With a certain level of optimism abound in the CBA talks between the NHL and the NHLPA, there seems to be at least some reason to look forward to the shortened NHL season that would start mid-January.
The Buffalo Sabres‘ roster has not seen the upheaval it did last year with the additions of Ville Leino and Christian Ehrhoff via free agency and Robyn Regehr via a trade with the Calgary Flames, but there have been some important changes and additions that will certainly affect the lineup Lindy Ruff suits up when the puck (hopefully) drops.
The major change was the trade with the Dallas Stars that brought wing-center hybrid Steve Ott to the Sabres and sent center Derek Roy to the Stars. Defenseman Adam Pardy also came over with Ott from the Stars in the deal. Ott plays a much different game than Roy, and that alone will impact the line combinations for the upcoming season.
The drafting of Mikhail Grigorenko in the first round of June’s NHL Entry Draft will also play a part in the Sabres’ considerations, as will the season-ending injury of Corey Tropp in the first game of the AHL season in October.
Nevertheless, here are my predictions for the lines on the first day of the season:
Line 1: Marcus Foligno – Tyler Ennis – Drew Stafford
This is definitely the easiest line to call given their play at the end of last season.
Foligno has been a bit streaky playing for the Rochester Americans in the AHL, but generally has kept his play at the high level he displayed in the final 13 games of last season. In 31 AHL games, Foligno has 27 points, good for second on the Amerks. His play has certainly allowed himself the opportunity to open on the Sabres’ top line when the season begins.
Ennis had some injury issues while playing in Switzerland for Langnau of the Swiss-A league, but all reports seem to suggest he would be 100-percent when the season started. Ennis’ electric play at center at the end of last season will certainly allow him the chance to try and replicate that success.
Stafford has been quiet during the lockout, but has been seen skating with his fellow teammates and has certainly been staying in shape. Sabres fans have endured the enigma that is Drew Stafford for many years, with his excellent 30-goal campaign two seasons ago followed by a slow start to the 2011-12 season. However, his pairing with Foligno and Ennis seemed to light a fire in him and he showed the same willingness to take the puck to the net he showed the season before. Look for much of the same this season.
Line 2: Thomas Vanek – Cody Hodgson – Jason Pominville
While not as easy to predict as the first line, the Sabres’ second unit should be pretty straightforward as well.
Vanek can be considered the Sabres’ most important player behind Ryan Miller. When Vanek is playing well, the Sabres tend to have success in the win column as well. He has 40-goal potential every year, and some years he goes on stretches that make those that are paying attention think he could hit 50. He will have a huge powerplay presence as well, but playing with a skilled center in Hodgson will give him more opportunity to put the puck in the net.
Hodgson, acquired in February by the Sabres from Vancouver for the rugged Zack Kassian, has the talent to be the team’s number one center for a very long time. His great hands and vision have propelled him to success at the AHL level this year, having currently posted 18 points in 17 games in Rochester. Hodgson also has battled injuries this season, missing a month of action with a broken hand, but has played well in the eight games since his return, posting eight points in that time frame.
Pominville, the Sabres’ captain and leading scorer from a season ago, has always played well with Vanek, so adding a skilled center to that mix should only mean good things for the Sabres. After reaching the 30-goal mark for the second time in his career, Pominville has been dominating in the German pro league, scoring 11 points in six games after heading over in December.
Line 3: Steve Ott – Luke Adam – Ville Leino
This is where the guesswork truly starts.
Ott was brought over to play against the other team’s top lines as well as to add 40-ish points per year. He plays a center-wing hybrid, and will likely take most defensive zone faceoffs, having finished fifth in the league in faceoff percentage last year with the Stars. He will agitate with the best of them and will likely finish north of 100 penalty minutes, but that’s exactly the type of guy Lindy Ruff has been craving in his system.
Adam is the biggest question mark. In early December I would have thought that Grigorenko would have had every chance to earn this spot (or one on the first or second line) with his nine game tryout all junior players are afforded. Essentially it’s a win-win situation. If Grigorenko is ready, he stays after the nine games. If he isn’t, he’s sent back to the Quebec Remparts for the rest of the year and his contract doesn’t toll a year.
That logic was seemingly thrown to the wind when it was reported that Quebec was guaranteed they would have Grigorenko’s services for the remainder of the season, whether or not the lockout ended and an NHL season was played. Now, this guarantee is certainly not binding and Grigorenko’s play in the World Junior Championships has been nothing short of elite and may force the Buffalo brass to change their minds, but I’m going to take the guarantee at face value and assume he’s in the QMJHL for the year.
So with Grigorenko out, Adam seems the logical next option. Adam played extremely well at the beginning of last season, then dreadful during the middle of the year, then passable after being sent back to Rochester. He seems to have gotten out of his funk as of late, posting an eight game point streak with the Amerks through the end of December. If he is able to keep his currently level of play up, he should be able to find himself a place on the third line in Buffalo. His defensive zone shortcomings, which is the main reason he found himself in Ruff’s doghouse at the end of last season, can be masked with Ott’s hybrid capabilities as well, allowing him to take a wing’s responsibilities in the defensive zone.
Leino is another sore spot for Sabres fans, but his play at the end of last season was excellent and he showed his worth to his team with his great play in the ugly areas of the ice, especially the corners and the neutral zone. He will also help Adam in his offensive zone responsibilities as a center.
Line 4: Nathan Gerbe – Cody McCormick – Patrick Kaleta
This line could certainly see its share of changes, but this seems to make the most sense for opening night.
Gerbe is likely the player that is impacted the most by the addition of Ott because it seems to push him from a top-nine forward slot. Gerbe struggled last season and has upside, but his size is starting to hold him back as teams look to get more physical with the Sabres. An injury in the top nine will definitely see Gerbe moving up, but it just doesn’t make sense for him to push out anyone else from their current position at this time.
McCormick’s spot is on shaky ground if Grigorenko were to find his way to Buffalo this season. A great agitator and motor guy, McCormick simply doesn’t have the offensive upside Adam could bring to the fourth line. He also has seasoned fourth liner Kevin Porter behind him playing quite well in Rochester. The thought is McCormick will start opening night, but he may have more pressure on him to keep his spot in the lineup than any other Sabre.
Kaleta is the league-wide scorned agitator, but that role will be diminished by the arrival of Ott, who will simply do it better. Instead, Kaleta can worry about scoring goals, which he has shown he has the capability of doing in the past. Kaleta also doesn’t have a good track record when it comes to staying healthy, but may be able to if he takes a step back in his kamikaze inspired play.
Scratched: Matt Ellis
Ellis is a great motor guy, but doesn’t contribute much beyond that offensively. He seems like the odd man out, and only stays in this position due to the injury to Corey Tropp, who legitimately could have seen third line minutes had he not torn his ACL in October.
The defensive pairing preview comes tomorrow.