Buffalo Sabres 2011-2012 Campaign: Some things change, some stay the same
blog by Dan Ludwig • September 22, 2011 @ 8:00am
With the NHL preseason underway, Buffalo is starting to come alive with puck talk; many fans are excited about the team’s new talent and ownership. With that in mind, here is a recap of the 2010-2011 season as well as some thoughts on this year’s team.
The 2010-2011 Buffalo Sabres season can be described as a roller-coaster ride for players and fans. The team started out slow, had an absentee owner and was not getting the production it expected from key members of the team. All that seemed to change on what many fans call Pegula Day, Feburary 22, 2011. This fan-made holiday refers to the day that billionaire and longtime Sabres fan Terry Pegula bought the team; from this day forward, Pegula infused the team with a unique energy that directly affected Buffalo’s on-ice performance. The team closed out the season 16-4-4; in the process, they climbed out of the bottom of the Eastern Conference and snuck into the playoffs in seventh place. To the despair of hockey fans across the Queen City, the Sabres suffered a disappointing loss to the Philadelphia Flyers in the first round.
In recent seasons, the forward position marked the Sabres’ Achilles heel. As a whole, they’re a talented bunch—just infuriatingly inconsistent; Thomas Vanek and Drew Stafford both scored over 30 goals in 2010-2011, and last season revealed flashes of brilliance from players like Tyler Ennis and Nathan Gerbe. On top of these returning players, the Sabres welcome back Ales Kotalik, who returns to the Sabres after a stint with Calgary. The team also signed Ville Leino, who had 19 goals and 34 assists last year with Philadelphia. The depth that Buffalo has at forward speaks for itself; that being said, it seems as if the team failed to address a primary need: a clutch performer. Last year, the Sabres’ biggest names disappeared when the team needed them most (Did Brad Boyes suit up in the playoffs?). I am skeptical that one of the current forwards can step up in end-of-game situations in the same way that Daniel Briere or Chris Drury used to (and now, a moment of silence in the interest of nostalgia…).
Entering this season, many fans look at the defense as one of the most promising facets of the team. Much of this confidence is due to the fact that the team re-signed blue-liner Tyler Myers to a seven-year, $38.5 million contract extension. Although the price is steep, the Sabres still got a deal for one of the most talented young defenders in the league. Besides securing Myers, the team added Robyn Regehr from Calgary and Christian Ehrhoff from Vancouver. Regehr is a top-pair defenseman who adds experience to an otherwise young defensive corps; Ehrhoff is an offensive defenseman who tallied 50 points last year, 14 of which were goals. With a mix of veteran experience and emerging young talent, the defense looks to be rock solid.
Buffalo hockey fans old and new are accustomed to not worrying about goaltending. The team has always been relatively sound between the pipes; this year should be no different. Although Tim Thomas may have supplanted Ryan Miller as the premier American net-minder, Miller is still among the top goalies in the league. On top of that, Jhnoas Enroth emerged last year as the first solid backup option the Sabres have had since Martin Biron left. Will Miller still play 60 games? Watch how Lindy Ruff juggles Enroth and Miller, particularly if Miller underwhelms early in the season.
To put it simply, Lindy Ruff has grown roots behind the Sabres’ bench. The longest-tenured coach in the NHL, Ruff has been the Sabres’ bench boss since 1997. Although last year rumors circulated that Ruff was on his way out, the new ownership secured his future by giving him a multi-year extension. Terry Pegula, whose faith in Ruff and Regier saved their jobs, injected the city with a vibrant energy concerning the team. For one, Pegula opened his wallet to improve not only the personnel on the ice, but also the team’s facilities. Pegula footed the bill for new equipment and locker room renovations in the First Niagara Center. From keeping the coaching position stable to rejuvenating the atmosphere around the team, it is clear that the front office is determined to hoist the Cup.
It is true that there have been areas of improvement this off-season. Roster additions on the defensive side of the puck will make Miller’s job easier. Furthermore, it seems as if the franchise might be able to hang its hat on players like Myers and Gerbe in the future. Obviously, the front office is enthusiastic (to say the least) about this year’s team. However, the Sabres are still in need of a forward that will show up when it matters. Unless a clutch playoff performer emerges, preferably a leader willing to confront an angry Zdeno Chara or nasty Braydon Coburn, this blogger doesn’t predict Lord Stanley’s Cup in the Queen City next summer.
Division finish: 3rd
Conference finish: 6th
Playoffs: Lose in 7 games in the Eastern Conference semifinals.