Are Sabres Ready to Take Over Northeast?
Over the past few weeks, there hasn’t been a team in the NHL that has made more big splashes than the Buffalo Sabres. Whether it be trading for Robyn Regehr and his no trade clause, or throwing mountains of “real dollars” at players to get them to sign here; the NHL has taken notice. The Sabres have done everything in their power to become a top team in the league, and I think they’re ready.
Lets go back to when Pegula took over the team in the middle of February, just under 5 months ago. The team was stuck in the mud after their awful start, and the playoffs were a major long-shot. Following the purchase of the team, Terry’s Sabres went an unbelievable 15-3-4 to rocket up to the 7th seed in the Eastern Conference. There weren’t any new players, or new philosophies. The teams around them didn’t suddenly get any worse. The only change, was a new owner,
who revitalized both the team and fan base. Today I will take a look at the entire Northeast division, and who still stands in Buffalo’s way on their way to the top of the East.
Buffalo Sabres – The Sabres have drastically improved their defense, adding both Robyn Regehr and Christian Ehrhoff to their top 4. Tyler Myers is already the teams #1 defenseman, and Jordan Leopold is a very solid 2nd pairing guy. The team lost veteran Steve Montador to Chicago, and Andrej Sekera remains unsigned, but should either be signed soon or traded away for some help in their forward ranks. Mike Weber will be rock solid as a 3rd line guy as well, giving Buffalo a very deep corps on the blueline.
Ville Leino will give the Sabres a major boost as a top 6 forward. While he hasn’t played center much, if at all, since his debut in the NHL; Leino took enough faceoffs (78/136), to at least get a solid idea on how he is on draws. He will add puck control and goal scoring ability to the ranks. While he isn’t the #1 center that most Sabre fans desired, he is good enough to give the Sabres 3 competent scoring lines. The Sabres, in my opinion, have just one major need left to fill, a #3 center. Paul Gaustad should not be a 3rd liner, regardless of what his paycheck says.
There is little doubt in my mind that the Sabres will be a much improved team in 2011-12.
Boston Bruins – The first team that comes to mind as a possible road block for the Sabres, are the Stanley Cup Champion Boston Bruins. Boston is a team with a world class goaltender in Tim Thomas, an All-Star #1 defenseman in Zdeno Chara, and a lock down style that is very difficult to crack. Buffalo was one of the few teams who had the Bruins figured out, going 4-1-1 vs. the Black and Gold this season. The only player to leave Boston this summer via free agency so far was Michael Ryder, who signed a 2 year deal with the Stars. Benoit Pouliot joins the team from Montreal as the only addition. The team should still be a top 3 candidate in the East, assuming 38 year old goalie Tim Thomas doesn’t slip due to injury or age. Still the class of the East.
Montreal Canadiens – Always under immense pressure from their fans, the Canadiens made the playoffs this year as a 6 seed. Montreal was active in free agency, resigning several veterans and bringing in forward Erik Cole and a backup goaltender in Peter Budaj. Will those additions be enough to make the Northeast division a three team race? The Habs should be a playoff contender yet again, but I don’t see them making much noise other than that.
Toronto Maple Leafs – Poor Toronto. They haven’t won a cup since the Sabres inception in 1970, and more importantly, haven’t made the playoffs since the lockout in 2004. After a failed run at prize center Brad Richards, they settled for former Sabre Tim Connolly on a 2 year, 9.5 million dollar contract. Connolly was one of Buffalo’s bigger scape-goats over the past couple years, and the media in
Toronto won’t wait long to pounce. The Leafs also swung a trade with Nashville, acquiring forward Matthew Lombardi and
defenseman Cody Franson for a role player and prospect Robert Slaney, who hasn’t scored a goal in 43 AHL games and is a -20 in those games. That certainly was a steal for the Leafs, who should make a push for a bottom 3 seed this year, but I expect them to be on the outside looking in yet again this year.
Ottawa Senators – Ottawa isn’t any good, and unlike Toronto, they aren’t afraid to admit it. The Sens were relatively quiet in free agency, signing goalie Alex Auld and bottom 6 forward Zenon Konopka to 1 year deals. They won’t be anything to worry about this year, as GM Brian Murray takes his time in rebuilding Ottawa the right way.
I feel there will be a two team race for the Northeast in 2012 between Boston and Buffalo. Both teams are deep enough to consistently play well night in and night out, and should give up a fun ride over the coming winter.