One goal was all that stood between the Buffalo Sabres and a berth in the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Finishing seventh in the Eastern Conference in 2010-11 earned the Sabres a first-round date with the second-seeded Philadelphia Flyers. In Game 6, with Buffalo holding a 3-2 series lead, the Sabres found themselves in overtime, on the verge of advancing to the Eastern Conference Semifinals for the first time since 2007. Instead, Ville Leino scored for the Flyers to force a Game 7, where they handed Buffalo an early exit from the postseason.
This year's Sabres will be a far different unit than the one that bowed out of the playoffs so cruelly this past spring.
On offense, the team is still anchored by Thomas Vanek, who scored 32 goals this past season to lead the team in that category for the fifth straight season. In the playoffs, Vanek scored five times, and was the only Sabre to score more than two goals.
In goal, the Sabres are set, like they have been for many years, with Ryan Miller in net. Statistically, it was a down year for Miller, as he posted a 2.59 goals-against average and .916 save percentage. The previous season, Miller recorded a 2.22 GAA and .929 save percentage. His record last season was still a solid 34-22-8 while leading Buffalo to the playoffs for the fourth time in his career.
What would appear to be a promising future for the Sabres seems even brighter now as new owner Terry Pegula has allowed General Manager Darcy Regier to increase the team’s payroll in the quest to bring Buffalo its first Stanley Cup.
Buffalo has seen a few coveted free agents leave western New York in recent years, but this time around, the Sabres brought in some high-priced talent during the offseason.
SABRES: 3 QUESTIONS FOR 2011-2012
1. Will the busy summer equate to success? The Sabres were one of the League's most active teams this summer, making notable trades and free-agent signings. However, it didn't appear as if GM Darcy Regier just threw money around. Instead the additions appear to be smart, sound, acquisitions designed to re-tool already an already competitive team which could be exactly what was needed to push the team for a deep run in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
2. Can Ryan Miller return to Vezina form? With the improved defense in front of him, Miller should be able to improve his numbers back to similar statistics that saw him win the Vezina Trophy in 2009-10 with a 2.22 goals-against average and .929 save percentage.
3. It's been 14 years … should Lindy Ruff still be the coach? Hired in 1997, Ruff is the longest-tenured head coach in the NHL, yet the Sabres have not made the Stanley Cup Final since losing to the Dallas Stars in 1999. Ruff, however, has shown that despite the Sabres usually having one of the lowest payrolls in the NHL, he has been able to keep the team competitive almost every season he has coached. Now that the Sabres have one of the highest payrolls in the League, Ruff should be able to prove the team was right in keeping him around all these years.
-- Greg Picker
Despite the influx of new talent, Buffalo's lineup also took some hits.
Center Tim Connolly, who can be a brilliant playmaker when healthy, signed a free-agent deal with Toronto last month. Connolly was the longest-tenured Sabre on the team last season. Although concussion problems plagued him in the past, the past two years he had returned to being a vital player on the Buffalo roster. He played 73 games in 2009-10 and 68 games this past season. With 42 points, Connolly was the only player among Buffalo’s top-13 scorers to leave the team in the offseason.
The club also lost defenseman Steve Montador, who was a team-best plus-16. Montador, a pending free agent, had his rights traded to Chicago before free agency began July 1. A rugged defender, Montador was not afraid to use his body to keep the puck from getting to Miller, as he led the Sabres in blocked shots.
A few days after the 2011 Entry Draft, the Sabres shipped out third-year defenseman Chris Butler and prospect Paul Byron to Calgary for veteran defenseman Robyn Regehr. Butler was used extensively during the Sabres' playoff series against the Flyers, averaging more than 22 minutes of ice time per game, the second-highest on the team. Byron has spent most of the past two seasons playing with the Portland Pirates, Buffalo's American Hockey League affiliate the past two seasons. The sixth-round pick in 2007 played eight games for Buffalo this past season.
Regier decided to be active in free agency even before July 1, when unrestricted free agents were eligible to sign with new teams. After both the Canucks and Islanders couldn't come to terms with defenseman Christian Ehrhoff, the Sabres sent a fourth-round pick to the Isles for the rights to negotiate exclusively with Ehrhoff prior to July 1. Those discussions led to player and team agreeing on a nine-year deal worth an average of $4 million per year. Ehrhoff posted career-highs with Vancouver last year of 14 goals and 36 assists for 50 points. Ehrhoff also played well during the Canucks' run to the Stanley Cup Final, scoring 2 goals and tallying 12 points in 23 playoff games.
Buffalo then acquired Regehr along with Ales Kotalik and a second-round pick from Calgary in exchange for Butler and Byron. Regehr moves to Buffalo after 11 seasons with the Flames in an attempt to help solidify the Sabres' blue line. Regehr led the Flames in hits with 180 this past season and was third on the team in ice time, averaging more than 21 minutes per game.
UP-AND-COMING: 3 PLAYERS TO WATCH
Tyler Ennis, LW -- Buffalo's first-round pick in 2008, Ennis had a productive rookie season, registering 20 goals and 49 points while playing in all 82 games. Now he looks to further establish himself among the team's top forwards while avoiding the dreaded "sophomore slump."
Nathan Gerbe, C -- Another young player who figures to be a significant part of the Sabres future, Gerbe proved his worth in the NHL this past season despite his small stature. Standing just 5-foot-5, the lightning-fast Gerbe finished with 31 points in 64 regular-season games and was tied for second on the team with 2 goals in the postseason.
Derek Roy, C -- Buffalo hopes Roy returns to form after missing the second half of last season with a torn quad tendon. He returned in time for Game 7 against the Flyers. Prior to going down, Roy was leading the team in scoring and playing at a point-per-game pace with 35 points in as many games.
Kotalik is a familiar face to Buffalo fans, having been drafted by the Sabres in 1998 and playing on the team from 2001 until 2009, when he was traded to the Oilers. Kotalik managed just 6 points in 26 games during the 2010-11 season, not exactly the production for which he was known during his first go-around in Buffalo. Even on the downside of his career, he'll be counted on to provide veteran presence for a team looking to make a long postseason run. Kotalik made it to the Eastern Conference Finals with Buffalo in 2006 and 2007 and had the best season of his career in 2006, when he was third on the team in scoring with 62 points.
The final big piece came when the Sabres signed Leino, the man who broke many hearts in Buffalo when he scored 4:43 into overtime to force a seventh game in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals. Leino signed a six-year deal worth $4.5 million per year after enjoying a breakout season with the Flyers in which he recorded 53 points in 81 games. A left wing through most of his NHL career, Leino is expected to be converted back to his natural position of center and could play on a line with Vanek, leaving little reason to believe he can’t improve his point total this season.
On paper, it appears the Sabres have made definite improvements. However, as with any team that has made significant turnover to its roster, it is unclear how the team will fare on the ice, especially early in the season.
The Sabres begin the season with two games in Europe before coming back to North America for their home opener, which is immediately followed by a four-game road trip. The long time away from home could be beneficial in developing chemistry among the many new faces on the team. After that road trip, the Sabres play seven of their following eight games at home -- a stretch which could be Buffalo’s opportunity to prove its worth to the rest of the League.