The 2013-2014 NHL season will likely be a rough one for the Buffalo Sabres. The fans think so. The GM thinks so. The oddsmakers think so. Heck even our writers are starting to come around to the idea. A team as young as this one will struggle with consistency all year, and unless a few young Sabres can step up in a big way, it’s going to be a long year of surmising whether or not Buffalo can win the draft lottery in spring 2014. With that in mind, let’s look at a few such players who hold the key to any surprising success this Sabres team may find in the upcoming hockey season. And even if there isn’t any team success, these are the players fans should look at who can set the tone for a rebuild in Buffalo.
Mark Pysyk – Pysyk has the potential to be the best offensive defenseman on this team. It won’t happen this year because Christian Ehrhoff is still around, but Pysyk’s 19 games last season were an encouraging step in the right direction. Along with his smooth stride and a hard, accurate shot, Pysyk shows great poise on the ice, and moves with a confidence not often found in young defensemen. There’s a logjam on the blue line in Buffalo, but we’re not talking about six Chris Prongers standing in Pysyk’s way here. He should excel above most of the competition and settle into that 4th or 5th D-man role just fine.
Success means: 8 goals, 15 assists. Avg time on ice (TOI) of 15-20 minutes/game, few giveaways and a continuation of the low number of penalties he took (0, but we can expect a few more than that.)
Jhonas Enroth – Ryan Miller may start the season in Buffalo, but he likely won’t finish it there. Even if he does, we can expect to see more starts from Enroth since Lindy Ruff isn’t here to chain Miller to the posts as is his specialty. In those back up starts, Sabres fans need to see a guy who can come up big the way Enroth did in the World Championships this past summer. They need to see the guy who anchored a punchless offense to a must-win 1-0 game over the top team in the East two years ago. What makes Enroth an exciting prospect as a starter is the way he seizes the moment. He’s a tough competitor with a cool exterior who doesn’t lambast his teammates or ruffle feathers through the media the way Miller does. At some point in 2013-14, we need to see Enroth assure us that he can be The Guy.
Success means: 30 GP (more if Miller is traded), 2.50 GAA, .915 Save %, a few clutch saves/wins to show what he can do.
Mikhail Grigorenko – This player and the next one are no-brainers. We’ve already heard from Ron Rolston that Grigorenko will be a full-time NHLer this year, which isn’t an approach I necessarily agree with. I think the young players should always be kept hungry and on their toes. But I digress. Grigorenko is an offensive stud and if the Sabres are going to surprise anyone, it will be thanks to his unexpected scoring boost. Last year was a nightmare for Grigorenko, but now he’s had a whole summer to prepare for the rigors of a pro schedule. His success will be tied almost entirely to his offensive production unless Grigorenko can show an unexpected shutdown side of him that proves his value in the two way game. I’m not saying I wouldn’t welcome it, but I don’t expect it and I’m not going to hold a 19 year old to such standards in a year when the Sabres won’t have enough defensive forwards to shield the youngster from some heavy heat.
Success means: 17G 25A
Zemgus Girgensons – As a bit of a late bloomer last season, Girgensons likely wouldn’t be in this piece if it wasn’t for his stellar playoff performance with an overmatched Rochester Amerks squad against the Toronto Marlies last spring. He scored three goals in three games and elevated his game to previously unseen heights as a physical force and a goal scorer. In showing the intensity and skill required of an NHLer, Girgensons vaulted himself to the top of the list of upcoming young players in the Buffalo Sabres system.
A look at his previous stats show that playoff performances are nothing new to Girgensons, even if he hasn’t played an NHL playoff game yet. In two years with the Dubuque Fighting Saints of the USHL, Girgensons put up 12 points in 13 playoff games. The guy clearly understands what a big game is all about and with a bigger division in 2013, there will be more big games for Buffalo than ever before.
Success means: 60GP in Buffalo, 8G 15A, 100 Hits, 40 PIM, > 1 penalty drawn per game.
Cody Hodgson – I guess this is contingent on the Sabres actually, ya know, signing Hodgson. What a joke that’s become. Is it really August? What the hell else are the Sabres doing with the cap room in the next couple years? Give the kid a two or three year deal at 4+ mil a year and be done with it. Anyways, Hodgson is the most productive natural center on the team and his offense speaks for itself. He was one of the few bright spots going toward the opponent’s net. However, he was an absolute nightmare in his own zone. Hodgson’s offensive expectations should be reasonable and well met, barring injury. It’s what he does on the defensive side of the puck that will ultimately rate his level of success this season.
Success means: 25G, 35A, and a Corsi rating that doesn’t have a huge negative number attached to it.
Tyler Ennis – I’m one of the few Sabres fans who actually like Ennis more than Hodgson. I think he’s every bit as capable in the offensive zone while possessing unique skills that no one else on the team has. He creates space in the zone with his elusive quickness and his puck handling, and he plays a slightly better two way game than Hodgson at this point. Ennis still has work to do in his own zone though. He’s not six feet tall like Hodgson, but his effort in back checking is much better than whatever it is that Hodgson’s doing when the other team is breaking out. Ennis is learning how to play a big man’s game with a small stature and every year he’s grown more and more into that role. Of all the young forwards on this team, Ennis is the one most capable of pleasantly surprising fans this year.
Success means: 18G, 45A, a plus rating and a few game winners to show he can rise to the occasion.
Tyler Myers – The most glaring difference between the Sabres team that won the Northeast Division in 2010 and last year’s squad that fell flat on its face was the difference in play by Tyler Myers. This kid can swing the Sabres season by a good five to ten wins either way, depending on which Tyler Myers shows up. I don’t think the addition of Henrik Tallinder will be the reason for his success (if there is any) and I don’t think it’ll keep him from becoming a failure if that’s what he’s up against. Myers is the only player on this roster capable of being THE number one defenseman on an NHL team. Christian Ehrhoff is a sound, consistent blue-liner, but he’ll never be The Guy on a Cup winning team. Myers can be. He won’t be this year, but he needs to start showing people that Darcy Regier’s gamble in not dumping him this year was founded.
Success means: 12G 40A +15, Avg TOI of 23+ minutes/game
Cory Buck is a staff writer for Sabre Noise. You can reach him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @TheBuckMopsHere.