could this be the logo for the next Stanley Cup champions?

Buffalo Sabres 2011-12 Season Preview

We’re barely seven months in, since Terry Pegula and his merry band of awesomeness purchased our beloved Buffalo Sabres from B. Thomas Golisano and his awful band of, well, awfulness, but it feels like seven years.

Or at least seven off-seasons.

So much has happened since Terry came riding in on his blue-and-gold horse, that you almost want to tell the man to pace himself. Almost, but not really.

There has been so much done to the newly christened First Niagara Center, that using the word “renovation” seems to sell it short. Pegula has spent countless millions on: a brand new, state-of-the-art, player/coach-friendly dressing room, complete with fireplace (What, no bear skin rug?); a new computerized cooling system that should give the Sabres one of the best sheets of ice in the league; lazer-leveling Zambonis to help in the aforementioned cause; a paint job more in tune with the team’s color scheme; too numerous to mention “fan suggestions” which will bring our arena into the “big leagues”, and, glory hallelujah, all of the slugs are gone.

Oh, and he went out and bought the AHL’s Rochester Americans, to reunite two franchises that should have never been broken up in the first place.

New toys were added on the ice, as well. The Sabres made the biggest splash before July 1st, when general manager Darcy Regier acquired Robyn Regehr, Ales Kotalik (who has since been jettisoned to his homeland to play out the remainder of his contract there) and, and, a 2012 2nd-round draft pick from the Calgary Flames in exchange for the much maligned Chris Butler and fringe prospect Paul Byron. Then, on the eve of free agency, the team acquired the negotiating rights to soon-to-be free agent defenseman Christian Ehrhoff from the New York Islanders (mere hours after the Islanders traded for, and couldn’t sign, him). Hours later, Ehrhoff signed on the dotted line with Buffalo. Regier knew his defense needed a transformation and he, along with Pegula’s wallet and persuasiveness (just ask Regehr) delivered. The team then went out and, on the first day of free agency, added former Philadelphia Flyer Ville Leino, to add to an already potent offense.

Pegula’s desire to win “multiple cups” may or may not come to fruition, but it certainly will not be for lack of trying. Even thought the franchise can boast over 16, 000 season-ticket holders, and expects to sell out every single home game, some of the contracts were so front loaded and full of “bonuses”, that actual salary vs. salary cap hit is well north of $75 million, compared to just under $65 million, respectively. The passionate owner may have to write a check to cover some monetary losses initially, but will do so happily, especially if this team delivers the city of Buffalo it’s first ever major championship.

 

FORWARDS

A team that finished 8th in the NHL last season in goals for and, for all intents and purposes, replaced 10-goal man Tim Connolly with Leino (who had 19 for the Flyers), should be better in that department this season. Leino is an interesting case, as he is switching from wing to center, a position he played comfortably during his career in Finland. He should be a lock for 18-22 goals and, with his sublime playmaking abilities, is a better bet to set up twice that. Thomas Vanek and Drew Stafford will be the offense’s go-to goal scorers, but they should have plenty of company in that department. Newly named captain Jason Pominville is usually a lock for 20-25 goals, while tiny Tasmanian devil Nathan Gerbe seems ready to take the next step, and flirt with 20. Second-year man Tyler Ennis is looking for a big year, and a bigger payday, and should build on his 49-point rookie campaign. Derek Roy will center one of the top two lines, and will continue to put up his consistent point-per-game numbers he always seems to deliver. A one-two of Roy/Leino isn’t exactly Sedin/Kelser, but the two Sabre centers are good enough to get the job done. Brad Boyes would love to prove his detractors wrong, and get back the 43-goal touch he displayed a few years back, but he probably won’t see top-line minutes night in and night out. As a 3rd line winger, Boyes, however, may get some prime opportunities to line up against some lesser opponents, and may reap some rewards because of it. Oft-injured Jochen Hecht is coming off one of his worst seasons as a pro, and looked to be on the same unlucky path throughout the preseason. I may be reading too much into this, but having a fellow German-born player (Ehrhoff) on the team may light a fire under Jochen’s “arsch”. Paul Gaustad is entering the final year of his contract, but don’t expect the faceoff wizard to be sent packing at the trade deadline, especially if the Sabres are in contention. He will provide his usual 10-12 goals, and relentless physicality. Angola, NY agitator extraordinaire Patrick Kaleta needs desperately to stay healthy, and return to becoming a more complete hockey player, a path he was on two years ago. Cody McCormick will provide his dependable muscle, and contribute the odd goal.

