The Buffalo Sabres were considered serious contenders in the East coming into last season.  But after finishing ninth and missing the playoffs for the third time in five years, they ended up being the biggest disappointment in the NHL.  So does that mean there's serious pressure on Lindy Ruff and Darcy Regier this year?

Few would deny both men will find themselves on the hot seat if their team has a repeat performance of 2011-12.

This is a new era in the history of this team.  The Sabres are no longer a franchise bound by a self-imposed budget.

Terry Pegula has brought hope and a whole lot of money to western New York.  He shouted from the rooftops that he would do anything to bring a Stanley Cup to Buffalo.

Surprisingly enough, he left the incumbent coach and general manager in charge of that mission.  

It's rare in today's sports world to see new ownership come in and not clean house.  However, it's also just as strange to see a team that's had the same coach and GM tandem for 14 years.

Especially when that tandem has never won a championship. 

Ruff and Regier have had different periods in their tenure together where they've enjoyed immense success.  All of it was accomplished under ownership that was more concerned with the bottom line than the product on the ice.  And for that they should be commended.

Yet, none of that changes what happened last year.

After trading for Robyn Regehr, then signing Christian Ehrhoff and Ville Leino, Sabres fans saw right away Mr. Pegula wasn't afraid to open his wallet.  The problem with that, though, is the risk you take in overpaying the wrong player.

With that being said, it's hard to write off Leino as a bust after only one season.  In fact, some of his struggles rest squarely on the shoulders of Ruff.

He labored to find a home for Leino throughout the year, and rarely kept him with the same linemates for more than a few games.  It's hard to develop any continuity if the players around you are constantly changing.

Is there any excuse for scoring 25 points while making $4.5 million? 

Of course not.  But Ruff did little to put Leino in a position to succeed, which is a fundamental responsibility of coaching.

And regardless of what you thought of Derek Roy, the former Sabre rightfully spoke out against Ruff's propensity for calling out his players in the media when spoke to told John Vogl of The Buffalo News:

To be pointing fingers now is obviously tough. Behind closed doors, I think it’s fine. You can be hard. It’s not fun, but it’s good to be hard on your players behind closed doors, on the bench to get them pumped up. I’m not a coach, but I don’t think it’s the right thing to be saying it to the media.

He's right.  That's another prime example of an ineffective strategy Lindy's employed that does nothing but antagonize and irritate his team.  Ruff should take a step back this season and think about keeping his most poignant criticisms inside the room.

The development (or lack thereof) of Cody Hodgson should go a long way this year in determining whether Ruff's message is getting through or whether it's stale and tired.

As for Regier, he's as responsible as anyone for the success of the Sabres because he assembled this roster. 

Since coming back from the last lockout, the biggest knock on Darcy has been his tendency to fall in love with his players.  Roy forced his hand by taking his issues with Ruff public.

But if Buffalo struggles coming out of the gate again, will he pull the trigger on a deal to shake things up?  Would he send Drew Stafford packing if the winger underachieves for a second straight season?

After the nosedive the Sabres took following the Milan Lucic incident, this team was begging for a change.  Players looked disinterested and the effort on the ice was subpar.

Yet, Regier failed to make a move early enough to make a difference.  He had a perfect opportunity to show he was going to be more aggressive under Pegula, and he dropped the ball.  Buffalo ultimately played themselves into a hole they could never climb out of.

Harrison Mooney of Yahoo.com also thinks this is a make-or-break season for Ruff and Regier:

With Terry Pegula desperate for a winner, one has to wonder if the other end of their leash might actually be tied to something now. Ruff especially has to consider himself on the hot seat. Buffalo won't have success unless Ryan Miller is on his game, and tweaking his system to give Miller a bit more support couldn't hurt. If he doesn't, the Sabres might have to find someone who will.

When you factor in the new ownership, the Sabres' performance last season and their failure to win a Cup in 14 years together, it's clear Lindy Ruff and Darcy Regier both have enormous pressure on them this year.

