Although the season is looking quite bleak for the Buffalo Sabres, lets give it a little bit more time before we officially throw in the towel and waive the white flag. Instead, lets look at four key players who could lead a resurgence if they step it up during the second half of the truncated season. For the time being, we’ll give the young core of centers a pass (as it would be expected they’d have growing pains) as well as Ryan Miller since the team has played so abysmal in front of him (although he isn’t without fault himself).
As he has yet to play this season due to a nagging hip injury, Ville Leino is the great wildcard. Could his injection into the lineup be exactly what the team needs? While most Sabres pundits would answer no to that question, that fact of the matter is we simple don’t know. One thing should be expected, however. It’ll likely take a few games until the former Philadelphia Flyers forward is caught up to game speed. So, don’t look for an instant impact.
The Finn should have something to prove after having a disappointing 2011-2012 season and not yet playing this season. Some are calling his 2010 playoff campaign in which he recorded 21 points in 19 games a fluke or merely a matter of getting hot at just the right time. Leino will also have the added pressure of having to “put his money where his mouth is.” While sidelined, he was very critical of his teammates poor performance.
“One of the things here I’ve noticed since being here over a year is we’ve got to have higher demands, higher priorities on games, working better and keeping each other accountable here,” said Leino back in February shortly after Lindy Ruff’s firing. “It’s not always a happy family, you’ve got to have some controversy, some guys pushing each other. It’s not all smiles and happy and being nice guys because nice guys usually finish last.”
If Leino doesn’t perform in his own right, look for the criticism to be fired right back in his direction.
One of the fans favorite whipping boys of late has been former first-round draft pick Drew Stafford. He has just two goals this season and has struggled mightily as he’s of late found himself relegated to fourth line duties.
Although he’s done his best to help out in other areas of the game (including the penalty kill), the former University of North Dakota collegiate standout’s primary responsibility is scoring (especially on a team that desperately lacks secondary scoring and has the NHL’s worst power play). Once a 30-goal scorer, Stafford has found the back of the net just twice this season.
After this season, the forward has two years remaining on his contract that has him making $4 million per. If things don’t turnaround quickly, he may find himself on the trading block as rumors are beginning to percolate.
Now, lets shift our attention to the defensive corps. Heading into the season, this was considered to be a strength of the team. To say the group has been a disappointment would be a dramatic understatement. Like Stafford, Tyler Myers is another Sabre the fans have lambasted.
After winning the Calder Memorial Trophy for his performance during the 2009-2010 season, Myers hasn’t looked like the same promising young star. Some are perplexed by his stunted growth and are beginning to wonder if he’ll ever develop into the player he was originally destined to be. Adding to the pressure are the expectations Myers has to live up to his enormous contract that has him making $5.5 million a season.
This season, the 6’8″ defenseman has been notorious for making poor decisions and turning the puck over. He’ll need to refocus and clean up his game to not only possibly save the season, but also get his career back on track.
A lot of fans were excited about the trade and sign acquisition of Christian Ehrhoff. Unfortunately, the German defenseman has just been another disappointment for the Sabres. He was brought into quarterback the team’s power play unit — that as previously mentioned — sits at the bottom of the league.
In his first season with the club, Ehrhoff battled injuries and inconsistent play en route to a 2011-12 campaign in which he played in 66 games and tallied 32 points (his lowest total since the 2007-08 season). Although he’s one of the few Sabres with a positive plus-minus rating this season, he’s played erratic and has contributed to the team’s defensive breakdowns.
Ehrhoff is expected to be a top-tier defenseman. If he can correct his issues, it could go along way for the Blue and Gold. It’d stabilize the entire unit and would have a positive effect on players such as Myers. A lot is made of the Sabres scoring problems, but their defensive play has been their Achille’s Heel this year.