NHL Season Preview-Part 4 “Sabres Edition”

While the “Pegula Renaissance” has been nice, there has been one negative about it. It’s made the wait for the 2011-12 NHL season a thousand times more agonizing than usual because of how great it’s been! Well folks, the wait is almost over. The NHL season kicks off tonight and the Sabres will be playing their first game overseas tomorrow. Here is your 2011-12 Buffalo Sabres preview.

Player Departures: Tim Connolly, Steve Montador, Chris Butler, Paul Byron, Mike Grier, Rob Niedermayer

Player Additions: Ville Leino, Robyn Regehr, Christian Ehrhoff

Injuries: Jochen Hecht (Head)

Top Forwards: Thomas Vanek, Derek Roy, Jason Pominville, Ville Leino, Drew Stafford

Top Defensemen: Tyler Myers, Christian Ehrhoff, Robyn Regehr, Andrej Sekera

Goaltenders: Ryan Miller, Jhonas Enroth

Projected line-up for the season opener.

Vanek-Adam-Pominville

Ennis-Leino-Boyes

Gerbe-Roy-Stafford

McCormick-Gaustad-Kaleta

Regehr-Myers

Leopold-Ehrhoff

Sekera-Weber

x Gragnani

Miller

Enroth

I would assume that Adam would go down to Rochester once Hecht is healthy, but if he plays well enough, he may end up forcing Lindy’s hand. Luke’s certainly got NHL-size and a great shot to go along with a great nose for the puck around the net. The biggest question for him is going to be foot-speed. Can he keep up with everyone out there? There aren’t any real question marks with his two linemates, Vanek and Pominville. The former has taken great strides in his two-way play and leadership skills while keeping his elite-scoring ability. The only thing I’m wondering is if he avoids being snake-bit this season and actually has a 40+ goal season. It could happen this year with Ehrhoff blasting pucks from the point on the power play. Pominville is one of those guys who’s criminally-underrated because he isn’t a physical player or flashy. In my opinion, he’s the most well-rounded player on the team. He’s one of the top offensive forwards on the team and he’s the teams best defensive-forward with Hecht coming in a close second.

Buffalo is hoping that Ville Leino can come in and solidify that #2 center position and he has looked good their during the preseason. The regular season’s obviously a different animal, but I haven’t seen anything that would make me think that there would be a possibility that he couldn’t hack it at center. Leino played center overseas before coming over to North America. It’s no surprise that he has had great chemistry with Tyler Ennis in the preseason. Briere and Leino were linemates back in Philly and Ennis is essentially Briere 2.0 with regard to how he plays the game. Speaking of Ennis, he’s coming off a successful rookie campaign  that saw him pot 20 goals and 49 points. There’s always the possibility of the dreaded sophomore slump occurring, but I think the scoring will be there for him. What I’m really looking for from this season is to try and duplicate the numbers he had last year with better defensive play. I’m not saying he has to be Pavel Datsyuk out there, I just wanted to see him improve enough so he’s not as much of a liability in his end of the ice. As for Brad Boyes, he had a solid campaign as a Sabre last season when he wasn’t playing center. Boyes is clearly better-suited for the wing. He’s struggled a bit with the goal-scoring in recent years, but the small sample size that I’ve seen of him playing with Ennis and Leino has given me hope that he’s going to be a productive trigger-man on that line. I don’t think he’ll be traded this year unless he’s really struggling and Kassian’s tearing up Rochester. The Sabres are trying to win now and Boyes is more valuable to that cause than a draft pick.

The Gerbe-Roy-Stafford line may end up being the most exciting line to watch. Fans love “Tenacious G’s” non-stop motor and the way he goes after people, no matter how much taller they are than him. Last year saw Gerbe translate some of that goal-scoring talent of his from college and the AHL to the NHL and it was very fun to watch. I have no reason to think that his play has anywhere to go, but up, especially if he’ll be playing with forwards like Roy and Stafford most of the year. During his abbreviated season last year, Roy was a point per game player racking up 10 goals and 25 assists. It wouldn’t shock me in the least if he ended up cracking the 80 point mark if Gerbe and Stafford are up to the task in goal-scoring department. Everyone’s pumped to see what the team can do with him healthy after they made last year’s run without him. Stafford was a revelation last season. He worked-out like crazy over the offseason last year and it paid off. Stafford potted a career-high 31 goals and didn’t take any shifts of like he had done in past years. You actually noticed Stafford last season even if he wasn’t scoring. The new contract he got this past offseason seems to not have affected him at all. He’s been working as hard as ever and I expect a great season from him.