It seems unlikely management would fire one and not the other.  Both men need to break out of the bad habits they've developed over time if they want to keep their jobs. 

Otherwise, we'll be talking about their replacements next offseason.

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On February 23, 2011 Terry Pegula stood in the lobby of the First Niagara Center and introduced himself to the fans of the Buffalo Sabres. In that press conference, Pegula stated that above anything, he was a fan of the Sabres and wanted to compete for a Stanley Cup. 

In the full season since he took charge, Pegula's Sabres have not shown they are ready for the Stanley Cup.

Ryan Miller was not himself for the first half of last season, the defense struggled due to injuries, the offense struggled to score at times and the powerplay and penalty kill were not nearly as reliable as they had been in seasons past. 

So has Pegula failed?

Not even close.

Yes, the team has not been the most successful since Pegula's arrival, but he has been in charge for only one full season. Beyond that, if anyone believes that the Sabres are in a worse position than they were two years ago, there are a number of things they have missed.

First, Pegula has completely changed the culture and landscape of what it means to come play hockey in Buffalo. One of the biggest complaints from fans about the Sabres is that "no one wants to come play in Buffalo," and before Pegula, there was an excellent argument to be made for that assertion. 

But things have changed in a big way.

One can say that the team's performance, coach and front office make the decision for the player, and while that is certainly true to some extent, the city needs to sell itself to a player as well. 

Buffalo is probably one of the better cities for an NHL player for a number of reasons.

It is extremely cheap, both in terms of cost of living and real estate, it is close to Canada and Southern Ontario, where a lot of NHLers are from, it is hockey rabid so the team is one of the city's prized possessions and you have built-in rivalries with Toronto, Montreal and Boston. 

The downside of Buffalo?

It has not been the most economically fortunate city in the US for some time and it was reflected in a lot of ways, but most notably a mass exodus from the downtown area.

Now that's all changing thanks to Pegula.

He recently won a bid to build the Harbor Center across the street from the First Niagara Center—a $125 million project that will include a two-pad ice rink, retail shops, a luxury hotel, among other things. He donated a few million dollars this summer to landscape the Commercial Slip area of the Erie Canal.

And many say he's not even close to being done. 

With a revitalized downtown area, the city can sell itself to the players, making the front office's job a heck of a lot easier. 

Second, Pegula has completely revamped the scouting department for the team. Prior to his arrival, the scouting was primarily done through film, especially for the WHL and NCAA, whose teams are pretty removed from Buffalo geographically. 

Now the scouting is all in-person, and seeing someone play in person versus on film makes a world of difference.

On film you have one perspective that has been given to you. In-person scouting allows for many perspectives, as well as the ability to notice smaller things like how much they talk on the ice, what their bench demeanor is, their locker room roles, etc. 

This will certainly be something the team feels the impact of in the long-run, but it will certainly make the team much stronger, especially if the team starts having success and needs to be able to make a solid pick later in rounds. 

Lastly, and the most short-term difference, is his willingness to spend money now.

Say what you want about last offseason, but the additions of Ville Leino, Christian Ehrhoff and Robyn Regehr showed, at the very least, that the Sabres now had an owner that was more interested in the product on the ice than his bottom line.

Yes, as many have learned and many more will learn in the future, throwing money at free agents is not the answer all of the time.

Leino started slow, Regehr struggled when playing with Andrej Sekera and Ehrhoff had injury issues, but there is no way having them on the team makes the Sabres worse. More needs to be done, but it was telling that Pegula was willing to spend that kind of money to make the team better. 

Now, don't expect spending sprees like that every season, because they usually don't turn a team from playoff contender to Stanley Cup contender overnight.

A team needs a solid prospect pool and drafts to go with the diligent free-agent pick ups to be truly successful, but they also need the guy at the top that is willing to make the moves necessary to make the team better (ignoring any Darcy Regier opinions). 

