The Buffalo Sabres season is upon us once again. This time, no lockouts and no stalling. 27 days until the preseason begins, and 44 days until the first game of the year in Detroit. There are still a lot of questions on who is going to play and who is going to make the roster. I will be evaluating the roster for the Sabres and giving you my take on who will play where, who will make the roster, and how their season could play out. So here's my projected top six forwards for the 2013-14 Buffalo Sabres season:
Line 1: Vanek-Hodgson-Stafford
Line 2: Ennis-Grigorenko-Ott
Thomas Vanek was the talk of many trade rumors this offseason, however, he remains a Buffalo Sabre. The Sabres' leading scorer from last season will play in Buffalo for another year, unless he is dealt before or at the trade deadline. No worries, right? If Vanek can stay healthy then you wouldn't think so. Vanek has scored 20 or more goals in each of the eight seasons with the Sabres. However, Vanek has produced significantly less when he is nicked up, and if the trade deadline comes and he is playing hurt, then there will be very little chance he will be traded. A team is not gonna take a risk on Vanek, even with the talent and production he can bring to another team. Right now, Vanek is here to stay and will be a possible candidate to be the next Sabres captain. He will produce too, maybe enough to earn him a new contract from Darcy Regier. Doubtful because Vanek does not want to be part of a long rebuild, but you never know.
Probably the biggest question right now is whether or not Cody Hodgson is going to re-sign with the Sabres. Cody Hodgson will re-sign with the Sabres, I am very positive. Hodgson, who led all sophomore players last year in scoring, is going to play as the Sabres first line center with Vanek. Vanek really helped Cody succeed last year and become a more productive player. Hodgson racked up 34 points last season (15+19) and spent a lot of time working with the first power-play unit. His defensive game is still shaky at times, but with Vanek at his side, Hodgson could learn a lot more from him and maybe take the reigns from Thomas when he leaves Buffalo. I believe Hodgson could be the most productive Sabre on this team, and working with Gary Roberts helps too. I am looking for big things to happen from #19 this season.
Like Thomas Vanek, Drew Stafford has been the talk of trade rumors for quite some time now. Since signing his 4-year deal in 2011, Stafford has not put up the stats that Buffalo has been expecting of him. In 46 games last season, Stafford only put up 18 points (6+12). Those usually are not stats from a player being paid $4 million per year. Stafford definitely has the talent, but he has just not been able to turn his production into any benefits for the Sabres. However, I believe he could have a bounce back year if he finds a spark with the first line. Jason Pominville occupied that position at right wing for years. Now it's time for Stafford to be the first line right winger, and with Hodgson and Vanek, Stafford could bring some offensive production.
To me, Tyler Ennis belongs as a winger on the Sabres. The typical center position today is dominated by bigger guys, and Tyler Ennis is too small. I think he would thrive if he moved back to left wing. Plus, it would give guys like Zemgus Girgensons and Johan Larsson a chance to make the roster by freeing up a center position. Tyler Ennis has had an increasing role with the Sabres organization. He's been working more on the power-play and his ice time is increasing. I can only see improvement in Tyler Ennis' game, and he will get many more opportunities this year.
This is the year for 19 year old, Mikhail Grigorenko, to show the hockey world what he has got. Last year's 12th-overall pick in the NHL Draft is about to enter his second season (first full season) with the Buffalo Sabres. The kid wants to succeed, he wants to be a star in the NHL, and I think he can be. He has good hands and can skate very well. Grigo now just has to prove to Ron Rolston that he is worthy of the ice time. I can see Mikhail Grigorenko anchoring the 2nd power-play unit this season, and getting some much needed experience to give him confidence in his game. Could Grigorenko become the player Buffalo wants him to be?
Steve Ott is one of the biggest sensations to sweep Buffalo in years. He was a popular acquisition last year, and the fans love him now. I am a huge fan of Steve Ott, and I believe that he could be Buffalo's next captain. Ott is playing in a contract year this season, and I believe he will get his money soon enough. Ott was a key player this year, playing anywhere from the power-play, penalty kill, and even on the top line when the injury bug hit. Steve Ott produced well scoring 24 points (9+15) playing in all 48 games this year. Ott has grown into a seasoned veteran, but has played the same style of game since coming into the league. If he keeps it up, I fully expect the same excitement and energy he brings to every game, plus a new contract and maybe a "C".
In a season where the Sabres are rebuilding and getting younger, I fully expect the top six forwards to bring veteran leadership and the offensive touch that is expected from a top six forward. Expect Vanek and Ott to lead the charge, and the rest of the young group to bring the excitement to the table.
I will soon be evaluating the rest of the forwards shortly. Don't forget to follow me on Twitter @BraytonJWilson and tweet me your reactions or questions.
As always, thanks for reading!