Reprinted with permission from hockeybuzz.com
Time to crank it up. It's been a long wait for Sabres' hockey but tonight it's game on.
If ever there was a season that's tough to predict, this would be the one for Buffalo. They're coming off of a last place finish in 2013-14 and have a slew of youngins on the team this year, something which has most thinking that another last place finish is a foregone conclusion. But this past July the Sabres brought in (or brought back) solid vets that have some thinking the team might end up knocking on the playoff door.
Where will they end up? It's tough to say, but here's what we'll be looking at this season.
From the top on down
Buffalo Sabres owner Terry Pegula has been kind of busy lately, what with plunking down a cool $1.4B to purchase the Buffalo Bills and all. Not to mention that this week's home game versus New England, the Pegulas first as owners, will be for first place in the division.
With nearly everything happening to the Pegulas this week being football-centric, it does take some of the spotlight away from the Sabres as they kick off the season vs. the upstart Columbus Blue Jackets. Yet, even with his intense focus on the purchase of the Bills, Terry Pegula took the time to fly in for a team barbeque and will be there tonight, along with his wife Kim, for the Sabres opener. Something that's not lost on the team.
“It’s been pretty busy for Terry and Kim, for sure, to do what they’ve done acquiring the Bills,” head coach Ted Nolan said. “I’m quite sure it’s not like buying the corner store down the street. It’s a lot of work. His heart’s here. He’s been calling in and checking in.”
Make no mistake, the Pegulas are all-in on the Sabres. They've made tough yet necessary decisions with the hockey department over the course of the last two seasons and are now handing over the keys to this new group.
The Sabres can look forward to a framework laid out by GM Tim Murray and Nolan. Both head into their first full season under the Pegulas with a definitive plan implemented from Day-1 that will emphasize discipline, commitment, work-ethic and compete-level. Both Murray and Nolan were hired by former president of hockey operations, Pat LaFontaine.
Regardless of the events surrounding the departure LaFontaine, in a very short time the hockey Hall of Famer was able to help define what the Sabres will be on the ice through the hires of Nolan and Murray. Nolan was brought on board immediately after the team fired GM Darcy Regier and head coach Ron Rolston, while Murray was hired on January 9, 2014. In a somewhat under the radar move, LaFontaine also hired long-time hockeyman and NHL Hall of Famer, Craig Patrick as senior advisor the same day Murray was hired.
Nolan had the "interim" label removed in March after signing a three-year extension. He released the previous coaching staff after last season ended and over the summer he brought in his own team of assistants. In one fell swoop Nolan brought in Hall of Famer, Bryan Trottier and Danny Flynn, both of whom he knew from his days as head coach of the NY Islanders plus former NHL goalie, Arturs Irbe, and Tom Coolen who were with him when he coached the Latvian National Team.
Onward to the forwards
For the first time since Rob Neidermayer was here (2010-11,) the Sabres will have a player with a Stanley Cup ring on the ice. And for the first time since Chris Drury left in 2007, the Sabres will have a captain with his name on the Cup.
Rochester area native Brian Gionta was just named captain of the Buffalo Sabres on Tuesday. He came in as a free agent after captaining the Eastern Conference Finalist Montreal Canadiens last season.
Gionta is a six-time 20 goal scorer (48 goals in 2005-06) who potted 18 last season, but at 35 yrs. old, the team should not expect Gionta to single-handedly get this team rolling offensively. The Sabres were an historically bad team scoring only 150 goals last season and it won't be difficult to add to that total.
Scoring will need to come from other places and LW Matt Moulson will be looked to for that. A three-time 30-goal scorer, Moulson brings his sniping back to Buffalo after a short stint in Minnesota. He is the only player on the team who's a legit top-line player. The 30 yr. old vet was named alternate captain along with Gionta.
Tyler Ennis will be centering the top-line with Moulson on his left wing. Ennis is a bit underrated in the scoring department. He's a two-time 20-goal scorer who has paced out at 25 goals/82 games in two shortened seasons. Top-minutes should put him right there again.