So, despite a tough season last year, there is no plausible argument that Pegula has made the team worse.

One could possibly argue that the additions of Leino, Regehr and Ehrhoff have not made the team better, and after last season it's possible, but not only should they not be judged on a single season, but all three played well at the end of the season. 

But the reality is that with the new additions of Steve Ott, plus the three from last year, plus this year's draft class that includes Mikhail Grigorenko (who is making a mockery of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League), Zemgus Girgensons and Jake McCabe, the team is certainly going to be better moving forward.

Pegula has not delivered the Cup yet, but don't be surprised if he does sooner than you think. 

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Note: This article is part of a top-ten countdown of the Buffalo Sabres' top prospects. In order to be considered a prospect, the player has to be eligible for the Calder Trophy this season, which means they cannot have played more than 25 games in the NHL in any season prior. This removes Corey Tropp, Luke Adam, Jhonas Enroth and Cody Hodgson from contention.

Marcus Foligno has made quite the impression on Buffalo Sabres fans. 

There was a largely mixed reaction when Sabres general manager Darcy Regier traded the physical Zack Kassian to the Vancouver Canucks for the smaller, more offensively gifted Cody Hodgson, with most detractors pointing to the Sabres' loss of grit as the biggest negative. Yet, once Foligno was called upon in the beginning of March, fans saw that Darcy might have had a plan after all. 

After struggling in a one-game call-up right before Christmas, Foligno saw his second chance come during a series of Sabre injuries in March. Placed on a line with Tyler Ennis and Drew Stafford, Foligno immediately made his presence felt. 

Despite not being known as an overly offensive talent, Foligno scored 13 points in his 13-game call-up, proving that he is not only a physical presence. 

An excellent skater and one who is not shy to use his size, Foligno is, at least on paper, a less offensively skilled Kassian. Kassian was never expected to score 75 points, and neither will Foligno.

Foligno's best game came on April 3 against the Toronto Maple Leafs. Within the first ten seconds of the game, Foligno crushed Carl Gunnarsson, who was unable to return to the game. He then "fought" Matt Frattin, who decided to stand up for a teammate against the wrong guy and promptly lost, big time. Foligno then added two assists in the Sabres' most exciting win of the year. 

This is exactly the type of play the Sabres need and want out of Foligno, especially when he is playing with such a playmaker as Ennis. Foligno will open ice for the shifty center, making for more opportunities for himself and his linemates Foligno and Stafford. 

Foligno is currently playing for the Rochester Americans of the AHL as the lockout drags on. In his first three games, he scored two goals and made one assist. 

Foligno will certainly be on the opening day roster for the Sabres when the first puck drops (hopefully on Nov. 2).

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With NHL reinforcements due to the dragging lockout, the AHL has become a much more competitive league. With the likes of Jordan Eberle, Adam Henrique, Cody Hodgson, Chris Kreider and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins filling the rosters of AHL teams, the intrigue has certainly been ratcheted up.

While the Buffalo Sabres' affiliate Rochester Americans are not the lone beneficiary of NHL-caliber talent during the lockout, they are not unfamiliar with the perks of having these players at their disposal. During the 2004-2005 NHL lockout, the Amerks went 51-19-10, which earned them the AHL's version of the Presidents' Trophy for having the best regular season record. 

Despite losing in the conference semifinals, the Amerks can only hope to have a similar season this year, with last season's first-round exit from the Calder Cup Playoffs still stinging second year coach Ron Rolston. Here are three reasons they can improve on last season's result:

 

1. NHL-Talent Mixed With AHL Depth.

The Amerks invited 34 players to their training camp, including 20 forwards, 10 defenseman and four goalies. Of that 34, 27 have some level of AHL experience. Of that 27 with AHL experience, eight have played with the Sabres at some point. 