Finally, we have the McCormick-Gaustad-Kaleta line. Contrary to the other three lines whose primary job is to score, this lines’ purpose will be to beat the heck out of the opposing team while providing good defensive play. Any scoring from this trio’s a bonus. Gaustad’s been battling injuries, but he’s still been a very good face-off man for Buffalo and he provides leadership. Towards the latter part of last season, he started looking like the Gaustad of hold, hitting everything that moved. I’m hoping that continues because if it doesn’t, I think Gaustad is expendable. I was pleasantly surprised with McCormick last season. For most of his career, he was just a goon for the Avs who fought the obligatory fight, but it turns out the guy can play a little hockey. McCormick chipped in 20 points while admirably filling in for players in the top lines on occasion when injuries struck. My favorite thing about him though was that the guy wouldn’t hesitate to drop someone who wanted to stir-up garbage out there with his teammates. The best example of this was when he dropped the Canes player charging towards a helmet-less Enroth last season. Last but not least, we have the little ball-of-hate known has Patrick Kaleta, who is known for just blasting people with thunderous checks. I was disappointed with Pat last year though. He couldn’t stay healthy and when he was healthy, he was an undisciplined player and hurt his team more often than helping it. Pat’s another player who I think could be on the chopping-block if he doesn’t shape-up. I’m really hoping he does because this team gets a big boost from him when he’s on his game.

The Sabres defense is arguably one of the best groups of defenders the team has had. You’ve got the budding franchise-defenseman in Tyler Myers who struggled during the first half of last season after his Calder Trophy-calibur season, but really took big strides (pun fully-intended) during the 2nd half of the season. He was playing at a higher level than his rookie year during that time and to my great delight, Tyler started becoming one mean SoB on the ice. You’ve got to love watching your 6’8 defenseman putting up points and beating the crap out of opposing players. I’m sure fans will vividly recall the series versus Philly last season where Myers just dropped Danny Briere whenever he had the chance and when he dragged former Flyers’ captain Mike Richards away from Miller’s crease. On top of all of that, Myers got a new deal valued at $38.5 million over 7 years. That’s chump-change for a player who fans and Sabres personnel think will be a franchise-defenseman for the team. One of the new additions on the blueline, Robyn Regehr is another mean-cuss on defense who coincidentally was Tyler Myers’ favorite player growing up. Don’t expect too much offense out of Regehr, but do expect a rock-solid defensive-defenseman who will blast anyone who dares to beat him along the boards and clear the crease like a mad man. With those two anchoring the top-pairin, forwards are going to have to really keep their heads on a swivel.

The other addition on defense, Christian Ehrhoff is an elite offensive-defenseman. Ehrhoff was the trigger-man on the Canucks power play and put up 94 points in 159 games as a member of the Canucks. Based on what I’ve seen in the preseason, Buffalo’s system is a perfect fit for Ehrhoff and we should expect the same level of production. If fans can remember the role Brian Campbell played for the team when he was here, you’ll have an idea of what Ehrhoff’s role on the team will be: a defenseman who will eat minutes playing on the 2nd pairing and will provide key contributions on offense. Only difference here is that Ehrhoff’s a better player than Campbell. Be very excited. Jordan Leopold is the other member of this pairing and he’s coming off of a nice year, putting up 13 goals and 22 assists in 2010-11. I am a little concerned about his 2nd half slump carrying into this season, but the skating ability of this pairing should help guide them through the rough patches. One thing that I think will be a problem at times is when this pairing gets matched-up against more physical forwards, but their offensive output should more than make up for those shortcomings.

Sekera-Weber may be one of the best “3rd pairings” in the league. Andrej Sekera was having trouble finding consistency to start the year, but when he came back from his injury, he was a completely different player. Sekera was routinely one of the Sabres best defenseman and oozed confidence as shown by his heady play, especially on offense. I’d like to see him clean-up the occasional Dmitri Kalinin-esqe brain farts that he has had in the past, but it looked like Sekera was on the cusp of putting everything together and I think he will explode this year, especially when their pairing draws lesser assignments. Mike Weber was a bit of a mixed bag. When he was on, he was a solid defensive-defenseman who gave the Sabres a little sandpaper on the blueline, something that was sorely lacking. When his game was off though, he was routinely taking dumb penalties and was a liability in his end of the ice. The Sabres still could use his physical-play on defense and having a mobile guy like Sekera who has also played with in the past should help him out. I’m hoping he can grow into Regehr’s role once Regehr starts to slow down.