The Sabres are still weak down the middle as Ennis is more a top-six center with upside. Zemgus Girgensons is a top-nine center who also has plenty of upside. He projects out as a #2/3, two-way center who could end up really surprising. After that is rookie Sam Reinhart who will be making his NHL debut tonight but probably won't be with the club more than nine games before he's shipped back to junior.
One of the Sabres possible strengths may lie on the right side, but inconsistencies could make the group either fantastic or below average dependent upon how the individual players are playing at the time.
The king of inconsistency is top-line, right wing Drew Stafford. A once promising power forward with big upside, no one is sure what they'll get with him--31 goals in 62 games (2010-11) or 14 goals in 71 games (2011-12.) Same goes for Chris Stewart who came over in the Ryan Miller-to-St. Louis deal. Both of them are in contract years and it's highly possible that one of them will not be with the team next season.
The left side is decent but could really use Marcus Foligno to get his act together. Foligno had a great stretch to start his young career, but got a big head an moved away from the things that made him successful, like grittiness and hard work and getting to those bloody-nose areas. He was tried at center last season and probably will get a shot this year as well. He injured his shoulder late last season as well and is nearing 100%.
Between Moulson and Foligno on the left side depth chart is converted center, Cody Hodgson. He can score and he can set up, but his defense, to put it mildly, still needs a lot of work.
Rounding out the team are a bevy of bottom-six/fourth-liners/depth players who will fill out the roster in varying roles. One to watch is Nicholas Deslauriers. The 6'1" 201 lb. winger is big, plays big and can skate. He's one of the "heavies" Murray brought in at the trade deadline last season.
Tyler Myers is a former Calder Trophy winner who's play declined significantly soon thereafter. He's on his way back up and his recent positive strides coincided with Nolan taking over. Myers skates extremely well and can score, but he's been hampered by a lack of confidence. Should he be able to regain his confidence, the experience he's gained over the past five seasons could make him a force on the ice.
He'll be joined by former Montreal Canadien, Josh Gorges who allowed a trade to Buffalo after spurning Toronto. Gorges and Myers both played for the Kelowna Rockets of the WHL, albeit, at different times. Gorges is a consummate stay-at-home kinda guy and will be a great compliment to Myers. Hopefully he can let Myers play his game without fear of making a mistake. Gorges was also named alternate captain.
Two veteran free agent d-men joined the team this off season--Andre Benoit and Andrej Meszaros. Both offer up offense and will be in the bottom-two pairings. Benoit just completed his first full season in the NHL with Colorado at the age of 30. Meszaros hasn't played a full season in four years because of injury.
The much maligned Mike Weber will be looking to crack some heads as well as crack negative single digit plus/minus this year while Mark Pysyk's 2014-15 debut will be on hold for a bit while he recovers from an upper body injury.
Rookie Rasmus Ristolainen came into camp on a mission to make the club, something he accomplished. He should be ready to make a serious impact by season's end.
Despite what Jhonas Enroth was able to accomplish in his two preseason games (only one goal allowed,) the regular season is when the real pucks fly and God knows what the team will get from him. Will it be the 9-2-2 season he had his rookie year (2010-11,) or will it be the 4-17-5 season he had last year?
Even though he got some additional coaching this off season and "has that look in his eye," according to Nolan, the rise of Ewok, may have already taken place. Teams have enough tape on him and there are plenty of holes surrounding his small body. If a 6'1" Kings goalie Jonathan Quick can get smoked top-shelf in the butterfly like he did last night, how much more room is there to shoot at when the 5'10" Enroth does the same thing?
Michal Neuvirth had a rough preseason and will need to wait for an opportunity to redeem himself in a backup role. He's another one. Neuvirth's record in 2010-11 with Washington was 27-12-4 and won him the three-way battle to be the Caps playoff goalie. Two years later he ended up 4-5-2 with Washington. Irbe has a connection with Neuvirth as he was his goalie coach for two seasons from 2009-2011.
