Last year, the Buffalo Sabres trotted out one of the worst teams the NHL has seen this decade. They had a historically bad offense, their defense was combination of disappointments and guys who checked out in December, they traded away their franchise forward and goalie, fired a coach, and their front office was a mess with both Pat LaFontaine and Darcy Regier leaving to various degrees of organizational embarrassment, and they finished so far behind the 29th-place Florida Panthers that they needed binoculars to find them.
Yeah, it was a giant mess.
This year, however, things are looking up in a big way. New GM Tim Murray and returning head coach Ted Nolan provide the team with a stable front office situation for the first time in years, while the additions of free agents Matt Moulson, Brian Gionta, Josh Gorges, Andrej Meszaros, and Andre Benoit will make the product on the ice far more competitive than what we saw last season.
But will they be too competitive to complete the tank and challenge for the top pick in the loaded 2015 NHL Draft? Let's take a look at a few key areas of change to find out just what we can expect from the new and improved Buffalo Sabres in the 2014-15 season.
The 2013-14 Sabres were abominably bad on offense. They scored 150 goals in 82 games, an average of 1.83, which was by far the lowest in the league - Florida came in at 188/2.29, respectively. Not only were they massively outscored to the tune of a -91 goal differential, but the Sabres were also outshot by an average of eight shots per game, which worked out to a negative shot differential of about -650 shots over the course of the season.
In their busy offseason, the Sabres added a number of players that should help boost the anemic offense, and will be counting on some of their young roster players to keep improving in order to help the team crawl closer to offensive respectability. Brian Gionta, Andre Benoit, and Andrej Meszaros scored a combined 32 goals last season, while having Matt Moulson for an entire year gives the team at least one forward who will challenge for 30 goals.
The only significant offensive players the Sabres lost from last season were Christian Ehrhoff and Steve Ott (Matt Moulson is back, so we're not counting him or Vanek, who was involved in the original Moulson deal) who combined for 17 goals between them, so the Sabres should be marginally better in the goals department. When you add in a full season for Chris Stewart, improvements for young players like Zemgus Girgensons and Nicolas Deslauriers as well as contributions from possible part-timers like Mikhail Grigorenko, Sam Reinhart, and Rasmus Ristolainen, the Sabres will likely be somewhere around 40 goals better this season than they were in 2013-14.
Of course, that only gets them to 190, which would have still put them at 29th in the league. Even with a massive jump in goals - say 60 more, an increase of almost 0.75 goals per game - they would have only reached 20th in the league last season. So they'll be better, but probably not worlds better.
This is one area where the Sabres should see significant improvement, especially if the younger guys get more playing time. Gone are Jamie McBain (KHL), Henrik Tallinder (UFA), and Christian Ehrhoff (PIT) and in will be Josh Gorges, Andrej Mezaros, Andre Benoit, and possibly uber-promising youngsters Rasmus Ristolainen and Mark Pysyk. The trio of McBain, Tallinder, and Ehrhoff amount to addition by subtraction, as the first two were just awful last year and the latter - while talented - was simply going through the motions by the end.
At the very least, McBain won't injure all the Buffalo goalies anymore, right?
The bad news is that all three defensive free agents - Gorges, Benoit, and Meszaros - were negative Corsi players, even though all three were members of playoff teams last season. With Buffalo's best possession player Ehrhoff no longer here, this should be another season where the Sabres are outshot by 6-10 every game and struggle to hang on to the puck. Big development and big minutes from Pysyk and Ristolainen could help mitigate that worry, but while all three free agents are solid players, none of them will come anywhere close to recreating Ehrhoff's possession production. Benoit and Meszaros should add a handful of goals each, and all bring veteran experience to a team that sorely needs it.
One of the biggest question marks for the Sabres comes in net, as nobody truly knows how Jhonas Enroth will respond to the responsibility of being a starting goaltender in the NHL. What we do know is that he probably won't be as good as Ryan Miller was, especially the way Miller played in Buffalo last season.
Before you light the torches and sharpen the pitchforks, hear me out. One of the most commonly used statistics to truly measure goalie performance is even strength save percentage, and last season Miller outplayed Enroth by a score of .923 to .918. He also sported a better power play save percentage, by a margin of .894 to .875. While in Buffalo last year, Miller played at a high level for a bad team, a level that Enroth simply did not reach last season in his limited opportunities, though Enroth will have a better supporting cast in front of him, so an improvement in his numbers isn't out of the question.
Another big reason the Sabres finished with as many points as they did was that they won a ton of games in the shootout. Here again Miller shone, posting a .744 save percentage in the shootout and going 7-3, while Enroth was 0-1 with two saves on three shots. Could Enroth be as good as Miller in the shootout this year? It's certainly possible, though I wouldn't bet on it, as Enroth is only 2-5 in the shootout over the past three seasons.
Michal Neuvirth had a terrible preseason, but did you know he actually had a better even strength and power play save percentage than Enroth did last year? Granted, he only appeared in 16 games as a backup, but it's encouraging to think he could put up similar numbers as he begins the season as the backup in Buffalo.
The Ted Nolan Effect
If you watched Team Latvia during these recent Olympics, or if you're old enough to remember Sabres hockey in the mid-90's, then you know Ted Nolan has a way of getting undermanned teams to overachieve through some magical combination of hard work, motivation, and COMPETE. He's an upgrade over Ron Rolston - though to be fair, a cardboard cutout of Ted Nolan would have been an upgrade over Ron Rolston.
With Nolan behind the bench, you can bet there will be fewer games this year where the Sabres look completely uninterested, and that should lead to more games Buffalo has at least a puncher's chance to win. Nolan has stated repeatedly throughout the preseason that he's not here to lose, and I for one believe him. Nolan could be the most dangerous enemy to The Tank this year.
The Sabres will be better this season than they were last year, of that I'm sure. I also think that with the injuries in Carolina and Calgary, the Sabres could find themselves in trouble as far as the race for last place goes. However, with the increase in offense being mitigated by a downgrade in net, I don't think they have too much to worry about as the season starts. They'll be more fun to watch, they'll win a few more games than they did last season, but they'd need to be ten games better (or more) to seriously be in trouble in the McEichel sweepstakes.
Enjoy the season, Sabres fans, and don't worry so much about the wins and losses, especially early in the year. Give us your season predictions in the comments, and we'll see you back here tomorrow for the season opener versus Columbus.