he's being seriously considered for the captaincy of the team (which would be my personal choice.) Last off-season he took Drew Stafford under his wing and staff produced 31 goals in 62 games. This preseason he's been seen talking Luke Adam through the game, and Adam is poised to be on the opening night roster.

His maturation process has been fraught with pitfalls as he tried to live up to that mammoth contract he signed in 2007. He's now four years removed from that and seems comfortable with who he is and confident in his game.

He may not wear the "C" this season, but you can bet that he'll be wearing an "A" like he did last season. And one should expect continued production from him and his linemates as well as continued growth in his overall game.

Tyler Ennis--The charge of the yougins starts on the back-end with Tyler Myers. Up-front "the other Tyler" joins his namesake as "the new core" for the Buffalo Sabres.
"Greazy" is how Lindy Ruff
described Tyler Ennis last season.
As shown after his overtime game-
winner in Game 5 versus the
Flyers, the kids' got game.

Ennis had a very strong rookie season for the Sabres last year scoring 20 goals and adding 29 assists. This was after netting three goals and garnering six assists during a 10-game stint the previous season.

Ennis also showed he can contribute in the playoffs with three goals and five assists in 13 games and can be a clutch player as evidenced by his Game-5 overtime winner versus the Flyers last season.

The former center who now plays on the wing will be expected to be Ville Leino's "Daniel Briere" this season. Leino and Briere, along with Scott Hartnell made for a formidable line in Philly.

It's a lot of responsibility for the (soon to be, like, tomorrow) 22 year old, but Ennis seems like the type of player who has enough confidence in his game to handle it.

What would constitute a breakout year for the 5'9", 160lb center? Who knows? He'll be adapting to a new center who's new to his position as well. Hell, we're not even sure of any line combinations at this point. But if Ennis were to equal or surpass his regular season output and continue to produce in the playoffs, I'd say that's a damn good start to his career.

Nathan Gerbe--At one point last season it looked as if Gerbe and his 5'5", 180lb frame would be shipped to the AHL because of his inconsistent/poor play. But a funny thing happened on the way to Portland--he got "it" and stuck with the big club.

Late in December he added consistency to his game and it built his confidence. Then in January he started scoring some goals, which furthered his confidence. Then, as the team was transitioning to new ownership on a three-game home losing streak, he buried a puck at center ice as a way to end the team's home futility. The team finished with a 9-1-2 home record after that punctuated by a win versus Philadelphia in the last home game of the regular season. Gerbe netted the game-tying goal on this wicked backhand:

Still young and finding his game, the short, stocky fireplug exudes leadership and a fierceness that his teammates feed off of. He'll be relegated to third-line minutes this season behind Vanek and Ennis, but it wouldn't be surprising to see him hit the 20 goal, 40 point mark. In addition, you'll see Gerbe on the ice during the power play and on the penalty kill. He's also earned the confidence of Ruff to where he'll be on the ice in crucial game-ending situations.

Gerbe, unlike last season, is not being taken lightly by anyone in hockey. He's mentioned behind the likes of Ehrhoff and Leino, Vanek, Ennis and Myers, Pominville and Roy and Miller. But he is being mentioned as an impact player for the team.

Cody McCormick--A fan favorite because of his blue-collar, balls-to-the-wall style of play. McCormick is energy and on the fourth line, he'll provide it. He can score as well.

The versatile forward will be playing either center or left wing for the club dependent upon the health of the Sabres forwards. But no matter where he plays, you can bet he'll be playing smash-mouth hockey to the applause of Sabres fans.

Big Money On the Right Wing

$5.3M, $4M and $4M.

Those are the cap-hits for top-nine RW's Jason Pominville, Drew Stafford and Brad Boyes respectively. All of them have hit the 30-goal plateau at one point in their careers (Boyes netted 43 one season,) yet one of these $4M+ players will be "relegated" to third-line minutes. Which, when put into perspective, is a good thing when the Sabres roll three, maybe four, lines.

Jason Pominville--Arguably the Sabres best two-way forward and a strong candidate to wear the "C."

Pomville is rock-solid in all facets of the game--top-line winger, 1st unit power play, 1st unit penalty kill and go-to guy in the waning minutes of a tight game. His understated style of play goes largely unnoticed by the causal fan and his $5.3M contract is often times said to be albatross-like.

