Counting down the final 30 days to puck drop on the 2014-15 NHL season, Sportsnet previews all 30 NHL teams in reverse order of how we believe they will finish the regular season.
A dozen reporters and analysts from Sportsnet’s hockey brain trust — Doug MacLean, John Shannon, Chris Johnston, Damien Cox, Mark Spector, et al. — submitted a list ranking all the teams in order of how they think the NHL season will shake out. We crunched the numbers and will be unveiling our consensus standings prediction from worst to first.
Buffalo is our 30th-ranked team.
2013-14 finish: 21-51-10, 52 points, 30th overall
Leading scorer: Cody Hodgson (44 points)
General manager: Tim Murray
Head coach: Ted Nolan
Captain: Brian Gionta
Opening night starter: Jhonas Enroth
Key acquisitions: Matt Moulson, Brian Gionta, Josh Gorges, Andrej Meszaros, Cody McCormick
Key departures: Christian Ehrhoff, Henrik Tallinder, Ville Leino, John Scott, Jamie McBain
Off-season grade: A-. In his first summer with the team, GM Tim Murray struck a beautiful balance. He added character veterans who will set a great dressing room tone, yet none of the new guys possess the type of needle-moving talent that will jeopardize the Sabres’ chances of drafting first or second overall. When a season is setting up to be as long as Buffalo’s, you need strong-minded individuals like Brian Gionta and Josh Gorges to demonstrate that even if losing feels inevitable some nights, it should never be acceptable. Murray has created a better environment for 2014 second overall pick Sam Reinhart to walk into, should the club decide the cerebral centre is best served playing in the NHL this year.
Greatest strength: Um…well… how ’bout… can we think of a softer word than strength? Realistically, Buffalo isn’t going to do much well this year. The blueline might be okay if Tyler Myers’ development ever gets back on the rails, but that’s looking less likely by the season. Up front, it’s not inconceivable the Sabres could feature a pair of 30-goal scorers. Matt Moulson has an established nose for the net, and if notoriously volatile Chris Stewart—who scored at a 30-goal pace in the lockout-shortened season two years ago—gets hot, he could become a go-to guy. Centre Zemgus Girgensons had a sturdy rookie season last year, and it will be interesting to follow his development, as well as that of another sophomore, defenceman Rasmus Ristolainen. Even if things don’t break its way, Buffalo figures to wear the “plucky” label proudly.
Greatest weakness: There are a few to pick from, but none have the potential to throb the way the goaltending situation does. Enroth has been in the Sabres midst for a few years, so the club likely has a decent handle on what to expect from him. Right now, it’s hard to know how that prognosis could be any better than “support guy.” For what it’s worth, Michal Neuvirth shone in two games with the Sabres last year before missing the final 15 games with an injury. He’s shown good stuff in previous flashes with the Washington Capitals, but the danger of a crease nightmare is clear and present.
Biggest storyline to watch: This team remains in the early stages of a massive rebuild, so it will be interesting to see who’s next out the door. Stewart and another streaky scorer, Drew Stafford, are on contracts that expire next summer. But while they might be prime trade candidates come February, the Sabres, presumably, didn’t bring in the likes of Gionta and Moulson just to ship them out in a few months. It will also be interesting to monitor the progress of all kinds of players. Can guys like Cody Hodgson and Tyler Ennis—both signed long term—find another gear? Is Mikhail Grigorenko ready to show something? Can one of the goalies surprise?
2014-15 prediction: The Sabres will achieve their unspoken mandate of finishing as close to the basement as possible with an eye toward drafting either Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel, both viewed as future franchise centres.