The wait is nearly over. In less than one week’s time, the Buffalo Sabres will return to regular season action. One week after that, the same Buffalo Sabres will come back to Western New York from their European tour to thrill their impassioned fans inside of First Niagara Center.
It’s hard to recall another time when Sabres fans have been as eager for the start of the regular season as they have been in the last few weeks. A new owner as charismatic and driven as Terry Pegula can do that. One of the most bustling offseasons in franchise history can, too.
But when it comes time for the opening faceoff, interest in a hockey franchise only goes as far as its athletes allow. For this 2011-2012 season, Sabres fans should especially be excited because every position, and every man on the roster has a story to go along with them. This year, no Sabre will miss out on their turn in the spotlight.
Naturally, it’s been the fresh faces that so far have generated the most buzz. Mr. Pegula took a lot of fans by surprise this summer when he snatched up former Philadelphia Flyers winger Ville Leino on the first day of free agency. The 27-year-old Finn enjoyed a breakout season the year before by putting up 53 points, and has proven to be a go-to guy for the playoffs with 28 points across three playoff runs.
“We felt very strongly about Ville, and we felt that it was important to make sure we didn’t allow a quality player like him to slip by us,” General manager Darcy Regier said just after the signing. “He was someone we identified early and moved him to the top of the list.”
The acquisition of a notable offensive talent was reminiscent of the Pegula regime’s first major move when Brad Boyes became a Sabre earlier this year. Boyes was among the most effective forwards on the roster during his initial stint with the Sabres, collecting 14 points in 21 regular season games, including six in his first six contests.
Leino is locked up for six years, and Boyes is set to play in Buffalo for at least the 2011-2012 season, providing the Sabres with two fresh, highly talented forwards for the whole year.
Although the acquisition of Leino drew the most dramatic reactions, perhaps it wasn’t the biggest improvement that the team made this summer. That honor belongs to a pair of newly-acquired defensemen in Robyn Regehr and Christian Ehrhoff.
Regehr is an 11-year NHL veteran and former assistant captain to his previous club, the Calgary Flames. Widely regarded as one of the toughest defensemen in the league, Regehr brings a blend of grit, experience and leadership to a fairly youthful Buffalo team. And unlike other attempts by the organization to bring in a grizzled blue liner, Regehr isn’t washed up; far from it, in fact.
Ehrhoff carries a different array of talents with him, notably to the score sheet. The German is among the most offensively-gifted defensemen in the NHL, putting up over 50 goals and over 200 points in his seven-year career. That success helped him become a staple on the power play for his former clubs (San Jose and Vancouver), and likely will lead him to similar positions with the Sabres.
“He’s a terrific skater,” Darcy Regier commended of Ehrhoff. “He brings offense. He can contribute on the power play, moving the puck, getting up in the rush. Those are probably his strongest points, but he’s a terrific player.”
With the additions of Regehr and Ehrhoff, who are poised to be paired alongside Tyler Myers and Jordan Leopold, there’s a very strong argument to be made that the Sabres have the best top two defensive lines in the entire league.
There’s little doubt about Myers any longer after a Godzilla-esque emergence from his sophomore slump last season, and Leopold became the biggest surprise hit to grace Buffalo in some years with his 13 goals in 2010-2011.
The rest of the defense doesn’t look too shabby, either. The younger blue liners in Mike Weber, Marc-Andre Gragnani and Andrej Sekera all proved to be very capable in their roles last season despite a wealth of experience, and it seems that you can always count on Sekera to go on a multi-game point streak at some point in the season.
Then there are the two men who stand about a foot in front of the net.
It’s not being dramatic to say that Ryan Miller was worked to the bone last season. At one point, the Olympic Silver Medalist had to endure a stretch where he started a ludicrous 31 straight games. Miller still played a fine season despite the grueling task he was assigned, but he can’t be the same goaltender who won the Vezina Trophy without a worthy backup.
He has that now in Jhonas Enroth, who became a bit of a sensation last year when he filled in while Miller was out several games due to injury. Thanks to the young Swede, who could very well start somewhere around 20 games, Miller won’t be running on fumes at any point in the season. Together, they might be the best goalie combination in the business today.
Enroth isn’t the only young gun who’s given fans much hope for this season and seasons to come. Last year Tyler Ennis and Nathan Gerbe proved emphatically that they both belong on the starting roster for a full campaign. If Ennis can collect 20 goals and 49 points in what was essentially his rookie year, while also leading the team in points during the playoffs, things are looking very bright for what he can do for the Sabres.
