We’re now something like five days out from the start of the NHL season, which means I have to kick these season previews into overdrive because I’m a lazy idiot. This is mainly for two reasons: 1) I am lazy and there’s no way I’ll do one of these every day, and 2) These started early enough that if I just stop doing them entirely you’ll have forgotten by October anyway. Oh and I guess also to show off my near-infinite knowledge of the National Hockey League. I’ll be previewing the teams in reverse order of finish in the 2007-08 season. Please note, though, that this is the opinion of one man, however smart and handsome he may be.
Buffalo Sabres, you’re on the clock.
I think this is probably the hardest team to get a read on in the NHL.
On the one hand, you’ve got loads and loads of talent. On the other, well, talent doesn’t always get you where it does on paper. Case in point, LAST year’s Buffalo Sabres, who despite losing just Chris Drury (meh), Dainus Zubrus (meh) and Dany Briere (actually damaging), saw their goal total drop from 298 in 2006-07 to 251 last season.
More after the jump.
It was not, as I said, for lack of talent. Derek Roy is one of the most underrated forwards in this league. He scored 81 points last year and like half of those came from late January onward. Now, okay, you can call that a slow start if you want, but what it tells me is that he is a massively talented player with the ability to change a game. If he can harness that capability for longer than the last two months of a season, he can put up huge points. So too can Jason Pominville, who like several other Sabres saw his point total increase, but not necessarily his goalscoring. He lost seven goals from ‘06-07 (34) to ‘07-08 (27) despite an appreciable rise in ice time and a few extra shots. If he can be the Jason Pominville that scored in the mid-30s again, he and Roy, who comprise two thirds of the top line, can be dynamite. The third member of that line, of course, is Tom Vanek, who also saw his goal total drop by seven, from 43 two seasons ago to just 36 last year.
Problem is, who’s after that backing the top line up? Max Afinogenov? Jochen Hecht? Ales Kotalik? Tim Connolly? Not exactly players that set the world on fire. Again, they’re talented and can do amazing things (at times), but when they don’t do those things, or are hurt, they don’t help at all.
The good news for Buffalo: the average age on the top line is 24.67 years, so it seems as though things can only get better. The bad news is they’re not exactly the kids on the team. The Sabres have only four forwards in the important 29-32 range (pretty much a hockey player’s prime), and one of them is effective-only-as-a-pain-in-the-ass Adam Mair. The rest of the forwards are a hodge-podge of guys that aren’t bad or anything, but won’t put up big numbers. This is a one-and-a-half line team and that’s never not going to be a problem.
On defense, it looks, so far, like the addition of Craig Rivet is a huge one. Last year, the Sabres had a lot of trouble doing little things like sticking up for teammates or playing physical hockey. Rivet seems to at least be determined to do that much. His presence alone seems to have shored up a mediocre defense that includes such luminaries as Calgary Flames castoff Toni Lydman, Blue Jackets and Oilers castoff Jaroslav Spacek and 39-year-old Teppo Numminen, who is 39 years old. It’s not exactly the swiftest, biggest, strongest defense, and it doesn’t exactly make up for that deficiency with offense either.
I guess you can’t necessarily go WRONG with Ryan Miller in net. He’s pretty good and all that. He is, of course, prone to boneheaded mistakes from time to time, and he hasn’t looked especially steady or worth that fat new contract in the preseason (2.27, .891). I dunno, I’m not, nor have I ever been, enamored of Miller as a flat-out No. 1 NHL goaltender, and boy, saying that will get me some e-mails.
I dunno. I don’t want to doubt the Sabres. I like them. Certainly, I consider them a team that can make the playoffs. For sure they are. But being capable and actually doing it is a different story entirely. I think they’re the second or third most-talented team in the division, but they’re probably third or fourth in terms of actual team quality from top to bottom. If that top line puts it all together, it’s going to be dangerous, but there’s a sleeping dragon to Buffalo’s northwest with the same problem (I do not mean Toronto). Sabres fans will always expect big things after that run two years ago, but they’ve yet to be rewarded for all their ardent support.
The Hero: Derek Roy. Golly he’s good. He can score 100 points this year if he puts his mind to it. But then again, that depends his a pair of flaky linemates, who can take games off and whose production dropped last year. Put him down, conservatively, for 90.
The Darkhorse: Tom Vanek. If he can put himself together again after a pretty bad season by his standards, he could pop in 50, especially with the slight decrease in defense and goaltending quality the Northeast has gone through (Martin Gerber, a clear No. 1 starter?). BUT! maybe he doesn’t. That wouldn’t be shocking either. He doesn’t like to umm … what’s the term? … work hard.
The New Guy: Craig Rivet. If he can get the defense to play with a little bit more of an edge, he’ll be worth the two second rounders Buffalo gave up to get him.
The Big Question: Can they put it together? If so, they can be second in the division. If not, they can enjoy getting a head start on their golf games again this April. Unfortunately, I’m leaning toward the latter.
- G Patrick Lalime
- Acquired 2009 third-round pick and 2010 second-round pick from Vancouver
- Acquired D Craig Rivet and 2010 seventh-round pick from San Jose
- LW Mathieu Darche
- LW Tyler Bouck
- LW Jimmy Bonneau
- RW Steve Bernier (Vancouver picks deal)
- 2009 and 2010 second-round picks (Rivet deal)
- D Dmitri Kalinin (to New York Rangers)
Apropos-of-nothing TLP predicted finish: Fourth in the division, ninth in the East, 19th in the league