Sabres After 41: Looking forward

While the writing may be on the wall that the current make-up of the Buffalo Sabres is a stagnant collection of players yearning for a change of scenery, there remains a few small glimmers of hope.

If the injury situation is ever solved there is a chance to recapture some of the magic the Sabres had to open the season. Last year’s miraculous run to the playoffs obviously serves as a barometer that this season isn’t over just yet; only that it will be an uphill battle. Lastly, the swirling rumors that the Sabres may be nearing a deal offers some promise that new faces will bring change and success to this team.

The first portion of the Sabres mid-season report offered a look back at some of the most obvious issues the team has gone through to this point in the season. Allow part two to offer a look ahead to the remaining 41 games on the schedule.

Resolving injuries

Based on what the roster looked like when the injury situation was truly dire, and what the roster looks like today isn’t all that bad. In fact, the run of injuries has kept Lindy Ruff from keeping some of his top offensive talents in the press box. Of course, it also forces players like Grocery Stick Gragnani to play on a nightly basis.

JT Allaire was hired to aid Doug McKenney as strength coach. Allaire was the Bills’ strength coach in 2007, the year that team suffered an inexplicable number of injuries. Now, this isn’t all to blame on Allaire. He can’t control broken bones. However, there has to be some sort of connection here. It cannot be ignored.

Regardless, with only four players out for the time being, the Sabres may just be on the road back to being fully healthy. If they can get healthy the door opens to reform the opening night roster or even make a trade.

Will Lindy Ruff and Darcy Regier survive the season?

There have been 170 coaching changes in the NHL since Lindy Ruff was hired. Based on his team’s performance there has to be some questions as to how much longer he will last. It is obvious that his team isn’t playing to get him fired. This is a far different look to the Sabres than the Capitals team that basically quit on Bruce Boudreau.

That being said, Regier can’t seem to find the right solution regarding his roster and Ruff doesn’t seem to have the ability to get this group to win. Unless a miraculous trade can be pulled off, getting a new voice behind the bench or in the front office may be easier.

What magic can Regier pull off?

The Sabres cap situation is dire. While the offseason strategy seemed brilliant at the time, it is now an anchor on a season that is sinking fast. Regier will really need to work on some interesting trades in order to turn over talent on the roster while working within the boundaries of the salary cap. It is not going to be an easy fix and probably won’t be resolved until the summer.

For those hoping to see Ryan Getzlaf pulled away from Anaheim, don’t get your hopes too high. It was reported today that the asking price for the center will be two roster players (one of major significance), a top prospect and a first-round pick. If you consult your Sabres game roster that pretty much means players like Tyler Ennis, Nathan Gerbe, Drew Stafford Derek Roy or a few others from the list of moveable players. Obviously the untouchables list would remain unchanged. Add in a top prospect  like Joel Armia or Mark Pysyk (the Ducks would surely want Zack Kassian) along with the Sabres’ first-round selection this year.

Based on what Elliotte Friedman reported and the potential assets the Sabres have either Stafford and Roy would need to be shipped along with Ennis, Armia and a first-round selection. That has an eerie similarity to the Kovalchuk trade between Atlanta and New Jersey. Considering the players involved, who really won that deal? Consider that when loading your wish list with players like Getzlaf.

Can the system win games?

At this point in the season, the Sabres are struggling to possess the puck, have barely any secondary scoring and are giving up shots and odd-man rushes in bunches. All of those traits are the opposite of what Lindy Ruff wants from his teams.

It appears as if there are numerous flaws throughout the roster concerning the ability to support on defense (offensive defensemen), to create secondary scoring (everyone not named Vanek or Pominville) and the fact that the opposition continuously rolls over the Buffalo blue line with a distinct numbers advantage many times a night.

Ruff’s system was a big reason the Sabres were so successful in 2009-10. Obviously this works, the problem will be to properly implement the system to get a few wins.

Midseason grades

Goaltending:  C- Ryan Miller has been subpar since a brilliant start, the same goes for Jhonas Enroth. While neither are getting the help they need to win games, they need to be worlds better if the Sabres will be taken seriously.

Defense: B The defensemen have either been really bad really good this season. There hasn’t been much in between. MAG has been horrid, Christian Ehrhoff started slow but has come around. Robyn Regehr has been a stalwart and Brayden McNabb has been a pleasant surprise. Tyler Myers and Andrej Sekera each missed time but have turned in some solid hockey. Jordan Leopold may be one of Buffalo’s best players. Period. The unit as a whole needs to improve, but they have certainly had a few bright spots.

Forwards: C+ Realistically there should be two grades. Thomas Vanek and Jason Pominville should each recieve and A while the rest of the forwards get sporadic grades. Luke Adam has played some good hockey, but remains on the fourth line. Ville Leino has been a disappointment despite his big contract, the same goes for Roy and Stafford. Injuries have hurt this unit, but aside from the two leaders, no one else is scoring. That needs to change ASAP.

Coaching: B- Lindy Ruff has done some good things this season, his power play has been strong and the penalty kill isn’t an albatross. However, his line choices and personnel decisions remain questionable. He is going to come under more fire as the season progresses, he needs to find a way to get through to the players.

Midseason Awards

MVP: Thomas Vanek. He has put the team on his back and carried them. Pominville deserves some credit too, but Vanek has been the true leader of this team. A fantastic year for a player who has embraced his leadership role.

Unsung hero: Jordan Leopold. An easy choice. He is providing scoring and has been steady in his own end. Another solid campaign from a true darkhorse signing.

Best rookie: Luke Adam. He isn’t the Sabres rookie of the year just yet. But he is their best rookie. He is scoring goals and contributing, despite being relegated to fourth line minutes in many games.

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