Season Preview: Buffalo Sabres
Whilst conventional wisdom suggests Buffalo are front runners in the ‘race’ to land Connor McDavid; a combative Coach, veteran additions during the off season and several youngsters with a point to prove give the Sabres an intriguing edge heading in to the new season.
General Manager Tim Murray did a great job accumulating multiple draft picks whilst clearing the decks last season, shifting the franchise from one in a bizarre spiral of decline to one built on hope.
Can Murray and Head Coach Ted Nolan, able supported by owner Terry Pegula’s eagerness to invest, turn this team around?
Despite tweaks to the NHL draft lottery, the shadows of Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel loom large over the franchise. But the Sabres are not without talent among their forwards.
Centre Cody Hodgson led the team in scoring last year with 44 points, reaching the 20 goal marker for the first time. At 24, Hodgson still has time on his side as does fellow centreman Tyler Ennis. The Edmonton native, also 24, was the only other player to score 20 goals for the Sabres last season and will be hoping Matt Moulson’s return will help spread the load offensively.
Moulson had 11 goals and 29 points in a 44 game stint with the Sabres last season, after being traded by the Islanders as part of the deal that sent Thomas Vanek to Long Island. The 30 year old was then shipped to Minnesota at the trade deadline, but opted for a return to Buffalo this summer, signing a 5 year deal.
In a bizarre twist; Cody McCormick, who was traded to Minnesota with Moulson, also returns to the team, while veteran winger Brian Gionta joins on a 3 year deal.
A return to form for Drew Stafford and Chris Stewart would also be a welcome boost for the Sabres, giving the franchise two further players capable of 20+ goals or two useful assets that could be traded for yet more picks.
The club will also be hoping to put past disagreements with Mikhail Grigorenko behind them, whilst Sam Reinhart, 2nd overall pick at this years draft, is also likely to get a look early on.
At The Back
Christian Erhoff was bought out this summer, but in come Josh Gorges, Andre Benoit and Andrej Mezarovs.
Buffalo will be hoping to see more of Rasmus Ristolainen, the 8th overall pick at the 2013 draft, this season but the biggest question mark along the Sabres blue line remains Tyler Myers.
The Houston native won the Calder Trophy in 2010, but has struggled since; with a decline from 48 points that year to just 22 last season highlighting the problem.
At 6’8″ and 219lbs, Myers has the size and potential to be an elite NHL defenceman. If Ted Nolan get pull the 24 year old back on track, he can still be the cornerstone D man Buffalo hoped he’d be when they drafted him in 2008.
Between The Pipes
Long term incumbent Ryan Miller’s increasingly fractured relationship with the club came to an end last season when he was traded to St Louis. It leaves the starting job wide open for the club, who used no less than five goalies last year.
Jhoan Enroth endured a terrible season, going 4-17-5, but began to show some improvement towards the end of the season. The Swede is likely to be competing with former Capitals stopper Michael Neuvirth for playing time this year, with both netminders out to prove a point.
Behind The Bench
Ted Nolan rejoined Buffalo as interim coach last November, eventually earning a permanent deal at the end of March.
The forthright 56 year old won the Jack Adams during his first stint with the Sabres, winning the North East Division and reaching the Conference semi-finals along the way. But this Sabres team doesn’t have Dominik Hasek, or even Mike Peca, for Nolan to lean on.
Whilst not always the prettiest hockey to watch, Nolan’s success with the Latvian national team shows what can be achieved with a solid defensive system in place. If he can instill the same discipline in Buffalo, and one of Neuvirth or Enroth finds some form, the Sabres should at least be competitive.
Biggest Addition – Draft Picks
If you’re going to rebuild, might as well do it right. Whilst Gionta’s addition might be considered slightly curious, GM Tim Murray has largely cleared out any player who either doesn’t want to be around for the rebuild, or isn’t part of it.
There are one or two exceptions here and there, but rosters have to be filled and so forth, but the point of the exercise remains the same – Murray is giving young guys like Hodgson and Myers every chance now, whilst accumulating picks to restock the farm in order to compete down the road.
Biggest Loss – Ryan Miller
Perhaps not Miller specifically, but what he embodies. Buffalo lacks a clear #1 netminder in the short and long term. Perhaps one of Neuvirth or Enroth seize the opportunity, or Murray is able to make a trade. But even when you’re trying to tank now, you’d like something in the pipeline for tomorrow.
This Seasons Chances…
If success was measured on potential, Buffalo might have a fighting chance. But whilst their current crop of ‘young stars’ remain largely unfulfilled, the Sabres are average at best.
This really is a season based around hope for the future.