A new era began for the Buffalo Sabres this season, with the transfer of ownership to Terry Pegula and the immediate result was a push into the playoffs.
Off-Season Game Plan looks at the Sabres' roster and what might be done to improve Buffalo's chances of going deeper in the playoffs next season.
At his introductory press conference, Pegula stated, "Starting today, there will be no financial mandates on the Buffalo Sabres hockey department."
Having Pegula's deep pockets doesn't necessarily mean that the Sabres will automatically start throwing money at the biggest names on the unrestricted free agent market, but there's surely something to be said for having the financial wherewhithal to make an offer that might help sway a free agent's decision.
Considering the Sabres' roster in the second half of last season -- a group that was 29-11-6 in the last 46 games -- there may not need to be drastic changes made this summer.
Up front, effectively swapping in a healthy Derek Roy for a largely disappointing Tim Connolly represents an upgrade and, as usual, the Sabres have talent in the pipeline, whether it's Luke Adam, Zack Kassian, or both, challenging for a spot in the Buffalo lineup.
There are enough bodies on defence, at least once all the restricted free agents are signed, but the Sabres could use a more proven defensive-minded presence to help out a promising enough group of young defencemen.
With their newfound financial freedom, and expectations of contending for a Stanley Cup, the Sabres should be players when it comes to offseason transactions, making the roster tweaks necessary to take last season's strong finish and carry it over to the 2011-2012 season.
Darcy Regier/Lindy Ruff
It may have taken a little longer than expected, but right winger Drew Stafford has emerged as a legitimate scoring threat, after tallying a career-high 31 goals in just 62 games last season.
Stafford just signed a four-year contract extension, which should represent prime years of production for the 25-year-old.
Derek Roy's season was sabotaged by a quad injury suffered when he was hit by Florida's Dmitry Kulikov. Not that it's ever good to have an injury limit a season to 35 games, but Roy was averaging a point-per-game for the second time in his career when it happened.
His game could still be more complete, but if Roy's putting up a point-per-game for the Sabres over a full season, he's providing what the Sabres surely need at his position.
Oft-maligned for his inconsistent play, Thomas Vanek rose to the challenge when Roy was lost for the season. Instead of shrinking without his playmaking centre, Vanek elevated his game, scoring 48 points in 43 games from January 1 through the end of the year, on his way to 73 points, the second-highest total of his career.
Imagine if he had the trust of the coaching staff; Vanek's 17:21 time on ice, a career-high, was the lowest ice time per game for any player with more than 65 points last season.
Jason Pominville has been a consistent threat for the Sabres, scoring at least 20 goals in five straight seasons, but last year's total of 52 points was his lowest (by 10) since his rookie year of 2005-2006.
Nevertheless, a versatile forward that can be used in all situations, Pominville is both a creative offensive player and responsible checker, thus holding a valuable spot in the Buffalo lineup.
After an impressive showing late in the 2009-2010 season, Tyler Ennis' rookie campaign got off to a slow start, but ended with 34 points in the last 43 games (after 15 in the first 39), providing an indication that he's ready to fulfill a scoring role for this team for years to come.
Brad Boyes provided an initial offensive surge once he was acquired from the Blues that helped Buffalo get into playoff position, but he hit a scoring drought late, going 17 games without a goal until he notched one in garbage time of Game Seven against Philadelphia.
It wasn't so long ago that Boyes was a fine finisher, scoring 76 goals combined in 2007-2008 and 2008-2009, but he's managed 31 goals in the two years since. He can still be a useful top-six forward, but 30-goal Boyes is obviously more desirable than 15-goal Boyes and going into his free agent season, perhaps that will provide an added dose of motivation.
Though Jochen Hecht provides a stable veteran presence, he's awfully well compensated for a 12-goal scorer. To be fair, he's capable of playing a steady checking role or filling in on a scoring line (as the defensive conscience) and has been effective, at times, in both roles, but as he's now on the wrong side of 30, his year-to-year consistency has slipped.
Paul Gaustad provides much-needed size and toughness on the Sabres' forward lines, but hasn't been able to surpass a dozen goals, his exact total in each of the last three seasons.
While Gaustad has seen some power play time, his offensive contributions come secondary to a defensive game based on physical play and strong work in the faceoff circle.
Few players in the league are as aggravating to play against as Patrick Kaleta, but his take-it-to-the-limit style is taking its toll on him; he's missed 89 games over the last three seasons.
It took some injuries for Nathan Gerbe to get sufficient ice time, but in the second half of the season, when he was getting at least 15 minutes per game, he scored 25 points in his last 41 games, showing that, no matter his height, he is capable of producing enough to be a top-six forward.
There will be some work to be done to either re-sign or replace vets like Rob Niedermayer, Mike Grier and grinder Cody McCormick, but it seems safe to expect that the Sabres will let Tim Connolly head to free agency.
As such, the Sabres will either need to give Boyes a shot in the second-line centre role or consider shifting Ennis into the middle. After playing a lot of right wing in St. Louis, Boyes played the middle a lot after he was acquired by Buffalo and he may be able to handle it, but it would help if he was better on faceoffs than the 43.2% he was for the Sabres.
If the Sabres want to look for a free agent solution, Jussi Jokinen or Brooks Laich might be the best (viable) options available.
There will be some openings further down the lineup that could be filled by prospects. Luke Adam and Zack Kassian, to name two, would figure to have a chance to earn a regular role.
Though he ended up a team-worst minus-11, Jordan Leopold had a nice season for the Sabres, setting career-high in goals (13), points (35) and time on ice (23:20). His shot differential per 60 minutes ranked third among Sabres defencemen, so Leopold's defensive play wasn't that negligent.
