Join TSN.ca in a 30 Teams In 30 Days tour of the NHL in preparation for the upcoming season. Today, we examine the 2011-12 campaign for the Buffalo Sabres. Get the lowdown on their off-season and the issues they face this season. And use the Your Call feature to give us your take.
Buffalo's fortunes as a franchise seemingly turned on a dime when businessman Terry Pegula acquired control of his beloved Sabres. Not only did it mean the team finally had solid financial backing, but a passionate owner (who even wept at the sight of the club's greatest icon, Gilbert Perreault).
The team responded in kind to the newfound love affair, losing in regulation only four times over the season's remaining 24 games and moving from 10th in the Eastern Conference to seventh. The team also came within one game of knocking off the defending Eastern Conference Champions, losing to the Philadelphia Flyers in seven games.
So with a big bankroll and a fresh start, what will the 2011-12 season hold for the Sabres?
Here's a look at what's in store for this season.
Prospect Report: After getting full seasons out of diminutive rookies Tyler Ennis and Nathan Gerbe, the time may be right for the Sabres to promote some muscle in the form of Zack Kassian. Though the forward ranks are crowded, Kassian's body might be better suited to throwing his weight around the NHL instead of the American Hockey League.
Luke Adam could be ahead of him in the queue after a 19-game stint with the Sabres last season. However, it might come down to who impresses more in training camp and the position they play (Adam being a centre and Kassian playing the wing).
Breakout Player to Watch: Nathan Gerbe is a small man that plays a big man's game. He proved last season that he had a penchant for streaky scoring, as evidenced by the eight goals he scored in the season's final 14 games to double his output for the year.
If he can put it together for a full season, he could become a key part of the Sabres' attack. Tim Connolly's departure also opens up some power play minutes that could go Gerbe's way should he produce early in the season.
Marquee Match-Up: Nov. 4 vs. Calgary - Baptism by Fire. Less than a month into the NHL season, Robyn Regehr will line up against his former Flames teammates for the first time ever. If the Sabres hope to neutralize Jarome Iginla and the Flames' attack, Regehr and any tricks he's learned practicing against them for the last 12 years may prove useful.
Other Dates To Watch: Oct. 7 and 8 - Sabres kick off the NHL season in Helsinki and Stockholm. Feb. 16 - the Sabres return to Philadelphia, scene of their 2011 playoff demise and a homecoming for Ville Leino. Mar. 3 - Christian Ehrhoff returns to Vancouver for the first time since he saw the Bruins hoist the Cup.
Reason to Get Excited: Hope. There finally seems to be some of it in Buffalo and Pegula is the primary catalyst behind that. After years of putting together competitive teams on a shoe-string budget only to see players leave for more cash, Pegula has beefed up the team's roster and payroll significantly. If the team prospers from the new acquisitions, the city could become a destination of choice instead of a launching pad.
Home Hardware: Strong goaltending is the key to any competitive NHL season and the Sabres have just that in veteran netminder Ryan Miller. With new arrivials Regehr and Ehrhoff bolstering the blueline, it will be that much more difficult to beat Miller and his second Vezina Trophy in three seasons could be in the cards.
On The Hot Seat: General Manager Darcy Regier (who signed a two-year contract extenstion last fall) was given the green light to spend money on improving the team and the Sabres were more than $3 million over the salary cap in the middle of the off-season. If Regier can't make the Sabres contenders in the East, could his long-standing tenure be the first casualty of the new regime?
Regier is well-respected around the league and obviously trusted by Pegula, but if the new high-priced additions don't produce, the Sabres might find the GM easier to replace than long-time head coach Lindy Ruff.
It's Your! Call: How will the new-look Sabres fare in one of the league's least predictable divisions?
Few would argue that the defending champion Bruins are the team to beat in the Northeast, but with the Sabres having spent a large part of the 2010-11 season out of the playoff picture, can they be expected to immediately contend for the division title or even home-ice advantage?
The Senators are looking at a rebuilding year, but with the Canadiens and Leafs both looking for drastic improvements over last year, the Sabres could be hard-pressed for easy points within the division.
The team got a spark last season from the ownership change, but a long summer could have diminished that spark a bit.
So will an increase in team spending mean a rise in the standings?