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Off-Season Game Plan: Sabres

Scott Cullen
5/20/2009 4:35:38 PM
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Missing the playoffs in back-to-back seasons has created a lot of unrest in Buffalo as the Sabres have more than enough talent to reach the postseason.

Off-Season Game Plan examines what the Sabres could do to get back there in 2009-2010.

The first order of business when the 2008-2009 season ended was to determine the fate of GM Darcy Regier and head coach Lindy Ruff, both of whom were retained.

Of course, they were retained by owner Tom Golisano and managing partner Larry Quinn, who have come under fire for not investing in the team in recent seasons, consistently allowing top players (most notably Daniel Briere, Chris Drury and Brian Campbell) to leave for bigger dollars elsewhere as well as cutting scouting staff, so it's hard to say whether Ruff and Regier are getting a real vote of confidence or if, already under contract, they were just the most cost-effective options. 

Even with front office issues, the Sabres only missed the postseason by two points in a season when they had injuries to Ryan Miller, Thomas Vanek and Tim Connolly. It's to be expected in Connolly's case, unfortunately, but there is no need to obliterate the core of this current team because there is the talent here to be a solid playoff team.

That's not to say all's just fine in B-lo. The Sabres have needs, but have enough assets that they can address those needs in both trades and free agency.

Most notably, an offensive defenceman would help get the offence in gear and then, in more general terms, the Sabres would benefit from adding size and toughness up front. They already have the speed and skill, but an added dose of grit would make them tougher to play against.

GM/COACH
Darcy Regier/Lindy Ruff

Returning Forwards

Player Rating Salary
Tim Connolly 82.81 $4.5M
Thomas Vanek 79.91 $6.4M
Derek Roy 77.90 $3.5M
Jason Pominville 77.01 $4.5M
Paul Gaustad 71.45 $2.5M
Dan Paille 65.57 $1.35M
Jochen Hecht 64.98 $3.8M
Adam Mair 62.27 $775K

Free Agent Forwards

Player Rating Class '08-'09 Salary
Drew Stafford 73.21 RFA $984K
Dominic Moore 70.22 UFA $900K
Clarke MacArthur 66.07 RFA $522K
Maxim Afinogenov 64.52 UFA $3.5M
Patrick Kaleta 64.03 RFA $500K
Matt Ellis 63.91 UFA $475K
Andrew Peters 53.98 UFA $550K

Top Prospects: Tyler Ennis (43-42-85, plus-11 in 61 GP; Medicine Hat-WHL), Nathan Gerbe (30-26-56, plus-2 in 57 GP; Portland-AHL), Tim Kennedy (18-49-67, minus-2 in 73 GP; Portland-AHL)

Though it's been a couple of seasons since Tim Connolly was last affected by a concussion, injuries continue to plague his career as oblique, hip, back and rib injuries have sidelined him at various times over the past few years.

When healthy, though, Connolly is an elite talent and, while he played just 48 games in 2008-2009, it may have been his best season. Surely the Sabres had to swallow hard at offering him a contract extension, but a two-year commitment seems reasonable in the hopes that the 28-year-old can finally stay healthy.

Thomas Vanek's game slipped some when he suffered a broken jaw, yet he still managed to score 40 goals. It says something about his knack around the net that Vanek can put up 76 goals over the last two seasons and still have untapped potential in reserve.

While he was ths Sabres' leading scorer with 70 points, Derek Roy tailed off in the second half, some of which can be attributed to shuffling linemates as the Sabres were desperate to jumpstart the offence. Roy works hard to help overcome his lack of size and, signed to a reasonable long-term deal, should be a fixture as a scoring centre for many years to come.

A strong finish (20 points in the last 19 games) helped salvage Jason Pominville's season, which was generally disappointing. Pominville hasn't missed a game in more than three seasons, so he's durable, but his goal-scoring numbers and plus-minus ratings have dropped in each of the past two seasons. The Sabres need him to be better.

Paul Gaustad provides much needed size and toughness up front and he could be a 20-goal scorer in the right situation. He managed a career-best 12 goals in 62 games last season.

After scoring 19 goals and 35 points in 2007-2008, Dan Paille took a step back, scoring just 12 goals and 27 points. Paille gives an honest effort and could still figure in as a third-line option, but offensive expectations have to be kept in check.

The Sabres are committed to Jochen Hecht for three more seasons, so he needs to come up with more than 27 points and a minus-9 rating. Hecht is a low-maintenance, responsible player, but for the money he's getting, at least 40 points (which he's achieved in six of the last eight seasons) should be a reasonable expectation.

Though last year's eight goals represented a career high for Adam Mair, he's a gritty checking forward who fits well on the fourth line.

While he's steadily increased his production in three NHL seasons, Drew Stafford is capable of more than 20 goals and 45 points. If he gets a good opportunity on a scoring line right from the start of next season, Stafford should continue to improve.

Clarke MacArthur established himself as an NHLer last season, scoring 31 points in 73 games, but his role diminished as the season went on. He provides roster depth with some offensive upside, at the very least.

