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:
First Pairing: Tyler Myers – Robyn Regehr
Despite the defensive depth the Sabres have, it’s pretty easy to figure out who the top guy is. Myers has been inconsistent at times in the two years since his rookie campaign, but when he’s on he is in the upper echelon of defenseman in the league. The best evidence to support that claim? Myers’ streak of 20-plus games of not allowing an even strength goal at the end of last season. However you want to frame that, it is impressive and something players in the league of Shea Weber and Zdeno Chara would have trouble duplicating.
Myers will be crucial to the Sabres’ success this upcoming season, and will likely be given the ice time to make his presence felt. He will need to do a better job in the neutral zone when it comes to turnovers, but if he keeps those down and avoids the injury bug, he should be able to cement himself as one of the better blue liners in the league.
Regehr is a tough placement because of his style of play. He plays a fundamentally sound, defense-first style that doesn’t get him in a lot of trouble, but tends to make him a liability in the offensive zone. Not that he has not shown the ability to score some points as a defenseman, but when paired with a more offensive-defenseman like Myers he seems to be lost in the attacking zone at times which leads to lapses in the neutral zone on the rush back.
Regehr still has an inside track on the top pairing though because of his improvement at the end of last year. He seemed more comfortable with his role and started throwing around his body even more than he had been early in the year. Between Myers’ range and Regehr’s sound positioning, it’ll be hard for opposing forwards to find an inch in the Sabres’ zone when they’re on the ice.
Second Pairing: Christian Ehrhoff – Andrej Sekera
I’m not going to lie, I may lose sleep even thinking about these two on the ice together, but unless Sekera is playing with Myers or Regehr, he’ll be with Ehrhoff.
Sekera is easily the team’s biggest liability on the defensive side. He makes tons of plays with his skating and quick passes, but also makes at least one play a game you would sit your pee wee for making. Ehrhoff offers some semblance of a defenseman to help him out – or bail him out.
Ehrhoff became one of the Sabres’ best defenseman as the season progressed last year and may have been able to be the final push the team needed to get over the playoff hump had he not tweaked his knee in the final stretch during the huge win against the Capitals. While he makes the occasional head scratching pass through the middle of his defensive zone, he usually is extremely careful with the puck and opens the ice for his teammates as well as Myers.
One asterisk to this prediction: Sekera is an excellent candidate to be moved by Darcy Regier. After improving late in the season, Sekera played extremely well in the World Championships for Slovakia scoring nine points in 10 games during the tournament and generally outplaying teammate Zdeno Chara. Sekera could find himself in a package for draft picks or another seasoned center.
If Sekera were to be moved, either Mike Weber or Alexander Sulzer would likely fill the spot.
Third Pairing: Jordan Leopold – TJ Brennan
Leopold was an excellent value pick up two years ago in free agency for $3 million a season, but his up-and-down play last season made him a frequent recipient of the ire of Lindy Ruff. Ruff likely harped on his many defensive zone turnovers and lane lapses in the neutral zone that led to odd man rushes and continued pressure.
He still is an excellent defenseman and I was somewhat shocked when he was not dealt at the trade deadline given his affordability and offensive abilities, especially on the power play. As a third pairing guy, he’s great to have and will be perfect to pair with a young guy, something he did extremely well last year.
That’s where TJ Brennan comes in. Brennan’s case is a bit special because of his current contract. As reported on earlier in the week by Bill Hoppe, Brennan has a contract that would necessitate him to clear waivers once the lockout ends to be eligible to play for the Sabres’ AHL team in Rochester.
It’s pretty safe to assume that that would not happen.
Brennan is currently second in the AHL in defensive scoring with 29 points, behind only Justin Schultz of the Oklahoma City Barons, the affiliate of the Edmonton Oilers who has an astounding 45 points in 32 games. While he is also a minus-4, he has improved his defense and would be better than his impressive 11 game stint with the Sabres last season.
Basically it comes down to whether or not Regier would be willing to give Brennan away for nothing, or potentially make a spot for him initially, but trade him to get something for him. My money is he sticks.
Scratches: Mike Weber and Alexander Sulzer
Weber had a roller coaster season with the Sabres last year, sitting as a healthy scratch for the first month of the Sabres’ schedule, then battling a rib injury, then playing solid after his return, but constantly being squeezed by the youth the Sabres have in Rochester.
Weber is a steady bottom-four guy and is cheap enough to be able to play the rotating role from the pressbox.
Sulzer is another tough one. He would likely start in most other teams’ bottom-four and excelled with Christian Ehrhoff last season, but with the defensive corps healthy, he looks like the odd man out. He did sign a one-year deal for this year for $725,000, so the Sabres were keen to keep him. It just doesn’t look like he’ll make the starting lineup assuming everyone above is healthy.
Assuming the league works with the pro-rated $70.2 million cap this season, Adam Pardy will likely see time in Rochester if he is not claimed on waivers. He would be an excellent compliance buyout candidate come next offseason.
Brayden McNabb, given the depth at the NHL level, will finish the season in Rochester unless the injury bug bites again.
Check out the offensive lineup predictions here.