Buffalo Sabres season preview: Wingin’ it

Thomas Vanek is a prime candidate to be the Sabres' next captain.

This is part four in a series previewing the Buffalo Sabres 2011-12 season. Part four focuses on the wingers. Read the previous three entries here.

Darcy Regier has a knack for acquiring wingers. It probably has a lot to do with the league-wide overabundance at the position. Still, the Sabres have a stockpile of talented wingers entering training camp this week.

There are eight openings available and at least ten players vying for a spot on the opening night roster. Based on the salary figures – the Sabres are still $3.5 million over the cap – the projected depth chart is fairly easy to lay out. There are a handful of players who a prime trade candidates, but without anything more than vague rumors it is unfair to speculate who will be part of the organization in a few weeks.

Although the top four wingers are likely locks, the remaining four positions are up for grabs, so to speak. Due to contract structure, intangibles and production; Tyler Ennis, Jason Pominville, Drew Stafford and Thomas Vanek are all likely to be safe from a trade or demotion to Rochester.

Vanek is likely going to end up wearing the ‘C’ for Buffalo this season. Tyler Myers may offer an option, but Vanek found another gear when Lindy Ruff showed more faith and instilled responsibility in the Austrian sniper. Stafford’s new contract will likely keep him safe. Although, he has plenty of upside and value on the market. He also is strong on the powerplay and has found a way to use his size effectively. It seems as if he has continued his devotion to his summer conditioning in hopes of hitting the 30-goal plateau in 2011-12.

Ennis and Pominville enjoyed highs and lows last season, often tied to who was playing center with them. Ennis is entering a contract season and has shown tremendous upside over his short time in the NHL. A 25-goal campaign wouldn’t be out of the question for the youngster. Especially if he receives solid play from his pivot. As for Pominville, just about every Sabres fan is ready for him to leave town. While he has seen his point production decline in each season since 2007, Pominville is responsible in the defensive zone, even though he rarely plays the body. Like Ennis, pairing Pominville with a capable center will do wonders for his production.

A 30-goal season could certainly be in the cards for Tyler Ennis.

The final four wing spots are somewhat more questionable than the top four, although putting a paper depth chart would be easy. Brad Boyes, Matt Ellis, Nathan Gerbe, Pat Kaleta, Zack Kassian, Ales Kotalik and Cody McCormick are all looking at a training camp and preseason battle to make the big club. While Ellis is expected to serve as a mentor in the AHL again, he could potentially end up as the 13th forward. Ales Kotalik is also a favorite to end up in the AHL (salary) but he was a major asset to Lindy Ruff on the left point on the power play and in the shootout. Still, Kotalik’s recent track record is anything but sterling, he will likely end up in the minors.

Kaleta and McCormick are almost a sure lock for the fourth line as they served the role well last season. McCormick was exactly what you look for in a fourth line enforcer role and Kaleta has become a fan favorite of fans in Buffalo over the past few seasons. Kaleta’s recent injury history will require at least one forward to be at the ready at all times. Ellis and even Colin Stuart could fall into that spot.

A year to adjust to the pro game will make Zack Kassian a better player.

Boyes and Gerbe are the only players who may truly be on the fence. Boyes is a message board favorite to be traded away. Fans have a short memory and forget what the trade deadline acquisition did for the Sabres down the stretch. Without Boyes the Sabres probably wouldn’t make the playoffs. Now, he was bad at center and I think it is safe to assume that Ruff won’t bother pushing him back to that spot at any point this season. Gerbe had a horrid first half while he was incendiary in the final 41 games. I feel Gerbe’s ability to play a checking role makes him a valuable player, think Brad Marchand. Hoepfully the Sabres find a way to put him in a position to score goals as it was obvious that he succeeded when skilled players surrounded him.

Kassian is probably the most intriguing player on this list. He offers a greater physical presence than Boyes, Kotalik or Pominville. He also has good hands and a scoring touch. That smash and bang style is what the Sabres have lacked in the playoffs each of the last two seasons. If Buffalo can find a way to push teams around the Sabres will have the keys for success in the postseason.

When the chips are on the table I suspect Ruff to go with the trustworthy choices. Expect to see Boyes over Kassian or Kotalik on the wall with the third line. Same goes for Gerbe on the left side. If Stafford doesn’t play with Vanek it shouldn’t be an issue, both will be among the top six along with Ennis and Pominville. I am hopeful to see Kassian up with the big club sooner rather than later, it all depends on the performance the 2009 first-rounder puts forward.

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