Lastly, we have Marc-Andre Gragnani who was the Sabres top point producer in the playoffs last year. I was definitely a fan who thought he would never put it all together in the pros, but last season has given me hope that he could replace Leopold at some point. Of course, we do have to remember that there have been plenty of guys who impressed in a handful of games only to flame-out later on, so I’m glad the Sabres aren’t forcing him into a full-time top-6 role yet. Gragnani fans shouldn’t fret though. He should play in a good amount of games because of injuries.

As far as goaltending goes, we all know what we have in Miller. He’s an elite goalie in the league who should put up great numbers with a much-improved defense in front of him. The question mark is the back-up spot. Can Enroth cut it? Yes, he had a great stretch of games last season, but goaltending in the NHL is probably one of the toughest things to do in all of sports, which is why fans shouldn’t jump all over him if he struggles a bit this year.  Teams will have tape on him and will make adjustments. Time will tell if Enroth can make the adjustments, but he has looked very good in the preseason, so I’m pretty optimistic that he’ll succeed this season, especially with the defense in front of him.

The question now is how will this team do this season. Personally, I think the Sabres are built pretty similarly to the team that won the cup last season, the Boston Bruins who are also in their division and last season, the Sabres were very competitive with them. Buffalo has a deep lineup at forward, a much improved defense, and a Vezina-calibur goaltender. Given that most cup winners have a bit of a hangover the next season, how close the two teams are in talent, and that there hasn’t been a repeat-winner of the Northeast Division since its inception, I’m picking the Sabres to win the division this and make a deep playoff run. Now onto the rest of the Northeast Division.

Northeast Division:

(#2)  1. Buffalo Sabres (See above)

(#4)  2. Boston Bruins

Top Forwards: Patrice Bergeron, Milan Lucic, David Krejci, Nathan Horton, Brad Marchand

Top Defensemen: Zdeno Chara, Dennis Seidenberg, Johnny Boychuk, Joe Corvo

Goaltenders: Tim Thomas, Tuukka Rask

Pretty safe to say that the Bruins had a successful season last year since they won the cup. They had a deep lineup that was plentiful with goal-scoring ability, a solid defense led by the hulking Zdeno Chara, and a rejuvenated Tim Thomas who reclaimed his #1 role from upstart, Tuukka Rask. Since they bringing back the core of this team, minus Tomas Kaberle and Michael Ryder, the only question here is how much of a cup hangover will they experience if they even experience it at all. As I mentioned earlier in the Sabres preview, I think they slip up enough to allow the Sabres to win the division, but that won’t make them any less of a threat. They’ve got great center depth with Bergeron, Krejci, Pevereley rounding out their top 3 center spots and Tyler Seguin, who might end up being the team’s best forward when it’s all said and done this year, depending on how much Claude Jullien is willing to play him.

Outside of Chara, I don’t think their defense is that talented, but having Chara leading that defense makes up for a lot of the shortcomings of the rest of the group. Also, Boston at its core is a defensive team and that also makes up for the lesser talent on D. It also helps having a tandem like Thomas and Rask taking care of things in goal. Overall, I can definitely see another deep run in the playoffs happening for the Bruins this season, but it’s going to be very hard for them to repeat as champs.

(#9)  3. Montreal Canadiens

Top Forwards: Brian Gionta, Mike Cammerlleri, Tomas Plekanec, Erik Cole, Max Pacioretty

Top Defensemen: Andrei Markov, PK Subban, Jaroslav Spacek, Hal Gill

Goaltenders: Carey Price, Peter Budaj

The Canadiens are an interesting team. They aren’t going to overwhelm their opponents with their physical play, given how small this lineup is, but these guys are fast, talented, and have non-stop motors. In addition to their “big” three of Gionta, Cammerlleri, and Plekanec, they’ll also have Pacioretty back, fully healthy after last year’s incident with Chara and former Canes winger, Erik Cole is in the fold and will give them a little more size up-front.

