2008-09 Team Preview: Buffalo Sabres
John Sokolowski/US Presswire
OUR EXPERT'S TAKE
By Pierre LeBrunLast year's preseason write-ups for the Buffalo Sabres played out, strangely enough, exactly as predicted. The young team found it difficult to recover from the offseason losses of co-captains Daniel Briere and Chris Drury to free agency. A well-built team that went to back-to-back conference finals fell down the standings and out of the playoffs, a dramatic drop that had as much to do with the on-ice defections as the locker room void left by the two leaders.
"Thinking realistically, it's a sport that's a business and now has an environment with a salary cap where you can't predict what's going to happen year to year," Sabres goalie Ryan Miller told ESPN.com. "The landscape changes so much that you just have to expect that you put your team together and you move forward as best you can as a whole. I think last year we weren't mature enough to handle it right off the start."
The Sabres muddled through the first half of the season, trying to adjust to the losses of Briere and Drury, not to mention not having veteran defenseman Teppo Numminen in the lineup while he battled a heart problem. Buffalo turned it around in the second half, going 20-12-9, but it was too little, too late.
"When we finally played well, it was the middle of the season, and toward the end when we needed to push through, I think we were a little burned out," Miller said. "And there may have been a little bit of a panic. But we've been through tough situations before, and I think this coming year, with the additions of some veteran guys and another year under our belt, we should be hungry to get back at the top of the division and the top of the conference."
Led by Derek Roy, Jason Pominville and Thomas Vanek, goals were not hard to come by once again last season, despite the disappointing year. The Sabres were fourth in the NHL with 251 goals and, as always, can run and gun with the best of them.
Aside from Steve Bernier (who was dealt away), mostly the same group of dynamic forwards returns to the fold. Roy (81 points) and Pominville (80 points) are coming off career seasons, while Vanek (64 points) had a huge second half after struggling early, perhaps feeling the weight of his massive new contract. His 36 goals led the team; expect a 40- or 50-goal season from the Austrian star this year.
It only stands to reason that if the Sabres scored a bunch of goals and still missed the playoffs, something wasn't right defensively. Buffalo allowed 233 goals, ranking 22nd in the league. The healthy return of Numminen and the acquisition of veteran Craig Rivet should have an effect.
"We get Teppo Numminen back, and he's a calming influence and a great player," Miller said. "If only for the other guys to watch him and say, 'Wow, that was simple. Why can't we all make plays like that?' And if we had to lose Dmitri [Kalinin], it was good to pick up Craig Rivet, another veteran who will help stabilize the back side and let our forwards do their thing."
Numminen and Rivet are joined on the blue line by Henrik Tallinder, Toni Lydman, Jaroslav Spacek, Nathan Paetsch, Andrej Sekera and possibly rookie Mike Weber. In other words, not a bad group at all. But defense is a team game, and it's where the improvement must come from.
Miller, 28, was a workhorse last season, appearing in a career-high 76 games. His 2.64 goals-against average (24th in the NHL) and .906 save percentage (29th) did not rank close to the league leaders, but that had as much to do with his team's defensive struggles as his own play. He's among the top 10 goalies in the league and, with a better team focus on defense this season, should post better numbers.
Miller has a new backup this season, veteran Patrick Lalime, who replaces Jocelyn Thibault. Buffalo coach Lindy Ruff didn't seem to have confidence in Thibault, so Lalime's arrival might mean a slightly smaller work load for Miller. But not much.
Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
FROM INSIDE THE GM'S BRAIN ...
By Jay FeasterThe Sabres will once again benefit from the stability created by rewarding GM Darcy Regier with a contract extension and keeping the league's longest-running GM/coaching tandem intact. Regier and Lindy Ruff are in total synch with one another, enabling them to make decisions for the right reasons and the long-term success of the franchise.
Buffalo's psyche will also see improvement this season. The high-profile free-agent defections in the summer of 2007, along with the massive offer sheet tendered to youngster Tomas Vanek are in the past; everyone can now focus on what lies ahead. Look for Vanek to have a bounce-back season, while talented Derek Roy and clutch Drew Stafford will build on their 2007-08 performances. Mighty-might prospect Nathan Gerbe is one of the most exciting and dynamic players in the sport and will electrify the Sabres faithful if he makes the team.
With a talented and mobile blue line and a rising star in net in Ryan Miller, look for the Sabres to challenge for the division title and qualify for the playoffs.
Jay Feaster served as general manager of the Tampa Bay Lightning from 2001-02 season before resigning last season. He is a contributor to ESPN.com.
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• Record: 39-31-12
• Division: Fourth in the Northeast
• Conference: 10th in the East
• Playoffs: Did not qualify
• The Sabres will log some air miles during a six-game stretch from Jan. 19 through Feb. 2 with stops in Florida, Tampa Bay, Edmonton, Calgary, Phoenix and Anaheim.
Experience: 10 years
Stanley Cup titles: 0
• Lindy Ruff is one of the game's great coaches and deserves consideration by Team Canada for the 2010 Olympic staff. His challenge this season is to re-instill confidence in a young team that took one on the chin last season and remind them they can play with anyone in the league. He also must find a way to get more out of inconsistent speedster Maxim Afinogenov, who slumped to 10 goals and a team-worst minus-16 last season.
STARTING FIVE ... AS WE SEE ITF -- Jochen Hecht
• Entering his fifth season with the Sabres. The 31-year-old German is one of the more experienced skaters up front, a solid two-way performer.
F -- Derek Roy
• Entering his fourth season with the Sabres. Is a 100-point season in the offing this year?
F -- Jason Pominville
• Entering his fourth season with the Sabres. Another great season will put him on the Team Canada 2010 radar.
D -- Henrik Tallinder
• Entering his sixth season with the Sabres. The 6-foot-3, 214-pound Swede is looking for a more consistent season.
D -- Craig Rivet
• Arrived via trade from San Jose. The Northern Ontario product finds himself back in the familiar Northeast Division after playing most of his career in Montreal before playing with the Sharks for a year and a bit.
Answer: On paper, it seems likely this is a team destined to revisit the playoffs. But a top-three seed? That depends greatly on the further development of some of the younger forwards and the calming influence Numminen brings back to the dressing room. A lower playoff seed seems more likely.