BUFFALO SABRES 2013/14 SEASON PREVIEW

Image courtesy of bleacherreport.com.

The Stanley Cup has been awarded, the draft has taken place and everyone’s had a good laugh over Toronto’s bat shit insanity on Free Agent Day.

So what’s left to do except fawn over what the 2013/14 NHL season might bring?!

Let’s take a look at the only team in last season’s Northeast Division to not qualify for the playoffs – the Buffalo Sabres.

What happened in 2013?

5th in the Northeast Division, 12th in the Eastern Conference, missed the playoffs for the second consective season.

Image courtesy of hookedonhockeymagazine.com.

Beginning the season with a mediocre 3-3-1 start in January, the Sabres really hit the skids early in the season when they couldn’t string more than 2 consecutive wins together in February, ending the month 5-9-0, including a four game losing streak that saw them outscored by a combined 13 to 5, despite three of those games being at home.

They improved in March however, if you consider going 5-5-5 an improvement.  They actually started poorly, earning only one win in their first 5 games of the month, but closed with a 4-3-3 record to give them a modicum of momentum heading into the final month of the shortened season.  They did actually take advantage of this, as they reeled off three wins to start April, and going 6-2-0 in the first 8 games.  They finished the month with an 8-4-0 record but it wasn’t enough to vault them into the second-season as they ended up 7 points behind the 8th place Islanders.

Top 5 Scorers

  1. THOMAS VANEK (38 GP, 20 G 21 A 41 P)
  2. CODY HODGSON (48 GP, 15 G 19 A 34 P)
  3. TYLER ENNIS (47 GP, 10 G 21 A 31 P)
  4. JASON POMINVILLE (37 GP, 10 G 15 A 25 P)
  5. STEVE OTT (48 GP, 9 G 15 A 24 P)

Trades in 2012/13

  • 1st Round Pick (2012) and 2nd Round Pick (2012) to Calgary for 1st Round Pick (2012)
  • Derek Roy to Dallas for Steve Ott and Adam Pardy
  • TJ Brennan to Florida for 5th Round Pick (2013)
  • Jordan Leopold to St Louis for 2nd Round Pick (2013) & Conditional 5th Round Pick (2013)
  • Robyn Regehr to LA for 2nd Round Pick (2014) & 2nd Round Pick (2015)
  • Jason Pominville and 4th Round Pick (2014) to Minnesota for Matt Hackett, Johan Larsson, 1st Round Pick (2013) and 2nd Round Pick (2014)

Signings for/during 2012/13 Season

  • John Scott (1 year)
  • Kevin Porter (2 years)
  • Mark Mancari (1 year)
  • Nick Tarnasky (1 year)
  • Tim Schaller (2 years)
  • Chad Ruhwedel (2 years)

2013 Off-season Activity

The Draft

  • Image courtesy of hockeysfuture.com.

    8th Overall – Rasmus Ristolainen

  • 16th Overall – Nikita Zadorov
  • 35th Overall – JT Compher
  • 38th Overall – Connor Hurley
  • 52nd Overall – Justin Bailey
  • 69th Overall – Nicholas Baptiste
  • 129th Overall – Calvin Petersen
  • 130th Overall – Gustav Possler
  • 143rd Overall – Anthony Florentino
  • 159th Overall – Sean Malone
  • 189th Overall – Eric Locke

Free Agency / Player Signings

  • Drew Bagnall (2 years)
  • Alexander Sulzer (1 year)
  • Rasmus Ristolainen (3 years)
  • Luke Adam (1 year)
  • Matt Hackett (1 year)
  • Nick Crawford (1 year)
  • Brian Flynn (2 years)

Lost to Free Agency

  • Mark Mancari (to St Louis)
  • Adam Pardy (to Winnipeg)
  • Nathan Gerbe (to Carolina)

Trades

  • Andrej Sekera to Carolina for Jamie McBain and 2nd Round Pick (2013)
  • Riley Boychuk to New Jersey for Henrik Tallinder

Projected 2013/14 Roster

FORWARDS:

THOMAS VANEK – CODY HODGSON – DREW STAFFORD

TYLER ENNIS – STEVE OTT – VILLE LEINO

MARCUS FOLIGNO – MIKHAIL GRIGORENKO – BRIAN FLYNN

JOHN SCOTT – KEVIN PORTER – PATRICK KALETA

Image courtesy of thescore.com.

