The last time the Buffalo Sabres too the ice for a meaningful game was April 5, 2008. That means it has been over six months since any player on this team (with the exception of new Sabres Captain Craig Rivet-who played for San Jose last year) played in an a NHL game that counted. This can't be a good feeling for guys that are used to playing into late May and competing in the Eastern Conference Finals.
The Sabres should be a hungry team, that is a year removed from the controversy surrounding the ex co-captains. Last season the team learned a valuable lesson...nothing is guaranteed in the NHL. If you want an opportunity to play for the Cup it takes hard work at both ends of the ice, not just the offensive zone.
The Sabres failed to qualify for the playoffs last season, despite scoring the fourth most goals in the entire league. It was in the defensive zone that the Sabres lost hockey games. The team received inconsistent play from the Tallinder-Lydman pairing that they counted on to shut down the opponents top line. Tallinder and Lydman were noticed more than anyone else but the entire defense struggled for most of the season. In addition to the inconsistent play from the defense the forwrads were often lazy in their own zone and mostly out of position. Drew Stafford, Derek Roy and Thomas Vanek were amongst the many forwards that struggled in the defensive zone.
It's undeniable that the defense struggled with consistency but Ryan Miller should share the blame for the Sabres allowing so many goals. Miller played in a career high 76 games and that is largely blamed for his poor play. The truth is that he struggled the entire season. Miller suffered from denial early in the season, instead of accepting blame for a soft goal he often pointed blame at the players in front of him not executing "The System". Last season Ryan Miller was exposed as a guy who went down too early and opponents took advantage picking him apart in the "Top Shelf". Miller didn't only have his biggest fault exposed he was horrific on shootouts, an area that had been a stregnth for the last two seasons.
This is a talented group of guys that show no signs of an offensive let down. The offense is led by Derek Roy and Jason Pominville but plenty of other guys are key contributors. Roy had a career highs in every offensive category with 81 points in his first season as the teams number one Center. Jason Pominville has put up good offensive numbers since being called up to the Sabres during the 2005-2006 season. Many people wondered if Pominville would continue to put up good numbers after Briere left and he had a career high 80 points last season and became a more complete player in the process.
Thomas Vanek is by far the Sabres best pure goal scorer. He scored 36 goals last season after netting 43 the prior season. Most people forget that Vanek started off extremely slow last season and seemed to feel the effects of the huge contract he signed in the off-season. If Vanek can be consistent for the entire season he could set a career high in goals scored, especially playing along side of Derek Roy. The part of his game that people never talk about is the ability to park himself in front of the goalie and become an immovable object. Vanek scores plenty of goals by paying the price in front of the opposing teams net.
The three players listed above are enough to consider the Sabres a dangerous offensive team but they also have guys like Jochen Hecht (22 goals), Ales Kotalik (23 goals) and Daniel Paille (19 goals). There shouldn't be any drop-off offensively from Jochen Hecht, Ales Kotalik will continue to be a force on the power play and Paille will work hard to get noticed on the score sheet.
It still doesn't stop after the above six players, the Sabres could make up an entire line with guys that have under-achieved for one reason or another. Drew Stafford, Maxim Afinogenov and Tim Connolly are extremely talented players and they combined for only 33 goals last season. If any of those players play to their offensive potential the Sabres could find themselves leading the league in goal scoring once again.
Sabres management recognized this is to be an area of concern in the off-season. They allowed career under-achiever Dmitri Kalinin to leave as a free agent and they acquired Craig Rivet in a trade with San Jose. Rivet wasn't the only addition to the blue-line, Teppo Numminen re-signed as a free agent after missing all but one game last season after having heart surgery. The team hopes that the addition of Numminen and Rivet will be exactly what this defense needed. It should allow the Sabres an opportunity to seperate the pairing of Tallinder and Lydman and have two pairings capable of shutting down the opponents top line.
Rivet brings much more than just his defensive play to this team. Yesterday his teammates voted him the Captain of the team before he has ever played a regular season game as a member of the Sabres.
Andrej Sekera emerged as a capable defenseman late in the year and he will be in the Sabres lineup on opening day. Sekera is a defenseman that could potentially replace Brian Campbell although he is better defensively than Campbell is.
I have already talked negatively about Ryan Miller but with that being said, he is talented enough to correct the mistakes he made last season. It seemed that Miller was overplaying pucks quite often, trying to do too much because of some shotty defense. Being a goalie is as much about confidence as it is about talent and it was obvious from early in the season that Miller had no confidence.
Miller should also get the necessary relief from newly acquired backup goalie Patrick Lalime. Lalime is a guy who has been a starter in the league and now understands that he is a backup and needs to be ready. Lalime played well everytime he was called upon to spell Nikolai Khabibulin in Chicago last year.
Sabres don't win the div ison but make the playoffs as the number six seed.