With the NHL lockout finally over, the shortened NHL season is fast approaching. W hether you’ve been following minor league hockey to get your fix, or totally forgot everything about the Sabres during the lockout, we’ve prepared this handy season preview post to get you back up to speed on the 2012-13 season for the Buffalo Sabres.
At first glance, the forward lines this year will look very familiar, however, there are some key differences that will help determine the team’s fate this year. Vanek, Pominville, and Stafford will be counted on once again to lead the offense, but major contributions or improvements will be needed from Cody Hodgson, Tyler Ennis, Marcus Foligno, Steve Ott, and Ville Leino if the Sabres are to have playoff aspirations. If those players can’t rise to the challenge and each make significant contributions, it will be difficult for Buffalo to be competitive offensively with teams like Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and New York.
Whether they score enough to compete with the big boys or not, the Sabres should be more fun to watch this year if you’re a fan of physical play, as they’ve added one-man hitting machine Steve Ott and the enormous John Scott to help shore up what was one of the softest teams in the NHL last year. Darcy Regier was given a mandate to make the team "harder to play against" this year, and he’s counting on Ott, Scott, and Foligno, among others, to provide enough sandpaper to make that mandate a reality.
Here’s our best guess at what the lines will look like on opening night:
Others: John Scott, Kevin Porter, Luke Adam
The defensive corps of the Sabres will remain largely the same this year as compared to last. Whether that’s a good thing or not will depend largely on how healthy this unit can stay; in the second half of last season, when the six original starters were on the ice most nights, they proved that they can be a very effective unit both in the defensive zone and as the sparkplugs of the offense. However, injuries will inevitably occur, and how well the replacement players can perform when called upon will likely play a big role again this year as it did in the last.
Here’s our best guess at what the defensive pairings will look like on opening night:
Others: Mike Weber, Alexander Sulzer, TJ Brennan, Adam Pardy
The Sabres enter this season with the same pair of netminders they had last year, and most of the same questions as well. Can Ryan Miller ever regain his Vezina-winning form for a full year, or even a shortened season? Will Lindy Ruff trust Jhonas Enroth enough to play him on a regular basis? It will be especially interesting to monitor goalie playing time this season both on the Sabres and around the league, thanks to the shortened and compacted schedule. The Sabres have proven over the past few seasons that they’ll go only as far as Ryan Miller can carry them, so fans are hoping for more end-of-the-year Miller and less post-concussion Miller this time around.
Starter: Ryan Miller
Backup: Jhonas Enroth
Three Things The Sabres Will Do Well
1. The Sabres will be stronger defensively. Ryan Miller is a very fundamentally sound, technical goaltender. He won’t wow you with diving saves and athleticism, he’ll just quietly put together a 43 save game by being in perfect position and doing all the little things right. However, in order to do that, he needs a healthy stable of NHL-caliber defensemen in front of him. Over the past three years, the difference in Miller’s numbers when he has healthy, talented players clearing his crease versus minor league call-ups is significant. If the Sabres can stay healthy on the blueline, expect them to be a tougher team to score on.
2. The defensemen will be effective both starting and joining the rush. Buffalo has three defensemen that play a very strong offensive game: Tyler Myers, Christian Ehrhoff, and Jordan Leopold, with TJ Brennan looming. All of their defensemen with the exception of Robyn Regehr and Mike Weber are above average skaters and aren’t afraid to join the rush. This has turned the Sabres into a team where their blueliners are just as important to their offensive strategy as their forwards.
3. The penalty killing unit should again be one of the NHL’s best. All of the Sabres major penalty killers return this year, with the exception of Derek Roy, though Steve Ott has penalty killing experience. This has been a strength of the team for the past few years, and fans should expect more of the same.
Three Areas Where The Sabres Will Likely Struggle
1. The Sabres will struggle to score goals without major contributions from young players. Quick, name the top offensive producers on the Sabres. There’s Vanek and Pominville, of course, and Stafford should be good for 20 goals, but after that? Things get iffy very quickly. If the Sabres want to avoid a spot among the bottom 10 teams in goals for, they’ll need major contributions from unproven players like Marcus Foligno, Tyler Ennis, Cody Hodgson, and Ville Leino.
The Sabres will be tougher to play against, but will it be enough? Nobody in Buffalo will argue that the Sabres weren’t a bunch of softies last year, but will the toughness upgrades of Steve Ott and John Scott be enough to inspire the same toughness in other players? Those two guys can’t play the entire game, so other players such as Cody Hodgson, Tyler Myers, and Drew Stafford will need to step their physical games up if this team is going to be one that doesn't get pushed around.
Can the Sabres avoid their early season woes this year? Sabres fans know exactly how most season are going to play out. A hot start followed by a November-January slump, then a torrid race back into playoff contention. This season, however, there won't be time to fall too far behind, because the team only has 50 games at the most and the schedule will be too compacted to save your energy for the final half. If Buffalo wants to make the playoffs, they'll need a strong and consistent campaign, not the roller coaster ride of previous years.