As if sports fans in Buffalo haven't been tortured enough.
The Sabres missed the playoffs for the second consecutive season in 2012-13, and owner Terry Pegula's spending spree and accompanied optimism in the summer of 2011 seem like light years ago.
The Sabres have spent most of 2013 engineering a youth movement, represented most notably by the departure of captain Jason Pominville at the trade deadline in March. During the offseason, general manager Darcy Regier evidently tried to move goaltender Ryan Miller and there were even rumors of star winger Thomas Vanek being shopped. Both veterans remain with the club but have contracts expiring at the end of 2013-14, which will make for interesting times in western New York.
But the real question is - Is there any fantasy value here beyond the old guard in Miller and Vanek?
Cody Hodgson is fresh off a six-year contract extension and should continue to blossom into a top-line pivot, although he could be left out in the cold with regards to his supporting case if Vanek is dealt during the season. And therein lies one of the issues in relying on this club for fantasy production; it's difficult to project with so much roster uncertainty.
After that, it's quite a mixed bag.
Tyler Ennis and Drew Stafford are both capable of putting up numbers, but just as capable of disappearing for long stretches. A pair of veterans in Tyler Myers and Ville Leino are each looking to rebound from a disastrous season, and multi-category stud Steve Ott will continue to chug along by winning faceoffs, taking penalties and chipping in offensively.
Those in keeper leagues can keep a close eye on this team, as a number of recent first-round picks are looking to secure their spot on the roster on opening night. In particular, it could be time for Mikhail Grigorenko to blossom after slowly working his way into the lineup in 2012-13.
The Big Guns
Thomas Vanek (LW): Despite battling through injuries during the shortened season, Vanek re-established himself as an offensive force, posting 41 points in 38 games. He's notoriously streaky (last year's output included two five-point nights), so fantasy owners should always be on the lookout for a buy-low or sell-high opportunity. The 29-year old Austrian is entering the final season of a seven-year contract, and could be on the move with the Sabres seemingly in rebuild mode. If he stays in Buffalo, owners can expect a roller coaster ride that ultimately sees Vanek finish in the 30-goal, 65-point range.
Ryan Miller (G): Miller is entering the last year of his contract and has been the subject of trade rumors with the Sabres seemingly focused on a rebuild. Although he struggled at times last season, Buffalo's defense was porous, pummeling Miller with a league-high 1270 shots against. Going forward, it's probably safe to consider his Vezina-winning 2009-10 numbers a thing of the past, so his save percentage should hold steady at around .915 as it has done for the past three seasons. With backup Jhonas Enroth showing improvement, Miller could surrender some starts, but remains a reliable workhorse in terms of peripheral stats. Just don't expect him to be among the league leaders in wins given his current club's bleak outlook.
Steve Ott (C): Ott proved his versatility during his first season with the Sabres, shuffling up and down the lineup and playing regularly in all three disciplines. His 24 points in 48 games came as advertised, and he was among the NHL's top 10 in hits (187) and PIM (93). Those in rotisserie leagues should consider Ott a multi-category stud, and a nice late-round option once the big scorers are taken. Leagues that only count scoring stats will diminish Ott's value, but he should put up another 35-40 points in 2013-14.
On the Rise
Cody Hodgson (C): Hodgson earned the role of first line center and blossomed to 34 points in 48 games during his first full season with the Sabres organization. Simply put, he's starting to realize the potential that made him an attractive commodity in keeper leagues since being drafted 10th overall in 2008. Hodgson is trending well and should eclipse the 50-point mark, but could see his production taper off if Thomas Vanek is dealt away.
Mikhail Grigorenko (C): Considering his dominance at the junior level (139 points in 92 games over two seasons), Grigorenko had a tough adjustment to the NHL last season. He posted one goal and five points in 25 games, but wasn't placed in a scoring line role by former head coach Lindy Ruff. With Grigorenko restricted from playing in the AHL and having nothing left to prove in the QMJHL, the Sabres will likely keep the 19-year old Russian in the NHL for the entire season. His potential is incredibly high and the opportunity will be there to produce, so those in keeper leagues should be ready to pounce if he's still available.