"Pommer" is paid what he's paid. That's it. Whether grossly overpaid or not is up for discussion, but there's no denying that his all around game is sorely missed when he's not on the ice, something that's was a rarity up until last season as he played full seasons in the four years prior to last season.

The biggest hit to the team in his absence was on the penalty kill last season and in the playoffs as well. As a quiet scorer, he's somehow managed to average .80 points per game over the last five seasons including 80 points in 2007/08. In the four years prior to last, he's never had less than 20 goals or 62 points.

Pominville is comfortable in himself and his game and has the respect of both coach and teammates. He will be wearing a letter like he's done for the past four seasons. And a letter looks right on his uniform.
Were Drew Staffords numbers
last season an aberration?
Or will it be the norm?

Drew Stafford--"The Enigma" Just what "Staff" will bring to the table this season is not known. We do know that his inconsistencies over the past three seasons have been maddening.

Will he use his 6'2", 215lb frame to the fullest? Will he continue to work the corners with velcro on his stick? How will he mesh with his probable linemates Ennis and Leino? Can we expect him to score in bunches and possibly surpass his 31 goals from last season? Is he capable of 40 goals? Will he be able to transfer regular season success into the playoffs?

Maybe it all hinges upon whether or not he put his "guitar-hero" dreams on hold to focus on hockey. He said he did that last year and he scored at a half-a-goal/game clip.

He's always had the tools, but rarely showed desire up until last season.

Staff will be looked upon as a key cog in the Sabres offense this season. And it's good to see that Ruff has enough faith in his defensive game to put him out on the penalty kill.

What it comes down to with Stafford is whether he wants to be John Leclair or Steve Bernier.

Brad Boyes--The former 40 goal scorer may be the one to end up with third line minutes. But, more importantly, Boyes will be playing on the wing instead of center.

Ruff has said on more than one occasion that without Boyes, the Sabres may not have made the playoffs. And that's true.

As for the playoffs? Simply put--fail. Was it because of his position? or was it because he just doesn't have what it takes to succeed in the post season?

Boyes' lone 40-goal season came when "the New NHL" was still alive back in the 2007/08 season. It was still a hands-off league at the time and perimeter players were able to put up points without interference from the opposition. But the league has changed and it's tougher to score goals. Many now, just like in the playoffs, coming from the "bloody nose" areas down low. And, so far, Boyes hasn't shown a willingness to go into those areas.

If that changes, and he can at least provide 20-25 goals playing third-line minutes, the Sabres top-nine will give the opposition fits.

Patrick Kaleta--Stay healthy and don't get stupid.

Everyone knows Kaleta's game. He is the gadfly, the antagonist, the pest that the opposition hates. Buffalonians love him though. And it helps that he's a native.

Kaleta's problem, due to who he is and his style of play, has been injuries. Not once over the past four seasons has he played more than 55 games.

But, the kid knows his role and he provides a 60-minute motor in overdrive on the energy line. He can score goals and put up points, but will never be confused with Dale Hunter or Claude Lemieux, but if he can channel his energies more in the direction of production instead of destruction, he may surprise a lot of people.

Matt "Friggen" Ellis--Ellis will straddle the AHL and NHL this season. When he plays in Rochester, which will be most of the season, he'll be their captain. When he's up in Buffalo he'll be logging fourth-line energy minutes and displaying a knack for working the corners and playing keep away along the wall. A character guy through and through, Ellis is a good player to have in the organization, one who not only accepts his role, but relieshes it.

Lindy Ruff and Chan Gailey Have One Thing In Common

All in all, the 2011/12 edition of the Buffalo Sabres is deep up front with one persistent hole--#1 center. Their strength is on the wings and the fact that at least three of the four lines will represent a threat to score will help negate their lone weakness.

They have scorers, two-way players, size, skill, energy and some attitude. As constructed they'll need to embrace the philosophy of "the whole is greater than the sum of it's parts" to reach the promised land.

One should expect that this team's style of play up-front will be leaning towards the "Ferrari" of the 2006/07 team where Ruff rolled four lines while saying "stop me if you can." They don't have top-two centers like Briere and Drury, but they have plenty of speed and more grit up-front than that edition.

Lindy Ruff's line combinations will be a work in progress, as injuries and chemistry affect them. And he gets angry when lines are mentioned as first, second, third...etc.

