It's the middle of August, a month from training camp and less than two months from opening day.
Shane Doan still hasn't made up his mind, the NHL and NHLPA have yet to begin serious negotiations on a new collective bargaining agreement and the Buffalo Bills travel to Minnesota tonight for their second preseason game.
Yet. the predictions have begun (not that I'm against early predictions.)
Coming in at #7 in the Eastern Conference, according to The Hockey News...the Buffalo Sabres.
Before we delve into the short, one paragraph reasoning, it should be noted that the teams behind them are:
11. New Jersey
15. NY Islanders
A case can be made that the bubble in the Eastern Conference this season should be a wild race (maybe moreso than last season) as solid teams (FL and NYJ both made the playoffs with the Devils making it to the Stanely Cup Final) battle it out.
Here's why, they say, the Sabres will finish 7th:
The high expectations on the Sabres last season were immediately tempered by a collective stumble out of the gate – and while they made a valiant playoff push late in the year, it wasn’t enough. That should tell you this is a team that has to maintain its hardworking identity established under coach Lindy Ruff all season long to keep pace in the East. With new additions Steve Ott and John Scott, they’ll certainly have more grit to dole out. You know Ryan Miller will hold up his end of the bargain between the pipes, so the questions that will decide the Sabres season are: Can the big acquisitions from the summer of 2011 step up? Can Cody Hodgson become a true No. 1? Can Tomas Vanek return to 40-goal form?
"The collective stumble out of the gate" was Milan Lucic pushing the Sabres down to the ground and taking their lunch money.
This is a team, with "the core" as it's feature, that was completely exposed for the soft, easy to play against team that they have been for years. Possibly going back all the way to 2001 when Michael Peca was traded for Tim Connolly and Taylor Pyatt. In fact, one could make the argument that they've been the same team for over ten years and the only reason for any success is that the league changed and made it easy on them and other teams built like them.
The Lucic/Ryan Miller incident sent the Sabres in a downward spiral that reached all the way to a team record 12-game losing streak in December/January.
They did get their act together--thanks in part Miller playing like a Vezina candidate, the return from injuries of various defensemen as well as Tyler Ennis, Drew Stafford and Marcus Foligno lighting things up as a line--and the team almost made the playoffs.
But, almost was not good enough.
Owner Terry Pegula dished out millions in the 2011 off season and expected a long playoff run. This team embarrassed him throughout the first two-thirds of the season (including an 8-3 manhandling by the Pittsburgh Penguins with Pegula in the owners box) and it's no surprise that the Sabres are going through a make-over.
"Core" center Derek Roy was traded to Dallas for rugged Steve Ott. All-NHL tough-guy/pugilist and mountain of a man John Scott was signed as a free agent. And with their 2nd first-round pick this year, they drafted a hard-working, gritty, north-south center nicknamed "the Latvian Locomotive," Zemgus Girgensons.
Also of note in this transition, soft-but skilled players like oft-injured Jochen Hecht will not be re-signed, deer in headlights, "offensive" defenseman Marc-Andre Gragnani was traded, and perimeter forward Brad Boyes signed with the NY Islanders. Big, semi-soft center Paul Gaustad was also traded away.
Trading Roy and Gaustad means that the team has made a complete overhaul of the center position in the five seasons post-Chris Drury/Daniel Briere, and because of it, there certainly questions at the pivot (although there have been questions for the past five seasons as well.)
Looking for Cody Hodgson to be the #1 center is valid and may be key to the success of the team, but you also must take into account Ennis as well.
Ennis and his linemates were the hottest line in the NHL for the final three weeks of the season, and he really seemed to come into his own when moved from wing to the pivot.
Should they remain together and produce, a lot of pressure will be taken off of Hodgson.
One must remember, though, both of those players are still only 22 yrs. old.
The Hockey News is also correct in right focusing upon the Sabres upfront, because their defense, when healthy, is solid and deep.
There's still a long way (maybe longer, if the league does lock out the players...again) to go before they hit the ice. And the Sabres, as all bubble teams do, have holes.
The Sabres' big question mark remains the center position, as it has, really, for the last five seasons. But they'll be headed into the season a bigger, grittier team and that should go a long way in keeping them in the playoff mix, in the very least, for the upcoming season.