Tuesday, October 1, 2013

2013-14 Buffalo Sabres preview, Part 2--A better defense, but grit and toughness still lacking

Last season the Buffalo Sabres allowed the most shots against in all of hockey and they were 22nd in goals against average.

But that doesn't tell the whole story of a defense that might have been much worse than those numbers showed.

Were it not for some strong performances from goalie Ryan Miller, as well as back-up Jhonas Enroth in the second half of the shortened season, the Sabres might have found themselves in the running for a top-five or higher draft pick.

The defense was that bad.

Good news for the Sabres, though. Ever since Ron Rolston took over for Lindy Ruff behind the bench, the defense has gotten better. He stripped it down, got them back to basics--stressing defense first--and has them on the upswing.

This season the lessons will continue as the team sends a very young defense to the ice with three of their top-six 23 or younger, including a teenager.

The teenager is one Rasmus Ristolainen, the 8th overall pick in this year's draft.

The book on Ristolainen is that he's a smart, steady, positional d-man with a bit of an edge to his game.

He played two years in the Finnish Elite League against men and acquitted himself very well leading the "experts" to declare him the most NHL-ready draft pick (other than Seth Jones) in the draft.

As the preseason progressed, Ristolainen proved all the experts right and the best part was that he progressed with every game played.

"Risto," who's play in the preseason had Sabreland abuzz, will be paired with his antithesis--25 yr. old Mike Weber.

Weber's strong and gritty, has a serious edge and has worked his way into the starting lineup after playing in 174 NHL games over a five year span. He paid his dues in Rochester before making an impact in the NHL for the last portion of the 2007-08 season.

The following year everyone had great expectations, but he was sent to Rochester, was injured half-way through the AHL season and spent the next full year in Rochester basically rehabbing.

Weber has been the 7th (or 8th) d-man to start the year the last two seasons and each time he earned himself a steady gig on the bottom pairing.

He earned his top-six spot this year and will provide a tough, gritty compliment to Risto.

Last season 2010 first round draft pick Mark Pysyk was given an NHL opportunity. And he took advantage of it.

The 21-yr. old, took his 19 game audition and coupled it with a strong training camp this summer to earn himself a top-four spot.

Pysyk is another heady player who plays the game seemingly unfazed. He's a sponge and will be soaking up all the knowledge the elder statesmen of the defense-corps--Christian Ehrhoff and Hank Tallinder--have to offer.

He's worth keeping an eye on.

Kris Baker of sabresprospects.com has this to say about the former Edmonton Oil King captain, "Pysyk's smooth skating and simple execution make him a steady, stabilizing piece of the future defensive core. He's smart and extremely diligent with his footwork, has a high panic threshold and the Edmonton native proved to be one of Ron Rolston's more trusted options throughout his 19-game NHL stint to close out his rookie season."
Ehrhoff was the Sabres best defensemen last season logging a career-high 25 minutes of ice-time. He lead the team in plus-minus as well.

Goals and points, especially on the powerplay, have been harder to come since landing in Buffalo. There's no question he has the shot, but the problem has been a skater to get him the puck in scoring situations.

Methinks as the team gets better, points for him will begin to make there way back up.

Tallinder was acquired from New Jersey this summer. Who he'll be paired with remains to be seen, but it's expected that whomever it is will benefit greatly.

At 33 yrs. old he's no spring chicken and anything more than a top-four role with spot duty on the top-pairing might be a little too much. One must remember that Tallinder is coming off of probably his worst NHL season in Jersey, so there are still question marks as to just what he'll have to offer the Sabres.

It was suspected that Tallinder was brought back to help guide Myers out of his doldrums but Pysyk benefited greatly when paired with him early in the preseason. It might be best if those two paired again with Ehrhoff and Myers getting top-pairing minutes.

Last season might have been Myers worst as a pro. Much has been expected of him since his Calder-winning season four years ago. The last two seasons really haven't gone well. Much of it could be attributed to the lockout as well as a poor training regiment. Maybe even Ruff could have been a detriment to success.

But this year came into camp in possibly the best shape of his career and it showed on the ice this preseason. Myers displayed a boatload of confidence and showed his Calder winning form at times dominating the competition.

Of course, it was only preseason. We'll see how he fares when it counts.

Jamie McBain, acquired in a trade with Carolina at the draft, is slotted for a reserve role. He is another one who's coming off of a terrible 2013 season.

McBain made the team with some solid play on defense and a flair for offense, especially jumping into the play and burying his opportunities.

The Sabres defense is well stocked and has tremendous upside. And that's not even counting 2013 first round pick Nikita Zadorov who looks like he'll be on the team next year.

The only weakness on the back end might be lack of strength, grit and toughness. It still looks like a Darcy Regier "soft-but-skilled" group who may have trouble clearing the front of the net.

Weber has those attributes. Risto seems to have a little of it. Myers likes to think he has it but hasn't shown it since the playoffs vs. the Flyers in 2011.

This defense corps has such an atrocious season last season, a little improvement will go a long way, and one senses that they will be improving greatly this season.

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