September 04, 2008
NHL previews are often superfluous collections of popular opinions that, in the end, usually have no relation to how life actually works out. Which makes using stereotypical high school yearbook superlatives and awards the appropriate template for Puck Daddy's 2008-09 NHL season previews, presented throughout September.
Last Semester: Tenth in the Eastern Conference (39-31-12, 90 points). No matter how much positive momentum the Buffalo Sabres had from their 113-point season in 2006-07, free agent defections devastated the team. To put it in rather graphic terms: Their offense had its spine ripped out like a finishing move on Mortal Kombat.
Homecoming King (Top Player): Derek Roy, center. It took a while for the Sabres' top players to put down their pint of Ben and Jerry's and stop crying into their teddy bears. Chris Drury wasn't coming back. Danny Briere wasn't coming back. And yeah, Tomas Vanek, having to perform under the weight of a huge new contract is no picnic. Roy was the exception, putting up points throughout the season before catching fire in the second half, scoring 47 points from Jan. 21 to the end of the season. He, Vanek and either Jason Pominville or Drew Stafford could be one of the best lines in hockey; and Roy is on pace to crack 90 points this season.
Most Likely To Succeed (Potential Breakout):
Steve Bernier, forward. Uh, scratch that. How about Pominville, whose career trajectory mirrors that of Roy, his potential linemate? Pominville put up 80 points last season, but saw his goals drop from 34 to 27 despite taking more shots on goal. The really freaky part: He increased his power-play points by 14 but his power-play goals flat-lined at two. You get the feeling the 25-year-old has a big goal-scoring season in him if his shot selection improves. At the very least he's straight, in a relationship and doesn't drink or smoke. At least that's what his MySpace says.
Exchange Students (Key New Additions): It's difficult to attract new blood when no one wants to join your circulatory system. Even defenseman Craig Rivet, the team's primary off-season acquisition from the San Jose Sharks, sounded like he had listened to 48 straight hours of Joy Division albums when discussing how depressed he was to head to Buffalo.
But Rivet got over it, and gives Buffalo a good all-around defenseman who will help the power play, although not in a Brian Campbell way. Patrick Lalime will back up Ryan Miller, and journeyman forward Mathieu Darche will bring some forechecking that'll fit with Lindy Ruff's system. But if the question is, "Say, have the Sabres done anything to address the offensive holes that saw their team goal total drop by more than 50 from season to season?" ... well, we think you know the answer.
Best Expulsion (Addition by Subtraction): It's a minimal upgrade, but flipping Jocelyn Thibault for Lalime is still an upgrade, even if Miller's going to play nearly every game this season.
Class Clowns (Pests and Pugilists): Adam Mair is one of the conference's preeminent pests, and relishes the role. (ED NOTE: Spaced on Patrick Kaleta, who deserves a mention. Don't want to tick off 289!) What's interesting about the Sabres from a pugilism standpoint is the sudden pacifist streak for the franchise. Buffalo had 26 fights last season, which taken in context is a rather miniscule number. We're only a few years removed from this being the team of Rob Ray and Eric Boulton. Still, Paul Gaustad will drop the gloves and Andrew Peters can drop bombs when he's in the lineup:
Teacher of the Year: Lindy Ruff is the face of the franchise right now. As far as a description of him, we're partial to My Safety is Harvard's take on Ruff as "The Coach" in a proposed Afinogenov-inspired CW comedy/drama called "Life With Max":
Gruff but fair head coach of wildly popular local hockey club, appears demanding and authoritarian but underneath has a heart of gold. Repeated Catchphrase: "Dag nab it, Max! How many times have we been over this......?"
Riding the Short Bus: Maxim Afinogenov is a special player. Special in the sense that his offensive skills are good enough for a 70-point season. But also special in the sense that he's a riddle wrapped in a conundrum wrapped in a seemingly untradeable offensive enigma. His wonky groin (best injury term in hockey) clearly interrupted his season last year, but the fact remains that he's a $3.5 million player that scored 10 goals. If the Sabres wanted that, they would have re-signed Dainius Zubrus.
Afinogenov is the great unknown for the Sabres this season. If he pulls a Samsonov and has a monster pre-UFA season, he could spark a great second line that could feature Jochen Hecht (22 goals, 49 points last season) and Daniel Paille (19 goals, 35 points). But if he's off his game, he'll have more turnovers than a Betty Crocker cookbook and Darcy Regier will attempt to find someone interested in solving this puzzle.
That said ... tennis girlfriend equals yowzer.
The Custodians (Goalies): NHL.com called Ryan Miller "a talented workhorse," but as we pointed out when he re-signed with Buffalo (and put off his destiny as the Red Wings' eventual goalie) the "workhorse" label is exactly one season old -- and his numbers dipped during that season. With Lalime there to spell him, Miller doesn't need to work 75 games this season. What he does need to do is something that many of his Eastern Conference peers are famous for doing: Winning games on their own. Miller has seven career shutouts; Henrik Lundqvist had 10 last season. Different styles of play, for sure, but Ryan Miller isn't exactly notorious for stealing games from the opposition. He needs to start.
The Hall Monitors (Defensemen): There are some interesting changes to the Sabres defense this season, and not just because Brian Campbell's no longer handing out free soup. Dmitri Kalinin left for the New York Rangers, and Nolan Pratt wasn't re-signed.
But against all odds, 40-year-old Teppo Numminen is back with a one-year contract, a mended heart and hopefully without any bitterness after that whole salary dispute thing. Rivet comes in and will help out in several areas. The paring of Toni Lydman and Henrik Tallinder would seem to be an obvious choice, but then what? Jaroslav Spacek will obviously see time, especially on the power play. Then you have talented Andrej Sekera, the somewhat maligned Nathan Paetsch and a rookie named Mike Weber in the mix. Ruff will likely shake up this blue line a few times before getting it right. Assuming it can be right.
Most Likely To Earn a Wedgie in the Hallway (Potential Flop): Ales Kotalik hasn't put together back-to-back above-average seasons in the NHL. Even with this being his walk year, expecting another 23 goals and 43 points is expecting too much. And while this isn't exactly the kind of thing you want to think about if you're a Sabres fan: What will Miller's stats look like under the weight of that contract?
AV Club (Media): Say, this Rick Jeanneret fellow seems to have something going for him:
Toughest Class (Biggest Issue Facing the Team): Consider that the Sabres gave up the same number of goals over the last two seasons (242), and obviously the answer is goal scoring. Can the personnel on the team work within Ruff's time-tested system? Can players like Roy and Vanek increase their output even more? Which Afinogenov shows up, if at all? Can Tim Connolly stay in the lineup? Can Rivet replace Campbell's points on the power play?
2008-09 Preseason Report Card:
Special Teams: B
Prom Theme: "The Middle" by Jimmy Eat World. Not only because Roy and Hecht are still trying to replace what the team lost up the gut, but because if the Sabres are in the middle of the pack this season, it'd be a successful one.
Expected Graduation: Ruff's teams have been through postseason droughts before, and the Sabres are in another one right now. The division is too competitive for the Sabres to sneak in this season, so another 10th- or 11th-place finish seems in order. At least they won't have to freeze their asses off again this January.
Oh, crap, that's right: They still play in Buffalo. Never mind.