What he's probably looking at are forwards that are interchangeable in his "five-men-as-a-unit" scheme. Looking for forwards to be all-in no matter which role they find themselves. Looking for them to play "out of character" and willing to do what's necessary in any given situation. Looking for as much desire in their own zone as they have in the opposition's.

Chan Gailey, head coach of the Buffalo Bills, has been able to hide offensive deficiencies through his game planning. His weaknesses on the o-line have been covered to the point where the team has one of the most highly rated offenses in the league. This is without a "franchise" quarterback.

The Sabres will be looking to do the same thing. Without a true #1 center up front, Ruff will be hiding that deficiency through depth.

And as the Boston Bruins proved last season without their #1 center, Marc Savard, it can work.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Sabres 2011/12 Season Preview Part. 2--Behind the Blueline

You cannot discount the fact the Terry Pegula had the opportunity to clean house when he took over the team in February.

But he, and Senior Hockey Advisor Ken Sawyer, along with right-hand man and Team President Ted Black decided to retain the longest tenured GM/Coaching tandem in the NHL--Darcy Regier and Lindy Ruff.

With Regier, Pegula did his "due diligence" and said that no one he talked to had a bad thing to say about the GM.

For Ruff, it was cut and dry, "Lindy ain't goin' nowhere," Pegula proclaimed.

Both Regier and Ruff have strenghts and weaknesses, and both have been at odds with personnel choices, but one thing they both firmly believe in is the old NHL adage--build from the goal out.

And that's where we'll start as we look at the product on the ice.

Built From the Goal Out

In goal is 31 yr. old Ryan Miller, who is entering his ninth season with the team. The former Vezina winner and US Olympic Silver Medalist will, once again, be looked to as a big part of the team's foundation.

Miller is coming off of a below average 2011/12 regular season, a season in which both he and the team started the year in a deep funk. The team pulled out of the mess that was the first six weeks of the season and went on a tear in the 2011 portion which propelled them to the #7 seed in the Eastern Conference. Miller went 20-10-4 with a 2.50 gaa and four shutouts during 2011.

Although he'll never steal game after game like legendary Sabres goaltender Dominic Hasek, and although he'll never be an elite workhorse like the NJ Devils Martin Brodeur, Miller often times looks impenetrable in net and is regarded as one of the best goalies in the league.

His successes are often interwoven with, and his failures can be directly related to, the team in front of him, especially his defense. This season the defense is much stronger than last and may be even stronger than the one that played in front of him two years ago when he won the Vezina, so there's no reason he shouldn't be in that talk again.

Jhonas Enroth worked his
way into the role of
Ryan Miller's back up.
Goalie-prospect Jhonas Enroth made the jump to legit-NHL'er last season when he wrestled the reigns of backup from Patrick Lalime. His work in net has instills a sense of confidence in the skaters in front of him. It's not so much Enroth's numbers, it's the presence he has on the ice and how the team responds with him in goal. In fact, if you look a Lalime's last full season as Miller's back up in 2009/10 and compare them to Enroth's from last season, they're almost identical, except in the most important column--the win column.

Going forward, it looks as if the Sabres could have one of the top goaltending tandems in the league.

Regier Reinforces the Defense Corps

There's no doubt that the Sabres have some pretty good young d-men with bright futures ahead of them. Last year youngsters like Andrej Sekera and Chris Butler found themselves on the top pairing while another one, Marc-Andre Gragnani was played himself into big minutes late in the season and into the playoffs. It was unbalanced, though, leaning heavily towards the youth end of the equation and during the playoffs while facing a veteran-laden, tenacious Philly team their inconsistencies were exposed.

The Pegula-effect takes hold here, as the owner's drive to take care of business immediately lead to Regier bringing in two vets to bolster the top-pairings on defense--Robyn Regehr and Christian Ehroff.

Both players will be directly linked to the ownership of Terry Pegula and the teams' quest for the Stanley Cup and both players add dimensions that were lacking last year--Regehr's top-pairing, physical, stay-at-home style and Ehrhoff's offensive/power play acumen.

New Sabres d-man Robyn Regehr
will be adding some snarl
to the Sabres blueline.
Robyn Regehr--Everyone in the league knows what the former Calgary Flame brings to the table. He'll never be confused with Mike Green in the scoring department, nor will he be confused with former Sabre Hank Tallinder for his skating. But the big, gritty d-man brings an edge to the Sabres top-pairing that they haven't had since Jay McKee left. Regehr's big. And he's mean. And he has a sense of humor too. During a preseason game versus Montreal, Regehr deposited the Canadians Aaron Palushaj into their bench. When asked about it he had this to say, "I had an opportunity to line a guy up along the boards in front of their bench. I’ve only played out east occasionally being with a Western Conference team, so I took the opportunity to introduce myself to the guys on the opposing bench."

