Season Premiere

By Chris

When we last left the Sabres, we were frustrated and angry. The team seemed to lack that desire, passion and hunger that fans wore on their sleeves. There are a slew of reasons why the Sabres got bounced in the first round of the playoffs and in the heat of our ire, Ryan and I exchanged several text messages that contained three numbers.

19. 9. 29.

It felt as if Tim Connolly, Derek Roy and Jason Pominville were at the forefront of the disappointment. These were players who were supposed to be the team’s top two centers and its best right winger.

Looking back, Pominville actually didn’t have that bad of a series. He’s a player that it’s easy to be down on because, statistically, it doesn’t look like he’s living up to that five-year contract extension. But he did play well and he’s one of the few guys who will stick around after the game and take responsibility for what happened on the ice.

It’s really Roy and Connolly that can be seen as problems. We’ve seen the diving and perceived whining from Roy and Connolly doesn’t seem willing to go into the corners out of fear of injury. Fans wanted at least one of them moved before training camp opened this year. General manager Darcy Regier obviously felt differently.

And six months removed from Boston Game Six, I feel differently too. I’m actually excited to see what Derek Roy brings to the table this year. During locker clean out, Roy seemed contrite when talking to reporters. He took the criticisms personally and it looked like he actually cared that his lack of production was a big part of why they lost.

Being blamed for the postseason failure and being the subject of “Who Should the Sabres Get Rid Of” talk should carve out a pretty big chip in your shoulder. Love it or hate it, Roy is a player the Sabres have identified as a core guy and as an important voice in the locker room. I know Lindy Ruff has had a tendency to pass the “C” around like Halloween candy, but Roy wearing a letter is significant. I want to see if he can use what he’s learned and take the next step.

As for Connolly, I’m less optimistic. And maybe it’s because it’s pretty apparent that his time with the Sabres is coming to an end. It’s highly unlikely that Regier will sign him to an extension before the Sabres call it a summer. Signing Connolly to an extension at the 2009 Trade Deadline is still a move that’s heavily scrutinized by both those in the stands and in the media. I have a hard time believing Regier will be able to match an open market contract — or that he’d even want to.

Even though his invisibility against the Bruins can be blamed on a still-healing broken foot, there’s still a question about whether he still has “it.” Now don’t get me wrong. He’s enormously talented and can help get this team into the postseason with a high seed. And desperate teams will pay a pretty penny for that type of player in the offseason. But the Sabres aren’t building around that and, at some point, room needs to be made for the next crop of top six forwards.

I’d like to see Connolly have a great year, but the best move might be to deal him at the deadline for picks and/or prospects. Then take on the expiring contract of a player who can better help make that run.

I know I’m skipping way ahead and assuming a lot, but the Sabres really shouldn’t go through this season and lose Tim Connolly for nothing. They’ve invested too much time and money in him to just let him walk.

There’s another important player who’s in a contract year but doesn’t have the right to walk at the end of the season. He’s a player who could have very easily been in the “19. 9. 29.” discussion, and in all honesty, he probably should have been. But this is really a make-or-break year for Drew Stafford.

Supposedly, Stafford had a really good offseason and put in a lot of work to basically get his head right. He looked good in the preseason. He looked like a player that was drafted in the first round who can make a difference.

If that carries into the regular season, then look out, but since he’s come into the league, one of the only things he’s really been consistent at is being inconsistent. I don’t want to say this is Stafford’s last real shot at establishing himself as a top-line winger, but if he doesn’t get in gear quickly, there’s potential for quite a few players to leapfrog him on the depth chart.

Tyler Ennis is one of those players. Nathan Gerbe is another. Neither of those guys really fits on the fourth line. Since it looks like Roy will center the top line with Stafford and Thomas Vanek (whom I predict will get back over the 40-goal plateau) and Connolly will be the pivot between Pominville and Jochen Hecht (whom the Sabres sorely missed against Boston), it looks like Ennis and Gerbe will be fighting for the left wing spot on the Paul Gaustad-Mike Grier line.

Yes, Gaustad would probably be better off on the fourth line with Cody McCormick and Pat Kaleta and let Rob Niedermayer play up on the third line, but Lindy Ruff has always played Gaustad above his ability. I don’t see that changing anytime soon.

Is it fair to Ennis and Gerbe? Probably not, but they’re rookies. And with solid depth at forward, someone has to be the odd-man out. Ennis has the potential to be a star and Gerbe has overcome every obstacle thrown in his way so far aside from chronic injuries. If everyone’s healthy, it’ll probably Gerbe in the press box, but having a capable player breathing down the necks of the bubble guys is welcome.