 

DEFENSE

If you had told me, after last season ended, that Butler and Steve Montador would be replaced with Regehr and Ehrhoff, I would have taken you for a drug test.

After much hysterical laughing, of course.

Yet, here we are, on the cusp of the franchise’s 41st season, with perhaps the deepest and most intriguing defense the Sabres have had in a long while. Newcomers Ehrhoff and Regehr will be counted on to log big minutes, especially Ehrhoff, who should quarterback the Sabres’ power-play right into the top 5 in the league. Regehr was brought in to add much needed spine and stability to an often times shaky back end, and will be an instantly respected leader in the Sabres’ new “oval office”. Tyler Myers, signed to a 7-year, $38.5 million contract in September, had a rough first half of the season in 2010-11, but slowly and methodically rebounded with a stellar second half. The “Big Easy” will play around 24 minutes a game this year, be the team’s best all-around defenseman for almost the next decade, and Norris trophy nominations don’t seem too far off, or far-fetched. Jordan Leopold may turn out to be one of the best fourth defensemen in the NHL, however, his numbers may drop a bit, as he won’t see as much time on the power-play due to Ehrhoff’s arrival. The bottom three of Mike Weber, Andrej Sekera and Marc-Andre Gragnani gives the Sabres a nice mix of sandpaper, speed, skill and smarts, though Sekera better check with Noah Webster on the definition of the word “consistency”, or Gragnani will take the ball (or puck) and run with it. Shaone Morrisonn is a decent insurance policy in case of injuries, though Regier has to be careful about recalling the rearguard from the AHL’s Americans, as his $2 million price tag will test the general manager’s ability as a salary-cap”ologist”.

 

GOALIES

Ryan Miller is back once again as the Sabres’ starting puck-stopper. The native of Lansing, Michigan (what, do I work for the Versus network, or something?), and proud son from America’s second family of hockey, instantly gives the Sabres credibility as a legitimate Cup contender. While just entering his “goaltending prime” at age 31, Miller has already racked up 221 wins in only 399 NHL games, and ranks behind only Dominik Hasek‘s 234 wins in a Sabre uniform. He has been the beneficiary of having some stacked teams in front of him, but has also stolen his share of games along the way. Miller will look to play around 55-60 games and, with Jhonas Enroth ready for full time duty as his  back-up, should get ample rest leading up to the playoffs. For most of the past four seasons, the Sabres haven’t had what you might call a stellar tandem between the pipes. Of course, they did boast a world-class talent in Miller, but on any given night, his partner-in-twine was one of Jocelyn Thibault or Patrick Lalime. What? Andre “red-light” Racicot wasn’t available?

Then came the “Prince”. Enroth was brought up from AHL Portland when Lindy Ruff decided, after an atrocious showing against the Tampa Bay Lightning, that he couldn’t trust Lalime anymore. Enroth proceeded to gain his coach’s trust, and steal all of our hearts. Enroth finally gives Ruff a stopper who can spell Miller for 20-25 nights a year, and a guy who can win 60% of those games. Isn’t that all we can ask for in a back-up?

 

ROOKIES

Luke Adam is with the team in Europe, but how much is due to Hecht’s concussion issues? I think the kid has earned, and continues to earn, a spot on this roster, and gives the Sabres a big body down the middle, and yet another scoring threat. If Adam manages to stay the whole season, he may have to sit the odd game, but if he continues his strong play, there’s not a chance he comes out of this lineup…even at the expense of a veteran. Zack Kassian was the sexy choice to stay up with the big club, but the kid clearly wasn’t ready. His puckhandling needs work, and his skating was a bit sloppy and sluggish. Marcus Foligno, future captain material, took off by leaps and bounds, and a year in the minors will do these two good. They both could see a call-up during the season, but should be ready for full time duty in 2012-13. Brayden “elbows” McNabb looks to be a nasty, two-way weapon, and a Myers/McNabb combination may turn out to be quite formidable. McNabb may need two years of AHL time, but should be primed to step in once Leopold’s contract runs it’s course.

