'Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.'  -George Santayana

Are the ’10-’11 Sabres in essence the same team as they were last year?  This analysis is not an indictment against management or the players. Heck, the Sabres finished 1st in their division, and 3rd in the Eastern Conference.  It’s simply looking at the roster and seeing if we are better or worse off than last year.  The true test of this year’s Sabres team will be if they can succeed in the playoffs.  If they fail to make the playoffs, I think we can agree that a management and coaching change will be made.  I believe that Lindy Ruff and Darcy Regier are in a lose-lose situation as far as the fans opinion goes.  Fans are bitter about the first round playoff exit.  I think nothing less than the Conference Finals would be satisfactory.  That being said; where is the team at?  How good are we? 

We’re about 45 days from puck drop on the 2010-11 NHL Season.  Sabres fans haven’t had much to cheer about in free agency.  We’ve lost and gained players, but are still left waiting for that, ‘big splash’.  Let’s start with the highest area of concern, the top 6.

Last year’s regular season top 6: Vanek, Pominville, Roy, Hecht, Connolly, MacArthur/Stafford.  Of course there were times the lineup was different, but the above is what most often our top 6 forwards were.  There has been very little change.  Gone is MacArthur.  I have to imagine Stafford has seen his final days in the top two lines.  It’d be a great lift if he regained his confidence but I’m not counting on it.  Rob Niedermayer is too old to play top line minutes.  The one bright spot is Tiny Tyler Ennis.  He showed flashes of promise (9pts in 10 reg season games).  Let’s not overlook Ennis, as it is nice to have a homegrown player that can step in, play top line minutes, and put the puck in the net.  However his addition is far from punch the Scoring lines need.  Our top 3 scorers had very average years (Vanek 28, Roy 26, Pom 24).  Above average years from Mike Grier, Paul Gaustad, and Patrick Kaleta made up for the top lines lack of scoring touch.  Ryan Miller’s Vezina Trophy winning year and Tyler Myers’ 11 goals also helped let the top 6 off the hook.  So what we have is Tyler Ennis replacing Clarke MacArthur in the same top six that were fair to average all year and stunk it up in the playoffs.

As far as the top two lines are concerned, were in exactly the same spot as we were last year.  I’m done hoping for Tim Connolly to become dominant.  Derek Roy is what he is; a guy who scores goals, gets assists and constantly whines to the refs.  At 33,  Jochen Hecht falls under the ‘not getting any younger’ umbrella.  Vanek and Pominville have decent chances of having their 30+ goal years.  Bottom line; we need more offense from these players or we need to get new players.  I wouldn’t count on 10 goal years from Grier and Kaleta this year so we better get those goals from The Big Guns.  If this group has the same ho-hum season as last year, The Sabres are going to be worse than last year.

Even though I wouldn’t want Drury back at this point; the Drury of ’05-’07 represents THE PLAYER that we are missing on our top lines.

Where are the top 6?: Same as last year

 

3rd and 4th Lines 

Last year 35 year old Mike Grier scored 10 goals and was arguably the team’s playoff MVP.  Grier is a high character guy, but every player slows down at some point.  I’d love to think Grier will repeat his performance but a more realistic goal for him is about 80% of that output.  Rounding out the 3rd and 4th lines we had Tim Kennedy, Paul Gaustad, Patrick Kaleta, Matt Ellis & Adam Mair.  Now we have: Grier, Gaustad, Kaleta, Rob Niedermayer, Gerbe, & one other; possibly Cody McCormick.  I think we’ve yet to hear the last of the signings or cuts as far as the final few spots on the 3rd & 4th lines goes.

I understand that Adam Mair lacks value as a player, but I don’t see how he could hurt the Sabres as a ‘last player on the bench’ type guy.  He loves playing for The Sabres and provides toughness in the form of size, hitting and big league fighting.  It will not make much difference with wins and losses whether or not Mair is on the team in ’10-’11, but for the reasons I stated above, would personally love to see him finish off his NHL career in Buffalo.

