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Sabres can see tweaks leading back to playoffs

by John Kreiser

The Buffalo Sabres did a lot of shopping last summer only to come up empty in the Eastern Conference playoff race. In preparing for the 2012-13 season, they opted to pull in the reins.

Owner Terry Pegula, who opened his checkbook last summer to bring in forward Ville Leino and defenseman Christian Ehrhoff, opted not to make any management changes -- meaning Darcy Regier and Lindy Ruff, the NHL's longest-running GM-coach duo, will be back this season. So will No. 1 goaltender Ryan Miller, the top four on defense, and the three top scorers: Jason Pominville (73 points), Thomas Vanek (61) and Drew Stafford (50).

It took a while for the newcomers to mesh last season. For the second year in a row, the Sabres got off to a slow start. But unlike 2010-11, when they overcame a bad start to make the playoffs, they weren't able to dig out of their early hole this time and finished ninth, three points out of the last postseason berth in the East.

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Instead of going through a second summertime shakeup, Regier opted to bring back most of last season's cast, including late-season acquisition Cody Hodgson, who should slot in as one of the top two centers.

The biggest change involved a trade with the Dallas Stars that moved slick center Derek Roy in exchange for feisty forward Steve Ott and depth defenseman Adam Pardy. Ott brings the kind of grit that hasn't been seen in Buffalo in years. He's a world-class pest who has enough offensive skills to slot in as a third-liner. He's also excellent in the faceoff circle.

"Steve can play and complement the higher-skilled guys and contribute in a lot of different ways," Regier said. "I think that he will be very valuable for us."

Ott's arrival signals a change in philosophy. Having failed to join the NHL's elite as a skilled team, the Sabres are hopeful a mega-dose of grit from Ott will at least get them back into the playoffs.

The only other significant departure was forward Brad Boyes, a huge disappointment after coming from the St. Louis Blues in 2011. He signed with the New York Islanders as a free agent.

Miller missed time last season after being run over by Boston Bruins forward Milan Lucic, but in the final weeks of the season played his best hockey since he won the Vezina Trophy in 2010. Miller finished 31-21-7 with a 2.55 goals-against average and a save percentage of .916 – not bad, but not up to his performance of two seasons earlier (2.22, .929).

The Sabres are deep on defense, though only 2010 Calder Trophy winner Tyler Myers is a right-handed shot. Myers, who missed time last season with a broken wrist and a fractured foot, and sat out almost a month with an injured ankle playing in Europe, has dropped from 48 points as a rookie to 37 then to 23 last season. Ehrhoff, who signed a 10-year deal before last season, fell from 50 points to 32, though that was tops among Buffalo defensemen.

Roy's departure leaves a hole in the middle the Sabres might fill with one of their two first-round picks: Mikhail Grigorenko and Zemgus Girgensons. Grigorenko has excelled in juniors with Quebec, while Girgensons has had a tougher time adjusting to the pros while playing with Rochester of the AHL. Either or both could start the season in Buffalo, although the Sabres haven't had an 18-year-old make the team since Pierre Turgeon did it 25 years ago.

The Sabres' offensive strength is on the wing with Pominville, Vanek and Stafford. Late-season call-up Marcus Foligno averaged nearly a point per game, and Hodgson showed promise after a slow start following his acquisition from the Vancouver Canucks at the trade deadline. Leino, who struggled at center, will go back to the wing, where the Sabres hope his scoring touch will return.

With Roy gone, Hodgson and diminutive Tyler Ennis (5-foot-9, 157 pounds) figure to be the first two centers, unless Grigorenko or Girgensons can dislodge one of them.

"We have a number of young players that he will be competing with, but he will have every opportunity [to make the team]," Regier said of Grigorenko.

"With younger players," Regier added, "the biggest challenge revolves around the maturity level of that individual on the ice -- your ability to think the game. You're playing against men."

The Sabres also added depth forward Kevin Porter and enforcer John Scott. But barring a major move, the core of the team is the same as the club that came up short last spring.


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