Sabres Almost Ready for Season

New Sabres owner Terry Pegula rode into Buffalo like a white knight, promising sweeping changes to the organization.

He’s improved the roster by acquiring players like Christian Ehrhoff, Robyn Regehr and Ville Leino. Pegula’s changed the perception that the Sabres won’t spend to bring a Stanley Cup to Western New York.

Despite all of the upgrades, this season doesn’t come without question marks. Every team in the NHL has a few issues that they need to straighten out.

Three things jump out at me:

1. Can the team replace assistant coach Brian McCutcheon? 2. Can Leino make the transition to center and produce without Daniel Briere as his linemate? 3. Can Derek Roy become the Sabres’ top center?

McCutcheon was Lindy Ruff’s top assistant for the past 10 seasons, a close confidant who ran the Sabres’ special teams units. Traditionally, those units were very strong under McCutcheon, ranking near the top of the league multiple times.

However, the team finished last season just 13th in penalty-kill percentage. Buffalo’s faceoff percentage was tied with Anaheim and the Rangers for 25th in the league. Someone needed to take the blame, and it went towards McCutcheon.

Enter new assistants Kevyn Adams and Teppo Numminen, who both have tremendous amounts of experience as players and know the dynamics of Buffalo’s locker room. Adams served as the team’s player-development coach over the past 1.5 years, while Numminen spent four seasons patrolling Buffalo’s blueline.

It will be interesting to see if these two can adjust to life behind the bench. What will be even more interesting will be if Leino can handle the responsibilities of playing center in Ruff’s system.

Leino, who’d been a rising star in Philadelphia, was signed in July to a six-year contract. Leino set career highs while playing left wing on Briere’s line and helping the Flyers reach the Stanley Cup Finals in 2010.

The challenges facing Leino this season are tremendous. Leino has to make the transition back to center, where he played while in Finland and may be a more natural fit.

But playing center at the NHL level is much more difficult than playing against professionals in Europe. Throw in the fact that Leino must also adjust to life without Briere setting him up for scoring opportunities, and you’ve got yourself an intriguing situation inside Buffalo’s locker room.

Leino should be able to adjust. Ruff has been known to get good results out of guys who can play both center and wing (see: Curtis Brown, Stu Barnes and Jochen Hecht.) Leino should become just as good as, if not better than, those aforementioned players.

Lastly, Roy needs to prove that he can become an elite center. He has talent, as he has put up seasons of at least 60 points or more four times in his seven seasons in Buffalo.

But Roy needs to score at least 70 points a year and play more consistently in his own end of the ice. He showed flashes of doing that last season, averaging a point a game before suffering a torn quad. He needs to be able to regularly score at that pace if Buffalo wants to make a serious run at the Stanley Cup.

All in all, the Sabres are one of the most talented teams in the Eastern Conference. But just having talent alone won’t guarantee a championship for Western New York.

*This story originally appeared in the Buffalo State Record*

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