It's going to be another year of blockbusters and huge flops in the NHL. Which teams blew out their budgets for big name stars and gigantic special effects to score Michael Bay-levels of box office gold? Which teams are bloated action retreads and terrible sequels? Find out in Puck Daddy's 2011-12 NHL Season Previews, running throughout the month.
In some ways, it was a typical Buffalo Sabres (43-29-10, 96 points) season: Solid goaltending, some welcome surprises offensively and a significant number of games lost to injury (Drew Stafford missed 20; Derek Roy missed 47). The Sabres made the playoffs, and were eliminated by the Philadelphia Flyers in pesky seven-game series.
Yet at the same time, it was anything but a typical year for the franchise. Terry Pegula, a billionaire and a Sabres fan, purchased the team and vowed to bring a championship to Buffalo. Which isn't all that common for Buffalo. Neither is opening up the bank account and spending to the cap, which is what the Sabres did under Pegula this summer.
Will the new additions turn the Sabres from playoff contenders into a championship team?
Pegula wasted no time in making a financial statement with the Sabres.
Defenseman Robyn Regehr had two years left with the Calgary Flames at $4 million annually. The Flames were willing to deal him, but Regehr had a no-movement clause. So Pegula personally convinced the physical D-man to waive it, and the Sabres acquired him along with forward Ales Kotalik in exchange for defenseman Chris Butler and forward Paul Byron.
After he spent roughly 3 minutes considering an offer from the New York Islanders, defenseman Christian Ehrhoff's rights were traded to Buffalo and he signed a mammoth 10-year, $40-million deal. Then things got really nutty: Ville Leino, a talented but yet-to-be dominant player for the Philadelphia Flyers, signed a 6-year, $27-million deal.
The Sabres' bond with Tim Connolly was finally broken, which was pretty much the only thing he didn't fracture during his time in Buffalo. Connolly left for a lucrative free-agent deal with the Toronto Maple Leafs. RW Mark Mancari signed with Vancouver, while Rob Niedermayer, Mike Grier and Pat Lalime were all left unsigned. Steve Montador's negotiating rights were traded to Chicago, where he eventually signed.
The bad news at forward was that Derek Roy was limited to 35 games last season due to injury. The good news was that he tallied 35 points in those 35 games, his best points-per-game average since 2008. Roy primarily skated with rookie Tyler Ennis (49 points) and leading scorer Thomas Vanek (32 goals), who was back in beast mode on the power play (28 points) after a bit of a dip in the previous campaign.
Rather than go all-in for a Brad Richards type, the Sabres opted to sign Leino and convert him back to center, a position he played back in Finland. The bet is that he can adapt to the position in the NHL and that his playmaking ability can produce even more than the career-high 53 points he had last season.
Drew Stafford had a breakout year with 31 goals in 62 games. Also having a breakout year: the diminutive Nathan Gerbe, with 16 goals in 64 games. Jason Pominville played nine fewer games last in 2009-10 and scored 10 fewer points. Late-season addition Brad Boyes scored 14 points in 21 games; at what point during the season will Sabres fans start griping about offensive output vs. cap hit ($4 million)?
Paul Gaustad and Jochen Hecht are also back for the Sabres; Gaustad had a faceoff winning percentage of 59.8. Rookie Zack Kassian could make an impression … on an opponent's face.
On defense, the game has changed for Buffalo. Regehr led Calgary with 180 hits last season and is a dependable penalty killer. Ehrhoff, meanwhile, can skate 24 minutes a night and is one of the better power-play point men in the league.
They join a defense that's anchored by hulking man/mountain Tyler Myers, who experienced a slight sophomore slump (down 11 points). Jordan Leopold led the Sabres defense with 23:19 average TOI, playing a bunch on special teams. Andrej Sekera has a spiffy new 4-year contract to live up to. Marc-Andre Gragnani played outstanding during his late-season call-up, posting seven points in the playoffs. Mike Weber and Shaone Morrisonn round out the defense.
In goal, Ryan Miller had a down year statistically that featured some tense moments with the media. Olympic hangover? Potentially. He's still one of the most dependable keepers in the NHL, and should shine behind the revamped defense. Jhonas Enroth will serve as his backup and a huge word score in Scrabble.
"Tron Legacy." A beloved cult classic original (that frankly wasn't all that successful) gets a multi-million-dollar makeover while attempting to retain its unique charms. And yes, we are drawing a parallel in our minds between a bearded, older Jeff Bridges with hippie wisdom and a bearded, older Ryan Miller with hippie wisdom.
There was a moment, albeit brief, when GM Darcy Regier's job looked like it could be on the line with the change in ownership. But Pegula gave him a vote of confidence and an open checkbook. We'll see if he's delivered.
Lindy Ruff, who has coached the Sabres since 1997, received a contract extension last season and was credited with leading the Sabres to a playoff seed. Always over-criticized when things go poorly and under-praised when they go well. Like Regier, it'll be fun to see him swim in the money bin this season.
While there are plenty of skeptics about the acquisition, let's be optimistic about Ville Leino for a moment. There's no question he's got the offensive goods: skillful playmaker, occasionally brilliant finisher, and a 6-1, 190-pound frame that can handle the rigors. For those who think he can't handle the pivot, Chris Elardo of Sabre Noise brings the counter-argument:
In the Flyers' system allowed Leino to position himself down low where a center would normally play. One of the things Leino loves to do when he has the puck is to weave in and out of traffic, normally something reserved for a pivot. His vision is said to be extraordinary, and his playmaking ability sublime. He will hold onto the puck for that extra second, until a teammate opens himself up for a sweet pass, or to beat a sprawled out goalie. Last season saw him, albeit in limited time, finish the year with a faceoff winning percentage of 57.4%. Had he played center full time, and maintained that pace, he would have finished tied for 5th in the league. Can he duplicate those numbers for a full year?
That's the wager.
"ME TALLER THAN NATHAN GERBE! ME RUN BARTERTOWN!"
Here's a name Sabres fans might remember: Chris Drury. Remember how in New York he could never put up numbers that would "justify" the free-agent salary he had been given? Well, Christian Ehrhoff is going to make $10 million next season. That isn't a typo. He scored over half his points in the last two seasons on a Vancouver power play with the Sedins. Can he manage to produce enough to "justify" the salary and the 10-year (cough cough) investment in the eyes of critics?
The Buffalo Sabres' playoff intro video from last season was a trip through pop culture history. This is the sort of thing that inspires badly choreographed dance routines at the Oscars while, like, Jennifer Hudson sings with Def Leppard.
"Injuries" would be the cliché thing to write here, but we are talking about the Buffalo Sabres, so … injuries. Although letting Tim Connolly move over to the Toronto infirmary might help with the man-games lost.
One of the teams in the NHL that made the most noise in the summer, the Sabres should return to the playoffs again based on the defensive upgrades and Miller alone. Add in Leino and a few young players hitting their offensive stride, and Buffalo's moving closer to the Stanley Cup their new daddy promised them.