September 04, 2009
NHL season previews often sell you an impressive bill of goods before you realize, at the end of the season, you're holding an empty box. Which makes using advertisements and infomercials the appropriate template for Puck Daddy's 2009-10 NHL Season Previews, presented each day throughout September.
Last Season's Ad Copy: Tenth in the Eastern Conference, third in the Northeast Division (41-32-9, 91 points). There were two numbers that added up to the Buffalo Sabres' failures last season: 48 and 56.
Forty-eight, as in the number of games that fragile force to be reckoned with Tim Connolly(notes) played in 2008-09, scoring 47 points in that limited action. He also played just 48 in the previous season; perhaps not coincidentally, both he and the Sabres played zero playoff games over the last two years.
Fifty-six, as in the number of games goalie Ryan Miller(notes) started last season, after an ankle injury at the hands of the New York Rangers on Feb. 21 derailed a Vezina-worth campaign for Miller and sparked a Buffalo freefall in the standings, going 4-7-2 in his absence.
This is nothing new. The Sabres suffering through injuries during an NHL regular season is like signing a waiver at one of those chicken shacks before you eat the 911 atomic fire wings: Perfunctory, commonplace and, ultimately, the harbinger of countless tears and hours of pain.
But what if, miracles of miracles, Buffalo can keep its key players all relatively healthy? Do the Sabres have a good enough core of talent to make some noise in the East?
Latest Gadgets (Offseason Additions): The Sabres have over $8 million in cap space, so there's still a chance that another piece can be added in the run-up to the season, even if it won't be through a trade necessarily.
Let's hope for the sake of the Buffalo faithful that's the case, because as of now a non-playoff team has reloaded with former Bruins defenseman Steve Montador(notes), former Sharks winger Mike Grier(notes) (back for a second tour of duty with the Sabres), center Cody McCormick(notes) of Colorado and defenseman Joe DiPenta(notes), perhaps the only journeyman defenseman in the NHL with his own official Web site.
To The Recycle Bin (Offseason Subtractions): The Sabres worked hard to re-sign Jaroslav Spacek(notes), but the Montreal Canadiens decided they were going to overpay a 35-year-old with a three-year deal worth $11.5 million, and that was that. He had 45 points in 80 games last season and led the Sabres in average time on ice (22:16). An underappreciated defenseman who's gotten better since he stopped checking under the bed for Scott Nichol before falling asleep.
The blue line also saw the retirement of 20-season vet Teppo Numminen(notes), who inspired many a weepy tribute to his consistent play and professionalism. The Hockey Gods must have wanted another NHL 94 survivor.
The Pitchman (Top Offensive Player): Not exactly clear cut, this one.
Derek Roy(notes) led the Sabres with 70 points, after leading them with 81 the previous season. Thomas Vanek(notes) was third in points (64) but first, by far, in goals with 40 (including an astounding 20 on the power play). Tim Connolly had 47 points in 48 games; Vanek and Roy frequently played on the same line, while Connolly skated with a variety of teammates.
And so on. For our money, we'd take Vanek over Roy, with Connolly's true offensive value TBA until he can suit up for at least 70 games in Buffalo, which he hasn't done since before the lockout.
Introducing .... (Potential Breakout Player): We pegged Jason Pominville for a breakout year after scoring 80 points in 2007-08 and ... well, his production dropped to 66 points and his goals declined for the third straight season. Harrumph.
We will now bestow this curse upon 24-year-old Clarke MacArthur(notes). He had 31 points in 71 games last season and was a streaky player. He's one of a slew of forwards (including pesky Nathan Gerbe(notes) and Danny Paille) that could earn more prominent roles if they can find consistency; a big "if" in MacArthur's case.
One other thought, and it's a long-shot: Defenseman Tyler Myers(notes), all 6-foot-7 of him, has one more year of juniors eligibility but could be good enough to force the issue like Luke Schenn in Toronto last season. OK, this might be slightly influenced by our desire to see him fight Zdeno Chara(notes) one day.
Operators Are Standing By (The Defensemen): Henrik Tallinder(notes) (18:25 TOI, 12 points in 66 games) and Toni Lydman(notes) (21:46 TOI, 23 points in 80 games) will be a top pairing and see the glut of time on the penalty kill. Craig Rivet(notes) (20:14 TOI, 24 points in 64 games) got over his loathing of Buffalo to play well; he was paired with rookie Chris Butler(notes) last season, who was solid in 47 games of work.