And that’s the situation right now on defense. Chris Butler, Andrej Sekera and Mike Weber have been battling for the sixth defenseman spot but none have run away with it. Since they’ll be carrying eight defensemen, this is a competition that’s going to continue all season. And that’s fine. May the best man win.

Now, following a super disappointing playoff run and no major changes to the roster, it would be easy to assume that I would be pretty down on this team. It’s quite the opposite actually. Maybe it’s the excitement of the new season, but this team knows that they’re better than what they showed in April.

There’s a desire to prove that they’re good enough and that they can go out and get the job done.

They also have Ryan Miller and Tyler Myers. Pretty crazy that I could go this long without even mentioning them, huh? The Sabres used to be a two-horse team with Miller and Vanek. Say what you will about Vanek, but when he’s “on,” he’s easily one of the top four left wingers in the game. Throw Myers into the mix and you’re obviously looking a lot better.

Myers shouldn’t regress and it’ll be interesting to see how his dynamic with Shaone Morrisonn differs from the one he had with Hank Tallinder (believe it or not, I spelled Shaone Morrisonn’s name right on my first try, then changed it, then triple-checked it, and actually ended up misspelling it). Myers is easily the team’s best defenseman already and I don’t think we’re close to seeing his ceiling yet.

Miller has established himself as the league’s best goaltender and it’s totally within his ability to maintain his 2009-10 form. The Sabres have a chance to win every game he’s between the pipes and it’s a good thing he likes to work almost every night.

He’ll probably get more rest this year with all the back-to-back games so it’ll be up to Patrick Lalime to come in and finish games — it really doesn’t matter how Lalime does. Really. Complaining about the backup goaltender isn’t going to make a difference. The dropoff between Miller and everyone else in the system makes the conversation pointless.

I said in a previous post that the perfect storm may be brewing for this team. They’ve got a core that’s experienced, but still looking to establish itself. There are cagey veterans on the third and fourth lines who can provide invaluable experience and advice. There are the young guys champing at the bit for their opportunity and aren’t afraid to take chances. They’ve got the cog on defense they can build around and Planet Earth’s No. 1 goaltender.

If they can just come close to putting it together, then I think we’re all in for a very entertaining year. And if all else fails, at least they’re finally wearing a real crest.

Go Sabres.

***
Also, if you missed it yesterday, Nick Mendola asked me and the folks at WECK to make some predictions about the NHL season. You can find everyone’s picks at Nick’s site, but here were my guesses:

Eastern Conference
1. Pittsburgh
2. Washington
3. Buffalo
4. New Jersey
5. Boston
6. Philadelphia
7. Montreal
8. New York Rangers

9. Carolina
10. Ottawa
11. Atlanta
12. Tampa Bay
13. Toronto
14. New York Islanders
15. Florida

Western Conference
1. Vancouver
2. Detroit
3. San Jose
4. Los Angeles
5. Dallas
6. Chicago
7. Anaheim
8. Nashville

9. Colorado
10. Phoenix
11. St. Louis
12. Columbus
13. Calgary
14. Minnesota
15. Edmonton

Sabres in Division, Conference, Playoffs: First in Division, Third in Conference, Eliminated in Conference Finals
Final Four: Pittsburgh over Buffalo, Los Angeles over Vancouver
Cup Finals and winner: Pittsburgh over Los Angeles

Most goals (NHL and Sabres, respectively): Rick Nash, Thomas Vanek
Most points (NHL and Sabres, respectively): Sidney Crosby, Jason Pominville
Presidents Trophy: Pittsburgh Penguins
Worst Record: Florida Panthers
Vezina Trophy: Ryan Miller
Rookie of the Year: Jonathan Bernier

5 Comments

  1. I have a good feeling about Derek Roy this season for the same reasons that you mentioned, Chris. Last season was the first year where Derek’s apologies seemed like more than words. I hope that’s the case.

  2. I still like Connolly. One bad week in the postseason shouldn’t overshadow what was a pretty good season.

    I am more worried about Pominville and Stafford, both of who looked the best in their rookie years…

  3. Mark B.

    Very well said. I feel the same way about the team this upcoming season. I think it’s good that they’re being underrated so much. If you just consider having the best goalie in the world and a potential Norris trophy winner down the road, that should be enough to make the playoffs. But we have much more than that.

  4. “Shoane Morrisonn differs from the one he had with Hank Tallinder (believe it or not, I spelled Shaone Morrisonn’s name right on my first try)”

  5. And then I edited it and misspelled it.