Thursday, January 17, 2013

Answering the prognosticators--Part 3, Kevin Allen, USA Today

Most of the pundits are looking at the off-season trade for noted NHL pest Steve Ott and the signing of enforcer John Scott as defining the Sabres this summer as well as into the season. While USA Today's Kevin Allen does acknowledge that in his Northeast Division preview, he also directs his attention to some areas of concern for the Buffalo Sabres--mainly goals and goalie, Ryan Miller.

Allen's storyline for the team:  "The Sabres are looking for more goals, grit and gumption."

When the Sabres traded for Ott, it cost them one of their most consistent scorers in C Derek Roy. After being the top point producer on the team for three years running (2007-2009,) Roy was felled by an injury in the 2010/11 season and appeared in only 35 games, yet he was still on a point/game pace that would have lead the team again.

Last season, though, Roy's numbers took a precipitous drop and the team finished 18th in the league in goals/game. With him now in Dallas, the Sabres will need to replace his production.

The "tried and true" for Buffalo in the production department include Captain Jason Pominville, who has averaged about 25 goals a season since the lockout ended, and Thomas Vanek. Vanek lead the team in goals from 2006 to 2011 but finished second in goals last season with 26, his lowest total since his rookie year.

Both, be it noted, are wingers. After Pominville and Vanek, the Sabres will be drifting into the relative unknown when it comes to top-six scoring.

Another winger, Drew Stafford, has been wildly inconsistent in both production and effort, over the past few seasons, mostly on the negative side.

Three other Sabres will be looked at to produce on a full-time/top-six basis-- C Tyler Ennis, C Cody Hodgson and LW Marcus Foligno, none of whom are over the age of 23.

Ennis centered Foligno and Stafford late last season and that line became a force for the team as they made an ill-fated drive to reach the post-season. That line will be together, at least to start the season, and the impetus will be on them to continue to produce, hopefully somewhere close to the incredible pace they were at last season.

Vanek and Pominvlle will be centered by Hodgson this season (again, at least to start.) Just how that line gels is yet to be determined. Head Coach Lindy Ruff had always insisted upon Roy between the two even though in many instances it clearly wasn't clicking. He also continually references having chemistry between at least two of the linemates, so inserting a new center in Hodgson--or even 18 yr. old C Mikhail Grigorenko--should be very workable.

For most of the season, outside of Roy, the Sabres were severely lacking talent down the middle--look at the failures of Brad Boyes and Ville Leino at center--hence the trade for Hodgson. And in a chance move, Ennis found himself at center after playing the wing previously.

With Ennis and Hodgson slated for top-six center duties, the 3rd and 4th line centers are still somewhat of a question mark. The third line will be of the utmost importance as Ruff looks to roll three lines in this sprint of an NHL season. Ott and Leino will be on the wings there and may up being centered by long-time Sabre, Jochen Hecht who was just re-signed to a one year contract.

The wild card in all of this, though, is Grigorenko.

The highly skilled junior is presently working on a line with Ott and Leino and has been under great scrutiny, yet has received rave reviews thus far. That line is said to have great chemistry and should Grigorenko make the team and they stick together, it would allow all of their centers to fall into place with Hecht falling to the fourth line.

Sabres fans must keep in mind, though, that Grigorenko would be the youngest player to stick with the team in the 15-year Darcy Regier/Ruff era.

Scoring will be a concern for the team, although there is a lot of skill in the top six. The third line, even with veteran Hecht at center should be able to produce. Add in Ruff looking to roll three lines instead of four and there's no reason why they shouldn't climb higher than #18 in goals/game, last seasons finish.

Allen is also correct at directing team success towards the play of Miller.

Miller was often looked upon as an elite goalie post-lockout, but last season looked average at best on way too many occasions finishing with a 2.55 gaa and a .916 sv.% (both, btw, right around his career averages.)

This will be a telling year for the 30 yr. old netminder. There really are no excuses for him, and in a shortened season there's no reason that he should be out of focus at any time. In a 48-game schedule the playoffs start immediately and Miller needs to be on his game from the get-go.

It seems as if all three things Allen focuses upon--Ott and Scott, scoring, and Miller--are all interrelated as is his "goals, grit and gumption" storyline for the team.

Ott and Scott bring an abrasiveness and toughness to the team. That they need to provide additional cover for the skilled players as well as Miller--no stranger to being run at--can not be overemphasized.

One needs to look no further than what transpired in Ottawa last season to see the positive results of adding grit and toughness to the team, especially in a division that has the Bruins. As previously mentioned in, In Defense of John Scott, the Sens bulked up in 2011 and went from #29 in goals/game in the 2010/11 season to #4 last season. They went from a 13th place finish and a -58 goal differential in 2010/11 to an 8th place finish and a +9 differential during their "rebuilding" year in 2011/12.

Will "grit" lead to "gumption" and ultimately lead to more goals for, fewer goals against and a playoff spot for the team this season?

Allen has the Sabres finishing 9th in the conference with an outside chance of making the playoffs, which is par for the course in many of the season previews.

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