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October 2, 2013 | 12:40pm ET
2013-14 Season Preview: Buffalo
By Shawn Hutcheon, TheFourthPeriod.com

The Buffalo Sabres are hoping this season will not resemble last season or even be a reasonable facsimile. The team saw too many changes, including the firing of 16 year head coach Lindy Ruff, which left people throughout the hockey world wondering what would be the next major move by management.

Relieving Ruff of his duties and hiring Ron Rolston was accompanied with trades that saw many fan favorites depart for other NHL cities. TJ Brennan was dispatched to Florida, Jordan Leopold was sent to St. Louis, Robin Regehr was shuttled off to Los Angeles and Jason Pominville became a Wild in Minnesota. In exchange for those who were traded, general manager Darcy Regier exhibited his desire to make the team younger as he picked up eight draft choices and two young players.

The wheeling and dealing was done with an eye to the future but it signaled that the season was not going to end on a good note. Buffalo finished fifth in the Northeast Division with a 21-21-6 record and did not qualify for the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Management appears to be continuing the rebuilding of this one time contender. The Sabres will most likely be the youngest team in the NHL this season and there will be more than a few new faces in the lineup.

Offensively, the team that finished 22nd in the NHL in goals scored could continue to struggle in that department.

The squad’s top unit of Thomas Vanek, Cody Hodgson and Marcus Foligno will provide the bulk of the scoring this season. The second line projects to be Steve Ott with center Tyler Ennis and right winger Ville Leino. Rolston may use rookie Zemgus Girgensons on the left side of Mikhail Grigorenko while Brian Flynn could take over the left side. The fourth trio looks to be Cody McCormick between two bruising wingers, John Scott and Patrick Kaleta.

The man the club will lean heavily on again this season for offense will be Vanek. The Austrian native has registered 250 goals, 238 assists for a total of 488 points in 585 games. He possesses world class skills. Despite constant trade rumors last season, Vanek produced 20 goals and 21 assists in the 38 games he played in.

A second forward who can be counted on to carry most of the scoring burden will be Hodgson. The center registered 34 points last year, the most he has accumulated in a season. The former first round draft choice (10th overall, 2008 NHL Entry Draft) is with his second NHL franchise and at the age of 23, it is time for Hodgson to reach the potential he was tagged with during his junior hockey days.

Steve Ott is the other forward who the team will rely heavily on. Not necessarily known for offensive output, Ott scores the timely goal or makes a play that leads to the puck finding the back of the net. Not one to exhibit elite skills, the 31 year old winger is a power forward who will win puck battles and put shots on goal from the wall. This will be Ott’s second season in Buffalo which should see him score far beyond the nine goals he tallied last season.

Vanek, Hodgson and Ott are going to be relied upon to provide scoring and leadership to the Sabres. Vanek and Hodgson have not had the role of leader thrust on them as it will be this season, all eyes will be on them to see how they accept it.

The defense could be the youngest in the league. The lineup could be laden with young defenders such as Rasmus Ristolainen, the Sabres first round selection in the 2013 NHL Entry Draft (8th overall). Mark Pysyk will return for a second season on the blue line after seeing action in 19 NHL games in 2012-2013. Tyler Myers will be the go to guy in even strength, power play and penalty killing situations. Henrik Tallinder has returned after being with the New Jersey Devils for the last three seasons. His leadership will be valuable to this group of defenders. New Sabre Jamie McBain, while just 25 years of age, is entering his fifth NHL season. He has spent the previous four years in Carolina and is known as a strong skater who can set up teammates for scoring chances. It is hoped McBain will be an upgrade on the power play.

Myers is expected to be the anchor but at 23 years old and an injury-prone career has limited his development. When healthy, he can be a player who is hard to play against due to his size (6-foot-8) and physical nature. Staying in the lineup this season will be imperative for Myers if the Sabres are to have any type of success this season. Myers would be wise to give all of his attention to Tallinder, much can be learned from watching the veteran apply his trade. Tallinder was brought back to inject stability to the blue line and will log heavy minutes in doing so. McBain was a top four defender in Carolina and will continue to be in Buffalo. He has the reputation of being adept in his own zone and will also add an offensive spark to the corps. McBain’s shot from the point rivals that of most defensemen in the NHL.

If there is one position that will be solid for the Sabres this season, it will be that of goaltender. Ryan Miller and Jhonas Enroth is one of the top goaltending tandems in the league.

Miller, entering his 11th NHL season, is just what the doctor ordered for this young team. His leadership and experience (500 NHL games) will prove to be invaluable as the youngsters learn the NHL game. Although, he did not have the type of 12-13 season observers were expecting, look for the 33 year old Michigan native to bounce back and show why he is a contender to return to the Olympics with Team USA.

Enroth has been a Sabre for four years and has been more than a capable back up to Miller. Enroth has the skill and talent to be a number one netminder on some NHL clubs. He has played in 53 games during his career and has lost only 18 of those contests. The native of Sweden is coming off a gold medal performance at the 2013 IIHF World Championships, which only increased his stock and his confidence.

In today’s NHL, a team must have strong special teams. They can make the difference between a club seeing postseason action on the ice or in front of its television. Unfortunately, for Buffalo, last year’s special teams struggled mightily.

The power play found the back of the net on 14.1 percent of their chances, placing it 29th in the circuit. Only Winnipeg had a worse percentage. Add to the fact that the Sabres gave up seven shorthanded markers (the most allowed by any NHL team) and one can see there is pretty much no where to go but up.

A healthy Myers along with McBain will be an instant improvement this year. Vanek is always a threat on the power play and it will be the responsibility of Hodgson and Ott to get the puck to him.

Man-down situations faired a little better but not much. The Sabres penalty killers warded off 79.2 percent of opponents power plays. Buffalo ended the campaign 26th in the league in that category.

Once again, Myers will be counted on to be a rock solid penalty killer. He should be paired with Tallinder, who is as steady a penalty killer as you will find. Up front, Ott and Ennis should improve the PK and chip in with a shorthanded goal when the opportunity arises. After Ott and Ennis, Sabres coaches are looking for the perfect blend of defensive awareness and quickness from the rest of the forwards. Expect the second PK unit to learn on the job.

The Buffalo Sabres are in a state of transition. The young group of players can be expected to make mistakes, some costly, throughout the season, however, Rolston and his assistants have reputations of being very good at developing youngsters and overall team improvement will be visible as the season moves along.

On the scoreboard, there will be some long nights. In the standings, it will be a long season as the club will most likely miss the playoffs for a second consecutive year but keep the faith, Buffalo, better days are on the horizon.

Shawn Hutcheon is the Boston Correspondent for The Fourth Period.


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