(Ed. Note: It’s an Olympic year in the NHL. So, naturally, we decided to use the trappings of the Winter Games to preview all 30 teams for the 2013-14 NHL season. Who takes the gold? Who falls on their triple-axel? Read on and find out!)
The season began with Thomas Vanek involved in pretty much every scoring play for Coach Lindy Ruff ... and ended with Vanek (and Ryan Miller) on the trading block, Ruff fired and the Sabres outside the playoffs for the second straight season.
The story, of course, was Ruff’s dismissal after 16 years at the head coach of the Sabres. About 170 coaches had been fired between his hiring by Buffalo and his firing on Feb. 20, replaced by interim coach Ron Rolston of the Sabres’ AHL affiliate. That signaled Buffalo was headed into rebuilding mode, which continued into a trade deadline selloff of players like captain Jason Pominville.
GM Darcy Regier orchestrated those deadline deals, and stayed on with the Sabres after his friend Ruff took the fall. He made it clear that Miller, Vanek and other veterans could be sacrificed in the name of rebuilding, but both veterans remained with Buffalo through the summer, as their final contract years loomed.
Buffalo was 21-21-6 last season, good for 12th in the East. Are they destined for another year in the lottery, or can these Sabres surprise the Atlantic?
Here’s what Cody Hodgson can do. In a related story, Zack Kassian spent the afternoon punching heavy things.
The big news is that the Sabres kept both Vanek and Miller entering into a “transition” season. They bought out diminutive Nathan Gerbe, who signed with the Carolina Hurricanes. Andrej Sekera is also a Hurricane, traded for defenseman Jamie McBain and a pick.
The other big acquisition was also on defense: Henrik Tallinder, who spent eight years with Buffalo, came back to the Sabres in a trade with the Devils. He was limited to 39 games and 25 games in the previous two seasons due to injuries that included a blood clot.
The Sabres didn’t do much in the way of free agent signings, with defenseman Drew Bagnall from Minnesota the only one of significance.
Jochen Hecht retired, for those of you who remember Jochen Hecht was still playing.
Forward: Vanek remains one of the few players in the NHL that’s able to carry a team on his own for weeks on end. He had 21 points in his first 10 games last season, including two 5-point games. His durability and ability to sustain that offense is sometimes in question, but when he’s on he’s dominant. One imagines this is his swan song with Buffalo, as he’s in the last year of his deal.
Hodgson, who is currently an RFA, showed more of his offensive potential with 34 points in 48 games, but his defensive ability continues to be in question. One expects he’ll get top line minutes with Vanek, likely with Tyler Ennis (31 points) on his other wing.
The Sabres’ second line center to start the season should be Mikhail Grigorenko, provided he earns the chance in camp. There’s no question he was rushed to the NHL as a rookie and looked overwhelmed, but it’ll be interesting to see what he provides after getting a taste in 2013.
Drew Stafford (six goals in 46 games) is a veteran winger with two more years at $4 million left on his deal, which compared to Ville Leino’s $4.5 million through 2017 boondoggle looks like a steal. They’ll both vie for second line minutes along with Marcus Foligno, who had 18 points in 47 games last season.
Steve Ott brings his brilliantly annoying game and startling faceoff acumen to the rink every game. Patrick Kaleta will probably be suspended at some point in the season. John Scott will beat up someone smaller than him and then get beat up by Shawn Thornton. Kevin Porter provides quality minutes down the lineup.
The Sabres will have some exciting young assets in the lineup, including forward Johan Larsson, acquired in the Pominville trade; Brian Flynn, who had 11 points in 26 games; and Luke Adam, who will have to find some consistency to get his minutes back.
Defense: Another year, another year trying to figure out what Tyler Myers is going to become. The 6-foot-7 defenseman had 8 points in 39 games and was a minus-8 for the Sabres, skaing 21:18 per game. He’s still only 23 years old, but there were more accusations about his puckhandling, defense and fitness last season than every before. Tallinder coming back to Buffalo means Myers should be reunited with a veteran that brought out his best. The Sabres hope so.
Christian Ehrhoff had 22 points and skated a whopping 25:11 per game, the highest TOI of his career. In a season if disappointments, Ehrhoff wasn’t one for Buffalo. He could see time with McBain, giving that still-young defenseman a veteran to depend on.
Mike Weber, Mark Pysyk and Alexander Sulzer would appear to be the options for the final pairing, but Pronger-ish 2013 draft pick Rasmus Ristolainen could crack the lineup; and if he doesn’t, he could be back in Finland this season.
Goalies: The best news for the Sabres isn’t that Miller is back, it’s that he’s back in a year where he’s trying to make the Olympic team. The last time that happened, Miller played like a Vezina winner for the first three months of 2009, earning the starting job.
Is he still an elite goalie? Perhaps. He’s certainly a goalie that seen his stats balloon in the last few seasons, although his play at even strength remains strong. Miller needs a change in scenery, and will get one during the season or next summer. For now, he’ll continue to have flashes of brilliance and offer incredible emo press conferences after loses.
Question is, how much does Miller play and how much time does Jhonas Enroth see early in the season, as the Sabres try to figure out what they have in the Swedish netminder. Matt Hackett, acquired in the Pominville trade, is another option.
Ron Rolston was hired as the team’s head coach after going 15-11-5 as the interim bench boss. He was impressive in that audition – remember his stand against Pat Kaleta’s antics? – and that fact that the youth movement is underway in Buffalo obviously helped his stock.
Regier (once again) survives adversity with the Sabres, proving everyone wrong that claimed his fate was tied to that of Ruff. And you know what? He had a strong trade deadline, a very good draft and has Miller and Vanek as deadline chips this season. Sure, his mismanagement has helped land the Sabres in a rebuild, but clearly owner Terry Pegula believes that ‘if you break it, you buy it’.
Remember when the Sabres had a rap anthem? And when said rap anthems actually had lines like “three cheers for Pegula”?
The Impending Thomas Vanek Bidding War. We can’t think of a team in the NHL that wouldn’t want a piece of Vanek at a pro-rated cap hit (with free-agent status next summer) later this season.
The Jerseys. Provided the Sabres don’t muck it up with a garish third jersey, Buffalo is in the top third of best jerseys in the NHL.
Ron Rolston. A coach that earned his chance and will have a small army of young players with whom he’s familiar.
Tyler Myers. Trying to become a star player and avoid being Exhibit A for the dangers of bestowing bloated contracts on still-developing defenseman.
Out of the playoffs, knee deep in a rebuild and saying goodbye to more of the veteran players that helped get Lindy Ruff fired.