Looking at the rankings for this coming season, I'm surprised at how lowly ranked the Sabres are by the people who are doing it. I, by no means, believe that the Sabres are a Stanley Cup contender, but I do see a playoff team in the current roster. This team has the potential to finish anywhere as high as the 6th seed and is 100% capable of winning a playoff round.
By the evidence seen at the last stretch of the season, the Sabres have what it takes to win games with the current roster. Though we could never know, without the injuries to Miller and Vanek, the Sabres, in my eyes, would have held on to, at the very least, the final playoff birth in the conference.
Though we went another off season without a big name acquisition, the names we did add nicely round out a roster by addressing what we needed most; toughness and grit.
Steve Montador came on the first day of free agency. Though he will not add a significant number to offense, our defense will undoubtedly be better, and I can guarantee that he will not allow the opposing team and liberties in front of our net. Not only will he take away a big heap of responsibility from Toni Lydman and Hank Tallinder as the shut down D-pairing, he will aid Craig Rivet in pummeling anyone who takes a shot at the skill players or Ryan Miller.
Cody McCormick, though I have not seen much of him, I like the fight reels and what I've read on the subject. He's a bigger and better Adam Mair. He'll drop the gloves and pummel people (and do a better job than Andrew Peters), along with adding 20 4th line points. For a 4th line center I see no other need.
Our best offseason signing was Mike Grier. Bringing back Grier adds depth to the roster along with taking responsibility away from players on the penalty kill. Grier will make our kill, which was sound last season, even better this year and allow Tim Connolly to step away from that role and stay away from blocking unnecessary shots. Not to mention the leadership he will bring and the example he will set with his effort loaded play. Grier should take the A off Hecht's jersey.
With these additions, and the players that have stuck around, this roster look like a much better, playoff bound, team, at least to me.
Tim Connolly will stay healthy this season. Building on the solid last half of the season (that he did not miss a single game of), TC will be feeding Jason Pominville in a way reminiscent of Danny Briere and JP Dumont. A healthy Tim Connolly is a constant danger on the ice, with or without the puck, having the keen ability to be where he needs to be and find who he needs to find, along with being able to put up 30 goals. Expect 80 points from him this season and for him to be the number 1 center we haven't had the past 2 seasons.
If the end of last season wasn't enough proof, Jason Pominville will produce. The sniper will show that he's grown into his new contract starting this year and will pay dividends on it. Though he's not as pure a scorer as Vanek is, he has the ability to put up 40 goals and I easily see him returning to his 30 goal form this season as he will receive a more important role on the powerplay as a point man with Spacek out of the picture and no ready replacement.
Thomas Vanek will be looked at to continue to put the puck in the net, which I don't think there is any doubt he will do. With a completely healed jaw, he can definitely be the first 50 goal man in Buffalo since the days of LaFontaine and Mogilny, something he might have done last season had it not been for injury. He's unmovable in front of the net and it's not often that you have a player on your team who can find the back of the net in as many ways as Vanek can. He's a pure goal scorer who will put in the garbage goal, the snipe in to the smallest of holes, or tip any shot that comes his way.
Derek Roy needs to be more responsible with the puck, but Lindy's leash on the extremely talented center will be short to begin the season. He's an elusive player that can pass the puck as well as put it in the net and I think the role he was thrown into rather than matured in to he will be ready for this season. Stepping into a mixture of Chris Drury and Danny Briere's shoes is not an easy task, but I think you will see him do it this season and continue the above average production of the past 2 seasons.
Our third line, which I can only see as being Paille- Goose- Mac/Grier will have to shutdown opposing teams first lines to make room for the 2 scoring lines to run rampant over the opposition's remaining trios, while popping in a few goals. Paille can be a 40 point man, and so can MacArthur, and it will be left up to Guastad and Grier to make the room for this to happen.
Though I have high hopes for this team, I still see needs and moves to be made. Jochen Hecht is eating up 3.8 million of valuable cap space and isn't earning that money. Toni Lydman and Hank Tallinder are not shut down D anymore as they just aren't the same puck movers they used to be. To be a shutdown pair in this era of the NHL, not only do you need to effectively keep the puck away from our net, you need to be able to move it out of the zone just as efficiently. Packaging one of the two up with Hecht, Darcy can find a, albeit a sucker, suitor for the two and receive a puck mover in exchange, the biggest need of our team.
Reggie and Butler have the potential to do this, but before we can look at either, or both, to fill this slot, they need to grow and we need someone else to fill this slot in the mean time. With the quickness of our forwards having someone that can find them for the slick breakout pass is essential.
I give the Sabres a B+ so far this offseason with hopes that they have a little more to do, but overall like the changes. Signing Stafford to a a deal in the 3-year range will happen before training camp. As long as we can beat the Tampa Bays, Atlantas, and NY Islanders this season, and stop playing to the level of our lower competition in those games, a playoff spot is in the future for the Buffalo Sabres.