As training camp draws nearer as August gives way to September, the Buffalo Sabres have made waves this offseason. This has been an offseason like no other for long-time Sabres fans, so, out of all that has happened, what are the five things I'm most excited to see in the upcoming season?
1. The emergence of Tyler Myers as an elite NHL defenseman.
Tyler Myers' rookie campaign could not have ended any better in an individual sense. He did what only one previous Sabres rookie has ever done: hoist the Calder Trophy. In his rookie season he showed the ability to not only be able to play solid defensive hockey, but an even more potent ability to move the puck up ice.
Expectations justifiably high for him entering his sophomore campaign last season, and he stumbled out of the gates. On January 15, Myers was sporting an atrocious -15 rating, hardly the plus-minus an elite defenseman would post. He also struggled on the power play and in his own zone, turning pucks over constantly and playing as though he was lost at points.
Then, the Sabres started playing better hockey. One can argue either way, but I personally believe this was in large part to do with the rejuvenated play of Myers. Myers ended the season at an even plus-minus, playing the second half of the season with the poise and promise he showed his entire rookie season.
In the playoffs against Philadelphia he showed something else that started to bud towards the end of the year: grit. Myers treated Danny Briere like a little rag doll, tossing him around in front of the net, giving him an extra poke or two in the corner. Chris Pronger even backed off of him during one scrum in front of the net.
With the first half of last season behind him, look for Myers to emerge in the conversation for the Norris Trophy this year. Not only will he benefit from the addition of Christian Ehrhoff on the power play, but he will benefit from the steady play of his probable defensive partner Robyn Regehr.
With his combination of size, speed and hockey IQ, Myers will likely cement himself as one of the best young defenseman in the NHL, joining the likes of Shea Weber and Drew Doughty, and the Sabres could not be more excited.
2. Ryan Miller's return to Las Vegas as a Vezina Trophy nominee.
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The Buffalo Sabres are beginning to shape themselves into a Stanley Cup contender with young players who wear their hearts on their sleeves.
Youngsters Tyler Ennis, Nathan Gerbe and Tyler Myers put the most into every on-ice shift and are beginning to shape the team's identity.
In the future, prospects such as Zach Kassian, Marcus Foligno and Marc-Andre Gragnani will hopefully buy into this new direction for the Sabres.
I believe that the 2011-12 version of the Sabres will finally have enough energetic youth to offset the veteran high-end talent that they have on the top two lines (Thomas Vanek, Derek Roy, Jason Pominville and Drew Stafford). This will allow them to have a more balanced club that is on the upswing and ready to contend for years to come.
Nobody can say enough about the steps that have been taken by the Sabres' management to step things up during the offseason.
It may have been considered risky to sign Ville Leino and Christian Ehrhoff for the amount that they paid, but those are quality players, and the Robyn Regehr trade was a move that will prove to be very valuable going into next season.
Fans in Buffalo should be looking forward to a new era in which the Sabres will be amongst the top teams in the East. A tough team that can bang it out with the best of them will not be so easy to face in the early rounds of the playoffs.
Not to mention that nobody wants to face a hungry Ryan Miller.
I figure that a fourth or fifth-place finish is in order for next season's Sabres, which will give their young talent a chance to showcase their stuff after losing a seven-game series in the first round last year to the Philadelphia Flyers.
This year, I believe that the Sabres will be poised to make a run to the Eastern Conference Finals. It seems to me that the Sabres have a style that is better suited for success in the playoffs than either the Rangers or Capitals.
It would be sweet to get revenge on the Flyers, as well.
This is one writer who has high hopes for what the Sabres can do in the playoffs in 2012.
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The emotions ran high on that cold February night when Terry Pegula walked out to an ovation like none other, taking the reigns of a team that had broken hearts for so long. One emotion in particular was seeping out of the building that night: hope. The hope that finally the die hard fans of Buffalo would have a die hard owner doing everything he could.
Almost instantly, Buffalo became Pegulaville. The man may be worth billions, but he will never buy a drink in Buffalo again and he hasn't even delivered on his promise for a Stanley Cup yet.
But as always, the doubt crept in. How much could one man really do? Yes, he says that making money on the team wasn't of any interest to him, but we heard that before right? Tom Golisano saved the Sabres. And for that, the rest of Buffalo and I should be forever grateful. But he was more concerned about lining his pockets than hoisting a Stanley Cup.
Then came the trade deadline, a day usually laden with disappointment for Buffalo fans. But for the first time, unshackled, Darcy Regier pulled off a trade that made a lot of sense, bringing Brad Boyes into the fold for a second-round pick in the draft.
This trade never would have happened BT, or Before Terry. To take on $4 million of salary? The Sabres? No. Never. Right? Wrong.
And opinions on Boyes have been polarizing, which I'll address in more detail later, but it showed that things really could be different.
And then came the heart breaking loss in the playoffs when it seemed we had them on the ropes. But, those Philadelphia players didn't take credit for the win. In fact, many said they couldn't believe they pulled it out because, in their honest opinions, the better team wasn't moving on. A belief that showed in the Bruins' drubbing of them in four games the very next round.
