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Buffalo Sabres Season Preview

The Buffalo Sabres are slated to kick off their 2011/2012 campaign this Friday and the feeling surrounding Buffalo and this hockey team is unlike anything I’ve ever seen before.

Terry Pegula walked in late last season and changed the culture of this franchise, investing countless amounts of time and money into turning this club into a winner again.

Seeing as the season is a mere few days away and the long awaited puck drop upon us, I thought it would be fitting to conjure up a little preview of what hockey fans could very well expect from their 2011/2012 Buffalo Sabres.

Forwards:

One of the main aspects of this year’s Buffalo Sabres team that I think is often overlooked elsewhere around the league is the current group of forwards on the roster.

After all, this is a team that finished ninth in the league in goals scores last season.

That’s ninth, as in top-10.

They finished within the top-10 of the league while up a man, as well.

It seems so incredible when you really think about the team last season. What makes it even more incredible is the fact that the Sabres’ offensive attack was led by Tim Connolly as the team’s top center and were without Derek Roy for more than half the season.

Too many people fail to understand that the scoring on this team was among the best in the league last year possibly because the Sabres failed to yield any one single player who put up extraordinary stats. Instead, they scored by committee with a total of five players eclipsing the 40-point mark. An additional five players chipped in 30 or more points a piece. That’s 10 players in all above 30 points, or enough to fill your first two lines as well as the first defensive pairing.

Now, factor in the changes for this season.

The Sabres lost Tim Connolly (if you can call it a loss, really) and gained versatile forward Ville Leino via free agency. Adding  Leino to the mix certainly can’t hurt offensive production. His puck handling skills and two-way style of play netted him a hefty contract from Mr. Pegula, but the prospects of him centering a line with Tyler Ennis and Drew Stafford on his wings far outweighs the fact Leino has theoretically only had one impressive season statistically (even though he’s been outstanding in his career in the playoffs).

Then, factor in the return of Derek Roy who will be expected to shoulder the load among the Sabres’ first line alongside Thomas Vanek and Jason Pominville. If Roy can enter the season and prove he can continue to score at the point-per-game clip he was before going down with his injury last season, then we could be looking at a climb up in the league’s scoring ranks from ninth to potentially top-five.

Of course, this is all assuming Stafford stays healthy and Ennis won’t experience a sophomore slump, but have we gotten any reason to be skeptical heading in? Especially after seeing this team perform together in the preseason.

The back end of the group looks to be as deep and as solid as any in the league despite the apparent weakness down the middle.

Jochen Hecht, Cody McCormick, Patrick Kaleta, Matt Ellis as well as rookie Luke Adam and potentially even Zack Kassian and Marcus Foligno all figure to compete for third and fourth line minutes as the season progresses, giving the Sabres plenty of versatility to compliment the scoring lines.

So what has this team that finished so high in total scoring last season really lost? Well, nothing. In fact, a good case can be made much more has been gained.

It will be critical for this team to come out of the gates on fire but as long as everything stays the course, things can only go up for this group of forwards looking ahead.

Best Case Scenario: Derek Roy remains healthy all season and proves to the hockey world he’s worthy of being a top center in the NHL while Ville Leino shows he’s not a bust after all, becoming an even bigger hit than he was while in Philadelphia. With the help of a full season from Roy, Thomas Vanek returns to the 40-goal plateau and Jason Pominville and Drew Stafford both notch 60-point seasons.

Reality: While all signs point towards the Sabres repeating their offensive success this season, you’ve got to wonder how things will play out if Roy and Leino fail to reach their full potential at the center positions. A poor turnout from one or both could severely hamper the team’s ability to score and on a larger scale compete with the top team’s who do have their top centers already on the roster. All things considered, though, the Sabres have one of the deepest forward units in the league and barring injury should expect a high number of goals this year.

Projected Line Combinations:

Projected lines:
Thomas Vanek Derek Roy Jason Pominville
Tyler Ennis Ville Leino Drew Stafford
Nathan Gerbe Paul Gaustad Patrick Kaleta
Jochen Hecht Luke Adam Cody McCormick

Defenseman:

Obviously the defense was the focal point of a busy off season for the Sabres and on paper, they did one heck of a job filling their biggest holes.

The revamp began by acquiring one of the better, most consistent stay-at-home defensemen in the NHL, Robyn Regehr, from Calgary for what looks to be at this point a mere bag of pucks.