One of the league's most aggravating players, Patrick Kaleta is tough to play against because of his contact physical play and good speed. His game is limited, so he's not going to climb the depth chart, but he can continue in his role as long as he stays healthy.

While the Sabres have some prospects that could crack the lineup up front, most are on the smaller side, which means that some free agent shopping could help. Oswego, New York native Erik Cole was a flop in Edmonton and has struggled in the playoffs, but finished the regular season with 17 points in his last 18 games and, when he's on, he is the kind of big winger that could help the Sabres.

Further down the depth chart, the Sabres could have some interest in wingers with size and toughness like Travis Moen, Chris Neil or how about oldtime Sabre Brad May?

Returning Defencemen

Player Rating Salary
Craig Rivet 70.12 $3.5M
Toni Lydman 69.86 $3.15M
Nathan Paetsch 67.46 $1.05M
Chris Butler 67.06 $585K
Henrik Tallinder 63.91 $3.25M

Free Agent Defencemen

Player Rating Class '08-'09 Salary
Jaroslav Spacek 76.17 UFA $3.3M
Teppo Numminen 65.72 UFA $1.1M
Andrej Sekera 66.19 RFA $659K

Top Prospects: Tyler Myers (9-33-42, plus-31 in 58 GP; Kelowna-WHL), Mike Weber (1-7-8, plus-5 in 42 GP; Portland-AHL)

Veteran Craig Rivet was a nice steady addition to the blueline, though a shoulder injury resulted in his playing fewer than 70 games for the first time since 2001-2002. He's a terrific leader, but needs some help.

Toni Lydman is another solid veteran, who has developed into a very sound defensive defenceman and he led the Sabres in both hits and blocked shots. He's a nice fit as part of a shutdown pair.

Ideally, Lydman's partner on that shutdown pairing would be Henrik Tallinder, who has been effective with Lydman in the past, but injuries have slowed Tallinder over the past couple of seasons. Heading into the final year of his contract, he needs to rebound.

While his rookie season had some ups-and-downs, Chris Butler showed plenty of promise, leading Sabres defencemen with a plus-11 rating after getting called up from the AHL. As he continues to improve, Butler will be an integral part of the defence corps.

Despite the troubles the Sabres have had on the blueline, Nathan Paetsch's role has declined to the point that he played just 23 games last season. He didn't play poorly, so it's possible he could figure into the mix again, or it might be best to get a fresh start somewhere else.

Sorely in need of a puck-moving defenceman, the Sabres tried to force-feed Andrej Sekera and he ended up with a team-worst minus-11. Sekera has potential, but is just 22, so it could take some time before he's ready to handle a top-four role on a playoff team.

Towering prospect Tyler Myers has had a terrific season with Kelowna and could challenge for a spot on next season's club. The Sabres shouldn't rush him, but he has the makings of a future stud on the blueline.

What the Sabres really need, though, is someone to come in and quarterback the power play. With Jaroslav Spacek a free agent, there could be a gaping hole in that spot if he's not re-signed.

If the Sabres aren't in the running for Jay Bouwmeester, then possibly a veteran power play specialist like Mathieu Schneider or Marc-Andre Bergeron would help fill the void.

With a dearth of quality puck-moving defencemen on the free agent market, the Sabres may look to the trade market, using some of their depth up front to address the need.

Returning Goaltenders

Player Rating Salary
Ryan Miller 84.03 $6.25M
Patrick Lalime 56.33 $1.0M

Free Agent Goaltender

Player Rating Class '08-'09 Salary
Mikael Tellqvist 69.50 UFA $800K

Top Prospect: Jhonas Enroth (26-23-6, 2.75 GAA, .914 SVPCT, 3 SO in 58 GP; Portland-AHL)

Ryan Miller's ankle injury, which kept him out for nearly five weeks in the second half of the season, was a crushing blow to the Sabres' playoff hopes. The 28-year-old enjoyed his best NHL season, setting career marks in goals against average, save percentage and shutouts.

The Sabres, perhaps optimistically, expected Patrick Lalime to provide stability in the backup role. It didn't work out all that well, but if Miller can play closer to 70 games again, it's possible that the backup role won't be all that important.

Buffalo also has prospect Jhonas Enroth on the way. He had a strong rookie season as a 20-year-old in the AHL and another year of seasoning could have him ready to make the jump.

DRAFT
13th - Zack Kassian, Ryan Ellis, Jordan Schroeder, Scott Glennie.

FREE AGENCY
The Sabres have approximately $45.8-million committed to salaries for next season.

Needs: Top pair defenceman, depth forwards.

What I said the Sabres needed last year: One top pair defenceman, one top six forward, depth forwards, backup goaltender

Who did they add? Craig Rivet, Matt Ellis, Chris Butler, Patrick Lalime.

TRADE MARKET
Jochen Hecht, Dan Paille, Clarke MacArthur, Henrik Tallinder, Nathan Paetsch.

Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@ctv.ca 



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