Penny Pinching Sabres Need to Save Some Players For A Change

If you are a Buffalo Sabres fan, you should feel happy that the team is not owned by someone who will be going bankrupt any time soon. What you should not be happy about is the way ownership is going about business to ensure no significant losses.

Tom Golisano, the Sabres owner, has certainly done all he needs to do to save a few dollars. In the meantime, his methods have begun to alienate the loyal fanbase of the team.

In the last year or so, major pieces of the team like captains Daniel Briere and Chris Drury, top blueliner Brian Campbell and goaltender Martin Biron left or were shipped all in order to save money. The loss of this significant chunk of leadership was a key reason the Sabres missed the playoffs this past season after finishing near the top of the standings in the first two post lockout seasons.

The players were willing to stay, were willing to take less and wanted to be part of a team that looked close to competing for a Stanley Cup. Instead they are gone and the Sabres now are left to basically start over and climb back up the standings. That will not be easy. The team is not as deep as it once was and there are many other key players on the verge of leaving themselves. That will put a further dent into a team that lost a bit of its identity when the top players departed.

Things may get even worse as time goes on. The Sabres best player, Ryan Miller is due to become a UFA next summer and like the other stars have negotiations turn sour and simply pack his bags and leave. Also, Jason Pominville, the team’s current captain, is due to be a RFA next summer and he could prove to be a tough player to re-sign if he continues his strong play next season. The team, while young and talented, appear to be going backwards with all these departures and difficulties in keeping core players. Sure, they spent big on Vanek and Roy but they had no choice with Vanek due to the offer sheet put forth, and they simply had to keep their other top centre with Briere and Drury gone. They were backed into a corner basically.

All in the name of savings. They even cut costs on the scouting staff, going with video instead of having travelling scouts around the world. Thats simply way too frugal. Good scouting is part of the foundation for building a winner. While the Sabres say this is more efficient, there is nothing that beats seeing a player first hand. Sometimes you manage to notice lesser known players through this, many times you find out more information about a player like play without the puck, leadership skills, work ethic that you can really see via edited video. Its a bit of a risk the Sabres are taking.

Hopefully their new age scouting methods will work. We will see if they can take advantage of this in the upcoming draft where the team has 3 picks in the top 50 including 2 first rounders. Defence is something the Sabres may focus on. They have plenty of highly skilled and talented young forwards but they are not as deep on the back end. They certainly used plenty of bodies this season on D, but almost ran out of players to use, so adding more depth is something the team may address. There are some good possibilities like Tyler Myers, Tyler Cuma, Michael Del Zotto, Colby Robak, Luca Sbisa who could be around at 13. The team could use another goalie in the system. With Miller potentially leaving, they are going to need to improve their depth in nets. Someone like Chet Pickard, who was Carey Price’s understudy in junior could be an option with their late 1st rounder or early second. Certainly size is a bit of an issue. The Sabres are rather small, especially up front so perhaps adding a player like Josh Brittain, Jared Staal, Greg Nemisz with one of their picks is something they may look at.

Here is how the team looks heading into the off-season

CAP HIT – $38.8 million for 15 players.

Their cap number will go down significantly next summer with Miller, Afinogenov, Spacek and Connolly all due to be UFAs. They are going to need as much room as they can get if they hope to re-sign Pominville and Miller to long term deals. They are going to need to settle on a core group to build with and actually keep them instead of watching them flee year after year. Golisano is willing to spend to some degree, but will he want to spend enough to win or just enough to make money?

– Teppo Numminen, Dmitri Kalinin, Jocelyn Thibault, Nolan Pratt, Michael Ryan

RFA – Steve Bernier, Paul Gaustad, Clarke MacArthur, Dan Paille, Mark Mancari

The Sabres played it smart this time and moved Campbell out before he became a UFA and left for nothing. Getting Bernier and a 1st for him was solid even if it meant taking a bit of a step back. It is unlikely they will bring back Numminen or Kalinin. Most of their spending will be used to lock up Bernier, Gaustad and Paillie who are all fairly solid young players in Buffalo. Bernier has the potential to be a 25-30 goal scorer perennially and could develop into the sniper the team is looking for. Gaustad is a leader and a key role player while Paillie had a good season and looks to be a strong, gritty two way player that could fill in some of the roles Drury provided the last few years. It will be important for the franchise to actually start to show they are willing to keep good players around.

Under Contract:

Goal – Ryan Miller

This is going to be an interesting year for both Miller and the Sabres. There is no way the Sabres can compete without Miller tending goal. In the next 12 months they are going to need to find a way to get Miller under contract for years to come. He is such an important piece that his departure could mean big problems ahead for the team. He has emerged as an elite goalie and a goalie who simply wins. He could use a more reliable backup. Miller is more effiecient with rest and he simply played too much last season. Thibault could not be counted upon so finding a quality reserve will be a key item on the agenda for Buffalo.

