Welcome to the NHL FanHouse 2008-09 season preview. While other sites are previewing "30 teams in 30 days," we decided to take advantage of the off before the start of the season to bring you all 30 previews over the next three weeks. We're counting down in reverse order of finish from last season in each conference every weekday from now until October 3. Look for an Eastern Conference preview every morning and a Western Conference preview every afternoon. Click here to read them all.
Who's In: Patrick Lalime, G (FA-CHI), Craig Rivet, D (Trade-SJS), Teppo Numminen, D (Return from Heart Surgery)
Who's Out: Joceyln Thibault, G (FA), Dmitri Kalinin, D (FA, NYR), Steve Bernier, RW (Trade, VAN)
What's Changed: Not a whole lot, frankly, unless one considers the number of players the supposedly stingy Sabres have under long-term contract now. That, coupled with the lack of tragedy during training camp (*fingers crossed*) should help lighten the mood in the room just a bit. But, honestly, that's just the way this organization wants it (especially in comparison to last year's off-season). With 20 of the 30 people who suited up for the Sabres in 07-08 having been drafted by the team, this is the textbook example of a team that promotes from within.
Recently extended GM Darth Regier believes in building via the draft and come what may that's going to be how he does it. I'm sure nothing has made Regier happier than resolving the dual-affiliation with Rochester which has been hampering their ability to develop prospects properly. During this summer they finalized changing their AHL affiliation to Portland and retained the same staff that helped feed Anaheim a Stanley Cup.
Now, given that this team missed the playoffs last season after 2 straight trips to the Conference Finals one might think not cleaning house was the wrong strategy for this off-season. It would have been easy to ship off for next to nothing enigmas like Tim Connolly and Maxim Afinogenov after their disappointing, injury-plagued seasons. Or to re-make, bodily, a defense that spent a lot of time running around in its own zone playing catch up with some of the league's more skilled forwards.
But, patience is something that mercenaries like Mike Keenan don't have and it's also why guys like him last only a couple of years in any one job. Regier knows that some things take time to mature and with the amount of veteran leadership that left this franchise over the last 2 off-seasons either because they were pushed (McKee, Briere) or decided to sign somewhere else (Grier, Drury, Campbell) meant that there were high odds last season would turn out the way it did. It's why he's going into his 12th season as Sabres GM
So, the question is have the kids who are left learned their lessons?
To help them answer that question Regier brought back from the dead rearguard Teppo Numminen to help tutor the younglings like Andrej Sekera, Mike Weber and Chris Butler while providing a well documented calming presence on the bench. Think of Teppo as the 4th Marx Brother to Lindy Ruff, James Patrick and Brian McCutcheon. Simply by removing Dmitri Kalinin and his wandering attention span from the lineup should be considered addition by subtraction. Replacing his minutes with veteran all-around-tough-cookie Craig Rivet should provide a more balanced top 6 set of blueliners than last season. Early reports are that the Tallinder/Lydman pair have been broken up and Tallinder is skating with Numminen, Spacek with Sekera and Lydman with Rivet. We'll see how long those pairs last.
Lastly, the kick ass new 3rd Sweater!
Who's on the Hook: Well, for once, management is off the proverbial hook. Regier did his job, he locked up his core players and handed coach Lindy Ruff a plethora of forwards capable of playing in the NHL along with 8 defensemen, while many teams scramble to find 4 they can count on.
The biggest question marks surrounding this team are all the guys in the last year of their contracts. There are 5 of them: Maxim Afinogenov, Ales Kotalik, Tim Connolly, Jaro Spacek and Drew Stafford. It's no secret that Afinogenov was for sale this summer, and I'm sure the others were as well (except Stafford). But, there were no serious offers. Having these guys in this position is a benefit. For the first three this may be the last year they have to prove they're worthy of the big UFA contract. Connolly has been dogged by injuries since the lockout but if he can put together even a 65 game season he'll give the Sabres enough offense from the 2nd line for them to be 3 lines deep in scoring, with the Hecht/Pominville pair on the 3rd line. The same goes for 35 year old Jaro Spacek, if he wants that one last 3 year deal of his career, he better play like the guy who started last season, earning a month with the "C," and not the one who showed up to camp in 06-07.
Pushing all of these guys will be NCAA darlings C Nathan Gerbe and RW Tim Kennedy. Competition for the final roster spots in camp should be fierce as there are another 5 or 6 guys who are getting near their last kick at the NHL can, they include Marek Zagrapan, Mark Mancari, Patrick Kaleta and Clarke MacArthur.
It is an imperative for Thomas Vanek to regain the form he had in 06-07, some of which seemed to return late in the season when he settled down and stopped worrying about living up to his contract, and just played hockey. Actually, that can be said for a number of the pivotal guys on this team, like Stafford, Roy and Miller. They all tried to do too much to prove they didn't need Drury and Briere and it wound up costing them games.
With Lalime as his backup and Miller admitting he didn't take good care of himself in the wake of his cousin's death to start the season I expect more consistent goaltending than last season. Given that offense dropped from 80's Oiler territory to just Top 5 in the post-lockout era, the lack of a consistent Miller and a leadership vacuum cost them just enough games to miss the Cup Tourney.
Where They'll Finish: Lost in all the hoopla of the Sabres missing the playoffs after losing Drury and Briere it's hard to remember that they did so because they lost 11 shootouts last year. And this is where Miller's lack of focus cost them, as he'd been money in the shootout in the previous 2 seasons, establishing himself as one of the better breakaway goalies in the NHL. Picking up even a couple of those extra points may have given them a better chance down the stretch.
I expect this team to make the playoffs with little issue. The east is a mess after the first few teams. Like many of the flawed teams in the NHL there are too many variables that go into a season to make an accurate prediction, but this is a playoff team on paper and if the moves made by Regier in the off-season pay dividends and his guys on the bubble play like their careers depend on it (and they do) then they should have the resources to overcome a key injury or two which is all the cushion they'll need to secure a lower seed in the East. If all the stars align, well, I'll hold my enthusiasm for later in the season, then.
Blogs to Watch: Bfloblog, Top Shelf, Goose's Roost, Sabres Prospects, Willful Caboose, Muckers and Grinders, Sabres Edge.
Bruce Bennett, Getty Images
Doug Benc, Getty Images
Gerry Broome, AP
Dave Reginek, Getty Images
Eliot J. Schechter, Getty Images
Dave Reginek, Getty Images
Richard Wolowicz, Getty Images
Andre Ringuette, Getty Images
Dave Sandford, Getty Images
Bjorn Larsson Rosvall, SCANPIX / AP