editors note: This is the first of a four part series recapping the Buffalo Sabres season and heading into the offseason.
The Buffalo Sabres enjoyed what many would say was a successful 2006-2007 season. A Northeast Division title for the first time since 1997 and the teams first Presidents Trophy were good benchmarks for the Regular Season champions.
But the success during the regular season could not result in success for the playoffs, as the Sabres season ended rather handely by the Ottawa Senators in the Eastern Conference Finals 4 games to one.
While the team did show signs of their regular season strength in disposing of the New York Islanders and New York Rangers in 5 and 6 games respectively, the team struggled to show their regular season dominance when it mattered most.
A weak powerplay and lack of physical presence did them in against the Sens, who were playing great team hockey after years of playoff dissapointment.
But, now with this season in the books, its time to look back at the season that was, how players responded, and what the offseason will likely bring.
This first of four blogs will focus on the forwards, their impact this season and what to expect next season.
The Sabres forwards enjoyed a tremendous season in 2006-07, leading the league in goals while playing a successful 4 line rotation. 4 Sabres forwards netted 30 goals or more, leading the league and becoming the first Sabres team to have 4 30 goal men in over 20 years.
Daniel Briere (32-63-95) Briere's numbers grew significantly this season compared to his injury marred 05-06 campaign, becoming the teams highest leading scorer since Pat Lafontaine in 1995-96. Briere led the teams top offensive line and carried the bulk of the load for the season, while becoming the face of the franchise.
Next season: As a unrestricted free agent, it is very possible that this was Briere's swan song in the playoffs. He will likely command a salary the Sabres will not be able to match. His offensive production will be sorely missed if he does indeed leave. May be willing to take a discount to stay.
Chris Drury ( 37-32-69) The heart and soul leader of the team enjoyed his best offensive season this year, scoring 37 goals, his sencond straight season of 30 or more goals. Drury also saw significant time on the powerplay and penalty kill, leading the tema in both powerplay and shorthanded goals, while facing the oppositions best line on a nightly basis.
Next season: Another Unrestricted Free Agent, his loss would be a huge blow to the team and the community. While it is likely he will resign with the Sabres, he could garner close to double his $3 million salary next season. Look for him to consider some offers, but likely return to Buffalo.
Thomas Vanek (43-41-84) Vanek's 43 goals were the most for a Sabre player since Miro Satan netted 40 in 1999. Showed excellent growth as a player, becomign much more responsible in his own end and developing into a solid two way player. Led the league in +/-, the first Sabre to do that since Jim Schoenfeld.
Next season: he may be get some interest as a Restricted Free Agent, but the compensation alone may scare teams away from him for now. Look for the Sabres to get him wrapped up long term, somewhere in the $3-3.5 million range, similar to the deal Eric Staal signed with Carolina after last season.
Jason Pominville (34-34-68) Pominville continued to grow into a top flight sniper, cracking 30 goals in just his second NHL season. Playing with Daniel Briere helped immsensly on the offensive side. Strong defensively, a staple on the Penalty Kill.
Next season: Signed through next season, Pominville should have another good season offensively, but could suffer dramatically if Briere departs. Needs to be paired with a good playmaking center to be his most effective. May not crack 25 without one. Could be possible trade bait, as his contract is a relative bargain at just over 1 million.
Derek Roy (21-42-63) Roy flourished as Vanek's centermen this season, while also being a strong force in his own end and on the defensive side.
Next season: Another RFA, Roy should be in line for a substantial raise from his 900k salary. A good centerman, he and Vanek could be a force together for years to come, regardless of who plays on their right side. His past 2 playoffs have seen him see significant time as a winger alongside Chris Drury. Could end up there next season if the team adds more depth at center.
Maxim Afinogenov (23-38-61) Afinogenov was a force this season, spending much of it next to Roy and Vanek. Was relatively ineffective in the playoffs.
Next season: Speed aside, Afinogenov needs to become more consistant. Could be used as trade bait to add a physical defenseman, but would not suprise me to see him be on the teams top offensive line next season, possibly reunited with Tim Connolly and Thomas Vanek. Signed through 2008-09.
