Our week long Buffalo Sabres preview takes a look at the team as a whole and their outlook for the season. If you missed the other four parts, you can catch them here, here, here, and here.
The Buffalo Sabres are one of those teams that have lofty expectations heading into the 2011-2012 season. Between all of the spending in the offseason and all of the talk from the front office and the fans about how the team is built to win the Stanley Cup. First, the team has to make the playoffs and make it out of the first round, something they haven't done in the past two seasons. With that, here are the top five questions facing the Sabres as they head into the start of the season.
1.) How will all of the new pieces work together?
Three new faces have been introduced to this Sabres team in the offseason and how the players will all play with each other at the start of the season is going to be interesting. On defense, Robyn Regehr should match up with Tyler Myers, Myers' third different defensive partner in his three seasons. Christian Ehrhoff should match up with Jordon Leopold for the Sabres second defensive line. On offense, Ville Leino will play center for the first time in the NHL even though center was his natural position coming through the ranks.
All of the new faces means that all of these players are trying to get used to new teammates. While the preseason helps with much of the acclimation time, the first few weeks of the season is going to be key for the Sabres and getting the team playing as one cohesive unit.
2.) Can Ryan Miller return to Vezina form?
After winning the Vezina trophy in 2010, Ryan Miller came back to reality last season with a 34-22-8 record. His save percentage of .916 was good for 18th among starting goaltenders last season and his goals against average of 2.59 was good for 23rd. A revamped defense should help Miller's numbers and a better backup goaltender in Jhonas Enroth should give Miller more rest which should help his performance this season.
One goaltender to look to in bouncing back is Boston's Tim Thomas. Thomas won the Vezina Trophy in 2009 with a stellar season for the Bruins and then regressed and lost his starting job to Tuukka Rask in 2010. Thomas turned around and had his best statistical season in 2011 and won the Stanley Cup and Vezina Trophy. If Miller can follow this path, things will be good for the Sabres this upcoming season.
3.) How will the center position play out for the Sabres?
Derek Roy is returning from a quadriceps injury that kept him out for the second half of the season. Ville Leino is playing center for the first time in the NHL after being playing center throughout his junior career. Many fans believe that this team needs to get a true number one center because they don't have faith in Roy and Leino being the number one center that would take control of the team.
The center position is a weak one for the Sabres as well. After Roy and Leino, the team has Paul Gaustad and Cody McCormick as natural centers and Luke Adam can be a serviceable call up for the center position but after that, the team will start shifting wingers over to play center. Brad Boyes can shift to center but seems to be more effective at wing rather than center.
4.) Who steps up and becomes the leader of this team?
The question of who becomes the center for the Sabres will soon be answered in a week or so. Until then, the speculation of who the center is continues. After last season, Thomas Vanek seems to be the fan favorite for that designation after essentially carrying the team on his shoulders when Roy was out of the lineup. Paul Gaustad has been thought as a solid captain for a few seasons now, but with one year left on his contract may be a hindrance to Gaustad getting the C.
5.) Are the Sabres a true contender for the Cup this year?
The Boston Bruins are still the odds on favorite for getting back to the Stanley Cup Finals and Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and Washington all have solid teams this season as well. The Sabres did finish 7th in the Eastern Conference last season and on paper they made their team better. Whether all of the pieces can come together for the next ten months is yet to be seen though.