Sabres should improve but still won’t contend in 2014-15

Things are going to be better for the Sabres this year. Mainly because things can’t get much worse than they were last year.

Buffalo finished last in the NHL by a country mile. The Sabres were 14 points back of the 29th place Florida Panthers, the same Florida Panthers who also finished 29th in goals for in 2013-14 (39 goals better than the Sabres).

Tim Murray had quite a reclamation project to work on as he inherited a team that was 14 points and 39 goals south of the second-to-last team in the league last year. If the status-quo were to remain, the Sabres would have quite a hill to climb just to leap frog one team, let alone make a run at the playoffs.

Buffalo’s historically bad season was accomplished with only a month-and-a-half of Thomas Vanek, and interim stay from Matt Moulson and two-thirds of the year with Ryan Miller. Miller’s .923 save percentage was good for a monumental point share during his time here and I’ll be interested to see how Jhonas Enroth and Michal Neuvirth perform as a tandem.

Enroth is without doubt the number one goaltender on the roster. To say Neuvirth was shaky during the preseason would be an understatement and he may need a little more time to settle into a groove. Meanwhile, Enroth was tremendous in his preseason appearances and he’ll certainly see the lion’s share of the work early on this year. Will he be able to improve on his .911 save percentage? Will he avoid the lengthy losing streaks that have plagued his young career? The latter is perhaps the most important question here as Enroth’s up-and-down performances have been nothing short of a Jekyll and Hyde of goaltending.

It’s safe to say that there will be a slight decrease in performance in the Buffalo crease. It may not be a regression so steep that it costs the team multiple wins, but it’s safe to assume that the expectations in net will differ from recent years.

Of course, the Sabres roster is vastly improved. The team that will take the ice on Thursday is heads and shoulders better than the one that took the ice in 2013-14. In addition to the departures of Vanek and Miller, Steve Ott, Christian Ehrhoff, John Scott, Henrik Tallinder, Jamie McBain and Matt D’Agostini are all gone. There is some good and bad in that group, but the Sabres are more than improved from top to bottom.

A full season of Moulson and Chris Stewart alone should inject a fair bit of life into the Sabres offense as should the addition of Brian Gionta. With 23, 15 and 11 goals scored by the trio last season, it’s easy to say the Sabres have indeed made up their 40-goal shortfall from last season. Putting Moulson on the wing with Tyler Ennis and Drew Stafford could potentially give the Sabres a bona fide scoring line, although I’m not expecting anyone in blue and gold to surpass 30 goals this season.

Stewart is going to start on Buffalo’s “third” line alongside Zemgus Girgensons and Marcus Foligno which is an intriguing crash and bang line that could easily produce a fair bit of offense. How Foligno and Girgensons produce this year is actually one storyline I’m going to watch intently. Neither blew the doors off in the goal scoring department last year and a slightly deeper roster should provide this line with some more favorable matchups. However, with the hope that Girgensons will continue to blossom into an elite two-way center, an uptick in offensive production would be the next logical step forward.

I’m excited to see Sam Reinhart playing in actual NHL games in which his next goal will actually be his first in the NHL (despite what Sabres social media told you previously). I don’t expect to see him beyond nine games but the decision to keep him here wasn’t a bad one. Buffalo’s ninth game doesn’t come until late in October which means the team has an entire month to see Reinhart at the NHL level, an entire month for Mikhail Grigorenko to play bigger minutes in Rochester and an entire month to evaluate the direction the team will ultimately go.

Grigorenko is the most obvious player to replace Reinhart between Cody Hodgson and Brian Gionta if and when Reinhart is returned to Kootenay. However, if Tim Murray is indeed interested in keeping his team near the bottom of the standings – and the roster as it stands shouldn’t make that too difficult – perhaps he’d consider a different option.

Promoting Girgensons to the second line and allowing Torrey Mitchell to center Stewart and Foligno while leaving the fourth line to the hodgepodge of players that is currently filling it out may put the Sabres in a better position to land near 30th than if Grigorenko was recalled. It may not matter at all, either.

Buffalo’s blueline is certainly better than last year, but I’m not sure how much better the group really is. The departure of McBain and Tallinder helps matters but the buyout of Christian Ehrhoff removes Buffalo’s single best possession defenseman. Josh Gorges and Andrej Meszaros are nice, veteran additions but when they’re sporting respective -4.6 and -2.6 Corsi Rel from last season, I’m not expecting either to replace Ehrhoff with any great effectiveness.

That being said, Gorges ought to provide the veteran presence that will aid Tyler Myers’ continued growth while Rasmus Ristolainen looks to be poised for a full season in blue and gold. Once healthy, Mark Pysyk ought to see regular minutes while Mike Weber and Andre Benoit will likely rotate in. Tyson Strachan is here to start the year although I’m not sure what the endgame will be in his case. I assumed he was going to give Rochester a bit more of a veteran presence but perhaps Nolan would prefer to keep eight defensemen for the time being.

Like with the forwards, I assume that Buffalo’s blueline will look better this season. Gorges and Meszaros are certainly going to be easier to watch than McBain was and I’d venture a guess that they’ll be an improvement over Tallinder as well.

With all of the steps forward the Sabres have taken, some are left wondering if they are still going to be in the running for Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel. It’s truly hard to say as Buffalo’s luck couldn’t get much worse than it was last year nor is the roster going to be nearly as bad either. This team will not be relying on multiple waiver wire players and I’d assume they won’t have five different goaltenders starting games.

They certainly added the offense that should make up the difference they had between the next closest team at the bottom of the league, but I don’t believe that all of these various additions suddenly make them a playoff contender.

Additionally, the Sabres have three prime trade deadline candidates. Stafford, Stewart and Meszaros are all on expiring contracts and strong play will all but guarantee they’re traded for assets at the deadline. They could even be shipped out earlier in the year for the right deal, but I’d be betting on the deadline. Once those three are gone – particularly Stafford and Stewart – the Sabres will have two big holes in their forward ranks that will need to be plugged. So the last month of the season could see them slide a bit more than they will during the first four months.

I’m confident that the Sabres are not a playoff team. They may be given a strong run for 30th by the Flames, Jets and perhaps the Hurricanes, but I would be shocked if the Sabres made a push towards the playoffs. While there are plenty of fans hoping to see them win now, the light at the end of this tunnel is far better than sneaking into the playoffs as the second wild card.

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