Danius Zubrus (24-36-60) A quality deadline acquisition, Zubrus was a physical for ce for much of the regular season and playoffs before getting injured early in the Ottawa series. Added a good physical punch to the lineup, playing primarily right wing for Drury.
Next Season: As a UFA, it is likely Zubrus was just a rental unless he backs down from his original demands. Would be a good physical wing er if re-signed, who is capable of offensive production.
Jochen Hecht (19-37-56) Hecht is considered by many the teams unsung hero this season, playing sound on both ends of the ice while spending much of the season on the number 1 line with Danny Briere and Jason Pominville. A stout penalty killer with a good shot. Very smart player.
Next season: signed through next season, Hecht could see his role change next season, depending on the situation. Could be back with Briere and Pominville, or may be moved to Drurys wing if Briere is not resigned. Could also be moved to center if need exists.
Ales Kotalik (16-22-38) Kotalik continues to baffle many Sabres fans with his non existant play. Tends to take games off and become a non factor. 16 goals was a drop from last season.
Next Season: Kotalik is signed for 2 more seasons, but he may have played his final game with the Sabres. Has 30-30 potential if paired with the right players, but his mind never seems to be on for an entire season. Likely will be traded to make room for a free agent acquisition and additional cap relief.
Drew Stafford (13-14-27) Saw significant time in his first professional season, adding a scorers touch while managing to play a physical style. The former 1st round pick in 2004 solidified his spot.
Next Season: Stafford is the future of the franchise. Has 30-40 goal potential while looking to develope into a solid power forward. Could be in for a Pominville like rise in offensive production next season. Will be a full time player next year, possibly pairing with Derek Roy and Thomas Vanek again.
Paul Gaustad (9-13-22) A heart and soul type player, "Goose" was the physical face of the team for most of the season before being injured in February. Returned in the second round against the Rangers.
Nex season: Goose will likely center a much needed grind line, able to pound the opposition. Has the skills to play wing on a big time offensive line and produce accordingly.
Tim Connolly: After missing 80 games recovering from various injuries, Connolly returned in the playoffs to be a solid offensive force. While he may never be the same player again, he is a scary force for many teams to face.
Next Season: Connolly will be counted on produce offensively if Briere leaves, needs to show he can stay healthy for an entire season.
Adam Mair: Mair is a grinding force who as a UFA, could be an attractive option for many teams. Likely he could return at a modest cost to play on the 4th line.
Dan Paille: continuing to develop well, Paille will be another youngster fighting for full time status next season. An excellent penalty killer, he should see plenty of time back there while being a 3rd-4th line player. Should develop into a great leader.
Mike Ryan: Ryan played an important role when the team was struck with injuries, finally showing some promise after years in the minors. A Group VI UFA, Ryan will likely leave for a team where he can find a full time spot.
Clarke MacArthur: Another top youngster who saw significant time with the big club, Mac could find a full time job with the team next season. Could be a fringe player next season, while seeing a majjority of his time in Rochester. Should develope into a solid second line player.
Andrew Peters: Teams need enforcers, and Peters brings the heat. Works hard to develop his skills, saw a career high in games played this season. While a good team guy, he will be resigned at minimum wage and will likely be down to his normal 30-40 games next season.
On the cusp:
Patrick Kaleta played 7 games for his hometown team, registering two assists while being a very physical addition to the lineup. At age 20, needs a couple more years of seasoning before being a full time player.
Mark Mancari played two games for the Sabres, with no points. Can play both forward and defense. A big physical player, probably fringe player at best.
Marek Zagrapan will need another season in Rochester before battling for a full time spot. He could develop into a Pavol Demitra type player, with his good passing skills and smart playmaking.
Dylan Hunter has an offensive touch, but can be physical. He also is two years away.
Prospects Felix Schultz, Tim Kennedy, Ben Breault could all get long looks possibly in camp. Kennedy is likely to stay in school, while the other two could be Rochester bound.