I see Patrick Kaleta dropping off as far as offensive production, but I am prepared to be surprised.  His 10 goals last season weren’t lucky, they were often big time scores.  He will continue to be a jerk on the ice.  Let’s hope he stays healthy.  Health is a concern for Paul Gaustad.  I love him at 3rd line center and I see him scoring the same 22 points as last year.  Having Rob Niedermayer on that 3rd line should increase the offense output in this group.  Nathan Gerbe is a wildcard.  If he were great, he’d be on the 1st or 2nd line.  He hasn’t yet proven himself so he’s been stuck with the grinder lines.  If he plays 82 games on the 3rd line he’d easily lead the bottom 6 in scoring.  It’d be great to see him play with Gaustad/Grier or Gaustad/Niedermayer.  That could be a fun line.

I still don’t understand why The Sabres gave up on Tim Kennedy.  The explanation given by Darcy was insufficient.  TK scored 10 goals last year and had the potential for more.  Again, like with Mair, TK’s not going to win/lose you many games, but to give up on a young player over a matter of 200k is inexcusable. 

I am interested to see what Rob Niedermayer has to offer.  He can play RW or Center and has been cited as contributing to leadership.  Hopefully he has enough in the tank to make it through an NHL season and score the same 10 goals he put in last year for New Jersey.

The 3rd and 4th lines overachieved last year, but only enough to make up for the stinker of a year put up by the scoring lines.  As far as offensive output I don’t see too much of an increase/decrease on the horizon.  As far as toughness you lose some if you have Gerbe/Niedermayer as opposed to Mair/McCormick.  Coach Ruff can decide how much beef he needs on the checking lines on a game to game basis so the toughness factor isn’t too much of a concern.  We saw last year that the absence of a true heavyweight fighter(Andrew Peters) was inconsequential.

Bottom Line: I will be satisfied if we get the same offensive output from these lines.  I actually expect about the same considering the additions and subtractions.  I need a little more in the toughness department from this group.  The Sabres got pushed around a bit last year.  This group did their job last year and I expect nothing less from them this year.

Where are the bottom 6?: Slightly better than last year

 

Goaltending: This one should be a piece of cake, right?  We’ve got Ryan Miller!  Not so fast, my friend.  We’ve got Ryan Miller coming off a career year where he won the Vezina and played in the Olympics and a 6 game playoff series.  The only direction to go is down.  I’m not a pessimist, but HOW MUCH BETTER CAN HE GET?  Seriously, people!  I look for an ever so slight drop-off from Miller, just because he was near perfect last year.

Wow, we dropped the ball on backup goalie.  Don’t even get me started here.  Marty Biron was available.  The Marty Biron that was fighting with Ryan Miller for the starting job three years ago.  Hello!, anybody home in the Sabres front office?  He signed with the Rangers for a tiny salary; makes me so angry.  So now for the 3rd year in a row we have Patrick Lalime for a backup.  To be truthful he probably gets rusty from sitting so much, but there’s a damn good reason he’s sitting.  He’s not good!  If you need any more evidence of how much we need a better backup, please close your eyes and imagine that Ryan Miller goes down injured 20 games into the season.  If you have Biron, you still have a shot, with Lalime the season is over.

Where are we on Goaltending?: Slightly worse than last year

 

 Defense: Thank goodness we have Tyler Myers.  Defense is easy; we lost Tallinder and Lydman and gained Shaone Morrisonn and Jordan Leopold.  On paper it looks like a fairly even switch.  I see Morrisonn playing alongside Myers and Leopold taking Lydman’s spot with Montador.  I’d like to think we got tougher on the Blue Line with the addition of Leopold and Morrisonn, but I’ll wait to make that claim until I see it with my own eyes.  Tallinder & Lydman had size, they just weren’t terribly physical.  Let me also note the departure of 7th defenseman, Nathan Paetsch.  In all seriousness I’d like to take a minute here to thank these three defenseman for their service to The Sabres.  I liked Tallinder, Lydman, and Paetsch and they wore the Blue & Gold with pride. 

Last year’s D: T. Myers, Tallinder, Lydman, Montador, Rivet, Sekera, Butler, Paetsch 

This year’s D: T. Myers, Morrisonn, Leopold, Montador, Rivet, Sekera, Butler

Marc-Andre Gragnani,  Mike Weber & TJ Brennan could fight for playing time but most likely will only see the ice due to injury.  Craig Rivet is getting old fast.  I am somewhat surprised they didn’t have him give up the C.  He is definitely a 3rd pairing D-Man which means he may need to be benched.  You never want to(and you basically can’t) bench the captain  I’m a big fan of Rivet, mostly because of his toughness.  He picks his fights carefully, and he is afraid of nobody.  Last year he fought Daniel Carcillo, Andy Sutton, Shawn Thornton, and Milan Lucic.  This is the last year of his contract and that is a good thing.

