It’s no big surprise that based on population and television ratings, the Buffalo Sabres are the smallest market in the NHL and because they compete in a division that has three of the higher end markets, they often get lost in the mix. This year has proved no different, as most of the attention in the Eastern Conference’s Northeast Division has gone to the Boston Bruins, a team who looks to not only clinch the division once again, but repeat as Stanley Cup champions.
The Sabres have other plans.
After a frustrating Game 7 loss to the Philadelphia Flyers last season in the first round of the playoffs – a series which exposed the inexperience of the Sabres – Buffalo wondered how it could compete in the conference. Last season was a bit of a transition year, after finishing No. 3 in the conference the prior season but no team hotter at the end of the season. They lost just four times over the season’s remaining 24 contests. However, it was clear that the Sabres, who are currently the tenth youngest team in the NHL, needed to mature and had holes to fill.
If there was any position that was of no concern to the Sabres, it was goaltender. To be honest, the franchise hasn’t had to worry too much about that since 1992, the year before they got Dominik Hasek. Over the last eight seasons the Sabres have relied on one of the best, 31-year-old Ryan Miller, to provide stability between the pipes. In 399 career games, Miller has a record of 221-126-41 and a goals-against-average of 2.57. After winning the Vezina trophy after the 2009-2010 season, he battled a hangover and now looks to bounce back.
Up and down, the Sabres lineup had a few small holes, but this off season General Manager Darcy Reiger decided to spend some money and fill those holes. The first big move came on June 25, when the Sabres traded for Calgary Flames defenseman Robyn Regehr. The 31-year-old brings plenty of experience to the blue line. He is not afraid to use the body and is the perfect fit for the team’s second pairing. Reiger also went out and signed offensive-minded defenseman, Christian Ehrhoff to a 10-year, $40 million deal. Ehrhoff now needs to prove he is worth the long contract and if last year is any indication, he could pay off big. In 79 games last season, he finished with 14 goals and 36 assists.
The Sabres still had one final move left in them and that was the signing of former Flyer Ville Leino. The left winger was coming off a bit of a disappointing season in which he scored 19 goals and had 53 points. Philadelphia had hoped for more after what the team saw out of Leino during its run to the Cup finals in 2010 and knew Lieno’s asking price would be too high. The Sabres were ready to dish out the money but did Buffalo overpay at six-years, $27 million? Probably, but it answered any questions at his position.
Leino is currently on a line that is centered by Tyler Ennis, arguably the best young talent on the roster. Last season Ennis finished with 49 points and netted 20 goals, in only his first full year with the Sabres. Finishing the line is Brad Boyes and though he was unable to stay healthy last season, we expect him to bounce back and put up close to the 72 points he had in 2008-09 with the St. Louis Blues.
Another talented youngster is left winger Nathan Gerbe, who has yet to play a full season. Last year, he broke out for 16 goals and 15 assists and can expect a lot more ice time.
We can expect big things from Thomas Vanek, their leading scorer (32 goals) last season, who was a beast on the power play, racking up 28 points. Vanek is part of the top line, which is centered by second year man, Luke Adam. On his other side is the team captain, Jason Pominville. The 28-year-old was awarded the captaincy in large part because of his two-way play and knowledge of the game. He finished last season with 22 goals and 30 assists but numbers can’t tell the whole story. The guy brings energy to the team and has probably the best vision on the team, he is always able to find the open man and get the puck to him.
The Sabres are already off to a 2-0 start and look as though they could be one of the elite NHL teams. Many have already ranked them one of the top five teams but we will have to wait and see if that is the case. They have the depth, they have the scoring, and with the new additions, they have the defense but the Bruins and Canadiens always play the Sabres tough and will probably not go away. To be the best, you have to beat the best and right now, the Bruins are the best.
Photo courtesy of The Associated Press.