Monday, January 14, 2013

Answering the prognosticators, Part

'Tis the season for the "experts" to chime in on the 2013 NHL season.

Some are right, some are wrong. Some are close. But, usually, outside the top teams like Pittsburgh, Vancouver and the NY Rangers, prognosticators are too far removed and simply grab some scraps, stats and transactions to justify their placement of a specific team.

Conversely, sometimes those close to the team have their team-colored glasses on and fail to find definitive flaws on their team.

There have been a number of "experts" chiming in on the Buffalo Sabres and where they might start/end up in this abbreviated 2013 NHL season. Chronologically we could go back to last summer for the Hockey News.

But, instead, we'll start by heading to Sports and writer Adrian Dater.

Forget the fact that Dater is based in a state that legalized marijuana during the last election. Forget also that he placed the Edmonton Oilers at #3 behind Pittsburgh and the NY Rangers (he asks his readers to check back in a few months, expecting the Oilers to get off to a strong start with a number of their core players have been playing in the AHL the past few months.)

Other than that little blip, Dater does some yeoman's work in his placement of teams and his reasonings behind that placement.

For the Sabres he has them at #21 surrounded by Ottawa (#19,) Winnipeg (20,) Dallas (22,) and San Jose (23, because, he says, the Sharks have too much "failed playoff baggage" coming into the season.)

With the Sabres at #21 he writes:
They got red hot late in the year and nearly snuck into the postseason. But other than adding super-pest Steve Ott, they didn't do a whole lot to the roster in the off-season. The defense and goaltending have some big names, but underachieved too much of last season. It just seems like this team is a little off composition-wise. They spent a lot of money before last season, but got little in return. It'll be up to guys like Christian Ehrhoff, Robyn Regehr and Ville Leino to give more proof that they were worth more than they showed in 2011-12.

His overall assertion that "it just seems like [Buffalo] is a little off composition-wise" is pretty much right on.

After going with "the core" post-Chris Drury/Daniel Briere the Sabres are somewhat of a transitional period moving away from the "soft-but-skilled" team of the past five seasons into a grittier one. This has been a directive from Uncle Terry Pegula since he took over the team, "I want to keep not only statistically good players," he said at the press conference, "but winners, gritty players."

Pegula's introduction to hockey was in the mid-70's, stating that "It was the Flyers-style of play that got him into it." That would be the "Broadstreet Bullies" style of play during that time.

"Then I moved to Western New York," he continued, "and I became more or less a Buffalo Sabres fan [The French Connection and Co.]... The Flyers and Sabres played for the Stanley Cup, and it was difficult. I liked both teams."

The transition to a "grittier" team actually began before Pegula took he reigns when the powers that be realized that their team, as constructed, would need to get bigger and tougher. It started back in 2008 with the trade for Craig Rivet. Then in 2009 they continued that thought process during the NHL Draft. In that draft the team picked Zack Kassian, Brayden McNabb and Marcus Foligno--all big prospects who had an edge to their game--to beef up their "soft-but-skilled" team.

Through the acquisitions of defenseman Robyn Regehr (2011 off-season) and Steve Ott (2012 off-season) and the signing of free agent heavyweight John Scott, there's no question where the team is headed.

And it should serve the team well. The Milan Lucic/Ryan Miller incident from November, 2011 really exposed how fragile this team was and seemed to serve as a wake-up call. The "Big, Bad Bruins v. 2011" showed that intimidation could nullify what skill the team had.

Will it come out this season?

No question their overall skill-level went down a bit as Derek Roy, one of their top scorers over the past five seasons was sent packing in exchange for Ott.

And that's where Dater is right on as Ehrhoff and Leino will need to pick up the slack after unimpressive (or dismal in the case of Leino) seasons in 2011/12.

But picking up the slack should not rest fully on their shoulders. LW Thomas Vanek, RW Drew Stafford and D Tyler Myers all had off-seasons a year ago, and all will need to contribute. They'll also need contributions from newly annointed top-two centers Cody Hodgson and Tyler Ennis.

The 2013 edition of the Sabres is, in fact, "a little off composition-wise." Like many other teams they lack a true superstar, so meaningful contributions by committee will be the key to their success, not only on offense, but defense as well.

All-in-all, it will be the responsibility of Head Coach Lindy Ruff to put the pieces together. It's a drastically different team from the one they had two seasons ago, especially down the middle, and he'll need to turn a team that may be "off a little composition-wise" into a cohesive, two-way unit.

That's what coaches are hired to do.

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