STATE OF THE UNION
The Buffalo Sabres held the sixth spot in the Eastern Conference standings when goalie Ryan Miller sprained his left ankle Feb. 21 against the New York Rangers and missed 13 games. They fell from the conference's top-eight teams during his absence and never recovered.
"When Ryan got hurt, we might have been in sixth and on the Rangers' heels," Sabres General Manager Darcy Regier said. "Ironically, that was the game he got injured. I'm knocking on wood that we have a healthy Ryan Miller for the entire season."
First-line center Tim Connolly missed 34 games with back and rib injuries but had 47 points in 48 games. Some think Buffalo is a team without a superstar, but if Connolly could maintain that pace over a full season, he'd be on the verge of stardom.
"We're hoping this is the year he plays a full season," Regier said. "He really is a top NHL center, close to a point-a-game guy. It's important for our hockey team to keep Tim and Derek Roy healthy in the center position."
On top of that, defenseman Craig Rivet was rehabilitating from knee surgery when the 2008-09 season started and he missed 13 games in December and January with a shoulder injury.
"Craig's healthy. He had minor knee surgery in November and his shoulder didn't require surgery. He's strengthening it this summer," Regier said.
Every team deals with injuries, but when your top player at each position is forced from the lineup and likely plays hurt in a lot of other games, it's going to take its toll and the results show in the standings.
"I think our fans like watching players like Derek Roy, Thomas Vanek, Jason Pominville, Ryan Miller, Patrick Kaleta and Paul Gaustad. The fans appreciate what those players bring. … We're not a young team but we are continuing to develop this group of players. We're pushing hard for them to grow together and care for each other, take responsibility for themselves and their teammates." -- Sabres GM Darcy Regier
The strategy has been criticized in the media, but Buffalo fans have been gobbling up season and individual-game tickets this summer.
"I think our fans like watching players like Derek Roy, Thomas Vanek, Jason Pominville, Ryan Miller, Patrick Kaleta and Paul Gaustad," Regier said. "The fans appreciate what those players bring. They know we missed the playoffs two years in a row after going to the conference final twice in a row.
"We're not a young team but we are continuing to develop this group of players. We're pushing hard for them to grow together and care for each other, take responsibility for themselves and their teammates.
"We didn't lose players, so we weren't as active in free agency. If you lose players you have to buy players, so we follow a philosophy that, when possible, we look to build this team rather than look to free agency. Our fresh faces come from development.
"Our fans do see new faces; they just don't see them on July 1."
Regier said the plan is to stick with Miller and Patrick Lalime in net. Henrik Tallinder and Toni Lydman once again form the first defense pairing, supported by Rivet and Chris Butler, the former Denver University star who made the Sabres in his first pro season. Montador might pair with Andrej Sekera, but those two and emerging defensemen Marc-Andre Gragnani, Joe DiPenta and Mike Weber may be pushed aside by Tyler Myers, the 2008 first-round draft pick who stands 6-foot-7 and 220 pounds.
"Myers will push to convince us to keep him here," Regier said. "Given the year he had in juniors and at the World Juniors, he's certainly an upper-echelon prospect."
Up front, look for Connolly to center Vanek and Pominville; Roy to center Jochen Hecht and Drew Stafford; Gaustad between Clarke MacArthur and Kaleta; and Adam Mair centering Dan Paille and Mark Mancari. Defenseman Nathan Paetsch, like Montador, can play forward and defense.
If that forward group doesn't get the job done, AHL rookie of the year Nathan Gerbe is looking for a job. Tim Kennedy finished second to Mancari in scoring at AHL Portland. Veteran Matt Ellis is strong defensively and can play all three forward positions.
The Sabres will be unveiling a wealth of talent from past drafts in the next two seasons. Five players -- Marc-Andre Gragnani, Mark Mancari, Tim Kennedy, Nathan Gerbe and Mike Weber -- have had brief stays but look ready to challenge for jobs this season.
The defense looks to get stronger soon with top picks like Tyler Myers, T.J. Brennan and Dennis Persson progressing nicely and pushed by Corey Fienhage, a 2008 third-round pick who was a standout at the Sabres' summer development camp.
