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Lovers or Fighters

This coming summer is going to be a big one for the Buffalo Sabres. With many fans expecting big changes due to the ownership change and a year that fell short of expectations it will be interesting to see what Darcy Regier has up his sleeve.

With a bigger bankroll and a somewhat improved team image, the idea would be to draw some bigger name free agents. Fans are also clammering to see Regier swing some big trades to improve the team. Whether or not that is something Regier is interested in doing remains to be seen.

Many fans, myself included, have wish lists of players that they want to see in blue and gold. Everyone has an opinion of what their team should be doing in the offseason and what type of team should be built. While most areas remain constant; scoring, defensive ability, skating, leadership; there are some areas that many fans overlook.

Team toughness is an issue that has plagued the Sabres for years and may continue to do so in the future. Toughness is an area that I find essential for people to consider when discussing what moves to make this offseason.

While many people have a distaste for fighting in the game of hockey, the truth remains that it exists and it will continue to be an important part of the game. Toughness also applies to hitting ability and overall grit on the team.

The Sabres have tended toward to the lower end of the team in terms of overall toughness. They clocked in at 22nd overall in the NHL with 30 fighting majors. The lowest total was 13 in Detroit, while St. Louis led the NHL with 78.

Success is not exclusive to either side of the spectrum. Of the four Conference finalists Tampa Bay and Vancouver had few fights while San Jose was a middle of the pack team and Boston was 2nd in the NHL with 71.

Two quick things stuck out to me while observing the rankings of teams. Many of the teams near the top of the list were very strong at the end of the season. This could be related to defending teammates and preventing injuries, but there is no conclusive evidence to prove this.

The other interesting trend that was noticable is that a team’s desire to fight is often reflected by their choice of leadership group. One more quick statistic: carrying two enforcers is not a viable option, ask the New York Islanders or the St. Louis Blues.

It is assumed by most that Mike Grier, Rob Niedermayer and Steve Montador will not be back next season. Some Sabres fans have suggested that Mike Weber, Jochen Hecht and Paul Gaustad are good trading chips.

There has also been some discussion of not resigning Drew Stafford and Cody McCormick and demoting Shaone Morrisonn. All of these are viable options if the right situation presents itself. There is one important thing to consider before making these decisions. If all of those players were to depart in the offseason not counting the replacements the Buffalo Sabres would have a grand total of 22 NHL fights and 16 of those belong to the often injured Patrick Kaleta.

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Here is a breakdown of Sabres’ Battles:

PLAYER # of Fighting Majors
STEVE MONTADOR 66
CODY MCCORMICK 58
PAUL GAUSTAD 34
ROB NIEDERMAYER 28 (0 with Buffalo)
MIKE GRIER 23 (0 with Buffalo)
PATRICK KALETA 16
JOCHEN HECHT 7
SHAONE MORRISONN 6 (0 with Buffalo)
MIKE WEBER/DREW STAFFORD 5
ANDREJ SEKERA 2
BRAD BOYES/MARK MANCARI 1
VANEK/ROY/POMINVILLE Barely qualifies as 1

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Some teams have overall team toughness, some have an enforcer and some have both. Boston has a team toughness situation while Brad Staubitz handled most of the scrapping in Minnesota. Anaheim is the type of team that certainly employs both styles with an overall mentality of toughness and George Parros on the roster as well.

Buffalo falls into the second category. This season Buffalo was involved in 30 dust ups and Cody McCormick accounted for 16 of those. Paul Gaustad, Craig Rivet, Steve Montador, Patrick Kaleta and Mike Weber made up the remainder.

Jason Pominville got credit for one as he took several shots from Matt Cooke, dropped his gloves, tried to throw one awkward punch and then held on for dear life until Cooke realized who he was fighting and called in the linesmen.

Vanek’s professional fight was a similar story. Roy actually intended to fight his opponenet, but it was mostly a grappling match. Brad Boyes’ fight came against Buffalo’s Toni Lydman and we all know what a huge enforcer he is…

Tyler Ennis, Nathan Gerbe and Luke Adam have never been in an NHL fight. Essentially leaving Stafford as the only top-6 caliber forward who can fight (and we all know what happened when he tried to defend Chris Drury). If you don’t have a tough top-6 then it is essential for the bottom-6 to have some serious grit, which is something Buffalo had this season.

McCormick, Gaustad, Kaleta, Grier, Niedermayer and Hecht have all seen at least half a dozen fights. If most of these players are on the way out, then the toughness will need to come from somewhere else.

The defense is another story entirely. With a goaltender like Ryan Miller you want some players that will obliterate anyone who looks at him sideways. This season the Sabres had Steve Montador (who has never actually won a fight) and Craig Rivet. When Rivet came out of the lineup he was replaced by Mike Weber who also was a tough guy in front of the net.

Shaone Morrisonn has had a few NHL scraps and Andrej Sekera isn’t afraid of the rough stuff either. With Tyler Myers it’s just a matter of time and Chris Butler and Marc-Andre Gragnani have a few junior/AHL fights in the past, but there isn’t a lot of experience here.

As you can probably see there is some cause for concern. Darcy Regier is quite familiar with team toughness and has built teams that have been quite fiesty in the past. If he does feel this is a concern as some fans and pundits are suggesting then there are several options for him to secure the toughness he is looking for in the 2011-2012 Buffalo Sabres.

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I. Free Agency:

Forwards: Resigning Cody McCormick is probably the best solution here. Another option on the table would be signing a player like Zenon Konopka as an enforcer. Other players that could help with the team grit could be Jamal Mayers, Craig Adams, Drew Miller, Joel Ward, Jamie Lundmark or Todd Marchant.

Defensemen: Some veterans recieving a lot of talk are Ed Jovanovski, Kevin Bieksa or the less famous Hal Gill or Erik Brewer. Younger players who can defend Miller could include the frequently mentioned James Wisniewski, Ian White or Calgary depth man Adam Pardy.

There are some RFAs that could be targeted as well. Luke Schenn would be a nice pickup from Toronto. Returning him to his defense partner Myers and adding his toughness might be a dynamite move for the Sabres. Brandon Dubinsky would take some pretty big ideas to grab from the New York Rangers but he is a talented center who also knows how to throw down.

II. Trades:

Many are expecting change to come via the trade market. One thing to remember when talking about trades is how much toughness are they giving up. I heard a rumor that Gaustad and Butler could be sent with another player (possibly Weber) to Colorado at the deadline for Stastny and O’Reilly. If this is made in the summer the Sabres have exactly one player with more than 10 NHL fights under contract for next season.

Players who the Sabres could reasonably afford that could improve matters might be someone like Justin Abdelkader in Detroit or Nick Foligno in Ottawa. Likely, you would simply add an enforcer or a grinder to the backend of any deal that would send Gaustad, Weber or Kaleta in the other direction.

III. Organization:

As we all know Darcy Regier loves to build from the system and promote from within. The Sabres organization is not devoid of tough guys. Tyler Myers is just waiting on his first NHL fight. Other players like Corey Tropp, Zack Kassian, Marcus Foligno and Brayden McNabb are waiting in the wings.

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As we get closer to the offseason there will be every sort of breakdown of what this team needs. This is my attempt to make one of the important “intangibles” as tangible as possible. The Sabres use a bit of truculence for the coming season although with so many big players currently in the pipeline it’s hard to see this lack of fighters last for very long.

What do you think of the Sabres’ overall toughness? Should they get more tough guys? Less? Let us know in the comment section below.

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