Thomas Vanek once again led the way offensively this year, despite injuries, hitting the 20 goal plateau for the 8th consecutive season despite only playing in 38 games.  His offensive consistency does seem to fluctuate between very good and great, but on the whole he is the go-to guy for scoring on this team, particularly with the departures of Roy and Pominville over the last year.  He’s solid defensively at 5v5, but doesn’t get used barely at all on the PK, the Sabres preferring to preserve his talents for copious amounts of powerplay time.  At 29, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see his production start to slow – though obviously that’s a guess based on average forward peaks – but nothing at the moment is signifying that will be the case in the immediate future.

Cody Hodgson finds himself as the de-facto number one center following Derek Roy’s departure last year, and whilst he doesn’t look to be a high-end guy in that role, he performed admirably this past year improving his points per game rate to 0.70 from 0.49 the year before.  That was thanks in part to a recovery of his save percentage to 13.2%, which crashed after his trade from Vancouver from 15.5% to 5.9%.  Whilst even 13.2% is quite a high rate, at this time Hodgson is looking like he might be one of those players who has a slightly higher than average SH%, but it is a little early in his career to be definitive.  He performed well at 5v5 in shot differentials, and also saw some secondary minutes on the penalty kill, indicating some amount of versatility.  Might be better suited to the second line center role in the long run, but he’ll get plenty of time to show what he can do this year.

Image courtesy of buffalohockeybeat.com.

Drew Stafford, like Hodgson, sees himself elevated perhaps by default to the top line with the departure of Jason Pominville.  Stafford isn’t undeserving of the opportunity, having topped 20 goals twice and 30 goals once before, though his performance in 2013 was below par as he registered just 6 goals and 18 points in 46 games.  Part of the reason for the drop was his awful shooting percentage of 5.0%, which should almost certainly rebound to more respectable levels.  A big body who doesn’t shy away from contact (though not someone you would describe as physical perhaps), Stafford does have some defensive value aswell, trusted to play secondary PK minutes as well as being solid in shot differentials at 5v5.  With no immediate competition for the first line RW slot, those Drew Stafford trade rumours may have to cease, temporarily at least.

Tyler Ennis has seen his stock go up and down in his short career, with hopes being extraordinarily high following a brilliant pro debut in 2009/10 and a very good rookie NHL season in 2010/11, but he has kind of run in place the last two years, offensively at least.  That’s not to say his production has been bad, but perhaps people expected him to develop on an upwards curve, and that hasn’t happened.  His points per game have actually improved significantly since his rookie year, jumping from 0.59 to 0.70 in 2011/12, and then slipping somewhere in between at 0.66 this year.  That’s good secondary production people, and over a full year would represent over 54 points.  He takes on some of the tougher minutes on the team at 5v5 and comes out ahead in shot differential, but doesn’t get any looks on the penalty kill – perhaps he might be a nice secondary option with his speed and skill, but I’m not sure it happens.

Image courtesy of sabres.nhl.com.

Steve Ott – the guy people love to hate. Unless he’s on your team that is, and then you just love him.  In his first season with Buffalo, he put up decent offense (0.50 points per game, a 40 point pace), threw his weight around a ton, played big minutes on both the PK and the powerplay, and was used in the toughest situations at 5v5 – explaining his poor shot differential at that discipline.  He’s probably being asked to do too much, to be honest, but even as it is he had a nice showing for the Sabres, and looks to be a big part going forward.

A man who was looking to have a bounceback campaign to justify his contract, Ville Leino didn’t get on the ice until mid-March thanks to a leg injury, but impressed upon his return to the tune of 6 points in 8 games.  That might not be worth the big bucks he is inexplicably being paid, but it’s a damn sight better than the 25 points in 71 games he had in 2011/12.  Unfortunately for Leino, those were the only 8 games he played in 2013 as he suffered another injury at the end of March.  Hopefully he’ll come back healthy in 2013/14, but I don’t have high hopes that he’ll sustain even the 0.75 points per game pace he was at for his cameo this year.

