With the reformatting of the divisional format in the NHL, you might be left with questions about the team’s in Buffalo’s division, the Atlantic Division. Who will the Sabres be seeing a lot of? Where will they shake out?
Thankfully for you, that’s where I come in. Welcome to your guide to the division.
What did they do last year?
About that. It was…what’s the phrase? Oh, right: an unmitigated disaster.
The team never really got it going on its way to a last place finish in both the Southeast Division and the Eastern Conference as a whole, managing just 15 wins in the 48 game campaign.
How did it go wrong? Where do you start, really? Tomas Fleischmann had a pretty decent year with 35 points and rookie Jonathan Huberdeau tied for the rookie lead in scoring with 31 points on his way to winning the Calder Trophy as the league’s best frosh.
After that? It’s really, really ugly. Stephen Weiss missed most of the season; ditto for Kris Versteeg. Erik Gudbranson, the young blueliner the team has high hopes for, struggled mightly on his way to a four point season. The defense was terrible, the offense just as inept, and the goaltending a nightmare.
It also doesn’t help things when you finish last in both goals per game and goals against per game, as the Panthers did this past season. Incredibly, they managed the league’s sixth best power play. That’s something to build on, right? But it’s kind of counteracted by the league’s worst penalty kill. One step forward, two steps back.
The goaltending situation was just as ugly. Jacob Markstrom, Scott Clemmensen, and Jose Theodore all split time last year with Markstrom being the marginal best: .901 save percentage, 3.22 GAA, and a well-under-.500 record.
Just a huge pile of sadness last year for the Panthers, so let’s watch Jonathan Huberdeau highlights instead:
What do they look like for this year?
The good thing about finishing near the bottom of the standings is that you get the chance to pick top-of-the-line youngsters to build for the future. With the second pick in the 2013 Draft, the Panthers surprised a few people by taking big Finnish prospect Aleksander Barkov despite the fact that many had Barkov as the fourth best prospect on the board. Doesn’t seem like a move the Panthers would make, now does it?
The Catas will probably be expecting Barkov to make the team on opening night; ditto for 2010 first-rounders Nick Bjugstad and Quinton Howden. With Weiss gone to Detroit, the already offensively-challenged Panthers will need all the help they can get up front.
If they can stay healthy and get some improvement out of Gudbranson, the back end could be sneaky good for the Panthers. Veterans Brian Campbell and Ed Jovanovski are solid in their own ways, and Dmitry Kulikov is a budding young player. Bringing along Gudbranson will be a huge step towards group solidarity for the Panthers blue line.
In net, it looks mostly the same as last year. Theodore is gone but Clemmensen and Markstrom remain. A knee injury to Clemmensen, though, has left the Panthers with a void. A void that could potentially be filled by none other than former Bruins goalie Tim Thomas. Markstrom will remain the nominal starter as the team is supposedly very high on him, but some growth will be expected.
2013/14 Meetings w/Buffalo
10/25 @ Florida
1/9 @ Buffalo
1/21 @ Buffalo
3/7 @ Florida
Where do the Sabres stand?
Last year, both teams picked up overtime wins in high-scoring affairs. The Sabres already possess more top-to-bottom skill than the Panthers (not saying much) but tend to play to the level of their competition.
It seems as though the Panthers got worse, depending on what the rookies do but you can’t expect a ton out of them realistically, and didn’t really do a ton to resolve their goaltending other than showing faith in Markstrom.
The Sabres will need to use their speed, put a ton of shots on net, and crash for rebounds. Florida gave up a ton of shots last year and that unsurprisingly helped lead them to the basement. It will be interesting to see if the Sabres can step up in games against a lower-tier opponent or if they’ll keep it close with average play.
A long-time (and long-suffering) Buffalo sports fan. Sometimes optimistic, always weary. I write other stuff for a lot of other people.