NHL 2014-15 preview: Buffalo Sabres

Matt Moulson is one of a few veterans the Buffalo Sabres signed to set a good example for the team's youth. Gary Wiepert/AP

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.

Buffalo Sabres

Division: Atlantic
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

Check here for previews of all 30 NHL teams.

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.

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NHL Preview: Buffalo Sabres

The Sabres look like they’ll bottom out this year, but that might just be best for everyone involved

You couldn’t call it the crumbling of an empire, really, given the state of the Buffalo Sabres in recent years, but something definitely fell apart last season. During the team’s Feb. 17 game against Pittsburgh, Buffalo went down 2–0 after just 87 seconds, then battled back to a 3–2 lead early in the third, only to lose 4–3. Afterward, goalie Ryan Miller looked like a miserable teenager. “We’re neither confident enough or experienced enough with a lead in the third period, and it burned us,” he said, while seemingly trying to disappear between his Sabres toque and grey hoodie. When a reporter asked which goal bugged him most, Miller muttered, “Just f—ing losing at the end.” Three days later, with the team off to a 6-10-1 start, Lindy Ruff, the NHL’s longest serving coach, climbed aboard the team bus about to leave for Toronto and told his stunned players he’d been fired.

Rewind the tape a few seasons and Buffalo had, in Miller, the best goalie in the world, a top-shelf sniper in Thomas Vanek, Calder Trophy–winning Tyler Myers and one of the most enviable coach-GM tandems in the league. Now, each of those pieces is diminished, dismantled or rumoured to be on the way out the door. The team hasn’t made the playoffs in two straight years, and after a spending spree a few years ago with new owner Terry Pegula steering the shopping cart, the Sabres head into the 2013–14 season in sell-and-rebuild mode.

Following Ruff’s ouster after 15 seasons, Ron Rolston, coach of the American Hockey League affiliate Rochester Americans, was named interim bench boss. It was the 46-year-old’s first NHL post, but he did a solid enough job with a 15-11-5 record to earn the permanent gig. His cool-headed, analytical coaching style is a contrast to Ruff’s old-school, free-flowing ways, and his seven years with the U.S. national team development program make him the perfect shepherd for the Sabres’ young roster.

Aside from Ruff, another familiar face disappeared when captain Jason Pominville was traded to Minnesota at the deadline. And now, GM Darcy Regier has acknowledged that both Miller and Vanek are on the market if the price is right. Miller’s GAA has crept up, from 2.22 in 2009–10 to 2.81, but his team also allowed more shots than any other in the league last season. He’s kept them alive plenty of times, and he’s a model of consistency, with a save percentage hovering around .915 three seasons running. Still, last season was the first in his career without a shutout, and as the Sabres have faltered, his mercurial outbursts have drawn criticism. The good news is that he’s playing for a spot on the U.S. Olympic team this year. Last time that happened, he took home the Vezina Trophy. At 33, Miller probably isn’t on the path to old-man decline just yet, but he’s in the final year of his contract; it’s likely that by the end of the season, he will, for the first time in his NHL career, be wearing a different sweater. Expect backup Jhonas Enroth, 25, who hasn’t seen much action the past few years, to get more starts as the team tests out life after Miller time.

On the blueline, the pressure is building for Myers. He scooped up 48 points to take the Calder in 2010 and was rewarded with a seven-year, $38.5-million contract. But since then, he hasn’t come close to living up to his debut, let alone maturing beyond it. Last season, the six-foot-eight, 227-pounder tallied just eight points in 39 games and his minus-8 was third worst on the team. Disappointing, for sure, but Myers is still just 23. And there’s reason for hope: An off-season trade with New Jersey brought back Henrik Tallinder, Myers’s defence partner during that blazing rookie campaign.

They’ll need Myers and other blueliners like Christian Ehrhoff to deliver, because there’s not much offence below Vanek on the depth chart. His statistics haven’t faded like Miller’s, but the 29-year-old winger is also attractive trade bait in the final year of a seven-year, $50-million contract. Buffalo ranked 22nd in goals scored last season, and more than one-sixth of those came from Vanek. His likely departure would leave a gaping hole, and that’s after the loss of Pominville, the team’s other offensive engine. Top centre Cody Hodgson needs to learn to play defence along with expanding his offensive output. Winger Ville Leino has to stay healthy long enough to do something—anything—to justify his six-year, $27 million contract, and small and speedy centre Tyler Ennis needs to find some consistency after alternating wild scoring streaks with long droughts. Rookie Russian centre Mikhail Grigorenko was criticized for indifference at the combine and he pinballed between Buffalo, Rochester and the Quebec Remparts last season, but the big-bodied playmaker has enough talent to do big things—most likely he’ll anchor the second line for now.

The one thing Buffalo has to spare is loyalty. It’s the third-poorest city in the U.S., but the Sabres renewed 97 percent of their 16,000 season tickets. You have to give your fans something to cheer for now or hope for the future—the first will be a tall order for Rolston and his young crew, but if they can accomplish the second, the season will be a success.