After his storming debut in 2011/12 which saw him score 13 points in 14 games for the Sabres, hopes were high for Marcus Foligno this year – though perhaps they should have been tempered given that he did that with a sky-high 26.1% shooting rate, and was having a solid if unspectacular rookie AHL season that saw him score 39 points in 60 games for Rochester.  That’s not to say he did badly this year though.  Obviously his shooting percentage crashed down to a more reasonable (and perhaps even slightly below average) 9.1%, as he scored 5 goals and 18 points 47 games in 2013.  Not what fans wanted, but still decent production for a young pro in the best league on the planet.  He was absolutely dominant in shot differential, a major plus even in a shortened season, against middling competition at 5v5.  So he’s a positive force on the ice at the most important discipline in the game, albeit in a small sample size.  At the very worst, he looks like a decent 3rd liner.

Mikhail Grigorenko was an absolute steal by the Sabres in the 2012 draft, falling to them at 12th overall, and whilst it wasn’t necessarily a given that he would be in the NHL in 2013, big things were expected once it was announced he would be on the team.  Possessing tremendous skill and great size as well as a decent defensive conscience, he has all the makings of a number one center in the NHL.  Things didn’t go so great for him, however.  He posted just 1 goal and 5 points in 25 games, being made a healthy scratch several times and only averaging 10:14 per game, most of that at 5v5.  He was also sheltered, given massive offensive zonestarts and below average competition to face, but even in terms of shot differentials he didn’t perform particularly well.  It was a tricky decision, with the 19 year old looking too good for the QMJHL but not yet able to play in the AHL thanks to their daft eligibility agreement with the CHL, the Sabres made a decision that many perhaps would have made, but in hindsight it looks like leaving him to dominate in junior for the full season would have been the better bet.  It’s way too early to write off Grigorenko as there’s years for him to establish himself as an NHLer, but it’s not been a good start.  I would reel in my expectations for this coming year and just hope for some sort of rebound.  The only way is up, right?

Image courtesy of buffalohockeybeat.com.

25 year old Brian Flynn saw his first taste of the NHL in 2013 following a brilliant NCAA career, and he was decent, posting 6 goals and 11 points in 26 games.  He was solid in shot differentials at 5v5 and was also a secondary option on the penalty kill.  His NCAA career suggests more of a scoring touch than he perhaps showed in the NHL, but as it stands he seems like a decent bottom 6 option.  Big John Scott has stayed in the NHL approximately 179 games longer than he should have, being a complete non-factor offensively, contributing zilch defensively, and generally being useless for rough 5 and a half minutes per game.  Oh, he punches some people, but that’s about it.  He can’t actually play hockey.  I don’t like to say a guy should have his job, but unfortunately in the business of hockey you need guys who can play, and he can’t – not in the NHL at least.

Kevin Porter showed fairly well in his first season with Buffalo, posting 9 points in 31 games, playing relatively tough minutes at evens but nearly breaking even in shot differentials, and being a solid penalty killer.  He’s a replaceable player, these guys always are, but he seems like a pretty good 4th line option.  2013 was a disaster for career-Sabre Patrick Kaleta, posting a career worst 1 point (a goal) in 34 games.  He’s never been an every-game option for the team, but has always showed some kind of ability, and the fact that his shooting percentage crashed to an unsustainably low 2.9% indicates luck might have had something to do with it.  He remained a trusted PK option, but was not good in shot differentials at even strength.  The 27-year old will have to rebound this season, or he could find himself on the way out so his $1.25m contract can be spent on someone more effective.

DEFENCE:

CHRISTIAN EHRHOFF – TYLER MYERS

HENRIK TALLINDER – JAMIE MCBAIN

ALEXANDER SULZER – MIKE WEBER

Image courtesy of bruins.nhl.com.

Big-ticket defenseman Christian Ehrhoff was supposed to be one of Buffalo’s shiny new toys when they traded for his rights in 2011, but I think it’s fair to say a lot of the Sabres’ fanbase has been somewhat disappointed.  Not that they necessarily should be, mind, as he’s put up some solid offensive numbers (32 points in 66 games in 2011/12, 22 points in 47 games in 2013), has been a positive plus/minus player overall (if you believe in that number), has played huge minutes at 5v5, 5v4 and 4v5, and been a dominant player in shot differentials relative to the rest of the team despite taking on tougher competition.  In short, he’s probably been their best defenseman ever since they signed him, and whilst that’s perhaps not saying much given the state of the team, he really has been very good.  There’s no reason to expect a drop-off this year provided he is fully healthy.