Christian Ehrhoff--The uproar over Erhoff's signing to a 10-year, $40m contract was loud and furious. That was until the preseason and Erhoff showed why he was brought on board. He a smooth skater who finds open ice. He can set-up a teammate or unleash a lethal shot that can get through traffic and find the back of the net. There are some question marks concerning his defense, but what we've seen thus far in the preseason, they may be somewhat overblown.

The Sabres had the 9th best power play in the league last season, and nabbing Ehroff, who came from the #1 power play in the league in Vancouver, should only enhance that. The misnomer on Ehrhoff is that he's a power play quarterback, but here's what he brought to table (from Vancouver Sun,) "the Canucks used him as a roamer, a fourth forward, of sorts. Often, the other members of the Canuck powerplay would form a diamond around the opposition’s four-man box, then have Ehrhoff drop down inside of it. Either the box collapsed, opening up room on the outside, or it didn’t, and a narrow passing lane to Ehrhoff opened up to be exploited."

Ehrhoff is coming off of back-to-back 14 goal seasons to a team that was in the top five in defense scoring. With his ability to find open ice and his wicked shot, there's no reason why the Sabres shouldn't continue to be one of the top teams in the league for scoring by defensemen.

Tyler Myers--Make no mistake, Myers is the future of the Buffalo Sabres rear-guard and were it not for the above acquisitions and their importance to the team, Myers would've had top-billing here.

Tyler Myers is adding
physicality to his already
impressive game.
Meyers is a franchise defenseman who was just signed to a franchise-like 7-year, $38.5m contract that both he and the Sabres are glad they got out of the way before he reached RFA status. Said Pegula, "It's a good felling to know that the players and the team are doing things quick. We didn't even know that Tyler wanted to get things over with this year and we said, 'Let's start talking about Tyler. The fact that it happens like that quick, it's a good feeling to know that he wants to be here, we want him.

Myers is 6'8" and can skate like a breeze, has a firm grasp on when to jump into the play, is solid in his own end and is a former Calder Trophy winner who dismissed his sophomore slump midway through last season. Even better, at 21 yrs. old Myers still has tremendous upside.

The scary part of Myers is that in addition to his skating, defense and offensive acumen he's beginning to develop an attitude. Being paired with Regehr this season will only further his development in the physicality department.

All-in-all, the Sabres went from top-three featuring youngin's like Myers, Butler and Sekera to one that now features a franchise d-man augmented by two top-four vets--both of whom have made it to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals.

The Bottom-Four

Jordan Leopold--Leopold logged the most average time on ice of any Sabres player last year, which might be surprising to some fans. Unfortunately, those minutes lead to a season that was very inconsistent and ended up the the d-man a team worst minus-11. Taking a look at last season, it's pretty obvious that Leopold was put in situations that were just out of reach for him. With Regehr, Ehrhoff and Myers locking down big minutes in big situations, Leopold should be in a position to succeed as he settles into a #4/5 role on the team. He's a puck-mover who can join the rush and put up points who will now be doing it mostly versus the opposition's second and third lines as well as taking his place on the Sabres second power play unit.

Andrej Sekera--Once again, as the top spots on d are filled competently by those who can play to that level, those in lesser roles will be in a position to succeed, and Sekera should benefit immensely by being in the bottom-pairing. Sekera's a puck-mover who has had severe brain-cramps on the back-end. On the opposite end of the spectrum, he did have flashes of brilliance last season during a stretch while paired with Myers. He's still relatively young and is still battling consistency issues so the best thing for him and the team right now would be for "Rej" to hone his game as a bottom-pairing d-man striving to reach the top-four.

Mike Weber clears Daniel Carcillo
from Ryan Miller's crease during
the playoffs last season.
Mike Weber--When you look at Weber, ya gotta say to yourself, "here's a man who's paid his dues." As a rookie call-up late in 2007/08, Weber put together a stretch of 16 games during the Sabres failed playoff push, where he was a plus-12. Unfortunately an injury the following season derailed any plans to stay with the Sabres in 2008/09. He had an unremarkable 7-game stint with the club that season, 42 with the Portland Pirates, then spent the entire 2009/10 season in Portland working his way back.