Defence – Jaroslav Spacek, Toni Lydman, Hendrik Tallinder, Nathan Paetsch

Youth will definitely be served on defence in Buffalo this coming season. The Sabres were ravaged by injuries on defence but managed to find out about some of their good young blueiners. It is likely a couple of them will make the team and join the returning veterans. The team will miss Campbell significantly and need to find someone who can replace his puck moving and offensive ability. Most of their blueliners are mobile and can skate and make a decent first pass. But Campbell was dangerous and they simply do not have anyone ready and able to fill that role right now. Jay McKee, who departed a couple of years ago, is another the team misses. There is a lack of physical presence on the backend. Tallinder and Lydman are good as the shutdown pair, but they intimidate no one. Spacek is willing to mix it up, but he is not big and he is needed more for offense. Some of their young players may be able to fill that role but soon the team is going to need to find some guys who will make life miserable for opponents in the defensive zone.

Forward – Thomas Vanek, Derek Roy, Maxim Afinogenov, Tim Connolly, Ales Kotalik, Jochen Hecht, Jason Pominville, Drew Stafford, Adam Mair, Andrew Peters

The Sabres have several dangerous forwards. Roy and Vanek form a very good top line, Pominville provides a foundation for a second unit. Vanek may never live up to the money he makes, but should be solid for 30-40 goals a year. Roy looks better and better each year and has potential to be a strong two way force for years to come. Pominville is their lea
der right now and he continues to amaze. He quarterbacks the point on the PP, kill penalties, plays multiple roles. He is a great role model for the team. If Afinogenov can rebound in a contract year, and Connolly can stay healthy for a change, and with Hecht, Kotalik, the team could have 9 forwards capable of 20 plus goals. Very few have this kind of scoring depth. Stafford looks like the power player the team is looking for. The Sabres are a bit on the small and soft side and players like Stafford, with Paillie will help give the top lines some jam. They could use a big power player and more size, but the Sabres are always looking for speed and skill to fit in to the style they try to play.

Top Prospects

Goal: Jhonas Enroth

Enroth is a very good prospect the team is quite happy to bring along slowly. They did that with Miller and that turned out just fine. A season with the farm team is definitely something the Sabres would like to see. If they lose Miller, the team at least has someone with the potential to take over. They do need more depth at this position.

Defence: Andrej Sekera, Mike Weber, Marc Andre Gragnani, TJ Brennan, Mike Funk, Mike Card, Denis Persson

There are a couple of job openings on defence for some of their prospects to take. Sekera did not look out of place settling into the lineup after Campbell was traded. He brings skill and hopefully the production will come soon enough. Weber might be the big body they need on D. He looked solid as well when he was brought in as an injury replacement. He and Sekera have the inside track on the job openings. Gragnani brings some offensive skill and players like Funk and Card will all provide Buffalo with some depth. But they will need a few more bodies to round out their farm team and parent club as they wont withstand another injury bug like they had last season.

Forward: Clarke MacArthur, Marek Zagrapans, Nathan Gerbe, Phil Goguila, Dylan Hunter, Patrick Kaleta, Tim Kennedy

MacArthur and Zagrapans are looking to make the club next season. Their development could make players like Connolly and Afinogenov expendable by the trade deadline. Both have the prerequisites the Sabres look for; speed and skill. Defensively they need to improve if they want to get in the good books of coach Ruff. In the last couple of drafts they have not paid too much attention up front so here they will need to do some replenishing as well.

GM Darcy Regier has endured plenty of ups and downs in Buffalo and having to do more with less is nothing new. He has done a great job at accumulating young talent in Buffalo and now with a rather limited staff, he is going to have to continue this trend. The success of the team depends on it. He has his work cut out for him trying to bring the team back to where it was the previous two seasons among the league’s elite while at the same time abiding by the wishes of his boss, Mr. Golisano. The core has been gutted and Regier will need to replenish the team again, with most of the top young players now playing in Buffalo. The cupboard has been thinned out a bit and over the next while, its time to restock. This draft should provide him with this opportunity.

At the same time, he is going to need to keep the team relatively competitive as the fans have flocked back and began watching the Sabres and the exciting young team they have again. Him and coach Lindy Ruff have build an excellent foundation and brought the stability the team desperately needed about a decade ago. Ruff is one of the best at getting the most out of the least. He adapted well to the rule changes, using his personal to the team’s advantage. He somehow kept the team competitive despite all those players leaving and for that, Ruff deserves full marks.

The team is in capable hands and should be at least solid for quite some time. If the team continues however to lose star players and dip further down in the standings, the fans may stay away, the money may stop coming in and the team again struggling on and off the ice. After being the posterchild for small market teams who benefitted from the lockout, the last thing the NHL needs is for the Sabres to go back to being a flailing franchise. There is already enough of those as it is.