Buffalo Sabres 2008 Offseason Report
By the start of the season in October, the Sabres were sick of answering questions about departed co-captains Daniel Briere and Chris Drury. The organization was eager to prove that it still had the talent to win hockey games and ultimately compete for the Stanley Cup. Come April however, the
void left by the playoff bound Briere and Drury among plenty of other unfortunate factors, left the Sabres in 10th place and three points short of a playoff berth.
Despite the slide from the President's Trophy to postseason no-shows, there were some positives to draw from the 2007-2008 campaign. Franchise (courtesy of Kevin Lowe) winger Thomas Vanek admittedly struggled with the added responsibility and had an off-year, but still managed to score 36 goals with most of them coming on the power play.
Young forwards Derek Roy and Jason Pominville surprised many critics by producing at a point-per-game pace, with 81 and 80 points respectively. Defensive call-ups Andrej Sekera and Mike Weber were arguably the team's best defensive pairing. These two closed out the season logging around 20 minutes a night and built a +/- rating that exceeded 10.
There were three big factors that led to the downfall of pro hockey in western New York this season and the Sabres fans hope that all three will be addressed.
First and possibly most important was the lack of veteran leadership. The Sabres were among the league leaders in goals scored but that stat is pretty deceptive. In truth, the Sabres were blowout specialists, winning a games by scores of 7-2 or 10-1. The inconsistency of having 15 games scoring one goal or less really left the fans confused and cost the team many games. This showed that the scoring talent was there, but the players lacked the composure to score big goals in pressure situations.
With no clear leader on the team, especially after Teppo Numminem’s season ending heart surgery, a rotating captaincy system was developed. Players like Jaroslav Spacek, Jochen Hecht and Jason Pominville stepped up and proved their leadership abilities, but the Sabres really need a steady, experienced captain to give the team its identity back. Veteran defenseman Craig Rivet, gained in a trade with San Jose, should add experience, leadership, and grit to a young line-up.
The second issue was overall team toughness. The 2006-07 line-up also lacked a lot of players willing to get their hands dirty, but was able to compensate due to an overabundance of goal scorers. Moving forward, the Sabres need to get tougher and meaner. Trading Brian Campbell was a costly blow, but the Sabres felt that they could stomach it because Campbell was not a physical stud or defensive rock by any stretch of the imagination. Rivet's presence helps here and rookie blue-liner Mike Weber is also a punishing player who will certainly add a physical element to the line-up.
Finally, coach Ruff lost all confidence in back-up Jocelyn Thibault and made the decision to ride Ryan Miller for the rest of the season. This took its toll on Miller, who began to falter later in the season when fatigue kicked in. Thibault was dropped and Patrick Lalime was signed after the season but the jury is still out on whether or not he will prove to be the backup that the Sabres need.
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Notable top players staying for the Buffalo Sabres:
Thomas Vanek, Ryan Miller, Derek Roy, Jason Pominville, Toni Lydman, Henrik
Tallinder, Jaroslav Spacek, Maxim Afinogenov, Tim Connolly
Buffalo Sabres - Players added via free agency:
- Patrick Lalime, Craig Rivet
Buffalo Sabres - Players lost to free agency:
Steve Bernier, Dmitri Kalinin
Unsigned unrestricted free agents:
Jocelyn Thibault, Teppo Numminen, Nolan Pratt
What Buffalo has:
- A solid core of young forwards with promising prospects in every position. Buffalo has a lot of players who underachieved and should be much better this season while Ryan Miller will be rested and ready to win games. If this explosive offense gains some composure, watch out!
- A hidden gem. Pat Kaleta proved himself as a legitimate annoyer of the Sean Avery variety. Should he skate with the Sabres this season, as he's expected to, players will surely be watching their backs when he is on the ice.
What Buffalo needs:
- A great showing by their blue-liners. Shutdown pairing Toni Lydman and Henrik Tallinder can't have another off year, plus there will be a lot of pressure on Andrej Sekera and Mike Weber to play the way they did last season, which is honestly a lot to ask.
- The health bug. Jaroslav Spacek, Tim Connolly, and Maxim Afinogenov need to stay healthy to produce the numbers of the past.
- Miller and Vanek need to earn the bug bucks they are making. For this franchise to improve, Miller got to stop more pucks while Vanek has to get back to his 50 goal days.
- A back-up goalie. A legitimate #2 goaltender is needed for the Sabres to make it through a season to finish in the top eight. Is Lalime the answer? Wait to see.
Expectations for the Sabres next year:
- Afinogenov, Connolly, Spacek, and Kotalik are all entering the final years on their contracts. All players have had their ups and downs with the club, but they are all very effective when on their game. Afinogenov in particular was expected to leave by way of a trade, but it appears he will still be a Sabre when the first puck drops.
- The Sabres may have slightly improved, but they are still more or less the same team that finished in 10th place, while almost every team around them is also improving. Still, things are so tight that it would be unwise to count them out. Most likely a 7th-9th place finish will be their fate, battling for a playoff spot until the bitter end.
By Scott Obrocta
ProHockey-fans.com Staff Writer
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