The NHL playoffs are about a week old and it's a little bit strange without the Buffalo Sabres. It seemed like April and May were devoted entirely to the NHL playoffs but now there are other things we can do. It also gives us an opportunity to look back on the season and determine what went right and what went wrong. Although it it's a little bit cliché, I thought it would be fun to do the good, bad and ugly from the season that was just completed.
Derek Roy and Jason Pominville:
It's important to link these two players together because they were the two biggest offensive contributors this season. Derek Roy lived up to his six year contract that many people laughed at and thought he would never live up to. Roy was a point per game player just one season after being a third line center. Jason Pominville is another player who was outstanding. He proved that last season was no fluke and he can be just as good playing without Danny Briere. Briere may have helped dramatically in the development of Pommer but he proved this season that he is an outstanding hockey player no matter who he is playing with.
Thomas Vanek rebounding from a slow start
Vanek came into the season with the weight of the world on his shoulders because of the off-season happenings. Whether it was fair or unfair really doesn't matter, he struggled to contribute under that pressure. It took about half the season for Vanek to really start playing well but he eventually led the team with 36 goals and quietly had another productive season. I can't wait to see him play next year when he has a little bit of a chip on his shoulders.
The signing of Jochen Hecht
The Sabres management proved that they did indeed change their policy regarding signing players mid-season by signing Jochen Hecht. This was an important move because it proved management did change their policy but also because of what Jochen Hecht means to this team. He had a career year scoring 22 goals after never scoring more than 19 in any one season. Hecht was important in a leadership role, which was extremely important after the off-season loss of Chris Drury and Daniel Briere.
The comeback of Jaro Spacek
In his first season with the Sabres, Jaroslav Spacek struggled mightily. His poor play prompted many fans and media to push for him to be traded. This season he turned that all around and proved he was important to the team. He really proved his worth on the power play where he had seven of his nine goals. Spacek also proved important in a leadership role and was even named captain back in December.
The emergence of Mike Weber and Andrej Sekera
If it wasn't for injuries to Jaro Spacek and Dmitri Kalinin along with the trade of Brian Campbell, we may never know how good these guys really are. When presented with the opportunity Weber and Sekera have stepped up and surprised many people at how good they were. It was thought by many people that they would be good at some point but no one could have predicted how good they would be be in such a short time. Only time will tell if they can continue at such a high level but it certainly looks like a bright future for the young defensive tandem.
Finally the emergence of Patrick Kaleta as the resident pest
All good hockey teams have a guy who seems to always get under the skin of the opponent and for the Sabres that guy became Patrick Kaleta. Kaleta has been highly publicized because of being a native of the Buffalo suburb of Angola but this season he proved that he may truly be an NHL player. I was one of the people who thought they should proceed slowly with Kaleta but now I'm a believer. Kaleta was effective in just about every game he played in although he still needs to work on his timing and trying to avoid hitting players too late. However, I'm still waiting for the day that he pisses of the wrong guy and gets pummeled into the ice.
The number of key injuries suffered by the Sabres
The Sabres didn't have as many man-games lost as some other NHL teams but they certainly suffered their share of key injuries. It certainly isn't an excuse for missing the playoffs but it certainly contributed. The power play has become more important in the NHL and when you lose a guy like Spacek for an extended amount of time it will certainly affect the team. It was key injuries like that and the timing of the injuries that was so difficult to overcome. In a scene that was eerily similar to the 2005-2006 Eastern Conference Semi-Finals the Sabres lost three defensemen at the same time, forcing them to play three rookies at the same time while making the push for the playoffs.
The play of Max Afinogenov
Max Afinogenov has always seemed like a really talented player who never lived up to expectations but it was never more evident than this season. I was quick to defend him early in the season but he never came around the way I thought he would. His season long struggles forced Darcy Regier to admit in his post-season press conference that it may finally be time to part ways with the speedy winger.
The play of Ryan Miller
Anyone who reads this site is well aware of my criticism of Ryan Miller but it still needs to be mentioned. At times Miller looked like his old self, making miraculous saves that we have grown accustomed to but all to often he let in a soft goal. It has been well documented that he suffered from fatigue in the late stages of the season but I believe it was case of trying to do too much. He often was out of position because of being over aggressive and would continuously take himself out of the play.
Missing the Playoffs
Some people think that this is a blessing in disguise but it doesn't mean it isn't bad. Anytime you miss the playoffs it is bad but when you fall from Presidents Trophy winner to missing the playoffs it is magnified even more.
The Teppo Numminen saga
The Sabres signed Numminen as a free agent in the off-season but when taking his training camp physical it was discoverd that he needed heart surgery. The Sabres proceeded to place him on the suspended list meaning he would not be paid and would not count against the salary cap. Many fans and media criticized the organization for their handling of the situation but I personally don't take issue with it. I think the organization did the right thing and what was best for the organization as a whole.
Late season blown leads
The Sabres could probably be playing in the playoffs right now if they were able to hold onto victories against the Montreal Canadiens and Ottawa Senators. After watching the Sens look absolutely pathetic in their attempt to play playoff hockey, the Sabres missing the playoffs hurts even more. I think this team was good enough to do some damage in the playoffs.
The Brian Campbell situation
I may not have a popular opinion of this situation but I put the blame squarely on Brian Campbell. The Sabres never once tried to negotiate the contract through the media but Campbell did. He knew what happened in the past and the criticism management received for not signing guys and he used that as a bargaining chip hoping that management would give in and over-pay him. It was classless move and if their was ever a player who deserves to get booed when he returns it is "Soupy". Both Briere and Drury did a little bit of that but not to the extent of Campbell. In watching Campbell in the playoffs you start to realize that Regier probably made the right decision in not signing him.
The spitting match between the media and management
This looks bad for both sides and only enhances the cities image of being a joke. It seems that both sides have been extremely unprofessional and that the spat has gone above and beyond hockey. There should never be a disagreement between powerful organizations like the Sabres and The Buffalo News that should carry on as long as it has and become as personal as it has. TBN has become so upset with this situation that they attacked WGR550 as well, accusing them of letting the Sabres off the hook.