As we inch closer to Montreal Canadiens hockey, we continue to preview the new Atlantic Division. Yesterday we took a look at the rebuilding Florida Panthers who are pegged to finish 8th, and today we will look at the Buffalo Sabres, who are destined to finished 7th in the Atlantic.
The Buffalo Sabres missed the playoffs for the second consecutive season in 2013, fired the NHL’s longest tenured Head Coach and traded away one of their best players in Jason Pominville. All in all, it was not a good year for the Sabres, who finished 12th overall in the Eastern Conference.
Buffalo committed to a rebuild when they dealt Pominville to the Minnesota Wild for Matt Hackett, Johan Larsson, a first and a second round pick. Though it was tough for Sabres fans to say goodbye to “Pommer”, I was quite impressed with the package the Sabres received in return.
Their plethora of picks and prospects will help them down the road, but it will not do them much good this season. The Sabres added Rasmus Ristolainen and Nikita Zadorov in the first round of the 2013 NHL Draft, two huge defenders that will be keys to the rebuild. They also added Joel Armia, Mikhail Grigorenko and Zemgus Girgensons in the first round of recent drafts, stocking up on forward prospects as well. In net, the 25 year old Jonas Enroth and 23 year old Hackett appear to be a fearsome tandem in due time.
So the future is undoubtedly bright in Buffalo, especially considering they will be adding another top ten pick in the 2014 NHL Draft.
There are plenty of holes to fill up front on the current edition of the Sabres. Tomas Vanek is an elite level goal scorer, and Cody Hodgson proved capable of filling the role of number one center after the departure of Derek Roy last summer. However, the offense is pretty much left up to those two, as Tyler Ennis and Steve Ott were the only other Sabres to score more than six goals last season, with 10 and nine respectively.
A resurgence from Drew Stafford and Ville Leino as well as big seasons from young forward Mikhail Grigorenko would go a long way in helping the Sabres challenge for a playoff berth this season. That seems unlikely however, as Stafford struggled to 18 points in 47 games, and Grigorenko scored just 5 points in 25 games as a rookie NHLer.
Steve Ott and Marcus Foligno would make two thirds of a great two way shutdown line, but Ott will be forced to play second line center if Grigorenko is unable to put up points once again. Foligno will find himself in the top six as well is Stafford or Leino struggle, or if the injury bug bites Leino once again, as he played only eight games in 2013.
On defense, the Sabres are hoping to turn back the clock, to revive Tyler Myers once promising career. Myers points per game has dropped in each of his four NHL seasons, resulting in just 8 points in 39 games last season. Myers scored 48 points in his Calder Trophy winning season, while paired with veteran Henrik Tallinder. Tallinder spent the next three seasons with the New Jersey Devils, but returns to Buffalo on a one year deal to see if he can help resurrect the chemistry he shared with Myers.
Also on the blue line is Christian Ehrhoff, who had a quietly solid season with the Sabres last year. Ehrhoff scored 22 points in 47 games and was a plus 6, while leading the team in ice time with an average of over 25 minutes per game. Frequently paired with Myers last year, Ehrhoff may be joined in the top four by former Hurricane Jamie McBain who was brought to Buffalo in a trade for Andrej Sekera. McBain had a solid year in Carolina, and if Tallinder can help Myers regain form, the Sabres top four will be in great shape.
The Sabres D will be rounded out by Mike Weber and a combination of Alex Sulzer and former first rounder Mark Pysyk.
There may be plenty of trouble among the forwards and defenders of the Sabres, but their goaltending is in very capable hands. Ryan Miller has been among the NHL’s best, since he became a regular in the 2005-06 season. With the added pressure of playing for a contract, and trying to regain his position as America’s goaltender at the Olympic Games, Miller will surely be at the top of his game for the Sabres this season.
The Sabres backup, Jhonas Enroth, has also proven to be a very capable NHL netminder. His play this season in spot duty may go a long way in the Sabres deciding to re-sign Miller, or continue the rebuild by putting him on the trade block at the deadline in February.
If Grigorenko can translate his excellent offensive game from the QMJHL to the NHL this season, the Sabres depth chart would look something like this:
Vanek Hodgson Stafford
Ennis Grigorenko Leino
Foligno Ott Flynn
Scott Porter Kaleta
There are just too many question marks in that chart to expect a playoff season in Buffalo. If Stafford can regain his 30 goal form, and Hodgson can live up to his billing once he signs a new contract, and Grigorenko can score enough to be a second line center, and Leino can find the form he had in Philadelphia three years ago, and McBain fits seamlessly with a new team, and Myers regains his form, this is a playoff team.
Too many ifs, ands, or maybes in the top six forwards and top four defenders to think everything can go right for this team in 2013-14, and that is why the Buffalo Sabres will finish 7th in the Atlantic Division this season.