2008-09: 41-33-9 (10th in the East – Missed the playoffs)
TSN Pre-season Power Ranking: 19
General Manager: Darcy Regier (12th Season)
Head Coach: Lindy Ruff (12th Season)
What They Did in the off-season:
A somewhat quiet off-season in the Queen City, but sometimes that can be a good thing. For the first time in recent memory the Sabres did not head into the summer worried about a star walking away from the team in free agency leaving the Sabres empty handed. Although Maxim Afinogenov will be taking his ball and likely going home, few tears will be shed in Sabre-land for the Russian's uneven play.
The team acquired some additional grit for its defensive unit by picking up Steve Montador in free agency. The took a chance bringing Joe DiPenta back to the NHL on a one-year deal while securing the services of Cody McCormick and bringing back Mike Grier. Jaroslav Spacek joined the Montreal Canadiens while classy veteran Teppo Numminen closed the curtains on a solid 20 year career.
Biggest Issue facing the team:
This is a big season for the Buffalo Sabres. A good looking group of young players have been allowed to develop naturally and the team hopes that their patience will be rewarded this season.
The team's core is smack dab in the middle of what should be their prime years and share a great deal of familiarity with each other as well as the benefit of having a consistent coach and general manager tandem to work under.
There should be no contract distractions off the ice as the team has learned from past mistakes and locked up all their youthful talent to long-term deals.
No player will be under more pressure to perform than franchise netminder Ryan Miller. The 28-year old East Lansing native signed an enormous five-year contract with the team prior to last season, Miller rewarded the team with a statistically stellar season, however one in which he missed 13 games with an ankle injury. Seeing as the Sabres missed the playoffs by only two points it is not too much of a reach to say that Buffalo would have been post-season bound had Miller managed to remain healthy.
By all accounts Miller is fit and has the added incentive of his desire to be named the number one goalkeeper of Team USA's Olympic team. All that extra motivation paired with a reinforced defensive corps makes it easy to envision a big year for Miller and the Sabres.
Player to watch:
While Miller will likely be under the most scrutiny this could be a make or break season for Tim Connolly. The American's skill, puck handling ability and soft hands rival most of his peers in the NHL, however he cannot shake the “injury-prone” label.
Connolly once again missed significant time to injuries last season, as back and rib injuries sidelined him for more than 30 games. Concussion problems and groin issues also helped to derail a very impressive beginning to his career. Instead of being scared off by repeated injuries, the Sabres rewarded Connolly by signing him to a two-year extension.
For the team the positives of Connolly far outweigh the negatives. He is a point per game scorer with great playmaking ability and solid chemistry with his linemates. A full season of Connolly could be the difference between making the playoffs or a third straight summer of early tee times in Buffalo.
Scott Cullen's Fantasy Take:
Not quite a playoff team last year, the Buffalo Sabres have a talented cast of forwards and a quality goaltender, but still lack a proven puck-moving defenceman.
Though his point total and plus-minus rating dipped last season, Derek Roy has emerged as a quality playmaking centre and there are plenty of guys that would take 70 points, including 30 on the power play.
Perhaps the player with the greatest upside in the organization, Thomas Vanek has put up back-to-back 64-point seasons and has scored 119 goals in the last three seasons, yet it seems that he's barely scratching the surface of his ability. Maybe the 2006-2007 season, when he scored 84 points and led the league with a plus-47 rating, set the bar too high, but expectations for Vanek to be a point-per-game player aren't unreasonable.