Regehr in many ways is the big-bodied, rough and tumble defensemen the Sabres have lacked for as long as I can remember and the fact that Tyler Myers sees him as one of his role-models should go a long way in making this one of the best acquisitions the Sabres have made in a long time.

Regehr will likely receive substantial playing time in all penalty kill situations as well as logging a ton of minutes on one of the team’s top defensive pairings. Regehr’s role this year will be essential in the amount of success the Sabres experience.

It’s hard to imagine bringing in a defenseman like Regehr being overshadowed but it appears as though the acquisition and signing of Christian Ehrhoff is doing just that.

Projected defensive pairings:
Tyler Myers Christian Ehrhoff
Robyn Regehr Jordan Leopold
Andrej Sekera M.A. Gragnani

With his cannon of a shot and precision passing, Ehrhoff figures to be a fixture in the Sabres top pairing as well as quarterbacking the power play unit all season long. Ehrhoff’s game just so happens to fit in perfectly with Lindy Ruff’s coaching style which allows for defensemen to step up in the offensive attack, something he thrived on while in Vancouver.

Along with Ehrhoff and Regehr, the Sabres return stud defenseman Tyler Myers who should be in store for another monster year while logging top minutes with either Regehr or Ehrhoff as well as Jordan Leopold, who got off to a great start last season and has played with Regehr during their days with the Flames.

Rounding out the back end are three defensemen who could very easily be considered top 3 or 4 d-men on other teams around the league.

Andrej Sekera, Marc-Andre Gragnani and Mike Weber all received new deals this off season and look primed to continue their past success. Despite there only being two positions left to be filled, you get the feeling Ruff will alternate the sixth spot between the three throughout the year or until he sees something he likes.

Sekera and Gragnani each display a unique offensive skill set and figure to log minutes on the power play units while in the lineup while Mike Weber could be more of a staple of the penalty kill unit or eating up minutes while the Sabres try to hold a lead.

Best Case Scenario: Christian Ehrhoff gives the Sabres their power play quarterback they’ve desired since the departure of Brian Campbell and the former Canuck helps lead the Sabres to displaying one of the league’s most lethal units on the man advantage. Robyn Regehr becomes everything Sabres fans could want from a gritty defenseman and then some all while Tyler Myers begins to mold his game after his childhood idol and develops a mean streak to match his already top-tier offensive skills.

Reality: Ehrhoff and Regehr give the Sabres two very good, established veterans to off-set any inexperience left among the defensemen returning from last season. Andrej Sekera has some question marks and will need to prove he’s worth a roster spot as well as the nice raise he received in the off season and the question still remains if Gragnani can play at the level he did in the playoffs last season and translate it into a full season of production. Like the forwards, the Sabres sport one of, if not the deepest defensive units in the league which instantly puts them in consideration as one of the top units in the league, a far stretch from last season’s corps.

Goalies:

It goes without saying that the one man on earth more elated by the Sabres’ acquisitions of Regehr and Ehrhoff than Terry Pegula is Ryan Miller.

Miller is coming off a year in which the departures of Henrik Tallinder and Toni Lydman  clearly showed how much the youth of the defensive unit in front of him hurt the star goalie.

Miller’s numbers weren’t terrible, just not worth the $6 million he’s paid each season. So the Darcy Regier did his part and now Miller will have to follow up by doing his.

There’s no reason to believe that with the acquisitions the Sabres made Miller shouldn’t at least come close to duplicating the numbers he put up while winning the Vezina just two seasons ago. In my mind it’s reasonable to think that if everything goes right, he may even be in line for a career season.

The off season moves however aren’t even the main reason I have these lofty expecations for Miller.

To me, the big difference lies withing Jhonas Enroth.

Throughout his tenure, Miller has always lacked a dependable backup option the team could turn to in order to lighten the load from the goalie’s shoulders. In fact, if you really think about it, with the goalies Miller has had backing him up in the past it’s remarkable he’s been able to put up the numbers he has while staying relatively healthy.

Miller’s a workhorse, there’s no doubt about it. But even he has to be thrilled of the prospects of Enroth stepping in and giving the Sabres a formidable chance to win the 20-25 games in which Miller will use to rest.

Enroth proved to everyone he is more than capable of this role after almost single-handedly vaulting this team into the playoffs last year while Miller nursed his injuries towards the end of the season.

It should not be understated how crucial Enroth’s role on this team will be and in the Sabres’ success in 2011/12.

You can follow Brandon on Twitter @THWGoldSchlager for even more insightful Sabres coverage.

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