Thursday, May 06, 2010

Pool Outlook for Buffalo

The Buffalo Sabres built on a foundation season in 2009, where they just missed out of the playoffs, by adding a couple key pieces and they ended up being the Northeast Division winners, but unfortunately fell in the first round of the playoffs to the Boston Bruins.  The team has a lot to be pleased about, since they have some players in place to build around and another division title and a longer playoff run doesn't seem to be out of the question in the near future.  There were some larger expectations going into these playoffs, I'm sure, but when you look at where they were a year ago, you can definitely be pleased that they are going in the right direction.

The Sabres are anchored by their backstop, who has been fairly consistent in his play, being the team's best player year after year.  Ryan Miller had himself a banner year in net for the Sabres, having 41 wins and 5 shutouts, picking up 92 points in the pool and making himself the 11th best player in the rankings and the 5th best goalie.  Miller was a 2nd round pick in the 2010 Draft pool and he'll now be a 1st round pick without hesitation.  The Sabres will need him to be the best player on the team, if they want to keep moving up the ranks, but that doesn't seem to be the issue for the 29-year old backstop. 

The regular group of forwards were fairly standard for the Sabres this year, adding a piece here or there, but it's really just the same ol' crew holding down the fort.  Derek Roy had a pretty good year for the Sabres, scoring 26 goals and 43 assists in 80 games, ranking him 44th in the league.  He led all of their forwards in points in the year, while Thomas Vanek led the team in goals with 28 in 71 games and Tim Connolly led all forwards in assists with 48 in 73 games.   Those three are definitely part of the Usual Suspects in Buffalo, while Jason Pominville also enjoyed a decent year, 62 points in 82 games.  That core of four players on the team are locked up for at least the next couple years, which means good things for the team and for poolies, since you know that the core can play well together.

I did somewhat miss the boat on Tyler Myers in last year's Pool Outlook, not making mention of him in the One to Watch paragraph, but he also didn't sign with the Sabres until after the article was published or else I probably would have had something for him.  Myers came in with his massive frame and ended up playing so well, he instantly became the number one blueliner on the team, both in minutes and in point production.   Myers finished the 2010 season with 48 points in all 82 games with the Sabres, ranking him 11th among all defensemen in scoring and he will definitely be a top end Draft pick this Fall.  Beyond Myers, there was plenty of inconsistency among the blueline scoring and everyone else had half the points that Myers ended up with at the end of the year.  Steve Montador had 23 points in 78 games, Chris Butler had 21 points in 59 games, Henrik Tallinder and Toni Lydman had 20 points each and Craig Rivet only had 15 points. 

Playing as the back-up goalie is not a very demanding job in some NHL cities, Buffalo being one of them, since the starting goalie likes to play in almost 70 games a season.   Miller appeared in 69 games for the Sabres, which left Patrick Lalime to appear in only 16 games for the Sabres.  Lalime only managed to win 4 games and register 8 points in the season, which didn't rank him very well among his peers, finishing up the season in 63rd among goalies.  Being outside the top 60 means Lalime was not good enough to hang with what should should be 30 starters and 30 back-ups.  With Miller taking the brunt of the minutes, I don't expect the back-up situation to get any better, barring injuries.

2011 Season Outlook
I think it's fair to expect a little bit more growth out of the Sabres in the 2011 season, especially since they have some young players hitting their stride, the core coming together, a superstar goalie and a superstar in the making in Tyler Myers.  Having a look at what the team has already signed on for the year, the Sabres have a lot already locked up on their budget and they should be happy as clams going forward.

Derek RoyTyler MyersRyan Miller
Tim ConnollySteve Montador
Jason PominvilleChris Butler
Thomas VanekCraig Rivet
Jochen HechtAndrej Sekera
Drew Stafford
Paul Gaustad
Tyler Ennis

The Sabres are in the top half of teams in the league for cap space already committed to the 2011 season, but with the team that's signed on above, the $44.1 million committed seems to be a pretty good deal.  The team has a pretty good scoring-by-committee layout with a number of entry-level deals sprinkled through, their top defenseman and top goalie also included in the bunch.  The Sabres could use some steadiness on the blueline over the off-season and they could likely sacrifice their back-up goalie money (to an entry-level deal) to make sure they have more for their depth.

Free agency will be full of interesting decisions for the Buffalo Sabres, especially when it comes to their unrestricted free agents.  Raffi Torres, thought to be a rental from Columbus, leads the list of UFAs going to market this July and I don't think he scored enough to be retained, honestly.  I would imagine he goes to market.  Mike Grier, Henrik Tallinder, Toni Lydman, Adam Mair and Matt Ellis all have the same sort of question marks hanging above their heads, meaning they have equal arguments for staying and for going.

As for their restricted free agents, Tim Kennedy played 78 games for the Sabres, leading the small group having their contracts expire.  Kennedy has found a role with the Sabres, so I expect him to be signed and good to go for training camp without problem.  Patrik Kaleta is the only other RFA of note for this Summer, so the Sabres are getting off easy in this category of work. 

I have already included Tyler Ennis in the roster above, because his last 10 games of the regular season and games in the first round of the playoffs were pretty much lights out and his participation with the big club in 2011 is almost a sure-thing, in my opinion.  He is on top of the Sabres' prospect list in the Future Watch and he did a lot to impress this year.  I'm expecting to see Jhonas Enroth to be the back-up for the Sabres, for whatever that's worth.  Enroth will be that entry-level deal that the Sabres can cut a corner with and not be at too much risk of losing all of his games, when Miller is not scheduled to go.  The Sabres might be able to throw another youth in there somewhere, but right now, your guess is as good as mine.

The Sabres do have a division title on their belt, so that does effect where they will be drafting this year, as they won't be counting on just their points to pick 20th in the Draft this June.  Expect them to shift down once the Conference Finalists are named.  The Sabres will then be at a pick where a goaltender might be in their crosshairs, which always seems to be the wild card position to take so early.  If they don't have a good goalie in their sights, I think they keep in the same theme by looking for a medium-sized skilled forward or a medium-to-larger defenseman.

What I said at this time last year: "I like the Sabres' top players when it comes to picking players for the pool. When the points really start to drop off, it becomes really difficult to take the rest of the team seriously. The Sabres are working their way back to being the same team that had Chris Drury and Daniel Briere leading the way, but the same offensive results may still be a while to come. For now, keep Miller, Roy, Pominville and Vanek on your list at a reasonable level, while addressing their depth on a depth-only basis. Right now, there isn't a great deal of gambles worth taking."

One of the things that I know I said during the year, especially around the start of the stretch run was that the Sabres did remind me of the team that went to the Stanley Cup Finals, with a smaller hard-working group of players, a good defenseman and a top-end goalie.  I think in a lot of ways, that really summed up their year and it was somewhat expected at this time last year.  Miller, Roy, Pominville and Vanek were all good picks for your pool, but Connolly was still a health risk (which would have paid off) and since Myers hadn't signed, I didn't think he was an impact player at the time.  I don't think I did too badly last year, honestly.

For 2011, I think a lot of the same principles apply that I had going on last year.  You have a look at your definites, like Miller, Roy, Pominville and Vanek, you can add Myers to the list if you like, but I will still remain hesitant on recommending Connolly for any sort of hockey pool, because he is still such an injury risk.  If Ennis can pay off in the coming year, the Sabres should have enough scoring to improve their point total from 2010, likely capturing another division title.

No comments: