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Off-Season Game Plan: Buffalo Sabres

Scott Cullen
5/30/2010 4:51:14 PM
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A terrific regular season, in which the Buffalo Sabres hit 100 points for the third time in five seasons (and 25 seasons), ended abruptly with a first-round playoff loss to the Boston Bruins.

Off-Season Game Plan examines the Sabres' needs and what they might attempt to do this summer in order to not only remain a playoff-calibre squad, but a team that has a chance to win the Stanley Cup.

While the merits of having a great goaltender might be up for debate, there aren't going to be many teams anxious to sacrifice a proven goaltender, particularly one at the top of his game like Ryan Miller, so the Sabres have that piece of their foundation.

Defensively, the Sabres could offer Miller more help and, with two regulars headed for free agency, it is the position that could be ripe for the most dramatic change. Beyond Tyler Myers, who is coming off a sensational rookie season, there are a lot of question marks and championship contenders aren't built on questionable defensive units.

Up front, the Sabres don't lack for talent. What has become an issue, and was displayed more clearly in the first-round loss to Boston, is that Buffalo's top forwards aren't hard to play against, so there could be real changes in the mix up front too.

If moves can be made that may sacrifice a little skill for increased aggressiveness and competitiveness, that would seem to make sense when tweaking this team.

"I will try to be busy, yes," GM Darcy Regier told reporters at season's end. "I think we have to make some changes. What exactly they will consist of, it's too early to know."

It's one thing to know that change is necessary, but there is some pressure on Regier, to make the right moves -- not to appease the fans in the short-term, but to make the moves that will help the Sabres get over the hump and become championship contenders.

Based on talent, the Sabres aren't that far off; changing the chemistry and bolstering the blueline might be all that's needed.

GM/COACH
Darcy Regier/Lindy Ruff

Returning Forwards

Player Rating Cap Hit
Jason Pominville 81.44 $5.3M
Derek Roy 80.85 $4.0M
Tim Connolly 79.70 $4.5M
Thomas Vanek 78.42 $7.143M
Jochen Hecht 75.58 $3.525M
Tyler Ennis 74.65 $875K
Drew Stafford 70.48 $1.9M
Mike Grier 66.41 $1.5M
Paul Gaustad 66.06 $2.3M

Free Agent Forwards

Player Rating Class '09-'10 Cap Hit
Patrick Kaleta 69.34 RFA $522K
Raffi Torres 66.48 UFA $2.25M
Tim Kennedy 65.14 RFA $850K
Matt Ellis 61.78 UFA $500K
Adam Mair 60.94 UFA $758K

Jason Pominville can go through streaky patches and is 62 points last season represented his lowest total since scoring 30 points in 57 games as a rookie in 2005-2006. In addition to topping 20 goals and 60 points for the fourth straight season, Pominville also played all 82 games for the fourth consecutive year and was a double-digit plus for the third time in the last four seasons.

The Sabres made a long-term investment in Pominville, and the 27-year-old signed for another four seasons, so the Sabres would certainly prefer at least a couple of seasons with production closer to his 80-point season of 2007-2008.

Undersized pivot Derek Roy is a feisty playmaker who, like Pominville has scored more than 20 goals and 60 points in each of the last four seasons. Like Pominville, Roy can be streaky, but he's fair value for his level of play.

For the first time since 2002-2003, Tim Connolly played more than 70 games in an NHL season and the 29-year-old finished with a career-high 65 points and, for the second straight season, a double-digit plus rating.

A healthy Connolly gives the Sabres a talented 1-2 punch down the middle but, given his history, there will always be lingering concern about Connolly's ability to stay healthy and both Roy and Connolly are facing criticism after coming up short in the playoffs against Boston.  Perhaps one, most likely Connolly, could use a fresh start.

Since scoring 43 goals, 84 points and a plus-47 rating in 2006-2007, then signing a lucrative offer sheet with the Edmonton Oilers (that the Sabres matched), Thomas Vanek has largely been a disappointment and no more than last season when he scored 28 goals and 53 points.

Those are respectable totals, but not nearly enough for a player of Vanek's considerable skills and there is a serious disconnect with paying more than $7-million per season for a player that doesn't see more than 17 minutes of ice time per game.

Veteran forward Jochen Hecht had a nice bounceback season, topping 40 points for the seventh time in the last nine seasons and posting a double-digit plus rating for the fourth time in six seasons. Hecht is reliable enough to play a checking role, but is also capable of playing as a complement to more skilled forwards.

AHL Rookie of the Year Tyler Ennis got a late-season call-up to Buffalo and there's no doubt that he's going to be with the Sabres next season after scoring nine points in ten regular season games, then adding four points in six playoff games. Like several of Buffalo's skilled forwards, Ennis is small, but he's shifty, creative and a legitimate contender for the Calder Trophy next season.

