The Buffalo Sabres Little Secret

After the way the 2012/13 season turned out, it’s a common perception that the Buffalo Sabres are a really bad team. Bad enough that they might be in the early running for the first overall pick in 2014.

#badforekblad? #shamforsam? #panderfornylander? You get the picture.

But I’m here to let you in on a little secret that not a lot of people realize: the Sabres aren’t that bad. Not only are they not that bad, they could be a borderline playoff team next year.

I know, I know. They started off miserably last year and finished 12th in the Eastern Conference. They could also conceivably be without Ryan Miller and Thomas Vanek by this time next year. Those are the realities of a somewhat-rebuilding team.

Rasmus Ristolainen [photo: Teemu Saarinen, HC TPS]
Rasmus Ristolainen [photo: Teemu Saarinen, HC TPS]
Thing is, those two are still around and you’re much better with them on your team than you are without them. Vanek is usually good for at least 25 goals and Miller is an upper-echelon goaltender even if he’ll probably never match his Vezina Trophy numbers of 2009/10.

The Sabres have also been busy during the off-season, most notably on the defensive end. Not only did they take defensemen with their two first-round picks (Finland’s Rasmus Ristolainen 8th overall and masher Nikita Zadorov 16th), they swapped out Andrej Sekera for Carolina’s Jamie McBain, traded for former veteran Sabre Henrik Tallinder, and re-signed Mike Weber and Alexander Sulzer.

Now, scoring goals was definitely an issue (they were 23rd in goals per game) and the Sabres did very little in the short-term to fix that. Theoretically, Mikhail Grigorenko and Zegmus Girgensons, former first round picks, are ready for bigger and better.  Grigorenko especially, given his trial by fire debut last year. He’s a top-tier talent and direction from Ron Rolston could go a long way.

Cody Hodgson, provided he gets a new deal, should only continue to get better and one couldn’t possibly expect less of human albatross Drew Stafford.  Ville Leino will be back from injury and, as crazy as it sounds, was playing better at the end of last season. He’ll never live up to his contract but he should be an actual, real-life contributor. That in itself is an addition to the roster. Hell, maybe Marcus Foligno will re-appear, too.

The key to the Sabres’ semi-success this coming season will be in the defense. Tallinder, “solid” being his middle name, was brought in solely to rejuvenate the career of Tyler Myers.  The last time Tallinder was around, Myers won the Calder Trophy and looked like a franchise defenseman. If he can turn Myers around, his acquisition will have been a boon.

Christian Ehrhoff Sabres

Christian Ehrhoff is coming off his best season as a Sabre and Mike Weber remains a steady, physical presence who has emerged as a bit of a leader for the team. With Sulzer, Chad Ruhwedel, Mark Pysyk, and Brayden McNabb all in the mix as NHL-ready, the Sabres are suddenly teeming with defensive depth.

Given their league-worst shots per game totals from last year, defense was the way to go to fix things in the interim. Cutting down on those opportunities will go a long way towards improving the team’s record.  With a top six of Ehrhoff, Myers, Tallinder, Weber, McBain, and Ristolainen, the Sabres should be vastly improved. And even if one or two of those guys struggle, there are four other NHL-ready defenders waiting in Rochester.

Another reason the Sabres aren’t going to be as bad as you think: goaltending.  Yeah, Ryan Miller continues to be pretty good even if no one realized it last year. His .928 save percentage during 5-on-5 play is really good; it’s just that he was sub-.900 on both the power play (.862) and the penalty kill (.879). To no one’s surprise, the Sabres iced two of the worst special teams units in the league. Even if it moves back towards the mean just a little bit, those numbers for Miller will get better.

Sure, he’s 33 but he has yet to show signs of true regression and carried the Sabres for stretches last season as he is wont to do. With the additions on defense, he ideally wouldn’t have to shoulder as much of the load and can instead focus on being excellent when he has to be instead of having to be excellent all the time.

Jhonas Enroth Sabres
Jhonas Enroth is still somewhat of an enigma. Can he repeat his performance from the end of 2012/13? (Micheline/SynergyMax)

Backing him up, and theoretically easing the load, is the enigmatic Jhonas Enroth.  You’ll remember Enroth as the guy who fell into Lindy Ruff’s doghouse so badly that it was conceivable that he wouldn’t see anything but the bench again so long as Ruff was around.

When Ruff was fired, Enroth became an entirely different goaltender. He routinely stood on his head, making incredible saves look standard, and was arguably as good as Miller down the stretch. If he can continue his strong play into this year, it’ll ease the load for Miller and allow him to play fresher and stronger in fewer starts.

Something else to consider: the Sabres looked like a different team under Rolston. Granted, their record from the time Ruff was fired (2/20/13) to the end of the season was pretty average – 15-11-5 – but they closed strong, going 8-5-0.  More importantly, the Sabres had that spark, that effort, that was clearly missing during Ruff’s tenure. They looked like they cared again.

Down the stretch, with Thomas Vanek fading after carrying the team for the bulk of the shortened season, several guys elevated their games: Ehrhoff, Ennis to a degree, and even Stafford looked better as the season wore on. Perhaps the Sabres were gearing up for their yearly run only didn’t get a chance because there were only 48 games. It was obvious that Rolston was getting more out of the team than Ruff. The question is whether or not that continues into this season.

The fact of the matter is the Buffalo Sabres aren’t nearly as bad as their standing last season would tell you. They had a horrible year keeping pucks away from their net, the special teams were irreparably broken, and they had a coaching change mid-way through.

This year? They get a full year of Ron Rolston, Grigorenko with a little bit of experience, a healthy Ville Leino, and several strong additions to the blueline.

The sky may not exactly be the limit for the 2013/14 Buffalo Sabres, but a late playoff push won’t be out of the question.

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