Not that I want to jump the gun and race past what has already become a precarious 2010-2011 campaign for the Buffalo Sabres but there does exist an interesting offseason for the club this coming summer. While the Sabres have gotten off to a rough start and are only now climbing out of their well dug hole, more than half of their roster is playing in a "contract year". Whether they'll be either Unrestricted or Restricted Free Agents, 13 Sabres will need to re-sign with their current club or move on (unless traded/waived).
RFA's include: Stafford, Gerbe, Sekera, Butler & Weber
UFA's include: Connolly, Grier, Niedermayer, Ellis, McCormick, Rivet, Montador & Lalime
Debates can go all season long on who should stay and who should go but it's particularly noteworthy to look at just the defensive side of the roster and wonder how much change could be a good thing or a bad thing. The Sabres have looked the part of a lost team on the ice in their first month of action and some would point to the defensive chemistry between pairings as one of the reasons the team has gotten off to a rotten start. With the losses of Henrik Tallinder and Toni Lydman, GM Darcy Regier brought in free agents Jordan Leopold and Shaone Morrison. Although not at the top of the list for FA Defensemen the two have proven to be ample replacements. Mix in the early struggles of Tyler Myers and the poor play of Captain Craig Rivet as well as the log jam at the 6th D-man position and you get the Sabres defense in a nutshell.
As of mid-November the chemistry throughout the lines seems to have gotten back on track and the defense has been playing much better in front of three different goaltender's at this point. Leopold is second on the team in points. Montador has had a good season so far and Myers seems to finally be finding his confidence once more on the ice, as evidenced by his game winning goal against Vancouver in overtime.
Were it not for the usually patience-first approach that Regier uses when Free Agency begins, it would be an exciting time to see who the Sabres can bring in to bolster their blue-line and continue to build around netminder Ryan Miller. But is too much change a bad thing when it comes to defense?
You could play it safe and assume that Steve Montador would be resigned by the Sabres, but they'd be smart to do it before July 1st just in case. While he's not going to be on a top pairing with Myers he has been a physical presence consistently on the ice for a team that's always getting a bad rap at being too soft. Montador could be the only safe bet on the blueline for returning to the team.
The biggest surprise about Craig Rivet may have been his quick nomination as captain to his new team but what's also been shocking has been his downward spiral in play. His first season has been far and away his best as his numbers and ice time have both diminished, along with injuries that seem to keep him in the box to watch his team from above. I've liked Rivet as a captain since they named him but that's about where it ends. He announced he was probably going to retire after this season and its probably for the best, but it does leave the Sabres with one more void on their blueline.
Here's where it gets frustrating. Andrej Sekera, Chris Butler and Mike Weber seem to be too good for the AHL and not good enough to break away from the three-pack they seem to be stuck in. The most consistent seems to be Sekera but that's not saying much when compared to the other two. I'll admit I was rooting for Weber to make the team and get his fair amount of games as a rookie d-man on a team that's stacked with defensemen but he hasn't been able to do it. I wouldn't expect the Sabres to walk away from Weber after all the time they've spent developing him but he's still going year in year out in training camps and not blowing them away even though he's had great numbers in the AHL.
Last season stats:
Sekera: 49 games, 4 goals, 7 assists, -1 rating
Butler: 59 games, 1 goal, 20 assists, -15 rating
Would it really be a bad thing to lose these two players? Would it really shock you if Regier re-signed them?
The point is, while the Sabres seemed to have gone through some growing pains already this season with their defensemen, they may be poised to find themselves in the same predicament when the season begins next year. Obviously much time still lies between now and next season's opening night and I for one am not writing off this season at all! To be perfectly honest with you all, I believe the Sabres can make the playoffs this season, not that I'm happy with saying "we'll make the playoffs" this season and being able to say "hey we won the division!" last season, but it is what it is. However, it will be an interesting time for a team that normally doesn't change an awful lot from one season to another, to see what they do when half of their players can be be let go. Especially when it comes to their tumultuous defense.