This is part two of a series previewing the Buffalo Sabres 2011-12 season. Part two focuses on the defense. Read part one here.
A handful of factors aided Ryan Miller in his Vezina winning season. Tyler Myers’ emergence as a force and his chemistry with Henrik Tallinder created a true lockdown pairing. In addition, Toni Lydman and Steve Montador offered a sound veteran presence to the bottom four that included Chris Butler, Craig Rivet and Andrej Sekera. Add Miller’s exceptional play over the course of the season and it is fairly obvious why he and the Sabres were so successful.
The 2010-11 season was a down season for the Sabres blueline as a whole. The departure of Tallinder and Lydman were filled by Jordan Leopold, Shaone Morrisonn and Mike Weber. An overall average season was capped with the departure of Butler (trade), Montador (trade/UFA) and Rivet (waived). Due, in part, to Terry Pegula’s deep pockets, the Sabres blueline underwent a major overhaul as they enter the 2011-12 season.
Fresh faces include Christian Ehrhoff and Robyn Regehr who are expected to add potency to the power play and more grit in the defensive zone, respectively. Ehrhoff, acquired as a free agent just prior to the opening of unrestricted free agency, cost the Sabres a fourth-round draft pick and $40 million over the next 10 seasons. While the deal is front-loaded, a $4 million cap hit for a player of Ehrhoff’s potential is right on par. The German-born rearguard is offensively gifted and should make a fairly successful power play that much stronger this season. I expect to see him play with Leopold, Jason Pominville or Myers on the power play. There is even a chance that Ales Kotalik sees time with the crafty left hander if he manages to make the team out of training camp. Expect big minutes from Ehrhoff as he saw well over 20 minutes over ice throughout the 2010-11 season.
Regehr, acquired in a trade with Calgary that saw Chris Butler and Paul Byron go the other way, offers the opposite skill set that Ehrhoff does but is expected to have an equal impact on the Sabres’ season. In what may be a top-five trade of all time for Darcy Regier, Regehr came in a package with Kotalik and a second-round choice for little more than two young role players. That draft choice should come in handy and is far more useful than the fourth-round selection that was sacrificed for Ehrhoff. What I like about Regehr is that he will hit you in the mouth any chance he gets. He made a regular habit of whopping on Ales Hemsky and should be equally effective playing against some of the East’s offensive talents. Another guy who gets a fair share of ice time, expect to see Regehr on the penalty kill and matching against the opponents scorers on a nightly basis. Additionally, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him skate with his old running mate from Calgary, Jordan Leopold. The two were a pair when the Flames took Tampa Bay to seven games in the 2004 Stanley Cup Finals.
As for the Sabres’ incumbents, there are currently too many names to fit in the six-man rotation. Much like training camp last year Marc-Andre Gragnani and Mike Weber will be battling for a spot in the top-six. I would rope Andrej Sekera in with them except his new contract would indicate he should be a mainstay on game nights. Or he could be a cap casualty via trade, anything is possible. While these three are probably the most underwhelming defensemen on the roster, a lot rides on their performance in regards to the coming seasons.
Weber proved he is a capable stay-at-home defenseman who isn’t afraid to mix it up (sorry for the lame video title). He was particularly effective in the playoffs and should his progression continue he could certainly forge a spot similar to Regher once he moves on from Buffalo. While Weber’s offensive talents are lacking, that issue could easily be remedied by turning to either Sekera or Gragnani.
While one of the two offensive-minded defensmen will be getting a regular shift, Lindy Ruff can decide to dress both – or one – based on what his needs are for a particular game. As I stated previously, Sekera’s four-year contract would indicate he is a lock to be on the main roster. While I think he has tons of talent, I don’t think it fits this team well and he would be an ideal trade target. Now, he brings a solid eye to the ice and is able to utilize his hockey sense in the defensive zone where he lacks size and edge. As for Gragnani, he showed promise at the end of the year, but his lack of development until last season may cost him a ticket out of town. T.J. Brennan and top prospect Mark Pysyk both offer a similar skill set to Gragnani, they could be knocking on Buffalo’s door in a year or two. For this season, don’t be surprised if it is Weber and Gragnani sharing time as the sixth and seventh defensmen.
Myers, Leopold and Morrisonn represent the three returning defensemen who filled top-four roles last season. As an indicator of where this unit is headed, Morrisonn appears to be a prime candidate to spend the season in the AHL. Due, in part, to his salary and talent. Leopold will compliment Ehrhoff nicely as a power play quarterback and puck mover. Having two players like that on separate pairs will be a major benefit to Buffalo’s breakout.
Myers, who struggled after claiming the Calder Trophy in 2010, is expected to be the number one man for the Sabres. His first half struggles turned into second half success as he was easily Buffalo’s best defenseman down the stretch and in the playoffs. Myers also found his nasty streak against Philadelphia and will hopefully cultivate that further this season.
I expect Myers to play with Ehrhoff and be quite good with him. That will likely be a 23+ minutes pairing. Leopold and Regehr will likely reprise their relationship from 2004 with the three youngsters sharing time on the third pair. Weber’s grit should mix nicely with the skill that Sekera and Gragnani possess.
As for the next man in should an injury occur, I’d put Drew Schiestel and T.J. Brennan atop the list with Brayden McNabb right behind them. Since there is little threat of a prospect stealing a roster spot, I will save the Rochester preview for tomorrow. Don’t forget, the Traverse City tournament kicks off this weekend. Don’t miss out.