Here is a look at the five biggest prospects on the horizon for the Sabres:
Tyler Myers -- The No. 12 pick in the 2008 Entry Draft presents a difficult problem for the Sabres. Myers had an outstanding season with the Kelowna Rockets in 2008-09, scoring 42 points in the regular season, and then leading WHL defenseman in the playoffs with 15 assists and 20 points as Kelowna advanced to the Memorial Cup. Myers was named to the tournament's All-Star Team.
NHL rules dictate Myers must play in Buffalo or be returned to his junior team, and there doesn't seem to be much point in the 6-foot-7, 220-pounder playing another junior season.
Mark Mancari -- The 6-foot-3, 225-pound right wing was a seventh-round pick in 2004 but has developed well in the minors. He played seven games in Buffalo last season, during which he scored his first NHL goal. Mancari led the AHL's Portland Pirates in scoring last season with 29 goals and 67 points. He should make the Sabres out of training camp.
Nathan Gerbe -- At 5-foot-6 and 160 pounds, Gerbe was the smallest player in the NHL last season. He had 1 assist in 10 NHL games, but was the AHL rookie of the year after totaling 30 goals and 56 assists. Thomas Vanek and Jochen Hecht seem secure at left wing, but Gerbe should give Clarke MacArthur, Daniel Paille and Matt Ellis strong competition for a job.
Marc-Andre Gragnani -- A 2005 third-round pick, Gragnani is caught behind a strong defense in Buffalo. He played four games for the Sabres last season and two in 2007-08. Gragnani led Portland defensemen in scoring with 42 assists and 51 points. He's 6-foot-1 and 180 pounds, and the power play is his specialty. He needs to beef up and improve his defense to secure an NHL job.
Tyler Ennis -- Buffalo's second first-round pick (No. 26) in the 2008 Entry Draft again was named a WHL East First All-Star and the WHL's Most Sportsmanlike Player while finishing sixth in the league with 43 goals and 10th with 85 points. Buffalo is well stocked at center with Connolly, Roy, Gaustad and Mair, so Ennis likely will play a season with Portland.
The Sabres are viewed as a skilled team, not a tough one, something they addressed at the 2009 Entry Draft with picks like Zack Kassian, Brayden McNabb and Marcus Foligno.
"We were on the small side with respect to prospects," Sabres GM Darcy Regier said. "I think our scouting staff has done a good job of identifying players down the road with skill and size. The League is shifting back to where size matters more again."
In all, the Sabres took four forwards, a defenseman and a goalie. Here is a quick look at the six selections the Sabres made in Montreal in June:
Zack Kassian -- Size, scoring, toughness, leadership -- Kassian brings it all. Just ask John Tavares. Kassian separated Tavares' shoulder at the CHL-NHL Top Prospects Game with a hard check, the kind he throws every night. Very few OHL players will mess with the Peterborough Petes' 6-foot-3, 205-pound right wing. He jumped from No. 24 North American skater in Central Scouting's midseason rankings to No. 10 after posting 24 goals and 63 points in 61 OHL games.
Brayden McNabb -- Developed rapidly this past season with added responsibilities for the WHL's Kootenay Ice. A right-shooting defenseman, McNabb also was selected to play in the Top Prospects Game and for Canada at the World Under-18 Championship. While he needs to work on his skating, the 6-4, 200-pounder posted 10 goals and 36 points in 67 games.
Marcus Foligno -- Mike's son and Nick's "little" brother is a 6-2, 200-pound left wing had 12 goals, 30 points and 96 penalty minutes in 65 games for Sudbury of the OHL. He plays a physical game, works hard and sticks up for teammates. Much is expected from him as an 18-year-old this season.
Mark Adams -- An excellent skater with good offensive abilities, Adams is 6-1 and 187 pounds. He'll play one season with Chicago of the USHL and then move to Providence College.
Connor Knapp -- After a fine career with the Boston Junior Bruins in the Eastern Junior Hockey League, Knapp went 13-5-3 for Miami University as a freshman last season, posting a .904 save percentage and 2.09 goals-against average. He's huge at 6-foot-5 and 217 pounds.
Maxime Legault -- A late-blooming, 6-foot-2, 195-pound right wing who showed steady improvement for the Shawinigan Cataractes, Legault had 28 goals and 44 points in 63 games. He then had 10 goals and 13 points in 21 playoff games. Legault's checking was impressive at the team's prospect development camp.