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Sabres’ Potential Blueprint

The 2009-10 Buffalo Sabres season started with a bang and ended with a thud.

Throughout the season, there were many periods where the Sabres would have long winning streaks, and equally long losing streaks. The season was so maddening that many people were split on whether or not the Sabres actually had what it took to be a true Stanley Cup contender.

The final results were also indicative of Buffalo’s roller-coaster season. The Sabres were rewarded for their hard work in the regular season by winning the sixth division title in franchise history. But they also fell meekly to the Boston Bruins in six games in the opening round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

The end result raised a big question about the Buffalo Sabres heading into next year: What should the Sabres do this summer in order to become a true Stanley Cup contender?

The “to-do” list for the Sabres this summer should look like this:

Dump Tim Connolly and Drew Stafford’s expiring contracts. The reasons for dealing Tim Connolly and Drew Stafford are numerous. Yes, Tim Connolly was the Sabres’ leader in points scored last season and is a gifted player who has very good hands. Drew Stafford has always had the potential to become one of the league’s top power-forwards.

But the fact of the matter is, both of them have always carried the label of “underachievers.” Connolly, although he made it through this past season relatively unscathed, has had the reputation of being an injury-prone center for years. The guy can rarely stay healthy. Connolly should thank the hockey gods for giving him a healthy season for once.

And as talented as he is, Connolly hasn’t been a factor in a playoff game since Game 1 of the playoff series against Ottawa in 2006. His disappearance in the playoffs (along with the likes of Derek Roy and Jason Pominville) has frustrated fans beyond belief.

Stafford, meanwhile, has been a waste of talent. He has the ability to become a player such as the now-retired Keith Tkachuk, a big man who can play physical and score a lot of goal-mouth goals. But, as Lindy Ruff realized throughout the course of the season, Stafford is more like former Sabre (and current Bruin) Miroslav Satan: lazy. This is what led to Stafford being benched in Game 6.

One of the main reason why General Manager Darcy Regier let Satan leave via free agency in the summer of 2005 was because Satan’s laziness was a bad influence for a young team like Buffalo. Stafford’s lackadaisical ways could possibly rub off on the rest of the team (which wouldn’t be a good influence for young players such as Tyler Myers, Tyler Ennis, etc.)

And to top it off, both Connolly and Stafford will become free agents in the summer of 2011. Who knows if Buffalo will be able to re-sign them both? Regier would be wise to get something in return for the two pending free agents while he still can.

Acquire a center with some size, a scoring touch and a Stanley Cup on his resume. Ever since the departures of Chris Drury and Daniel Briere to the New York Rangers and the Philadelphia Flyers, the Sabres have ventured on with Roy and Connolly masquerading as their top two centers. The problem with this is that neither of them are true top-line centers.

When Drury and Briere were members of the Sabres, Roy and Connolly both excelled as third-and-fourth-line options. This was because teams would regularly match up their top defensive lines against Drury and Briere, meaning that Roy and Connolly would face defensive players who were good, but not the top options in other teams’ lineups.

When Roy and Connolly took over the roles of being Buffalo’s top two centers, they have been matched up against other teams’ top defensive players. Having another scoring option in the lineup could take pressure off of them and allow them to excel. Having another scoring threat should also take pressure off of Thomas Vanek, which could lead to him having a 50-goal season.

Another factor that the Sabres should look at when they attempt to bring in another center should be whether or not that player has won a Stanley Cup. Having a player (ex: Drury) who has gone through the wars and has the experience of being a champion would positively influence Buffalo’s roster.

When considering this criteria, one player that the Sabres should look into is Brad Richards of the Dallas Stars. Richards may not necessarily possess a physical edge to his game, but he is one of the top playmakers in the NHL and could mesh well with Thomas Vanek. Plus he won a Stanley Cup with the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2004, and also won the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP that season as well.

