September's finally here. And given how slowly teams are coming together, we decided to put off the previews until September this time. We go in alphabetical order because hey, why not? We'll be doing this until September ends. With that said here we go.
And now, the Buffalo Sabres.
Team M.O.: These guys are one of those "small market" teams that has difficulty retaining those "star" players but still finds a way to consistently ice a good squad that's balanced and competitive. Defense reigns supreme for these guys and they have two excellent building blocks in regards to that aspect. Both Ryan Miller and Calder Trophy winner Tyler Myers were excellent for their team last season and had definitely set some higher expectations for the team than they were able to enjoy for the past few seasons.
Last Season: Third in the Conference yet eliminated from the playoffs in the opening round by the Boston Bruins. Yes it was disappointing but in retrospect, maybe Miller shouldn't have started in all those regular season games... plus the Olympics.
Offense: One thing's for certain: Buffalo's top line will likely be Derek Roy centering Tomas Vanek and Jason Pominville. For good reason too; Roy is an excellent playmaker while both Vanek and Pominville have the hands to score. Tim Connolly is also very much capable of dishing out the plays while Jochen Hecht displays enough solid two-way ability to warrant top-six forward minutes. Whomever ends up on the line with them will likely be decided in camp. Drew Stafford has the size you would want but is awfully streaky. Tyler Ennis, on the other hand, is small but was nearly a point-per-game player for the team during his 10 game regular season audition and did nearly as well in the playoffs; he'll likely get a good look at camp. And if the Sabres decide to go smaller there's always Nathan Gerbe, who's 5'6" but is definitely skilled enough to make an NHL roster (and he's from Michigan too so we like him already :-P .) The group of scoring forwards isn't spectacular but is suitable for a "defense first" type of team.
The second half of Buffalo's depth chart shows an attention to defensive detail and has enough toughness to handle the rigors of the Eastern Conference. Paul Gaustad, Mike Grier, and the newly-signed Rob Niedermeyer are the type of players you'd want in a checking role so Buffalo's happy to have them. Both Matt Ellis and Cody McCormick returned as unrestricted free agents in the off-season; Ellis brings leadership and determination while McCormick will likely be relied on as the guy to "take out the trash.", having racked up 168 penalty minutes last season for the AHL Portland Pirates and having a solid build at 6'3" and 215 lbs. And there's always Patrick Kaleta, who is as effective and "the grind" as he is in terms of annoying the nonsense out of his opponents.
Of course teams can always improve; but the Sabres will likely go into camp with this group of forwards and rely on their farm system in the event of injuries. They should be solid enough to hold their own.
Defense: Expectations will be high for Myers based on his astounding rookie season but he seems poised for great things this season as well. Team captain Craig Rivet didn't have the type of offensive output he's been used to having for the past few seasons, but he still brought his "A" game and broke the century mark in penalty minutes. Jordan Leopold and Shaone Morrisonn were brought on board and will handle the ice time and roles that the departed Toni Lydman and Hendrik Tallender provided for the team last season. Andrej Sekera has the tools be be a premier breakout defender but needs to start avoiding the injury bug to maximize his efficiency. Steve Montador was solid for the Sabres last season and is an optimum option for a Number 6 defender. The seventh spot will likely go to Chris Butler who had a career season in points last year despite posting a -15. Tim Conboy and Mike Weber have a chance to earn that spot as well, though they'll both be playing the role of the "enforcing" type of defender.
Much like the forwards, you can always improve but their situation looks set as is.
Goaltending: Miller's hitting the prime of his career and is no doubt the Number 1 goaltender for the team. The question is how much playing time should he receive and how much playing time should go to his backup Patrick Lalime? Granted he put up his best individual numbers since the lockout last season (2.81 GAA to go with .907 save percentage) but he also appeared in less games than he had the previous two seasons. On top of that, Jhonas Enroth is starting to knock on the door and will have graduated from the minors soon enough. If I were a Sabres fan, I really wouldn't want to see Miller get overused so he can remain effective come playoff time so if I were Lindy Ruff, I would cap him at 60 starts, at most. If Lalime can be effective as a backup; then he should be able to handle the 22 other starts and the platoon could be the good ol' starter/backup system. However if Lalime poos the bed, then Enroth would have to be brought up. Should that happen, the Ruff's going to have the unenviable task of using Miller less so that way their 22-year-old goalie prospect can receive the playing time necessary to not throw a complete and total wrench in his development.
In short, it's not a problem of goaltending depth with this team; it's all in how they'd use it.
Management: Darcy Reiger assembled a solid team that makes financial sense while Lindy Ruff will be going into his 13th season as the Buffalo Sabres head coach. Though Ruff's teams have ups and downs, he manages more often than not to lead them to victory. If they could just get that elusive Stanley Cup for their 40th anniversary season it would put both of them in the upper echelons of hockey management.
Prediction: First in the Northeast Division and in the playoffs.
I don't see the Toronto Maple Leafs, Montreal Canadiens, or Ottawa Senators being better than these guys this season; and the Boston Bruins will most certainly have injury issues to deal with. That said, these guys are definitely a playoff team. How ever far they go will rely largely on both how consistent their group of forwards can be and, to a lesser extent, how the goaltending's applied. If all goes well for the Sabres, this could be a very surprising season for them this year.