Buffalo Sabres due for a much-needed growth spurt

By Alexander Monaghan

Photo Credit: Michael Nugent / Flickr

Coming out of the lockout of 2004-2005, the Buffalo Sabres were not followers, they were leaders. Their young, exuberant team — led by spark-plugs Daniel Briere and Chris Drury — came out of the gate with a bang, racing past the competition in their most dominant display of their 42-year history. Those teams won 52 and 53 games, respectively, as the world lauded both GM Darcy Regier and head coach Lindy Ruff for both their blueprint and essentially their foresight.

If you dust off a few old tapes of the Sabres it was, simply put, hard to root against them. They were fast, dynamic, and chock-full of talent. Their veteran core knew how to help mentor youngsters like Jason Pominville and Paul Gaustad, and in turn those players absorbed all of it. It seemed like every other minute there was a highlight-reel goal.

But as is the case with most great teams, not everyone could be kept.

Briere and Drury cashed in on their league-wide demand, while Thomas Vanek put the team in financial restraints by signing an enormous seven-year offer sheet worth $50 million. Even J.P. Dumont, a four-year veteran of the team, priced himself out of ‘The Queen City’ after taking the team to arbitration. And those members of the core who decided to stay — Tim Connolly, Maxim Afinogenov, Ales Kotalik, and to a lesser extent, Jochen Hecht — all struggled to either stay healthy or produce at their accelerated level over the remainder of their stay. In short, the team fell apart, and outside of their Northeast Division title in 2009-2010, has struggled to regain that momentum.

Last season was no different for the Sabres, who missed the playoffs for the third time in the last five seasons. However, this offseason was different as Regier chose to revamp his team.

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In year’s past the club revolved around somewhat smaller players with tons of skill and energy. Captain Pominville stands at a generous 6’0″, but the club features a few mighty mites like Tyler Ennis and Nathan Gerbe. These diminutive skaters aided in Ruff’s forechecking system in the past, but one has to wonder whether that high-octane style of play can still be executed with confidence. One could argue that it puts too much pressure on franchise starting goalie Ryan Miller, who in tandem with Jhonas Enroth faced 2571 shots last season– tied for fourth in the league.

Photo Credit: flickr / kicksave2930

Certainly if the Sabres are to return to their winning ways consistently, the blueprint would have to change. They remain solid in nets with both Miller and Enroth, but as we witnessed in the Milan Lucic incident, there was no one protecting them. Therefore, their face-lift in both offseason moves and drafting could go a long way into making this club a contender once again.

When a team takes an organizational shift, it typically begins with trading away the players who don’t quite fit, or those who could give them additional assets. Trading away Gaustad and Zach Kassian during the trade deadline provided the team with a potential top-line center in Cody Hodgson and a very decent first round pick. And by trading away Derek Roy a few weeks ago, the Sabres not only allow Hodgson and Luke Adam to play valuable minutes this upcoming season, they also bring in a versatile player — a type of player they did not already have in their system — in Steve Ott.

On the draft front, however, Regier likely started his redux years ago. Since 2008, the Sabres have drafted mostly players with size and have been rewarded with very useful players. In ’07 they found Corey Tropp and T.J. Brennan despite not owning a first-round pick. They then took the hulking behemoth Tyler Myers as well as a skilled center with size in Adam back in ’08. The following season they brought Kassian, Marcus Foligno, and Brayden McNabb to upstate New York. And in the first round of the next three drafts they took nothing but size and skill with Mark Pysyk, Joel Armia, Zemgus Girgensons, and Mikhail Grigorenko (Yes, they sprinkled in pure-skill picks like Ennis, the focus has been primarily on both size and skill).

The next wave of talent looks firmly ingrained into the system; now the question becomes can they carry out the system. Or will the system change for them?

In those two dynastic seasons, the Sabres emphasized forechecking. Relentless forechecking. However, you might notice that neither of those teams were overly physical. Their main asset was speed, and boy did they have speed to burn. Many of the players recently selected are known typically more for their skill-set than their overall skating, but most of them have glowing reports as excellent on their skates.

As these players develop under the tutelage of Ruff and company, it will be interesting to see how this franchise evolves. They have very little to worry about with Buffalo millionaire Terry Pegula in as the owner, this team simply needs to make their city once again proud. Regardless of how the situation turns out, it should be a very exciting season as they try to unseat the Boston Bruins in the Northeast.