Last season he forced his way into the line up after being rotated in and out early on. He played 58 games for the team and finished second in plus/minus with a +13.

Weber's worth should not be closely tied to numbers, though. The big, physical Pittsburgh native plays a Regehr-type stay-at-home physical game and has no problem clearing the crease for his goalie. Just ask Daniel Carcillo.

For as big and nasty as he is, Weber is very adept in his own end with the outlet pass. Sure, he's had some blunders, as do nearly all 23 yr. olds. But he seems to be able to recover rather quickly.

As with Leopold and Sekera, the competency up top will put him in a position to succeed on the bottom-pairing.

Marc-Andre Gragnani is looking
to build upon a stellar appearance
late last season and into the playoffs.
Marc-Andre Gragnani--Simply put, Grags was a revelation during the playoffs last season vs. the Philadelphia Flyers. He lead the team in points with seven, averaged over 21 minutes per game and was one of two regular d-man not to be in the minus column as he and Leopold logged an even plus/minus rating.

Not bad for a late-season call-up who played all of nine regular season games for the team.

During the preseason, Grags did not look out of place beside Ehrhoff on the second pairing (WGR audio clip :30-mark) and it wouldn't be surprising to see him, Leopold and possibly Sekera playing quality minutes in the top-four. Based upon his play last season, it wouldn't surprise me to see Grags firmly entrenched in that #4 role by season's end.

The Skinny

At the end of last season, it was obvious that some of the biggest holes were on the back-end. It was not so much lack of talent as it was youthful inconsistency. Pegula and his charges didn't hesitate when the opportunity arose to fortify the d. Regehr and Ehrhoff, along with Myers, will be taking charge of top minutes, allowing for the rest of the d-corps to fall into place in roles more suitable to their talents and experience.

The Sabres defense will be the force that drives the team this season and may be the best group of players they've had in a long, long time. They're a diverse group, a nice mix of vets and youngsters that can defend, move the puck, score and hit. They have size, speed and grit as well. And with the goaltending tandem of Miller and Enroth back-stopping the defense corps, teams are gonna have their hands full in every area of the ice.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Sabres 2011/12 Season Preview. Part 1, It's Starts At the Top

It's a great 1:18 video that does what a cartoon should do, take a situation and amplify it to an extreme.

All the talk in the NHL is about the Sabres new owner Terry Pegula and what he's done for the franchise by opening up his wallet as he and the team pursue the Stanley Cup. And it should be. This type of commitment from ownership hasn't been seen since the Knox days.

It's true, Pegula has changed the financial dynamics of the team and spent a ton this off season to acquire, and retain, talent. And he's not shy about admitting it either, "This notation that we're spending more money than the other teams," he said at the Tyler Myers contract extension press conference, "we had some things we needed to address, and we have a timeline, so why wait two years to do it. We tried to take care of immediate needs early."

Salary's aside (although his financial wherewithal should in no way be discounted,) Pegula was intent upon changing the culture of the team--from compete hard to win--as well as changing the relationship between upper management and their charges--from a cold business to a family. "Believe it or not," he said, "I've never made a decision in my life based on money, it was always based on what I believed was right and what I thought should be done."

A lesser known example of this would be the story of long time Rochester Americans trainer, AHL Hall of Famer, Kent Weisbeck. Weisbeck was in Rochester for 26 years. When the Sabres announced their return after a three year stint in Portland, Weisbeck was out because the organization really liked the man they'd worked with in Portland. Pegula did what he considered the right thing to do, he created a new position with the Amerks for the re-hiring of Weisbeck.

Any owner with deep pockets can throw money around like a drunken sailor, and Pegula showed he's unafraid to shell out big bucks. When asked at the Myers press conference whether he knew how much he'd spent on the team from contracts to renovations, he said, "I don't know the number...I don't care."

But the Pegula-effect goes deper than that. "We're investing our hearts," he said, "and want to make the Buffalo Sabres a first-class organization."

As the team starts the 2011/12 regular season, it's first full season under Pegula's ownership, they have a sound foundation and an unabashed commitment from ownership to pursue the ultimate goal--and the reason for the Sabres existence--to win the Stanley Cup.

It all starts at the top.

You cannot stop me, for I am unstoppable.