Drew Stafford is a talented forward with good size, but hasn't been able to put it together to really hit his potential and coming off a 34-point season, the 24-year-old does face the distinct possibility of being bumped out of the top six forwards.

Re-signed for another season, 35-year-old Mike Grier has established himself as a strong checking winger, who has scored between 22 and 33 points in eight straight seasons.

Paul Gaustad provides much-needed size and toughness up front, though his offensive game has stagnated in the last couple seasons. Ideally, the Sabres probably wouldn't mind using Gaustad's big body in front of the net on the power play, but if he could focus his energy on being a shutdown checking centre, that would work, because Gaustad's size allows him to match up physically with any of the league's top forwards.

There aren't many players more aggravating to the opposition than Patrick Kaleta, who is hitting at all times, but his hell-bent style takes its toll -- he's missed at least 25 games in each of his two full NHL seasons.

While he was terrible on face-offs, losing nearly two-thirds of the time, versatile forward Tim Kennedy brought energy to the Sabres lineup and he was skilled enough to fill-in on scoring lines when injuries warranted such a move.

The Sabres have a good, albeit small, core of forwards returning and if they get their restricted free agents re-signed, the only real needs up front are of the depth variety; perhaps a fourth-line centre and an enforcer would be considered.

Free agent Zenon Konopka could kill two birds with one stone, or the Sabres could look for a heavyweight like Derek Boogaard or Jody Shelley to help, at least theoretically, create space for the Sabres' skilled forwards; or Buffalo might be inclined to give a prospect like Zack Kassian a chance to play his way onto the team.

Returning Defencemen

Player Rating Cap Hit
Tyler Myers 79.88 $1.3M
Steve Montador 64.50 $1.55M
Andrej Sekera 62.62 $1.0M
Chris Butler 62.54 $850K
Craig Rivet 58.83 $3.5M

Free Agent Defencemen

Player Rating Class '09-'10 Cap Hit
Toni Lydman 68.38 UFA $2.875M
Henrik Tallinder 66.68 UFA $2.562M

Towering Tyler Myers was spectacular as a 19-year-old rookie, playing 23:44 per game and ranking third among all rookies with 48 points. At 6-foot-8, Myers is a imposing figure with a long reach, but it's his smooth skating stride and his evolving confidence with the puck that makes him extra special.

If the big man wants to add a little more nasty to his game, that could make him just about unstoppable when he reaches his peak.

Steve Montador has earned everything he's got in his career, as the 30-year-old is now with his fifth NHL team. He tied his career-best with 23 points last season and ended up playing big minutes down the stretch (more than 21 minutes in nine of the last ten games, including playoffs).

The Sabres have been waiting on Andrej Sekera to fulfill his potential, but he couldn't hold a regular spot in the lineup last season, which has to put his future in question.

It seems Chris Butler was ultimately given enough rope to hang himself, figuratively of course, as the 23-year-old consistently played more than 20 minutes a game for much of the season, but the result was a team-worst minus-15 rating.

Between an ankle injury and some late-season scratches, Butler also missed 23 games, so it's difficult for the Sabres to go into next season fully expecting Butler and Sekera to play regular prominent roles on the blueline after subpar results in 2009-2010.

Veteran Craig Rivet may have lost a step, but the 35-year-old is still a battler, reaching 100 penalty minutes for the fourth time in the last five seasons, scrapping half a dozen times along the way.

Considering the general youthfulness of the group, especially if Henrik Tallinder and Toni Lydman depart as free agents, Rivet can provide the savvy and experience that comes with being in the league for 13-plus seasons, though he may not be ready for the start of the year as he recovers from off-season shoulder surgery.

If Lydman and Tallinder leave, that will leave big holes on the Buffalo blueline, with a sizeable gap between Myers and the rest on the depth chart.

While the Sabres aren't notorious big spenders in free agency, a couple of top-four defencemen need to be acquired if this is going to remain a playoff team. A couple of Dan Hamhuis, Johnny Boychuk, Zbynek Michalek, Dennis Seidenberg, Shaone Morrisonn, Kim Johnsson, Brett Clark, Mark Eaton or even former Sabre Jay McKee, would at least neutralize Buffalo's potential losses on the blueline.

Returning Goaltender

Player Rating Cap Hit
Ryan Miller 94.17 $6.25M

Ryan Miller is the favourite to win the Vezina Trophy as the league's best goaltender following a season in which he won 41 games and posted a 2.22 goals against average and .929 save percentage.

Miller is signed long-term and that's just fine, since he's currently regarded as the top goaltender in the league.