Montador had a decent year last year.  He’s basically a 3rd pairing D-Man in a 2nd pairing role.  He’d be more comfortable in a lesser role, but it’s up to one of the youngsters to take that job from him.  I expect a similar year from Montador since he’s up for contract.

Here’s what I wrote a few months ago about Shaone Morrisonn before he was on The Sabres:  D - Shaone Morrisonn - Age 27 - Wikipedia says... Morrisonn has begun to prove himself as a tough, stay-at-home defenceman. During the 2008 NHL playoffs, Morrisonn played every game with a broken jaw and a separated shoulder as the team's number one defenceman. His stats are not impressive, he's not a fighter, he's not huge.  Doesn't seem to be anything special.  6'4, 217. = Not going to get picked on.  He is Canadian.  Teams with Canadians seem to do well in the playoffs.  I want a guy on my team who plays with separated shoulders.

As far as Leopold goes, he needs to stay healthy.  We’ve got plenty of youngsters to take his place should he go down, but he’s a veteran who also has some decent goal scoring potential.  I’ll be watching Leopold extremely closely at the start of ’10-’11.

What can we say about Tyler Myers that hasn’t already been said?  Well, there’s actually room for improvement.  He needs to get bigger and tougher.  He scores plenty and I hope he avoids any kind of sophomore slump.  I don’t foresee any slump since he was on the 1st line D all last year and it doesn’t get any tougher than that.  Remember when they were thinking about sending him back to Juniors last year?... HA!

It’s tough to tell whether the D as a unit will be better or worse than last year.  They lost two guys and gained two of similar skill.  I think it’d be over-optimistic to say that they’ll make any great leap as far as defensive strength.  The most exciting part of our defense is that we have so many young players.  I have to think that’s why we let Toni and Talli walk away.  I actually want to compliment Regier on replacing those two with slightly younger versions.(Morrisonn 27/Leopold 30).  I am going to say that we are worse off on defense than last year, but there is a great potential to be better.  The shake-up that happened on D is what needed to happen in the top 6.

Where are we on Defense?: Slightly worse than last year*

* With a potential to be better than last year

 

Random Note:

I think it’s less than coincidence that the Sabres Roster now consists 87.5% of North American skaters.  Sekera, Vanek, Schutz and Hecht are the only Europeans.  It is ignorant to throw a blanket over Europeans and say they’re not tough.  Petr Forsberg was tough, Anton Volchenkov is tough.  And Shaone Morrisson and Jordan Leopold are not necessarily tough just because they were born on this side of the Atlantic Ocean.  We certainly know that Europeans can score, goaltend and play defense.  I doubt the Sabres would admit to it, because that would amount to racism.  I’ve heard the topic mentioned on Schopp & The Bulldog and the current roster is solid evidence.  An article from 2008(see link below) has the NHL at 27% European, while the Sabres current roster from www.sabres.com has 4/32 or 12.5% European.  My gut is to think that the powers that be think that Canadians and to a lesser extent, Americans just play a better brand of hockey.  It might be ignorance, it might be based on science, but I think for better or worse, Sabres management is purposefully going in the direction of a predominately North American squad.    

 

Conclusion:  The last memory we have of Sabres hockey is them going down in flames in round one of the playoffs.  While that is a concern, they still won their division, had the best goalie, best rookie, and were a top team all year.  The off-season has basically been a wash as far as departures and arrivals.  I can’t point to any one loss or gain and draw conclusions.  It will be interesting to see how the team meshes with their new players while dealing with the losses of some long-time teammates.  I believe the 2010-11 Sabres have the potential to get back to the playoffs and even win their own division.  I do not believe they’ve done enough to get far into the playoffs.  They still lack players to create a decent power play.  They haven’t made the necessary improvements up front and they’ve stayed the same or gotten worse on D and goaltending.  While I believe this team will earn a playoff spot I don’t see anything that tells me this team will perform any different come playoff time.

Where are we as a team?: Slightly worse off than last year

Prediction: 2nd in Northeast Division, 7th in Eastern Conference, 1st round playoff exit.

I’d love to be wrong on this one.  

 

Article on NHL ethnicity:

http://www.fromtherink.com/2008/11/26/673622/the-nhl-by-nationality-52