As far back as the lockout, the Sabres have always prided themselves on being able to roll four lines that score. The glory days of Roy and Connolly centering the third and fourth line led themselves to last season, where the fourth line (including Adam "auto-penalty" Mair) would be out in the final three minutes with the game on the line. The team doesn't depend on one or two guys to strike fear into the hearts of their enemies, but rather the fact that they could strike at any time, from any line, with any player.
However, things have not gone according to plan this season. There are many reasons why the team has started poorly, but one of them has to be the lack of secondary scoring on the third and fourth lines. Buffalo finished 10th in the league in goals per game last season due to the fact that 12 players scored ten or more goals. So far this season, only the big guns are coming through. Here's the current stats and projections for the top scorers through 12 games, with plenty of analysis after the break:
Derek Roy: 6 goals projects to 41 (most likely won't maintain that pace, will probably finish with 25-30 goals)
Thomas Vanek and Tim Connolly: 4 goals projects to 27 (a definite possibility for Vanek, Connolly less so)
Drew Stafford, Jordan Leopold, Tyler Myers: 3 goals projects to 20 (a possibility for Stafford, a stretch for Myers, a miracle for Leopold)
The only real surprise there is that two of the top six scorers right now are defensemen, who most likely will not continue scoring at this rate for the entire season. The two players each with two goals, Tyler Ennis and Cody McCormick, project to have 13 at the end of the year, and anyone with one goal is on pace for six by season's end. The grim future of those projections says that only four of our twelve forwards are projected to finish the year with more than 13 goals, based on their production so far. For comparison's sake, the '09-'10 Sabres had seven forwards with 13 or more goals, with Gaustad, Kennedy, Grier and Kaleta right behind with 10-12 each.
The problem is not the top dogs. Roy, Connolly, Stafford, and Vanek have put the most pucks in the net. I cringe whenever I see people scream to high heaven to trade Connolly in the comments (and I'm prepared to do a lot of cringing after this post) because he's our second best forward this season on the score sheet. Folks, let me make a stand here: you don't trade your second most productive guy for peanuts at the beginning of the season just because you don't like him. Character and heart issues aside, it's just not going to happen, at least at this point in the season. Later in the season, if the team is out of contention and selling at the deadline, I'll be the driver of the Trade Timmy Bandwagon Express. But while the team is still struggling to tread water and find itself, I want the guy who's on pace for 27 goals to stay on my offensively-challenged club.
So, we've established that the big guys are pretty much on pace for their season averages, but now let's look at everyone else. Names like Hecht, Grier, Niedermayer, Pominville (only 3 games), Gerbe, and Sekera - guys you're looking to each snag at least 8-12 goals this year - have been shooting blanks thus far. In fact, the Sabres are second in the league in terms of players who've played at least 6 games (half the season) and have not scored, trailing only Phoenix. The Sabres, the Islanders, and oddly enough, Boston, Ottawa, and Toronto are all tied with eight players who haven't scored having played at least six games. That's not good enough for a team that prides itself on having four lines that can score, and it's even worse when you can't play defense.
The bottom line is that the Sabres are 22nd in the league in goals per game and 23rd in goals against. Assuming Ryan Miller and the penalty kill units start to slowly move closer to their numbers from last season, then the problem becomes offense, and specifically, a lack of secondary offense. I wish Roy or Vanek were the Ovechkin/Stamkos-type of scorers that could carry the team on their backs, but they're not, and Buffalo needs some of these other names to step up and be productive if the team is going to turn this ship around.