Buffalo still has a sour taste in their mouths after their first-round playoff loss to a Boston Bruins team that physically wore them down over the course of the series. Superstar goaltender Ryan Miller did all he could and more for the Sabres, but in the end, a lack of scoring and veteran leadership from the forward position was Buffalo's downfall in a very disappointing postseason.
The indelible image of the 2009-10 season will be Miller's superhuman performance for the United States in the 2010 Winter Olympics. As good as he was for the USA in Vancouver last winter, he was even better on a routine basis for the Sabres. Miller made a legitimate case to win the Hart Trophy as the most valuable player in the NHL, posting a .929 save-percentage and a career-best 2.22 goals- against average, while winning 41 games in 69 appearances for the Sabres.
While the Michigan State alumnus was undoubtedly the biggest piece of the puzzle for the Sabres, the team struggled to find consistency in their offense. Winger Thomas Vanek (28 G, 25 A) regressed a bit in ‘09-10, while Derek Roy (26 G, 43 A) had an average season by his standards. Meanwhile, winger Jason Pominville, who seems to fly under the radar in fantasy leagues, continued to be the model of consistency for Buffalo. For the fourth straight season, Pominville (24 G, 38 A) played in all 82 games for Buffalo. The most important part of the Sabre offense, however, is Tim Connolly. Connolly makes everything happen for Lindy Ruff's offense, especially on the power play. The talented center finally put together a healthy season last year, and rewarded fantasy owners who took a chance on him by posting 17 goals and 48 assists.
Defensively, it's all about Calder Trophy winner, Tyler Myers. Myers led all NHL rookies with 37 assists, while posting an impressive plus-13 in his first season. A sophomore slump is always the fear, but it seems highly unlikely for a player like Myers, and the Sabres are hedging their bets that he will again be an assist machine on their blue line. Buffalo let veteran defensemen Toni Lydman and Henrik Tallinder leave via free agency, and replaced them with free agents Jordan Leopold and Shaone Morrisonn. Andrej Sekera also should have a more prominent role in the defensive corps for the Sabres after battling through injuries and time in Lindy Ruff's dog house last year.
THE BIG GUNS
Ryan Miller (G): Miller can singlehandedly win a fantasy league for you if he comes anywhere near what he did a season ago. Game to game, there may not be a more focused player in the entire NHL, and Miller is bitter about how last season ended. An ultra-motivated Miller, without the worry of the Olympics and the condensed schedule that came with it, should have another enormous season in 2010-11.
Tim Connolly (C) Connolly will unfortunately be remembered for his disappearing act in Buffalo's most recent quarterfinal playoff loss to Boston. But he had a tremendous regular season for the Sabres, setting up 48 goals and putting 17 pucks in the net. Most importantly, the playmaking center stayed healthy, appearing in 73 games for Buffalo – more appearances than he’s had in any season since 2002-03. If he can remain on the ice, Connolly should, at the very least, post another 65-point season.
Thomas Vanek (LW): Vanek played in two less games in 2009-10 than he did in the 2008-09, and he posted 11 less points as well. He battled through nagging injuries seemingly all season long last year, and that could be a reason for the regression. There is no reason to think a healthy Vanek shouldn't come close to the 84-point season that he enjoyed in 2006-07. Yes, he’s streaky as they come, but he's still relatively young, and if he can become more consistent, he will be a nice value pick.
Jason Pominville (RW): If you draft Pominville, you can pencil in 82 games played, 20-25 goals, and 35-40 assists. He is anything but flashy, but Pominville is the perfect second-tier winger in fantasy leagues.
ON THE RISE
Nathan Gerbe (C): The first thing anybody notices about Gerbe is his size, or lack thereof. Regardless, he has done nothing but impress in his time with the big club. He brought electricity to the lineup in the playoffs, scoring once and setting up another goal in the two games that he played. In two seasons for Buffalo's AHL affiliate in Portland, Gerbe put up 84 points (41 G, 43 A) in 101 games. He figures to slide into the roster spot left open by Tim Kennedy's departure, and could very reasonably top off around 30 to 35 points in his first full season in the NHL.
Tyler Ennis (LW): Promoted from the AHL before the end of the 2009-10 season, Ennis raised eyebrows across the league when he notched eight points (2 G, 6 A) in the final nine games of the season for the Sabres. His success continued into the playoffs, where he had a goal and three assists in Buffalo's six games against Boston. His spot on the 2010-11 roster seems to be in place, and he should slide right into the third- or fourth-line with 40- to 45-points by season’s end.
TWO TO AVOID
Craig Rivet (D): The veteran defensemen experienced another steep decline in production last season for Buffalo. Add the fact that he is coming off shoulder surgery and will be 36 when the season begins, and you have a guy who does not belong on too many fantasy rosters. He is Buffalo's captain, and will be important in helping the growth of the young players on the roster, but there will definitely be better options on the blue line in fantasy leagues.
Chris Butler (D): Butler's 20 assists last season are an anomaly, even compared to his days in the juniors. He appeared in 59 games with the Sabres, but was a minus-15 on a team that had a plus-30 goal differential, overall. That doesn't sit well with Lindy Ruff. Consequently, Butler will again battle to be the sixth defensemen for most of the season. Avoid the temptation to consider Butler a sleeper based on his point outburst from last season. In his case, offensive numbers don't tell the whole story.
Zack Kassian (RW): Since he was drafted by Buffalo with the 13th overall pick in the 2009 draft, Kassian has gained plenty of notoriety for all of the wrong reasons. He was arrested for his involvement in a fight at a bar last season, only weeks after being suspended by the OHL for a violent hit to the head of Hurricanes’ prospect, Matt Kennedy. By all reports, Kassian is working hard both on and off the ice to overcome some of his issues, so he still should be considered the Sabres’ top prospect. It will be very interesting to gauge Kassian's progress (even away from the ice) in the coming year.
Mike Weber (D): Weber will never be an offensive weapon from the blue line, though he is a physical defender with a nasty streak. Weber was called up from AHL Portland last season, appearing in seven games with the Sabres. He figures to again be the first defensemen to get the call up in the event that Buffalo needs bodies on defense. Don’t rule out Weber stealing a job in training camp, as Craig Rivet may not be ready physically and the team has some age on their blue line. Buffalo could use a young defense-first player like Weber.