If the Buffalo Sabres are going to make the playoffs in this shortened NHL season, it’ll be because they found a way to score more goals.
To prepare for this season, I took a look back at the 2011-2012 campaign, one that ended with the Sabres missing out on the playoffs for the third time in the last five years, and was reminded of the fact the offense wasn’t good enough.
Players like Thomas Vanek and Drew Stafford will need to bring their goal production back up after a drop off last season. Ville Leino will have to return to the form he showed in Philadelphia. Tyler Ennis and Cody Hodgson will need to live up to the Sabres expectations that they are productive, top line centers. Marcus Foligno will need to show he can play a full season as well as he did last March. Assuming he makes the team, Mikhail Grigorenko will hopefully show why, at one point last season, he was considered the second best prospect in the draft.
Last season, the Sabres scored 218 goals which was their lowest total in 9 years and just 17th best in the NHL. That put a tremendous amount of stress on a defense that dealt with some serious injuries and a starting goalie who was dealing with after effects of a concussion and perhaps some doubt about his teammates having his back.
If you look at Ryan Miller’s numbers from last season, you will find his goals against average(2.54) and save percentage(.916) were almost exactly where his career numbers are(2.57 and .915). But Miller was in net for 21 regulation losses, the second highest total of his career. Miller lost 27 times in 2007-2008.
Two years ago, Jhonas Enroth played a critical role in the Sabres late season surge into a playoff spot by compiling a 9-2 record in relief on Miller. Last season, Enroth’s goals against improved slightly(2.73 to 2.70) and his save percentage was much better(.907 to .917) yet his record was an unsightly 8-11.
As far as where that offense comes from, I’ll start with Vanek. His 26 goals last season was his lowest total since his rookie year. Over the previous five years, Vanek averaged 35 goals.
Stafford was coming off a career best 31 goals and received a new contract but he slumped back to just 20 goals last season. The odd thing is Stafford was shooting more, recording a career high in shots on goal but his shooting percentage, which was over 12% for his career, plummeted to 8.9% last season. His lack of production on the power play was a big reason for his drop off. Two years ago, Stafford netted 11 power play goals but last season he scored just three times in man advantage situations. One positive note for Stafford is the effect Ennis had on his game. Over the final 32 games of the season, when Ennis was healthy, Stafford had 12 goals and 23 points.
Speaking of Ennis, he needs to stay healthy for the betterment of Stafford and the entire team. Last season, two separate ankle injuries slowed him down more than opposing teams. The 23 year old center created quite a buzz in Sabres Nation two years ago with 20 goals and 49 points in his first full NHL campaign. Last season Ennis played in only 48 games due to the injuries but still produced 15 goals and 34 points.
Hodgson will need to come through as well. With only 91 games on his NHL resume, Hodgson is still all about projections when assessing his game. After scoring a goal every four games on the average in Vancouver, Hodgson managed a goal every seven games with the Sabres. But he was averaging a point a game while playing for Rochester during the lockout.
Leino needs to have a bounce back season or he will be a prime candidate for a contract buyout in the off season. His debut with the Sabres was disappointing to say the least. Leino finished with a measly 8 goals and 25 points in 71 games. This, after what seemed to be a breakout season in Philadelphia two years ago when he rang up 19 goals and 53 points. Leino’s game should improve by being on a line with Steve Ott, who has averaged 15 goals over the last five seasons. The “x” factor is the center on that line and it could be Grigorenko or perhaps Jochan Hecht.
The re-signing of Hecht was a puzzling move for many Sabres fans but up until last season, Hecht was durable and productive. In his previous 7 years with Buffalo, Hecht averaged 70 games played, 17 goals and 42 points and was a total of plus 60.
The offense should get a boost from a full season of Marcus Foligno. The son of former Sabre Mike Foligno, zoomed up the popularity charts after his recall from Rochester. He brought a combination of size, toughness, physical play and offensive ability. Foligno was the NHL rookie of the month in March after getting 6 goals and 11 points in 11 games. He had instant chemistry on a line with Ennis and Stafford. The trio totaled 21 goals and 49 points in just 13 games.
In addition to offense, the Sabres will need more team toughness and Ott as well as John Scott, should help noticeably in that area. Ott has 1170 penalty minutes in 566 career games but he isn’t just an instigator. Over his last five seasons in Dallas, Ott averaged 15 goals, 35 points and 154 PIM’s.
Scott, with his 6’8, 258 pound frame is, on the other hand, all about protection. According to Hockeyfights.com. Scott has had 22 fights over his 4 year NHL career.
If things don’t work out and the Sabres miss out on the playoffs again, it might spell the end of the Darcy Regier/Lindy Ruff regime in “Hockey Heaven”. Under their guidance, the Sabres have not been in the post season field in three of the last five seasons and six of the last ten. Their teams haven’t won a playoff series since 2007. Terry Pegula may be a big fan of the pair but you can’t meet your stated goal of winning the Stanley Cup if you don’t first make it into the playoffs.