With this mix of NHL talent and AHL experience, the Amerks have the ability to hit other teams with their depth. With Cody Hodgson, Marcus Foligno and Corey Tropp down full-time, that pushes last season's first liners Phil Varone, the team's leading scorer last season, and Luke Adam to the second line. They will likely be joined by first-round selection Zemgus Girgensons, who had a chance to make the Sabres roster from day one. 

 

That depth is replicated on the defensive side with the high-end talents of Brayden McNabb and TJ Brennan and AHL veterans Alex Biega and Nick Crawford.

With Coach Rolston familiar with most of these players, it will be less time getting to know each other and the system and more time improving chemistry. 

 

2. Beneficiaries of the Sabres' Defensive Depth.

It is not a very well-kept secret that the Sabres have a glut of defensive depth on their NHL roster.

The relevance to the Amerks?

A lot of that depth is young talents that the Sabres are perfectly happy allowing to grow in the AHL

Predicting the Amerks' starting defenseman is not too a hard task. 

Brayden McNabb and TJ Brennan will likely be the top-pairing for the Amerks, being the top-two defensive scorers for the team last season, both scoring 30 points last season in less than full seasons in Rochester.

Joining McNabb and Brennan will be newcomers Jerome Gauthier-Leduc and Mark Pysyk. Gauthier-Leduc is a prodigious offensive talent, racking up 74 points in 62 QMJHL contests with the Rimouski Oceanic last season. Pysyk is excellent in all three zones, which makes him a likely partner for the offensive-minded Gauthier-Leduc. 

The final pairing will likely consist of two of the following four Amerks veterans: Alex Biega, Joe Finley, Nick Crawford and Drew Schiestel.

 

Finley has been the only one of the three to see time with the Sabres, playing five games, and doing so rather unremarkably.

Biega had an impressive season with the Amerks last year, including 23 points and a plus-munus of plus-10. Crawford had a solid season with the Amerks as well, posting 22 points in 70 games. Schiestel was traded halfway through the season, ending up with the Texas Stars, but resigned with the Amerks this offseason. [All via Hockey Database]

 

In all likelihood, the last two spots are Biega and Crawford's to lose, giving the Amerks blue line an imposing character for opposing offenses.

The Amerks can only hope McNabb and Brennan are able to improve upon their impressive stints with the Sabres, and Pysyk and Gauthier-Leduc are able to have the debuts McNabb and Brennan had with the Amerks. If they are able to do that, the tough back line will anchor the Amerks to a strong year.  

 

3. Cody Hodgson

During the last lockout, there were a group of NHL-caliber, young players that were afforded the opportunity to play in the AHL against one another. This group included many of the stars of today's game, including Eric Staal, Jason Spezza, Mike Cammalleri and Ryan Miller.

All of those players shared some major similarities.

First, they all played significant time in the NHL prior to their AHL season. Second, they all underperformed in their time in the NHL prior to the lockout. Third, they all excelled in their AHL season. Lastly, they all became some of the game's biggest stars once they resumed play in the NHL during the 2005-2006 season. 

 

Cody Hodgson joins the ranks of players this season that has the opportunity to replicate that trend.

The former tenth overall pick has shown flashes of dominance in his time with the Vancouver Canucks and Sabres, but has not yet lived up to the hype that surrounds that high of a selection. 

Now is his chance.

Likely suiting up as the top line center for the Amerks, Hodgson will have every opportunity to show Lindy Ruff and Darcy Regier he's ready to take the next step.

With the exception of the Oklahoma City Barons who will be putting Jordan Eberle and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins on the ice every night, Hodgson may be the most talented player in the AHL this coming season. That talent will be on display in all situations this upcoming season for the Amerks, and will allow Hodgson to grow in all aspects of his game.

If Hodgson can do what Staal, Spezza and Miller have done, the Amerks will be very hard to beat, and the Sabres will be very happy when the NHL starts up again. 

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