Free Agent Goaltender

Player Rating Class '09-'10 Cap Hit
Patrick Lalime 64.07 UFA $1.0M

Even though his .907 save percentage was his best since 2002-2003, Patrick Lalime didn't earn a lot of starts as Miller's reserve, and the 35-year-old has now won five games or fewer in four of the last five seasons. The natural step would be to let Lalime leave and either sign a free agent (the return of Martin Biron?) or promote prospect Jhonas Enroth.

Top Prospects

Player Position Team/League Stats
Jhonas Enroth G Portland (AHL) 28-18-1, 2.37 GAA, .919 SVPCT in 48 GP
Zack Kassian RW Windsor (OHL) 12-19-31,-17, 38 GP
Luke Adam C Cape Breton (QMJHL) 49-41-90,+34, 56 GP
Mike Weber D Portland (AHL) 5-16-21,+18, 80 GP
Brayden McNabb D Kootenay (WHL) 17-40-57,-5, 64 GP
Nathan Gerbe LW Portland (AHL) 11-27-38,-5, 44 GP
Corey Tropp RW Michigan State (CCHA) 20-22-42,+2, 37 GP
Marc-Andre Gragnani D Portland (AHL) 12-31-43,+2, 66 GP
T.J. Brennan D Portland (AHL) 6-17-23,+2, 65 GP
Jacob Lagace LW Cape Breton (QMJHL) 35-38-73,+11, 60 GP

The only question with Enroth is whether the Sabres would like to see him continue to play more games to enhance his development. Only 21, there is naturally a risk that his progress could be stalled if he ends up being used sparingly as Miller's backup.

Last year's first-round pick, Zack Kassian, wasn't as productive this year and missed a bunch of time due to a suspension for a vicious hit in his first game with Windsor, but did end up with 11 goals in 24 gamees (including playoffs) with the Spitfires after being traded from Peterborough.

Kassian doesn't need to be rushed to the NHL, but he's physically ready and could provide some needed size and nastiness to the Sabres' frontline.

Luke Adam had a terrific season in the QMJHL, and excelled at the World Juniors for Canada, so he could be on the fast track to Buffalo. Some time in the AHL to start would be advisable, but Adam is another big forward and would add size down the middle if he remains at centre.

22-year-old Mike Weber already has three years of AHL seasoning under his belt and has played 23 NHL games as well, though he didn't play any last season. Weber is a no-nonsense, stay-at-home guy, who is a plus-23 with 247 penalty minutes over 122 AHL games the last two seasons.

Depending on external acquisitions, Weber should get the chance to bring his rugged defensive game to Buffalo next season.

Brayden McNabb has good size, knows how to use it and has improved steadily throughout his junior career with Kootenay. 19-year-old McNabb needs time to develop, so he figures to have another year in junior, but appears to be on the right path.

After scoring 94 points in 101 AHL games over the last two seasons, Nathan Gerbe could be ready for a real shot with the Sabres next season. The 5-foot-5 mighty mite has six points in 20 NHL games, and has battled injuries, but acquitted himself well last season, playing a regular shift late in the year and in a couple of playoff games.

Corey Tropp still has another year of eligibility at Michigan State, but it may be time for the 20-year-old winger to take his game to the next level after he led the Spartans in goals and points.

Marc-Andre Gragnani has the offensive side of the game down pat, scoring 35 goals and 146 points in his first three pro seasons, but if he's going to get a chance in Buffalo, he'll have to show that he can be trusted when the puck isn't on his stick and he has improved that side of his game.

21-year-old T.J. Brennan had a solid first pro season, improving as the year progressed (scoring 16 points in his final 31 games). Another year in the AHL will help determine his long-term chances with the Sabres.

Jacob Lagace's sizzling start to the year (30 goals in 35 games with Chicoutimi) brought a disappointing fizzle to the finish, as he scored just five goals in 25 games with Cape Breton. The 20-year-old has offensive upside, but if consistency is difficult in the QMJHL, it's not likely to come easier for him in the AHL or, eventually, in the NHL.

The Sabres have a couple of other notables, including perennial prospect Mark Mancari, a big winger who has five points in 16 games over the past three seasons with Buffalo and defenceman Nick Crawford, who had a superb season with Barrie in the OHL.

DRAFT
23rd - Jarred Tinordi, Tyler Pitlick, Riley Sheahan.

FREE AGENCY
According to www.capgeek.com, the Sabres have approximately $45.5M committed to the 2010-2011 salary cap for 15 players.

Needs: Depth forwards, three top four defencemen.

What I said the Sabres needed last year: Top pair defenceman, depth forwards.

Who did they add? Mike Grier, Tim Kennedy, Tyler Myers, Steve Montador.

TRADE MARKET Thomas Vanek, Tim Connolly, Drew Stafford, Andrej Sekera, Chris Butler.

Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@ctv.ca and followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tsnscottcullen

 



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