As the Sabres drop the puck on their 2007-2008 season tonight at HSBC Arena, I thought I'd share my outlook for this year.
I'm a devout Sabres fan, have been following the team since the Mogilny/LaFontaine era (I'm only 21), and I've studied the history of the team too, back to the French Connection days. I've stuck with the team through the really bad, the bankruptcy, the big question marks of possible relocation - to the really good, specifically 1998 and 1999, and the last two years.
But I'm not afraid to be objective either. And that's what I'm going to try to do in this blog. Most of all, I'd like to educate others about this team - for example, those in the West who aren't as familiar with it. And even those in my own Western New York community, who may have lost faith.
I'll start simply. The team will be good. It won't be as good as last year. It has a lot of question marks. It also has a lot of good things going for it. Let's break it down.
<b>Top 10 Reasons Why Sabres Fans Should Not Jump Off The Bandwagon, and why this team will be good, again:</b>
<b>(10) Speed.</b> They've been built on speed in the past. They'll be built on speed again. They'll catch defenders sleeping. They'll capitalize on turnovers and odd-man rushes. They'll use their acceleration to catch opposing players off guard. It'll lead to opportunities.
<b>(9) The System.</b> Some may not understand this. But it starts down on the farm, with the Rochester Americans. Head coach Randy Cunneyworth, who IS returning (this is huge for Sabres fans, after all those rumors of him going to Ottawa or elsewhere), instills important qualities among the youngsters that carries directly over to the NHL level. Not only does he make them ready for the ultimate pro-level, he prepares them for the style of play the Sabres use. As a result, a Rochester American can be called him and contribute immediately.
<b>(8) Youth.</b> Again, the team is built on youth. But the young guys from just 3 or 4 years ago have really gained quality experience the last few years, and they'll be the ones looked up to this year. Paetsch, Sekera, Stafford, and Zagrapan, who should all make an impact on the team in some capacity, at some point, this season, will look up to the Pominvilles, Roys, and Vaneks of this team for pointers and direction. It will be huge.
<b>(7) The Powerplay.</b> At long last, I think this team is going to be built for the powerplay. Drury and Briere's departure, for one positive, will open up opportunities for other guys on the PP. Sure, they were good with the extra man, but I believe others can be better. Remember when Paetsch played last season, how much better the PP was? When Spacek was at his best in Edmonton, how good they were? I'm not even talking about JUST defensemen either, because Lindy has shown in the preseason he may opt to go forwards-only at times on the PP. My point is, single players can make a difference. If you get the right combination of players, you can improve significantly. Tim Connolly and Drew Stafford are just a few other reasons the PP can be really good this year. They'll get more opportunities. So will Derek Roy, who was sometimes overshadowed by Drury and Briere in the past.
<b>(6) The young guns are ready.</b> Stafford, Paille, Ryan, Paetsch, not to mention MacArthur, Zagrapan, and Sekera, have been knocking at the door for some time. They've been shut out for a while due to the incredible depth of this team. With Drury and Briere moving on, the doors will open for them. And the last three mentioned are in Rochester right now, but they can be sure to get ice time as well.
<b>(5) Willingness to get more physical.</b> The team will stress more of a physical game, and it has the personnel to do so. Again, along with the departed opens up new spots, and that includes more room for gritty guys like Mair, Gaustad, Peters, Kaleta, etc. if they're willing to work for it. I'm guessing they will.
<b>(4) A weak Eastern Conference.</b> This may just be my opinion, but once again I feel the West is more dominant than the East. TEAMS are not built on individuals alone, and that's one reason I feel the Rangers and Flyers could have some trouble down the road. They put up the big bucks for big-time names, but what if it disrupts team chemistry? What if there's issues in the lockerroom? And, God forbid, because I just hate injuries as a whole, what if Drury or Briere go down? Then there's of course the much weaker teams, who failed last year, and didn't do much to improve themselves this year. Overall, the quality of the teams just aren't as good as in the West - even the Northeast Division seems somewhat shaky, besides Ottawa of course, - and this will work to the Sabres' benefit.
<b>(3) V-R-S.</b> Vanek-Roy-Stafford. And Afinogenov too, because he'll probably be mixed into this line in some capacity now and then (due to injury, or maybe just to mix up the lines when the team is not doing as well). These four guys collectively are special, and putting any three of them together on a line is just downright scary. They can work magic with the puck. All four can put the puck in the net. With the exception of Afinogenov, who is more of a set-up man anyway, they each have a goal-scorer's touch.
