A frenetic few weeks through the end of June into early July laid out a road map for just how different things are going to be for the Sabres in 2011-12, and beyond. It all started with the re-signing of potential free agent winger Drew Stafford before he could test free agent waters. But then it got crazy.
Through trades and free agency, the Sabres bolstered their blue line in a big way, adding the hulking presence of Robyn Regehr from Calgary and the offense-first Christian Ehrhoff from Vancouver. To top it off, the Sabres added winger Ville Leino from the Flyers, who scored the overtime winner in Game 6 against Buffalo in the playoffs.
It would be hard to find another team in the NHL with more defensive depth than the Sabres, who already had ex-Calder Trophy winner Tyler Myers putting in over 20 minutes a night. Emerging stars Marc-Andre Gragnani, Andrej Sekera and Mike Weber complement veterans Shaone Morrisonn and Jordan Leopold. Add Regehr and Ehrhoff to the mix, and two very good players are going to find themselves in the AHL or as healthy scratches every night.
Goaltender Ryan Miller has to be overjoyed by the additions on defense. He took a small step back in 2010-11 after a Vezina Trophy-winning campaign the previous season. Aside from the reinforcements on defense, Miller will also get more rest this year, with Jhonas Enroth set to spend the year as Miller's understudy between the pipes, an upgrade over the retired Patrick Lalime.
Not a whole lot figures to change offensively for the Sabres, rather they're banking on their young players all improving. Veteran Thomas Vanek remains under-appreciated both in fantasy leagues and within Buffalo's fan base. Mark it in ink right now -- he'll put up 30 goals and 40 assists again in 2011-12.
Aside from Vanek, all of the ingredients are there on offense for the Sabres to roll out four strong lines night in and night out. It's just a matter of coach Lindy Ruff putting it all together on the ice. Along with Vanek, Stafford and Leino, Ruff will have to find a way to mix a healthy Derek Roy and Jason Pominville in with young stars Nathan Gerbe and Tyler Ennis. There is potential for great things out of the top three forward lines in Buffalo, but Ruff has a track record of his players stagnating offensively.
Stanley Cup fever has struck in Buffalo seven months before the playoffs even start. And while there are clear reasons for optimism in Western New York, the Sabres aren't quite there yet. But they've taken a huge step forward this summer.
THE BIG GUNS
Thomas Vanek (LW): Vanek gets a disproportionate amount of criticism in Buffalo. His maddening inconsistency still exists, though it got better in 2010-11. Overall, his career numbers have been steady, but every year he goes into protracted cold streaks. In four of the last five seasons, Vanek has scored at least 30 goals for the Sabres. The only year he didn't was when he netted 28 goals in 2009-10, but he missed 10 games due to injury that season. Perhaps his stellar playoff performance against the Flyers (five goals in seven games), and the tremendous amount of goodwill that exists about the team in Buffalo right now will get everybody off his back and allow the former Minnesota Golden Gopher to bust out and have a career year at age 27.
Ryan Miller (G): Maybe the most ferocious competitor there is in the NHL, Miller appeared in 66 games for Buffalo last year. Despite a sub-par season (by his standards), the Michigan State Spartan didn't want to hear a word about his being tired from a heavy workload in his 2009-10. Like it or not, Miller will get plenty of rest in 2011-12, with a more-than-capable backup in Jhonas Enroth behind him. Add to it the fact that the Sabres made a priority of getting him more protection of defense, and Miller should have a nice comeback season.
Tyler Myers (D): Myers came out of the gate painfully slow to start the season a year ago, stoking fears of the dreaded sophomore slump. The giant defender got his legs back under him around mid-December, and looked like the Myers the entire NHL expected to see from Day 1 of the 2010-11 season. His skill set is nearly unmatched by any other defender in the league, and at 21 years old, he's still just scratching the surface of what he can do. Enter veterans like Ehrhoff and Regehr to mentor the 6-foot-8 Myers and we should be looking at a return to the 11-goal, 47-assist, plus-13 form we saw from Myers in his debut season.
