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NHL Anaheim Ducks

Rant Sports NHL 30 in 30: Buffalo Sabres

Kevin Hoffman – US PRESSWIRE

2011-2012 Season Recap

Anyone would be lying if they said that they were happy with the end result of the Buffalo Sabres’ season last year. Whenever your team doesn’t make the playoffs, the season was a substantial disappointment.

Yet despite the less than stellar end result, there was a lot for the fans to be happy about with the Sabres last season.

First and foremost, they definitely did not quit when they, especially when they hit last place in the Eastern Conference in February. At that point, the fan base intensified the “Fail for Nail” call that had followed the Columbus Blue Jackets all season and there were calls for both Darcy Regier and Lindy Ruff’s heads.

Instead, the team fought back, and may have been able to get over the playoff hump if not for ill-timed injuries to defenseman Christian Ehrhoff and Tyler Myers.

Second, the young players showed that they were ready for the big leagues in a convincing fashion. Marcus Foligno, Corey Tropp, Brayden McNabb and TJ Brennan were stellar in their time with the Sabres, with Foligno and Tropp likely to stick on the big club when next season’s first puck drops.

Third, Regier showed he was willing to disassemble the “core” that had garnered so much attention over the course of the season. At the trade deadline, Paul Gaustad was traded to the Nashville Predators for a first-round pick. Derek Roy also found his way out of town in the offseason. There was a lot of chatter as to whether or not Regier had the gumption to do it, but he showed that he was willing to use the dynamite on the core when need be.

Lastly, Ryan Miller showed everyone that he still is the all-world goaltender that won the Vezina Trophy and carried the USA to a silver medal in 201o. Trade rumors swirled around Miller following his return from his run-in with Milan Lucic in November, but no one heard those rumors in March. Miller single handedly won the Sabres at least five games at the end of last season and he finally looked like the competitor Sabres fans cheered in 2009-2010.

Offseason Additions

The offseason was full of intrigue for Sabres fans for both things that did and did not happen.

When free agency began, the Sabres reportedly joined the Parise and Suter sweepstakes, offering them each over $100 million.  Both decided to head home to Minnesota to play for the Minnesota Wild.

After a few days of free agency, rumors were rampant that the Anaheim Ducks’ Bobby Ryan was being targeted by Darcy. Many in the Queen City buzzed about this, dreaming of a potential marriage of Tyler Ennis or Cody Hodgson with Ryan. But he remains in Anaheim with linemates Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf.

Then came the Shane Doan rumors, and a four year, $30 million dollar offer from the Sabres. Doan decided to take the hometown discount however, electing to remain with the Phoenix Coyotes for what is likely to be the remainder of his career.

So, many would think three swings, three misses. But that is very short-sighted.

The Sabres’ only free agent signing on July 1 was John Scott, a menacing, 6’8″ winger-defenseman who literally just beats the crap out of everyone. He has never lost a fight (via hockeyfights.com) and will certainly help in matchups against the Boston Bruins.

On July 2, Darcy traded the much maligned Roy to the Dallas Stars for Steve Ott and Adam Pardy. Ott was the big addition, bringing with him the grit and motor the Sabres have been lacking for some time. Not only will he play nasty and be the ultimate pest, Ott will also score. Having played a hybrid center-wing position with the Stars last season, Ott finished in the top-five in the league in faceoff percentage. This will allow him to play with either a young center, like Hodgson, or with someone who struggled at the pivot last season like Ville Leino.

Pardy will be a depth defenseman, likely to be a healthy scratch or to be placed on waivers and sent down to Rochester to start the season.

The Sabres also added forwards Nick Tarnasky, Kevin Porter and Mark Mancari for depth in Rochester.

Mikhail Grigorenko and Zemgus Girgensons will have the ability to make the team out of training camp after being drafted in the first round in June.

Offseason Subtractions

Last season’s roster will have some changes beyond the additions of Scott, Ott and Pardy, as the Sabres also said goodbye to a few players.

Beyond the trade of Roy to Dallas, Brad Boyes bid adieu by signing a one year, $1 million deal with the New York IslandersJochen Hecht remains unsigned, and given his concussion issues the last two seasons, may retire. Depth goaltender Drew MacIntyre was also not resigned and has signed with a KHL team.

X-Factor for 2012-2013 Seasons

Who do you think?

Sure, there are plenty of players that need to perform well in order for the Sabres to succeed, but none have the bottom-line impact Ryan Miller does.

As he goes, so do the Sabres. Last season is a shining example of that. When Miller was good, the Sabres were one of the hardest teams to get two points out of. When Miller was not good, bordering on bad, the Sabres were quite possibly the easiest team to get two points out of.

The fact is that Miller’s play is the best barometer of the team’s play. Scoring, not scoring, allowing goals, not allowing goals all tell their own story, but not as clearly as Miller’s play.

After his run-in with Milan Lucic, the Buffalo populous saw the worst of Miller. They also saw the worst of their team. But after dipping into last place in the Eastern Conference, Miller bounced back and started playing fabulous hockey. Incidentally, the team made its surge for the playoffs and in a 15 game stretch Miller was 10-1-4, including 3 shutouts.

The team doesn’t need Miller to post his Vezina-worthy numbers to make a run at the playoffs. They just need a full-season from him. Yet, if he does play like he did at the end of last season all season, the Sabres could make a run at the division. That’s how important he is. He’s not the X Factor, he’s the A-X Factor.

Breakout Player

Whereas the return to the playoffs will hinge on the efforts of Miller, making a deep run will be on the shoulders of the offense. This means that the Sabres need, and can likely expect, a huge season out of Cody Hodgson.

After starting slow after coming over from the Vancouver Canucks with Alexander Sulzer in exchange for Zack Kassian and Marc-Andre Gragnani at the trade deadline last season, Hodgson picked it up during the last 10 games of the season, scoring eight points in that span.

Likely to start the season in the middle of Jason Pominville and Thomas Vanek, Hodgson has the ability to start as fast as Luke Adam did last year. If the Sabres are going to be a team to contend in the Eastern Conference, that line will need to produce in concert with the Ennis-Foligno-Drew Stafford line.

With a whole offseason to pick up Ruff’s system and assured ice time, which he was not afforded in Vancouver to start last season, look for Hodgson to start cashing in on his lottery-pick expectations. Darcy gave up a huge piece of the future in Kassian to get Hodgson, but it was a serious position of need in center.

2012-2013 Season Outlook

Losing Derek Roy’s scoring and adding Ott’s grit is the only real change from last season, and some will ask “what scoring?” There is a tremendous amount of continuity in this team and they can likely count on improved seasons from Leino and Hodgson.

The division isn’t much better. Boston will be tough again, but with the additions of Scott and Ott there will be less focus on “having to be tough” and more of just being tougher when playing them. Montreal has one line. And they still have Scott Gomez on the team. Toronto will be marginally better than last year, but losing Luke Schenn have more negatives than gaining James Van Riemsdyk will bring positives. Ottawa is still a mystery. Can they replicate last season? There’s arguments to be made either way.

Overall, the Sabres are probably the second most talented team in the division on paper. If they play to their potential and do not catch the injury bug again, they have the ability to win 45 games easily. Expect the Sabres to be well in the playoff conversation this year, and potentially in the division conversation as well. As John Buccigross tweeted when the Sabres were eliminated from the playoffs last season, it’s not the same in April, May and June without invested Buffalo fans. Look for that to change this year.