By Kyle Gunn-Taylor:
While a pair of cranes and a crew of workers renovate the grounds across from First Niagara Center where the HARBORcenter will eventually stand, the Buffalo Sabres find themselves at an organizational crossroad.
The eventual hub of Western New York hockey is very much a work in progress, much like the organization driving its construction. “The reality of it is, we’re in a process right now of trying to rebuild, reboot, revamp,” said Ted Black, Sabres president, during the teams April postseason press conference.
Maybe it’s the heat, maybe it’s a smoke screen tactic to keep the rest of the league’s brass at bay, but the actions the Sabres have taken this summer don’t correspond with the directive of Black’s statement.
Many thought the team’s general manager Darcy Regier would move at least one of, if not both Ryan Miller and Thomas Vanek in order to create roster and cap space. However, both of the team’s stars remain slated to begin training camp in blue and gold.
If Regier successfully completes this rebuilding phase without jettisoning either one of the top stars, kudos to him, but concessions need to be made somewhere.
There were plenty of reasons the Sabres were unsuccessful last season, but goaltending was not one of them. Coming out of the lockout, S.S. Rolston was anchored down by a lack of mental and physical toughness, sloppy defensive zone play and a deficiency in secondary scoring.
Another option to trading the top stars would be exercising one or both of the team’s compliance buyouts. Two players jump out immediately as candidates for the buyout option due to their high salary relative to their on-ice performance.
If bought out, Drew Stafford would save the Sabres $8 million over the next two seasons and would free up a roster spot for one of the young talented right wingers the Sabres have surging up the prospect pipeline.
Ville Leino has played 79 games with the Sabres and has registered a pedestrian 31 points. He is owed $4.5 million per season, over the next four.
When it comes down to creating a lineup, these two veterans don’t score enough to warrant top line minutes and don’t play gritty enough to be pests against other team’s top lines, becoming more of handcuffs rather than helpers for head coach Ron Rolston.
Regardless of whether or not Miller, Vanek, Leino or Stafford remain with the team heading into 2013-2014, the Sabres still have holes to fill. If Regier is truly operating under a rebuilding philosophy, the young talent they have waiting in the wings will be the players relied on to step into prominent roles.
Here’s a look at the players under the age of 25 who could have a major impact on how this season plays out for the Buffalo Sabres.
On the team:
Most importantly, the Sabres need to get Cody Hodgson signed to a contract. The lack of a pact with the 23-year-old restricted free agent might be the most puzzling aspect of the summer thus far. He finished the lockout shortened season with a career high 34-points in 48 games, good for second on the team behind Vanek.
It’s a matter of when, rather than if the Sabres get Hodgson back in the fold. When he does return, he will man one of the top two center positions and be one of the consistent offensive contributors on a team that sorely needs them.
The only knock on Hodgson is his lackluster defensive play, but that issue can be addressed though coaching and experience. As Hodgson continues to develop as a player, so will his aptitude for playing positionally sound defensive hockey.
Mikhail Grigorenko was quite possibly the most mishandled player of the 2012-2013 season. The Sabres kept the 19-year-old Russian up with the big club because he outgrew the QMJHL (54-points in 33 games with the Quebec Remparts.)
Instead of giving him an opportunity to showcase his offensive ability with the top players on the team, Grigorenko assumed a third and fourth line role playing with the likes of John Scott, Patrick Kaleta and Jochen Hecht.
When the Penguins drafted Sidney Crosby they didn’t start their top offensive prospect playing with Andre Roy and Maxime Talbot. Grigorenko is not Sid the Kid, he needs to improve his speed and agility in order to find more success at the NHL level. The 25 game audition should push him to train hard throughout the summer, so he can return for his first full season top line ready.
Tyler Myers took a concerning step backwards in his 4th season as a Sabre, but the 23-year-old has the size and skating ability to be one of the league’s top defenders. The Sabres coaching staff blamed poor strength and conditioning for his struggles throughout the truncated season.
Much like Grigorenko, if the towering young defender comes to camp healthy, with a renewed sense of urgency, he will be counted on to log top minutes next to former partner Henrik Tallinder and anchor a Sabres backend that was horrendous as a unit overall last season.
Consistency is the mark of any great player. If Marcus Foligno finds the drive to play with an edge on a nightly basis, #82 could have Milan Lucic-like impact on the outcome of hockey games. He is big, feisty and when he’s on his game, dominates the gritty areas of the ice.
The 21-year old jarred bodies, freed up space in the corners and shoveled home ugly goals in his first dozen games as a Sabre two seasons ago. In 2012-2013 he had the same impact, but lacked the nightly consistency of an elite power forward. At a time where the Sabres will lean on their youth, Foligno will need to contribute top line potential for this team to be successful.
Tyler Ennis is only 24-years-old and already has 4 years of NHL experience under his belt. The Sabres have used him primarily as a center over the past two seasons, but his speed and craftiness are better suited on the wing.
Ennis will be relied upon for top line production this season. His durability however is the most glaring concern. If ‘Enzo’ can skate a full 82-game schedule, he should be a top five scorer on this team.
On the Bubble:
Zemgus Girgensons leads the way for the prospects that have a chance to make an impact, but will most likely begin the season in Rochester. Girgensons was the 14th overall pick in 2012, and has been commended by the Sabres for his progression last season. He started slow and battled some injuries mid-season, but finished with 17 points in 61 games, including 3 goals in 3 playoff games.
The 6’2”, 194 lbs. Riga, Latvia native is known for his physical, high energy style of play and figures to make a run at a third or fourth line spot with the Sabres come training camp.
Joel Armia was the Sabres 16th overall pick in 2011 and has compiled 100-points in 149 games in the Finnish Elite League SM-liiga. He is a big, smooth skating, slick handed prospect, however the only way he should stick with the Sabres after training camp is if he earns a top six forward spot. Much like the situation with Grigorenko last season, it would be a waste of time to use a player of his talent level in a third or fourth line capacity.
The Sabres most recent top pick Rasmus Ristolainen is a big, physical defender at 18 years old. Drafted 8th overall in 2013, the Turku, Finland native is 6-feet 2-inches, 190 pounds and could bring the kind of physical stay at home presence the Sabres backend lacked in 2012-2013.
He is a long shot to make the team with eight or nine other players vying for six defensive roster spots, but scouts say he is the second most NHL ready defenseman from the 2013 draft behind 4th overall pick Seth Jones.
Johan Larsson is a relative unknown for the Sabres faithful. He is one of the prospects the team acquired from the Minnesota Wild in return for captain Jason Pominville at the trade deadline. The 21-year-old out of Lau, Sweden had 41-points in 69 games in the AHL last season and according to Wild GM Chuck Fletcher, he is an NHL ready 2-way forward.
Barring a pick up in the free agent market or a trade involving one of the highly paid vets, the Sabres will count on their stable of youth to make the difference this season.
If the kids don’t step up and answer the bell, Regier could be faced with the daunting truth that this lineup won’t be ready for playoff contention until the HARBORcenter is complete, sometime in Spring 2015.