ON THE RISE
Marc-Andre Gragnani (D): Gragnani had an unbelievable debut on one of the biggest stages in the game. Grags appeared in nine games for the Sabres during the regular season, scoring a goal while adding two helpers, but it's what he did in the playoffs that have many excited to see what he can do with a full season in the NHL. The 24-year-old played in all seven games of Buffalo's first-round exit to Philadelphia and scored once while adding six assists for the Sabres. He figures to anchor the second power play unit this year in Buffalo, and could surprise his way to a 40-point season.
Nathan Gerbe (C): Gerbe could be the NHL's next Martin St. Louis. He's probably sick of hearing that, but it's a dead-on comparison. In 64 games for the Sabres a year ago, the diminutive center scored 16 times and set up 15 goals while posting a plus-11. He had an underwhelming playoff series against the Flyers, but over the course of 82 games, facing teams that aren't anywhere near as physical as Philly should result in a huge boom for Gerbe. Add to it that the Sabres lost center Tim Connolly via free agency in the summer, and there's an opportunity for Gerbe to ascend up the depth chart, and possibly center the second line while getting time with the man advantage. Anything less than a 50-point season would be a disappointment from Gerbe.
TWO TO AVOID
Jordan Leopold (D): Leopold, whom the Sabres added in free agency last summer, was a tidy signing for the team. He exceeded expectations, leading all Sabres defensemen with 13 goals over 71 games, but an injury, which has plagued Leopold in his career, struck again at the end of the season. He'll be 31 this season, and eroding defensive skills (he was a minus-11 last year despite considerable time on the power play) mixed with more competition for playing time on defense should lead to a step back for Leopold in 2011-12.
Brad Boyes (RW): Boyes was picked up by the Sabres a year ago at the trade deadline from St. Louis, and after a terrific start to his Buffalo career (five goals and three assists in 10 games), he flat-lined down the stretch and in the playoffs. With Rob Niedermayer and Mike Grier both gone, Boyes could be relegated to more of a defensive role as a winger on the third line. That's no indictment on Boyes, who will probably excel in that role, but the days of him scoring 30 and 40 goals are long gone, especially in Ruff's system.
Luke Adam (CASA): It's time for Adam to seize the moment. The Sabres, who are very thin at center, need Adam to have a good camp so he can cement his spot on the NHL roster. Adam was named the AHL's rookie of the year last season, grabbing 62 points (29 G, 33 A) in 57 games with Portland. While he isn't a great skater, he's a grinder that can make plays and is great in front of goal. Adam's style is an ideal complement to more skilled wing players like Leino, Gerbe, and Tyler Ennis. The job is there for the taking, and it would be a disappointment if Adam doesn't come out of camp as the third- or fourth-line center for the Sabres.
Zack Kassian (RW): Sabres fans are chomping at the bit to see Kassian in a Sabres uniform night in and night out, but the organization is cautious about bringing guys up too soon, so fans will have to wait. Kassian's off-ice problems -- and even some disciplinary issues because of things that happened on the ice -- seem to be a distant memory now. The Sabres top pick in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft had 26 goals and 51 assists over 56 games for the OHL's Windsor Spitfires a year ago, and figures to get a full year of seasoning with Buffalo's AHL affiliate in Rochester in 2011-12.
Brayden McNabb (D): Buffalo's embarrassment of riches on defense goes far beyond just their NHL roster. McNabb is atop a class of very solid blue line prospects in the Sabres organization, and is almost ready for prime time if 2010-11 is any indication, though this is going to be a tough blue line corps to break into. McNabb took a gigantic leap forward in the eyes of the organization with a 22-goal, 50-assist campaign last year for Kootenay of the WHL. Like Kassian, McNabb should spend the year plying his trade in Rochester, but like Gragnani last season, McNabb could make a few cameos with the Sabres as early as this year if injuries strike the big club.