The last pairing would appear to be Montador and Andrej Sekera(notes), who played 67 games last season for Buffalo. Nathan Paetsch(notes) can play defense and forward, and DiPenta has a two-way contract.
Overall, a bit of a "meh" group that might be able to play above its reputation.
The Spokesmodel (The Goalies): Miller was the heart and soul of last year's team, playing some of the best hockey in his NHL career before his late-season injury. He finished with a career-best 2.53 GAA and .918 save percentage in 59 games after appearing in 76 the previous season. He still needs to prove he's a workhorse, and he's still teetering on the brink of elite status. But Miller was winning games on his own for Buffalo during last year's campaign; previously, all he could win on his own were rhetorical matches of wit centered on one's maternal lineage.
The Inventor (The Coach): There's no middle ground for Lindy Ruff in his 12th season at the helm for the Sabres. You have fans who believe his time is up, tossing off stats like the fact he's only made the postseason in two out of seven non-Hasek seasons. You have fans who vehemently defend him in the face of that adversity ... and, let's face it, as the lesser of two evils when compared to the perceived sins of Regier and management.
Last season saw some significant bumps for Ruff, but also saw him coaching through the usual poison from the injury bug. If the question is whether Ruff is, at this stage, still a difference-maker behind the bench, we're not exactly sure what the answer is.
If the question is whether Lindy Ruff has quite a set of stems, then the answer is yesssssss ...
2009-10 Preseason Report Card:
Forwards: B (Very strong top six.)
Special Teams: B (Power-play seventh in NHL last season)
"The Buffalo Sabres are poised to be a playoff team this season. They sat in fifth place at the end of February last season but Ryan Miller missed 15 games due to injury and the rest is history. The Sabres have the same group of forwards that were able to score goals last season but they have hopefully added a healthy Tim Connolly for an entire season. In addition they have addressed the toughness issue that has plagued the team since before the lockout by signing Steve Montador and Mike Grier."
"Ryan Miller remains one of the most well-spoken and talented players in the NHL and with his attitude leading the way along with the re-addition of Mike Grier, I feel OK about the leadership that was previously missing. The suddenly very young defense is the biggest question mark. The pieces seem to be there so Lindy had better coach like his job depends on it... because it does."
"Making predictions is bad luck. The Sabres aren't very good at hockey, so they can't afford to be cavalier about OBVIOUS jinxes. Stop trying to trick me into dooming them, Greg."
"This season for the Sabres hinges on the play of three young guys, Drew Stafford(notes), Danny Paille and Clarke MacArthur. With the latter two in contract years, Stafford still over-estimating his worth and plenty of kids in Portland pushing for roster spots, these guys will decide if the Sabres have a Top 6 forward set that can reliably score 5 on 5."
"Justified or not, this is Lindy Ruff's last stand with a relatively unchanged group of underachievers. It's playoffs or bust, and I'm leaning towards 'bust' once again."
Don Draper Says ...
"There is no big lie, there is no system, gentlemen. The universe is indifferent to our daily struggles. So know this: I'm not here to tell you about Patrick Kaleta(notes). You already know about Patrick Kaleta. Either he lives in your heart. Or he doesn't. But if he does, then we're not just talking about 20 men wearing sweaters whose styles seem to arbitrarily change every three or four years; we're talking about reaching through the clouds with flawed human hands and in seach of some semblance of paradise."
Results May Vary (Biggest Issues Facing the Team): Not to put too fine a point on it but HEALTH HEATLH HEALTH HEALTH.
While it's true that the team has depth at forward to compensate for some manpower losses -- players like Drew Stafford (when signed), Jochen Hecht(notes) and Paul Guastad can each find another gear -- the conference is too competitive to try and make the playoffs without significant pieces of the puzzle like last season.
Beyond that (i.e. "the obvious"), simply hope that the defense in front of Miller is good enough handle some potent attacks and tenacious teams in the East.
Warranty Expires (Prediction): We hate qualifiers here, but there's no other way to do this because of the Sabres' recent history. Healthy, this team makes the playoffs in the seventh or eighth seed; dogged by injuries to guys like Connolly and (god forbid) Miller, and it's Ruff's curtain call.