 

COACHING

Lindy Ruff is back. Of course because he wants to be here, but also because Terry said “Lindy ain’t goin’ nowhere”. Ruff’s career regular season record of 526-390-78-72 (a winning percentage of .564), and playoff record of 57-44 (an identical .564%) is a testament to the passion and smarts he brings to the job and, while he hasn’t won the “big one” yet, this writer believes it’s  a matter of when, and not if. The master tactician has solidified his coaching staff, retaining the very underrated James Patrick, while adding former player (and current player favorite) Kevyn Adams, and one of the most cerebral players the franchise has ever seen, former Sabre Teppo Numminen. Numminen will be the “eye in the sky” for his peers, and will relay vital information down from his spot in the press box to the guys on the bench.

GENERAL MANAGER

Darcy Regier. Love him, hate him, loath him. No GM has done more with less. Seemingly gone was the man who confidently traded Mike Wilson for Rhett Warrener (savvy), Chris Gratton for Danny Briere (I know, right?), and Michal Grosek for Doug Gilmour and JP Dumont (highway robbery). Replacing the Regier we all came to marvel at was the man who brought us Bob Corkum, Dominic Moore and Raffi Torres. Well, the “old” Darcy was still in there somewhere, and he needed only Terry Pegula as a catalyst for his own resurrection. Exchanging Butler and Byron for what is essentially Regehr and a draft pick may turn out to be on par with one of those aforementioned trades. Dealing for Ehrhoff’s rights on the eve of unrestricted free agency clearly signaled a new direction, and a return of the “Darcy swagger”. The Sabres’ general manager may be patient to a fault, when it comes to actually pulling the trigger on deals, but when he does finally smell blood, he usually wins. Pegula’s wallet will obviously have a lot to do with Regier’s success going forward, but given very few restrictions, he has shown in the past that he knows how to build a successful team, either through the draft or by trade.

 

2011-12 OUTLOOK

There has never been so much hype to start a season in the history of the franchise. It wouldn’t shock me to see a little stumble out of the gate, only to see the sheer talent of this roster correct itself very, very quickly. This team has the goaltending, the defense, and the offensive horses to storm into the playoffs, firing on all cylinders, and become a legitimate contender.

PREDICTIONS:

48-25-5-4, 105 pts.

1st in Northeast division, 3rd in Eastern Conference

Eliminated from playoffs in Eastern Conference Finals

PLAYER PREDICTIONS:

 

These are by position, based on a full season of good health (which we all know won’t happen):

LEFT WING:

THOMAS VANEK…..35G, 40A, 75PTS

TYLER ENNIS…..19G, 39A, 58PTS

NATHAN GERBE…..18G, 22A, 40PTS

JOCHEN HECHT…..10G, 22A, 32PTS

CODY McCORMICK…..7G, 10A, 17PTS

RIGHT WING:

DREW STAFFORD…..33G, 35A, 68PTS

JASON POMINVILLE…..22G, 40A, 62PTS

BRAD BOYES…..17G, 29A, 46PTS

PATRICK KALETA…..10G, 10A, 20PTS

CENTER:

DEREK ROY…..25G, 52A, 77PTS

VILLE LEINO…..20G, 45A, 65PTS

LUKE ADAM…..15G, 22A, 37PTS (yes, he’s making my roster)

PAUL GAUSTAD…..12G, 19A, 31PTS

MATT ELLIS…..1G, 2A, 3PTS (will spend bulk of year in AHL)

DEFENSEMAN:

CHRISTIAN EHRHOFF…..15G, 38A, 53PTS

TYLER MYERS…..14G, 36A, 50PTS

JORDAN LEOPOLD…..8G, 22A, 30PTS

MARC-ANDRE GRAGNANI…..6G, 17A, 23PTS

ANDREJ SEKERA…..7G, 15A, 22PTS

MIKE WEBER…..4G, 14A, 18PTS

ROBYN REGEHR…..3G, 14A, 17PTS

GOALTENDERS:

RYAN MILLER…..37-19-2-2, 2.42 GAA, 6 SO

JHONAS ENROTH…..11-6-3-2, 2.70 GAA, 1 SO

 


 

 

 

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Tags: Boyes Buffalo Sabres Season Preview Ehrhoff Ellis Ennis Enroth Foligno Gaustad Gerbe Kaleta Kassian Leino Leopold Luke Adam McCormick Miller Myers Pegula Pominville Regehr Regier Roy Ruff Stafford Vanek

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