Status quo for idle-sitting Sabres

Finalists in the East for consecutive springs, the Buffalo Sabres have followed their oh-so-close 2006 and ’07 postseasons with two straight non-playoff finishes.

Certainly this would be an offseason of significant change, possibly including the removal of the popular Lindy Ruff from behind the bench where the ex-Sabre captain has the NHL’s longest active duty as a head coach (11 seasons). Maybe the time had come to dismiss otherwise respected general manager Darcy Regier, who has been on the job since 1997.

Photo The Sabres were in a playoff spot last year until Ryan Miller(notes) missed 13 games late.
(Kevin Hoffman/US Presswire)

At the very least there would be a roster makeover. The salary cap wasn’t an issue, there’s room to add in terms of dollars and it’s obvious a talent upgrade would be welcomed.

But, barely a week before the official opening of training camp, absolutely none of those things have happened. And while we’re not supporting the idea of Regier and/or Ruff losing their jobs, we know how life works in pro sports and especially the NHL. It’s a results-based business, and the results just haven’t been good enough of late in Buffalo.

So that brings us to this question, without an upgrade to the roster how can the Sabres expect their fortunes to change? On one hand, the perspective on all of this might have been different if star goalie Ryan Miller didn’t suffer an untimely injury last season.

Buffalo was in possession of a playoff spot in late February when Miller went down with an ankle injury, and 13 games later the team found itself behind the 8-ball – in 10th place – once Miller was fit to return. Don’t blame Miller, there wasn’t enough depth – or the right kind of it – either in goal or elsewhere to bridge the gap. And the team doesn’t look very much different now, at least so far.

Is there a logical reason for this? Buffalo had success coming out of the lockout with an undersized lineup that took advantage of the strictly enforced interference rules to push the pace and put teams on their heels. But the formula has changed somewhat. While speed and skill are definitely rewarded in the new NHL, there still is a need for size and toughness. And it’s in this area the Sabres have fallen behind.

Buffalo has been more cognizant to add those elements during recent drafts and minor league free-agent signings. And maybe those kinds of players are coming to supplement and support the skill that does exist on the roster.

But it’s going to take some time for those players to develop and reach the NHL level, and Sabres fans are already being asked to be patient. Assuming there are no last-second surprises, a lot of things are going to have to go right for Buffalo to remain in the hunt and get over the hump this season. We shall see.

Last season: 41-32-9 (91 points), third place Northeast Division, 10th place in the Eastern Conference. The Sabres fell two points short of eighth place and the final playoff spot. Buffalo improved its season total by one point over 2007-08, also a non-playoff season. The Sabres have missed out on the postseason during five of the past seven years.

Imports: D Steve Montador(notes) (Boston), RW Mike Grier(notes) (San Jose), C Cody McCormick(notes) (Buffalo), D Joe DiPenta(notes) (Anaheim).

Exports: D Jaroslav Spacek(notes) (Montreal), G Mikael Tellqvist(notes) (Europe), D Teppo Numminen(notes) (retired).

Re-signings: D Andrej Sekera(notes), RW Patrick Kaleta(notes), LW Clarke MacArthur(notes).

Salary cap: With approximately $48.6 million committed, the Sabres have more than $8 million to spend up to the ceiling, but the question is whether the budget will allow more spending.

Three keys: There are a number of teams who look over their shoulder and really rely on goaltending – Vancouver, Calgary and New Jersey most notably – but maybe none will do so more than the Sabres this season. Miller was signed to a long-term extension last season to ensure the face of the franchise would be in Buffalo through the prime of his career.

So Miller knows he not only has to stay on top of his game, but to handle what’s expected to be a heavy workload and do it without interruption (i.e. injuries). It’s maybe not the fairest approach, but there still isn’t much behind him (Patrick Lalime(notes)) and it’s just the way the Sabres are choosing to go about it.

Secondly, a defense that’s lacked big-name star power will be flying even less under the radar with the departures of Teppo Numminen (retirement) and Jaroslav Spacek (Montreal). That’s going to put added pressure on youngsters such as Chris Butler(notes), Andrej Sekera, Marc-Andre Gragnani(notes), Mike Weber(notes) and/or Tyler Myers(notes) to provide quality minutes along with veterans Henrik Tallinder(notes), Toni Lydman(notes), Craig Rivet(notes) plus newcomers Steve Montador and Joe DiPenta.

Third, 28-year-old first-line center Tim Connolly(notes) hasn’t enjoyed an injury-free season since 2002-03. Out entirely in 2003-04, Connolly has appeared in just 48 games each of the last two seasons after playing just twice in 2006-07 and in 63 games following the lockout in 2005-06. It’s time he stays off injured reserve or the team will resemble a donut again with a big hole in the middle.

Photo Thomas Vanek’s(notes) 40 goals led the Sabres last season, and he’ll be looked to lead them again.
(Kevin Hoffman/US Presswire)

When healthy, Connolly has been close to the productive player many suspected when he was drafted fifth overall (by the Islanders) in 1999. But his fragile nature has left management and fans wondering just what to expect.

On the hot seat: Thomas Vanek got off to a blazing start last season and finished with a team-leading 40 goals, especially the kind of production expected from the 25-year-old Austrian sniper. Vanek has no choice but to maintain that kind of production because if the Sabres look around the room they’re not going to find anyone with as much of a nose for the net as Vanek, who scored at least twice as many goals as any teammate last season with the exception of Derek Roy(notes) (28 goals).

Poised to blossom: Jason Pominville(notes) might look like an odd choice here, especially considering his production slipped to 20 goals last season after years of 27 and 34 previously. But outside of Buffalo who has really heard of the 26-year-old Quebec-born right wing? Pominville has scored 66, 80 and 68 points the past three seasons and doesn’t get much national recognition. He’ll be playing on a line with Vanek and Connolly, so there should be plenty of opportunity to score. Just maybe someone outside Buffalo will finally take notice.

Time has passed: Mike Grier is wonderfully passionate about the game and a solid leader, but Buffalo fans have to realize this is not the same powerful forward they had before. Grier’s three seasons in San Jose were marked with declining production and a reduction of minutes. He was injured late last season, and played through injury during a good portion of his stay with the Sharks. At 34, he’s definitely lost a step or two. The Sabres shouldn’t expect much more than a solid penalty killer who can take regular shifts on the fourth line while providing a mentor role for the younger players on the roster.

Prediction: It’s hard to go through the season with near perfect health, but that seems like what it’s going to take for the Sabres to hang in the race, and even that might not be enough. If management sticks to its guns and doesn’t get any closer to the ceiling of the cap and doesn’t add any more talent to this group, it’s hard to imagine Buffalo finishing any higher than 10th in the East.

Ross McKeon is an NHL editor for Yahoo! Sports. Send Ross a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Friday, Sep 4, 2009