Center of Attention

The summer of 2010 may not have seen much head-turning activity on the part of Sabres management, but they still managed to make plenty of moves to shake things up in the roster. Changes made to the defense have garnered the most interest, as certain veteran players were put on the market, while fresh faces were brought in to fill their roles.

The combinations of defensemen should be quite different from what has been seen in previous years, but it is not the blue-line players that are poised to experience the most retooling. Instead, that honor belongs to the centermen, and all of the unanswered questions that come with them.

One of the team’s long running dilemmas since the departure of Chris Drury and Daniel Briere has been its inability to find a number one center. For several years, the Sabres has been oversaturated with talent for the position, yet no one has been good enough to stand among the league’s best like Sidney Crosby, Joe Thornton, Henrik Sedin etc. The organization wants fans to believe that Derek Roy and Tim Connolly are number one centers, even though they never have been, and never will be.

While a player of the caliber as those mentioned above was not acquired this offseason, there is a lot of hope in the form of Tyler Ennis. After strong outings any time he was called up from Portland last season, particularly during the opening round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, Ennis is guaranteed a spot on the starting roster come October. The decision that the coaching staff needs to make is what line he will fall into.

By all means, Roy and Connolly are still the team’s top two centers. Ennis needs to prove himself over the course of a full season before there is a single notion of him commandeering a higher position, but he could very well be capable of doing so in the future.

Ennis is among the most fluid players to grace the Sabres organization in years, bringing blinding speed in his skating and precise control over the puck that is essential for a number one center. Those features were what allowed him to be a playmaking marvel in the NHL last year over the course of ten regular season games and six playoff contests, when he accumulated four goals and nine assists in only 16 games. It is impossible not to be intrigued by what he might do across 82 matches or more.

Do not be surprised if he is found leading the Sabres’ third offensive line very often throughout the year, especially after Jochen Hecht found quite the rhythm playing at left wing in 2009-2010. The German’s career was in a downward spiral up until then, but somehow Hecht found a way to revive himself in dramatic fashion. There is no way that he will be going back to center any time soon, which gives Ennis a great opportunity to secure that mid-line spot.

It also helps Ennis that other veteran centers for the Sabres have been in decline. The team only clung to Adam Mair for so long because he was an edgy player on a largely timid hockey club, but after management started its movement towards bringing in gritty talent, Mair’s sole selling point vanished.

Likewise, Paul Gaustad is quickly losing a lot of his appeal, thanks in part to his string of injuries. Gaustad has missed almost forty regular season games over the past two years, and that has surely been one of the reasons behind his dwindling offense. His toughness and success on faceoffs will keep him on the roster for a while, but he is going to lose even more relevance this season with the new talent coming in.

To ensure that there would be a veteran presence at center for 2010-2011, the Sabres brought in Rob Niedermayer this past summer, and it should end up being a very wise move. Niedermayer, even at 35 years old, is a solid hockey player with a lot of experience on his side. He will not put up big numbers, but he will provide a lot of leadership, and that is an invaluable attribute at the center position.

Niedermayer joins the Sabres at an ideal time for the franchise because of the promising young centermen that it is currently developing. Ennis obviously has a lot to gain from playing with the Stanley Cup-winning center, who will be an ideal mentor to the young up and comer as he endures his first full NHL season.

Then there are also Nathan Gerbe and Cody McCormick, two young Centermen that are assured to play some type of role with the Sabres this season. Gerbe has made only gradual progress in his transition from NCAA competition to the highest level of professional hockey, so having the decorated Niedermayer as a teammate may be what will help him make that next big step in his career.

The former Boston College star should likely spend most of the season in Portland, however fans can expect to see him on a more regular basis than before after the improvement he displayed last year, and the respectable play he brought to his two playoff appearances.

Cody McCormick perhaps can benefit the most from playing with Niedermayer, whom he shares a similar style of play with. Even when he was in his prime, Niedermayer was not a flashy player; he was a tough, no-nonsense Centerman that grinded it out on the ice, often with violent results. That description fits McCormick about as perfect as any can.

The question that remains unanswered is how often fans will see him throughout the year. It is very hard to imagine that the Sabres would have resigned him in the offseason simply to keep him in Portland from start to finish, so it is all but certain that McCormick will have a spot on the roster at some point.

There is no doubt that he will be around for the playoffs, since fans and management alike never want to see the team be bullied as badly as they were by Boston last Spring. He could even find his way on the ice in the regular season often enough. Lately the top brass is enamored by gritty players of his nature, and if Gaustad gets injured again or simply cannot produce when asked to, McCormick will have an ample opportunity to prove himself.

It may not have been in glorious style, but there has finally been a lot done to shake up the way the Sabres hockey club will operate at the Center position. Best of all, fans may not have to rely solely on ‘Dreaming and Believing’ any longer to see results.

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