The second round of the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs is well underway, so it's time to resume our series on the non-postseason participants. Here is the first installment if you want to have a look back. To refresh your memory, we are looking at what went wrong for teams during the 2013-14 season that didn't qualify for the playoffs, what players underperformed, and what could happen to them in the near future.
We'll stay in the Eastern Conference for this edition and look at the Buffalo Sabres and Florida Panthers.
In Buffalo's case it might be easier to look back at what actually went right because nothing seemed to go their way during the 2013-14 campaign.
The Sabres got some positive looks at players who are expected to make up their core group going forward. Zemgus Girgensons didn't light up the scoresheet, with eight goals and 22 points in 70 games, but his work ethic, size and latent offensive skills make him an intriguing player to keep an eye on. Mikhail Grigorenko spent time in the NHL, QMJHL and AHL this past season, but he's just a week away from turning 20 and still has plenty of time to find his way in the big league. Buffalo also has a great crop of young blueliners, highlighted by Rasmus Ristolainen, Nikita Zadorov, Mark Pysyk and Jake McCabe.
More prospects and picks were piled up when the Sabres shipped Thomas Vanek, Matt Moulson and Ryan Miller out of town to signal their rebuilding phase, but it won't be a quick process.
The Sabres will either have an extra first-round pick in 2014 or 2015 from the Islanders because of the Vanek deal and they secured a first-round selection from St. Louis in the Miller trade. Buffalo didn't win the draft lottery, so they hold the second overall choice in the 2014 NHL Entry Draft. If you are trying to look on the bright side then it's a good time to be a struggling club. The 2015 draft class will feature potential game-changing prospects Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel, so the Sabres may have picked a very good time to be among the NHL's bottom dwellers.
Buffalo finished dead last in the league with a 21-51-10 record and they sported an abysmal minus-91 goal differential. They struggled offensively, with a league-low 1.83 goals for per contest, and they were nearly as bad defensively, where they surrendered 34.3 shots per match which was the third-highest total in the NHL. If it weren't for the goaltending heroics of Miller on most nights then Buffalo's goals against average (2.96) would've been much worse. Michal Neuvirth, who was obtained during the roster shake up, and Jhonas Enroth will try to hold the fort in goal for the Sabres now that Miller is gone.
The defense has the potential to develop over time, but the Sabres' most pressing need may be for offense. The 1.83 goals for per game they posted was the lowest in league history. The Sabres also averaged a league-low 26.3 shots per contest. Leading scorers Cody Hodgson (44), Tyler Ennis (43) and Drew Stafford (34) had inconsistent years and there was a serious drop off in production after them. Buffalo has to get more from their forwards and they have to make life easier for their goaltenders by playing more in the attacking zone.
Drew Stafford - He produced 13 goals and nine assists in his last 32 games to finish the year with 34 points. Stafford played better after Ted Nolan took over behind the bench, but he's still as streaky as they come and he's hit the 50-point mark twice in his career. He has one year left on his contract, but the expectation is that Buffalo will keep him around for leadership and because they are seriously lacking forwards who can pick up points. He's projected to have a spot on the top line going into next year and could be worth monitoring. Stafford got some of his confidence back as the season progressed and should be motivated due to his expiring deal.
Marcus Foligno - Foligno displayed plenty of promise as a gritty power forward in 14 appearances with the Sabres in 2011-12, but he's failed to impress in two seasons since then. He scored just seven goals and 19 points in 74 games. Foligno hits (206) and he can rack up penalty minutes (82), but his inability to kick start his offense makes him a risky pickup entering next season. He'll probably end up playing up and down the lineup until he shows he's capable of contributing as a top-six winger.
Tyler Myers - Myers has made a habit of moving backwards since winning the Calder Trophy in 2009-10. He recorded nine goals and 22 points in 62 games, along with a horrific minus-26 rating, this past season. Myers sat out the Sabres' last 10 games of the year because of two broken ribs. Faith in his abilities is fading fast and he's desperate to turn it around. He wants to take on a leadership role and help the team's younger defenders, but he could just as easily serve as a cautionary tale of what not to do.
