Unlike last season, when some of the prognosticators had the Sabres finishing atop the Northeast Division and nearly all had them in the playoffs based upon their off-season acquisitions, this year any "exuberance" has been tempered.
The Sabres made a big splash in the 2011 off-season with the trade for D Robyn Regehr, the trade for and contract extension of D Christian Ehrhoff and the signing of F Ville Leino. Unfortunately the team finished right where they'd been for three of the previous four seasons--in the playoff bubble mix.
This season most predict the Sabres to finish right in the playoff bubble mix again and nearly all of them point to having the stars align for the team to actually get in. They'll need a positive impact from new Sabres Steve Ott and John Scott, they'll need their young centers Tyler Ennis and Cody Hodgson to effectively fill their top-six center roles and they'll need to replace the scoring that left when Derek Roy was traded to Dallas.
All are valid points, but probably the most pressing issue with the team will be how Lindy Ruff and his coaching staff handle the team.
There's very little room for error in a shortened 48-game season. There's no getting out of the gate slowly and making a late season rally for the playoffs. Nor can any team, especially Buffalo, afford to go in a prolonged slump. With the Sabres, they can't look to the Western Conference for points (11-6-1 last season,) as all games will be vs. the East (28-26-10) and the powerhouses within (6-11-3 vs. the Atlantic Division.)
Ruff, it would seem, has been micro-managing this team ever since Chris Drury and Daniel Briere left in 2007, either by necessity or design, and the results have been pretty mediocre--two playoff appearances (booted in the first round both times) and three years on the outside looking in.
In defense of his record, the talent drop-off from the 2006/07 season was significant, especially down the middle where at one point last season his centers were Roy, Luke Adam/ Ville Leino/Jochen Hecht, Paul Gaustad, and Cody McCormick/Paul "Chewy" Szczechura/Matt Ellis. That was before Ennis landed in the middle and before Hodgson was traded for.
But some of that was of his own design as well. He kept Ennis on the wing, despite the kid's need for more ice, until necessity dictated his move to center. His insistence that Roy be between Thomas Vanek and Jason Pominville was a reliance upon (way) past success. He consistently placed Hecht in a top-six role and frequently gave fourth line centers extended minutes on the top line.
Ruff has no choice but to play his young guns at center this season as three of his four centers from two years ago are no longer with the team. But still, a dependency upon the "old tried and true" will have a chance to come to the fore as Hecht was re-signed and could find himself playing in the top-six for a period should one of the youngsters stumble.
Chemistry will be of the utmost importance this season as dictated by a compact schedule. That Ruff is a "tinkerer" with line combos is a given--to a negative extreme--and an abbreviated season will give him ample opportunity to further rationalize his tinkering
On many occasions the coach has had his lines on a short leash--save for his "tried and true" line combos from years past. The line of Ennis with Drew Stafford and Marcus Foligno was a revelation late last season, but will he keep this line together should they stumble? Is Hodgson looking over his shoulder at Hecht if Vanek and Pominville get into a funk?
Past results are not necessarily indicative of what's to come, but "old dog" Lindy may feel the pressure to juggle lines like he's always done. The end result of that juggling is inconsistency and weird combos featuring fourth-liners like Adam Mair or Ellis playing extended in-game minutes on the top line. Once again, his team has failed to make the playoffs in three of the last five seasons.
Another area of concern this year will be how he handles his goalies, one of Ruff's weakest areas.
Ryan Miller is a scrawny goalie who tires under a heavy workload. You can see it in his slow glove and lack of focus when he's played too much.
Ruff has never been able to find the proper rhythm to his goalie rotation, save for 2009/10 when Miller was dead-on in his Vezina-winning season. He'll talk about a rotation, then go on intuition and when that fails he'll start talking about a rotation again.
He's already stated that he expects to use Miller in 36-38 games this season, which really shouldn't be that much of a problem for the 30 yr. old netminder. Finding the right time to get back up Jhonas Enroth in the mix, though, will be key to the success of the team.
Enroth himself will be crucial to that success as he'll be looked upon to provide work similar to a stellar 2010/11 (9-2-2) as opposed to his inconsistent 2011/12 season (8-11-4.) He has a clearly defined role as back-up after flirting with dreams of starting last season when Miller went down. He was not ready to be a #1 then and barring injury he'll not get that opportunity this year. But in the 10-12 games he'll be slated to play in, he'll need to get as many points as possible.
The coaching staff joining Ruff behind the bench should also be on notice.
The Sabres defensemen under James Patrick, have not looked solid since 2009/10 when the team took the Northeast Division. They've been very inconsistent despite having plenty of veteran presence on the back-end.
Amongst the problems that have plagued his defensemen: they still haven't learned when it's appropriate to join the rush for the offense Ruff covets, and come crunch-time, at times they lacked the poise to lock down a late one-goal lead. Patrick has eight NHL defensemen to work with this season, many of them veterans. Can he guide them in their roles? Or will they continue their inconsistent play?
On offense, the power play under first year coach, Kevyn Adams, finished 16th last season. Adams will be integrating some new players into the powerplay units, due to Roy's departure, but in a "some things never change" move, Ruff and Adams look to be leaning towards Pominville on the point of the first powerplay unit. It's something that really hasn't worked in the past, yet it looks as if they'll continue to go to that muddy well.
And in another of Ruff's "tried and true" leanings, the first powerplay unit will probably feature Ehrhoff joining Pominville on the point with Leino and Vanek working the half-walls. They will be joined by Hodgson who will be Roy's replacement. The second unit will have youngsters Ennis, Stafford and Foligno down low with Myers and Leopold at the point.
Ruff has also mentioned that he's toying with the idea of using defenseman TJ Brennan in a "specialist" role on the powerplay. Whether or not that innovation comes to fruition is to be determined, but they needed to find a spot for Brennan. The fourth-year AHL d-man was second in defenseman scoring in the league and proficient on the powerplay for the Amerks. Exposing him to waivers would most certainly mean losing him.
Sabres owner Terry Pegula famously stated, "Ruff ain't goin' nowhere," at his first press conference so the longest tenured coach in Sabres history obviously has the full backing of his owner. Yet Ruff really seems to be too holding tightly to the reigns and it would seem as if that spills over to his players. On offense, how many times has he pointed out that x-player was "gripping the stick too tight" on a missed opportunity? And on defense, how many Keystone Cops incidents have we witnessed late in games?
With Pegula clearly on his side, and a GM who's said time and again that as long as he's in Buffalo, Ruff will be his coach, there's really no reason for him to feel pressure coaching. He has a veteran group of players punctuated by some pretty talented youngsters. He has an above average to elite goalie and a solid backup manning the net.
Ruff has the personnel to challenge for the Northeast Division crown, or at least a playoff spot, but micro-managing may be holding them back. If ever there was a time to "release the hounds," it's this season. Hockey is a game, let them go out and play.
But, is that within him?