Tyler Myers had the weight of a franchise placed upon him when he won the Calder Trophy a few years back, but unfortunately he hasn’t been able to live up to expectations.  It’s not that he’s been a bad NHL player, but he has not provided anywhere near the level of play expected of a $5.5m per year player.  He hasn’t come close to matching the 48 points he tallied in that remarkable rookie year in 2009/10, and in fact he dropped down all the way to just 8 points in 39 games this year, and “earned” a minus rating for the first time in his career.  He was still logging big minutes on special teams and considerable 5v5 time, but has seen his time in all areas decrease from year to year.  He is still a physical presence, and relative to the team is OK in shot differentials against tougher competition, but he is just not getting the desired results.  He needs a bounceback year, or he could find himself a potential compliance buyout candidate.

Image courtesy of flickr.com.

Henrik Tallinder returns to the team with which he made his name after 3 seasons in the New Jersey Devils organisation.  At 34 years old and with 614 NHL games under his belt, he’s no spring chicken, so he may find himself down the depth chart, but he provides size, experience, a strong defensive presence (he was incredibly strong in shot differentials playing easy minutes in 2013) and a trusted secondary PK option.  Jamie McBain was acquired from Carolina in exchange for useful defender Andrej Sekera, allowing the team to get a bit younger and perhaps a bit more mobile on the back end.  McBain had an off year in 2013, scoring just 8 points in 40 games, following seasons of 30 points and 27 points respectively.  Still, he’s a highly regarded young player and was a positive possession player last year.  The decrease in production was likely due to his powerplay time being almost halved from previous years along with a massive drop in shooting percentage, so with both better luck and more opportunity he should see his numbers rebound.

A strong puck moving defender in the minor leagues, 29 year old Alexander Sulzer has only gotten the opportunity to display that ability in the NHL since joining the Sabres last year, but even so he has only played 32 games over his 2 years with the organisation.  Still, he has been pretty impressive in that time in limited minutes, playing very well defensively at 5v5 and being utilised on the PK somewhat frequently.  More powerplay time might help his offensive numbers, but as it stands he looks like a capable 3rd pairing guy, or at worst a number 7 defender.  Mike Weber was a penalty killing workhorse for team last year, averaging 2:47 per game, and also receiving a decent amount of 5v5 time.  Unfortunately, he didn’t fair well in shot differentials at 5v5, though that might be partly explainable by tough zonestarts.  Now 25, he’s at the age when defenders start figure out the NHL game, and he seems like an OK option for the 3rd pairing, but he seems like a weak link compared to some of the other options on the roster.

GOAL:

RYAN MILLER

JHONAS ENROTH

Image courtesy of sbnation.com.

Now three seasons removed from his remarkable 2009/10 season, Ryan Miller is still delivering somewhat solid play overall, but is certainly not the guy any more.  His stats in 2013 were slightly below average among NHL starters, putting up a .915 SV% and 2.81 GAA, his worst numbers in a fair few years.  Still just 33, he’s not likely done as a starter in the league, but the transition to Jhonas Enroth taking over as the team’s starter may begin sooner rather than later.  Enroth is highly touted, but at 25 has still only seen 53 NHL games in 5 North American seasons.  He’s been solid to very good when called upon however, and outperformed Miller in admittedly limited playing time this year, posting a .919 SV% and 2.72 GAA.

Goaltending isn’t a massive issue in Buffalo, but it is a growing concern: the team will be forced to choose soon between a highly talented but unproven young player or a past-his-prime former superstar seemingly on the decline.

EXTRAS: LUKE ADAM (F), MARK PYSYK (D), CHAD RUHWEDEL (D)

Expectations for the Season

Image courtesy of sabres.nhl.com.

It’s looking like it could be a difficult season ahead in Buffalo.  There are some really nice pieces all over the roster, but two of their three most consistent scoring forwards are no longer part of the franchise, their young star defender is teetering on the brink of eternal disappointment, goaltending is a question mark and their roster is relying on a fair few no-name players to fill out the numbers.

I could see them in much the same position as they were in 2013 – a team not quite bad enough to end up in the bottom 5, but certainly not good enough to contend for a playoff spot.  Sorry, Sabres fans!

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