<b>(2) Goaltending.</b> Ryan Miller, and finally a good veteran backup who can step in if necessary in Thibault. Nothing against Biron or Conklin. Biron just didn't have the same amount of experience, how he could he with this team (btw, I think he will do good now that he's getting the chance in Philly). Conklin was okay, but made me a little nervous. Thibault is getting older, and he's certainly not as good as he used to be, but with the way the Sabres play, he doesn't necessarily need to be. They can put points on the scoreboard. And in terms of Ryan Miller, I don't even need to say anything about him. His play speaks for itself.
<b>(1) Coaching.</b> Lindy Ruff and his entire staff. Their ability to be flexible and change on the fly, and to make tweaks to make this team it's absolute best. Their ability to rally the troops after a loss to come out with a win in the very next game. The "never lose two in a row" mentality. The experience Ruff and his staff brings, their enthusiasm for the game, the work ethic they instill in their players, yet the delicate balance between working hard and having fun along the way. The coaching is just fantastic. It has been one of the reasons this team has been so successful and why they will continue to be.
Finally, let's come a bit back down to earth. What would be really nice to see from a Sabres' fans perspective, and what is more likely to happen:
<b>A) Having a great start out of the gate.</b> Winning several of the first few games. Proving this team can win without Drury and Briere and silencing any withstanding critics immediately. If nothing else, the boost in confidence alone would be huge for this team.
<i>More likely to happen:</i> A slow start. At first glance, the schedule may not appear very hard, compared to some other teams, but the reality is there's a lot of pressure on this team and I believe they'll struggle at first. I'd go so far to say I would NOT be surprised to see them drop their opener tonight. All that pressure, all the hype, and here you have a good, retooled Islanders team excited to get going and to avenge their first round playoff loss last year. The Isles will be relaxed, the Sabres - at home - will likely be more tense. I do see the Sabres rebounding on the Island tomorrow though. Basically, first 10 games, I see them going 5-5. But then, I see them improving as the year goes on.
<b>B) Staying healthy.</b> This is kind of self-explanatory.
<i>More likely to happen:</i> Injuries will occur. And they will go in bunches, like they usually do. Sometimes, it will seem everyone's getting hurt at once. And the Sabres don't have the personnel they had last year to just "keep going." They'll only be able to do so much. Injuries will bring the team down. The way this team is built, it can't afford to lose too many Vaneks, Roys, Afinogenovs, etc. at one time - let alone at the same time. This could be one major issue with this team.
<b>C) Tim Connolly and Drew Stafford contributing immediately</b>: The idea that they will help fill the void of losing Drury and Briere, and they'll do so right away.
<i>More likely to happen:</i> Slow starts for both. Again, the pressure. They'll come alive later. They have too much talent not to. Honestly, I see them having a little trouble getting started though, with their lack of experience in recent years with this sort of role.
<b>Now, my predictions for the season:</b>
5. New York Rangers
<b>For the playoffs:</b>
No. 1 Ottawa def. No. 8 Florida in 4
No. 2 Pittsburgh def. No. 7 Montreal in 6
No. 6 Philadelphia def. No. 3 Washington in 5
No. 4 Buffalo def. No. 5 New York Rangers in 7
No. 1 Ottawa def. No. 6 Philadelphia in 5
No. 4 Buffalo def. No. 2 Pittsburgh in 6
No. 1 Ottawa def. No. 4 Buffalo in 7
Ottawa will win the Cup this year.
The Sens are just too good, again. But it's so early, and things do change. So let's wait and see.
I am optimistic, and despite my prediction here, I can certainly see things working out in other ways too.
And in terms of the playoffs, for those that think I may be "overrating" the Sabres...I just feel they're going to be so ready this year to get those playoffs going. They're going to have tons of energy. That youth will translate into success. And their willingness to be a little more gritty will help too.
(And for those who feel I'm "underrating" the Rangers & Flyers, see my point about the Weak Eastern Conference up above in this blog, where I discuss why I think the Rangers & Flyers will ultimately run into some trouble.)
Also, Darcy Regier is not going to sit around and do nothing all season long. Come trade deadline, as he has done so many times before, he will acquire a few key pieces to the puzzle to build this team - again - into a Contender. He'll probably grab a veteran forward and a stay-at-home/hard-nosed defenseman this year, in my opinion.
Let's drop the puck already.