Most Sabres fans would just as soon forget about last season and we’re all fine with that. Would you want to remember a season in which your team finished dead last in the league in points by a mile and was one of the worst offensive teams in recent memory?
There were few positives about last season on the ice. Tyler Myers looked a little bit better, rebounding from a few terrible years defensively. He’s begun showing the skill and decision-making that had him poised to be a franchise defenseman after winning the Calder Trophy in 2009-10.
And that’s really where the positives end on the ice. Off it, however, the rebuild progressed nicely. The team got a nice bounty for Ryan Miller and Matt Moulson, stole the Islanders’ first-round pick from them for Thomas Vanek and generally did well in terms of stocking up picks and prospects.
Key acquisitions: Matt Moulson (again), Brian Gionta, Josh Gorges
Key departures: Ville Leino (haha jk), Christian Ehrhoff
The Leino buyout was coming from a mile away and was long overdue. The team gets out from under that ugly deal and Leino gets to move on with his life (likely heading back to Europe). The Ehrhoff buyout, meanwhile, was a bit surprising given his level of play but less so when you consider the significant recapture risks the team was facing due to his contract. It also opens up a spot for one of the young defensemen in the group, so it’s not a complete loss.
As far as additions go, Moulson is a solid grab and fills the top left wing role just fine. He’s capable of 30 goals in a good year, but likely won’t hit that playing on this team. Still, he seems to like Buffalo and was a fan favorite before being dealt to Minnesota at the deadline.
Gionta, meanwhile, appears to have been brought in solely for his leadership. The Sabres have struggled with clearly-defined leaders over the last few years and, on a very young team such as this one, it’s important to have that established. Gionta will help fill that role in one way or another and chip in a little offense, but the 35-year-old winger isn’t here to fill the stat sheet.
The team also got a solid defenseman in Gorges from the Montreal Canadiens. He adds leadership as well (he was pegged to replace Gionta in Montreal before the trade), while bringing a physical edge that the Sabres sorely need. Plus, he hates the Leafs and we can all get behind that.
Biggest strength: They will still struggle to score on most nights, but the Sabres are going to be a lot more competitive thanks to a plethora of solid, two-way players. The first three lines are all going to give you quality effort and can chip in offensively.
Somehow, it appears the Sabres are suddenly flush at center. Tyler Ennis, Cody Hodgson, Zemgus Girgensons, Sam Reinhart and Mikhail Grigorenko could all see the opening-night roster and all are quality options at center. Hodgson, notoriously weak defensively, will likely be shifted to wing while Reinhart and Grigorenko will remain last-minute decisions.
Still, if the group can even come close to living up to their potential, the Sabres can have three very good scoring centers, a quality second-line winger (Hodgson) and a potential captain and very good #3 center in Girgensons.
As a group, they’re likely a year away, but the potential is certainly there.
Biggest weakness: As it was last year, offense will be a struggle once again this season. Whether or not it will be the titanic struggle it was last year remains to be seen, but they at least look better on paper.
Moulson and Ennis are the team’s clear top options offensively and neither is exactly an All-Star. Both are very good #2’s at best and they’re being asked to shoulder the load offensively. Part of the reason the team was so bad offensively last year also had to do with the thousands upon thousands of shots they gave up seemingly every game. That likely won’t be as bad this year, but it’s a problem that should still remain in some capacity this season.
Gionta and Gorges weren’t brought in for their offense, Girgensons is more in the Paul Gaustad mold than anything else and there are huge questions as far as potential contributors that will even be there (Grigorenko, Reinhart). Unless a line gels early, expect the struggles to continue before a piece or two gets moved at the deadline.
Biggest Story: Without a doubt, the biggest story is the Connor McDavid sweepstakes and the Sabres are dead smack in the middle of it. It’s probably a little bit sad when the biggest story on the ice has to do with just how much you lose, but in this instance it could change the face of the franchise forever.
McDavid is as can’t miss as can’t miss gets and the Sabres haven’t had a player like him come through the system since Gilbert Perreault back when the franchise was formed. This type of player doesn’t come around often and he’s the kind of player that could transform the Sabres overnight.
With a plethora of picks and a team that is decent, but nowhere near good enough to challenge for a playoff spot, the focus this season will be with an eye towards June and making sure the team lands the first overall pick.
The Sabres will be infinitely more competitive this season, but it still shouldn’t be a drastic improvement. Sure, they brought Moulson back into the fold and added a few decent pieces, but they’ll be without Miller from the start this time and no Ehrhoff hurts the defense.
Expect a lot of close games with the Sabres on the losing end before rolling into June with a shot at greatness.
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When not inanely bantering about the Sabres, Ryan Womeldorf can be found here and at TwoPadStack.net talking all things hockey. He's usually got a lot to say, but sadly most of it is wrong. If you have any questions, feel free to contact him at email@example.com