While some might suggest that the Buffalo Sabres are due to fall back after winning the Northeast Division last season, there is a combination of continuity and potential that could still bring the Sabres another solid finish.
The Sabres' fate is tied closely to the play of star goaltender Ryan Miller, last years Vezina Trophy winner who reached teh 40-win plateau for the second time in his career, while registering a career-best 2.22 goals against average and .929 save percentage. It's reasonable to expect Miller's numbers to slide some, but if they fall too much, the Sabres could be in trouble.
Part of the reason the Sabres lean so heavily on Miller is that their defence corps is a rather mediocre group, save for last year's Calder Trophy winner as rookie of the year, Tyler Myers.
Myers moves exceptionally well for a player of his size and his 48-point, plus-13 rookie season put him in rare company -- the only teenage defencemen to have at least 45 points and a double-digit plus-minus were Larry Murphy, Raymond Bourque and Scott Stevens (though it was Stevens' second season in the NHL) -- so expectations are naturally quite high for Myers.
There aren't many more appealing options on the Sabres' blueline. Perhaps Jordan Leopold, who scored a career-high 11 goals last year, could have value, but will need more points than he's put up to this point in his career (135 in 436 games).
Up front, the Sabres have quite a few players with offensive ability. While Derek Roy has slipped a little from his point-per-game numbers a couple of years ago, he has scored at least 69 points in three consecutive seasons. If his wingers would finish some more, there would be more points available to him.
Which brings us to Thomas Vanek, a two-time 40-goal scorer who managed just 53 points last year, his lowest total since his rookie season. Vanek owns a nifty touch around the net, but his lack of a complete game limits his ice time (his 17:12 ATOI in 2008-2009 was a career-high). His 40-goal potential makes Vanek a must-draft player for fantasy, but he can be awfully maddening when he's not scoring.
Slick pivot Tim Connolly played 73 games last season, his most since the lockout, and his 65 points represented a career-best. There's no doubting Connolly's elite puck skills and he's even been a double-digit plus player in back-to-back seasons, but his notorious injury history means he's going to go later in the draft because he's a high-risk, high-reward type of selection.
Understated winger Jason Pominville has quietly put up at least 60 points in four straight seasons, a feat currently matched by only three other right wingers (Martin St. Louis, Jarome Iginla and Daniel Alfredsson). While Pominville doesn't produce quite to their level, his production shouldn't be overlooked so easily either.
Calder Trophy candidate Tyler Ennis should also provide offense to the Sabres' attack. After tallying 65 points in 69 AHL games, Ennis scored nine points in ten regular season games with the Sabres last year before adding four points in six playoff games; he's ready to play and put up points in the NHL now.
Enigmatic winger Drew Stafford hasn't been able to secure consistent ice time (14:28 per game last year) and his production (34 points in 2009-2010) has been underwhelming, particularly for a player with size, speed and skill.
Going into his fifth season, it's tough to tout Stafford as a breakthrough player, but there is at least the reasonable possibility that he'll score more than last year, when his shooting percentage was just 7.7%, well below his career average of 11.8%.
Perhaps one more wildcard for the Sabres -- diminutive winger Nathan Gerbe. The 5-foot-5 Gerbe had five points in ten regular season games with Buffalo and two points in two playoff contests and has 94 points in 101 AHL games over two professional seasons. If he gets a chance in a scoring role, he could put up some decent numbers.
Buffalo Sabres Projected Depth Chart