The Buffalo Sabres missed the playoffs for a second straight time and now find themselves in rebuild mode. Last season, the team fired long-time head coach Lindy Ruff and in April, traded captain Jason Pominville and veteran defensemen Jordan Leopold and Robyn Regehr. With lynchpins Ryan Miller and Thomas Vanek in the final year of their respective contracts, the Sabres could be facing even greater change in 2013-14.
Last Season: 5th in Northeast Division - 12th in Eastern Conference - 23rd in NHL
Playoffs: Did not qualify
2013 record vs. Panthers: 1-1-1. Buffalo fell to the Panthers 4-3 at home on February 3rd, defeated the Cats 4-3 in overtime on the road on February 28th and dropped the final meeting 5-4 in a shootout in Sunrise on March 28th.
Forwards: The Sabres chose not to add any veteran help upfront during the offseason so they will be depending on getting more production from their talented group of young forwards to offset the decrease in the population of Pominville. The team also needs to figure out what to do with scoring ace Thomas Vanek. The cost of keeping him will be high, both in dollars and term, and might be too much of a burden for small market Buffalo to take on. Vanek had the most productive season of his career and his offense will be hard to replace if Buffalo decides to trade him at some point during the season.
23-year-old center Cody Hodgson played in all 48 games last season and posted 34 points. The Sabres will be looking for the talented Hodgson to keep improving and move closer to the point-per-game mark. The same could be said of fellow 23-year-old Tyler Ennis, who chipped in 31 points last season. Ennis finished with a -16 rating so he will looking to improve in that department this season as well as in the faceoff circle. The young duo gives Buffalo a nice one-two punch down the middle for now but with good organizational depth at the center position, the smaller Ennis might be better off shifting to the wing at some point.
The Sabres will be looking for bounce-back seasons from veterans Drew Stafford and Ville Leino as well as from youngster Marcus Foligno. Stafford only scored six times during last year's lockout-shortened campaign, which is a bit below the number one would expect from the two-time twenty and one-time thirty goal man. After scoring a blazing 13 points in his first 14 NHL games in 2011-12, Foligno had a tougher go of it in 2013, managing a decent 18 points in 47 games, but more will be expected of him going forward. Leino only managed to play in eight games last season, this after being a huge disappointment after signing a lucrative deal with the Sabres in 2011-12. The former-Flyer did manage to put up 6 points in those 8 games, which could be an encouraging sign going forward.
Another player to keep a close eye on will be 2012 first-rounder Mikhail Grigorenko. The 19-year-old pivot did get his feet wet in the NHL last season, appearing in 25 games and scoring his first big-league goal in addition to four assists, but looks to have a ways to go before he can start duplicating the scoring prowess he showed in the QMJHL and replace Ennis as the second line center.
Steve Ott, Patrick Kaleta, Kevin Porter and Brian Flynn return to help fill out the bottom six. Ott had a very solid first season in Buffalo, scoring 24 points and finishing with a +3 rating. Veteran John Scott, Swedish youngster Johan Larsson and Luke Adam will also be looking for a spots on the roster and the arrival of top prospects like Zemgus Girgensons and Joel Armia isn't too far off.
The Sabres have the potential to be a team that scores at a good clip but will that potential translate to real goals during the upcoming season? Buffalo needs its top six to stay healthy and for some of its fine young prospects to take the next step in their development if the team is going to light the lamp enough to be competitive in the tough Atlantic Division. Signing Thomas Vanek to a new contract would be a huge help, but if they do decide to trade him, they must get back a substantial haul in return.
Defense: Buffalo's blue line will look considerably different this season as the void left by the April departures of Jordan Leopold and Robyn Regehr will need to be filled. At the draft, GM Darcy Regier sent Andrej Sekera to Carolina and the club chose not to bring back Adam Pardy who ended up signing with the Winnipeg Jets.
In exchange for Sekera, the Sabres acquired the services of Jamie McBain, who is expected to be paired with dependable veteran Christian Erhoff. In addition, Buffalo received the 35th overall pick in the draft and used it on forward J.T. Compher. The Sabres traded forward Riley Boychuk to the New Jersey Devils for veteran Henrik Tallinder. This will be Tallinder's second stint with Buffalo and he is expected to end up on the team's second pairing with Tyler Myers.
Buffalo will really be looking for a return to form from Myers, who regressed in both ends of the ice during his fourth NHL season. Myers is a building block, so the team really needs the towering defender to find the level he displayed during the first three years of his career when seemed to be well on his way to becoming a number one defenseman.
Mike Weber and Mark Pysyk return to round out the group with veteran Alexander Sulzer likely slotting in as the spare blue liner. The Sabres chose two defensemen, Rasmus Ristolainen (8th overall) and Nikita Zadorov (16th overall), in the first round of this year's Entry Draft but they are probably a couple of years away from contributing.
Buffalo's defense could be a potential sore spot this season. Erhoff is still an effective defender but Tallinder's best days have likely come and gone. McBain is still young but was a big disappointment for the Hurricanes last season. The team needs him, and to a larger extent. Myers, to get back on track to solidify the unit and to help provide some offense from the back end.
Goaltending: Ryan Miller has been "The Man" in net for Buffalo for quite some time and he should be the club's number one goaltender this season, for however long he remains with the team. Miller's game has slipped a bit since his career year in 2009-10 but he is still a quality starter. Along with Vanek, Miller could be one of the biggest prizes on the trade market this year should Sabres decide it's indeed time for the sides to indeed part ways.
Last season's backup, Jhonas Enroth, had a third-straight solid season supporting Miller and was lights out leading Sweden to gold at the World Championships. Enroth would get first crack at the starting job unless a better option is acquired by trade. Matt Hackett, who came over from the Minnesota Wild as part of the Pominville deal, is slated to be the starter for AHL Rochester and could also see some action in Buffalo this season.
As of right now, the Sabres have a very solid tandem in goal, which should be one of the team's strengths. It will be interesting to see if the 25-year-old Enroth gets any extra work while Miller is still around, as Buffalo will likely be preparing for a future which does not include the netminder who led the U.S. to Olympic silver almost four years ago.
Playoff Prediction: Out of the playoffs. New head coach Ron Rolston will have his work cut out for him keeping the rebuilding Sabres in the hunt this season. Unless a lot goes right, Buffalo will not have enough to finish among the Atlantic Division's top three and guarantee a playoff berth. Best case for the Sabres is to hold on to Vanek and Miller and exceed expectations to grab one of the Eastern Conference's two wildcards. A better, and more likely, course of action would be to trade the two veterans and amass assets which could set them up for much greater success in the future.