Last season Enroth had a 2.82 gaa while Neuvirth's was 2.55 with Buffalo. The Sabres finished 25th in the league with an overall 2.96 gaa.
Not very pretty.
Safe to say there are question marks all over the Sabres' goaltending situation.
The Northeast Division
The Sabres have some pretty good teams in their division including archrival Boston and a Tampa Bay team that continues to get stronger. They both came in at over 100 points last season and should be battling for the division lead this year.
Montreal finished third in the division and there's no reason to believe they'll slip much further if at all. Detroit is...well...Detroit, they're always in the mix while one can only guess where Toronto will finish. One thing that's pretty consistent with the Leafs, though, is that save for one season they usually start out hot then fold finishing outside of the playoffs.
Ottawa looks like they have the talent to improve upon--or at least maintain--their 88 point season last year and will also be in the playoff mix.
And despite those looking at the Florida Panthers as a doormat, they have a real good mix of vets, youngins, and leaders with championship rings. They end up as a playoff bubble team.
The way the division looks, one would be hard-pressed to think the Sabres will finish any higher than last place in the division.
The Rest of the Eastern Conference
The NY Rangers and Pittsburgh Penguins should end up with two of the top three spots in their division, but look out for the Columbus Blue Jackets as they may end up taking the Metropolitan division. The Philadelphia Flyers always seems to be in the mix for a playoff spot despite iffy goaltending and should be in the wild card mix.
As for the rest of the Metropolitan Division, it's gonna be a crapshoot.
What's in store for Washington as they try to get Alex Ovechkin to play an all-around game under new coach Barry Trotz? In New Jersey, life without Martin Brodeur begins, will their decline continue?
And on Long Island, did GM Garth Snow do enough to keep the team from having a lottery pick at the 2015 draft? It's something that isn't all that bad for a mediocre club, unless it's the pick they traded to Buffalo. They'll be hard-pressed to make the playoffs even with all of Snow's off season moves as there are only two wild card spots per conference.
Carolina may be battling for last place in the conference and quite possibly the league this year. Injuries to a team with little depth can have that kind of an affect, especially on a team like the 'Canes who finished 13th in the conference last season.
The bottom line
The Buffalo Sabres will score more goals this season than last which isn't going too far out on a limb. But goaltending may counteract that.
If they kick up the goal-scoring by 30 or so, but continue to let goals in at a pace that both goalies did last year, you can't expect too much more in the win column. They will win more games which won't be too big of an accomplishment since they only won 21 last season.
What we'll probably see from them this season is a team with decent goaltending that competes hard but doesn't have the horses to run with most of the teams in the NHL.
Put it all together and you have a team capable of adding another 7-10 wins on the season. Those wins equate to a grand total of 65-70 points.
Enough to get out of the basement? Maybe.
But, remember. No matter where they are in the standings, as many as five veteran players could be with other teams by the end of trade deadline day. Moving some or all of Benoit, Meszaros, Stewart, Stafford and Enroth will have an adverse affect on the win column. It's something Murray himself loosely pointed out soon after he took over last year saying he's not inclined to derail long-term plans for middling success.
So, Sabres fans, expect a really strong effort that comes up short more often than not and start watching Connor McDavid, Jack Eichel and Noah Hanifin a little more closely. As the we look at this team, this season, a bottom-three finish looks to be in the offing.
Matt Moulson/Tyler Ennis/Drew Stafford
Cody Hodgson/Sam Reinhart/Brian Gionta
Marcus Foligno/Zemgus Girgensons/Chris Stewart
Nicholas Deslauriers/Cody McCormick/Torrey Mitchell
Josh Gorges/Tyler Myers
Andre Benoit/Andrej Meszaros
Mike Weber/Rasmus Ristolainen