Sunday, January 20, 2013

Let's roll

The long wait for hockey fans was over yesterday as the 2013 season got underway. Twenty-six teams went at it while fans in Buffalo chomped at the bit, waiting for their own opener which is today. Today at 12:30 on NBC--the lone game on national television vs. Philly who lost their opener yesterday afternoon.

The theme for this season seems to be leaning towards few things:  the transition from "the core" of old to "the new core," a tougher Sabres team to play against, and where they'll find more scoring.

Tyler Ennis, Cody Hodgson, Tyler Myers, Marcus Foligno and, now, Mikhail Grigorenko all represent pieces of "the new core" and will be expected to fill their roles competently. Unlike GM Darcy Regier's "core" from the 2007/08 season, this group will not only have a ton of veteran leadership around them, but they will also have true top-line/top-six talent surrounding them. Plus they'll have more grit and toughness on the team, more than any since the late-90's "hardest working team in hockey."

On paper, it wasn't hard to get caught up in the potential of the Sabres the last two seasons as new owner Terry Pegula took the reigns and cut the financial chains.

That lead to the 2011/12 season as one of heightened expectations. Unfortunately it ended up in disappointment. Ready-made excuses were built in to the failure of last year, mainly injuries and lack of center depth, not to mention the Milan Lucic/Miller incident, but it was a failure regardless.

In this shortened 2013 NHL season, the Eastern Conference looks to be wide open outside the typical heavyweights like Pittsburgh, Boston and the NY Rangers. Yet, any team can get off to a slow start to the season or go into a funk at some point, leaving them vulnerable to a hot rival.

Even in the Northeast Division, Boston is the prohibitive favorite, but they have a backup goalie taking over the reigns as full time starter, which is a difficult transition. Goaltending woes--whether a slump or injury to the #1 and/or a less than adequate back-up--could send a favorite down the conference battling for a playoff spot. So, a division crown isn't a lock for the B's this season, although it's clearly theirs to loose.

Still, with so many questions at the foot of Washington St. heading into the season, it would be hard to predict the Sabres finishing atop the Northeast.

Those questions include:  Will there be a definitive impact on the grit and toughness side of the equation from Steve Ott and John Scott? Will last year's hottest line of Ennis, Foligno and Drew Stafford continue to produce? How will 18 yr. old rookie Mikhail Grigorenko pan out? Will goalie Ryan Miller be able to focus completely through a 48 game season? Will back-up Jhonas Enroth be able to hold the fort while Miller gets a day off? Can defensemen Myers and Christian Ehrhoff stay healthy and up their poor-to-average production from last season? How will Lindy Ruff coach the team? Will he find chemistry throughout the line-up? Will the trade of Derek Roy be a positive (team chemistry, more heart) or a negative (lost scoring.) And so on.

Puckdaddy's Greg Wyshinski predicts that the second place finisher in the division will make the playoffs, and I concur. He also picks Buffalo to finish ahead of Ottawa and make the playoffs and I concur, once again.

Methinks the Sabres followed a similar path this season to what Ottawa did last year by adding more grit and toughness and they should be, like Wychynski said, "a pain to play against."

The Sabres, although flawed and incredibly young down the middle, should have enough firepower to at least match their offensive ranking last season (18th.) They have a legitimate top-line winger in Thomas Vanek and a legitimate top-six two-way player in Jason Pominville. They have a possible top-six winger in Ott who will be on the third line.

They have a solid enough defense to keep the opposition in check and they have a former Vezina-winner in goal with Ryan Miller--who may not need to be elite, only strong--to help carry the team into the post-season.

Add in some veteran leadership up and down the lineup and you have a team that should be able to hold its own in any contest this season.

Plus, most on the team have been playing under Ruff for a number of years. That continuity may be critical in this sprint of a season.

About the only thing that may hold this team back is over-coaching by Ruff. Nearly all of his players know "the system" and it will be up to him and his coaching staff to offer tweaks instead of drastic changes .

This team could realistically finish anywhere from 6th to 10th in the conference this season, so we'll split down the middle and predict they finish 8th.

A look at some players and the affect they may have upon team success this season.

W/C, Steve Ott and W/D, John Scott--Ott was brought in for his gritty play and his ability to skate a regular, top-nine shift. Scott was brought in to protect his teammates. Both are on the team to make the Sabres tougher to play against as well as make the skill players fell a bit more comfortable. The Northeast Division is rough, and the Eastern Conference is getting bigger and tougher. Ottawa trotted out four tough, gritty players last season and ended up making the playoffs. Will it work in Buffalo this season?

D, Tyler Myers--At one point, during his Calder-winning rookie season, Myers was looked at as a perennial Norris candidate. Since then his production, has taken a precipitous drop. The tall, lanky defenseman worked hard over the summer to add a little bulk and spent some time with Nashville Predators defensman Shea Weber over the summer hoping to add a definitive edge to his game. He will be looked at to add more production and to stay healthy.

D, Christian Ehrhoff--Ehrhoff is another d-man whose production was off from the previous year, going from consecutive 14-goal seasons with Vancouver down to five with Buffalo. He also had some injury problems last season and the team went 2-7-2 with him out of the lineup in January. The powerplay may be the key to upping his goals.

Note:  The team lost Myers and Ehrhoff back to back in a stretch that went from Nov. 23 when Myers went down through Jan. 21 Ehrhoff's last game on the sideline--a span of 28 games. Buffalo went 7-16-5. Both were in the back in the lineup after that and the Sabres finished the season on a 20-8-6 run.

C, Tyler Ennis and C, Cody Hodgson--Both are young and are getting a crack at full-time, top-six center minutes as well as prominent powerplay time. While Ennis will be starting out between Foligno and Stafford, a young line, Hodgson will be with two veteran, proven goal scorers in Vanek and Pominville. Both lines need to hold their own and solidify the top-six.

LW, Marcus Foligno--Foligno had a stellar stretch-run with the team last season scoring six goals and adding seven assists in only 13 games. He would be hard-pressed to score at that pace, but significant contributions on the scoresheet will gladly be accepted.

C, Mikhail Grigorenko--The wild card. The big, highly skilled center is only 18 yrs. old and no player under Ruff has made the jump to the NHL at that age. He had a great camp and earned a spot on the roster. If he can stick as a third-line center between veterans Ott and Ville Leino, Hecht will be able drop down to an appropriate #4-center slot and the Sabres will be set down the middle. Rolling three lines is how Ruff wants to approach this season. Having his centers fall into place like that will go a long way towards making that strategy a reality.

F, Ville Leino--Leino gets a mulligan for mitigating circumstances contributing to his woeful first season with the Sabres. As previously mentioned, he really needs to focus upon his play and just quit whining. He needs to significantly increase his .35 points/game production from last season. And should the team make the playoffs, we'll be able to see if he's the money player he was touted as when he came to Buffalo. If not, a compliance buy-out may be in the cards for him.

G, Ryan Miller--Focus. Too many times over the last few seasons, Miller was caught in la-la land for whatever reason. The moniker of "Mr. Softee" grew out of his lack of focus at times which inevitably lead to soft goals. When he's on, he incredibly tough to beat. When he's average, the Sabres usually come out on the wrong end of the score.

RW, Drew Stafford--The opportunity for a true breakout season is looking him right in the eye. Everything is in his hands, but entering his fifth full-time season with the Sabres, the question with him remains, is that a hockey stick in his hands or a guitar?

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