The only problem with this scenario is that Richards will be a free agent after next season. Regier should trade for him only if he knows he will be able to sign him to a long-term contract extension. Other players that the Sabres should look into include Nathan Horton and Stephen Weiss of the Florida Panthers, Jason Arnott of the Nashville Predators and Paul Kariya of the St. Louis Blues.

Acquire a puck-moving defenseman who can upgrade the Sabres’ mediocre powerplay. The last time that Buffalo had two good offensive-minded defensemen (Brian Campbell and Jaroslav Spacek in 2006-07), they had the best record in the league during the regular season. Having another scoring option on the blue line would take pressure off of Myers and improve a powerplay that went 0-for-19 in the playoffs.

One defenseman that could be targeted by the Buffalo Sabres is Boston Bruins defenseman Dennis Seidenberg. According to bleacherreport.com, “Seidenberg finished the 2009-10 campaign with 28 assists and 32 points in total, not to mention his fantastic average ice-time of 22:55 in 79 games played… Seidenberg would balance out a very impressive and improved blue line.”

Bring in a competent backup goaltender. Buffalo hasn’t had a capable backup goaltender since Martin Biron was traded in the spring of 2007. Veterans such as Ty Conklin, Jocelyn Thibault, Mikael Tellqvist and Patrick Lalime haven’t panned out as the understudies of Ryan Miller, mainly because they were either past their prime or their teammates never had confidence with them in net.

Bringing back the fan-favorite (Biron) would be a move that Sabres fans would embrace. But a move that I wouldn’t overlook is the Sabres calling up Jhonas Enroth from Portland. Enroth is a younger player than Biron and has been in the Sabres’ system for the past few years, whereas Biron is coming off of the worst season of his professional career with the New York Islanders.

Decide which of their pending free agents they should re-sign. The Sabres have two restricted free agents and seven unrestricted free agents they will have to decide on whether to re-sign: Patrick Kaleta, Tim Kennedy, Mike Grier, Adam Mair, Toni Lydman, Raffi Torres, Matt Ellis, Patrick Lalime and Henrik Tallinder.

Kaleta and Kennedy are near-locks to come back. The two Buffalo natives are both young and important to the Sabres’ future. Kaleta is one of the best agitators in the NHL and Kennedy showed some offensive promise in his rookie year.

Re-signing Grier, Mair, Ellis and Tallinder should be on Buffalo’s agenda. Grier is one of the best penalty-killers on the Sabres’ roster, and he is a playoff-tested veteran who provides plenty of leadership. Mair and Ellis are both gritty veterans who also provide leadership and depth at center.  Tallinder enjoyed a career renaissance after being paired with Myers, and has proven to be a very good defenseman.

Torres proved to be a terrible fit as a Buffalo Sabre. He struggled to find his niche seemingly as soon as he put on a Sabres jersey and never contributed anything. As previously mentioned, Lalime is well past his prime, and his best years as an Ottawa Senator seem to have happened long ago.

The effects of Lalime’s hip surgery from last summer were obvious. More often than not, Lalime looked like he was flailing around like a fish out of water. Lydman is a solid defenseman, but at times has been inconsistent. Buffalo also has Mike Weber to replace him with.

Figure out who should be their 6th and 7th defensemen between Andrej Sekera and Chris Butler. The Sabres were faced with a dilemma throughout last season. They had two young defensemen who both showed promise. The problem was, neither Sekera nor Butler was able to be consistent last season, thus forcing Lindy Ruff to alternate them in the lineup nearly every game.

Sekera and Butler have both shown the ability to produce on the powerplay, but each has shown lapses defensively. One of them has to step up next season and prove that they should be the one who can be in the lineup every night.

Jerry Sullivan of the Buffalo News was recently quoted as saying, “It’s the Sabre way. Push hope forward. Just wait until the kids mature. Make it about the future. That way, you don’t have to make hard decisions in the present, or make the bold moves that actually put you over the top.” No disrespect to Sullivan, but I believe that he is wrong and that the Sabres will make some tough decisions over the summer and bolster their team for a run at the Stanley Cup next season.

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