Jim Neveau, NHL Senior Columnist
New ownership has a tendency to shift the fortunes of quite a few teams in the sports world, and one city that is really hoping that a new owner can deliver them to the promised land, it’s the town of Buffalo and their love of new Sabres owner Terry Pegula.
Pegula purchased the team amid a slew of fanfare and excitement back in February, and since then he has made an immediate impact on the way they do business. He hired former Pittsburgh Penguins executive Ted Black as the team’s president, and the team also acquired forward Brad Boyes at the trade deadline to bolster their playoff chances. Although they were defeated by the Philadelphia Flyers in seven games in the first round of the playoffs, it was still a largely successful season for a team in transition.
Over the course of this off-season, the Sabres were arguably the team that was the most active in free agency, signing both defenseman Christian Ehrhoff and forward Ville Leino to sizable contracts. They also signed talented youngster Tyler Myers to a new seven year extension, solidifying their core for the foreseeable future and showing how serious they are about winning with their current group of players.
Some insiders have expressed reservations about the Sabres’ spate of moves, saying that the long terms of the contracts would cause issues for Buffalo in the salary cap era. The cap numbers themselves aren’t bad (both Leino and Ehrhoff are around $4 million per season, and Myers’ is just over $5 million), but the fact that the shortest among those three deals is six years means that the Sabres are on the hook for a long time, even if the deals don’t pan out.
While a two-game sample size is of course impossible to either praise or dismiss signings of this magnitude, the Sabres have come out of the gate really strong. Opening the season in Helsinki and Berlin, the Sabres have combined a great defensive effort with some really stellar offensive outings to go 2-0 in the NHL Premiere series, and they outscored the Los Angeles Kings and Anaheim Ducks by a combined tally of 8-3.
Notable individual efforts belong to Sabres’ rookie Luke Adam, who scored two goals and added two assists in the two games, and looked completely at ease against two really solid defensive teams. Thomas Vanek also had a great opening weekend, scoring twice and dishing out three assists to lead the team in both categories. To round out the all-around effort, newly minted captain Jason Pominville scored a goal and added three assists over the weekend.
Ryan Miller also played quite well in back-to-back starts, winning both games and posting an excellent .952% save percentage.
With a nice layoff until they take home ice in Buffalo against the Carolina Hurricanes, it seems to be an appropriate time to ask the question that this weekend’s performance raised: is this a sign of things to come for what has arguably been the most intriguing franchise of the off-season? Will Leino and Ehrhoff provide enough of a boost to take Buffalo to the next level? There are still 80 games remaining for those questions to be accurately answered, but in looking at the numbers, there are signs that support both sides of the debate.
On the optimistic side of the ledger, the Sabres’ penalty kill has been really solid against teams that have some elite-level scorers to play on the man-advantage. They did give up one power play goal to the Kings on Saturday, but they killed the other seven penalties they committed for a respectable 87.5% success rate. They’ve also converted on three of the eight power plays that they’ve had, continuing the success they found last year when they finished ninth in the league in that category.
For the more pessimistic approach, there are a couple of disturbing trends that emerged out of the two games. In the first two games combined, the Sabres did manage 51 shots (not a good number, but not hideous either), but they only put four shots total on net in the third periods of the two games. In fact, they didn’t have a single shot on goal in the third period of Friday’s game against the Ducks, and they looked like they were playing more not to lose than they were to continue trying to push the tempo.
Another negative sign for Buffalo has been the play of new acquisition Ehrhoff. He was a minus-1 despite the team only giving up three goals, and he committed two silly penalties in the third period against Anaheim, which could have given them the opening they needed to get back in the game. He hasn’t hit the scoresheet on offense either, but that isn’t as much of a concern as the penalties and turnover issues he’s had early on.
Obviously, two games does not a trend make, so guys like Ehrhoff could very well end up scoring 20 goals and averaging nearly a point a game, and Luke Adam could go completely cold and not score for 20 games. Neither of those scenarios are particularly likely, but the point remains the same: the Sabres aren’t going to have anything handed to them this season, and they are going to need contributions from a lot of places if they are going to get through the first round of the playoffs for the first time since 2007.