Their blueline has some good potential if Markov can stay healthy and Subban progresses, but both of those things are fairly big ifs. I think there’s a considerable drop-off in talent after those two, but the system head coach, Jacques Martin runs really emphasizes team defense, so they shouldn’t have too much trouble limiting scoring chances as a team. Carey Price had a phenomenal year last season and he should be great for years to come. Their back-up situation is iffy with Budaj, but their system should alleviate that somewhat and I doubt he will be playing that much, barring injuries of course.  I think these guys will just miss out on the playoffs, but I can also see them squeaking in and if they get there, they will be dangerous. This group of guys has proven that they are capable of winning playoff series and stood toe-to-toe with Bruins last season, pushing them to a game 7.

(#13)  4. Ottawa Senators

Top Forwards: Jason Spezza, Daniel Alfredsson, Milan Michalek, Mika Zibanejad, Nikita Filatov

Top Defensemen: Erik Karlsson, Brian Lee, Filip Kuba, Chris Phillips

Goaltenders: Craig Anderson, Alex Auld

Ottawa was a team that routinely made the playoffs, but last year, they missed the playoffs and started rebuilding their team. They are probably one of the youngest teams in the league at this point, but they do have some talent at forward. Spezza and Alfie are always dangerous and the former 1st round pick of the Blue Jackets, Filatov has been impressive in camp and the preseason. The Sens also have a very intriguing center prospect in Mika Zibanejad, their 1st round pick. He has been very impressive too and all indications are that he’ll start the year with the Sens. The kicker though is that he’s not eligible for the AHL, so the only option he has after his 9-game tryout with the team in the regular season besides sticking with the Sens is going back to the SEL (Swedish Elite League). If he proves capable, the Sens will have a potent 1-2 punch with Spezza and Zibanejad down the middle. Personally, I think he will. Zibanejad is my pick for the Calder this season.

The defense is pretty unimpressive, but they should be serviceable if the team can click offensively at forward. I think Erik Karlsson has a chance to be a great offensive-defenseman, but his work in his own end leaves a lot to be desired. Sergei Gonchar is on the team too, but the wheels have almost completely fallen off that bus. He might end up being the 7th best defenseman on that team if their young guys on defense, Cowen and Rundblad can fulfill some of their potential this year.

For the Sens to make a highly unlikely playoff run though, they are going to need Craig Anderson to play like he did during Colorado’s playoff season a couple years back. Alex Auld is a solid choice for the backup role. I think they will end up getting a top 5 draft pick again though, but I think this team will be ready to compete for a playoff spot again as soon as next season and they should be fun to watch this season.

(#14)  5. Toronto Maple Leafs

Top Forwards: Phil Kessel, Mikael Grabovski, Tim Connolly, Joffrey Lupul, Clarke MacArthur

Top Defensemen: Luke Schenn, Dion Phaneuf, John-Michael Liles, Jake Gardner

Goaltenders: James Reimer, Jonas Gustavsson

Sorry Leafs fans, but I just don’t think your team has improved that much. The defense will get a boost from Liles and the rookie, Gardner, but the rest of this team is very suspect. Phil Kessel is the only forward on the Leafs with elite talent. I don’t want to hear anything about Tim Connolly saving the day either. I’ve watched the guy for years now and last year, he proved that he is shot as a top 6 center, which means that getting him doesn’t improve your center situation that much. I actually think Toronto’s best bet is the rookie, Nazem Kadri, who has some serious play-making ability. His defensive play is a question mark now though. Right now, I’d say that Grabovski is the team’s best center and that defense will have to provide a lot of offense for Toronto to be a consistent team on offense.

As I alluded to earlier, I like their defense better than last year’s group. Those top guys I mentioned above bring a very good blend of grit, mobility, and offensive skill to the table. Schenn and Phaneuf will have to clean things up in their own end a little better if they are going to be relied upon to be the leaders of the defense. Reimer had a solid year in goal last season and I think he’ll continue to play well. Gustavsson is hit-and-miss. He’ll have to be more consistent as I suspect him and Reimer will have a fairly even split in starts. For the Leafs to make a playoff push, they are going to need the center position solidified by Connolly and Kadri and they will need good, consistent goaltending from both Gustavsson and Reimer. I think the defense & goaltending  will be fine, but I don’t have much faith in their forwards, particularly their centers and that reason alone is enough for me not to pick them for a playoff spot and put the Sens above the Leafs this year.

So to wrap things up here for the East. Here’s is my full conference-projection.

1. Pittsburgh
2. Buffalo
3. Washington
4. Boston
5. NY Rangers
6. Philly
7. Tampa Bay
8. NY Islanders
9. Montreal
10. Winnipeg
11. Carolina
12. New Jersey
13. Ottawa
14. Toronto
15. Florida

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: