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Off-Season Game Plan: Buffalo Sabres

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Scott Cullen
5/22/2012 12:26:17 PM
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The Buffalo Sabres embraced a new owner with deep pockets last summer and spent big on free agency, only to stumble early and miss the playoffs.

Off-Season Game Plan looks at a Sabres team that has the talent to be a playoff contender. Will they be willing to chalk up their disappointment in 2011-2012 to bad luck or bad seasons and re-set with much the same group next season?

The Sabres did go 19-5-5 on a stretch from late January to late March, which got them back into the playoff discussion, but the early hole they put themselves in was too much to overcome. If there are positives to be gleaned from that second half performance, however, the Sabres may not be looking to overhaul the roster this summer.

Maybe an overhaul isn't in the cards, but the Sabres could stand to improve in a few areas, most notably at centre. Derek Roy is ostensibly the team's top centre, but he's heading into the final year of his contract and has been rumoured to be on the block for some time and Buffalo dealt checking pivot Paul Gaustad to Nashville at the deadline.

Upgrading the number one centre spot won't be easy, but it's a reasonable objective going into the offseason since the Sabres have a significant number of assets (including prospects and picks) to make a deal.

The lesson that probably needs to be taken away from last summer is that, just because they have Terry Pegula's financial wherewithal behind them, doesn't mean that the Sabres have to spend the money if the right assets aren't available. Not to pick on anyone in particular, but the opportunity cost of signing Ville Leino for six years isn't only what it means if Leino doesn't perform, but it's that Leino occupies a spot on the roster that might be used on a future acquisition.

With that takeaway, the Sabres may be more selective in their approach this summer and they should be. This roster, with some tweaking, is certainly capable of making the playoffs and if their goaltender is on top of his game, who knows how far they could go?

The TSN.ca Rating is an efficiency rating based on per-game statistics including goals and assists -- weighted for strength (ie. power play, even, shorthanded) -- plus-minus, hits, blocked shots, giveaways, takeaways, penalty differential and faceoffs. (Stats are listed in this format: G-A-PTS, +/-, PIM, GP). Generally, a replacement-level player is around a 60, a top six forward and top four defenceman will be 70-plus and the biggest stars will be over 80. Evgeni Malkin finished at the top of the regular season ratings with a 93.12.

Salary cap information all comes from the indispensable www.capgeek.com.

GM/COACH
Darcy Regier/Lindy Ruff

Returning Forwards

Player Rating GP G A PTS +/- Cap Hit
Jason Pominville 75.82 82 30 43 73 -7 $5.3M
Thomas Vanek 71.33 78 26 35 61 -6 $7.143M
Drew Stafford 70.27 80 20 30 50 +5 $4.0M
Derek Roy 67.17 80 17 27 44 -7 $4.0M
Cody Hodgson 65.02 83 19 22 41 +1 $1.667M
Nathan Gerbe 62.88 62 6 19 25 +2 $1.433M
Luke Adam 62.25 52 10 10 20 -6 $875K
Ville Leino 60.18 71 8 17 25 -2 $4.5M
Corey Tropp 57.90 34 3 5 8 0 $700K
Matt Ellis 55.59 60 3 5 8 -3 $525K
Cody McCormick 52.64 50 1 3 4 -7 $1.2M

Free Agent Forwards

Player Rating GP G A PTS +/- Class '11-'12 Cap Hit
Tyler Ennis 71.38 48 15 19 34 +11 RFA $875K
Jochen Hecht 62.57 22 4 4 8 +1 UFA $3.525M
Brad Boyes 60.32 65 8 15 23 +2 UFA $4.0M
Patrick Kaleta 56.86 63 5 5 10 -5 RFA $907.5K

Captain Jason Pominville has played all 82 games in five of the last six seasons and last year's 30 goals and 73 points were the second-best totals of his career and he's a force on special teams, topping 20 power play points for the fourth time in the last five seasons.

Thomas Vanek was sizzling in the first half of the season, scoring 39 points in his first 37 games, but he dropped off badly in the second half, scoring 23 points in 41 games playing through injuries. Even after finishing on that down note, Vanek stands out as a high-end finisher and his 230 goals since the start of the 2005-2006 season ranks eighth in the league in that time.

Stumbling through a forgettable season, Drew Stafford got his game on track when aligned with Tyler Ennis and Marcus Foligno late in the year and, after scoring 28 points in 58 games, he finished the year with a point-per-game in the last 22. 26-year-old Stafford has size and skill to be an offensive threat but consistency has not been a strong suit to this point in his career.

Before a torn quad cut short Derek Roy's 2010-2011 season, he had tallied 35 points in 35 games, but he was not the same player upon returning to the lineup last season, yet he played nearly as much (19:19 per game, down from 19:32 per game the year before). Going into the final year of his contract, it's conceivable that Roy could be trade bait, unless the Sabres are confident that, a year removed from his injury, he can be more effective in a prime scoring role next season.

By dealing Zack Kassian to Vancouver for Cody Hodgson, the Sabres sacrificed size and snarl for more offensive upside. Hodgson received more ice time in Buffalo (17:16 per game in Buffalo, 12:44 per game in Vancouver), but was scoreless in his first 10 games with the Sabres. Hodgson's rise as a highly-touted prospect has been a bumpy ride, but he's a 22-year-old who put up 41 points as a rookie, so there should be many more points to come.

Nathan Gerbe is a solid enough complementary forward, and reliable enough to be used in the defensive zone, but six goals in 62 games last season wasn't ideal. Something closer to the 16 he scored in 64 games in 2010-2011 would be more in line with what the Sabres need from him.

Big centre Luke Adam earned his keep early, scoring 19 points in 27 games through early December, before one point in the next 25 games earned him a ticket to Rochester for the rest of the season. Adam, 21, could use an extra gear, but he has 75 points in 84 AHL games, which is an indication that he should be able to produce points in the NHL if given the opportunity. If Roy goes elsewhere, that could present Adam with the chance he needs to flourish.

There may not have been a more ill-advised free agent signing last summer than the Sabres' long-term commitment to Ville Leino. It's not as if Leino is without merit as a player. Even in a disappointing 2011-2012 season with the Sabres, Leino still had a positive shot differential (per www.behindthenet.ca). He won't justify his exhorbitant contract, but used in a supporting role on the wing -- not centre -- Leino can be a useful contributor.

22-year-old energy winger Corey Tropp scored 22 points in 27 AHL games and was shuttled back-and-forth between Rochester and Buffalo for much of the season. He could eearn a fourth-line job or return to the AHL for the start of next season.

Matt Ellis has never scored more than 13 points in a season, but has found a niche in Buffalo as an extra forward. He works cheaply and can be trusted in a defensive role in the limited minutes that he plays.

Tough guy Cody McCormick was rewarded for what amounted to a breakthrough season in 2010-2011, but wasn't the same contributor last season. He's still under contract for a couple more seasons and has fought 24 times over the last two seasons (according to www.hockeyfights.com), so there is a role for McCormick to play, but he's paid enough that he can provide more than one goal in 50 games.

When the Sabres made their too-little-too-late run in a bid for a playoff spot late in the year, their resurgence was keyed by the emergence of Tyler Ennis, who scored 27 points in his last 26 games, while playing centre, which allowed him to thrive as a playmaker.

There may not be a player more disliked by opponents than Sabres agitator Patrick Kaleta, who played in a career-high 63 games last season, yet was still the Sabres' most active hitting forward. Kaleta plays on the edge, sometimes veering over, as he tries to get opponents off their games and that's his calling card, but he's a useful checker too.

After trading Paul Gaustad to Nashville at the deadline, the Sabres could use another checking centre. Free agents like Jay McClement, Jim Slater or Colin Fraser might be veteran options that could help for a relatively inexpensive price. If prospects like Adam and Tropp are in the mix for next season, there may not be a lot of openings for the Sabres to add more free agent forwards, but trades may also alter the landscape and team needs.

Returning Defence

Player Rating GP G A PTS +/- Cap Hit
Christian Ehrhoff 71.44 66 5 27 32 -2 $4.0M
Tyler Myers 71.30 55 8 15 23 +5 $5.5M
Alexander Sulzer 70.31 27 3 6 9 +8 $725K
Jordan Leopold 68.34 79 10 14 24 +4 $3.0M
Andrej Sekera 65.02 69 3 10 13 +3 $2.75M
Mike Weber 60.25 51 1 4 5 -19 $950K
Robyn Regehr 60.14 76 1 4 5 -12 $4.02M

Leaving the Vancouver Canucks' power play had predictable results for Christian Ehrhoff, as he finished with 11 power play points last season, one year after tallying 28 with the man advantage for the Canucks. With that 17-point PP difference, it's worth noting that Ehrhoff's 32 total points last season was 18 points below his 2010-2011 total.

With all that said, Ehrhoff is as good as the Sabres have when it comes to offensive defencemen and he has been playing 21-plus minutes per night in each of the last five seasons.

Tyler Myers' offensive game has declined since his 48-point rookie season and there is some sense that his development has stalled, but a 22-year-old defenceman with 108 points in 217 career games is intriguing, even before noting that he stands 6-foot-8.

After spending nearly four seasons bouncing around the fringes of the NHL lineup with Nashville, Florida and Vancouver before arriving in Buffalo late last season, Alexander Sulzer suddenly was a productive regular for the Sabres down the stretch, scoring eight points in 15 games. At this point, no one knows if Sulzer could carry on that production, but the Sabres just re-signed him, so they are willing to pay the relatively modest price to find out.

For the third straight season, Jordan Leopold finished with at least 10 goals and he's a serviceable top four defenceman. At the same time, if the Sabres could upgrade on the blueline, Leopold could slide down the depth chart and maybe play a little less than the 22-23 minutes he's logged the last couple seasons.

25-year-old Andrej Sekera has had some decent stretches over the last couple of seasons and has worked his way into the top four, but if he's going to play 20 minutes per game, he should be more productive.

Mike Weber adds toughness to the Sabres' defence, but the 24-year-old was also a minus-19 in just 51 games last season. Though that looks ugly, Weber's shot differential was middle of the pack among Buffalo blueliners, so there may have been some element of bad luck at play for a player who profiles as a sixth or seventh defenceman.

After he waived his no-trade clause to come to Buffalo in a trade from Calgary, Robyn Regehr was expected to be a shutdown presence on defence for the Sabres, but that wasn't necessarily the case. He played 18:38 per game, which was his lowest since his rookie year in 1999-2000 and, while Regehr faced the tough matchups, his ice time also decreased as the season went along.

Given the players that the Sabres already have under contract, there may not be a lot of big moves to be made on the blueline, unless they are prepared to deal one of their established vets (like Regehr, Sekera or Leopold). Otherwise, prospect Brayden McNabb also appears to be knocking on the door and could be ready for a job with the Sabres next season.

Returning Goaltenders

Player Rating GP W L OTL GAA SV% Cap Hit
Ryan Miller 72.60 61 31 21 7 2.54 .916 $6.25M
Jhonas Enroth 71.48 26 8 11 4 2.70 .917 $675K

In 2009-2010, Ryan Miller was ranked among the top goaltenders in the game, but with a .916 save percentage over the two seasons since, he's lingering around those with the "above-average" label. After getting clocked by Bruins winger Milan Lucic in November, Miller's game suffered and his season was nearly a lost cause before his game turned in February (2.08 GAA, .931 SV% after the All-Star break, 3.07 GAA, .899 SV% before).

It's simple enough: when Miller is at the top of his game, the Sabres are a playoff team. When he's struggling, they aren't.

23-year-old Jhonas Enroth established his credentials as a legitimate NHL goaltender, posting a .917 save percentage as Miller's backup. If he can continue to play at that level, the Sabres won't hesitate to give Enroth more action when Miller goes through slumps.

Top Prospects

Player Pos. Team/League Stats
Joel Armia RW Assat-Pori (SML) 18-20-38, +12, 54 GP
Marcus Foligno LW Rochester (AHL) 16-23-39, +19, 60 GP
Brayden McNabb D Rochester (AHL) 5-25-30, +15, 45 GP
Mark Pysyk D Edmonton (WHL) 6-32-38, +15, 57 GP
Jerome Gauthier-Leduc D Rimouski (QMJHL) 28-46-74, +13, 62 GP
T.J. Brennan D Rochester (AHL) 16-14-30, +5, 52 GP
Daniel Catenacci C Owen Sound (OHL) 33-39-72, +11, 67 GP
Kevin Sundher C Brandon (WHL) 26-49-75, -15, 58 GP
Connor Knapp G Miami-Ohio (CCHA) 15-8, 1.69 GAA, .933 SV%, 24 GP
Alex Biega D Rochester (AHL) 5-18-23, +10, 65 GP

A winger with size and scoring ability, Joel Armia has been productive in two seasons against men in Finland, so it could be time to bring him to North America, where a year in the AHL would help him get used to the schedule and provide a gauge for how close he might be to NHL readiness.

It's almost foolish to pretend that Marcus Foligno is still a prospect, as though his late-season run with the Sabres -- which included a point per game and plus-7 rating in the last 13 games of the season -- wouldn't have him solidly in place for next season, but he did spend most of the year in the AHL, so he can be considered a prospect for these purposes.

In any case, Foligno adds a physical dimension to the Sabres' forward group and even if he can't maintain that scoring pace, he can be a solid top-nine winger for a long time.

Brayden McNabb was pressed into service with the Sabres as a first-year pro, but didn't look out place and there will surely be a future for a big, physical defenceman who can also handle the puck, but Buffalo's blueline is currently a crowded place, so McNabb may need to be patient or force the organization's hand to earn a spot in the lineup.

A first-round pick in 2010, Mark Pysyk logged four-plus seasons in the WHL, marked by safe and steady play (he's plus-44 over the last two seasons). The 20-year-old will move to the AHL next season and could use time to get stronger. Even though he's not going to be a bruising physical presence, he can use a couple years of development before taking a run at the NHL.

If there's one thing that Jerome Gauthier-Leduc knows, it's how to contribute offensively, scoring 66 goals over the last three seasons in the QMJHL. Like Pysyk, he'll need further seasoning, but the long-range hope will be that he can be a factor on the power play.

When injuries hit the Buffalo blueline hard, T.J. Brennan was one of those to get the call from the AHL and he performed admirably, suffered a concussion and returned to play late in the year. Brennan's been an offensive factor in his own right, scoring 31 goals in 124 AHL games over the last two seasons.

A third-round pick last summer, Daniel Catenacci is a smallish centre who has offensive ability, but his speed and feistiness give him a chance to succeed at the next level.

Kevin Sundher was enjoying a terrific season with Victoria of the WHL (64 points in 40 games) before a trade to playoff-bound Brandon, and he just wasn't the same player, producing 14 points in 27 regular season and playoff games for the Pats. Some time in the AHL will determine whether or not he's a legit prospect.

6-foot-5 goaltender Connor Knapp is coming off a strong senior season at Miami-Ohio and he'll be joined by Western Hockey League grad Nathan Lieuwen as the next generation of Sabres goaltending prospects.

Alex Biega is undersized as pro defencemen go, but the 24-year-old has put in a couple of solid AHL campaigns after four years at Harvard, so he's probably not far from getting a shot; the challenge, of course, being that he has a long list of defence prospects ahead of him on the Sabres' depth chart.

Signed out of the University of Maine (where he had 156 points in 153 career games), Brian Flynn and Philip Varone, a playmaking pivot who led Rochester with 52 points in the regular season, also add to the Sabres' talent pool.

DRAFT
12th - Cody Ceci, Brendan Gaunce, Sebastian Collberg
21st - Olli Maatta, Tom Wilson, Nicolas Kerdiles

FREE AGENCY
According to www.capgeek.com, the Sabres have approximately $57.8M committed to the 2012-2013 salary cap for 18 players. Check out my potential 2012-2013 Sabres roster on Cap Geek here.

Needs: First line centre, checking centre, top-four defenceman.

What I said the Sabres needed last year: Depth forwards, one top four defenceman, another defenceman.

They added: Ville Leino, Luke Adam, Christian Ehrhoff, Robyn Regehr, Marc-Andre Gragnani.

TRADE MARKET Derek Roy, Drew Stafford, Ville Leino, Jordan Leopold, Andrej Sekera, Robyn Regehr.

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.

Sabres celebrate (Photo: Bill Wippert/NHLI via Getty Images)

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(Photo: Bill Wippert/NHLI via Getty Images)
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