Buffalo Sabres Season Preview: The Forwards
On the eve of the Buffalo Sabres season opener, let's take a look at previewing the team's forwards.
The men that the Buffalo Sabres will rely on to score goals are, frankly, few and far between this season. As they have for the past few years, this conversation begins with Thomas Vanek, a man who's as dangerous tipping pucks in front of the net as he is streaking in on a breakaway to unload a slapper from the point. He'll team up with center Cody Hodgson on the top line to create a formidable offensive duo, as both men have the ability to score 30 goals, and both are excellent passers to boot. Whoever teams with them on the top line will benefit greatly, as Luke Adam did a few years ago.
Aside from those two, Sabres fans are hoping for a resurgence from Drew Stafford, and Ville Leino to help the team's so-far-meager offense. Stafford struggled mightily last year, and Leino only played in eight games, so even an average contribution for these two will be much appreciated. The last pure offensive player on the top six is Tyler Ennis, who will be starting the season back at center, and who will hopefully help spark a much needed second line threat.
The Two-Way Players
Most of the other forwards can be filed under the two-way banner - guys who work just as hard in the defensive zone as they do in their opponent's. They won't always chip in the most points, but you've got to have them on your team in order to succeed.
The list of 200-foot players on the Sabres roster begins with Steve Ott and Marcus Foligno - two players who could receive top-six time should the situation call for it. These two play a wrecking ball type of game, and add big hits and the occasional fight to their 15 goal potential. Though he will likely miss the opener due to injury, Marcus Foligno has been playing with each of the top two lines, and should see significant ice time, at least early in the season.
Kevin Porter, Brian Flynn, Zemgus Girgensons, Corey Tropp and Johan Larsson round out the rest of the 200-foot guys, and all will be counted on not only to play a sound defensive game, but also to chip in a few goals every now and then.
The Enforcers/Pests/Defensive Players
A few of the team's forwards are strictly defensive players - they won't chip in many, if any, goals, but they'll certainly work their butts off to make sure the other team doesn't either. Patrick Kaleta is one of the best pests in the league, and despite how much everyone else in the league hates him, he's actually developed a very good defensive game to go along with his penalty-drawing acumen. Cody McCormick is what he is at this point, and John Scott is still on the team for games against Toronto and Boston. And so that national NHL writers can have goon debates once every few months.
Mikhail Grigorenko was a highly touted Russian offensive force who was drafted to be (hopefully) a future #1 center. Last season, he bounced back and forth between juniors and the NHL, and also the NHL and the NHL press box. His season never had any momentum, and was generally disappointing. His biggest issues are his feet, which don't move enough, and his compete level, which isn't yet up to NHL levels.
However, there are many things to like about Grigorenko this season. While it still needs to get better, his skating has improved in the past season, and he looks more comfortable on the ice. He continues to show flashes of offensive greatness, threading beautiful backhand passes and finding soft spots in the zone to hang out in. Oh, and one more thing - he's 19 years old. And he won't turn 20 until May. The kid is still...for lack of a better term, a kid. He has plenty of time to grow. I anticipate this season to be full of growing pains for Grigorenko, but I urge Sabres fans to be patient with him. It won't all come together this year, but as long as we see improvement as the season goes on, that will be good enough for me.