Ville Leino - Leino will likely be bought out by the Sabres when the window to do so opens on June 15 or 48 hours after the Stanley Cup champion is awarded. He is the highest-paid forward on the team with an average annual value of $4.5 million per season. He has three years remaining on his deal. Leino didn't record a single goal in 58 games in 2013-14. He collected just 15 assists and was credited with a mere 38 shots. Leino has been unproductive and he's struggled with injuries in three seasons with Buffalo. Look for him to be cut loose and don't look for him on draft day.
Like the Sabres, Florida has some potential building blocks in place to help facilitate their rebuilding process. The Panthers have Aleksander Barkov, Nick Bjugstad and Jonathan Huberdeau in the fold, with Vincent Trocheck, Brandon Pirri and Drew Shore slated for larger roles in 2014-15.
Unfortunately, relying on young talent can be a dangerous proposition, especially when the veterans around them are struggling as well. The Panthers finished second to last in goals for per game (2.29) and goals against per contest (3.20). Brad Boyes was the only member of the team to reach the 20-goal mark and Bjugstad led the club in scoring with a meagre 38 points in 76 games.
Florida's power play also operated at a league low 10.0% success rate. They scored just 27 goals with the man advantage, which is just three more than Washington's Alex Ovechkin scored on his own during the 2013-14 campaign.
In a surprising move, the Cats reacquired Roberto Luongo from Vancouver in March. The veteran keeper posted a .924 save percentage and a 2.46 goals-against average in 14 appearances after the deal. His acquisition could help the Panthers bring in some free agent help because it shows they want to turn their team around sooner rather than later.
General Manager Dale Tallon wants to make changes, so Florida could be a team to watch this off-season. The club is also in the market for a new head coach after parting ways with interim bench boss Peter Horachek. Florida holds the top pick in the 2014 NHL Entry Draft after they won the lottery to jump ahead of the Sabres. The Panthers could use that selection as bait to land some more NHL-experienced assistance, but it wouldn't be a shock if they kept it and added to their impressive stable of prospects.
Jonathan Huberdeau - Huberdeau was hit hard by the dreaded sophomore jinx this past season following a Calder Trophy-winning performance in 2012-13. He potted nine goals and 28 points in 69 games after he generated 14 markers and 31 points in 48 games during the lockout-shortened campaign. Huberdeau missed some time because of a concussion and he spent the off-season recovering from hip surgery, so it's hoped that he will be better with a healthy start. He should be expected to get back on track next year.
Tomas Fleischmann - In his previous two seasons, he led the Panthers in scoring, but the 2013-14 campaign was disastrous for the veteran winger. Fleischmann notched just eight goals and 28 points in 80 games. Prior to the trade deadline, he was viewed as a potential trade candidate and that could happen during the off-season. However, it's probably more likely that Florida hangs onto him and looks for him to try to bounce back.
Dmitry Kulikov - Kulikov's name surfaced in plenty of trade rumors as well over the course of the season. The 23-year-old blueliner possesses plenty of offensive talent, but he still hasn't been able to reach the 30-point mark in his career. He made some positive strides with personal highs in goals (8) and shots (127), but he posted just 19 points and had a minus-26 rating in 81 games. Perhaps whoever ends up being the Panthers' new head coach can get more out of him and help him break out on the power play.
Tomas Kopecky - Kopecky led the Panthers with 15 goals in 47 games during the lockout-shortened season. He picked up four markers and 12 points in 49 outings in 2013-14. He suffered a concussion at the Winter Olympics, while playing for Slovakia, and didn't play in Florida's last 24 games of the regular season. The Cats put him in a reduced role this past year to try to better accommodate their younger skaters. Still, he is capable of chipping more offensively than he did.
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