This four-part series will look at how the Buffalo Sabres will stack up against their Northeast Division foes in the shortened season. Follow me on Twitter to keep up with NHL and Sabres news all season long: @SwordPlay18.
Before last year, the Buffalo Sabres and Toronto Maple Leafs matchup was more than a bit one-sided. The Sabres have owned the matchup since the end of the last lockout, and despite least season’s 3-3 series split, Sabres fans seem to always look forward to the Leafs matchups.
Looking back at last season’s series though, the Sabres’ 4-3 loss against the Leafs in Toronto essentially ended the Sabres’ playoff run, so there may be some extra carryover hate from a mostly intact Sabres team. (Some may say Robyn Regehr getting embarrassingly beat on the boards by Matt Read for a breakaway a few games later did, but that was just the official nail in the proverbial coffin.)
So what does this matchup have in store for hockey fans this year?
Right now the Leafs have a lot of uncertainty surrounding their club. They just axed their general manager Brian Burke and replaced him with Dave Nonis. Will they or won’t they trade for Roberto Luongo? Do Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul pick up where they left off last year?
While the Sabres certainly have some questions, they don’t compare to the circus show that’s going on 100 miles (160 km) north.
So how do the teams matchup?
The Leafs’ top six forwards in training camp are projected as Kessel, Lupul, Mikhail Grabovski, James Van Riemsdyk, Nikolai Kulimen and Tyler Bozak.
They have some solid depth in the bottom six, with Clarke MacArthur, Nazem Kadri and Matt Frattin, but many expect them to struggle in the area of secondary scoring.
Kessel and Lupul would likely see a steady dose of Tyler Myers, Robyn Regehr and Steve Ott, and it’s not a state secret that Kessel tends to shy away from the physical play. Expect Sabres coach Lindy Ruff to take advantage of that and keep Ott and the expected Myers – Regehr pairing with the Kessel – Lupul combination as much as possible.
On the other hand, the Leafs really don’t have any shut-down type players that can be put up against the Sabres’ top two lines, and possibly three if Mikhail Grigorenko sticks. Jay McClement is a nice addition, but he’s not going to play at Selke level, and Tim Connolly is not the most defensively responsible center, despite his solid penalty killing abilities.
Overall, it seems that the Leafs’ one-two punch is weaker than the Sabres’. While Grobovski and Bozak are talented pivots, they don’t have the depth of wing talent surrounding them to take them to the next level. Last year, after Lupul went down three quarters of the way through the season, the Leafs looked like a completely different team, especially offensively where they struggled mightily to score goals. The Leafs already are dealing with a training camp injury to Van Riemsdyk, so if that became the theme for the year, look for their offense to struggle again.
Dion Phaneuf is the captain and the leader on the team, and his play certainly picked up last year in his third year with the Leafs, but a minus-10 is not really what the Leafs were hoping for when they traded for him. The same goes for Mike Komisarek who has become a shell of his former self.
There is some young talent on the team, with Jake Gardiner and Cody Franson playing significant roles in the team’s fortunes moving forward, but Gardiner is out indefinitely with concussion-related symptoms and may miss a good chunk of time.
Morgan Rielly, the fifth overall pick in last year’s draft, is being afforded every opportunity to make the team as an 18-year old. He will certainly help on the power play and the offensive rush, but his defensive game needs some work, and his play in the World Junior Championships a few weeks ago was not necessarily what was expected of him.
While young and seemingly on the upswing, the Leafs could have some rough times on the blueline this year.
In reality, it may come down to goaltending.
The Sabres have Ryan Miller and, as of this moment, the Leafs have James Reimer and Ben Scrivens. Many would take Miller over both Reimer and Scrivens in the net at the same time.
Now, that changes if the Leafs are able to land Luongo, as many speculate they will; but, until that happens, they have the unfortunate task of crossing their fingers and hoping their tandem can at least not lose them many games.
Any deficiency in front of a netminder can be alleviated by good goaltending, so if either of the Leafs goalies can get hot, who knows what could happen, but right now. a lot of people in Toronto are staring at their Twitter feeds hoping for any progress on the Luongo front.
Even with Luongo, there have been plenty of questions as to where he’s at in his game, so acquiring him may not be the fix-all the team hopes it would.
While the games won’t be blow outs (because they never have been), look for the Sabres to control this series this season. Out of the eight available points, look for the Sabres to get at least five, with six being the most likely, with Buffalo winning the season series 3-1-0.