With the new alignment in the NHL, things might get even tougher for the Buffalo Sabres this season. To begin, the sheer numbers of having eight teams in their new Atlantic Division, does not favour the Sabres who must be better than four teams to qualify for the playoffs. For the record, last season, they were only better than three teams in their 15-team Eastern Conference. So the big question is can the Sabres make the playoffs, being a half glass full kind of guy I will say yes*, with an asterisk beside it. The Sabres will need many things to go right for them but if they do, they might just find a way to squeak in.
Be Better Than The Florida Teams
As mentioned earlier, the Sabres only finished better than three teams in the Eastern Conference last season. Buffalo finished the year with a record of 21-21-6 for 48 points. The good news is that two of the teams they were better than, Florida (15-27-6) and Tampa Bay (18-26-24), are now division rivals for the Sabres. What this means is that the Sabres have to take advantage of the divisional games with these two teams to stock pile points that they most likely won’t get against the top teams in the Atlantic. However, the bad news is that despite finishing better than these two formerly Southeast Division teams, the Sabres managed only three wins against that division last season and finished with a record of 3-10-2 against the Southeast. Once again it will be paramount for the Sabres to win those games if they hope to have any success.
Steal Some From The Leaders
Continuing with the divisional theme, the second thing the Sabres need to do is steal some games from the top teams in the division. Last season they finished 9-7-2 against the Northeast despite being the only team from the division not to make the playoffs.
A similar record against teams like Montreal, Toronto, Ottawa and Boston will help them stay in the hunt. At the same time, while not in their control, the Sabres desperately need the likes of Montreal, Toronto and/or Ottawa to take a step back. If one of those teams struggles this coming season it could open a spot for the Sabres to sneak into a playoff spot.
The wildcard becomes Detroit, a playoff team that is moving to the east and into the new division with the Sabres. Holding their own against the Red Wings and not losing this season series also becomes paramount.
Faceoffs Need To Be Better
Something that the Sabres can and should be working on when training camp opens up is faceoffs. Last season they struggled almost from the get go in the face off circle and finished the season second last with a winning per cent of just 46.1. With no real major additions down the middle, the team will simply have to have their current players improve. Things could change if one of the Sabres’ prospects can make the team and establish himself as a face off specialist, such as the likes of Mikhail Grigorenko or Zemgus Girgensons. Still, when you are battling to regain control of the puck you are not attacking, something the Sabres know all too well.
Special Teams Need To Improve
Much like face offs, the power play was a real concern for the Sabres last season. They were second last in the category operating at an abysmal 14.1 per cent. Add to that the fact that they allowed the most short-handed goals (seven). Without any major changes, change will have to come from within. Henrik Tallinder will help, but to ask the 34-year-old to completely turn around a power play is just not reasonable. This is another area where someone will need to step up and fill a hole from within the organization.
On the penalty kill, the Sabres struggled almost as much, ranking 26th in the league at 79.2 per cent. The positive news here is that additions like Jamie McBain and possibly first-round draft pick Rasmus Ristolainen could bring elements needed to help improve the team’s penalty kill.
Better Individual Performances
When it comes right down to it, the Sabres’ players just need to be better. Tyler Myers has lots of pressure to snap his declining numbers and prove he is worth the money he is being paid. But he is not the only player who will be under the spotlight. To the surprise of many fans, Ville Leino was not bought out. Perhaps it was because of the ensuing cap nightmare it would have caused, but let’s be optimistic and say it was because the Sabres want to give him a chance to prove himself. Well, maybe Darcy Regier wants to prove he was not wrong in offering Leino the $4.5 average, cap-hit salary he has for a player who has only eclipsed 50 points once in his career.
Leino produced only 25 points in 71 games for the Sabres in year one of his deal, 2011-12. Last season, he appeared in just seven games. He is still under contract until 2017 so the Sabres will be begging him to be the top-six forward they thought they were getting.
Vanek/Miller Situations Need To Be Resolved
Rumors have been flying around about the uncertain futures of both Ryan Miller and Thomas Vanek with the Sabres. Buffalo needs to nip this in the bud as soon as possible, either these guys are moving out or they are staying to be part of the rebuild. Either way, decisions need to be made and, as we have seen in the past, these sorts of things can consume a team. If Miller and Vanek remain, they are the two best players on the team and will need to be leaned on for success. If Miller is stealing games and Vanek continues to produce offensively, like he did last season, then the Sabres again may have a shot. However, if they are going to be moved, the Sabres need to identify what they want and try to acquire those pieces so that they can help the team.
While a lot of things have been listed above, they are just some of the issues that need to go right for the Sabres to have a shot. On paper it doesn’t look good, but that is why they play the game because when the Sabres hit the ice they may just have a chip on their shoulder and be able to create their own success.