THN’s PRE-SEASON PREDICTION: No. 7 in Atlantic Division
2013: 21-21-6. 12th in East.
KEY DEPARTURES: Nathan Gerbe, Adam Pardy, Andrej Sekera, Jochen Hecht.
KEY ADDITIONS: Henrik Tallinder, Jamie McBain, Jamie Tardiff
THE PROS: For however much time Ryan Miller has left on this team, he’ll be a plus. Though his numbers haven’t been quite as good the past three seasons and his Vezina contention days appear to be behind him, Miller still gives you the comfort of a reliable goaltender. And, hey, if the time comes for him to be traded this season, Jhonas Enroth appears a capable and worthy replacement for the young squad. The other ace in Buffalo’s pocket is Thomas Vanek, who is a fair bet to score 30 goals and be a key component on the man advantage (he was third in the NHL in PP goals last season, even though Buffalo’s PP ranked 29th). Finally, though Buffalo in the process of installing a new young core, it’s in better position to do a relatively quick turnaround than some (coughCalgarycough). The Sabres have done well in acquiring a few good youngsters through trade and the draft over the past two years.
THE CONS: The transition to a new era is far from complete. The Sabres thin defense allowed the most shots against last season – and when a defenseman from Carolina (Jamie McBain) is your biggest upgrade, well, you can’t expect too much improvement. Since winning the Calder Trophy, Tyler Myers’ point production has been trending down, as has his ice time (though he still hits more than 21 minutes a night). The big question this year is what to do with pending UFAs Vanek and Miller. Unfortunately for the Sabres, the goalie trade market has been watered down for a while, so if they do decide to part ways with Miller in-season, the fan base is destined to be underwhelmed by the return for their long-time best player. Vanek will likely bring in the best value. If both do get traded this season it would likely be for future assets. Where would that leave the Sabres of the present? In a battle for the division basement, that’s where.
X-FACTOR: Center is such an important position in this league, so the Sabres need to see continued growth from three of their most promising. Cody Hodgson, who is still without a contract, posted the best point average of his young career and should see increased ice time with more of a role on the PK this season. Mikhail Grigorenko, a centerpiece of this new era, should also see an increase on the 10:14 of ice he got last season which, in turn, should give him more confidence and a higher amount of points. Finally, whether in the AHL, NHL or both, Zemgus Girgensons needs to continue to build up his offensive ceiling. He got motoring with three goals in three Calder Cup playoff games last season, but scored only 17 points in the AHL all season. He may end up as a checking center, but there’s plenty of time for him to grow before being pigeonholed.
PERIPHERAL PREDICTION: Ville Leino will continue to under-produce for his $4.5 million cap hit and earn $500,000 for each goal he scores.
ATLANTIC NO. 7: BUFFALO SABRES