While it's possible there could be a move in the works, it appears the current Buffalo Sabres roster is likely the one we'll see on opening night of the regular season. Most expected more from this off-season than Derek Roy for Steve Ott. But with Zach Parise and Ryan Suter both in Minnesota, Rick Nash in New York, Bobby Ryan headed nowhere and Shane Doan – well, Doan won't even visit Buffalo, much less sign – it looks like this is it. That may be a concern to some, if not all, fans. Yet, a statistical examination of the Sabres' roster suggests the as-is roster is good enough to be a playoff club – maybe even a Stanley Cup contender.
Last season, general manager Darcy Regier over-loaded the Sabres' roster with offensive-minded players. When the season began, the top three lines were centered by purely offensive players in Luke Adam, Derek Roy and Ville Leino. Of course, things changed and eventually those three were Tyler Ennis, Roy and Cody Hodgson. Still three highly skilled offensive players with average or worse defensive skills (while it's possible Hodgson could develop into a reliable two-way player, his possession totals between Vancouver and Buffalo suggest he was below average last season).
Why is this a problem?
There are only so many offensive opportunities to go around. When Lindy Ruff needed to shut the opposition down late in games, he was left putting Roy out on the ice. Who else was he going to trust in a tight spot? Not his fourth-line with Cody McCormick, Matt Ellis and Brad Boyes. Not even Ennis, Drew Stafford and Marcus Foligno, with two being poor possession players and Ennis being average at faceoffs. The only player he could have trusted in that spot in the middle was Jochen Hecht, who spent most of the year out with a concussion.
And, despite Roy statistically performing defensively fairly well in terms of possession against good competition (Roy's possession vs. Quality of Competition was the best amongst Sabres forwards), he still was not a) a reliable player in that position and b) playing to his strengths as a defensive center.
This year will be different.
First, for defensive zone starts, especially ones in tight games, Steve Ott will be called upon. Last year in 1011total faceoffs, Ott won 55.5 percent. While we're not sure just yet who will be the third-line center, if Ott and Kaleta are the two wings, that should be Ruff's go-to line when he needs to stop the likes of Steven Stamkos or Evgeni Malkin in the defensive zone.
It's only logical to suggest, then, that if Ott and Kaleta are working on the shut-down line, the Sabres will be able to use offensive players where they are best. Of course, the likely Hodgson, Jason Pominville and Thomas Vanek combination will have to play a strong two-way game against opponents' top lines, but Ruff should be able to continue to shelter Ennis, Marcus Foligno and Drew Stafford as he did at times last season.
You can see how Ruff gave them easy minutes by looking at their offensive zone starts and Quality of Competition ranks on the team (amongst forwards):
Marcus Foligno: 54.0 percent O-zone start, ranked 12th in QoC
Tyler Ennis: 57.5 percent, ranked 7th in QoC
Drew Stafford: 55.1 percent, ranked 9th in QoC
If you recall, that line vs. easy lines and placed in offensive situations did pretty darn good. Ruff will be able to repeat that without having to worry about which forwards will play in defensive situations.
Here's how the Sabres ranked last year defensively in Quality of Competition:
1 – Robyn Regehr
2 – Andrej Sekera
3 – Mike Weber
4 – Christian Ehrhoff
5 – Tyler Myers
6 – Jordan Leopold
7 – Alex Sulzer
Now...what's wrong with that picture?
The likely reason for Regehr, Sekera and Weber having to face the toughest competition is in part because Ehrhoff and Myers missed so much time. Regehr and Sekera spent far too many nights taking on the Sidney Crosbys and Claude Girouxs of the league. And Weber – while not as bad as some make it seem - is not suited for the league's best. Those players will likely be facing Ehrhoff and Myers in 2012-13.
Also, the Sabres ranked 18th last season in goals against per game last season. But Myers led the team in goals against per 60 even strength minutes while he was on the ice at 1.97. In contrast, Weber allowed 2.81 per 60 minutes.
Of course, there's no guarantee they won't get hurt again. But if they do, the organization is more prepared. The addition of Adam Pardy as well as Sulzer late in the season development of Brayden McNabb give the Sabres options should they lose one of their top players.
Believe it or not, there's a stat for that.
First – last year's shooting percentage vs. career shooting percentage. This is similar to batting average in baseball. If a player is normally a .300 hitter, and hits .250 (assuming he's still in his prime and not injured) there's a good chance the next season he'll bounce back. Look at all the Sabres who had lower shooting percentages than their career average:
Cody Hodgson (with Buffalo)
The Sabres elected to keep both Ryan Miller and Jhonas Enroth in the off-season. Despite Miller's difficult 2011-12, the Sabres still ended the season as one of the only teams with two goaltenders with above league average save percentages (Miller .916, Enroth .917, league average .914).
As was laid out in the advanced stats piece about Miller, the Sabres' No. 1 goalie is primed to return to being a Vezina caliber goalie. Combine that with Enroth as an excellent fill-in option and we should expect more from the goaltending in 2012-13.
Consider the names that are 2013 Unrestricted Free Agents that could possibly end up on the trading block at the deadline: Ryan Getzlaf, Patrik Elias, Corey Perry, Jerome Iginla, Brendan Morrow, Simon Gagne, Ryane Clowe, Nik Anthropov and so on...
Meaning, if the Sabres are in the middle of the pack or struggling, it seems there will be plenty of chances to make a deadline deal – one that could turn out better than any off-season options would have been.
The Sabres missed the playoffs by three points last season. If in 2012-13 they are a more balanced team, have scorers return to their career shooting percentages, are more healthy and deep on defense, get the same or better goaltending and make a move at the trade deadline, there's no reason they can't make up those three points and much more and be a playoff team.
That being said. Darcy Regier should put down the phone. Shane Doan could help the Sabres in 2012-13, but his leadership qualities are not worth a $7.5 million cap hit that has been Doan's reported price. If Regier is patient, the Sabres can find a better deal for a younger difference maker....if they even need one.