“Everyone’s talking about [the upcoming season], talking about how Buffalo is a destination place now,” Ennis said during the prospect training camp. “I’m really excited to be part of this team and can’t wait for [the season] to start.”
Gerbe exploded midway through last season before finishing with 16 goals and 31 points in total, while for the second year in a row finding the back of the net during the playoffs (two goals in all).
As he struggled through the opening months of 2010, there was doubt that the 5’6 winger would ever have a key role for Buffalo, let alone any NHL team. But when Gerbe started to put the Sabres on the scoreboard as much as he did in as little time, he turned himself into a fan favorite and an important part of this team’s future.
As other younger players like Myers, Weber and Gragnani continue to mature, there’s another “new guy” who has completely turned his career around since coming to Buffalo, and that’s Cody McCormick. Originally thought to be nothing more than your average goon, McCormick proved last season that he can be an effective center, as well.
Though he led the team in penalty minutes largely thanks to his numerous brawls, McCormick amassed eight goals and 20 points last season, by far the greatest total of his career. He became especially effective in front of the net, where his power style could help clear the way of opposing players or disrupt the goalie.
Even with all of the young bloods who are rising in the ranks and winning over the fanbase, the old faces continue to catch our attention one way or another. Thomas Vanek, Derek Roy and Jason Pominville all showed tremendous maturity themselves at some point last season, and made cases that they’re each ready to be leaders for this team.
Last year, Vanek may have proved that he is the most valuable member of the team with his performance. After Derek Roy, who was having a career year and was averaging a point a game, suffered a torn quad tendon which took him out for the season, Vanek stepped up in a big way.
Not only did Vanek still put up plenty of numbers on the score sheet, he changed his entire style of play to account for Roy’s absence. Vanek turned himself into a playmaker in addition to being a goal scorer, and his 41 assists (tied for the most of his career) showed for that.
Pominville featured his own success story. After receiving a concussion from an illegal hit by Chicago Blackhawks’ defensemen Niklas Hjalmarsson, Pominville’s iron man streak of 335 consecutive games was ended.
He went on to miss nine contests while recovering, and required a lengthy period of time before he found his rhythm on the ice once again.
Despite the setbacks, he finished the season with a respectable 52 points, and had it not been for the concussion, he easily would have tallied his fifth straight 60+ point season. It also was no surprise that the team as a whole began to hit its stride as Pommers did, particularly the special teams, where he’s long been an invaluable asset.
No longer one of the ‘kids’, Drew Stafford is now a five-year veteran of the NHL and is expected to play as such. Thus far, he’s had an up and down career, but last season may have been an indication that he’s done with the growing pains.
By piling up 52 points and four hat tricks last season, which has led to him being referred to as “Mr. Hat Trick”, Stafford enjoyed career highs for his offense. If Stafford can manage consistency, he adds a scoring flair that one day could land him among the elite forwards in the league.
“Buffalo’s an organization that I believe is going in the right direction,” Stafford said over the summer. “I’m just so excited and feel very privileged to be a part of this organization’s future. I just believe we have a chance to bring a championship to the city of Buffalo.”
Paul Gaustad can also look back and see that he’s on the right track. In the summer of 2008, the Goose re-signed with Buffalo by way of a four-year contract.
However, instead of taking off, Gaustad went into a nosedive. For the next two seasons he was mired by injury, missing 37 games in total, while his offense dwindled.
Then, in 2010, a rejuvenation occurred. Gaustad only missed one game last season, and finished with 31 points, the second most of his career. His prowess on the faceoff was more visible than ever, where he accrued 692 faceoff wins- good enough to place him in the top 20 centers for the league despite mainly playing on the back lines.
All of this leads to one last player, and the only serious question mark on the team- Jochen Hecht. At 34-years-old, Hecht is the oldest member of the Sabres squad, and currently has the most NHL experience with 12 seasons under his belt.
But while Hecht offers a great deal of first-hand knowledge about the game to his teammates, he’s not captaincy material. He doesn’t possess the offensive attributes that can make him lead by example, either. With so many young forwards on the rise, and the team’s top players displaying more leadership, it’s fair to wonder if Hecht’s time in Buffalo is limited.
However, with all respect to Hecht, it’s not a bad thing if an aging forward is in danger of losing his role to a young, hungry lion. That the Sabres can say they have that dilemma at hand is a sign of great things to come.
“I think we’ll have a good chance to win next year,” Ville Leino put it simply.