And then came the trade deadline. The energy coming out of Buffalo could have powered the Eastern Seaboard for a year, and no, that's not including Niagara Falls. It all started with the acquisition of Robyn Regehr, the shut down defenseman Lindy Ruff has been craving for years. Then came the Christian Ehrhoff saga, which ended in a very good payday for him, and a power play quarterback for the team. Next came Ville Leino and his amazing puck control skills, penalty killing abilities and amazing playoff beard. Who were these guys?
In short, they're not the same Sabres that you've known. And that is why the rest of the NHL should be on notice. So what can we expect from these Sabres?
The lines are pretty well rumored to be as follows:
For the forward lines:
And the defense:
Let the debate begin on those, the most obvious starting point being Derek Roy versus Ville Leino on the first line. I think Roy initially wins out on familiarity alone because I believe Leino will eventually take his place and be more effective.
Derek Roy is an excellent hockey player, but he is not a number one center. Using what he's been given the past few years, Ruff has had to use him as such, but I think his spot there is not far from being usurped.
Also, do not be surprised to see Roy lose time on the first team power play. The power play was exponentially better when Roy was injured in late December. Tyler Ennis showed more composure and was 10 times less turnover prone than Roy has ever been on the half wall. With the addition of Ehrhoff, look for Roy to take over the second unit.
Another major debate is the role Brad Boyes will play on this team in the future. Many seem to believe Boyes is on the trading block given the aforementioned $4 million cap hit and his "lack of production." Let me just take you back to what Boyes did in the regular season when he wasn't manning the pivot. Twenty-one games, five goals, 14 points. Do a little math, and had Boyes played with the Sabres all 82 games, he would have scored 56 points, an amount that would have put him second on the team.
Boyes is not a center. He struggled in the Philadelphia series, yes. But on the wing he has 40-goal potential. Boyes will only improve as he gets an entire preseason to become familiar with Ruff's systems, especially the power play. He's not the player that needs to go.
That is Jochen Hecht. At $3.5 million, Hecht is carrying the cap number that would just about bring the Sabres back to the right side of the salary cap line. He also showed an aptitude for getting hurt last year. Now, in all honesty, I don't think we'd be able to get a practice cone for Jochen Hecht. He's 34 years old and missed 15 games last year. Simply put, I don't believe that he will be able to beat out the likes of Zach Kassian or Marcus Foligno in training camp this year.
With one of those in the fold, and likely Luke Adam, the third of the Sabres' seemingly NHL-ready prospects, the Sabres third and fourth lines get younger, speedier and even more skilled.
This doesn't even factor in the improvements made on the defensive side of the team. Regehr instantly adds a level of grit and toughness the team hasn't had in years. Ehrhoff has the puck-moving ability the Sabres' power play greatly needs, never mind his stout defensive play.
The young, budding stars the team boasts on the back end are impressive, starting with Mike Weber. In 58 games, Weber showed his stud-like potential, scoring 17 points and posting an impressive plus-13 rating. Supplemented by a strong playoff performance, Weber has the ability to crack the top four by the end of the season.
Marc-Andre Gragnani showed his offensive prowess in the playoffs, scoring seven points in seven games. This has gotten the Sabres faithful jumping on his bandwagon in droves. Gragnani has the ability to push the puck up the ice and has begun to show his defensive abilities as well. He has effectively made Shaone Morrisson useless and has made Andrej Sekera expendable.
Speaking of expendable, there have been rumors of another Calgary-Buffalo deal in the works. This has led to a lot of names being thrown around, including Jarome Iginla. While I'm highly skeptical of such a move, especially given the two teams' cap positions, I would not be surprised to hear the names of Sekera and Hecht being thrown around.
All in all, the Sabres are in a much better position than a year ago. They're only a few pieces away from being the type of contenders the Canucks or the Capitals are on paper, and have the ability to push deep into the playoffs.
Just think, they were 4-1-1 against the Stanley Cup champion Bruins last year. Now with a team that has only gotten better, there is plenty of reason to be excited in Buffalo this season. 44 days.
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After darting out of the gates at the start of the offseason, the Buffalo Sabres have slowed down a bit in recent weeks. With essentially no moves being made in the NHL at the moment, that is to be expected. Few teams did more to improve than the Sabres this offseason, as they traded for defenseman Robyn Regehr, and signed defenseman Christian Ehrhoff and forward Ville Leino.
Going from a penny-pinching organization under previous owner Tom Golisano to a free-spending one under current owner Terry Pegula certainly comes with its rewards. At the same time, the Sabres have a completely new set of problems to deal with, the foremost being the salary cap.
As the team with the league’s highest payroll, the Sabres are currently in a situation they’ve never been in before. At slightly more than $3 million over the cap, Buffalo will have to make some moves in order to get under the $64 million salary ceiling. The obvious transactions to accomplish that would be burying the combined $5 million of forward Ales Kotalik and defenseman Shaone Morrisonn in AHL Rochester.
This would ensure that neither Kotalik nor Morrisonn count against the cap, and it would mean the Sabres wouldn’t necessarily have to make any other cost-cutting moves. Of course, Buffalo will want to have some available cap space next season so they have the flexibility to make an impact deal at the trade deadline should they be in contention as expected. This would necessitate Buffalo possibly executing a salary-dump trade.
The Sabres have no shortage of higher-salary players who might be attractive to other teams, so a trade is most likely there if they want it. The question is whether or not Buffalo values cap flexibility over roster depth.
Here are five potential salary-dump trades should the Sabres decide to go that route.