Coming off his rookie of the year season, Tyler Myers got off to a miserable start, going minus-12 in the first 13 games, but he was solid after that, getting back to even by season's end.
An outstanding skater for such a tall man, Myers could still add some bite to his game to be more effective, but he's plenty capable of becoming a dominating force.
Shaone Morrisonn seemed like he would be a good fit with the Sabres, providing defensive stability, size and experience, but he clearly struggled early, before rallying a little midseason.
He could still play a role in the Buffalo blueline, but Morrisonn might be trade bait, particularly if the Sabres are inclined to look at an external option to fill a top-four defence role.
The AHL Defenceman of the Year, Marc-Andre Gragnani, who has always been able to handle the puck and run a power play, improved his play without the puck enough to get a late-season call-up to Buffalo and, he impressed, scoring 10 points in his last 13 games.
Not only was Gragnani productive, but the Sabres increased his role when it mattered most, in the playoffs, giving Gragnani nearly 22 minutes per game against Philadelphia.
He'll have to maintain consistency over a longer period of time than just a few weeks, but Gragnani should have a leg up going into next season.
Hard-nosed blueliner Mike Weber paid his dues, spending three seasons in the AHL, but he arrived in Buffalo ready for full-time work last season and finished the year with a plus-13 rating, tied for second-best on the team, and earning a bigger role as the season progressed.
For the first 200 or so games of his NHL career, Andrej Sekera was rather unremarkable, then he suddenly put up 15 points and a plus-12 rating in 16 games in March, showing that he could be a viable top-four defenceman.
Chris Butler played sporadically early in the season, then emerged, playing more than 20 minutes a night down the stretch. Butler may not have evolved offensively as expected, but he's showing signs of being able to provide a steady well-rounded game on the blueline.
The challenge for the Sabres is going to be deciding what is fair to expect from their up-and-coming defencemen. Sure, Myers has to be considered a No. 1 defenceman, but what of Gragnani, Weber and Sekera? Should more than one of them be counted on to play a top four role?
If the Sabres want to take the safe route, they can hit the free agent market to get a veteran top-four defenceman. Free agents Ed Jovanovski, Eric Brewer, Scott Hannan or Jan Hejda might provide more size and experience in a defensive role.
In 2009-2010, Ryan Miller was the best goalie in the league and last season he was an above-average starter, his .916 save percentage ranking 14th among goaltenders that played at least half of their team's games.
The Sabres' defence allowed fewer shots on goal last season, from 31.4 per game down to 30.7 per game, but it's still reasonable to expect tighter defensive play to help out the goaltending.
Jhonas Enroth showed enough (9-2-2, 2.73 GAA, .907 SV%) in 14 games that he should be ready to handle the backup role behind Miller; he pretty much held the role last year anyway, as Patrick Lalime didn't start a game after November.
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One of the Sabres' shortcomings in recent seasons has been a lack of size and strength among their forwards. Well, Zack Kassian could help rectify that situation as the 6-foot-3, 226-pound winger plays with an edge and has enough skill to have put up 171 points in 155 games in his last three junior seasons.
Kassian might need time in the AHL, and the Sabres are known for giving their prospects time to grow on the farm, but the 20-year-old might also be ready to compete for a spot.
Luke Adam saw limited action in 19 games with the Sabres, but he proved his mettle as a first-year pro in the AHL, scoring better than a point-per-game in Portland, earning AHL Rookie of the Year honours, as Ennis did the year before and Gerbe the year before that.
Another big winger who will add some bite, Marcus Foligno has improved dramatically throughout his junior career, to the point that the 2009 fourth-round pick could be a draft steal. He's likely to need time in the AHL, but with continued improvement, Foligno may not need long before he's ready to help in a checking role.
Brayden McNabb just completed a superb season for the Kootenay Ice, scoring 99 points in 84 regular season and playoff games. Add in the fact that he's 6-foot-4 and plays with an edge and McNabb holds some intriguing potential for the Sabres.
A steady defensive defenceman, Drew Schiestel was enjoying a strong season in the AHL before suffering a knee injury that ended his season in late January.
A first-round pick last summer, Mark Pysyk is a smooth skater who thrived with an improved Edmonton team in the WHL, going from minus-19 in 2009-2010 to plus-29 last season.
For a different style of blueliner, consider T.J. Brennan, who owns a rocket shot from the point and scored 15 goals in his second AHL season.
A hard-working forward who had a decent first pro season, though he only managed 10 goals, Corey Tropp has the energy to contribute in Buffalo, even if he doesn't develop more offensively.
Paul Byron is a smallish, pesky forward who got into eight games with the Sabres last season and could easily be summoned to Buffalo for a depth role or to fill-in for injured forwards.
Given the number of defencemen on this list already, there's no need to rush the process with Jerome Gauthier-Leduc, so the 18-year-old offensive-minded blueliner can work on his all-around game before starting his pro career.
Check out a possible roster, on www.capgeek.com, for next season, with some minor additions here: http://bit.ly/k4XirA
16th - Zack Phillips, Mark Schiefele, Nicklas Jensen.
According to www.capgeek.com, the Sabres have approximately $40.8M committed to the 2011-12 salary cap for 12 players.
Needs: Depth forwards, one top four defenceman, another defenceman.
What I said the Sabres needed last year: Depth forwards, three top four defencemen.
They added: Nathan Gerbe, Cody McCormick, Rob Niedermayer, Jordan Leopold, Mike Weber, Shaone Morrisonn.
TRADE MARKET Jochen Hecht, Shaone Morrisonn.
Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@bellmedia.ca and followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tsnscottcullen. For more, check out TSN Fantasy on Facebook.