Two to Watch
Jhonas Enroth (G): In two full seasons of being firmly entrenched as the Sabres' backup, Enroth had done little to put pressure on incumbent Ryan Miller until a string of starts last April. Then, he backstopped Sweden to a gold medal at the World Championships and was named the tournament's top goaltender. With trade rumors circling Miller and the Sabres rebuilding, the timing could be ripe for Enroth to see an increased role. Wins might be hard to come by in Buffalo, but Enroth seems poised to improve on his numbers (4-4-1, 2.60 GAA, .919 SV%) and is at the very least a must-have insurance pickup for Miller owners.
Tyler Myers (D): During the lockout Myers played with Klagenfurter AC (Austria) but missed nearly a month with an ankle injury. Once he returned to the States, Myers stumbled his way through a disastrous NHL campaign, posting a career-low eight points in 39 games and finding himself a healthy scratch on a couple of occasions. He's been trending downward since his 48-point, rookie-of-the-year campaign in 2009-10, and is no longer seen as a franchise cornerstone. However, there's still potential here, and last year was likely as bad as it's going to get for the 6'8” defender. Playing a full season should allow Myers to have a rebound year, playing a more solid all-around game and posting 25-30 points.
Tyler Ennis (LW): Despite not getting the coveted role alongside Thomas Vanek last season (that went primarily to Cody Hodgson), Ennis still managed to post 31 points in 47 games. Those who draft him should continue to expect wild swings in production, so he can be a nice spot start in daily leagues when he's hot. If regular line mate Drew Stafford is able to have a rebound year, Ennis should be a beneficiary, but in any case he's likely to reach the 50-point mark for the first time in his career. The Sabres could struggle this season, so don't expect Ennis to greatly improve on the minus-14 rating he posted last season, which should drive his value down in certain leagues.
Christian Ehrhoff (D): Ehrhoff appeared a lot more comfortable during his second season in Buffalo, and was a rare bright light on an otherwise weak blue line. He reached a career-high in TOI/game at 25:11, led the team with a plus-6 rating and posted 22 points in 47 games, a 40-point pace if it weren't for the NHL lockout. When Ehrhoff signed a ten-year deal in July 2011, the team had visions of contending. Now, with veterans leaving Buffalo en masse, it's a different landscape. He should hover around the 40-point mark, but could see a dip in production if more veterans leave, especially star winger Thomas Vanek.
Marcus Foligno (LW): More was expected of Foligno than what he delivered last season, just 18 points in 47 games following a promising late-season debut in 2011-12. There remains a ton of upside here, and the intangibles he brings should keep him in the lineup every night. He's also willing to drop the gloves, and shows some decent value in PIM leagues, posting 41 last season and an additional 38 in 33 AHL games during the lockout. Don't expect Foligno to be an offensive juggernaut, but it's not out of the question for him to approach the 40-point mark, especially if he once again finds chemistry with line mates Drew Stafford and Tyler Ennis.
Joel Armia (RW): Armia was one of the top prospects outside North America last season, and is set to begin an NHL career following another impressive campaign in his native Finland. He posted 33 points in 47 games for Assat Pori of the SM-Liiga and also impressed with Team Finland at the World Junior Championships. Those in keeper leagues should be watching Armia very closely as he arrives in North America to begin his entry-level contract. With the Sabres in need of some offensive punch, Armia will have a strong chance at starting the season in Buffalo, and could contribute early on.
Zemgus Girgensons (LW): Girgensons played in the AHL as a teenager last season, scoring 17 points in 61 games with the Sabres' affiliate in Rochester. The 2012 first-round pick took some time to adjust to pro hockey, but really turned a corner near the end of the season, leading Rochester with three goals in three playoff games. After a strong summer development camp, he heads to training camp attempting to win a roster spot with the big club. Those in keeper leagues should keep an eye on the 19-year old Latvian, as his combination of size and skill make him a tantalizing prospect. If he doesn't break camp with the Sabres, he'll likely be called up to show his stuff at some point during the season.
Rasmus Ristolainen (D): Keeper leaguers should familiarize themselves with Ristolainen, the eighth overall pick in June's NHL Draft. The 6-foot-3 defenseman is expected to compete for a spot with the Sabres this fall after posting 15 points in 52 games for Turku in the Finnish league last season. Ristolainen is one of the top prospects among defensemen in all of hockey, with strong mobility and a cannon from the point. Since Ristolainen is just 18 years old, you should temper your expectations in one-year leagues, but be ready to pounce if he makes the big club and starts strong.